Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery - September 2016

The Grey Goose

The Grey Goose by John Bell

September's Object of the Month was chosen by our work experience student and passionate historian, Joseph Wickham. The object in focus is a 19th century satirical, coloured engraving depicting a caricature of The Grey Goose in conversation with John Bull.  The engraving was illustrated by British artist John Bell and published on the 1st November 1831 by William Heath.

The object is representative of a period of major political turmoil from 1831-1832 during George IV’s reign. Though not lacking in royal support, the Duke of Wellingtons Tory government lost the general election in August 1830 and were to be deposed by the Whigs with Lord Grey leading the political take over. They pushed for a political reform bill that would see the franchise extended to the lower classes and allow seats to be created for MP’s from industrial areas. Greys campaign sought to rid the British political system of trasformismo and corruption. The object is a response to the initial rejection of the bill in 1831 from a Tory perspective.

The illustration portrays John Bull, a country man in gaiters, taunting the Whigs (The Grey Goose) about their initial political reform that was carried in the House of Commons but rejected in the House of Lords in October 1831. John Bull remarks

“Why dang it old Goosey if you haven’t lost your bill!’

to which the Goose replies

“Ah Johnny it is gone I don’t know how we shall Quack without it.”

A large sun in the background irradiates the goose and the man and encloses the heads of the Queen and the King who says “It shall yet Pass.” The goose’s head has been replaced by the profiles of Brougham flanked by Durham (?) and Grey. The goose’s colour is a play on Lord Grey’s name and possibly suggests Grey’s responsibility for the reform bill and its subsequent failure.

The caricature implies that the Whigs have run out of future political influence as they were so concentrated on the reform bill which had been rejected; hence they can no longer ‘quack’. The satire is promoting opposition to the Whigs and their reform bill and therefore the opinion amongst the recently deposed Tories. This is confirmed in the illustration as the crowd on the left contains Cumberland, Eldon, and Wellington who were members of the Tory party. Therefore, the view in the illustration is not representative of everyone’s view of the bill at that time. During the attempt to pass the reform bill, it gained a majority in the House of Commons suggesting a large amount of support for it, especially from those representing the working class. Although detest for the bill existed, it wasn’t shared between all citizens at the time. This is suggested through John Bull’s stance against the reform bill as he is effectively the personification of the nation and therefore one would assume he is representing the opinion of the people. Following the rejection of the bill the issue was further exacerbated when riots broke out in England’s industrial towns and cities, as the working class were extremely angry at the House of Lords attitude towards change. The Lords eventually backed down and the bill was passed in 1832 following the riots and the king’s threat to create enough Whig peers to gain a majority.

Satire was common in the 19th century and was used in politics to embarrass the opposition. Production of similar illustrations peaked in correlation to major political events as citizens began to see the humorous side of politics. The fictional character John Bull was often involved in political satire due to his relatable matter of fact attitude. The best satirical cartoons could be found in magazines such as Punch, established in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and Ebenezer Landell, which provided weekly entertainment.

Joseph says: I chose the artefact because as with any form of politics there is always room for opinions and interpretation. The fact that it is a piece of Tory satire tells us one side of the story which in turn adds mystery to this object. The title ‘The Grey Goose’ and the accompanying illustration indicates to me that Grey dragged his fellow politicians towards the political reform bill and in the eyes of the Tories it was the three of them fighting against what the people wanted.

Want to receive the Object of the Month article directly?

Subscribe to our General Mailing List and receive the article straight to your inbox each month as it comes out, submit your email address here: