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


    It is with a feeling doubtless somewhat analogous to that of the angler, that the London shopkeeper from time to time regards the moneyless crowds who throng in gaping admiration around the tempting display he makes in his window. His admirers and the fish, however, are in different circumstances: the one won't bite if they have no mind; the others can't bite if they should have all the mind in the world. Yet the shopkeeper manages better than the angler; for while the fish are deaf to the charming of the latter, charm he never so wisely, the former is able, at a certain season of the year, to convert the moneyless gazers into ready-money customers. This he does by the force of logic. "You are thinking of Christmas," says he- "yes, you are; and you long to have a plum-pudding for that day- don't deny it. Well, but you can't have it, think as much as you will; it is impossible as you manage at present. But I'll tell you how to get the better of the impossibility. In twenty weeks we shall have Christmas here: now if, instead of spending every week all you earn, you will hand me over sixpence or a shilling out of your wages, I'll take care of it for you, since you can't take care of it for yourself; and you shall have the full value out of my shop any time in Christmas-week, and be as merry as you like, and none the poorer."
    This logic is irresistible. Tomkins banks his sixpence for a plum-pudding and the etceteras with Mr. Allspice the grocer; and this identical pudding he enjoys the pleasure of eating half-a-dozen times over in imagination before the next instalment is due. He at length becomes so fond of the flavour, that he actually - we know, for we have seen him do it - he actually, to use his own expression, "goes in for a goose" besides with Mr. Pluck the poulterer. Having once passed the Rubicon, of course he cannot go back; the weekly sixpences must be paid come what will; it would be disgraceful to be a defaulter. So he practises a little self-denial, for the sake of a little self-esteem - and the goose and pudding in perspective. He finds, to his astonishment, that he can do quite as much work with one pot of beer a day as he could with two, and he drops the superfluous pot, and not only pays his instalments to the Christmas-bank, but gets a spare shilling in his pocket besides. Thus under the tuition of the shopkeeper, he learns the practice of prudence in provisioning his family with plum-pudding and imbibes the first and foremost of the household virtues, on the same principle as a wayward child imbibes physic - out of regard to the dainty morsel that is to come afterwards.
    Passing one day last autumn through a long and populous thoroughfare on the southern side of the Thames, we happened to light upon Mr. Allspice's appeal to the consciences and the pockets of the pudding-eating public. "If you are wise," said the admonitory placard, "you will lose no time in joining Allspice's Plum-pudding Club." Remembering the retort of a celebrated quack, "Give me all the fools that come this way for my customers, and you are welcome to the wise men," we must own we felt rather doubtful of the prosperity of the puddings; but having an interest in the matter, we resolved, notwithstanding, to ascertain, if possible, whether the Wisdom who uttereth her voice in the streets had on this special occasion spoken to any purpose, and whether any, and how many, had proved themselves wise in the acceptation of Mr. Allspice. On making the necessary inquiries after the affair had gone off, we learned, to our surprise and gratification, that the club had been entirely successful. Upwards of a hundred persons of a class who are never worth half-a-crown at a time, had subscribed sixpence a week each for eighteen weeks, and thus entitled themselves to nine shillings' worth of plum- pudding ingredients, besides a certain quantity of tea and sugar. Thus the club had prospered exceedingly, and had been the instrument of introducing comfort and festive enjoyment to no small number of persons who might, and in all probability would, have had little to eat or drink, and, consequently, little cause for merriment, at that season. This is really a very pleasant fact to contemplate, connected though it be with a somewhat ludicrous kind of ingenuity, which must be exercised in order to bring it about. To anybody but a London shopkeeper, the attempt would appear altogether hopeless, to transform a hundred poor persons, who were never worth half-a-crown a piece from one year's end to the other, into so many nine shilling customers; and yet the thing is done, and done, too, by the London grocer in a manner highly satisfactory, and still more advantageous to his customers. Is it too much to imagine that the lesson of provident forethought thus agreeably learned by multitudes of the struggling classes - for these clubs abound everywhere in London, and their members must be legion - have a moral effect upon at least a considerable portion of them? If one man finds a hundred needy customers wise enough to relish a plum-pudding of their own providing, surely they will not all be such fools as to repudiate the practice of that very prudence which procured them the enjoyment, and brought mirth and gladness to their firesides. Never think it! They shall go on to improve, take our word for it; and having learned prudence from plum-pudding, and generosity from goose - for your poor man is always the first to give a slice or two of the breast, when he has it, to a sick neighbour - they shall learn temperance from tea, and abstinence if they choose, from coffee, and ever so many other good qualities from ever so many other good things; and from having been wise enough to join the grocer's Plum-pudding Club, they shall end by becoming prosperous enough to join the Whittington Club, or the Gresham Club, or the Athenaeum Club, or the Travellers' Club; or the House of Commons, or the House of Lords either, for all that you, or we, or anybody else, can say or do to the contrary.
    We know nothing of the original genius who first hit upon this mode of indoctrinating the lower orders in a way so much to their advantage; we hope, however, as there is little reason to doubt, that he found his own account in it, and reaped his well-deserved reward. Whoever he was, his example has been well followed for many years past. In the poorer and more populous districts of the metropolis, this practice of making provision for inevitable wants, by small subscriptions paid in advance, prevails to a large extent. As winter sets in, almost every provision-dealer, and other traders as well, proffers a compact to the public, which he calls a club, though it is more of the nature of a savings-bank, seeing that, at the expiration of the subscribing period, every member is a creditor of the shop to the amount of his own investments, and nothing more. Thus, besides the Plum-pudding Clubs, there are Coal Clubs, by which the poor man who invests is. a week for five or six of the summer months, gets a ton of good coal laid in for the winter's consumption before the frost sets in and the coal becomes dear. Then there is the Goose Club, which the wiser members manage among themselves by contracting with a country dealer, and thus avoid the tipsy consummation of the public-house, where these clubs have mostly taken shelter. Again, there is the Twelfth-cake Club, which comes to a head soon after Christmas, and is more of a lottery than a club, inasmuch as the large cakes are raffled for, and the losers, if they get anything, get but a big bun for their pains and penalties. All these clubs, it will be observed, are plants of winter-growth, or at least of winter-fruiting, having for their object the provision of something desirable or indispensable in the winter season. There is, however, another and a very different species of club, infinitely more popular than any of the above, the operations of which are aboundingly visible throughout the warm and pleasant months of summer, and which may be, and sometimes is, called the Excursion Club.
    The Excursion Club is a provision which the working and labouring classes of London have got up for themselves, to enable them to enjoy, at a charge available to their scanty means, the exciting pleasures- which are as necessary as food or raiment to their health and comfort - of a change of air and scene. It is managed in a simple way. The foreman of a workshop, or the father of a family in some confined court, or perhaps some manageress of a troop of working-girls, contracts with the owner of a van for the hire of his vehicle and the services of a driver for a certain day. More frequently still, the owner of the van is the prime mover in the business, but then the trip is not so cheap. The members club their funds, the men paying 1s. each, the wives, 6d., the children, 3d. or 4d.; and any poor little ragged orphan urchin, who may be hanging about the workshop, gets accommodated with a borrowed jacket and trousers, and a gratuitous face-washing from Mrs. Grundy, and is taken for nothing, and well fed into the bargain. The cost, something over a guinea, is easily made up, and if any surplus remains, why, then, they hire a fiddler to go along with them. On the appointed morning, at an early hour, rain or shine, they flock to the rendezvous to the number of forty or fifty-ten or a dozen more or less is a trifle not worth mentioning. Each one carries his own provisions, and loaded with baskets, cans, bottles, and earthen- jars, mugs and tea-kettles, in they bundle, and off they jog- pans rattling, women chattering, kettles clinking, children crowing, fiddle scraping, and men smoking-at the rate of six or seven miles an hour, to Hampton Court or Epping Forest. It is impossible for a person who has never witnessed these excursions in the height of summer, to form an adequate notion of the merry and exciting nature of the relaxation they afford to a truly prodigious number of the hard-working classes. Returning from Kingston to London one fine Monday morning in June last, we met a train of these laughter-loaded vans, measuring a full mile in length, and which must have consisted of threescore or more vehicles, most of them provided with music of some sort, and adorned with flowers and green boughs. A-s they shot one at a time past the omnibus on which we sat, we were saluted by successive volleys of mingled mirth and music, and by such constellations of merry- faced mortals in St. Monday garb, as would have made a sunshine under the blackest sky that ever gloomed. Arrived at Hampton Court, the separate parties encamp under the trees in Bushy Park, where they amuse themselves the live- long day in innocent sports, for which your Londoner has at bottom a most unequivocal and hearty relish. They will most likely spend a few hours in wandering through the picture-galleries in the palace, then take a stroll in the exquisite gardens, where the young fellow who is thoughtless enough to pluck a flower for his sweetheart, is instantly and infallibly condemned to drag a heavy iron roller up and down the gravel- walk, to the amusement of a thousand or two of grinning spectators. Having seen the palace and the gardens, they pay a short visit, perhaps, to the monster grape-vine, with its myriads of clusters of grapes, all of which her gracious Majesty is supposed to devour; and then they return to their dinner beneath some giant chestnut-tree in the park. The cloth is spread at the foot of the huge trunk; the gashed joints of the Sunday's baked meats, flanked by a very mountainous gooseberry pie, with crusty loaves and sections of cheese and pats of butter, cut a capital figure among the heterogeneous contribution of pitchers, preserve-jars, tin-cans, mugs and jugs, shankless rummers and wine-glasses, and knives and forks of every size and pattern, from the balance handles and straight blades of to-day, to the wooden haft and curly-nosed cimetar of a century back. Their sharpened appetites make short work of the cold meats and pies. Treble X of somebody's own corking fizzes forth from brown jar and black bottle, and if more is wanted, it is fetched from the neighbouring tavern. Dinner done, the fiddle strikes up, and a dance on the greensward by the young people, while the old ones, stretched under the trees, enjoy a quiet gossip and a refreshing pipe, fills up the afternoon. There is always somebody at this crisis who is neither too old to dance nor too young to smoke a gossipping pipe, and so he does both at intervals- rushing now into the dance, drawn by the irresistible attraction of the fiddle, and now sidling back again to his smoke- puffing chums, impelled by the equally resistless charms of tobacco. Then and therefore he is branded as a deserter, and a file of young lasses lay hands on him, and drag him forth in custody to the dance; and after a good scolding from laughing lips, and a good drubbing from white handkerchiefs, they compromise the business at last by allowing him to dance with his pipe in his mouth.
    By five o'clock, Mrs. Grundy has managed, with the connivance of Jack the driver, somehow or other to boil the kettle, and a cup of tea is ready for all who are inclined to partake. The young folks for the most part prefer the dance: they can have tea any day-they will not dance on the grass again till next year perhaps; so they make the most of their time. By and by, the fiddler's elbow refuses to wag any longer: he is perfectly willing himself, as he says, "to play till all's blue; but you see," he adds, "bones wont do it. "Never mind, says the Beau Nash of the day: "sack your badger, old boy, and go and get some resin. Now, then, for kiss in the ring!"  Then while the fiddler gets his resin, which means anything he likes to eat or drink, the whole party, perhaps amounting to three or four van loads in all, form into a circle for "kiss in the ring!" The ring is one uproarious round of frolic and laughter, which would "hold both its sides," but that it is forced to hold its neighbours' hands with both its own, under which the flying damsel who has to be caught and kissed bobs in and out, doubling like a hare, till she is out of breath, and is overtaken at last, and led bashfully into the centre of the group, to suffer the awful penalty of the law. While this popular pastime is prolonged to the last moment, the van is getting ready to return; the old folks assist in stowing away the empty baskets and vessels; and an hour or so before sun-down, or it may .be half an hour after, the whole party are remounted, and on their way home again, where they arrive, after a jovial ride, weary with enjoyment, and with matter to talk about for a month to come.
    At Epping Forest, the scene is very different, but not a whit the less lively. There are no picture-galleries, or pleasure- gardens, but there is the forest to roam in, full of noble trees, in endless sinuous avenues, crowned with the "scarce intruding sky," among which the joyous holiday-makers form a finer picture than was ever painted yet. Then there are friendly foot-races and jumping-matches, and leap-frogging and blackberrying, and foot-balling, and hockey-and-trapping, and many other games besides, in addition to the dancing and the ring-kissing. Epping and Hainault Forests are essentially the lungs of Whitechapel and Spitalfields. Their leafy shades are invaded all the summer long by the van-borne hosts of laborious poverty. Clubs, whose members invest but a penny a week, start into existence as soon as the leaves begin to sprout in the spring; with the first gush of summer, the living tide begins to flow into the cool bosom of the forest; and until late in the autumn, unless the weather is prematurely wintry, there is no pause for a day or an hour of sunshine in the rush of health-seekers to the green shades. The fiat has gone forth from the government for the destruction of these forests, for the felling of the trees and the inclosure of the land. Will the public permit the execution of the barbarous decree? We trust not.
    Notwithstanding all that has been said, and so justly said, of the notorious improvidence of the poor, it will be seen from the above hasty sketches, that they yet can and do help themselves to many things which are undeniably profitable and advantageous to them: they only want, in fact, a motive for so doing - a foregone conviction that the thing desiderated is worth having. Now, here is ground for hope - an opening, so to speak, for the point of the wedge. That the very poor may be taught to practise self-denial, in the prospect of a future benefit, these clubs have proved; and we may confess to a prejudice in their favour, not merely from what they have accomplished, but from a not unreasonable hope, that they may perchance foster a habit which will lead to far better things than even warm chimney-corners, greenwood holidays, roast geese, and plum-pudding.