Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Sport - 'Some London Contests'

[-Vol. 3-]




THE spirit of emulation which distinguishes Londoners is keen, whether in their work or their play, their business or their sport. But so far as this article is concerned we shall see London engaged only in such struggles for victory as come legitimately under the meaning of the word contests. The political contests of London are at their height at a time of General Election. Then the walls and windows, the hoardings and the streets arc ablaze with the addresses of the rival candidates, with posters of patriotic appeal, with party sneers, with political cartoons, and sometimes with doggerel verse. In almost every street one comes upon a building pasted from top to bottom with electioneering printing and announced in bold letters as "Mr. So-and-So's Committee Room." The town during the weeks of a General Election gives itself up to political strife. Addresses are delivered nightly in halls and assembly-rooms. Sometimes, especially on the Surrey side, a theatre is taken, and the dramatic performance is cancelled in order that one of the leading politicians of the day may address the electors.
    The results of the contests that are taking place all over the kingdom are announced by various devices. The position of parties is marked in the windows of illustrated journals by the varying position of the Government and the Opposition Leader on ladders placed side by side. At the theatres and music- halls the results as they come in are given from the stage. Huge crowds gather nightly in front of the newspaper offices and certain political clubs to see the returns that arrive after midnight flung on a large sheet, to be greeted with mingled cheers and groans by the partisans of the winning and the losing side.
    During election times private carriages appear in the London streets curiously decorated. Tied on to them behind, at the sides, and sometimes in front, are placards urging all whom it may concern to vote for Jones or Smith, as the case may be. These carriages, which range from the gig to the four-in-hand, drive about to pick up voters at their houses and convey them to the polling stations.
    Political organisations play a large part in these contests. The Primrose League with its habitations, its knights, and its dames, is one of the most famous and influential. The Liberal party has an organisation in which, if it does not attain so much publicity as its great rival, vet accomplishes an equal amount of hard work. Conservative, Liberal, and Radical associations have their headquarters in London, and they have branches all over the Metropolis. From these is issued the literature, plain and pictorial, which is so much in evidence at periods of political contest.
    The election fever is at its highest during the General Election, when the swinging of the pendulum is in doubt. It is at medium temperature during the School Board and London County Council elections, and at its lowest during the election of Borough Councillors and Guardians.
    After politics, the contests in which Londoners are most interested are those in which some popular form of sport is concerned. During the winter the great football contests literally hold the field; in summer the flannelled hero of the wicket takes the place of the muddied hero of the goal posts. Both football and cricket have their due share of attention elsewhere in "Living London."
    Horse-racing is not now carried on inside London - the Alexandra Park meeting being the nearest to the Metropolis, but equine contests appeal to a large public, and the cry of "All the Winners" is familiar in our ears as household words. There are still a few trotting meetings held  within [-261-]

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[-262-] the radius we have assigned to the London of which we treat, but the interest in trotting contests is confined to a small class which is not a very representative one. Many efforts have been made to lift the sport into a more aristocratic atmosphere, but none have been very successful. Athletic contests arc dealt with in Athletic London, and boxing contests have also received attention.
contest2.gif (54696 bytes)     Ping-pong has risen so rapidly in favour that its contests, or tournaments, are now held not only in places of ordinary resort, but at that noble abode of "the Heavenly Maid," the Queen's Hall. It is even possible to find contests in progress in the business-like City after four o'clock.
    Billiard contests take place continually, east and west and north and south. In certain halls you may see a fashionable and attentive crowd sitting in spellbound silence while the great professionals of the cue make marvellous breaks in matches of ten thousand up. Applause is frequently given at the proper time, but the general atmosphere of a billiard room during an interesting match is that of a scientific lecture with "smoking allowed."
    For the humbler folk of the south and the East-End, where billiard saloons are not so plentiful as at the north and west, the bagatelle board has a special fascination, and matches are constantly played which excite considerable local interest.
    Pigeon-shooting matches at the gun clubs in different parts of London were at one time fertile sources of protest from the humane, who objected to the element of cruelty in the sport. The clay pigeon has done much to remove the prejudice against this form of contest. A match at one of the leading gun clubs draws a fashionable audience not only of sportsmen but of sports-women. At Ranelagh and Hurlingham the fairest in the land assist at the contests arranged during the season , and fashionable London flocks in such numbers to polo matches that the resources of the tea tents are strained to their utmost. Here also take place many contests in which the fair themselves may engage - driving contests, bicycle contests gymkhanas, and the like.
    At the lawn tennis tournaments there is always a great crowd, for everybody plays lawn tennis today and talks of it learnedly. The game holds its own in spite of the immense attraction which golf has become to the man of middle age who finds himself past certain other forms of sport which delighted him in his lighter and nimbler youth. Golf clubs are now established all over the outer ring of the metropolis. Golf has more than one organ of its own, and the Londoner with his golfing impedimenta is a familiar spectacle on the railway platforms of the metropolis.
    During May the great military contests held at the Agricultural Hall draw two huge audiences afternoon and evening. The earlier bouts of the fencing contests - "Sword  v. Bayonet," etc. - are brought off in the morning before the audience assemble, so that only the finals may be left to delay the showier parts of the great Military Tournament. But the tug-of-war, physical drill, artillery trotting and galloping, riding and leaping contests are all fought out before the huge assemblage, and, in spite of the vast expense [-263-] of the show, many thousands of pounds are annually earned for the military charities by the brilliant performances of Messrs. Tommy Atkins and Jack Tar.
    Wrestling contests, which at one time were a great feature of Good Friday and drew the great men of the Dales to London, are now principally confined to the Palaces of Variety, where much-advertised champions meet on the stage and wrestle in various styles - the Graeco-Roman, catch-as-catch-can, etc. - as part of the performance. Walking contests have lost something of the glory that was theirs in the days of the Six Day Trials of Endurance at the Agricultural Hall, though now and again famous pedestrians match themselves against each other in the sporting papers, but bicycle racing has ousted the old heel and toe champion from his vantage ground.
    Gymnastic contests are mainly confined to institutes and schools, but the members of the German Gymnastic Society give every year a great show at their hall in St. Pancras Road, and the contests are largely followed by a crowd of members and their friends and the public fortunate enough to obtain admission. It is at the German Gymnasium that a big boxing competition takes place annually, just before Christmas, under the rules of the Amateur Boxing Association. This association has its own annual competition, which generally takes place at St. James's Hall. Ihe audience on these occasions form a strange contrast to the regular habitu?s. The great international boxing competitions take place at the National Sporting Club, whose premises are in King Street, Covent Garden. Boxing contests also form an important item on the programme of the famous "Wonderland,'' in Whitechapel, illustrated on page 261.
    Swimming contests, both for ladies and gentlemen, are constantly held in London swimming baths. Some of those for ladies are almost society functions. The most peculiar of the swimming contests is the Christmas Morning Handicap, which takes place at an early hour in the icy cold waters of the Serpentine.
    There is one interesting contest which takes place at the Crystal Palace and brings thousands of burly bandsmen from all parts of the provinces. The brass band contest is a spectacle to see, a performance to listen to with admiration mixed with awe. Some forty bands perform the same selection one after the other. Late in the evening the massed bands meet and perform together [-264-] with stupendous effect. Then the prize winners are announced, and the bandsmen hasten back to London to catch the special trains which are to bear them and their instruments home. Many of the performers are miners or factory hands. They present a curious spectacle as, with their huge instruments under their arms, they crowd the big thoroughfare which leads to Euston, to St. Pancras, and King's Cross. This brass band contest is something to be heard and seen and never forgotten.
contest3.gif (89554 bytes)   Trade contests are not numerous, but the hair-dressing fraternity make their competitions not only interesting to the general public but highly artistic. Shaving contests have a flavour of the variety show about them, and are not common, but hair-dressing contests are held in West-End halls, and are most fashionably attended.
    The contest for the Gold Medal of Hairdressing takes place at St. James's Hall. The contest for the higher grades of Figaroism are brought off at the Swallow Hotel, Regent Street. The Soci?t? du Progr?s dc la Coiffure is the French School in London ; there is a German School, and there are English Schools. For the grand contests living models are selected, who are paid five shillings per night.  They are invariably the possessors of nice, soft hair that is easily waved. The competitors and the models are arranged in a row. The competitors dress the hair in various styles. The best style produced most artistically is awarded the prize. Nine professors make a jury for the higher grade competitions. For the Gold Medal contests the jury consists of eleven professors - one for each school. The grand exhibitions are announced as those of the Amalgamated Hairdressers' Schools of London.
    Typists and shorthand writers have annual contests for gold medals, and occasionally there are window-dressing contests among the West End shop assistants, but these do not appeal to the general public.
contest4.gif (37072 bytes)    There is, however, a public for the contests which take place here and there, generally in a minor music-hall or in a small concert-room, for clog dancing and singing by amateurs of the humbler sort. Prizes are frequently offered by an enterprising showman for young ladies of the coster calling, who dance and sing with tremendous vigour before a critical audience. Many members of the audience know the performer by her Christian name and encourage her with the frank familiarity of old acquaintance. Our illustration on the opposite page represents a singing contest at the Sadler's Wells Theatre.
    At most of the institutions and local halls there are competitions for recitation and public speaking. A public speaking contest is sometimes an "impromptu speaking contest". A certain number of subjects are written down on separate pieces of paper and placed in a hat. The competitor steps upon a platform and draws a paper. Whatever the subject may be that he has drawn he is expected to dilate upon it for ten minutes. It sometimes happens that the competitor is so unfamiliar with the subject Fate has allotted to him that he stands for a moment paralysed, gasps, and beats a hasty retreat. In one or two "discussion halls" which still remain in London subjects are introduced [-265-] for debate open to anyone who may be present to take part in. Occasionally a young barrister or a Fleet Street journalist will air his eloquence, but the glory of the discussion hall has departed.
    Bicycle and motor contests, and within certain limits rowing contests, are dealt with elsewhere, but a word must be given to the angling contests in which London fishermen delight, although the scene of their achievements is generally some distance from the metropolitan area. But if they catch their fish out of London they bring them carefully back to it. In many a homely tavern where anglers meet and have their special parlour you will find stuffed specimens of the prowess of a local professor of the gentle art, and you may hear some marvellous fishing stories. There is an anglers' club in the neighbourhood of the Adelphi, and the principal room is crowded with glass cases of fish caught by the members, some of them being the catch that caught the prize. It is dangerous for the non-angler who is permitted to visit this club to indulge in criticism.
    There are other minor phases of "London Contests"- quoits, bowls, basket carrying, bird singing, public-house dog showing; curious contests into the niceties of which only the born East-Ender could enter; contests in connection with porters work at Covent Garden, Billingsgate, etc. contests in which the humble donkey of the hawker plays an important part; contests specially arranged for the Fire Brigade at their sports; butchers' contests, and odd contests which occasionally take place in the bar of a public-house and sometimes end in a coroners inquest on the winner.
    But the contests which I have briefly dwelt upon are those which attract the greatest attention either among the masses on the classes, and they afford a fairly comprehensive view of a phase of "Living London" which is a welcome relief to the monotony of daily toil to many hundreds of thousands of its citizens.

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George R. Sims (ed.), Living London, 1902