I have seen so much while I’ve lived here, though I have certainly slowed down the last couple years. Now staring my own leaving in the face, I sat and made a list of all the places I’ve been meaning to see for ages but just haven’t yet. I found a few new places to see while doing this as well, and of course, there are some amazing exhibitions on at the moment at places I know and love well.
Today, in a way, was quintessential London — as London was. As it won’t be for much longer. I started at Old St Pancras Church, just behind the station. People have called it the oldest site of Christian worship in England. There is some proof. The current church is lovely, Catholic, a modern reconstruction, but incorporates the many hundreds of years of its history within its walls as Roman tiles, Saxon altar stone, Norman pillars.
The graveyard…a big, beautiful, flowered open space. It was once even bigger, but being so close to the railway station, much of the graveyard was claimed for progress. Thus came into being the ‘Hardy tree’. Thomas Hardy, the novelist extraordinaire himself, was hired to deal with the exhumations, and he chose to arrange the tombstones around this tree like rays about the sun. It is curious, and strangely beautiful.
Here too is the tomb of Sir John Sloane, architect, whose home is another fabulous museum in Lincoln Inn Fields. It is a listed monument, most curious in design (as you would expect), and supposedly inspired the design for London’s iconic phone booths.
Best of all is the tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin), amazing feminist, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women — something that knocked me over with its awesomeness when I was young, one of the things that made me want to write.
Her daughter’s book Frankenstein also made me want to write — this is where Mary planned her elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley.
It also features in Dickens Tale of Two Cities, but that can hardly compare.
This is the kind of place that inspires love for London — except for all those cranes in the background building the modern monstrosities around the station — more unaffordable housing.
From there I walked to the Grant Museum of Zoology, which represents an early Victorian teaching collection — the goal was to have one of everything back in 1828 when it was founded. It is an extraordinary place, custom-made cabinets of glass and polished wood holding skeletons in various poses, preserved animals in varying degrees of dissection or preservation. Lots of jars.
Lots of moles.
A fossil compsongnathus (my dad used to tell us stories about them) and lungfish, a huge incredible skeleton of a boa constrictor, a tiny octopus (a few of those actually), an amazing ‘museum of tiny things’ (the micrarium). I loved it, despite the hordes of children. Also amazing, but a little more complicated by the connections between exploration, science, and colonialism. Here you can find the quagga and the tasmanian tiger, both hunted to extinction since this museum was founded.
the last stop was unplanned, but I’ve always wondered about the crypt of the New St Pancras Church. It was open, with an artist in residence — ‘Being Silence’ and the artist Evgenia Emets. It was cool seeing her large calligraphy canvases, experimenting with the space. I just took pictures of the space, it is quite amazing.
Also, rather full of figures from the East India Company. Also complicated. But cool to get down here.
Portugal Street and Clare Market are now partially (or entirely) surrounded by the London School of Economics, inoffensive if not particularly picturesque streets. As noted in my post on The Pickwick Papers, this area is described by Dickens with Pickwick and Sam wandering more or less happily through it when attending upon the business of their court case. As below:
With this direction, and having been furthermore informed that the hostelry in question was situated in a court, happy in the double advantage of being in the vicinity of Clare Market, and closely approximating to the back of New Inn, Mr. Pickwick and Sam descended the rickety staircase in safety, and issued forth in quest of the Magpie and Stump.
In a lofty room, ill-lighted and worse ventilated, situated in Portugal Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, there sit nearly the whole year round, one, two, three, or four gentlemen in wigs…These gentlemen are the Commissioners of the Insolvent Court, and the place in which they sit, is the Insolvent Court itself.
I knew, of course, that this area had also been a terrible slum, but for the most part cleared and rebuilt by the late 1800s. Emmeline Pankhurst resided for a while in St Clement’s Inn, which she described as ‘a big rambling building’ where she could take refuge in a rooftop garden. Until 1903 the building had been attached to the Inner Temple as accommodations and offices for solicitors. A few years later it had been sold and the first London Women’s Social and Political Union offices were to be found there, within the apartments of socialists and WSPU members Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and her husband. Their offices later moved to 40 Kingsway, near where Portugal street joins it. I have read a great deal about all of this. Reading Catherin Arnold’s Necropolis, however, pointed me in a completely different direction, as though I were reading about another place entirely rather than this same tiny network of streets:
Clement’s Lane.—This is a narrow thoroughfare on the eastern side of Clare Market ; it extends from Clare Market to the Strand [note: this is before the redevelopment of Aldwych and Kingsway — Aldwych is here shown at the bottom of the map, the Strand is just beyond it] and is surrounded by places, from which are continually given off emanations from animal putrescence.
The back windows of the houses on the east side of the lane look into a burying ground called the ” Green Ground,” in Portugal Street, presently to be described ; on the west side the windows (if open) permit the odour of another burying place —a private one, called Enon Chapel —to perflate the houses ; at the bottom—the south end —of this Lane, is another burying place, belonging to the Alms Houses*, within a few feet of the Strand, and in the centre of the Strand are the burying ground and vaults of St. Clement Danes; in addition to which, there are several slaughter houses in the immediate neighbourhood: so that in a distance of about two hundred yards, in a direct line there are four burying grounds; and the living here breathe on all sides an atmosphere impregnated with the odour of the dead. The inhabitants of this narrow thoroughfare are very unhealthy; nearly every room in every house is occupied by a separate family. Typhus fever in its aggravated form has attacked by far the majority of the residents, and death has made among them the most destructive ravages.
The soil of this ground is saturated, absolutely saturated, with human putrescense. On Saturday the 27th April, 1839, at 5, p.m. I went, accompanied by a friend, to Nos. 30 and 31, Clement’s Lane, and, upon looking through the windows of the back attics, we saw two graves open, close to the south-eastern extremity of this burying ground. Several bones were lying on the surface of the grave nearest to us—a large heap of coffin wood was placed in readiness for removal, and, at a small distance, a heap covered with coarse sacking, was observed, which, when the covering was taken off, proved also to be long pieces of coffin wood, evidently not in a decayed state. The nails were very conspicuous. Several basketfuls of this wood were taken to a building at the south-west extremity of the ground. We were informed that this sight was by no means a novel one ; it was commonly—almost daily, observed.
(*) This place is, I believe, filled with dead; many of the coffins being near the surface.
He quotes a correspondent to The Times (25 June 1839):
Passing along Portugal Street on Saturday evening, about ten minutes before seven, I was much shocked at seeing two men employed in carrying baskets of human bones from the corner of the ground next the old watch house (where there was a tarpaulin hung over the rails to prevent their being seen, and where they appeared to be heaped up in a mound), to the back of the ground through a small gate.
The man had lived in Bear-yard, near Clare-market, which was exposed to the combined effluvia from a slaughter-house and a tripe factory. He was a bird- fancier, but he found that he could not rear his birds in this place. He had known a bird fresh caught in summer-time die there in a week. He particularly noted as having a fatal influence on the birds, the stench raised by boiling down the fat from the tripe offal. He said, “You may hang the cage out of the garret window in any house round Bear-yard, and if it be a fresh bird, it will be dead in a week.” He had previously lived for a time in the same neighbourhood in a room over a crowded burial-ground in Portugal-street ; at times in the morning he had seen a mist rise from the ground, and the smell was offensive. That place was equally fatal to his birds. He had removed to another dwelling in Vere-street, Clare-market, which is beyond the smells from those particular places, and he was now enabled to keep his birds. In town, however, the ordinary singing birds did not, usually, live more than about 18 months ; in cages in the country, such birds were known to live as long as nine years or more on the same food.
–footnote quoting Vide General Sanitary Report p 103 and note p 106
The ‘Green Ground’ they describe sat at Carey St and Portugal St, alongside a workhouse (handy) until it was occupied and expanded by King’s College Hospital beginning in 1840 (it moved to Camberwell in 1913). It is now occupied by the LSE library quadrangle — some details are on the London burials site, and a brief history from the LSE point of view (and shorn of most of its earthy disgustingness) can be found here, which states that the bodies were actually moved after 1852 to be reburied in the suburbs. But to return to Clement’s Lane — and the infamous Enon Chapel that once stood here — I return to Walker, who was quite a bit more lurid than his partner Chadwick:
Enon Chapel. —This building is situated about midway on the western side of Clement’s Lane; it is surrounded on all sides by houses, crowded by inhabitants, principally of the poorer class. The upper part of this building was opened for the purposes of public worship about 1823; it is separated from the lower part by a boarded floor: this is used as a burying place, and is crowded at one end, even to the top of the ceiling, with dead. It is entered from the inside of the chapel by a trap door; the rafters supporting the floor are not even covered with the usual defence —lath and plaster. Vast numbers of bodies have been placed here in pits, dug for the purpose, the uppermost of which were covered only by a few inches of earth…Soon after interments were made, a peculiarly long narrow black fly was observed to crawl out of many of the coffins; this insect, a product of the putrefaction of the bodies, was observed on the following season to be succeeded by another, which had the appearance of a common bug with wings. The children attend ing the Sunday School, held in this chapel, in which these insects were to be seen crawling and flying, in vast numbers, during the summer months, called them “body bugs”… (154-155)
The new tenants who took over the lease in 1844 knew of the chapel’s history and capitalized on it by appealing to Londoners’ obvious tolerance for the macabre. They placed a layer of brick over the original wooden floor, lay down new wooden floorboards, and opened the space as a ‘low dancing saloon’ for teetotallers, cheerfully advertising “dances on the dead” as well as gambling. An old leaflet stated: “Enon Chapel – Dancing on the Dead – Admission Threepence. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings” The Poor Man’s Guardian, in 1847, described this new venture as a ‘Temperance Hall’ which held plain and fancy dress balls accompanied by an efficient band: “Quadrilles, waltzes, country-dances, gallopades, reels are danced over the masses of mortality in the cellar beneath” The venue was particularly popular for its annual boxing day bash.
These dances continued until around 1848 when philanthropist, sanitary reformer and surgeon, Mr George Alfred Walker of Drury Lane, bought the chapel which was in the immediate neighborhood of his surgery. In 1839 he’d written, “My reflections upon leaving the masses of corruption here exposed, were painful in the extreme; I want language to express the intense feelings of pity, contempt and abhorrence I experienced. Can it be, thought I, that in the Nineteenth Century, in the very centre of the most magnificent city in the universe, such sad mementoes of ignorance, cupidity, and degraded morality still exist?” At his own expense (£100 – quite a substantial sum for the day) he began having the bodies exhumed and buried properly in a single pit in Norwood Cemetery. (Mr Walker, who had studied at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, was passionate about the abolition of intramural interment and wrote many books on the dangers of disposing the dead among the living.)
The process of exhumation at Enon became a spectacle when the remains were piled up and a “pyramid of human bones was exposed to view” near the premises, visited by 6000 people.
It was at this time, with the human remains finally being removed, that it was calculated over 12,000 bodies had been given eternal ‘rest’ by Mr Howse.
I wish I felt the bravado in dancing over dead was simply that, and not a smelly insect-filled attraction for privileged slummers, all those who preyed on them, and the people who wished to stare at both in macabre surroundings. Or that it were not emblematic of a most desperate poverty and complete failure of local government.
There is more horror (though not the same degree of horror) about the vaults in St Clement Dane Church in the Strand. There is more reporting of testimony on the burial grounds here and stretching west to Drury Lane (the same grounds where Lady Deadlock expired at the gate in Bleak House–at least here the burial grounds were not forgotten and Tom’s All Alone evokes some of the misery of this area’s poverty, but clearly not enough) to be found in this article from The True Tablet, 5th November 1842, like this occurrence — again from Enon Chapel:
There were some men repairing Clement’s-lane ; they asked me to give them a few baskets of rubbish, which I did, and they picked up a human hand, and were looking at it, and there were crowds collected ; it did not appear to have been buried probably a month; it was as perfect as my hand. The sexton, when he found there was likely to be a piece of work, ran out and snatched it away, and blew me up for letting them have it.
I am sure there is a great deal more in multiple places in fact, but not sure I can read any more.
I don’t even know where to begin in processing this. Not least because this stench and smell and presence of bodies and slaughter houses and typhus appears neither in Dickens, who I trust for detail and published The Pickwick Papers in 1836, nor in descriptions of the area from the Booth notebooks — though perhaps I shall look again, make sure of their date (which of course was earliest 1848). The bodies under the Enon Chapel where exhumed and reburied by George Walker himself, who marked their new location in Norwood Cemetery. What about these other burial grounds? Was the smell taken for granted? Was this so much a part of life? Was it too offensive to describe? I can see that Dickens’ light-hearted if critical tones stretching to rank sentimentality would certainly have been dragged down a bit at the first sight of a dismembered corpse or description of death by typhus surrounded by body bugs. Still, Arnold mentions a short story by Dickens that I want to track down, ‘The City of the Absent’. For later.
My cynical self may mock, but my romantic side insists both there should be some feeling about such a terrible place beyond the general soullessness of it today, and that there should be some sign, some memorial — that we should work harder at remembering ‘the good old days’ that weren’t very good after all.
I quite loved The Pickwick Papers. I’ve been making my way through Dickens in chronological order (beginning with Sketches by Boz), but while I blithely cut and pasted my favourite passages into a draft thanks to Project Gutenberg, I did not blog it properly before moving on to blogging Oliver Twist(though I’m not quite done with him yet). It matched better with Flora Tristan’s London Journals (though I’m not quite done with her either).
The 31st of March marked the anniversary of the publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1836, however, making me feel bad about my pasted quotations languishing in draft-form obscurity. While this post is now two days past due, it is something. I cannot imagine a way to summarise this novel, think of something deep to say about it, explain just why I enjoyed it so much.
So instead I present a few of my favourite bits.
On old inns, the ways that every generation looks fondly backwards, and indirectly the entrance of everyone’s favourite character, Samuel Weller:
There are in London several old inns, once the headquarters of
celebrated coaches in the days when coaches performed their journeys in a graver and more solemn manner than they do in these times; but which have now degenerated into little more than the abiding and booking-places of country wagons. The reader would look in vain for any of these ancient hostelries, among the Golden Crosses and Bull and Mouths, which rear their stately fronts in the improved streets of London. If he would light upon any of these old places, he must direct his steps to the obscurer quarters of the town, and there in some secluded nooks he will find several, still standing with a kind of gloomy sturdiness, amidst the modern innovations which surround them.
In the Borough especially, there still remain some half-dozen old inns, which have preserved their external features unchanged, and which have escaped alike the rage for public improvement and the encroachments of private speculation. Great, rambling queer old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories, supposing we should ever be reduced to the lamentable necessity of inventing any, and that the world should exist long enough to exhaust the innumerable veracious legends connected with old London Bridge, and its adjacent neighbourhood on the Surrey side.
There is, of course, still an inn like this in Borough — The George. I recommend it, though best in summer when the annoying throngs that visit can sit outside and you can enjoy the rambling queer inside. It only smells funny because it is old.
I like the glimpse of Pickwick’s home, before it is shattered by Mrs. Bardell’s legal team:
Mr. Pickwick’s apartments in Goswell Street, although on a limited scale, were not only of a very neat and comfortable description, but peculiarly adapted for the residence of a man of his genius and observation. His sitting-room was the first-floor front, his bedroom the second-floor front; and thus, whether he were sitting at his desk in his parlour, or standing before the dressing-glass in his dormitory, he had an equal opportunity of contemplating human nature in all the numerous phases it exhibits, in that not more populous than popular thoroughfare.
His landlady, Mrs. Bardell–the relict and sole executrix of a deceased custom-house officer–was a comely woman of bustling manners and agreeable appearance, with a natural genius for cooking, improved by study and long practice, into an exquisite talent. There were no children, no servants, no fowls. The only other inmates of the house were a large man and a small boy; the first a lodger, the second a production of Mrs. Bardell’s. The large man was always home precisely at ten o’clock at night, at which hour he regularly condensed himself into the limits of a dwarfish French bedstead in the back parlour; and the infantine sports and gymnastic exercises of Master Bardell were exclusively confined to the neighbouring pavements and gutters. Cleanliness and quiet reigned throughout the house; and in it Mr. Pickwick’s will was law.
While I might not agree with the sentiments, I feel sure Dickens copied this dialogue word for word in a pub somewhere:
‘Rum creeters is women,’ said the dirty-faced man, after a pause.
‘Ah! no mistake about that,’ said a very red-faced man, behind a cigar.
After this little bit of philosophy there was another pause.
‘There’s rummer things than women in this world though, mind you,’ said the man with the black eye, slowly filling a large Dutch pipe, with a most capacious bowl.
‘Are you married?’ inquired the dirty-faced man.
‘Can’t say I am.’
‘I thought not.’ Here the dirty-faced man fell into ecstasies of mirth at his own retort, in which he was joined by a man of bland voice and placid countenance, who always made it a point to agree with everybody.
What is probably the best poem ever, by Mrs Leo Hunter. It beats out — though barely — the phenomenal poem about Dick Turpin that I present closer to the end of this post:
Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;
Can I unmoved see thee dying
On a log
Being at LSE I came to know Holborn well, and each and every one of its surrounding pubs. This one once sat in the epicentre of these pub ramblings — or pumblings:
With this direction, and having been furthermore informed that the hostelry in question was situated in a court, happy in the double advantage of being in the vicinity of Clare Market, and closely approximating to the back of New Inn, Mr. Pickwick and Sam descended the rickety staircase in safety, and issued forth in quest of the Magpie and Stump.
This favoured tavern, sacred to the evening orgies of Mr. Lowten and his companions, was what ordinary people would designate a public-house. That the landlord was a man of money-making turn was sufficiently testified by the fact of a small bulkhead beneath the tap-room window, in size and shape not unlike a sedan-chair, being underlet to a mender of shoes: and that he was a being of a philanthropic mind was evident from the protection he afforded to a pieman, who vended his delicacies without fear of interruption, on the very door-step. In the lower windows, which were decorated with curtains of a saffron hue, dangled two or three printed cards, bearing reference to Devonshire cider and Dantzic spruce, while a large blackboard, announcing in white letters to an enlightened public, that there were 500,000 barrels of double stout in the cellars of the establishment, left the mind in a state of not unpleasing doubt and uncertainty as to the precise direction in the bowels of the earth, in which this mighty cavern might be supposed to extend. When we add that the weather-beaten signboard bore the half-obliterated semblance of a magpie intently eyeing a crooked streak of brown paint, which the neighbours had been taught from infancy to consider as the ‘stump,’ we have said all that need be said of the exterior of the edifice.
There was actually (and is) a Magpie and Stump opposite the Old Bailey — a bit far and so hitherto unvisited, but apparently the good old George IV most likely stands on the site of the one Dickens described here. But really I need to get over to the George and Vulture – mentioned many a time in this book though without the same delicious description, and ‘the headquarters of the City Pickwick Club since its foundation.’ I found a Dickens pub crawl with no real effort of course, and while the digital Dickens website makes me realise I have nothing new to add on the subject of Dickens, at least I am among the good company of those who try.
On Portugal St, now at the heart of LSE and its absence felt as a loss by me but clearly replaced by reality television for those who once filled its halls:
In a lofty room, ill-lighted and worse ventilated, situated in Portugal Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, there sit nearly the whole year round, one, two, three, or four gentlemen in wigs, as the case may be, with little writing-desks before them, constructed after the fashion of those used by the judges of the land, barring the French polish. There is a box of barristers on their right hand; there is an enclosure of insolvent debtors on their left; and there is an inclined plane of most especially dirty faces in their front. These gentlemen are the Commissioners of the Insolvent Court, and the place in which they sit, is the Insolvent Court itself.
It is, and has been, time out of mind, the remarkable fate of this court to be, somehow or other, held and understood, by the general consent of all the destitute shabby-genteel people in London, as their common resort, and place of daily refuge. It is always full. The steams of beer and spirits perpetually ascend to the ceiling, and, being condensed by the heat, roll down the walls like rain; there are more old suits of clothes in it at one time, than will be offered for sale in all Houndsditch in a twelvemonth; more unwashed skins and grizzly beards than all the pumps and shaving-shops between Tyburn and Whitechapel could render decent, between sunrise and sunset.
It must not be supposed that any of these people have the least shadow of business in, or the remotest connection with, the place they so indefatigably attend. If they had, it would be no matter of surprise, and the singularity of the thing would cease. Some of them sleep during the greater part of the sitting; others carry small portable dinners wrapped in pocket-handkerchiefs or sticking out of their worn-out pockets, and munch and listen with equal relish; but no one among them was ever known to have the slightest personal interest in any case that was ever brought forward. Whatever they do, there they sit from the first moment to the last. When it is heavy, rainy weather, they all come in, wet through; and at such times the vapours of the court are like those of a fungus-pit.
A casual visitor might suppose this place to be a temple dedicated to the Genius of Seediness. There is not a messenger or process-server attached to it, who wears a coat that was made for him; not a tolerably fresh, or wholesome-looking man in the whole establishment, except a little white-headed apple-faced tipstaff, and even he, like an ill-conditioned cherry preserved in brandy, seems to have artificially dried and withered up into a state of preservation to which he can lay no natural claim.
This description of a religious meeting by the elder Mr Weller is pure genius:
I dresses myself out wery smart, and off I goes with the old ‘ooman, and up we walks into a fust-floor where there was tea-things for thirty, and a whole lot o’ women as begins whisperin’ to one another, and lookin’ at me, as if they’d never seen a rayther stout gen’l’m’n of eight-and-fifty afore. By and by, there comes a great bustle downstairs, and a lanky chap with a red nose and a white neckcloth rushes up, and sings out, “Here’s the shepherd a-coming to wisit his faithful flock;” and in comes a fat chap in black, vith a great white face, a-smilin’ avay like clockwork. Such goin’s on, Sammy! “The kiss of peace,” says the shepherd; and then he kissed the women all round, and ven he’d done, the man vith the red nose began. I was just a-thinkin’ whether I hadn’t better begin too–‘specially as there was a wery nice lady a-sittin’ next me–ven in comes the tea, and your mother-in-law, as had been makin’ the kettle bile downstairs. At it they went, tooth and nail. Such a precious loud hymn, Sammy, while the tea was a brewing; such a grace, such eatin’ and drinkin’! I wish you could ha’ seen the shepherd walkin’ into the ham and muffins.
As is this commentary by the elder Mr Weller on poetry:
‘Wery glad to hear it,’ said Mr. Weller. ‘Poetry’s unnat’ral; no man ever talked poetry ‘cept a beadle on boxin’-day, or Warren’s blackin’, or Rowland’s oil, or some of them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy. Begin agin, Sammy.’
And on compliments:
Wot’s the good o’ callin’ a young ‘ooman a Wenus or a angel,
‘Ah! what, indeed?’ replied Sam.
‘You might jist as well call her a griffin, or a unicorn, or a king’s
arms at once, which is wery well known to be a collection o’ fabulous animals,’ added Mr. Weller.
‘Just as well,’ replied Sam.
‘Drive on, Sammy,’ said Mr. Weller.
His view of Camberwell (as opposed to Gissing’s among others):
‘I don’t like it, Sam,’ rejoined Mr. Weller. ‘I never know’d a
respectable coachman as wrote poetry, ‘cept one, as made an affectin’ copy o’ werses the night afore he was hung for a highway robbery; and he wos only a Cambervell man, so even that’s no rule.’
And a mention of Brixton — I am collecting the literary geographies of South London you see:
The office of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, of the Stock Exchange, was in a first floor up a court behind the Bank of England; the house of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, was at Brixton, Surrey; the horse and stanhope of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, were at an adjacent livery stable; the groom of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, was on his way to the West End to deliver some game; the clerk of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, had gone to his dinner; and so Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, himself, cried, ‘Come in,’ when Mr. Pell and his companions knocked at the counting-house door.
Some hilarious commentary on Bath and Tradespeople:
‘The ball-nights in Ba-ath are moments snatched from
paradise; rendered bewitching by music, beauty, elegance, fashion, etiquette, and–and–above all, by the absence of tradespeople, who are quite inconsistent with paradise, and who have an amalgamation of themselves at the Guildhall every fortnight, which is, to say the least, remarkable. Good-bye, good-bye!’ and protesting all the way downstairs that he was most satisfied, and most delighted, and most overpowered, and most flattered, Angelo Cyrus Bantam, Esquire, M.C., stepped into a very elegant chariot that waited at the door, and rattled off.
On Bristol (finally Dickens tackles Bristol!):
Having inspected the docks and shipping, and viewed the cathedral, he inquired his way to Clifton, and being directed thither, took the route which was pointed out to him. But as the pavements of Bristol are not the widest or cleanest upon earth, so its streets are not altogether the straightest or least intricate; and Mr. Winkle, being greatly puzzled by their manifold windings and twistings, looked about him for a decent shop in which he could apply afresh for counsel and instruction.
Now, as promised, we come to Samuel Weller’s song about Dick Turpin:
Bold Turpin vunce, on Hounslow Heath,
His bold mare Bess bestrode-er;
Ven there he see’d the Bishop’s coach
A-coming along the road-er.
So he gallops close to the ‘orse’s legs,
And he claps his head vithin;
And the Bishop says, ‘Sure as eggs is eggs,
This here’s the bold Turpin!’
And the Bishop says, ‘Sure as eggs is eggs,
This here’s the bold Turpin!’
Says Turpin, ‘You shall eat your words,
With a sarse of leaden bul-let;’
So he puts a pistol to his mouth,
And he fires it down his gul-let.
The coachman he not likin’ the job,
Set off at full gal-lop,
But Dick put a couple of balls in his nob,
And perwailed on him to stop.
But Dick put a couple of balls in his nob,
And perwailed on him to stop.
Thus we are brought to the end, and I quite loved the end because it eased my sadness at parting:
Mr. Pickwick, having said grace, pauses for an instant and looks round him. As he does so, the tears roll down his cheeks, in the fullness of his joy.
Let us leave our old friend in one of those moments of unmixed
happiness, of which, if we seek them, there are ever some, to cheer our transitory existence here. There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light. We, who have no such optical powers, are better pleased to take our last parting look at the visionary companions of many solitary hours, when the brief sunshine of the world is blazing full upon them. It is the fate of most men who mingle with the world, and attain even the prime of life, to make many real friends, and lose them in the course of nature. It is the fate of all authors or chroniclers to create imaginary friends, and lose them in the course of art. Nor is this the full extent of their misfortunes; for they are required to furnish an account of them besides.
I’m afraid it makes me terribly sentimental. I am saving all the grim debtor’s prison stuff for a much better, more forceful and fascinating post. But this is everything I loved most.
London was so much smaller in 1838 when Dickens published Oliver Twist. What struck me, apart from the rank sentimentalism and the vile descriptions of Jews (on which I shall write more later) was mostly how everyone below a certain income level walks.
They walk everywhere.
Country folk come walking to London to make their fortunes. And from London, thieves walk to the country to steal theirs.
Oliver walks from the town of his birth (originally named as Mudfog, about 70 miles north of London) and tired and hungry arrives finally at the city where he is taken in by the Artful Dodger. This same journey is made by the coffin-maker’s apprentice who has run off with his servant, Claypole and Charlotte.
They describe the arrival at Highgate as it once was, with London still a good way before them (also exemplifying the need for feminism):
they passed through Highgate archway; when the foremost traveller stopped and called impatiently to his companion,
‘Come on, can’t yer? What a lazybones yer are, Charlotte.’
‘It’s a heavy load, I can tell you,’ said the female, coming up, almost breathless with fatigue.
‘Heavy! What are yer talking about? What are yer made for?’ rejoined the male traveller, changing his own little bundle as he spoke, to the other shoulder. ‘Oh, there yer are, resting again! Well, if yer ain’t enough to tire anybody’s patience out, I don’t know what is!’
‘Is it much farther?’ asked the woman, resting herself against a bank, and looking up with the perspiration streaming from her face.
‘Much farther! Yer as good as there,’ said the long-legged tramper, pointing out before him. ‘Look there! Those are the lights of London.’
‘They’re a good two mile off, at least,’ said the woman despondingly.
‘Never mind whether they’re two mile off, or twenty,’ said Noah
Claypole; for he it was; ‘but get up and come on, or I’ll kick yer, and so I give yer notice.’
Finally they get to the Angel at Islington:
In pursuance of this cautious plan, Mr. Claypole went on, without halting, until he arrived at the Angel at Islington, where he wisely judged, from the crowd of passengers and numbers of vehicles, that London began in earnest. Just pausing to observe which appeared the most crowded streets, and consequently the most to be avoided, he crossed into Saint John’s Road, and was soon deep in the obscurity of the intricate and dirty ways, which, lying between Gray’s Inn Lane and Smithfield, render that part of the town one of the lowest and worst that improvement has left in the midst of London.
It is hard, now, to imagine London beginning in earnest at the Angel. It is impossible, now, to imagine British people trudging seventy miles carrying all of their worldly possessions. Sadly I can still imagine the woman being asked to carry the heavier burden.
I think of getting to the country now in terms of recreation, of space. It was certainly far less of a walk back then to get out of the city, into the fresh air of the country. Hampton, for example, has now been well swallowed up by London to become a suburb. But once upon a time:
They turned round to the left, a short way past the public-house; and then, taking a right-hand road, walked on for a long time: passing many large gardens and gentlemen’s houses on both sides of the way, and stopping for nothing but a little beer, until they reached a town. Here against the wall of a house, Oliver saw written up in pretty large letters, ‘Hampton.’ They lingered about, in the fields, for some hours. At length they came back into the town; and, turning into an old public-house with a defaced sign-board, ordered some dinner by the kitchen fire.
The kitchen was an old, low-roofed room; with a great beam across the middle of the ceiling, and benches, with high backs to them, by the fire; on which were seated several rough men in smock-frocks, drinking and smoking. They took no notice of Oliver; and very little of Sikes; and, as Sikes took very little notice of them, he and his young comrade sat in a corner by themselves, without being much troubled by their company.
I do not yet know Hampton, but here it is a world away from the slums of Holborn, through countryside and ‘gentlemen’s houses’. A walkable world away, and yet… not a pleasant day trip for those on foot and without business here.
This is still a world where easy movement between town and country for pleasure is still the province of the wealthy. Where trips tend to be one-way for the poor — seventy miles walk is no small journey. As we escape the underworld with Oliver, swept up in carriages belonging to the good, the kind and the beautiful we also find the ability to more easily escape the city. It is still for longer periods of time, one season spent in London, the summer in a large house in the countryside.
It is only the thieves that move easily and regularly between the two.
It is also the thieves and the outcast that fill the edges of the city. There are some amazing descriptions of Rotherhithe in here. Concentrations of poverty form another kind of limit in a way, rather like the slums around Field Lane. Yet the South Bank of the river was always seen as different, somehow outside — and for a long time formally outside many of the restrictive laws belonging to London proper.
Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.
To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of waterside people, and devoted to the traffic they may be supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman’s door, and stream from the house-parapet and windows. Jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river, he makes his way with difficulty along, assailed by offensive sights and smells from the narrow alleys which branch off on the right and left, and deafened by the clash of ponderous waggons that bear great piles of merchandise from the stacks of warehouses that rise from every corner. Arriving, at length, in streets remoter and less-frequented than those through which he has passed, he walks beneath tottering house-fronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half crushed half hesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginable sign of desolation and neglect.
In such a neighborhood, beyond Dockhead in the Borough of Southwark, stands Jacob’s Island, surrounded by a muddy ditch, six or eight feet deep and fifteen or twenty wide when the tide is in, once called Mill Pond, but known in the days of this story as Folly Ditch. It is a creek or inlet from the Thames, and can always be filled at high water by opening the sluices at the Lead Mills from which it took its old name. At such times, a stranger, looking from one of the wooden bridges thrown across it at Mill Lane, will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side lowering from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up; and when his eye is turned from these operations to the houses themselves, his utmost astonishment will be excited by the scene before him. Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fall into it–as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.
In Jacob’s Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are windows no more; the doors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke. Thirty or forty years ago, before losses and chancery suits came upon it, it was a thriving place; but now it is a desolate island indeed. The houses have no owners; they are broken open, and entered upon by those who have the courage; and there they live, and there they die. They must have powerful motives for a secret residence, or be reduced to a destitute condition indeed, who seek a refuge in Jacob’s Island.
These long, weary journeys on foot, these marginal spaces where the poor crowd together and struggle to survive are also well documented in the accounts of reformers and early social scientists. Margaret Harkness describes wandering through the city looking for work, Maude Pember Reeves too notes a number of men who regularly walk distances of many miles to their employment and back.
Mary Higgs herself goes ‘on the tramp’ to study the conditions that women faced on the road, particularly when it came to finding shelter. The absence of provision for the thousands of people criss-crossing England’s countryside — cut loose from traditional employment by enclosure and industrialisation and desperately seeking work — is appalling.
Dickens obviously walked these ways himself — perhaps not the seventy miles from ‘Mudfog’ to London — but he certainly tramped the city from one end to the other and his marvelous descriptions of it bring to life what is now long past.
I like to walk, but this is a kind of walking as far removed from my experience as this level of poverty, an experience of the city and how you live in it that I can only catch glimpses of through imagination and weary feet. How transformative has the change in transportation been?
Field lane was once a narrow alley that led to Saffron Hill (once fields and gardens belonging to Ely Place and filled with actual saffron), and formed part of a tangle of the narrow lanes and courts that contained some of London’s most desperate poverty. Flora Tristan describes it thus in 1842:
Quite close to Newgate, in a little alley off Holborn Hill called Field Lane, which is too narrow for vehicles to use, there is absolutely nothing to be seen but dealers in secondhand silk handkerchiefs.’ I am sure I do not need to warn any curious traveller who might be tempted to follow in my footsteps, to leave at home his watch, purse and handkerchief before he ventures into Field Lane, for he may be sure that the gentlemen who frequent the spot are all light-fingered! It is particularly interesting to go there in the evening, as it is then thronged with people – which is easy to understand: buyers and sellers alike are anxious to preserve their anonymity for, after his purse. nothing is more precious to anyone in business than the mask of respectability he has been at such pains to acquire.
The shops are in fact stalls which project into the steet, and this is where the handkerchiefs are displayed: they hang on rails so that intending purchasers can recognise at a glance the property they have had stolen from them! The men and women dealers, whose looks are in perfect harmony with their trade, stand in their doorways and hector the customers who come under cover of the night to buy dirt cheap the spoils of the day. There is a bustle of activity in the street as prostitutes, children, and rogues of every age and condition come to sell their handkerchiefs (175).
I found a picture or two (with a jarring one in contrast, to bring us into the present):
They are described by Dickens of course, in Oliver Twist. I was so pleased to have accidentally been reading that at the same time as Tristan’s London Journal, and to have connected the two together on my own. Of course, I found out that is no big thing. This is from Dickens, describing one of Fagins’ haunts:
Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn meet, there opens, upon the right hand as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley, leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of pocket-handkerchiefs of all sizes and patterns, for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from the door-posts, and the shelves within are piled with them. Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried fish warehouse. It is a commercial colony of itself—the emporium of petty larceny, visited at early morning and setting-in of dusk by silent merchants, who traffic in dark back parlours and go as strangely as they come. Here the clothes-man, the shoevamper, and the rag-merchant, display their goods as sign-boards to the petty thief, and stores of old iron and bones, and heaps of mildewy fragments of woollen-stuff and linen, rust and rot in the grimy cellars.
Here is a map showing the maze of streets and courts:
But these were to become a thing of the past, 1844 ushered in efforts to rebuild the area, 1869 saw the construction of the Holborn Viaduct, by the time Charles Booth was making his second set of poverty maps in 1898-99, it looked rather different (in both, field lane is the bottom left), though the black sections show that poverty and crime abide:
Today crime clearly still abides, at least, loitering does along these steps that lead down from Charterhouse.
And it feels part of the City, the banking industry and corporate London has ever been a hotbed of crime I think.
Further down becoming Saffron Hill proper (though Field Lane has been wiped from memory through signage alone), it regains something of the feel for what was:
I love this area, despite the creep of the City, the expensiveness, the smart suits walking briskly to and fro. There are still a scattering of normal people, some estates not yet demolished or turned into luxury apartments perhaps. Still a sound of accents that make me feel at ease, still a raffish air to it. I don’t mourn the loss of the desperate poverty, the cold, damp and overcrowded housing, or the picturesque views of stolen goods. What I hate is that our people were simply swept away for the most part, to build a cold corporate environment of nearly empty echoing alleys. Buildings that are a monument to greed and thievery of a different kind, often, though not always, a legitimated one.
“Best slow your roll, Al,” the one-handed bartender Pierre Gaston said languidly. He took hold of an empty glass between the pincers of his prosthesis. Behind him and above the bottles on a flat screen TV, played a near mute newscast about a truckers’ job action at the port.
That’s why I love Gary Phillips. He writes shit-talking dialogue like no one else, and there’s always a crazy character or two, like a one-handed bartender sitting in the Scorpion Tap. That’s right, the Scorpion Tap. Crazy as they are, they’re still true to the L.A. I know and love. And hate. But mostly love. Because this ain’t the L.A. of Hollywood glitz and glamour, or beaches and West-side wealth, this is where the heart and soul is at. South Central. At least that’s where we’re starting.
The story’s called The Dixon Chronicles, and Gary writes:
Embracing a populist literary tradition that reaches back to Charles Dickens, among others, whose examinations of class conflict in industrializing England were published serially in newspapers, yours truly humbly presents the first installment, chapter if you will in “The Dixon Family Chronicles” on the capitalandmain.com news site.
The webserial follows the interrelated and divergent lives of its three African American main characters. They are Henry “Uncle Hank” Dixon, a handyman living in South L.A.; his niece Jessica “Jess” Dixon, an Iraq war vet who now works in a fulfillment center in Riverside; and her brother, Joseph “Little Joe” Dixon, a one-time pro baller prospect who works as a youth athletic director in Oakland. As the characters deal with everyday life in the Golden State, issues surrounding wage inequality, gentrification, unionization, job insecurity, transportation, and food deserts are woven into their stories.
New chapters will appear each Wednesday at least through the end of this year.
Gary may sound nothing like Dickens, but you can bet I love this calling upon the populist tradition and examining of class (and race) conflict across time and space and vastly different experience. And just as Dickens belonged to London, so Gary belongs to L.A., and I’m looking forward to traveling its streets with him. He starts right in one of my old neighbourhoods, and dealing with the displacement and unemployment that comes with land speculation and that I fought every day of my working life for six years. Can’t wait until next Wednesday…
Of course, this isn’t the first time Gary has written stories in this kind of form — as a writer I’m a little in awe of it, mostly because I just don’t think I could ever manage it. But there’s the comic Bicycle Cop Dave over at fourstory.com, illustrated by Manoel Magalhães. And then there’s the set of stories that eventually became the caper story The Underbelly, that we published at PM Press. All I’m saying is that the man’s got skills, so check out his awesome website.
London in literature: a symposium organised by the English Syndicate of the Roehampton Institute, May 1979
Academic and an intro for me to literary studies of London — or where they were in May of 1979 — and literary studies in general as I have not really thought about them since my undergraduate days long ago. I enjoyed it. I found the first essay by Simon Edwards particularly interesting in thinking through the dialectical relationship between literature and city building, he writes:
with the development of a specifically urban popular literature, arises the question of the literary work itself being seen as a distinctly metropolitan artifact and the writer as somehow deeply implicated in a complex process of making simultaneously a text, a city and an identity (1).
So simple, yet with so many ramifications. I also love that he is thinking of this globally as well, of London as the seat of empire, which articulates materially with the city and ideologically with literature:
It will be my contention that if English literature carries these ambiguous values within a consciously imperial history and culture then they may often be most fully examined in connection with the imperial capital, London. For if London, from the Elizabethan period onwards, is frequently seen wishfully as the capital of a new empire, it is also true that from roughly the end of the seventeenth century this vision is reinforced, to some extent realized, by the development of a literal global empire whose contribution to the growth of a world economy is central. London thus becomes a quite crucial topos in the whole history of Western civilization (2-3)
He is critical, to a certain extent, with a Marxist analysis that allows him to see capitalist relations, so this goes part of the way:
For this imperial city was, at one and the same time, a principal agent in the growth and spread of capitalism with (3) all its dehumanizing power and a repository or site for the formation of certain values thought of as classic and perhaps common to all phases of fully-developed civilization. This ambivalence is further complicated first from within, and later from outside, the dominant ideology of nationalism and emergent capitalism, by the growth of structured critiques, both reactionary and radical, of the system. … Thus there is a persistent conflict between London presented as the site of an extravagant display of conspicuous consumption, parasitic and productive largely of waste (as in the Augustan obsession with excrement), and London also acknowledged as a producer of real wealth through its vital contribution to national and international commerce as well as a producer of significant cultural and literary values (4).
There’s a whole lot further to go to fully critique imperialism, this concept of ‘civilisation’ and its imposition around the world, a questioning of this real wealth and literary values… What I like about it is that it begins to tie literature to the physical and ideological city, and situate these connections in a context of global exploitation.
the notion of a classical literary culture was both realized and threatened by the emergence of a modern Imperial city. Related to their sense of the crass materialism of London life, ls an anxiety about the status of imaginative literature, a principal source for the ratification of the Augustan metropolitan ideal. (21)
There is also a nice quote he gives from Defoe, describing that from a hill in Clapham, one might see,
… the whole city of London itself; the most
glorious Sight without exception, that the whole
World at present can show, or perhaps ever could
show since the Sacking of Rome in the European, and
the burning the Temple of Jerusalem…(16)
There’s a paper on Blake from David Punter, of course, who moved to the Hercules Buildings in Vauxhall in 1790. It has a great quote from Samuel Johnson’s ‘London’
Prepare for death, if here at night you roam,
And sign your will before you sup from home.
Some fiery fop, with new commission vain,
Who sleeps on brambles till he kills his man;
Some frolic drunkard, reeling from a feast,
Provokes a broil, and stabs you for a jest.
Yet e’en these heroes, mischievously gay,
Lords of the street, and terrors of the way;
Flush’d as they are with folly, youth, and wine,
Their prudent insults to the poor confine;
Afar they mark the flambeaux’s bright approach,
And shun the shining train, and golden coach.
It’s mostly looking at the poem ‘Jerusalem‘, and there’s this lovely quote about Lambeth:
HIGHGATE’S heights & Hampstead’s, to Poplar, Hackney & Bow;
To Islington & Paddington & the Brook of Albion’s River.
We builded Jerusalem as a City & a Temple; from Lambeth
We began our Foundations; lovely Lambeth, O lovely Hills
Of Camberwell, we shall behold you no more in glory & pride,
For Jerusalem lies in ruins & the Furnaces of Los are builded there:
You are now shrunk up to a narrow Rock in the midst of the Sea.
But here we build Babylon on Euphrates, compell’d to build
And to inhabit, our Little-ones to clothe in armour of the gold
Of Jerusalem’s Cherubims & to forge them swords of her Altars.
I see London blind & age bent begging thro’ the Streets
Of Babylon, led by a child, his tears run down his beard.
The voice of Wandering Reuben echoes from street to street
Punter writes: ‘Lambeth, of course, Blake takes here as elsewhere as the symbolic birthplace of God, merging the connotations of the Lamb and Bethlehem’ (67). I knew it.
There’s an interesting piece on the suburbs and suburbanisation of London by B.I. Coleman, looking at Ruskin, Dickens, Kinglsey’s Alton Locke, the satire of suburban life found in Punch, The Diary of a Nobody. They were also described as the perfect breeding grounds for healthy, strong, athletic men for Britain’s elite troops establishing Empire…this in Sidney Low’s article ‘The Rise of the Suburbs’ for example, in the Contemporary Review of 1891. He writes:
The centre of population is shifting from the heart to the limbs. The life-blood is pouring into the long arms of bricks and mortar and cheap stucco that are feeling their way out to the Surrey moors, and the Essex flats, and the Hertfordshire copses…
A finer people, physically, than the inhabitants of some of those middle-class suburbs of London, which are far enough afield to permit a plentiful cult of every branch of athletics it would be hard to find. The young men of Wimbledon and Putney – great at football, cricket, golf, and most other games in which strength and activity are required – could make up a regimen which would hold its own on a battlefield against a corps d’elite selected from any army in the World.
All provided by the free market. Hurrah. I hate this guy, but he definitely seems worth a closer look.
Gabriel Pearson looks at Dickens, and mentions the ‘topographical’ tradition of Dickens critiques, which has been popular since 1870 apparently, and bringing to us works like The London that Dickens Knew. The city is there in novels to be explored, and Pearson writes:
The novel round about 1800 began, as it were, to designate territories, whole areas, as its province, and I think the analogy which underlies it is the analogy of the disovery of the new world…And you moved across both in time and also in space because there was something you registered as alien or strange. It does seem to me that the whole history of the novel may be read as an attempt to occupy and domesticate alien or strange areas in this way. As an explanation we might speculate that (and this is a very crude generalization) around 1800 everybody began to feel they were outside somewhere else, that somewhere else there was a kind of reality in some way could, possibly by some tremendous imaginative endeavour, be captured, and taken home and civilised and possessed, though nobody could quite get there. Everybody was outside: it wasn’t necessarily their home, and they did not necessarily want to return to it, but they felt that somewhere there was some source or manifestation of human relaity to which they were perpetually outsiders. I do think that one of the characteristics of Dickens, along with other novelists of this time, is that he treated London in this kind of way (95).
He explores Dickens as outsider in his novels, but doesn’t really take the above idea further than that, though I feel this is a great start to something.
John Sutherland writes on publishing itself:
If we adopt the old classification of causes (i.e. material, efficient, formal) then London can be taken as in some sense the material cause of a bulk of our significant Victorian fiction. That is to say, it stands in the same relationship to literary activity as soil and climate do to plant growth (124).
There are a couple more, it’s a good collection, though possibly outdated and some of these ideas have been taken much further since, I don’t know!
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I enjoyed these greatly, these ridiculously detailed descriptions of life and London in a period we now suffer immense nostalgia for — they form a humorous and rather critical counterpoint to the twee recreations of Victorian glory. In terms of the uselessness of politicians and the practices of parents and couples and aristocrats, indeed, surprisingly little has changed. I couldn’t help feel though, that society has improved for the better now that a woman’s options have expanded beyond marriage and class isn’t quite all it used to be, not that it has changed enough.
These were written in sections, and published in installments — I love this form, though it doesn’t quite have the same feeling here as it does in more pulp narratives like Dickens’ other works, or Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris for example. i also love the pen name of Boz, and this verse in Bentley’s Miscellany for March 1837:
“Who the dickens ‘Boz’ could be
Puzzled many a learned elf,
Till time unveiled the mystery,
And ‘Boz’ appeared as Dickens’s self.”
Dickens’ humour is directed here there and everywhere and sometimes I quite loved him — his descriptions of children and their doting mothers were timeless for example — but sometimes I couldn’t help but feel he was being a bit of a pompous and patronising ** . The risks of this kind of social commentary really. The tale of the four Miss Willises is quite my favourite and will never be forgotten, and this could easily have been a Monty Python sketch in the tradition of the twits:
MR. COPPERNOSE called the attention of the section to a proposition of great magnitude and interest, illustrated by a vast number of models, and stated with much clearness and perspicuity in a treatise entitled “Practical Suggestions on the necessity of providing some harmless and wholesome relaxation for the young noblemen of England.” His proposition was, that a space of ground of not less than ten miles in length and four in breadth should be purchased by a new company, to be incorporated by Act of Parliament, and inclosed by a brick wall of not less than twelve feet in height. He proposed that it should be laid out with highway roads, turnpikes, bridges, miniature villages, and every object that could conduce to the comfort and glory of Four-in-hand Clubs, so that they might be fairly presumed to require no drive beyond it. This delightful retreat would be fitted up with most commodious and extensive stables, for the convenience of such of the nobility and gentry as had a taste for ostlering, and with houses of entertainment furnished in the most expensive and handsome style. It would be further provided with whole streets of door-knockers and bell-handles of extra size, so constructed that they could be easily wrenched off at night, and regularly screwed on again, by attendants provided for the purpose, every day. There would also be gas lamps of real glass, which could be broken at a comparatively small expense per dozen, and a broad and handsome foot pavement for gentlemen to drive their cabriolets upon when they were humorously disposed—for the full enjoyment of which feat live pedestrians would be procured from the workhouse at a very small charge per head. The place being inclosed, and carefully screened from the intrusion of the public, there would be no objection to gentlemen laying aside any article of their costume that was considered to interfere with a pleasant frolic, or, indeed, to their walking about without any costume at all, if they liked that better. In short, every facility of enjoyment would be afforded that the most gentlemanly person could possibly desire. But as even these advantages would be incomplete unless there were some means provided of enabling the nobility and gentry to display their prowess when they sallied forth after dinner, and as some inconvenience might be experienced in the event of their being reduced to the necessity of pummelling each other, the inventor had turned his attention to the construction of an entirely new police force, composed exclusively of automaton figures, which, with the assistance of the ingenious Signor Gagliardi, of Windmill-street, in the Haymarket, he had succeeded in making with such nicety, that a policeman, cab-driver, or old woman, made upon the principle of the models exhibited, would walk about until knocked down like any real man; nay, more, if set upon and beaten by six or eight noblemen or gentlemen, after it was down, the figure would utter divers groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete, and the enjoyment perfect. But the invention did not stop even here; for station-houses would be built, containing good beds for noblemen and gentlemen during the night, and in the morning they would repair to a commodious police office, where a pantomimic investigation would take place before the automaton magistrates,—quite equal to life,—who would fine them in so many counters, with which they would be previously provided for the purpose. This office would be furnished with an inclined plane, for the convenience of any nobleman or gentleman who might wish to bring in his horse as a witness; and the prisoners would be at perfect liberty, as they were now, to interrupt the complainants as much as they pleased, and to make any remarks that they thought proper. The charge for these amusements would amount to very little more than they already cost, and the inventor submitted that the public would be much benefited and comforted by the proposed arrangement.
‘PROFESSOR NOGO wished to be informed what amount of automaton police force it was proposed to raise in the first instance.
‘MR. COPPERNOSE replied, that it was proposed to begin with seven divisions of police of a score each, lettered from A to G inclusive. It was proposed that not more than half this number should be placed on active duty, and that the remainder should be kept on shelves in the police office ready to be called out at a moment’s notice.
‘THE PRESIDENT, awarding the utmost merit to the ingenious gentleman who had originated the idea, doubted whether the automaton police would quite answer the purpose. He feared that noblemen and gentlemen would perhaps require the excitement of thrashing living subjects.
‘MR. COPPERNOSE submitted, that as the usual odds in such cases were ten noblemen or gentlemen to one policeman or cab-driver, it could make very little difference in point of excitement whether the policeman or cab-driver were a man or a block. The great advantage would be, that a policeman’s limbs might be all knocked off, and yet he would be in a condition to do duty next day. He might even give his evidence next morning with his head in his hand, and give it equally well.
And to bring it all home to Lambeth:
CHAPTER XIV—VAUXHALL-GARDENS BY DAY
There was a time when if a man ventured to wonder how Vauxhall-gardens would look by day, he was hailed with a shout of derision at the absurdity of the idea. Vauxhall by daylight! A porter-pot without porter, the House of Commons without the Speaker, a gas-lamp without the gas—pooh, nonsense, the thing was not to be thought of. It was rumoured, too, in those times, that Vauxhall-gardens by day, were the scene of secret and hidden experiments; that there, carvers were exercised in the mystic art of cutting a moderate-sized ham into slices thin enough to pave the whole of the grounds; that beneath the shade of the tall trees, studious men were constantly engaged in chemical experiments, with the view of discovering how much water a bowl of negus could possibly bear; and that in some retired nooks, appropriated to the study of ornithology, other sage and learned men were, by a process known only to themselves, incessantly employed in reducing fowls to a mere combination of skin and bone.
Vague rumours of this kind, together with many others of a similar nature, cast over Vauxhall-gardens an air of deep mystery; and as there is a great deal in the mysterious, there is no doubt that to a good many people, at all events, the pleasure they afforded was not a little enhanced by this very circumstance.
Of this class of people we confess to having made one. We loved to wander among these illuminated groves, thinking of the patient and laborious researches which had been carried on there during the day, and witnessing their results in the suppers which were served up beneath the light of lamps and to the sound of music at night. The temples and saloons and cosmoramas and fountains glittered and sparkled before our eyes; the beauty of the lady singers and the elegant deportment of the gentlemen, captivated our hearts; a few hundred thousand of additional lamps dazzled our senses; a bowl or two of punch bewildered our brains; and we were happy.
In an evil hour, the proprietors of Vauxhall-gardens took to opening them by day. We regretted this, as rudely and harshly disturbing that veil of mystery which had hung about the property for many years, and which none but the noonday sun, and the late Mr. Simpson, had ever penetrated. We shrunk from going; at this moment we scarcely know why. Perhaps a morbid consciousness of approaching disappointment—perhaps a fatal presentiment—perhaps the weather; whatever it was, we did not go until the second or third announcement of a race between two balloons tempted us, and we went.
We paid our shilling at the gate, and then we saw for the first time, that the entrance, if there had been any magic about it at all, was now decidedly disenchanted, being, in fact, nothing more nor less than a combination of very roughly-painted boards and sawdust. We glanced at the orchestra and supper-room as we hurried past—we just recognised them, and that was all. We bent our steps to the firework-ground; there, at least, we should not be disappointed. We reached it, and stood rooted to the spot with mortification and astonishment. That the Moorish tower—that wooden shed with a door in the centre, and daubs of crimson and yellow all round, like a gigantic watch-case! That the place where night after night we had beheld the undaunted Mr. Blackmore make his terrific ascent, surrounded by flames of fire, and peals of artillery, and where the white garments of Madame Somebody (we forget even her name now), who nobly devoted her life to the manufacture of fireworks, had so often been seen fluttering in the wind, as she called up a red, blue, or party-coloured light to illumine her temple! That the—but at this moment the bell rung; the people scampered away, pell-mell, to the spot from whence the sound proceeded; and we, from the mere force of habit, found ourself running among the first, as if for very life.
It was for the concert in the orchestra. A small party of dismal men in cocked hats were ‘executing’ the overture to Tancredi, and a numerous assemblage of ladies and gentlemen, with their families, had rushed from their half-emptied stout mugs in the supper boxes, and crowded to the spot. Intense was the low murmur of admiration when a particularly small gentleman, in a dress coat, led on a particularly tall lady in a blue sarcenet pelisse and bonnet of the same, ornamented with large white feathers, and forthwith commenced a plaintive duet.
We knew the small gentleman well; we had seen a lithographed semblance of him, on many a piece of music, with his mouth wide open as if in the act of singing; a wine-glass in his hand; and a table with two decanters and four pine-apples on it in the background. The tall lady, too, we had gazed on, lost in raptures of admiration, many and many a time—how different people do look by daylight, and without punch, to be sure! It was a beautiful duet: first the small gentleman asked a question, and then the tall lady answered it; then the small gentleman and the tall lady sang together most melodiously; then the small gentleman went through a little piece of vehemence by himself, and got very tenor indeed, in the excitement of his feelings, to which the tall lady responded in a similar manner; then the small gentleman had a shake or two, after which the tall lady had the same, and then they both merged imperceptibly into the original air: and the band wound themselves up to a pitch of fury, and the small gentleman handed the tall lady out, and the applause was rapturous.
The comic singer, however, was the especial favourite; we really thought that a gentleman, with his dinner in a pocket-handkerchief, who stood near us, would have fainted with excess of joy. A marvellously facetious gentleman that comic singer is; his distinguishing characteristics are, a wig approaching to the flaxen, and an aged countenance, and he bears the name of one of the English counties, if we recollect right. He sang a very good song about the seven ages, the first half-hour of which afforded the assembly the purest delight; of the rest we can make no report, as we did not stay to hear any more.
We walked about, and met with a disappointment at every turn; our favourite views were mere patches of paint; the fountain that had sparkled so showily by lamp-light, presented very much the appearance of a water-pipe that had burst; all the ornaments were dingy, and all the walks gloomy. There was a spectral attempt at rope-dancing in the little open theatre. The sun shone upon the spangled dresses of the performers, and their evolutions were about as inspiriting and appropriate as a country-dance in a family vault. So we retraced our steps to the firework-ground, and mingled with the little crowd of people who were contemplating Mr. Green.
Some half-dozen men were restraining the impetuosity of one of the balloons, which was completely filled, and had the car already attached; and as rumours had gone abroad that a Lord was ‘going up,’ the crowd were more than usually anxious and talkative. There was one little man in faded black, with a dirty face and a rusty black neckerchief with a red border, tied in a narrow wisp round his neck, who entered into conversation with everybody, and had something to say upon every remark that was made within his hearing. He was standing with his arms folded, staring up at the balloon, and every now and then vented his feelings of reverence for the aëronaut, by saying, as he looked round to catch somebody’s eye, ‘He’s a rum ’un is Green; think o’ this here being up’ards of his two hundredth ascent; ecod, the man as is ekal to Green never had the toothache yet, nor won’t have within this hundred year, and that’s all about it. When you meets with real talent, and native, too, encourage it, that’s what I say;’ and when he had delivered himself to this effect, he would fold his arms with more determination than ever, and stare at the balloon with a sort of admiring defiance of any other man alive, beyond himself and Green, that impressed the crowd with the opinion that he was an oracle.
‘Ah, you’re very right, sir,’ said another gentleman, with his wife, and children, and mother, and wife’s sister, and a host of female friends, in all the gentility of white pocket-handkerchiefs, frills, and spencers, ‘Mr. Green is a steady hand, sir, and there’s no fear about him.’
‘Fear!’ said the little man: ‘isn’t it a lovely thing to see him and his wife a going up in one balloon, and his own son and his wife a jostling up against them in another, and all of them going twenty or thirty mile in three hours or so, and then coming back in pochayses? I don’t know where this here science is to stop, mind you; that’s what bothers me.’
Here there was a considerable talking among the females in the spencers.
‘What’s the ladies a laughing at, sir?’ inquired the little man, condescendingly.
‘It’s only my sister Mary,’ said one of the girls, ‘as says she hopes his lordship won’t be frightened when he’s in the car, and want to come out again.’
‘Make yourself easy about that there, my dear,’ replied the little man. ‘If he was so much as to move a inch without leave, Green would jist fetch him a crack over the head with the telescope, as would send him into the bottom of the basket in no time, and stun him till they come down again.’
‘Would he, though?’ inquired the other man.
‘Yes, would he,’ replied the little one, ‘and think nothing of it, neither, if he was the king himself. Green’s presence of mind is wonderful.’
Just at this moment all eyes were directed to the preparations which were being made for starting. The car was attached to the second balloon, the two were brought pretty close together, and a military band commenced playing, with a zeal and fervour which would render the most timid man in existence but too happy to accept any means of quitting that particular spot of earth on which they were stationed. Then Mr. Green, sen., and his noble companion entered one car, and Mr. Green, jun., and his companion the other; and then the balloons went up, and the aërial travellers stood up, and the crowd outside roared with delight, and the two gentlemen who had never ascended before, tried to wave their flags, as if they were not nervous, but held on very fast all the while; and the balloons were wafted gently away, our little friend solemnly protesting, long after they were reduced to mere specks in the air, that he could still distinguish the white hat of Mr. Green. The gardens disgorged their multitudes, boys ran up and down screaming ‘bal-loon;’ and in all the crowded thoroughfares people rushed out of their shops into the middle of the road, and having stared up in the air at two little black objects till they almost dislocated their necks, walked slowly in again, perfectly satisfied.
The next day there was a grand account of the ascent in the morning papers, and the public were informed how it was the finest day but four in Mr. Green’s remembrance; how they retained sight of the earth till they lost it behind the clouds; and how the reflection of the balloon on the undulating masses of vapour was gorgeously picturesque; together with a little science about the refraction of the sun’s rays, and some mysterious hints respecting atmospheric heat and eddying currents of air.
There was also an interesting account how a man in a boat was distinctly heard by Mr. Green, jun., to exclaim, ‘My eye!’ which Mr. Green, jun., attributed to his voice rising to the balloon, and the sound being thrown back from its surface into the car; and the whole concluded with a slight allusion to another ascent next Wednesday, all of which was very instructive and very amusing, as our readers will see if they look to the papers. If we have forgotten to mention the date, they have only to wait till next summer, and take the account of the first ascent, and it will answer the purpose equally well.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.