Yet another fascinating post on the Barbier family courtesy of Katy Stone, who is discovering much about this exceptional family, and life in Victorian Cardiff, by working her way through their archive as part of a CUROP project to catalogue this unique resource.
In this blog post, I’d like to share my discoveries about life in Cardiff during the Victorian era (1837-1901), as seen through the eyes of the Barbiers. Since I started working with the archive earlier this summer, I have sifted through boxes of letters from 1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1903 and 1904, and they have given me a fascinating insight into daily life in the Welsh capital during the late 19th and early 20th century.
Sadly, the letters reveal that poor housing conditions, outbreaks of infectious disease and premature death were not uncommon in Cardiff. Much of the archive in this period is dedicated to correspondence from Euphémie Barbier to her son Paul Barbier Fils. In one of her letters I discovered that a servant of the De Guélis household fell ill with diphtheria due to unsatisfactory sewage arrangements in the house. I have also found repeated reports of influenza, particularly during 1898 and 1899, and in one unfortunate case the family’s milkman died very suddenly, showing how the epidemic could lead rapidly to pneumonia. Euphémie’s letters also highlight poor dental health. The younger Euphémie Barbier (known as Phémie), suffered terribly from neuralgia (intense pain along a nerve, especially in the head or face). One letter from 1898 recounts how her mother had called the doctor as her daughter’s hands and face were “twitching”. I was particularly struck by Euphémie’s explanation of how she tried to bribe the doctor with cups of strong black coffee to encourage her to visit again, underlining the high demand for access to medical care. Her letters also mention a variety of other disorders including brain tumours, lumbago, ringworm and chicken pox. Victorian Cardiff’s poor sanitary conditions are boldly summed up by Georges Barbier’s stark description of the city as a “dirty hole”.
The Barbier letters also reveal stories about the widespread use of curious medicines during this era. In a letter from 1898, Euphémie Barbier advised her son to take “rhubarb pills” or “Epsom salts” to help alleviate the deafness in his ear. Another example from 1898, tells of the application of cocaine to treat an abscess on Isabelle Barbier’s mouth, which surprised me given it’s illegal today! More often than not though, simply taking a bath was recommended to relieve the painful symptoms of various ailments and illnesses. In one letter, Georges Barbier even recommends mixing disinfectant into bathwater in order to kill germs, which sounds a bit extreme to me!
The poor quality of public health appears to have put a strain on family finances as contemporaries were often forced to take time off school or work to recover. I quickly noticed from the letters that there was a daily struggle to make ends meet. Euphémie’s lists of household spending usually included only basic commodities, highlighting that luxuries were rare. Opportunities to go out or travel were often missed, and Euphémie remarked that it was “unfortunate” to have to live like that on a daily basis. In fact, as the mother of the Barbier Family, her letters are often preoccupied with money worries, describing the pressure to pay taxes as “tormenting”.
The archive also reveals Victorian attitudes to education, with a letter written by Uline Barbier featuring an illustration of a boy wearing a ‘dunce’ hat drawn by Paul Barbier Fils. Pupils who were slow at learning were made to stand in a corner wearing a tall pointed hat decorated with a letter D or sometimes the word ‘dunce’, while the teacher and their peers mocked them. Nowadays this seems harsh, but contemporaries believed that all pupils were capable of learning and that a slow or backward pupil was being deliberately lazy or reluctant to learn. I was stunned by a criticism made by Phémie’s geography teacher, Joan Reynolds; “I know that your mental capacity is not great, in fact we all know that you have not much brain power”.
Victorian Cardiff is certainly portrayed as a close-knit, vibrant community by the archive, with many letters uncovering a wealth of clues about the social activities of the Barbiers during this era. They often dined with family friends, danced, listened to music and played chess, for example, and generous gifts like brandy, chocolates, sweets and even chickens, were often received. Personally, I think this shows how much the Barbier Family were truly valued and respected by their friends and the wider Cardiff community.
I also noticed references to a number of monuments to civic pride in Cardiff during this period. Phémie writes about an exhibition for the stores of Cardiff to promote their businesses to the public at Park Hall, a theatre and cinema that was situated along Park Place, for example. Dances were also held in places such as Aberdare Hall, a residence for female students established in 1883 by the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, which now stands a Grade II-listed Gothic revival hall of residence belonging to Cardiff University.
Overall, the Barbier Archive offers colourful insights into many aspects of life in Cardiff during Queen Victoria’s reign. It has been particularly fascinating to discover a series of health epidemics, and the pessimistic outlook people held towards potential learning difficulties. I look forward to sharing further discoveries that emerge from the extraordinary range of materials I have encountered whilst working on this magnificent archive, which holds great potential for future researchers.