Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Gardens and Spas - Highbury Barn

see also James Ewing Ritchie in The Night Side of London - click here

On one occasion, by invitation, I had gone to the Sunday evening of that useful branch of the Young Men's Christian Association, meeting in the Priory, Islington. About nine o'clock I left for home by Upper Street, entering Highbury Gate, passing through Highbury Vale, round by the New River, and on to the Railway Arch, Seven Sisters' Road.
    Upper Street, from the Priory to Highbury Gate, was thronged with all classes. The public houses, as elsewhere, were all open, and the gas lights were flaming as brilliantly as on other nights. Within these strong drink dens, glasses and pots were being filled and emptied, and precious hours wasted in uproarious discussions on trifling subjects. And near to the mouths of these places is much unpleasant noise. From the demeanour of the large number there, it is too evident that the sanctification of the Sabbath is not in their hearts. Many are almost "tight", as they would say. Disgusting and sad were the scenes.
    Passing on, I found to my surprise, the quiet of Highbury Place was being much disturbed, its semi-rural aspect greatly disfigured by a variety of groups of people more or less advanced in the various stages of intoxication. From the moving crowd arose roars and laughter, mingled with curses. A young woman, crinolined to the waist, is "the observed of all observers." From the crown to the heel she is "The Woman in White" - white bonnet, white fall, white dress, white cloak, and white boots. This whiteness was not an emblem of purity certainly; for that which proceeded out of her mouth told the nature of her character. She had been "indulging rather freely," and hence missed the mark of the so-called "moderation," and her manner, as well as her dress, had become such as to invite marked attention. She says she is bound for "the Barn" and that is enough to tell what she is. All this hubbub has been caused by an unknown young rogue purposely trampling upon her skirt of extra great dimensions. But she is off, and shouts of laughter follow her.
    On a little further is another crowd, in the centre of which are a husband, his wife, and their children. One child is in his arms, another is fastened into the tucked-up skirt of the mother's gown whilst two more children are at their feet, looking up and around most pitifully. Both parents are intoxicated. The father can scarcely speak, though he had stopped short to scold the mother, who is so far gone in drink that she seems to be utterly oblivious as to the kind of treatment she is receiving at his hand. Their mutual and silly recrimination is affording no small share of deplorable amusement to the by-standers, who continue to send forth shouts of laughter at every fresh sally.
    Not much further on is another crowd.  The special objects of attention are a mother and her two children, one an infant in her arms, the other is by her side, evidently an intelligent and a reflecting child. She, with her husband, had been drinking at the "Tea Gardens," doubtless something stronger than tea. One of those who go there to make a conquest had succeeded. With this one the poor woman's husband had absconded. "He has gone with that strumpet again," was the sorrowing mother's reply to the question put as to the cause of her excessive grief. Still crying with rage, and denouncing her husband in no measured terms, she, after a pause, added, "It's not the first time; but I'll find her out, and pull the heart out of her."
    And not far distant is a band of young men, varying from fifteen to thirty years of age. They are arm in arm, occupying the entire breadth of the road. Each one is more or less intoxicated, so much so, that it requires the combined efforts of the whole to keep some of them from measuring their length upon the ground. Their conversation is of the rudest kind, and spoken in the most boisterous manner. Utterly regardless of the effects of a gross outrage on the most common sense of propriety, not to mention the higher claims of the Lord's-day, they sing. "The Strand, the Strand," is the song in which they all join as they marched along.
    Shortly after this I found myself pressed much by the moving mass. Side by side with the jaunty young man and his reckless female companion, is the citizen of the better paid class, with his wife and child, and in many cases by his side are the boy and girl, not yet let loose from paternal restraint, but able to observe and to reflect. This strange conconrse of people and their surroundings give the scene the aspect of a rough fair, with all its noise and vice. The weighing machine is in full operation, at a penny a-head. The owner, anxious to gratify his female customers, while filling up the card, and giving it to the girl, takes care to assure her that she is precisely the weight of the Princess Royal previous to her marriage. This is done in such a manner as to give an opportunity for some lewd remark and a roar of laughter. There, too, were the vendors of moustaches and paste-board noses, of all shapes and colours, "for the small charge of one penny." The moustache and the nose serving as a kind of mask, to give a striking appearance on entering the pleasure grounds, and to disguise the wearers so as to allow more license in their speaking and acting while there. All this, and much more of the same kind, I saw that Sunday evening in the neighbourhood of licensed " Pleasure Grounds," where strong drink may be had. And notice these facts: 1. That this was not an extra occasion. 2. That each of these so-called "Pleasure Grounds," or "Tea Gardens," or "Dairy Farms," are representative places in their way, neither better nor worse than any of the rest of their kind. 3. That there are many such places and such scenes in this great and professedly Christian London. And, with these facts before your mind, ask yourself, When such are the scenes, such the life in London outside of these licensed places, what must that be within? (See Chapter IV.) But shocking as such scenes are, they only make various hideous items of a horrid whole, as is evident to all who leave these "retreats" and return to the main thoroughfares. There, on Sunday evening, we meet the crowds returning from the fields or the country, to the streets, in almost every one of which public houses of all kinds exist; where drinkers clamour for more of that liquid fire which burns up character, health, happiness, and life. So much so, that the scenes completely represent the picture painted by Him who knows the habits and the hearts of those who have "erred through wine, and through strong drink are out of the way;" of those who "are swallowed up of wine," and "are out of the way through strong drink."

James Inches Hillocks, 'My Life and Labours in London, a step nearer the mark', 1865