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Monday, 11 January 2010

George Sanger: Pseudohistorian? Making a Circus of History

In recent times I have become almost as interested in methods to study history as I have in the actual subjects. This has led me to read Richard J. Evans’ book “In Defence of History”. So far, it is an engrossing read that details the history of history and the various competing methods that have evolved over time. I was particularly fascinated in the many attempts to define history as a science, even a social or “weak” science, which it does not happily fit. Nevertheless, the struggle to keep history as an objective study of the past and to establish “facts” is a valiant one, especially in the face of postmodern ideas that have challenged the validity of history altogether. Anyway, having only got through the first few chapters I was delighted to come across a passage that mentions a member of my historical culture, a circus man, “Lord” George Sanger.

Sanger crops up in my book “The Legend of Salt and Sauce” and a relation of his, George Sanger Coleman, in “The Sanger Story”, gave me an interesting if dramatic description of one the characters I was researching, “Lieutenant” Frank Taylor (Aka Alpine Charlie). “Lord” George and his brother “Lord” John Sanger hobnobbed with royalty and ran a circus in the later 19th and early 20th century. George is known for making a presentation to Queen Victoria. A disease similar to the one that almost killed the elephant Salt even bore the Sanger name when it wiped out of their herds. George was murdered in 1911, providing a dramatic ending to a dramatic life.

“In Defence of History” cites Sanger as being a notorious source for another murder, the alleged kicking to death of a gingerbread salesman by a drunken mob in 1850 at the Stalybridge Wakes. His memoirs had been read by historian, George Kitson Clark and referenced in his book on Victorian England. The report was then repeated as an historical “fact”. According to Richard J. Evans no contemporary reports support this story. There are detailed newspaper reports of the fair, which included archery, morris dancing and a description of an ascent in a balloon. In fact, very little drunkeness was reported at all. We cannot just dismiss Sanger's report, but its validity should be held in question. I spoke quite extensively in “The Legend of Salt and Sauce” about the way fanciful tales were woven around various events in circus history. This helped contribute to my fascination in the way fiction becomes “fact” if a certain story is not checked, but repeated without question and then passed on.

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