There are a lot of non-human animals in the British Workman: dogs, horses, donkeys, birds, lions, and cats. In a publication full of vivid images, some of the most compelling are of animals. These creatures are more than domestic companions. They help make the hierarchies of labour in Victorian Britain visible. They are also linked to the personal history of the British Workman‘s editor, Thomas Bywater Smithies (1817-1883).

"How Sam Adam's Pipe Became a Pig," "British Workman" 110 (Feb 1864): 440.
“How Sam Adam’s Pipe Became a Pig,” “British Workman” 110 (Feb 1864): 440.

Animals in the British Workman

Readers of the British Workman were expected to know their “place” within larger systems of work, class, and society. Work environments of the period included a large number of animals. Some were domestic companions. Others worked on farms or in mines. Horses were an essential form of transportation and a source of entertainment (racing). Like today, a variety of non-human creatures contributed to or were part of the daily diet. Some were used in scientific and medical experiments. Animals from around the globe were exhibited in zoos and collected by explorers and scientists. All of these animals performed some kind of work. And, in the British Workman, these visible animals are shown serving their human masters without complaint.

Just as workers were supposed to know their place, animals in the British Workman are shown to be instinctively aware of their duty to serve. At the same time, they appear smarter than some humans.  These wise creatures know the value of sobriety. They have no interest in strong drink. They refuse to serve abusive masters or people who do not treat them with respect. However, when treated with kindness and sympathy, the wise animals work without question or complaint. Parables of wise animals teach readers to make the best of their circumstances and, thereby, accept the unseen, yet very real, hierarchies of society and the workplace.

Edwin Landseer, "Suspense," "British Workman" 90 (June 1862): 358.
Edwin Landseer, “Suspense,” “British Workman” 90 (June 1862): 358.

For example, take a look at the illustration of a dog entitled “Suspense,” which appears on the cover of issue 90. The image shows a dog waiting outside his master’s door. He is patient. He is loyal. He serves his master. The dog’s body language shows that patient service is not always easy. His head hangs down. He wears an anxious expression. The image is full of emotion. Almost identical dog image on the cover of issue 23.

"Anxiety," "British Workman"23 (1856): 89.
“Anxiety,” “British Workman”23 (1856): 89.

The two waiting dogs are analogues of the British Workman reader. Like the dogs, workers are expected to be loyal and hard working and patient. The dogs are not, however, the reader’s equals. The dogs exists on a lower rung of the hierarchy of labour. Despite their inferior status, they deserve to be treated in the same way that British Workman readers want to be treated by their employers. Sympathetic understanding is promoted, but it is a sympathy rooted in the idea that everyone has a “place.”

Thomas and Catherine Smithies

Generally, the British Workman promotes treating all creatures humanely and with conscious respect. The periodical’s editor, Thomas Smithies, credited his mother, Catherine Smithies (1787-1877), with teaching him about kindness to animals. In 1875 Catherine founded the “Band of Mercy” movement to educate children about animal welfare. The “Band of Mercy” structure was modelled on the Temperance movement’s “Bands of Hope” groups, which educated children about alcohol and promoted abstinence. Both education and outreach activities of both organisations used a variety of media: periodicals, songs, images, fliers or tracts, calendars, awards and medals, etc.

According to a “Memoir” of Smithies by G. Stringer Rowe,

“It was at the instigation of Mrs. Smithies that, in the “Bands of Mercy” an effort was made, and with very great success, to enlist children in the cause of kindness to animals. To promote this congenial work, Mr. Smithies did his best both by means of the press and by his personal advocacy….” 1G. Stringer Rowe. T.B. Smithies: A Memoir. London: T. Woolmer, 1894. 63-64.

The Bands of Mercy movement had its own periodical, the Band of Mercy Advocate (1879-1934), which was also edited by Thomas Smithies.

Detail from "The Late Mrs. Smithies: Founder of the 'Band of Mercy' Movement," "British Workman" 281 (May 1878).
Detail from “The Late Mrs. Smithies: Founder of the ‘Band of Mercy’ Movement,” “British Workman” 281 (May 1878).

Catherine Smithies died in 1877, and she is memorialised in issue number 281 of the British Workman. Her family and friends erected an obelisk and public drinking fountain in Wood Green, London, to honour her Temperance and Band of Mercy activities in a way that would also make fresh water available to human and non-human animals. In 1882, the year before Thomas Smithies died, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) agreed to take over the “Bands of Mercy” and the Band of Mercy Advocate.

Animal Causes in the Nineteenth Century

Catherine Smithies was not the only person in the nineteenth century to create an organisation dedicated to animal welfare. In 1824 the group that eventually became the RSPCA was founded. In 1875 Frances Power Cobbe formed the Victoria Street Society to stop the use of animals in scientific experiments and research (vivisection). Cobbe’s group eventually became the National Anti-Vivisection Society. Within the anti-vivisection community there was disagreement, which led to the formation of different groups. Cobbe believed all animal experimentation should be eliminated, so she was unwilling to accept anything less than a complete ban. Other anti-vivisectionists were open to incremental change. And, of course, there were people who advocated for the benefits of using non-human animals in science and medicine. A variety of animal-related legislation was enacted in Britain during the nineteenth century, including the Cruelty to Animals Act (1876). Discussions on animal vivisection issue, as well as on Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, can be found in the pages of a wide range of  popular and specialist nineteenth-century periodicals and newspapers.

The poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, who was involved with the Animal Defence and Anti-Vivisection League in the early twentieth century, recognised connections between Darwin’s ideas, efforts to prevent cruelty to animals, and the way humans see themselves in relation to non-human animals: “few people seem to perceive fully as yet that the most far-reaching consequence of the establishment of the common origin of all species is ethical; that it logically involved a readjustment of altruistic morals by enlarging as a necessity of rightness the application of what has been called ‘The Golden Rule’ beyond the area of mere mankind to that of the whole animal kingdom. Possibly Darwin himself did not wholly perceive it, though he alluded to it.2Angelique Richardson. “‘The difference between human beings’: Biology in the Victorian Novel.” In A Concise Companion to the Victorian Novel. Ed. Francis O’Gorman. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. 207. Citing Thomas Hardy, The Life of Thomas Hardy. 2 vols. London: Studio, 1928-30/1994. 141.

21st-Century Animal Workers

The depiction of animals in the pages of the British Workman offers an opportunity to consider how non-human animals are viewed and treated in contemporary society. They continue to serve as valued companions. They also continue to labour on the behalf of human masters: in zoos, on police forces, in airports, on borders, and in the global food economy. It is important to consider how depictions of non-human lives in the press influence, either overtly or covertly, our attitudes about animals and their roles in society.


CLICK HERE to view a gallery of images of animals from the British Workman.


Additional Reading

“Be Kind: A Visual History of Human Education, 1880-1945.” National Museum of Animals and Society.

Geoffrey Candor and Sally Shuttleworth, eds., Science Serialised: Representations of the Sciences in Nineteenth-century Periodicals. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.

Simon Cooke, “The British Workman.” The Victorian Web.

James Gregory, Of Victorians and Vegetarians: The Vegetarian Movement in Nineteenth-century Britain. London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2007.


Works Cited   [ + ]

1. G. Stringer Rowe. T.B. Smithies: A Memoir. London: T. Woolmer, 1894. 63-64.
2. Angelique Richardson. “‘The difference between human beings’: Biology in the Victorian Novel.” In A Concise Companion to the Victorian Novel. Ed. Francis O’Gorman. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. 207. Citing Thomas Hardy, The Life of Thomas Hardy. 2 vols. London: Studio, 1928-30/1994. 141.