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


    WHILE occasionally threading our way through the great routes of traffic intersecting London in all directions, and contemplating the miles of shops which form the most attractive feature that commerce condescends to exhibit to the world, we have often compared them, in imagination, to the human face divine. Such a comparison may be a fanciful conceit on our part, which, it may be, will hardly hold good in all respects; yet are there some points of resemblance worthy, perhaps, of a passing notice, and suggestive too of reflections not absolutely devoid of a moral significance. Look, for instance, at yonder jeweller's shop, with its window of one clear and solid crystal, behind which, all arranged with exquisite taste, the gold, the silver, and the precious gems, of which a curious art has more than doubled the value, are glittering with a splendour that dazzles the eye, and accumulated with a profusion that defies calculation. What a favoured shop it is! how it might roll in riches, if it were given to rolling! what a smiling face it bares to the public view! and how it laughs at everything, and how it ignores in toto the rise and fall in the price of the four-pound loaf! Then, look again at that remarkable contrast over the way, which sells - no, which wants to sell-a few wretched daubs of worthless pictures that nobody is simple enough to buy; see what a dirty face it has, and how the grimy tears trickle down its unwashed cheeks of bulging crown-glass; with what a moody, desperate, half-suicidal look it confronts the passers-by, who will not stop to make its acquaintance; and note how it despairs of ever making its way in the world, and is fast dying out drearily and dirtily, and vanishing into oblivion. Again, a little farther on - see what an impudent shop is here! Look at his brazen assumption; he actually walks out of his way, and pushes you out of yours; he has thrust himself out of doors, and lays half his length along upon the pavement. "Look at me," he says, "here I am; I'm somebody, let me tell you. What do I sell? what don't I sell? Tell me that. Whatever you want I've got, you may depend upon it; and if you pass on without buying, why it's so much the worse for you." This fellow deals in everything, because he wants to deal with everybody-and he does it too, and grows corpulent in quick time. Here again is another little shop, altogether as modest as his neighbour is impudent; he is too bashful to push himself forward, but retires a little back from the crush of thronging pedestrians; he is humble-minded, but yet bright and cheerful, with the consciousness of modest merit; he makes no great pretensions, but says to the discerning customer, "I have that within which passeth show ;" and so he has - choice works of art, valuable old tomes, medieval manuscripts, coins dug up from buried empires, and many other things rare and worth seeking after by those who want them and know their value. A few paces further on, and here is another specimen of shop nature, with a face like that of a gamester's bully, in which lying and robbery are to be read in every feature; he is all pretence and wire-blind, and has nothing to sell, except perhaps a few cabbage-leaf cigars, and a dozen or two of imitative meerschaums, which are nothing but mere shams of pipe-clay. He opens his mouth as wide as a barn-door, and talks of horses! horses! horses! he is up to all the mysteries of the turf, knows the real "tip," and invites you to come in and win; but don't go; if you do, you will find him as dirty and empty within as he is pretentious without, and smelling of brandy and stale beer and tobacco. He is a betting-shop, thoroughly abandoned and unprincipled-the thief's lair, the robber's den, the bandit's cavern, of commercial London.
    Are there not, further, shops of every variety of disposition and shade of character? Don't we see shops of good principle, trying to do what they can for the benefit of mankind? and don't we see too, sometimes, low and insolent ones, that ought to be ashamed to show their faces? Are there not shops so warm and snug and well-lined that they don't care a pin for appearances or the opinion of the world, but button up their pockets and snap their fingers at everybody? Then is there not the harum-scarum shop, dashing like mad, now at one thing and now at another, and doing a world of mischief to its neighbours, while it ruins itself in the process? Moreover, have we not seen the repentant shop, which, after a youth of insane vagaries, settles down at last to respectability and an honest trade? And, lastly, have we not all seen, and don't we see every day, the hypocritical shop, with its front of shining brass and plate glass, and its counterfeit goods and fraudulent announcements? and doesn't it smash, and go to ruin before our eyes, every day, only to begin again to-morrow? There is no denying all this, and no escaping, either, the conviction that shops have a way of their own, and that it is sometimes very difficult to break them in, and make them take to the right way-the way to competence through the route of honesty. And this brings us to the subject of the present paper - the Obstinate Shop, whose history we shall very summarily record.
    We may almost be said to have known the Obstinate Shop before it was born, seeing that some eleven years ago it was a small patch of ground about twelve feet square, backed by a dead wall, and inhabited by a very quarrelsome cock, generally in a state of mud and excitement, and three or four roopy hens, fenced in by a dilapidated railing. One day this happy family were suddenly summoned to the silent land, and before their bones were picked bare, a gathering of bricks and mortar and deal boards assembled on the spot, and in a few weeks the Obstinate Shop rose into being. Like the "fine little boy" of the nursery myth,

    "It came into the world with two eyes in its head, 
    The one was green and the other was red ;"

    In other words, it was born "a doctor's shop," as the neighbours called it, with two monstrous carboys of crimson and emerald hues, which had a prodigious effect at night time, as they glared across the road and routed the horses from the cabstand, which heretofore had held undisputed possession of the ground. It began its career as "MEDICAL HALL," which words in golden letters were blazoned upon its forehead, and its first attempts at speech were such unintelligible jargon as defied comprehension. "Ext. sen. pulv. jal. tinct. rhub.," it said; and then, "tart. em. pulv. ipecac.," and more of the sort; and then it would ring the changes with "glaub. sal. g. ammon. sapon. cast.," etc. etc. Whether it was that this kind of rhetoric was lost upon the neighbourhood, or whether they were well enough supplied with that sort of goods already, we cannot undertake to say; but after staring for three whole months through his green and red orbs, the shop was tired out, dismounted the Medical Hall, sent off its goggle eyes to a less benighted neighbourhood, and shut himself up in dudgeon for a whole month.
    It recovered its temper at the end of that time, and showed quite a joyful face when a young new-married couple came and crammed it full of gay prints and silks, and shawls and dresses, and laces and gloves, and everything that ladies love so dearly to wear, and to tumble about on the counter. The new mistress was industrious enough, and might be seen, "a portrait of a lady at full length," any morning at seven o'clock, as she stood in the empty window, dressing it for the day, while her husband polished the glass, swept the floor, and arranged the goods inside. Too soon, however, the cheerful face became overshadowed with a cloud, and then it grew sallow and careful, and then it disappeared for some months, while the husband had all the work to do alone: his face, too, grew longer and longer, and from a hopeful man he grew a sorrowful one; and when the young wife appeared again, with an infant at her bosom, she was no longer a cheerful, but a worn and withered woman, and hopeless, but for the child which clung round her heart, and was never out of her arms. The poor man, it was plain, did not know how to act; his goods spoiled, or went behind the fashion for want of a sale; but still he held on-for two years he did so, and then came debt and difficulty, in the midst of which he disappeared. It scorned all the fault of the Obstinate Shop; it would not do business, in spite of all their hard work and harder thrift.

    "A cobbler he was, and he sat in a stall,

who had the shop next; it had been let to him at a low rent, in consequence of the failure of the former tenants, and he sat there hammering away upon his lapstone gaily enough; and he might have sat there to this day, had he been content to let it remain a cobbler's stall. But he must needs take it into his head to make it a dashing cheap shoe shop, with borrowed capital; and in less than twelve months he went the way of his predecessors. The shop was as obstinate with the cobbler as it was with the draper, and he was obliged to retire with his lapstone and last to his original cellar, where-for cobblers have a philosophy as tough as sole-leather, and proof against adversity - we are happy to state he still plies his useful calling.
    A tailor tried it next; but, as he rarely tried on a suit upon a customer's back, or succeeded in taking the measure of the neighbourhood, the good man, in the course of a very few months, justified the oracular decree of the united company of cabmen who watched his operations, and was, to use the precise terms of their prophecy, himself "sewed up," and compelled to depart. 
    By this time the shop had got a bad character, which there is no doubt that it richly deserved; the bill-stickers began to cast a longing eye upon its shutters, now grown dingy and blistered, as they went their rounds; one adventurous knight of the brush, unable to resist the opportunity, clapped a broadside in the centre; this served as a signal to the whole tribe, and in a few days the Obstinate Shop was swaddled in the large-type literature of trade. How long it remained thus papered up, while the idle vagabonds of the district played pitch-halfpenny beneath its shadow, we cannot exactly say; but we distinctly recollect the astonishing efforts of the waterman of the cab-stand, who for two whole days was digging, scraping, rubbing, and swilling his way through the solid hide of placards, to get at the shutters beneath. These were at length exhumed, taken down, and refreshed with a coat of paint; the dust, dirt, and old shreds of broadcloth, scraps of list, and other disjecta of the vanished tailor, were swept forth, and the place cleaned and put in trim. Then a broad- shouldered man, with clean white apron and sleeves to match, was seen going in and out in company with a number of barrels, boxes, and baskets, and canvass-covered packages of various sizes; up went a projecting sign-board, visible half a mile off, and inscribed on both sides with the words, "Dodds, Butterman ;" and next morning the shop opened once more, with the lower half of the window cut away, and exhibiting an interior crammed with pork, bacon, butter, cheese, hams, French eggs, etc. etc., all, as the modest Dodds declared, of very first-rate quality. In spite of a marked want of encouragement from the very first, Dodds waited for trade, with a conviction that it must come at last, when the merit of his articles had had time to make its way. Finding customers would not come to him, he went in search of them; hawked his country pork around among the neighbours, and when he could not get it off fresh, pickled it, to save its life, and got in more. He left no stone unturned to raise a connection; he canvassed personally, billed, puffed and circularized the whole parish, but all to no purpose; the Obstinate Shop would not give in; so Dodds gave out, and moved half a mile lower down the road, where he has thriven well since.
    "Buy a pair of fine soles this morning, sir - beautiful cod's head and shoulders - any fine salmon to-day, sir? such were the accents which suddenly assailed our ears as we were strolling past the Obstinate Shop, a few weeks only after the departure of Dodds. Finn the fishmonger had taken his place and succeeded to the butterman's board, merely depressing it to an inclined plane. It was evident very soon that Finn was a man either of extraordinary penetration or of very limited capital, for he had decamped within a fortnight, and abandoned the experiment, and we lost sight of him till about a twelvemonth ago, when we stumbled upon him at Billingsgate, with far more fish around him and flesh about him than formed either his personal or proprietary stock at the Obstinate Shop.
    After suffering once more a month's eclipse, down came the shutters again, under the auspices of an anonymous tradesman, who does not choose to parade his patronymic before the world. Now it is literature that makes an assault upon the neighbourhood. The windows are again restored and cleaned, and each pane serves for the frame of one or more pictures of events extraordinary or supernatural. Here Napoleon Bonaparte, on a white horse, is surmounting the Alps, which he cannot fail to clear in three paces; and a score of blue Frenchmen are lugging along a cannon, whose length is about the diameter of the base of Mont St. Gothard. Here a dreadful gunpowdery explosion has blown twenty valiant fellows into the air, and out of a windmill which is not big enough to contain the hats of half of them. Here is a whole gallery of works of art of the same kind, all illustrative of bloody deeds, ghastly narratives, and goblin fictions. Here the Times is lent to read, and may be had for half-price to-morrow; and infidel publications, and blasphemy and sedition, under a thin disguise, or in no disguise at all, arc dispensed at the smallest possible charge. But the Obstinate Shop won't stand even this; the man without a name gets a pressing invitation from a worthy magistrate, and does not come back to take down the shutters; and again the shop has its own way.
    "Sweets to the sweet" lollypops! A young widow, with a fat, kicking baby, and a shop-full of black jack, hard-bake, Bonaparte's ribs, stick-jaw, candied cobbler, and a whole catalogue of nice and delectable things, which are so excellent for children to let alone - such is the next exhibition displayed in the Obstinate Shop. How the widow could never make it answer - how the little dirty, filthy, ragged, and never-sufficiently-to-be-despised young heathens that had no money glued their grimy faces to the glass, and flattened their noses against the window all day long; and how the charming, lovely, respectable and amiable little Christian dears who had plenty of money to spare never came near it - how unprincipled young thieves crawled into her shop and helped themselves while her back was turned, and how Smashing Moll made a dead set at her, and, by purchasing pennyworths and getting good change for base coin, half ruined her - and how the poor widow was obliged to give it up for want of custom, and go out to service, putting her child to nurse-all these things the reader must imagine, as we have not time to dwell upon them.
    After the widow came a baker, who dug the ground in front, and built an oven-and went away. After the baker came a beer-seller, who filled the oven with barrels, and wasted fifty pounds of hard cash in trying to persuade the people that "this is the noted house for XXX" - and went away. After the beer-seller came an oyster-man, who stuck to his damp trade all day and half the night, and added ginger-beer to oysters, and pork-pies to ginger-beer, and speculated in periwinkles - and went away. After the oyster-man came a potato-dealer, who cried with a loud voice ever and anon, "Three poun' tuppens! three poun' tuppens !"- and went away. The Obstinate Shop would stand none of them; it had made up its mind to do no business, and no business has it ever done worth the mentioning. When we last saw it, it was shut up, and again a prey to the bill-stickers, stuck about with a hundred labels telling of its disgrace, and serving for no other purpose than as a warning to traders to beware of Obstinate Shops.

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