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


    If a history could be written of all the men who, by various means, have grown rich and retired upon a competence, we feel persuaded that by far the greater number of them would be found to be the men who have adopted the commendable maxim of giving "a good pennyworth for a penny." The bold adventurers, the successful speculators, the unscrupulous intriguers for sudden gain, constitute, even when taken all together, but a fraction of the immense section of society who, having the world under their feet, live in the enjoyment of respectability and ease. how numerous this class has grown of late years, the observant pedestrian who rambles occasionally through the suburbs and surroundings of the metropolis has a very sufficient idea. The thousands and tens of thousands of genteel residences which have risen and are daily rising in every direction, and which are fit for no other purpose than the occupancy of families well-to-do in the world, afford a sufficient attestation of the numbers of the class to which we allude: they have achieved independence by the industries of commerce; and they owe their success mainly, as their history would show, to the practical adoption of the maxim above quoted. The discovery has at length been made, though it dawned but slowly upon the commercial mind, that the surest, though it may not be the shortest, way to success is by responding to the demands of the million at a rate of remuneration which shall ensure the growth and continuance of that demand. In consequence of the general reception of this discovery as a truth, and in consequence too of the competition which it has done not a little to increase, every necessary of life, and not a few of its luxuries, are now to be procured at a price which leaves the barest fractional margin of profit to the purveyor and the distributor, and which becomes remunerative only through the increased demand to which cheapness invariably supplies a stimulus.
    But we are not going to write an essay on the peculiarities of present-day traffic, though something might be said on that subject worth the reading. We are going to take a ride in a penny omnibus. Here we are at Holborn-hill: the omnibus, a white one, has just turned round, and we are the first to jump in and ensconce ourselves in a further corner. Now we can ride to Tottenham Court-road for a penny, or to Edgware-road, if we choose, for two-pence. We are hardly seated, when an elderly dame literally bundles in, having a large brown-paper parcel, almost as big as a pannier, and a crushed and semi-collapsed bandbox, which she quietly arranges on the cushioned seat, as though she had engaged that whole side to herself. She is followed in an instant by an elderly and portly figure in patched boots, and well-worn dingy great coat, who takes the right-hand door corner, where he sits with clasped horny hands, nursing a corpulent umbrella, upon the handle of which he rests his unshaven chin, as with rueful face he peers over the low door. Bang! goes something on the roof; the explosion startles him from his contemplations, and causes him to poke out his head, which is instantly drawn in again, as the conductor opens the door, and keeps it open while a living tide rushes in-one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine! "No more room here, conductor: full here !" "Full inside! roars the conductor," in reply. But we don't move on yet; there is a vision of muddy high-lows, corduroy garments, and coat-tails, clambering up consecutively in the rear under the guidance of the conductor, and making a deafening uproar on the roof in the ceremony of arranging themselves upon what has been not inappropriately styled the "knife-board. "All right bursts involuntarily from the lips of the conductor, as the last pair of bluchers disappears above our heads. Now the "bus" gets under way, and we begin to look around us, and find that we form one of a very mixed company indeed. Opposite us sits the old lady with the bandbox and monster bundle. By her side is a very thin journeyman baker in his oven undress, and next to him a young man carrying a blue bag, and wearing a diamond ring on his little finger, a pair of false brilliants by way of shirt- studs, and a violet-coloured neck-tie. To his left is the wife of a mechanic, carrying a capless, bald-headed fat baby in her arms-baby sputtering, staring, and kicking in an ecstasy of delight, and stretching out its little puddings of fingers to reach the diamond-ringed hand that grasps the blue bag. Next to the mother of the baby is a blue-jacket, a regular tar, who, it would seem, has entered the omnibus for the sake of enjoying a "turn-in," and is endeavouring to compose himself to sleep. Next to him is our friend with his companion the stout umbrella, which he still hugs with undiminished affection. Of the party sitting on our side we cannot give so good an account, by reason of a very voluminous widow, weighing, at a rough guess, some twenty stone, who has almost eclipsed our view in that direction, and whose presence oppresses us with an idea of the cheapness of land-carriage in the present day - estimating it by weight. We stop for half a minute at the top of Chancery-lane, to put down the owner of the blue bag; somebody too drops from the roof, but another climbs up, and another rushes in as we are again getting under way, and, still full, we proceed onwards. We drop three more of our company at the corner of Red Lion-street, and among them, greatly to the relief of the horses and the writer, the ponderous widow. Now we find ourselves sitting next to a shoe-maker, who is taking home a pair of new boots of his own manufacture; we can tell that much by the channels cut by countless wax-ends through the hardened skin of his little fingers. Next to him are a couple of boys, who, we suspect, have no other business to follow just now than to enjoy a penny ride for the pleasure of walking back again. We are soon in New Oxford-street, and now the elderly and portly man whom we first noticed lifts his corpulent umbrella carefully out of the omnibus, and disappears in the shop of an advertising tailor, probably in search of a new great-coat, which indeed it is high time that he had provided. Nobody gets up in place of the last few departures-for a good and sufficient reason, namely; that we are approaching the end of the pennyworth, and that all who go beyond Tottenham Court-road must pay a double fare. Now the conductor pops his head in at the window, and, to save time, collects the pence of all the penny passengers, so that there will be nothing to do beyond letting them out when we stop. At Tottenham Court-road all the passengers alight but ourselves, even the old lady emerging from behind her bandboxes, and walking off towards St. Giles's. But new customers are waiting, and in less than two minutes we are crammed again with a new cargo as various as the preceding one, and on we roll towards the Edgware-road. We set out with twelve insiders, and we stop at the end of our route with but four, and yet the conductor has taken twenty-two fares, by an accurate calculation, without actually pulling up to a stand-still once on the way. The necessity of despatch is recognised by both parties to the contract, and passengers, paying their money before they alight, are seen to step out while the vehicle goes on at an easy pace, and others clamber in or on to the roof in the same way.
    We have got to the end of the journey, and nothing better offering on our return, we ascend to the roof, and ride back on the outside to our starting-point. There is a great deal of the world to be seen in the inside of an omnibus, as those who are accustomed to ride in them very well know, but there is still more to be seen on the outside. The "knife-board," that is, the longitudinal seat which stretches from end to end of the roof, is a very favourite position with a numerous class of the metropolitan world. It is sufficiently far above the noise of the wheels to allow of undisturbed conversation, and is a point of eminence from which everything going forward below and around can be plainly seen. We have ourselves made from this point some curious surveys of men and things which we could not possibly have made in a less elevated position, or which did not, like that, afford us an ever-moving panorama of social life and action. We were indebted to it, not long ago, for a series of gastronomical observations of the mode in which London tradesmen live - a view, by the way, which might have satisfied the most sceptical of the material prosperity enjoyed by that class in spite of occasional cries of "bad times." Our omnibus slowly proceeded down a narrow and obstructed street. It was a warm summer's evening, between the hours of nine and ten, and the shopmen of the district, from want of back parlours, were taking their supper in the front floor, with the windows of their apartments open. We say nothing of the garnished sirloins, parsley-decked hams, pickled salmon and lobster salads, with cold gooseberry pies in profusion, of which we had a vision sufficiently distinct, as we were carried along-having no intention of carping at the dietary of John Bull. Our sole comment shall be the remark of a rather hungry-looking genius in fustian who shared the knife-board with us, whose eyes twinkled, and whose mouth visibly watered at the sight, as he exclaimed spontaneously, "Crikey! don't they do it up tidy up here-jest!" - wiping his mouth.
    The boorish incivility and savage behaviour of omnibus drivers and conductors was, not many years ago, the theme of universal irritation and complaint, and very justly so. At the present moment, the reverse is the case, a civil and obliging demeanour being the general characteristic of the profession. The key to the transformation is, doubtless, to he found in the fact, that civility pays better than its opposite. There is still, however, room for improvement in some particulars, as the following little incident will show. Entering the other day an omnibus which, by the inscription on its side, professed to carry passengers to --- church, we found ourselves, while yet a quarter of a mile from the church, the solitary occupants of it. The omnibus stopped, and the conductor called upon us to alight, saying that they did not go any further.
    "Not go any further !" said we- "you don't pretend that I am to get out and walk a quarter of a mile in the rain?"
    "Don't go any further, sir."
    "Yes you do; you have the name of --- church painted on the side of your omnibus; you go there, certainly."
    "Don't go any further, sir."
    "Don't tell me that nonsense, you go where you profess to go, I suppose."
    "Don't go any further, sir."
    "But you must go further. I pay to be taken to --- church, and to the church I will be taken."
    "Don't go any further, sir."
    "Then I won't get out-you may drive me back to where you took me up, and I'll pay you nothing."
    Conductor (slamming the door with a bang that shakes the whole fabric, and bawling to the driver), "Go-on-to-th-church-gen'lman-won't-git-out!" and away we drive, slashing through the mud and mire, and rolling, pitching, and labouring like a vessel in a storm, until we reach the church. At last we alight, and ask the conductor why he wished to set down his passengers a quarter of a mile from their destination.
    "A quarter of mile! Tisn't six yards! you likes a good penn'orth anyhow; you do."
    If we confess to the soft impeachment, we shall add but one more to the numberless illustrations of the great leading principle which governs commercial transactions in the present day.