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


    London has been often compared to a wilderness - a wilderness of brick, and so in one sense it is; because you may live in London all the days of your life if you choose - and, indeed, if you don't choose, if you happen to be very poor - without exciting observation, or provoking any further questioning than is comprised in a demand for accurate guidance from one place to another, a demand which might be made upon you in an Arabian desert, if there you chanced to meet a stranger. But London is something else besides a wilderness - indeed it is everything else. It is a great world, containing a thousand little worlds in its bosom; and pop yourself down m it m any quarter you will, you are sure to find yourself in the centre of some peculiar microcosm distinguished from all others by features more or less characteristic.
    One such little world we have lived in for a round number of years; and as we imagine it presents a picture by no means disagreeable to look upon, we will introduce the reader, with his permission, into its very limited circle, and chronicle its history for one day as faithfully as it is possible for anything to do, short of the Daguerreotype and the tax-gatherer. Our Terrace, then - for that is our little world-is situated in one of the northern, southern, eastern, or western suburbs - we have reasons for not being particular - at the distance of two miles and three-quarters from the black dome of St. Paul's. 
    It consists of thirty genteel-looking second-rate houses, standing upon a veritable terrace, at least three feet above the level of the carriage-way, and having small gardens enclosed in iron palisades in front of them. The garden gates open upon a pavement of nine feet in width; the carriage-road is thirty feet across; and on the opposite side is another but lower terrace, surmounted with handsome semi-detached villas, with ample flower-gardens both in front and rear, those in the front being planted, but rather sparingly, with limes, birches, and a few specimens of the white-ash, which in summer-time overshadow the pavement, and shelter a passing pedestrian when caught in a shower. At one end of Our Terrace there is a respectable butcher's shop, a public-house, and a shop which is perpetually changing owners, and making desperate attempts to establish itself as something or other, without any particular partiality for any particular line of business. It has been by turns a print shop, a stationer's, a circulating library, a toy- shop, a Berlin-wool shop, a music and musical-instrument shop, a haberdasher's shop, a snuff and cigar shop, and one other thing which has escaped our memory-and all within the last seven years. Each retiring speculator has left his stock-in-trade, along with the good-will, to his successor; and at the present moment it is a combination of shops, where everything you don't want is to be found in a state of dilapidation, together with a very hungry-looking proprietor, who, for want of customers upon whom to exercise his ingenuity, pulls away all day long upon the accordion to the tune of "We're a' Noddin'." The other end of Our Terrace has its butcher, its public-house, its grocer, and a small furniture-shop, doing a small trade, under the charge of a very small boy. Let thus much suffice for the physiology of our subject. We proceed to record its history, as it may be read by any one of the inhabitants who chooses to spend the waking hours of a single day in perusing it from his parlour window.
    It is a fine morning in the middle of June, and the clock of the church at the end of the road is about striking seven, when the parlour shutters and the street doors of the terrace begin to open one by one. By a quarter past, the servant girls, having lighted their fires, and put the kettle on to boil for breakfast, are ostensibly busy in sweeping the pathways of the small front-gardens, but are actually enjoying a simultaneous gossip together over the garden railings - a fleeting pleasure, which must be nipped in the bud, because master goes to town at half-past eight, and his boots are not yet cleaned, or his breakfast prepared. Now the bed-room bell rings, which means hot water; and this is no sooner up, than mistress is down, and breakfast is laid in the parlour. At a quarter before eight, the eggs arc boiled, and the bacon toasted, and the first serious business of the day is in course of transaction. Mr. Jones of No. 9, Mr. Robinson of No. 10, and Mr. Brown of No. 11, are bound to be at their several posts in the city at nine o'clock; and having swallowed a hasty breakfast, they may be seen, before half-past eight has chimed, walking up and down the terrace chatting together, and wondering whether "that Smith," as usual, means to keep the omnibus waiting this morning, or whether he will come forth in time. Precisely as the half hour strikes, the tin horn of the omnibus sounds its shrill blast, and the vehicle is seen rattling round the corner, stopping one moment at No. 28, to take up Mr. Johnson. On it comes, with a fresh blast, to where the commercial trio are waiting for it; out rushes Smith, wiping his mouth, and the "bus," swallowing up the whole four, rumbles and trumpets on to take up Thompson, Jackson, and Richardson, who, cigars in mouth, are waiting at a distance of forty paces off to ascend the roof. An hour later, a second omnibus comes by on the same benevolent errand, for the accommodation of those gentlemen, more favoured by fortune, who are not expected to be at the post of business until the hour often. As Our Terrace does not stand in a direct omnibus route, these are all the "buses" that will pass in the course of the day. The gentlemen whom they convey every morning to town are regular customers, and the vehicles diverge from their regular course in order to pick them up at their own doors.
    About half-past nine, or from that to a quarter to ten, comes the postman with his first delivery of letters for the day. Our Terrace is the most toilsome part of his beat, for having to serve both sides of the way, his progress is very like that of a ship at sea sailing against the wind. R'tat he goes on our side, then down he jumps into the road - B'bang on the other side - tacks about again, and serves the terrace - off again, and serves the villas, and so on till he has fairly epistolised both sides of the way, and vanished round the corner. The vision of his gold band and red collar is anxiously looked for in the morning by many a fair face, which a watchful observer may see furtively peering through the drawing-room window- curtains. After he has departed, and the well-to-do merchants and employers who reside in the villas opposite have had time to look over their correspondence, come sundry neat turn-outs from the stables and coach-houses in the rear of the villas; a light, high gig, drawn by a frisky grey, into which leaps young Oversea the shipbroker - a comfortable, cushioned four- wheel drawn by a pair of bay ponies, into which old Viscount climbs heavily, followed perhaps by his two daughters, bound on a shopping-visit to the city-and a spicy-looking, rattling trap, with a pawing horse, which has a decided objection to standing still, for Mr. Goadall, the wealthy cattle-drover. These, with other vehicles of less note, all roll off the ground by a quarter after ten o'clock or so; and the ladies and their servants, with some few exceptions, are left in undisputed possession of home, while not a footfall of man or beast is heard in the sunshiny quiet of the street.
    The quiet, however, is broken before long by a peculiar and suggestive cry. We do not hear it yet ourselves, but Stalker, our black cat and familiar, has caught the well-known accents, and with a characteristic crooning noise, and a stiff perpendicular erection of tail, he sidles towards the door, demanding as plainly as possible, to be let out. Yes, it is the cats-meat man. "Ca' me-e-et-me-yet-me-e-yet!" fills the morning air, and arouses exactly thirty responsive feline voices - for there is a cat to every house - and points thirty aspiring tails to the zenith. As many hungry tabbies, sables, and tortoise - shells as can get out of doors, are trooping together with arched backs upon the pavement, following the little pony-cart, the cats' commissariat equipage, and each one, anxious for his daily allowance, contributing most mewsically his quota to the general concert. We do not know how it is, but the cats-meat man is the most unerring and punctual of all those peripatetic functionaries who undertake to cater for the consumption of the public. The baker, the butcher, the grocer, the butterman, the fishmonger, and the coster, occasionally forget your necessities, or omit to call for your orders-the cats-meat man never. Other traders, too, dispense their stock by a sliding-scale, and are sometimes out of stock altogether:
    Pussy's provider, on the contrary, sticks to one price from year's end to year's end, and never, in the memory of the oldest Grimalkin, was known to disappoint a customer. A half-penny for a cat's breakfast has been the regulation-price ever since the horses of the metropolis began to submit to the boiling process for the benefit of the feline race.
    By the time the cats have retired to growl over their allowance in private, the daily succession of nomadic industrials begin to lift up their voices, and to defile slowly along Our Terrace, stopping now and then to execute a job or effect a sale when an opportunity presents itself. Our limits will not allow us to notice them all, but we must devote a few paragraphs to those without whom our picture would be incomplete.
    First comes an ingenious lass of two or three-and-twenty, with a flaming red shawl, pink ribbons in her bonnet, and the hue of health on a rather saucy face. She carries a large basket on her left arm, and in her right hand she displays to general admiration a gorgeous group of flowers, fashioned twice the size of life, from tissue-paper of various colours. She lifts up her voice occasionally as she marches slowly along, singing, in a clear accent: "Flowers - ornamental papers for the stove-flowers! paper-flowers!" She is the accredited herald of summer - a phenomenon, of late years, of very tardy appearance. We should have seen her six weeks ago, if the summer had not declined to appear at the usual season. She is the gaudy, party-coloured ephemera of street commerce, and will disappear from view in a fortnight's time, to be seen no more until the opening of next summer. Her wares, which are manufactured with much taste, and with an eye to the harmony of colours, are in much request among the genteel housewives of the suburbs. They are exceedingly cheap, considering the skill which must be applied in their construction. They are all the work of her own hands, and have occupied her time and swallowed up her capital for some months past. She enjoys almost a monopoly in her art, and is not to be beaten down in the price of her goods. She knows their value, and is more independent than an artist dares to be in the presence of a patron. Her productions are a pleasant summer substitute for the cheerful fire of winter; and it is perhaps well for her that, before the close of autumn, the faded hues of the flowers, and the harbour they afford to dust, will convert them into waste paper, in spite of all the care that may be taken to preserve them.
    Paper Poll, as the servants call her, is hardly out of sight, and not out of hearing, when a young fellow and his wife come clattering along the pavement, appealing to all who may require their good offices in the matter of chair-mending. The man is built up in a sort of cage-work of chairs stuck about his head and shoulders, and his dirty phiz is only half visible through a kind of grill of legs and cross-bars. These are partly commissions which, having executed at home, he is carrying to their several owners. But as everybody does not choose to trust him away with property, he is ready to execute orders on the spot; and to this end his wife accompanies him on his rounds. She is loaded with a small bag of tools suspended at her waist, and a plentiful stock of split-cane under one arm. He will weave a new cane-seat to an old chair for 9d., and he will set down his load awl do it before your eyes in your own garden, if you prefer that to entrusting him with it; that is, he will make the bargain, and his wife will weave the seat under his supervision, unless there happen to be two to be repaired, when husband and wife will work together. We have noticed that it is a very silent operation, that of weaving chair-bottoms; and that though the couple may be seated for an hour and more together, rapidly plying the flexible canes, they never exchange a word with each other till the task is accomplished. Sometimes the wife is left at a customer's door working alone, while the husband wanders further on in search of other employment, returning by the time she has finished her task. But there are no chairs to mend this morning on Our Terrace, and our bamboo friends may jog on their way.
    Now resounds from a distance the cry of "All a-growin' an' a-blowin' all a-blowin', a-blowin' here !" and in a few minutes the travelling florist makes his appearance, driving before him a broad-surfaced hand-cart, loaded in profusion with exquisite flowers of all hues, in full bloom, and, to all appearance, thriving famously. It may happen, however, as it has happened to us, that the blossoms now so vigorous and blooming, may all drop off on the second or third day; and the naked plant, after making a sprawling and almost successful attempt to reach the ceiling for a week or so, shall become suddenly sapless and withered, the emblem of a broken-down and emaciated sot - and, what is more, ruined from the selfsame cause, an overdose of stimulating fluid. It may happen, on the other hand, that the plant shall have suffered no trick of the gardener's trade, and shall bloom fairly to the end of its natural term. The commerce in blossoming flowers is one of the most uncertain and dangerous speculations in which the small street-traders of London can engage. When carried on under favourable circumstances, it is one of the most profitable, the demand for flowers being constant and increasing; but the whole stock- in-trade of a small perambulating capitalist may be ruined by a shower of rain, which will spoil their appearance for the market, and prevent his selling them before they are overblown. Further, as few of these dealers have any means of housing this kind of stock safely during the night, they are often compelled to part with them, after an unfavourable day, at less than prime cost, to prevent a total loss. Still, there are never wanting men of a speculative turn of mind, and the cry of "All a-blowin' an' a-growin'" resounds through the streets as long as the season supplies flowers to grow and to blow.
    The flower-merchant wheels off, having loft a good sprinkling of geraniums in our neighbours' windows; and his cousin-german, "the graveller," comes crawling after him, with his cart and stout horse in the middle of the road, while he walks on one side of the pavement, and his assistant on the other. This fellow is rather a singular character, and one that is to be met with probably nowhere upon the face of the earth but in the suburbs of London. He is, par excellence, the exponent of a feeling which pervades the popular mind in the metropolis on the subject of the duty which respectable people owe to respectability. It is impossible for a housekeeper in a neighbourhood having any claims to gentility, to escape the recognition of this feeling in the lower class of industrials. If you have a broken window in the front of your house, the travelling glazier thinks, to use his own expression, that  you have a right to have it repaired, and therefore that he, having discovered the fracture, has a right to the job of mending it.
    If your bell-handle is out of order or broken off, the travelling bellman thinks he has a right to repair it, and bores you, in fact, until you commission him to do so-and so on. In the same manner, and on the same principle, so soon as the fine weather sets in, and the front-gardens begin to look gay, the graveller loads his cart with gravel, and shouldering his spade, crawls leisurely through the suburbs with his companion, peering into every garden; and wherever he sees that the walks are grown dingy or moss-grown, he knocks boldly at the door, and demands to be set to work in mending your ways. The best thing you can do is to make the bargain and employ him at once; if not, he will be round again to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, and bore you into consenting at last. You live in a respectable house, and you have a right to keep your garden in a respectable condition-and the graveller is determined that you shall do so: has he not brought gravel to the door on purpose? it will cost you but a shilling or two. Thus he lays down the law in his own mind; and sooner or later, as sure as fate, he lays down the gravel in your garden.
    While the graveller is patting down the pathway round Robinson's flower-bed, we hear the well-known cry of a countryman whom we have known any time these ten years, and who, with his wife by his side, has perambulated the suburbs for the best part of his life. He has taken upon himself the patronage of the laundry department, and he shoulders a fagot of clothes-poles, ten feet long, with forked extremities, all freshly cut from the forest. Coils of new rope for drying are hanging upon his arm, and his wife carries a basket well stocked with clothes-pins of a superior description, manufactured by themselves. The cry of "Clo'-pole-line-pins" is one long familiar to the neighbourhood; and as this honest couple have earned a good reputation by a long course of civility and probity, they enjoy the advantage of a pretty extensive connection. Their perambulations are confined to the suburbs, and it is a question if they ever enter London proper from one year's end to another. It is of no use to carry clothes-poles and drying-lines where there are no conveniences for washing and drying.
    Next comes a travelling umbrella-mender, fagoted on the back like the man in the moon of the nursery rhyme-book. He is followed at a short distance by a travelling tinker, swinging his live-coals in a sort of tin censor, and giving utterance to a hoarse and horrible cry, intelligible only to the cook who has a leaky saucepan. Then comes the chamois-leather woman, bundled about with damaged skins, in request for the polishing of plate and plated wares. She is one of that persevering class who will hardly take "No" for an answer. It takes her a full hour to get through the terrace, for she enters every garden, and knocks at every door from No. 1 to No. 30. In the winter-time she pursues an analogous trade, dealing in what may strictly be termed the raw material, inasmuch as she then buys and cries hare-skins and rabbit-skins. She has, unfortunately, a notoriously bad character, and is accused of being addicted to the practice of taking tenpence and a hare-skin in exchange for a counterfeit shilling.
    By this time it is twelve o'clock and past, and Charley Coster, who serves the terrace with vegetables, drives up his stout cob to the door, and is at the very moment we write bargaining with Betty for new potatoes at threepence-halfpenny a pound. Betty declares it is a scandalous price for potatoes. "Yes, dear," says Charley, "an' another scan'lous thing is, that I carn't sell em for no less. Charley is the most affectionate of costers, and is a general favourite with the Abigails of the terrace. His turn-out is the very model of a travelling green-grocer's shop, well stocked with all the fruits and vegetables of the season; and he himself is a model of a coster, clean shaved, clean shod, and trimly dressed, with a flower in his button-hole, an everlasting smile upon his face, and the nattiest of neck-ties. The cunning rogue pretends to be smitten with Betty, and most likely does the same with all the other Bettys of the neighbourhood, to all of whom he chatters incessantly of everything and everybody- save and except of the wife and three children waiting for him at home. He will leave a good portion of his stock behind him when he quits the terrace.
    After Charley has disappeared, there is a pause for an hour or two in the flow of professionals past Our Terrace. The few pedestrians that pass along are chiefly gentlefolks, who have come abroad this fine morning for an airing- to take a constitutional, and to pick up an appetite for dinner. You may chance to hear the cry of "Oranges and nuts," or of "Cod - live cod," and you may be entertained by a band of musicians in a gaily-coloured van patrolling for the purpose of advertising the merits of something or other which is to be had for nothing at all, or the next thing to it, if you can prevail upon yourself to go and fetch it. Perhaps Punch and Judy will pitch their little citadel in front of your dwelling; or, more likely still, a band of mock Ethiopians, with fiddle, castanets, and banjo, may tempt your liberality with a performance of Uncle Ned or Old Dan Tucker; or a corps of German musicians may trumpet you into a fit of martial ardour; or a wandering professor of the German flute soothe you into a state of romance.
    As the afternoon wears on the tranquillity grows more profound. The villas opposite stand asleep in the sunshine; the sound of a single footstep is heard on the pavement; and anon you hear the feeble, cracked voice of old Willie, the water-cress man, distinctly articulating the cry of "Watercresses; fine brown water-cresses; royal Albert water-cresses; the best in London-everybody say so." The water-cresses are welcomed on the terrace as an ornament, and something more, to the tea-table; and while tea is getting ready for the inhabitants of the terrace, the dwellers in the opposite villas are seen returning to dinner. The lame match-man now hobbles along upon his crutches, with his little basket of lucifers suspended at his side. He is thoroughly deaf and three parts dumb, uttering nothing beyond an incomprehensible kind of croak by way of a demand for custom. He is a privileged being, whom nobody thinks of interfering with. He has the entrée of all the gardens on both sides of the way, and is the acknowledged depositary of scraps and remnants of all kinds which have made their last appearance upon the dinner or supper table.
    About five o'clock, the tinkling note of the muffin-bell strikes agreeably upon the ear, suggestive of fragrant souchong and bottom-crusts hot, crackling, and unctuous. Now ensues a delicate savour in the atmosphere of the terrace kitchens, and it is just at its height when Smith, Brown, Jones, and Robinson are seen walking briskly up the terrace. They all go in at Smith's, where the muffin-man went in about half an hour before, and left half his stock behind him. By six o'clock the lords and ladies of Our Terrace are congregated round their tea-urns; and by seven, you may see from one of the back-windows a tolerable number of the lords, arrayed in dressing-gowns and slippers, and some of them with corpulent meerschaums dangling from their mouths, strolling leisurely in the gardens in the rear of their dwellings, and amusing themselves with their children, whose prattling voices and innocent laughter mingle with the twittering of those suburban songsters, the sparrows, and with the rustling of the foliage, stirred by the evening breeze. These pleasant sounds die away by degrees Little boys and girls go to bed; the gloom of twilight settles down upon the gardens; candles are lighted in the drawing-rooms, and from a dozen houses at once pianofortes commence their harmony. At No. 12, the drawing-room windows are open, though the blinds are down; and the slow-pacing policeman pauses in his round, and leans against the iron railings, being suddenly brought up by the richly-harmonious strains of a glee for three voices: Brown; Jones, and Robinson are doing the Clough and Crow; and Smith, who prides himself on his semi-grand, which he tunes with his own hands once a week, is doing the accompaniment in his best style. The merry chorus swells delightfully upon the ear, and is heard half-way down the terrace; the few foot-passengers who are passing stop under the window to listen, till one of them is imprudent enough to cry "Encore," when down go the windows, and the harmonious sounds are shut in from vulgar ears.
    It is by this time nearly half-past nine o'clock, and now comes the regular nightly "tramp, tramp" of the police, marching in Indian file, and heavily clad in their night-gear. They come to replace the guardians of the day by those of the night. One of the number falls out of the line on the terrace, where he commences his nocturnal wanderings, and guarantees the peace and safety of the inhabitants for the succeeding eight hours; the rest tramp onwards to their distant stations. The echoes of their iron heels have hardly died away, when there is a sudden and almost simultaneous eruption from every garden-gate on the terrace of clean-faced, neat-aproned, red-elbowed servant-girls, each and all armed with a jug or a brace of jugs, with a sprinkling of black bottles among them, and all bound to one or other of the public- houses which guard the terrace at either end. It is the hour of supper; and the supper-beer, and the after-supper nightcaps, for those who indulge in them, have to be procured from the publican. This is an occasion upon which Betty scorns to hurry; but she takes time by the forelock, starting for the beer as soon as the cloth is laid, and before master has finished his pipe, or his game of chess, or Miss Clementina her song, in order that she may have leisure for a little gossip with No. 7 on the one hand, or No. 9 on the other. She goes out without beat of drum, and lets herself in with the street- door key without noise, bringing home, besides the desiderated beverage, the news of the day, and the projects of next door for the morrow, with, it may be, a plan for the enjoyment of her next monthly holiday.
    Supper is the last great business of the day upon Our Terrace, which, by eleven at night, is lapped in profound repose. The moon rides high in mid-sky, and the black shadows of the trees lie motionless on the white pavement. Not a footfall is heard abroad; the only sound that is audible as you· put your head out of the window, to look up at the glimmering stars and radiant moon, is the distant and monotonous murmur of the great metropolis, varied now and then by the shrill scream of a far-off railway-whistle, or the "cough, cough, cough" of the engine of some late train. We are sober folks on the terrace, and are generally all snug abed before twelve o'clock. The last sound that reaches our ears ere we doze off into forgetfulness is the slow, lumbering, earthquaky advance of a huge outward-bound waggon. We hear it at the distance of half a mile, and note distinctly the crushing and pulverizing of every small stone which the broad wheels roll over as they sluggishly proceed on their way. It rocks us in our beds as it passes the house; and for twenty minutes afterwards, if we are awake so long, we are aware that it is groaning heavily onwards, and shaking the solid earth in its progress - till it sinks away in silence, or we into the land of dreams.

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