The Tomahawk

The Tomahawk: A Saturday Journal of Satire (1867-1870), founded by Arthur William à Beckett in London, first appeared 11 May 1867, priced two pence. The title of the journal tells us much of what we need to know about it. This was a weekly paper and like most serials in the weekly cycle, it was published on Saturdays, following the model of the popular Saturday Review. The title ‘Tomahawk’ was borrowed from William Makepeace Thackeray, the novelist, satirist, illustrator and editor whose spirit so influenced the men behind Tomahawk; his 1852 novel Men’s Lives describes a journal editor, Mr. Bludyer, ‘the brilliant and accomplished wit, whose sallies in the Tomahawk delight us every Saturday’ and who is known in particular for his savage ‘slasher journalism’, which gives a good indication of the type of sharply barbed, satirical analysis à Beckett sought for his new venture. The image of ‘Tomahawk,’ a noble savage Native American – hatchet in hand, ready to scalp the politicians of the day – became the symbolic, even iconic, mascot for this comic journal. An image of Tomahawk paddling downriver accompanies the mock-heroic Preface to volume one which encapsulates the tone of the serial:

Through the land of Shams, by the shores of the Dishonest, by the Wigwams of the Heartless and the Faithless. Never swerving from the main course; never turning aside from the arrows of the enemy – from the attacks of the wicked. Always the same. True to himself, just to his fellow creatures, TOMAHAWK, during the First Year of his Mission, has pursued his way fearlessly and honestly. … The coming year will merely reflect the past. Regardless of the taunts of fools, liars, or snobs, he will continue to use his Hatchet has a weapon for the protection of the weak, not (as the enemies would have the world believe) as a knife for the slaughter of the innocent.

The year 1867, when Tomahawk launched in a competitive serials market, was one of transition for Britain, a time ripe for satirical intervention. The second Reform Bill, passed by a Tory government and which Tomahawk supported, renewed hopes for the reform-minded as a whole new class of votes was ushered in at a single stroke. The political map of the country was redrawn instantly, giving a new power to most working class men through the franchise. While not all reform movements of the 1860s met with such success – the recently revitalized women’s suffrage movement, for example, met with short shrift – there was widespread feeling that the passing of the second Reform Bill was an indication of British progress. However, alongside this optimism, there were also significant expressions of social anxiety. Take, for example, Matthew Arnold’s series of articles attacking mid-Victorian ‘Philistinism’ which appeared during the late 1860s in Cornhill Magazine, before being collected as the polemical tract, Culture and Anarchy (1869), whose title suggests the need to prevent social disorder through the imposition of collective culture. Or, consider an article in May 1867 (the same month that the first issue of the Tomahawk was published) in Macmillan’s Magazine, ‘Social Disintegration’ by William Rathbone, which worried that the growing gap between rich and poor was ‘an evil of ever-increasing magnitude in its influence on the lives and characters, the moral and physical well-being, of each member of what should be one body politic and religious.’ Ireland was in a state of almost constant unrest about its future; gambling and general rakishness had afflicted the aristocracy; social upheaval seemed once again likely on the continent; and the Queen had seemingly abandoned the throne, still in mourning for the death of Albert years before (indeed, Tomahawk was among the first and loudest to urge the Queen publicly to return to her duty) – if not exactly a turbulent period in British politics, it was certainly a lively and unsettled one, just right for a satirical weekly like Tomahawk which addressed all these subjects at length. As Christopher Kent suggests, ‘satire is a humour of anxiety that is sensitive to symptoms of danger, particularly in times of prosperity’, so the late 1860s was ripe for attack from Tomahawk.

The periodicals market in the 1850s-1860s was also in transition. After the repeal of the last of the so-called ‘taxes on knowledge’ – taxes on advertising, paper and the stamp duty that had hitherto kept the price of publishing periodicals high – there was something of a periodicals boom in the 1860s, with a particular increase in weeklies, monthly magazines and high-quality illustrated serials. Among the plethora of new journals were family monthly family magazines including the market-leading Cornhill and the religious Good Words and innovative journals of opinion, such as the bi-weekly (then monthly) Fortnightly Review and the daily, evening Pall Mall Gazette. While the Tomahawk was not in competition with these titles directly, the sheer amount of print culture at newsstands vying for the reader’s two pence or shilling is an indication of how fiercely competitive the marketplace for periodicals was.

Tomahawk was not, of course, the only satirical magazine of its kind in the 1860s, and there was a whole genre with which it had to compete for readers. The market leader and the most high-profile comic periodical was Punch, launched in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and Mark Lemon, which began life as a radical satirical journal, but which by the late 1860s was solidly representing middle class values. Although the most well known to us today, Punch was by no means alone; it spawned many rivals who sought to knock it from its privileged place as the nation’s favourite comic periodical. Fun, often considered the most significant comic weekly after Punch, launched in September 1861; the Owl, founded in 1864; Judy, or London Serio-Comic Journal, launched in the same month as Tomahawk; and there were numerous others, many of them short-lived, including Mirth, Toby, Iris, and Will ‘o the Wisp. Tomahawk not only gestured back to Punch, it looked forward to a new type of journalism that would emerge in the 1870s – society journalism – which focused on the comings and goings of upper class society. ‘The “new” society journalism,’ Christopher Kent reminds us, ‘was more indulgent in tone, detached and somewhat amused by the misdeeds and foibles of the fortunate, tending more to the cynicism of tolerance, than the anger and bitterness of satire.’ (Kent 1998, 85) Tomahawk – with its keen interests in the moral state of the Prince of Wales and n’er-do-well marquises and other aristocrats – suggests something of the journalism that was to become so popular later in the century.

Given the range of competition, it was important that the upstart Tomahawk defined itself well, and one way of doing this was to enlist a small group of likeminded writers who would broadly agree on the nature of the attacks. As with the cultural formation of many periodicals, the young Arthur à Beckett (only 21 years old when he founded the title) and co-editor Matt Morgan (who also cartooned for Fun) came to rely on a coterie of writers and illustrators, in this case, bohemian figures on the literary scene, men much like themselves. According to Thomas Klemnitz, the staff:

consisted of talented young bohemian gentlemen, most of whom had been close associates in previous comic weeklies, theatrical work, and the general round of bohemian activities during the 1860’s. The first numbers of the Tomahawk did not carry the name of the editor, and the cartoons were signed only by a tomahawk in a lower corner. But within months, Morgan was regularly signing the cartoons with his full signature, and Arthur a’Beckett added his name to the masthead as editor in the course of the third volume (Klemnitz 1975, 8).

Kent agrees that the men behind Tomahawk – à Beckett, Morgan, à Beckett’s two brothers, Gilbert and Albert, Francis Albert Marshall, Alfred Thompson, Thomas Gibson Bowles, T.H.S. Escott, Alfred Austin and others – were gentleman, middle-class young men who had shared links through public school, university, and the civil service, but also through their interests in art, theatre, music and journalism. The young men of Tomahawk ‘were a close-knit group with a distinct cast of mind, social and political’, broadly conservative and monarchist (Kent 1998, 76). One of the ways they carved out their own niche was by attacking other publications; the men at Tomahawk, as at most satirical periodicals, enjoyed a scrap. Frequently they attacked The Times, the leading organ of the Establishment, for their coverage of Fenianism, but they also picked fights with the conservative Saturday Review (see Matt Morgan’s cartoon, vol. 2, 4 April 1868) and the Fortnightly Review (see vol. 3, 25 July 1868). These are examples of a larger phenomenon in periodical print culture – that is, periodicals commenting on other periodicals, and using articles elsewhere as springboards for their own discussion – but satirical magazines do this more than most and are more biting in their public exchanges.

The playful editorial, ‘Our Preliminary War-Whoop’, in the first issue doesn’t do much to outline the precise targets for the publication, driven by the essential conservatism of à Beckett and Morgan. Instead, it introduces its satirical tone, with a general warning to all:

We send abroad our TOMAHAWK as a duty which we cannot forbear. A small, but united, band of Braves, we cannot no longer submit in silence to the meanness, the injustice, and above all, to the humbug which civilised society imposes upon us. We have, therefore, been compelled to dig up the hatchet and send it round to all tribes, so that every true Brave may know that we are out upon the war-path, and that we intend simply to scalp everybody who does not agree with us. Being more or less logical, and therefore pitiless, we spare neither age, sex, nor rank; and whenever we find the pale-faced vices we abhor, we shall do our best to exterminate them. If anybody wants to know our opinions, we may say generally that we are bitter enemies of the whole tribe of Shams, and as for particular application of them, we mean to scalp—

Any medicine man who persists in imposing upon us a Reform Bill, which professes to do one thing but really does another.

Any demagogues who bring disgrace on the cause of the people by using it for the promotion of their own small notoriety.

Any Home Secretary who goes out on the war-path, and then runs away.

Any play-wright who either invents or translates stale and unprofitable nonsense.

Anybody who contradicts us.

And, in fact, everybody who invades our hunting-grounds with the pale-face’s weapons of deceit and fraud.

As the journal hit its stride, its targets were more fixed and Tomahawk distinguished itself from its rivals through greater attention to social issues and foreign affairs and through a more emotional, less party-political response to political issues. To take just one example, its opinions on foreign affairs can be seen nicely in the Preface to volume two (though often in Prefaces thereafter), in which the figure of a witch-like Tomahawk rides across the sky with a long tomahawk as his broomstick, surveying the world. He passes over Russia, ‘drunken with the blood of Poland and thirsting for further territory,’ floats over France where ‘the Usurper has risen like a dream,’ then to Spain, ‘land of decay’ and Italy, ‘home of dishonesty’ and finally to Britain:

Floating more quickly now—nay, flying, for TOMAHAWK is nearing his native land,—he hovers over London. An empty Palace that should be full; a full “House” that might well be empty. A retired Queen who should be among her people; an active Statesman who should not refuse to retire into the bosom of his family. “Place no patriotism:” Once more the sentiment forces itself upon the mind of TOMAHAWK,--Oh, “Land of the Brave and the Free,” where gross injustice is tolerated, and Society has a code of rules, which manufactures chains for the hands and ruin for the soul!

A little further to the West, and TOMAHAWK passes over a spot of green. This is the land of “Paddy”—poor, pig-headed, warm-hearted Paddy. See how pleased he looks. He has just seen our dear Princess Alexandra—that accounts for his smile and his loyalty.

The Prefaces were written at the end of a volume’s run but were used as front matter to introduce and unify themes and contents, to serve as a fluid way of summarizing the political views, foreign and domestic, contained in the volume. As we see in the case of volume two, the primary concerns are various forms of aggression, imperial and otherwise, at home and abroad.

Among the most prominent topics of discussions relevant to politics at Westminster that Tomahawk addressed was the Irish Question, a cluster of issues related to Anglo-Irish politics relations which centred around the disestablishment of the Irish Church, Irish Home Rule, and the rise in nationalist, Fenian violence (alluded to at the end of the Preface to volume two quoted above). Ireland takes up a great deal of the editorial space in volumes 2 and 3, though it haunts all the volumes. The tone in the leading article in the 4 January 1868 issue is typical of Tomahawk manner in addressing Fenian violence:

No, you are far too great a coward to meet me face to face. However, if you are very brave you will set my house on fire, if you are very tipsy you will do your best to shoot at me from the friendly shelter of a lamp-post. My sweet traitor, my charming ragamuffin, I know you to be an arrant coward, a blustering bully. You have quite enough pluck to murder a woman in cold blood, but you are not the man I take you to be if you don’t turn very very pale when Calcraft gets at your neck at Newgate!

And you pretend to be an Irishman!

An Irishman! A countryman of some of the greatest men the world has ever seen. A countryman of heroic warriors, skilful statesmen, learned scholars. A country of dear kind hearted Pat, with he ready wit and genial smile. Why I’m proud of my Irish fellow-countrymen, and what do you imagine I think of you? (p. 1)

Similarly disdainful editorial content appears a few pages later in ‘A Cure for Fenianism’, but the topic is most forcefully underscored by Matt Morgan’s cartoon in the same issue – “Mad My Masters, Mad!” drawing on a scene from Shakespeare’s King John in which Constance (pictured by Morgan as Ireland) kneels before King John (here imagined as John Bull). While this is not one of Morgan’s most powerful images, it does demonstrate the central importance of visual material to the overall message of the periodical.

Arguably, it was the sophisticated and unique cartoons by Morgan that had the greatest impact in Tomahawk, and for which the periodical is now usually known. A well-known illustrator by the time he came to edit Tomahawk at the age of 31, Morgan had cartooned for Punch and for Fun, gradually developing his own impressive style. While most illustrated satirical magazines contained illustrations, they tended to rely on caricature and stereotype that had the power to convey messages immediately and unambiguously – for example, the stock images of John Bull, Britannia, Caledonia, or the simian-looking Paddy – but Morgan’s cartoons for Tomahawk departed from this mainstream convention. According to Klemnitz, Morgan sought ‘to create a sensation with his popular art, and at Tomahawk he was able to combine daring and controversial subject matter with technical sophistication to produce outstanding cartoons’ (Klemnitz 1975, 10-11). Indeed, it is the technical brilliance that makes these images so striking, certainly when compared with the more familiar cartoons found in, for example, Punch. Morgan had a number of advantages going for him when creating work for Tomahawk – the regular use of double-page, high-impact cartoons; the use of colour in inventive ways; and control of the production process which allowed him to experiment with his engraver and friend, Thomas Bolton (see Klemnitz 1975, 11). All of these factors, combined with Morgan’s bohemian individualism enabled Tomahawk to publish what may be the finest satirical cartoons in any nineteenth-century periodical.

Morgan succeeded where other less ambitious illustrators didn’t in creating emotionally engaging dramatic images given depth through composition, colour and contrasting chiaroscuro-like tonality. Take the double-page colour cartoon for July 10 1869 – ‘“Our Hereditary Legislators”: or, What it may come to. (Dedicated to the rising generation of the House of Lords)’– which provides a visual statement complementing the first article in the issue, ‘Peerless Honour’, attacking recent scandals in the House of Lords. Morgan’s cartoon provides a Darwinian reading of the peers who are stuck in a kind of gothic, primordial mud while the moon struggles to break through the ominous clouds. Or, consider the double-page colour cartoon for July 31 1869 which addresses the problems in Ireland, in which Morgan creates a similarly atmospheric but more active and dramatic scene – a squabbling Protestant and Roman Catholic are about to lead their boat over a waterfall of ruin, with the caption reading: ‘Christian Charity! Or, They Will Sink the Boat Between Them.’ These are just two examples of the powerfully affecting images that Morgan did best and that came to define the visual content of Tomahawk.

Looking back at Tomahawk now, it is true that the cartoons are the first thing to catch the eye – the colour, the double pages, the unique dramatic intensity of the composition, the sharpness of the critique. The images complement the clever, often thoughtful words on the page. This was a carefully thought through periodical, from its Prefaces to its impressive Almanacs, with tremendous energy and verve, as readers noted from the moment of its audacious launch. It’s perhaps curious, then, that despite the extraordinary competition in the marketplace, Tomahawk only lasts for six volumes. The truth is, we don’t yet know why – on 30 July 1870 – the periodical came to a ‘mysterious and abrupt end’, as Kent describes it. A Beckett went on to work at Punch and Morgan ended up in North America; of the other regular contributors, one became poet laureate, another became a successful writer of farces, still others leading and important journalists. In short, there is much more research still to be done on the magazine; our hope is that by providing access to the journal in digitized form, explorations in the world of Tomahawk will be greatly enabled, allowing new ideas to emerge about its cultural formation, its significance and its relationship to the broader field of nineteenth-century journalism.

The Tomahawk in ncse

This edition of the Tomahawk was filmed from the hard copy held at the British Library newspaper collection at Colindale. As microfilm renders colours monochrome, and the creation of digital images sometimes fails to render the subtle changes of contrasts, the quality of many of the cartoons deteriorated after digitisation. Although the microfilm operators attempted to compensate when they thought a particular image might not film well by altering the contrast, they had no way of assessing whether this was effective. As a result, many of the cartoons were either too light or too dark, usually where the engraving was executed on a blue ink wash. To compensate for this we surveyed the images in Tomahawk to work out which were the worse affected. With the cooperation of the British Library we obtained new digital images filmed directly from the hard copy. In these images it is possible to fully appreciate the different colours and tones that Morgan used to create the striking cartoons.

Works Cited

  • Kent, Christopher, 1998, ‘The Angry Young Gentlemen of Tomahawk,’ in Victorian Journalism: Exotic and Domestic Essays in Honour of P.D. Edwards ed. By Barbara Garlick and Margaret Harris (Queensland University Press), 75-94.
  • Klemnitz, Thomas Milton, 1975, ‘Matt Morgan of “Tomahawk” and English Cartooning, 1867-1870,’ Victorian Studies 19:1, 5-34.
  • VanArsdel, Rosemary T., and J. Don Van, 1994, Victorian Periodicals and Victorian Society (Scolar Press).

Mark Turner