Victorian Strangeness: The pig singing competition

Illustration of a man carrying a pig Image copyright Illustrated Police News

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.

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.

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