Victorian Strangeness: The pig singing competition

Illustration of a man carrying a pig

Cheer/groan (delete according to mindset): The X Factor is back. Author Jeremy Clay tells the story of the show's Victorian forebear, where the hopefuls had to sing while carrying a pig.

There was no sobbing. None of the hopefuls told a weepy backstory. Not a single one boohoo-ed about the journey they'd been on since the contest began.

At the Victorian version of the X Factor, the talent show format was stripped right back to its bare bones. Just six contestants and a stage, each and every man singing his heart out to impress the judges. While carrying a pig.

This singular scene played out in London in 1896, the harebrained brainwave of an auctioneer called CF Rowley. He wanted to drum up a bumper crowd for his sales. Putting on a bit of a show to jolly things along seemed a perfectly sensible way of going about it, even if the requirement to hold a hog didn't.

Victorian Strangeness

"A Monkey's Diversion", Illustrated Police News

A series of bizarre episodes culled from 19th Century newspapers by Jeremy Clay.

Still, it seemed to do the job. Up to 1,500 people crammed into the marquee in Willesden Green, and they weren't just there for the hammy performances. There was also a wheelbarrow race, a hot tea-drinking showdown and some non-specific whatnottery involving a chap dressed in a donkey's skin that the press alluded to but never got round to properly explaining.

But if his sale was punctuated by outbursts of buffoonery, Mr Rowley was no fool. The auction lots included pianos. What better way to show off the value of the instruments than to hear them in action?

And just as much then as now, people loved a sing-off - choir competitions and contests for comic or sentimental songs. When human vocal cords weren't being put to the test, skylarks, canaries and other birds were matched up in a battle of the tweets. In the Derbyshire village of New Tupton, a clash became so heated the owners of rival birds came to blows over the relative merits of their pets, with one hitting the other over the head with a bottle of stout. "Fortunately he was wearing a hat," noted the Derbyshire Times.

Back in Willesden, several nights of Rowley's sales had caught the zealous eye of the authorities. That gas-lit canvas tent with only one exit was a death trap, and he didn't have a licence. Soon he was hauled up before the bench, where he was convicted of keeping a disorderly house. And that, when it came to pig-toting song contests, was that.

The prize, by the way, had been the pig itself. Who won it? The newspapers didn't think it was worth mentioning. There'll be plenty of people who'd wish the same was true of the X Factor.

Illustrated Police News image provided by the British Library Board.

Discover more about what life was like in Victorian times and 10 truly bizarre Victorian deaths

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

More on This Story

More from the Monitor

Elsewhere on the BBC

Programmes

  • A computer generated of image of a robotic probe issued by Lunar MissionClick Watch

    Scientists seek crowdfunding to send probe to the Moon, plus other technology news

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.