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 a day of hard frost, about the middle of February, and the hour is near noon; in the country the air would be clear, with the exception of the few drifting snow-flakes which the east wind drives in fantastic courses ere they settle on the. ground; but in London, though there is no fog, the smoke refuses to rise far above the level of the house-tops; and, congealed by the breath of winter, wraps every distant object in a semi-transparent curtain. We happen to be out for a ramble - in the neighbourhood of Charing-cross, and gathering from certain unmistakeable indications, in the shape of new skates curiously crossed with virgin straps, and dangling from the hands of gentlemen about town, that the ice in St. James's Park will bear, we take a short cut through Spring-gardens, and in a few minutes are standing upon the banks of the "ornamental water,'' a spectator of the winter sport of the Londoner. The park presents a singular picture, not wanting in features of grandeur and beauty, but having these somewhat comically contrasted with human peculiarities and oddities. The noble trees, stretching aloft their myriads of tiny hands to catch the falling snow flakes, stand vividly depicted in all their naked beauty against the leaden sky; or farther on, half veiled in the wintry mist, show like imploring spectres in the act of vanishing from mortal vision. Away on the right, the Queen's palace looms dimly in the white haze, bearing the unsubstantial aspect of a monster erection of thin grey and translucent tissue-paper, which a bird might pierce in its flight, or a breath might dissipate. The few houses that are visible through the heavy atmosphere are magnified to an abnormal size, and look like the shadowy structures of a by-gone time, or the colossal edifices eclipsed in the gloom of some of Martin's pictures. As we look around, the clock of the Horse-guards rings out the hour of noon, in notes so loud, clear, and close to the ear, that we are startled into the recognition of that national establishment, which, for all we can see of it, might be a hundred miles away.
    We find the banks of the lake thronged with spectators of both sexes, and all ages and classes; among which, however, greatly predominate the boys and the hobbledehoys, who make up so important a part of the London population. They are the first in every crowd, for whatever purpose it may assemble; and the first in every dangerous exploit, whether anything is to be got by it or not. Their presence on this occasion may serve to explain certain phenomena observable upon the banks and upon the frozen surface of the water. It is for their especial enlightenment that the poles surmounted with a board marked "dangerous" are set up-an admonition which, notwithstanding, they never take in good part. They invariably prefer testing the ice themselves, by walking on to it, or under it, as may happen: and it is for the sake of checking this precocious spirit of experiment, that the edge of the ice all round the lake has been broken every morning since the frost set in, by men appointed for the purpose; and hence it is that now, when it will bear, bridges of plank have to be laid down that they may get on and off. You may observe, likewise, that ropes are laid across the ice from one bank to the other, in readiness to be drawn instantly to any part that may give way. The surface of the ice looks anything but tempting to a person not enamoured of its glittering aspect. It is starred with huge cracks, stretching sheer across the basin, and in some parts is flooded with water, welling up from broad holes; but in spite of that, it is crowded with occupants eager in the pursuit of pleasure or of business, and all making the most of the few short hours of light afforded by the winter's day. Our parti-coloured friends and familiars, the poor ducks, geese, didappers, and foreign fowls of all sorts, not forgetting those rarae aves, the black swans, have got the worst of it just now: their impudence is completely frozen out of them and, to all appearance, their animosity too; for there they are yonder, all confined to one small pool broke for them by the humanity of the lodge-keeper, and wagging their variegated and thickly-feathered tails. Hard weather has taught them good behaviour, and misfortune, as it often does, has reconciled their feuds, and shown them that it may be politic to be birds of one family even though they are not of one feather.
    While admiring the graceful evolutions of some of the practised skaters, who seem to fly on the wings of the wind, and to be guided by the action of the will rather than the force of muscular exercise, we cannot help being struck with what appears to us a most undesirable change in the fashion of skating affected in the present day. When the young Benjamin West exhibited his Adonis-like form upon the Serpentine to the supreme admiration of our grandmothers, we are very sure that he had too true and fine a sense of the graceful to be seen for a moment in the attitude which now is esteemed the perfection of the accomplishment. Every skater now-a-days who has learned to feel his feet upon the ice, aspires apparently to emulate the motion of the crab, and esteems it the climax of the art to be able to skate backwards, twisting his neck in such a way as to enable him to see behind him. Think of a man travelling five or six hundred yards in the act of sitting down, and alternately grinning over either shoulder lest he should come in contact with another performing the same preposterous feat! We turn from such an exhibition to yonder gentlemanly sample of the old school: he has employed a man to sweep a small space clear for him, not more than a dozen feet square, and on that he occupies himself in cutting various small figures, all evidently devised originally to afford at once healthful exercise to the body and graceful postures for the limbs. He is a veteran in the art, and his motions are as easy as those of a gold fish in a glass globe.
    While we are enjoying his gratuitous display, it is suddenly interrupted by the apparition of Mr. Straddles, from Westminster, who being this morning screwed to a pair of skates for the first time, on which he is only able to support himself by the aid of a couple of stout walking sticks, is obliged to go wherever they choose to take him; and when they cannot agree upon that point, which, as he has a habit of turning out his toes, they never do long together, is obliged to come sprawling to the ground. There he goes again, with a flump! that's the twentieth time that his heels have been on a level with his head this morning; but no matter, he is picked up again in a twinkling by a brace of stipendiary sweepers, who have charge of him; and he swims, straddles, staggers, and sprawls off again. Here comes a costermonger who has been out crying "live soles" ever since he left Billingsgate at six o'clock, before it was light. He invested sixpenee in a pair of broken skates last night, and having levied the straps from his donkey-harness, is come to disport himself with the gentry for an hour or two. Yonder are a couple of mannikins, who having equal rights in a single pair of skates, and not being able to agree as to priority of claim, have divided the object of dispute and taken one each: they tumble about in emulation of each other; and the first who shall tire of the pummeling he gets, will surrender to the other the instrument of torture. Here comes, bareheaded to the weather, without a shirt to his back, and only a couple of shreds of shoes to his feet, a characteristic specimen of the nomadic population of London's vilest districts. Poor Josh the cadger, though his stomach is empty as his back is bare, and though he has neither skates to skate with, nor soles to his shoes to slide with, yet loves the ice with the instinct of his race, and must take his pleasure upon it. A lump of ice is all the apparatus he demands, and with one foot, whose red toes peep out from the worn-out shoe, fixed firmly upon that, he propels himself forward with the other, shouting with the pleasurable excitement, and as insensible to the sharp arrows of the east wind as he is, alas! to the duties and obligations of a life whose tenth winter finds him proof against all outward assaults.
    But it is worth while to turn our attention to the business part of the affair. Wherever in London pleasure is sought, there business waits upon the seekers, and even though there be but a chance of turning a penny, the chance is not thrown away, and the penny is turned if possible. Hence we have here, on the ice in St. James's Park, professionals of various kinds doing a trade and earning small gains under circumstances in which a provincial would hardly think of gain at all. First, here is the skate-jobber: he has brought a long bench, upon which he displays a score or two of pairs of skates, of various value, and which he hires out by the hour, at a charge of from four-pence to a shilling. He screws them into your Wellingtons, and straps them on to your feet, and when you have deposited their value with him, not for fear that you, being a gentleman, should run away with them, but merely to insure himself from the accident of your getting under the ice, in which case your executors might demur to his claim; then, having the cash in hand, he leaves you to glide at your pleasure wherever you choose. He makes hay, not when the sun shines, but when the east wind blows and the snow falls; and as he nets a few pounds in a good day, he would soon make a competence were the winters as durable here as they are in Holland. Next to the skate-jobber is the poor but handy fellow, who, having no capital, is proprietor of a chair or two and a gimlet, and who is glad to earn twopence by fastening on the skates of gentlemen who provide their own. When you have paid your twopence you are free of his chair, and may rest upon it whenever it is unoccupied and you are so disposed. Then come the sweepers; these are numerous, and if much snow be falling they have no sinecure: they sweep up the snow in a central mound, round which the skaters keep up a constant race: the contributions they levy are perfectly voluntary; but their services are of too much value to pass unrewarded. Even if there be no snow, the ice becomes in a short time so cut up by the skaters as to render their brooms indispensible. They are a numerous fraternity, and each one of them has abandoned a crossing in some public thoroughfare, to enjoy the combination of pleasure and business upon the frozen surface of the water. Next comes the strap-merchant: he is fringed around with dangling thongs of leather terminating in metal buckles, and his appearance is especially welcome to the proprietor of an old mildewed pair of skates, which, having been thrown by without cleaning after last winter's usage, will not submit to be buckled on without some portion at least of new harness. us stock-in-trade brings him a thumping profit, because he charges in a ratio settled by the necessities of the purchaser, rather than by the cost of production. His wares have a very suspicious resemblance to garters, under which denomination, in all likelihood, he retails them upon terra firma. And now a cheerful voice rings out in the frosty air, "Brandy-balls - balls-balls! Here you are! Brandy-balls, four a penny! Hot spiced gingerbread - the raal sort - hot as fire!" This orator, who is an old soldier, is the dispenser of the only sort of refreshment to be obtained on the ice; and he is a contraband dealer who has smuggled his goods into the park, where no traffic is allowed, though in the present instance it is not thought worth while to interfere with him. His "brandy-balls" are a kind of globular sweetmeats, totally innocent of alcohol, which is represented by an extra dose of peppermint and perhaps a flavour of cayenne; and his hot spiced nuts are a species of gingerbread, in the composition of which the ginger is out of all proportion with the bread - a single mouthful being enough to inflame your palate for the rest of the day. So soon as he makes his appearance, the lads flock round him with their pence, but a warning crack of the ice beneath their united weight scatters them like chaff, and, the old soldier first setting the example, there is a general rim upon the bank, where he can do business in security, and soon disposes of the contents of his tray.
    By this time the surface of the ice is crowded to an extent altogether incompatible with the safety of the multitude, and hundreds more are hurrying to get on. The long slides are covered with straddling figures from one end to the other, and the skaters have gradually formed into an endless chain, which wheels round the whole area of the lake, at a few yards from the shore. The spectacle, though animated enough, is not very pleasant to look upon. The tent of the Royal Humane Society, where all the appliances for restoring suspended animation are ready for immediate use, suggests unpleasant associations. Numbers of the Society's men perambulate the banks ready for an emergency, which it is but too plain they arc anticipating. Beneath the pressure of perhaps nine or ten thousand persons darting rapidly about in every direction, the surface of the ice bends and waves and undulates like the gentle swell of a summer sea. Suddenly an awful noise, comparable to no other natural sound that we know of proclaims that the impending calamity has taken place; it produces a general panic, during which there is a simultaneous rush to the shore, and the tumult on the ice is at an end, while all run eagerly to that part of the ground which commands The nearest view of the disaster. On turning our eyes in that direction, we are aware that a large section of the ice has given way, and that from ten to twenty individuals, submerged up to their necks, are holding on to its sharp edges, to keep themselves from sinking. One of them has a friend skating near him, and who makes an effort to rescue him. First he plucks the silken tie from his neck, and coming as near as he dares, tries to throw it within reach of his friend; but the wind is against him, and blows it away. Then he tears off one of his skates, fastens that to the neckerchief, and swings it within the grasp of the imperilled lad; now, with a long and steady pull, he strives to hoist him out, and has nearly succeeded when the frail silk breaks, and the poor fellow sinking over head and ears with a plunge is lost to view. But he rises again, shaking his head like a water- dog, and repeats the experiment: again it fails, and again he falls back into the icy flood. The third time, while, amid the encouraging cheers of the spectators, he is on the point of succeeding, the ice upon which his friend is standing gives way, and the two friends, now both submerged together, present their rueful faces over the edge of the ice, and beckon for assistance from shore. While this has been going on, some few have already been extricated by means of ropes prudently laid across the ice in expectation of a demand for them. But now the Society's boat, a light, broad, flat- bottomed tub, is seen rapidly advancing in the distance, propelled by a man who runs in its rear. Now it crashes over the edge of the ice, as the man who has it in charge throws himself into it, and it is floating buoyantly in the midst of the drowning skaters. In two or three minutes they are all lugged safe on board, and the boat, now heavily freighted, is pulled by ropes to the shore, splintering the ice like glass in its passage, and cheered by cries of "Bravo!" and the clapping of twenty thousand palms that line the banks, as though the whole thing were a dramatic spectacle got up for the pub- lie amusement; occasionally, however, the drama is turned into a tragedy, and the unhappy skater sinks before the eyes of the multitude to rise no more in life.
    The half-drowned patients become inmates of the Royal Humane Society's tent, where those that require it are put into a hot bath, and otherwise medicated until they are in a fit condition to be delivered over to their friends. A dose of extra strong stimulants enables a man of good constitution, who has not been long submerged, to walk home and take care of himself; while it not unfrequently happens that another who escaped drowning through the timely aid of the Society shall die from the results of the accident ere the leaves are upon the trees. The number of persons thus rescued from almost certain death during the frosts of a long winter by the instrumentality of this society alone, is something almost incredible. We have ourselves seen from thirty to forty pulled out in one day. The unlettered cockney looks upon all this as a matter of course; he seems to think that he has an undisputed right to risk his life if he choose, and that the Royal Humane Society "have a right" to save if they can, as a matter of business, and that accounts are square between them.
    One would think that the moral effect of such an event as we have above described would be to deter the spectators of it from incurring such a risk in their own persons: and so it is, for five or perhaps ten minutes - but not much longer. Hardly a quarter of an hour has elapsed since the rescue of their companions, and again the fascination of the ice has lured its votaries to the much-loved sport. As the day wanes the cold intensifies - the sloppy surface becomes frozen hard, and with this favouring circumstance, the sport goes on with greater vivacity than ever. It must, however, cease with the darkness, which closes in rapidly. The sweepers are the first to disappear; there is no longer any chance of coppers, and the poor fellows have been so long fasting, that they will be glad to exchange the few they have picked up for something substantial in the shape of a meal. The skate-jobber, who is threshing his own shoulders to keep them warm, must stay till his last customer is satisfied, which may not be till the laggards are warned off by the gate-keepers, when, as the park has to be closed for the night, all must clear out. The sharp wind has cleared the evening sky of clouds; the moon in her second quarter gleams palely aloft; and the amateurs of skating, as they button up their great-coats, and turn up the collars about their ears, hug themselves with the agreeable conviction that "it will be a pelting hard frost to-night, and the ice will be as firm as brass to-morrow."