[The Lion has a mane, but he never thought that he had a beard. And, yet, he has a hairy face. It is a puzzle. Such ponderings aside, beards are always troubling. It is rare that a beard-sporter enters the finest coffee house in Newcastle, Akenside and Spence’s. We had a Scotch visitor for a time whom we christened ‘Beardie’: razor would not touch his cheek, he said, until the Jacobite cause was won. One admires the steadfastness of it all, but he was a scruffy sight. From our window we occasionally see youths with monstrous growths from their necks – our medical man, Dr Lawlor, was sure it was another outbreak of the Lupine Fever such as we had in the year 12, but we fear it is merely a lamentable fashion. Below you shall find some rather more elegant speculations on the topic from the proudly beardless Helen Williams]
There are many good jokes in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, but Tristram’s truism that ‘every man chuses to be present at the shaving of his own beard’ is a firm favourite. It seems funniest, perhaps, when we imagine shaving as a solitary pursuit in front of the mirror. Tristram pokes fun at the passivity of the shaved man, and, by extension, his potential vulnerability. This blogpost includes two poems by Tyneside authors suggesting that the story of facial hair in eighteenth-century Newcastle was not always a case of DIY. There was, in these examples, at least one other person involved, either in the preparation of the blade or in the act of shaving itself. Here, a poem by Thomas Whittle and a song by William Stephenson paint entertaining pictures of shavers and their facilitators in the eighteenth century. Mr Moody and Madame Scrape held enormous amounts of power over the bearded folk of Newcastle. Who do you trust with yours? Title-page of John Croft’s Scrapeana: Fugitive Miscellany (London: Blanchard, 1792)
Legend has it that Thomas Whittle, a Tyneside poet, songwriter, and artist, arrived in Cambo on an old goat. In 1735 he published one of his comic poems in London-based The Gentleman’s Magazine. The Magazine, founded in January 1731 by London bookseller Edward Cave and best-remembered for providing Dr Johnson with his first literary outlet, functioned not only as a publisher of current affairs but also as a reasonably-priced and widely-read poetic miscellany which anthologized canonical and popular poets alongside advertisements and current affairs. Whittle’s comic epistle to his razor-setter appeared in the regular ‘Poetical Essays’ section for June 1735 (Gentleman’s Magazine, Or, Monthly Intelligencer, volume 5 (1735), p. 326):
Newcastle on Tine [sic], May 29.
Tho. Whittle, his humourous Letter
To Master Moody, Razor-Setter.
Good Mr Moody, my beard being cloudy,
My cheek, chin, and lips, like moon in th’ eclipse,
For want of a wipe.
I send you a razor, if you’ll be at leisure
To grind her and set her, and make her cut better,
You’ll e’en light my pipe.*
Dear Sir, you know little, the case of poor Whittle;
I’m courting, tantevee, if you will believe me,
Pray mark what I say.
I’m frank in my proffers, and when I make offers
To kiss the sweet creature, my lips cannot meet her,
My beard stops the way.
You’ve heard my condition, and now I petition
That without omission, with all expedition,
You’ll give it a strike,
And send it by Tony, he’ll pay you the money,
I’ll shave and look bonny, and go to my honey,
As snod as you like.
If you do not you’ll hip me, my sweetheart will slip me,
And if I should smart for’t, and break my brave heart for’t
Are you not to blame?
But if you’ll oblige me, as gratitude guides me,
I’ll still be your servant, obedient and fervent,
Whilst Whittle’s my name.
*A North Country Phrase, expressing a particular Favour done to one.
Frontispiece to William Stephenson’s Collection of Local Poems, Songs, &c. &c. (Gateshead: Stephenson, 1832).
Gateshead poet, songwriter and schoolmaster, William Stephenson senior (1763–1836), had an altogether less eccentric reputation as a man of letters in the North East. In his popular song, ‘The Quayside Shaver’ (c.1810), he preserves the dying art of barbering as practiced by women on Newcastle quayside. It is transcribed below from John Bell’s edition of Rhymes of Northern Bards: Being a Curious Collection of Old and New Songs and Poems, Peculiar to the Counties of Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, and Durham (Newcastle: Bell, 1812), pp. 43-45. Scroll down for the tune.
The Quayside Shaver*
On each market day, Sir, the folks to the Quay, Sir,
Go flocking with beards they have seven days worn,
And round the small grate, Sir, in crowds they all wait, Sir,
To get themselves shav’d in a rotative turn;
Old soldiers on sticks, Sir, about politics, Sir,
Debate—till at length they quite heated have grown;
May nothing escape, Sir, until Madame Scrape, Sir,
Cries, ‘Gentlemen, who is the next to sit down?’
A medley the place is, of those that sell laces,
With fine shirt-neck buttons, and good cabbage nets;
Where match-men, at meeting, give a kind greeting,
And ask one another how trade with them sets:
Join’d in with Tom Hoggards and little Bob Nackers,
Who wander the streets in their fuddling gills;
And those folks with bags, Sir, who buy up old rags, Sir,
That deal in fly-cages, and paper windmills.
There pitmen, with baskets and gay posey waistcoats,
Discourse about nought but whee puts and hews best:
There keelmen, just landed, swear may they be stranded,
If they’re not shav’d first while their keel’s at the Fest;
With a face of coal dust, would frighten one almost,
Thro’ off hat and wig, while they usurp the chair;
While others stand looking, and think it provoking,
But, for the insult, to oppose them none dare.
When under the chin, Sir, she tucks the cloth in, Sir,
Their old quid they’ll pop in the pea-jacket cuff;
And while they are sitting, do nought but keep spitting,
And looking around with an air fierce and bluff:
Such tales as go round, Sir, would be sure to confound, Sir,
And puzzle the prolific brain of the wise;
But when she prepares, Sir, to take off the hair, Sir,
With lather, she whitens them up to the eyes.
No sooner the razor is laid on the face, Sir,
Then painful distortions take place on the brow;
But if they complain, Sir, they’ll find it in vain, Sir,
She’ll tell them there’s nought but what Patience can do;
And as she scrapes round ‘em, if she by chance wound ‘em,
They’ll cry out as tho’ she’d bereav’d them of life,
‘’Od smash your brains, woman! I find the blood’s coming,
I’d rather been shav’d with an au’d gully knife!’
For all they can say, Sir, she still rasps away, Sir,
And sweeps round their jaw, the chop torturing tool;
Till they in a pet, Sir, request her to whet, Sir:
But she gives them for answer, ‘Sit still you pist fool!’
For all their repining, their twisting and twining,
She forward proceeds till she’s mown off the hair;
When finish’d, cries, ‘There Sir’; then straight from the chair, Sir,
They’ll jump, crying, ‘Daresay you’ve scrap’d the bone bare!’
*Formerly on the Sandhill, and afterwards on the Quay, near the Bridge, were people (chiefly women) who, in the open street, on market days, performed the office of Barber.
Music from Chris Wilshaw, ‘Quayside Shaver’, ABC Notation, http://abcnotation.com/tunePage?a=tunearch.org/wiki/Quayside_Shaver.no-ext/0001
– Helen Williams