This week sees the start of the 2019 World Beard and Moustache Championships, with hundreds of the world’s most hirsute hopefuls descending on Antwerp, in hopes of securing a prize.

Victorian attempts to celebrate hirsute feats with new championship turned hairy

Victorian attempts to introduce the world’s first beard and moustache contest fell flat, when far fewer hairy entrants than expected turned up to have their facial furniture judged, research shows.

This week sees the start of the 2019 World Beard and Moustache Championships, with hundreds of the world’s most hirsute hopefuls descending on Antwerp, in hopes of securing a prize. The recent trend for beards has seen the popularity of these contests soar.

Historian Dr Alun Withey from the University of Exeter, has unearthed fascinating new evidence about what is thought to be the very first such event, held in London in July 1873.

Only around 30 men turned up to take part on the day, and it was reported that “the successful competitors seemed more anxious, when the ceremony was over, to evade rather than court, the observation of the multitude, proved very reluctant to parade in front of the audience.”

The show was organised by Mr Holland, proprietor of the North Woolwich Gardens pleasure park and was widely advertised around the country. Mr Holland had previously organised a “Barmaid Show”, “a show of various brewings of malt and hops”, and “various displays of cats, dogs, beer and babies”. The judges comprised of a panel of 12 ladies, picked randomly from the audience, and the novel show was billed as a chance for people to see the “handsomest beards and moustaches”.

Things began promisingly enough; one man even entered himself via post, sending a specimen of his beard, which was 40 inches long. Another had a moustache which measured 16 inches on either side of his face, or 32 inches long in total.

According to The Greenock Telegraph the “candidates came forward one by one to show themselves to the assembled public beneath” and the winner was given a prize medal.”

Reports in the days following the show were scathing. The Daily Telegraph and Courier reported that the show was organised to increase visitors to the “very pleasant summer resort” but also said: “it cannot be said that the last experiment, in attracting public attention, has proved so successful as the preceding”. The newspaper advised Mr Holland that the “resources of the North Woolwich Gardens are, however, sufficiently abundant to enable the proprietor to dispense with all these extraneous aids to popularity”. The Hampshire Advertiser was even less enthusiastic, commenting that the show “was not much of a success”.

Dr Withey, who is writing a book on the history of facial hair, and a past judge for the Devon and Cornwall Beard and Moustache Championship, said: “It seems that poor Mr Holland was unfortunate in the timing of his competition, as he missed the peak of the Victorian ‘beard movement’ by about 15 years. By this point men were beginning to tire of huge beards. It could also be argued, though, that he was ahead of his time. 

“The next similar beard and moustache championships were not held until 1990. It would have been fascinating to know who won, or why one man entered by post, but unfortunately this was never reported.”

Date: 16 May 2019

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