Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 15 - London Gents

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THE newspapers, a few years since, contained an instance of folly such as we seldom meet with, even in this foolish generation. Two young men - gents, we presume - one Sunday evening promenading Regent Street, the admixed of all beholders, met two young ladies of equally genteel manners, and equally fashionable exterior. It is said,
        "When Greek meet Greek, then comes the tug of war."
In this case, however, the adage was reversed. The encounter, so far from being hostile, was friendly in the extreme. Our gay Lotharios, neither bashful nor prudent, learned that their fascinating enchantresses were the daughters of a Count, whose large estates were situated neither in the moon, nor in the New Atlantic, nor in the "golden Ingies," nor in the lands remote, where a Gulliver travelled or a Sinbad sailed, but in France itself. That they had come to England, bringing with them simply their two hundred pounds a quarter, that they might, in calm retirement - without the [-159-] annoyances to which their rank, if known, would subject them-judge for themselves what manner of men we were. The tale was simple, strange, yet certainly true. Ladies of charming manners, and distinguished birth - young - lovely - each with two hundred pounds a quarter - cast upon this great Babylon, without a friend - no man with the heart of an Englishman could permit such illustrious strangers to wander unprotected in our streets. Accordingly an intimacy was commenced - letters written behind the counter, but dated from the Horse Guards, signed as if the composer were a peer of the realm, were sent in shoals to Foley-place. The result was, that after our Regent Street heroes were bled till no more money could be had, the secret was discovered, and they found themselves, not merely miserably bamboozled, but a laughing-stock besides.
    But this tale has a moral. Ellam - he of the ill-spelt letters and the Horse Guards-was a shopman somewhere in Piccadilly. No person of any education could have been taken in by so trumpery a tale. Did the young men in our shops have time for improvement, could they retire from business at a reasonable hour, could they be permitted to inform and strengthen the mind, such a remarkable instance of folly as that to which we have alluded could not possibly occur.
    The gent of the Regent Street style, of whom poor Wright used to sing to an Adelphi audience, was evidently a very badly-dressed and ill, bred-fellow in in spite of the fact that his vest was of the last cut, that [-160-] his tie was faultless, that his boots were ditto, and that none could more gracefully
    "puff a cigar."
The gents of to-day are the same. I was amused by hearing of a party of them, connected with one of the city houses, who went into the country one Easter Monday to enjoy themselves; they did enjoy themselves, as all young fellows should, thoroughly, but from their enjoyment they were recalled to a sense of dignity, by a characteristic remark of one of them, as he saw passers by, "Hush, hush!" he exclaimed, "They will think we are retail." A writer in the Builder remarking the degeneracy of regular cocknies attributes it to the want of good air, the expensive nature of a good education, the sedentary employment of many of them. And no doubt these reasons are the true ones, and of considerable force. Well might Coleridge anticipate for his son as prosperous career as compared with his own.
        "I was reared
        In the great city, pent 'mid cloister dim,
        And saw naught lovely but the sky and stars;
        But thou, my babe, shall wander in the breeze,
        By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
        Of ancient mountains; beneath the clouds
        Which image in their arch both lakes and shores,
        And mountain crags, so shall thou see and hear
        The lovely shapes and sounds unchangeable,
        Of that eternal language which thy God utters.
    This is true, and hence, let us judge leniently of the lad living within the sound of Bow Bells. Nature is [-161-] the best and truest teacher a man can have - and it is little of nature that the cockney sees, or hears, and feels. He goes to Richmond, but, instead of studying the finest panorama in the world, he stupifies himself with doubtful port; he visits the Crystal Palace, but it is for the sake of the lobster-salad; he runs down to Greenwich, not to revel in that park, beautiful still in spite of the attacks of London on its purity, but to eat white-bait; he takes, it may be, the rail or the steamboat to Gravesend, but merely that he may dance with milliners at Tivoli. The only idea of a garden to a London gent, is a place where there is dancing, and drinking, and smoking going on. And this is a type of his inbred depravity. He has no rational amusements. In the winter time shut up the casinos, and do away with the half-price at the theatres, and the poor fellow is hors de combat, and has nothing left him but suicide or delirium tremens. Literary and Scientific Institutions don't answer in London-even a place like the Whittington Club, where any respectable young man belonging to the middle classes may find a home, is by no means (so I have understood) a success.
    Tom Moore says there is not in the world so stupid or boorish a congregation as The audience of an English play-house. I fear there is some truth in this as regards London. The regular cockney is not a fine sample of the genus homo, in the first place he is very conceited, and when a man is that, it is little that will do him good; in the second place, he thinks only of business and pleasure, he lives well, dresses well, goes to church once [-162-] on the Sunday, and laughs at new-fangled opinions, and wonders why people grumble, and believes all he reads in the Times. If you want to start any successful agitation you must begin it in the provinces. The Anti-Corn Law League had its seat at Manchester, the Reform agitation had its head quarters at Birmingham. The wisest thing done by the United Kingdom-Alliance, was to plant themselves in Manchester rather than in London. Sydney Smith said it required a severe surgical operation to make a Scotchman understand a joke, it is almost as difficult to get a Londoner to understand anything new; he is slow to recognise worth or virtue, and if any of his own connection rise, he exclaims, with the writing-master, who would not believe Newton was a good mathematician, "the fool, he is an hour over a sum in the rule of three."
    The truth is we are a city of shopkeepers; and if intellectual pursuits be denied to those engaged in trade, the consequence must be the popular opinion must be that of those who know little else than the business of the shop, and as a consequence a curse will go forth to the remotest corner of the land. Bigotry, prejudice, falsehood, and passion will be rampant and rife, and truth and reason will be trampled under foot. Just as manhood is forming, just as the moral and intellectual parts of our nature are developing themselves, just as life becomes a reality, and glimpses of the work to be done,, and of the blessedness of doing it, catch and charm the youthful eye, the victim is compelled to stand [-163-] behind the counter, and is threatened with beggary if he fail practically to remember that the pursuit of money, to the utter exclusion of aught higher and nobler, is the end for which life is given man. No wonder such a system fearfully avenges itself - that the sensual is exalted - that we meet so little in accordance with principle and truth. Debarred from intellectual pursuits, what awaits our young men but frivolous excitement? Ignorant, with the feelings of our common nature unnaturally aroused-with minds enfeebled by lack of healthy exercise - our middle class - the class perhaps the most important in our land - stands by society in its conventionalism and falsehood and wrong; and we mourn and sigh over giant ills, that we cannot grapple with effectually because we go the wrong way to work.
    A great want of our age is education for the middle classes. We want to have them taught to believe in something else than the shop or the desk. We want them to believe the mind as fully entitled to their care as the body, and the money-bag but poor and impotent compared with the well-spent life. We would publish the all-important truth - a truth that shall live and fructify when the great city in which we write shall have become a desert-waste - the truth that man was made in the image of his maker, and that the heart that beats within is capable of divinity itself. We may have drawn in dark colours our national state. We fear the picture is but too true; and that till something be done to burst the bonds of habit, and educate the youth in our shops, [-164-] the picture will continue to he true. We write not to deprecate the land of our birth; it is one dear to us by every remembrance of the past and hope for the future. Because we thus cling to it do we deplore and expose what we deem to be wrong, and that our social condition may be healthy, that our civilization may be complete that our faith may be a living leavening power, do we ask the emancipation of the Sons and daughters of trade - that that long-looked-for hour may quickly come.

source: J. Ewing Ritchie, Aboutf London, 1860