Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853


    ON a late visit to Covent-garden Market, where I arrived at the dawn of day in the month of April, amid the confused hubbub and monotonous din of the busy population, my attention was arrested by the tall and weather-beaten figure of a hoary-headed man, who leaned patiently against one of the square pillars of the piazza. Though he was not exactly "the oldest man that ever wore grey hairs," he had plainly long outlived the threescore and ten years assigned by the Psalmist as the usual limits of mortal existence. Though but a few white locks clustered sparingly around his bald forehead, yet his frame was not bowed by a long life of labour, nor the fire of his eye grown dim: the brown hue of health yet mantled in his furrowed check, upon which dwelt the expression of patriarchal tranquillity and repose; and an air of semi-abstraction marked his aspect, as though his thoughts were not altogether centred upon the motley and ever-moving scene around him. He stood in simple and quiet dignity, presiding over a large basket of buttercups -early buttercups, which, yet moist with the sparkling dews of night, he had gathered in the fields or hedge-rows, and brought upon his back to the market for sale.
    "Strange merchandise!" thought I to myself. "Buttercups! who will be likely to buy buttercups, which anybody may go and gather for nothing in the fields? Surely the old man must be in his dotage!" And I passed on, not without a feeling of compassion for the simplicity of a man of his years, who could imagine that he would find a market for buttercups in the very centre of civilization and refinement. There was something, however, in the vivid flash of the old man's eye, as his glance met mine for a moment - and it may well be that there was something in the dewy golden bowls of the buttercups too - which impressed the spectacle he presented upon my memory after I had turned away, and brought him at intervals again and again before my mind's eye.
    As I strolled pleasantly among the floral beauties of the parterre and the hothouse - the graceful arums, the delicate and fragile monthly roses, the modest and luxuriant pansies, and the brilliant exotics, which even in early spring render Covent-garden the paradise of commerce, the images of the buttercups and their grey-haired guardian recurred many times, and ever with added force, to my imagination. By-and-by I began to doubt whether I had not done the old man an injustice in the estimate I had formed of him - whether, in fact, I was not myself the simpleton, and he the wiser man of the two. "Buttercups!" I again mentally ejaculated, "what are the associations connected with them, and what are the images they present to the Londoner pent up in the murky wilderness of brick? Is not the buttercup the first flower plucked by infant hands from the green bosom of bountiful mother earth? Are not the sweet memories of infancy and childhood, which are the purest poetry of man's troubled life, all floating magically in its little golden cup? Who does not remember-and who, remembering, would willingly forget?- his first ecstatic rambles in the yellow fields - yellow with buttercups, when he pulled the nodding flowers, and held the gleaming calyx beneath his little sister's chin, enraptured at the ruddy reflection from the flower; and then, with look demure and solemn, submitted his own face to the same mysterious experiment? Who does not remember the ravage he committed in the golden meadows, while he was yet a tottering plaything hardly higher than the tall grass in which he was half-buried, when, had he had but the power, he would have culled every flower of the field, and garnered them up for treasures? And how many thousands and tens of thousands are there among the weary workers of London, to whom these associations are dearer by far than any which could be called into existence by the most rare and gorgeous products of combined art and nature which wealth could procure?
    Simpleton that I was - I had set down a profound practical philosopher for a mere dotard. The old man knew the secrets of the human heart better than I did. He was well aware that to the industrious country-bred mechanic, caged, perhaps for life, in the stony prison of the metropolis, the simple flower which brought once more within his dark and smoky dwelling the scenes and memories of infancy, would present attractions to which a penny would be light indeed in the balance; and that he should therefore find patrons and purchasers, as long as he could meet with men who had hearts in their bosoms and a few penny-pieces in their pockets.
    These were my speculations; and having now completely altered my opinion of the buttercup-merchant, I resolved, before I left the market, to see the patriarch again, in order to ascertain, if possible, whether I had at length come to a right conclusion with regard to him. A couple of hours had elapsed ere I returned to the spot where I had first seen him. He had not deserted his post. The sun had risen high, and was shining warmly upon his brown face, now animated with a look of joyous satisfaction, which I attributed to the success of his morning's speculation. His basket - an old wine hamper cut down - was empty, and he held out the last bunch of buttercups in his hand, and proffered them to me, having sold, he said, "three score odd that morning."
    Whether I bought the last bunch of buttercups it imports the reader nothing to know. I must confess to an affection - whether it be disease or not, let the nosologists declare - which conjures up visions of hedge-rows sparkling with blossoms, and of embowering shadowy lanes, through gaps in which the green fields glimmer brightly. This affection, when an attack of it comes on, sometimes leads me to do odd things - things far more strange than lugging home a bunch of buttercups half as big as my head. Still I am not going to confess. I do declare, however, that I was not sorry to find that there were so many simpletons to be met with in London, before seven o'clock in the morning, as to buy up half a hundred weight of buttercups at a penny a bunch. Among so many sharp fellows who speculate upon the animal appetites, the vices, and the sordid propensities of mankind, it was refreshing to find one who, like the purveyor of buttercups, founded his claim to remuneration upon the indwelling poetry of human nature, and the love of natural beauties which survives in so many persons, debased and tainted and corrupt though they be by temptation and by sin.

Charles Manby Smith Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, 1853