From a Rooky to a Ragged Victorian

By Sticky

My introduction to the Ragged Victorians came about by a simple twist of fate.

I'd been re-enacting as a Confederate infantryman with SoSkAn, (The Southern Skirmish Association) for a number of years, but at the end of 2013, I decided to also join the A.E.S, (The American Eagle Society).


The A.E.S use Face Book to maintain contact with their membership, something I didn't use at this point but signed up to. One of the guys suggested I send a friend request to, among others, Marty (who was also a member of the Ragged Victorians, a fact I was unaware of at the time).


It was May 2014 at Caldicot Castle’s, ‘Fortress Wales’ event that I actually met Marty for the first time, he was doing his beggar impression in the castle gateway. After introducing myself and getting the ok from him to send a face book friend request, we talked for some time. All the while I couldn't help noticing the amount of subtle detail there was on his clothing, they were heavily distressed and there was dirt and grime on them and him.


After ‘Fortress Wales’ was over I decided to have a look at the ‘Ragged Victorians’ Face book page and web site, and saw that they had only been recently formed, in July of 2013. I also noticed that they had an event at Portsmouth naval dockyard, at the end of the year (close to where I live) and operated a guest policy. For a small fee one can attend an event, be loaned suitable clothing and experience how the group functions.

By chance Marty was selling a couple of civil war items, one of which I purchased. I said I was interested in attending the Portsmouth event later in the year and would probably send in a guest request nearer the time. He informed me it would be better to do it sooner, rather than later, as places for this event were limited. This I dually did and received an email back, that said I’d be a welcome addition as long as I abided by a few rules that they called, ‘The basics’.


There is no basis to the rumour that you have to audition to join the Ragged's, it’s open to anyone who wishes to join and can show the commitment required.

I was happy to abide by the basic’s as most of what is asked of RV members is common sense and is the reason the group is of a high quality. In the end I was offered a guest place at the Tall Ships event at Greenwich in August 2014 which I decided to accept.


Arriving at the venue early on Saturday morning I was provided with suitably dirty clothing (my face must have been a picture) and was quickly informed that the "Dirt" was all achieved with suitable special effects. I put the clothes on and was made-up to appear dirty and grubby, with the help of special fx makeup. At the end of the two days I was hooked, it was like nothing I'd ever done before and so I applied to join there and then.


On becoming a "Rookie" (a name given to all new members that acknowledges the  ‘Rookery’ (Slums) that many poor people lived in), I was given a year to attend 6 events, become independent of the loaner gear, accumulate information on my chosen profession/character and asked to stick to ‘the basics’.

A character biography is helpful to have and I was really grateful for the help I received from two of the full members to write mine, I was looking to portray someone who had taken some hard knocks and had a jaundiced outlook on life as a whole.

By the end of 2014 I had attended four events and also purchased my stock of about a dozen canes and walking sticks, although it's closer to 20 now. I also had a Topper made for me and had my own shoes, socks, trousers, shirt and necktie, so was only reliant on the loaner gear for waistcoat and top coat.


Other useful period items I purchased were coins, clay pipes, beer bottles, glasses and a pocket watch. I also had all my own special fx make-up for doing my teeth, scar's, dirt and distressing clothes. I also slowly acquired a stock of patterns and various materials so I can eventually get around to making some more cloths, namely shirts, trousers and waistcoats, although I would admit sewing is not something I'm particularly good at..


Early in 2015 I was able to purchase my own top coat which was altered slightly by replacing the lining, the addition of false pockets and correct buttons added. This just left me with a waistcoat to obtain now with still six months of my rookie year left.

As luck would have it my mentor had enough material left from a waistcoat he'd had made for a middle class impression which he kindly offered to me and so I had that made into one for myself but duly distressed it. This now meant I was no longer reliant on the group for any loaner gear as well as having all my own props.


One item I was interested in trying out was a "blind eye" lens, but was advised against using one. This led to me being given an eye patch by another of the full members and is now something of a trademark look of mine, although it dose throw your vision out a bit.

Mid August 2015 was the end of my rookie year and it was time for the full members to reflect on whether I’d done all that was asked of me when I joined. Full members look at whether your impression is up to standard and if you’ve fitted into the group socially. They then vote on you (anonymously) and can suggest improvements if necessary. When I was informed that I had received all yes votes and was now a full member of the group I was over the moon. After posting a thank you message, I added I'm now proud to be able to say, I am a
"Ragged Victorian".


Looking at how my characters appearance has changed over the three years I've been with the group, I realise that none of it would have been possible without the guidance and help I have received, for which I am truly grateful.


The Ragged Victorians have now been in existence for four and a half years and have grown from a very small core of original members to over 40 members (and that’s not including the children). Since becoming a full member I've developed another character for myself, namely a consumptive.   This may seem to be a rather depressing role to play but as TB (or the "white death" as it was generally known) was a fact of every day life at the time, I thought it worth portraying. I have done further research as to the main physical appearance of a sufferer and also heavily distress some of my kit, to give the role a truly desperate appearance.

I was also allocated a "Mentor", from amongst the full members, who is there to help advise you with regards to your research and developing your character. They also ask that your clothing is made from period correct materials and to the correct style, just as it would’ve been worn until 1851. 1851 is the seminal cut off point for the group, it’s the first time the census recorded more people living and working in towns and cities, than in rural areas. It’s also the year of ‘The great exhibition’, a grand display of wealth which highlights great social injustices.


It was now time to start researching the poor and working class with the help of the internet, museums, Pinterest and books. The Ragged's also have their own resource pages where the members share the information they have obtained through their own research. It was soon evident that what I'd been taught at school about the Victorian era hadn't even scratched the surface.


Having purchased Henry Mayhew's four volume's of ‘London Labour and the London Poor’, one of the main original  works used by the group with regards to all the relevant street traders, I started to seriously consider what would be a suitable choice of character for me. I opted for "The Street Seller Of Walking Sticks", this being a relatively straight forward street trader to portray. There is also an illustration in Mayhew to base my clothes and appearance upon, along with a short interview conducted with the trader by Mayhew in the book. This gave me a basic outline to work on, and something to discuss when talking to visitors at events.