A Gentleman’s Joke

The joke book of Edward Herbert, Victorian gentleman, of Upper Helmsley Hall (archive-ref DDHT/18/1)

Ask someone to describe the typical Victorian gentleman, and ‘humorous’ is probably one of the last adjectives that would be conjured.  Our impression of the Victorians is one of stern-faced disciplinarians with a stiff upper lip, who you couldn’t possibly imagine laughing at anything, let alone making other people laugh.  However this simply isn’t true.  Obviously, the Victorians did have a sense of humour, and we can prove it at East Riding Archives with a joke book preserved in our collections.

The stereotypical Victorian gentleman

The book of jokes and expressions, which belonged to Edward Arthur Field Whittell Herbert, a Victorian gentleman who lived near Stamford Bridge, dates from the 1890s and contains 23 pages of late 19th century mirth and merriment. 

Let it be said however, as with all humour, it can be of its time, and nuanced according to the values and attitudes of the contemporary society.  What made the Victorians laugh in hysterics, might struggle to raise even a wry smile with us nowadays.  It may even cause offence.  As such, the book is merely an historical representation of humour from a bygone era, and I leave it to you to decide whether any of its style still rings true. 

The Victorians did laugh – it’s official!

Exactly how it was used by Mr Herbert is unclear, but it seems likely that it was a reference book in which he wrote down jokes and expressions as he came across them, so that he could bring them out at parties and when entertaining dinner guests.

Page 7 of Edward Herbert’s joke book (archive-ref DDHT/18/1)

I can just imagine a group of Victorian gentlemen gathered around a table at a dinner party, or lounging in their smoking jackets, and laughing heartily as the host does his ‘party piece’ by reciting some of the jokes from the book!  It’s an unusual item that helps to challenge the stereotype that some of us may have of the Victorian period.  The humour is very subtle, and arguably not as crude as modern humour.

Here’s a sample of what you can find in the joke book (archive-ref DDHT/18/1):

  • What is love? 

The sweetmeats of joy done up in a kiss

  • What’s a happy medium?

A gentleman between two ladies

  • They cannot be complete in aught

Who are not humorously prone;

A man without a merry thought

Can hardly have a funny bone

  • Doctor:  “I defy any person, whom I have ever attended professionally, to accuse me of ignorance or neglect.”

Auditor:  “That you may safely do, doctor, for you know dead men tell no tales.”

  • Laws are like cobwebs,

which catch many small flies, but let hornets and wasps through!

  • What is the difference between a sailor in prison and a blind beggar?

One cannot see to go, and the other cannot go to sea.

  • Are you the head-end of an ass?

Are you the tail-end of an ass?

Then you are no end of an ass!

  • Why are you like a match?

Because you ‘flare up’ when struck!

  • Why is a hen crossing the road like a gunpowder plot?

Because it is a ‘fowl proceeding’.

  • Why is the 12:50 train the hardest train to catch in the world?

Because it is 10 to 1 if you catch it!

  • Why is an easy-going man like a thief?

Because they usually take things as they come

  • Fall off the horse & break your neck

Fall off the mast unto the deck

Fall to the earth from heaven above

But never ever fall in love!

  • He who has a thousand friends

Has never one to spare

And he who has one enemy

Will meet him everywhere

  • Men have many faults

Women only two

There’s nothing right they say

There’s nothing right they do!

  • On the pier….

“Hallo, what are you doing eh?  Star-gazing?”

Smith (who has been watching lady bathers): “Well-er-yes,I think you might call it star-gazing. Anyhow, I have been looking at a ‘heavenly’ body.

  • We say it for an hour or for years

We say it smiling, say it choked with tears

We say it coldly, say it with a kiss

And yet we have no other word than this..

 ‘Good bye’

By Sam Bartle

Digital Archivist

Twitter: @bartle_sam

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