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Inspirational acrobats from an unusual Victorian collection

Trinity Sub-Librarian, Sandy Paul, explains his fascination with Arthur Munby’s photographic collection of ‘unbecoming’ women. And why the female acrobats of mid Victorian England inspire him. This is his contribution to Pairings, a photography project designed to encapsulate the people, places or objects at Trinity that have inspired staff, students, Fellows and alumni.

My favourite is Zazel, the human cannonball. She found fame by being launched twice a day from a spring-loaded cannon. One of the photographs shows Zazel perched on the edge of the cannon and another is a portrait of her looking glamorous and none the worse for wear.

She is one of several acrobats whose photographs feature in the remarkable collection of Arthur Munby, who was admitted to Trinity in 1848 and went onto become a civil servant.

To the outside world of mid-Victorian England he was a respectable; he wrote poetry, moved in literary circles and was an active Christian Socialist. But he also had a private interest in working or, as he described them, ‘unbecoming’ women – miners, domestic servants, milkmaids, and acrobats.

Hannah and Arthur
Hannah and Arthur

In 1854, in a London street, Munby had met Hannah Cullwick, a maid. They began a long relationship, marrying in secret in 1873. Hannah’s own diary records details of their clandestine life but also her concerns about Arthur’s interest in other women. He travelled the country and parts of the continent interviewing working class women, taking detailed notes and where possible buying or taking photographs himself. Hannah died in 1909 and Arthur the following year.

The collection of diaries and photographs came to Trinity College on the understanding that the deed boxes in which they were held should not be opened until 1950. Interest in the collection grew from the 1970s onwards particularly with feminist writers and much attention was focused on the relationship of Arthur and Hannah. The photographs of the women miners of Lancashire have also generated great interest but, for me, the photographs of the women acrobats are the highlight of the collection.

Zazel was one of several female acrobats whose commercial photographs Munby purchased, just as other well-to-do Victorian men and women would have done, to be pasted into albums or pinned onto walls in homes or factories, barracks and, quite possibly, college rooms in Cambridge.

I think what inspires me about these women is not only the verve of the women but the confidence they exude. In these portrait photographs they look directly at the camera and they are confident in their status as popular celebrities of the time, known in music halls throughout the country. They made a living in their own right and performed remarkable – and dangerous – feats.

Indeed, Zazel’s career did not last as in her final act as a human canon ball she landed badly and broke her back. This life of danger, admittedly one with celebrity and popular fame, brings her much closer to the women miners and is, for me, a constant reminder of how precarious were the lives of these extraordinary women.

Read more about Pairings, Trinity’s photography project to celebrate 40 years of women at the College.

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