A look back at Victorian jokes

Victorian jokes
Dr Nicholson reads out Victorian jokes with members of the public

The British Library teams up with pop culture Historian to revive British humour

A new initiative by The British Library and Edge Hill University’s Dr Bob Nicholson is calling on jokers from across Britain to help set the record straight on our supposedly stiff ancestors.

The Victorian era is often described as Britain’s Golden Years, a time of industrialization, social welfare and peace. However, it is also a time when we recall society as being straight-laced with stiff-upper-lips that rarely curled into a smile.

“When it comes to humour, our ancestors don’t have a sparkling reputation,” said Dr Bob Nicholson, Historian of Victorian popular culture and a Senior Lecturer at Edge Hill University.

“However, for the last two years I’ve been working in partnership with The British Library to dig into the history of nineteenth-century comedy and have found that far from being humourless, it turns out that the Victorians were prolific joke writers.

“Some of them, dare I say it, were even quite funny,” he said.

Victorian jokes
Dr Nicholson reads out Victorian jokes with members of the public

While light-hearted, the project is a significant piece of cultural archeology as Victorian jokes were a huge part of the Nineteenth Century’s cultural identity, with thousands of jokes printed in books and newspapers, performed in theatres and music halls, and re-told in pubs, offices, taxicabs, and kitchens throughout the land.

Mahendra Mahey from The British Library said they were particularly drawn to the idea of rediscovering and reviving a forgotten history.

“Dr Nicholson’s idea of creating comic strips by putting the Victorian jokes together with our digitised images from that era was really interesting.

“What we like about Bob’s project is that it has helped the Library understand how to utilise online communities to help us locate and catalogue culturally significant information that otherwise may have been forever lost,” he said.

Dr Nicholson and The British Library are currently recruiting a team of volunteer ‘joke detectives’ who will venture out into digital archives of nineteenth-century books and newspapers in search of historical humour. When they find a good source of Victorian jokes, they are encouraged to share it using the hashtag #VictorianJokes

They are also encouraging members of the public to experiment with ways to ‘remix’ jokes using modern popular culture staples such as memes and gifs. They hope the project will create a free online archive of 1 million Victorian jokes.

“We’ve started to share the jokes on social media to encourage artists, animators, and performers to start playing with them and make them more accessible,” Dr Nicholson continued.

“While I can’t promise that we’ve made them funny again as these are some seriously tortured puns and corny one-liners, I can say we have begun to shed light on a long-neglected aspect of Victorian culture.”

Find more jokes on twitter #VictorianJokes

Here’s our top pick

What is the difference between stabbing a man and killing a hog? One is assualting with intent to kill; the other is killing with intent to salt.

A friend of mine was afraid of being buried alive. I told hi there was no fear of that, as the doctor said the boday had to hang twenty-five minutes before it is cut down.

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