Thomas Crane & Ellen Houghton, London Town, 1883
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I AM an old-fashioned man, born before the invention of nerves, influenza,
railways, "fast" modes of doing everything, and Chartists. Sometimes I
am sorry that the range of my life was fated to extend to the present time. I am
amused at a great deal I see, but I am more frequently saddened. All the things
I took real delight in - bright summer-day journeys on pleasant coaches,
excellent representations of the reviled legitimate drama, fresh walks out of
town, when an hour took you from Bloomsbury to fields, hedge-rows, and green
lanes-these, and many more, that I could fill the space allowed me by
enumerating, are no more.
There was not the struggle amongst the theatres that characterizes the present dramatic age, when I used to attend them regularly. Three or four were open, and were sufficient for us. We read their modest little single bills and went; and the report of a successful piece was passed about by word, from one to the other. We did not believe that a new play had been a "hit" one whit the readier for seeing it so stated in the bills, or blazoned forth upon the walls in rainbow placards, hiding one another in their fight for publicity. No; I took it all calmly, and my friends did the same. If the play was of good report we went and spread its [-78-] fame; if it was not, we stopped away, and then the manager withdrew it. The managers of those days were honest men, with a position in society and a name to guard; but we should not have believed them upon their own word about the success of one of their productions. We might as soon have put faith in the assertions of the Jew merchants, who then sold pencils, sponge, and oranges, at the White-horse Cellar, that their wares were the best to be had for money.
Pleasant enough it then was to go to the theatres, but with some there were attractions in addition to the performances. When I first recollect the present Surrey it was literally in St. George's fields. You might have plucked a nosegay - we had no bouquets then - of shepherd's heart-purses, or cowslips even, at the right time, within a stone's throw of the theatre, and taken it in with you. Now all this is altered, the only green patch is in front of the riding-school, and, except here, you will not see a blade of grass, not counting the dusty tufts of the larks in the cages hung out from the second-floor windows.
Sadler's Wells, too, was quite a provincial theatre. You got such a view from the heights of Islington over London that the afternoon walk was equal in itself to the performance. Few can understand now how this could have been, as they look down upon the hazy glare that seems to choke and burn up the outskirts of Clerkenwell at their feet. Yet so it was; and I used to arrive at the Wells always an hour before the time of commencement, for the express purpose of sitting in one of the arbours of the adjoining tea-gardens, in which were lilacs in the spring-time, and honeysuckles, and, afterwards, such fine hops and scarlet-runners that I have [-79-] never seen equalled; watching the boys fishing in the New River, under the shade of the fine trees; and drinking my pint of wine, sent over from the theatre. I tried to find out where this garden had stood the last time I was at Sadler's Wells, about a year ago, but there was not a trace of it left. Some ungainly houses occupied its site, and these were encompassed by more houses, and so on to spots that in my time must have been perfect wilds.
The accompanying sketch of the Orange-girl called up these recollections. Living quietly as I do, I almost thought that she also had departed, followed in the wake of the "barrow-woman," whom I can just remember - only perpetuated by a rude copy of the sheet of wood-cuts representing the "cries of London," in the British Museum, which I have stuck in a scrapbook - not an album, but an honest, old-fashioned scrap-book, swollen to bursting with its contents, and crammed with all the most popular jests of the last century, cut out of some hundreds of comical corners. If I chose to make that old scrap-book public, what a fearful check it would be against the would-be original wits of the present day; why, it contains everything they say and get circulated, with the advantage of being much better put. We old-fashioned people were not so "slow" after all.
Your M. Gavarni may consider himself fortunate in having found an Orange-girl. There are very few now. Apart from the old Irishman at the stalls, the trade in oranges is chiefly carried on by children and old women. When I regularly frequented the theatres, thirty years ago and more, they were features in the entertainment: fine buxom young women, with a sharp [-80-] answer always ready for those who tried to banter them. They were of quite a different stamp to the theatre-moulded women in the rusty-black dresses, who push by your legs across the present pits, with their cottony fruit and warm ginger-beer. They appeared to consider themselves descendants of Nell Gwynne, and, as such, bound to keep up their characters for smart repartee; but beyond this they were quiet enough.
They cried their wares in a tone by no means disagreeably loud; and must, therefore, have considerably softened down since the days of "rare Ben Jonson," when the Orange-women were amongst the special annoyances whom Morose, in "The Silent Woman," wore a "huge turban of night-caps on his head, buckled over his ears," to protect him from. Some of them were very pretty, too, and assumed a coquettish air that would not have been amiss in their betters. They have now no parallels. The women in the cigar-shops are too conventional in their talk and jaded in their looks ; and the waitresses at the night oyster-rooms too emptily flippant. Perhaps the gingerbread girls at the fairs and races approach nearest to them in persuasive manner.
This has been a great season for oranges. I can look back for many years and never recollect them so cheap, for, a month or two ago, they were crying them under my window at four a-penny. And what a glorious fruit is the orange - how precious should we think it if its price was above coppers! Its fragrance spreads agreeably over the costly dessert of the West-end dinner. There is nothing that can compare with it for the bed-table of the invalid. Small Tom Simmons, [-81-] in the sixpenny gallery, would not give a pin for the performance unless he had an orange to suck the whiles; and the "shuck" afterwards left to fling at the leader's head if he delayed the overture longer than the gods thought becoming.
It is said that Sir Walter Raleigh was the first to introduce oranges into England. Oranges and tobacco! great boons certainly - for I love my pipe - which in themselves ought to have insured a man from decapitation. I don't know whether this was the case or no, but, whoever it was, he deserves a testimonial; and I say this as one who lived before testimonials were invented, at least after the fashion of the present day.
I used to think that the Orange-women in the streets dealt for their golden fruit with the warehousemen of the river districts. My father had a situation in the Customs, and we lived in a street off Tower Hill. There were not such long rows of suburban villas in those days; the City folks abided in the City, and thought it quite good and healthy enough for them. They frequently died in the same house they had been born in. Their promenade was the Pavement or Finsbury Square; and they sought solitude, where only the splash of the fountain in Draper's Hill broke it. My earliest recollections of wandering loose about London pertain to when I was permitted to go alone, and wait for my father at the Custom House - to walk back with him, having bought a large crab or some dried fish in Billingsgate; and then I always started from my house half-an-hour in advance, to linger for that time in Botolph Lane, amongst the warehouses. They were to me the greatest wonder of London. I could scarcely understand the wealth of fruit that these [-82-] dingy rooms gave glimpses of, as overwhelming to my young eyes as Ali Baba must have found the treasures of the forty thieves. It appeared impossible that such a quantity could ever be eaten.
When the quarter-chest of Seville oranges used to come home for wine-making, I marvelled at the number, in their thin French coffin-looking boxes, and each one wrapped in its own paper envelope; but here there was no end to the ripe and juicy spheres. There were other grand attractions, too, in Botolph Lane - nut-hunting in the gutters. From some mysterious source or other, water was always rushing down the kennel of the steep thoroughfare; and on its surface; hundreds of nuts made troubled journeys until they were swept down the grating of the sewer, to come up again in the river, where we see them now, in company with the old corks and morsels of Essex-marsh rushes. It was my great amusement to catch these nuts. They never paid for the time, for they were invariably faulty; but they had a fine healthy, promising look, that every day lured me on again to chase them, as the lotteries each succeeding year. bit those again who had invariably lost. Besides this, the men who worked the cranes, and loaded the waggons at the warehouses, began to know me. A small intimacy was established, and they would give me oranges that had spoiled, from being over-ripe, in coming over; and when the flaw of the condemned fruit had been taken away, how delicious was the rest! I used to be very proud, when returning with my father, to nod grandly, but very politely at the same time, to these men, as I clutched his hand, and showed him that I had acquaintances in they City whom even he didn't know.
[-83-] But I am losing myself in these recollections. I was about to have said that these street-vendors buy their goods not of these warehousemen, but in Covent Garden Market. The Orange-girl is gradually departing; and in a few years our illustration will be that of the same species with Hogarth's and Tempest's.
AN OLD PLAYGOER.
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