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


Upon' the site of what was once known as Toot Hill, or Tuttle, or Tote-Hill, and more lately as Tothill Fields - fields long since dead as mummies, and shrouded in mortar and buried in bricks, stood the village whose abandonment and transformation we have to deplore. It is unaccountable to us that though we lived in that village during many happy years of our youth, and though numbers must be yet alive who shared with us in the ill-assorted but characteristic mixture of the rural and the urban which thirty years ago rendered the spot in some respects an oasis in the great dry desert of London - yet the writers on the topography of the metropolis and its environs, from old Maitland, in whose time we have reason to believe it had existed for some years, down to Peter Cunningham, F.S.A., the clever and indefatigable author of Mr. Murray's burly red-coated hand-book, appear one and all to have ignored its unobtrusive being. Of the Tothill Fields, which in very old times were part and parcel of a manor of Westminster belonging to John Maunsell, a chancellor of England, they afford us abundance of information. Here the wealthy chancellor entertained King Henry the Third and his retinue in large tents - his hospitality being so much bigger than his house, that one-half of his guests could not get within the walls. Here the "wagers of battel" were decided, by which, in feudal times, rival claims to privilege and property were settled by the arbitrement of war - when learned judges and royal potentates, as well as the untaught populace, imagined that God would defend the right, and punish the wrong-doer,- always supposing that neither of the combatants, prior to entering the lists, had had recourse to "anie inchantement, sorcerie, or witchcraft, whereby the word of God might be inleased or diminished, and the devil's power encreased!" Either champion was obliged to make solemn oath in the presence of the sovereign and the judges, that he had in nowise resorted to any such parlous devices to secure success, before the right divine was accorded him of hewing his adversary in pieces with the sword, if he was of gentle blood, or of knocking his brains out, after having well battered his hide with a cudgel, if he happened to be a serf or.villein. This point settled, and fair play established, to it they went, with full confidence in the sanction of an overlooking Providence, never doubting for a moment that the "author of peace and lover of concord" mingled in the fray, and gave the victory to the rightful claimant! Here it was that, after the Parliamentary victory of Worcester, which lost the miserable Charles his crown and his life, twelve hundred Scotch soldiers who' had been taken prisoners in the battle, and slaughtered subsequently in cold-blood, were buried in a hollow, and sixty-seven loads of soil, at the cost to the commonwealth of thirty shillings, laid upon their graves. It was here, too, in the seventeenth century, that dissatisfied gentlemen resorted in search of that peculiar kind of satisfaction, which honourable minds contrived to distil from such grim ingredients as gunpowder and lead and cold steel. As the place became gradually built over, it grew less convenient for these private rencontres. Gentlemen could not fight in comfort in a vulgar atmosphere, and such satisfactory meetings were transferred, as most of our readers know, to the back of Montague House, to Chalk Farm, north of the city, and to other places classical in the history of gentleman-slaughter.
    But our village, in our time, was a peaceful village; and we must proceed,  now that it is no more, to trace out, if we can, its past history, and to restore it to the comprehension of the reader, such at least as it was in our own youthful days. All that we know of its origin may be comprised in a very few words. It· was about the middle of the seventeenth century, that one James Palmer, a bachelor of divinity, and a worthy and charitable man, founded an almshouse for the reception of twelve poor men and women, to each of whom he gave a perpetual annuity of six pounds and a chaldron of coals. In connection with the almshouses, he also erected a school for the gratuitous education of twenty. boys, who were to be taught to "read, write, and account;" and there was a master provided who had a salary of twelve pounds yearly, as well as a yearly chaldron of coals and a new gown every other year. The founder further erected a chapel for the use of the pensioners and scholars, in which, during the latter years of his life, he himself preached to and prayed with them twice every day. The almshouse and the school, in which the aged were housed and fed, the young educated, and both had the gospel preached to them, were, as far as we have been able to ascertain, the nucleus around which "Palmer's Village" rose into being. In those days Tothill,, or Toot-hill Side, was a gentle rise of verdant ground sloping pleasantly away towards the country, at a distance of something less than a mile westward of the old abbey of Westminster. It is pleasant to imagine hedge-rows and country stiles, and winding walks through the fields between them, and the almshouses with the little chapel with its congregation of two-and-thirty souls standing at first alone in the meadows, and to watch with "the mind's eye" the building of the first humble cottage beneath their walls, and then the gradual dotting of the greensward with the homes of the labouring poor, until the straggling irregular group of dwellings bad clustered by degrees into something like a hamlet, and gained itself a name, and men began to call it "Palmer's Village" in honour of the founder of the charity around which it grew. But these are things we can only imagine, and for the truth or falsity of which no man now is in a condition to vouch. Long before we knew it the advancing tide of brick and mortar had closed around the little village, and locked it up in the far-spreading embrace of the great Babylon, where, though hemmed in all around by crowded streets, dark narrow lanes and fetid courts, it yet retained many of the rural charms of its primal condition. It had yet a village green, though the narrow strip of dusty grass which justified the appellation was finally trodden out under our own eyes; and on the green, every first of May, up rose, reared by invisible hands in the night, the village May-pole, round which we have seen the lad and lasses dancing to the music of their own laughter. It had an old-fashioned way-side inn, the Prince of Orange; well we remember it, and its merry-faced and active little landlord, Wiggins, who never would be, still, and never could be sad, but with a perennial laugh on his lips and a joke on his tongue, welcomed the weary traveller to cheap and wholesome refreshment. Then there was Mrs. Wiggins who lived in the bar, and of whom nobody ever saw more than the head and shoulders - who was the living personification of a "portrait of a lady" three-quarter size, with a back-ground of bottles and decanters, and strange old- fashioned glasses, and dark blue specimens of Lilliputian china brought from beyond sea, and that identical "brown jug" which "was once Toby Philpot," and a long-necked vial of some mysterious cordial of her own concoction, the contents of which were not to be bought with money, but freely gurgled forth when sorrow-struck poverty sought the hospitality of the Prince, or accident laid a poor neighbour on the shelf. It is to be supposed that Mrs. Wiggins did sometimes evacuate the bar, but during all the years of our residence in the village we never bad the good fortune to see her at full length - and sure we are that, the bottles and the shelves must have cut but a melancholy figure, lacking the sunshine of her laughter-lighted countenance. The Prince of' Orange was a model of a village inn, as village inns are found in rural districts: it stood away from the road, retired modestly a few paces from the footpath: reared aloft on a strong squared beam, the Protestant Prince, baton in hand, swung backwards and forwards under the impulse of the wind, but being painted both sides alike on the pendulous board, he never turned his back on the public, and therein he was a faithful prototype of the landlord and landlady, who were ever to be found at their respective posts. Had he fallen down he would in all likelihood have pitched head foremost into the horse-trough, which, always full of pellucid water, ran along beneath him; but that was an event not to be thought of in a Protestant country, and of course it never happened. The house itself appeared at the first glance to be three parts roof, the long sloping grey tiles of which came down within seven feet or so to the ground, so that a man might reach them with his hand; but beneath that homely crust the way-worn traveller found order and cleanliness, wholesome fare, the whitest linen, and ready and cheerful service - and all at an honest price. We speak of the inn as it existed thirty years ago. What transformations it underwent before it finally vanished from the face of the earth we are in no condition to recount.
    Next to the inn, if indeed it ought not to rank before it, the most remarkable feature in our metropolitan village was the shop. Of what goes to the constitution of a village shop, such as that was in our day, and such as multitudes of others are at the present hour in remote country districts, the Londoner born within the sound of Bow Bells has for the most part not the remotest idea. The village shop cannot keep its head above water unless it monopolise the commerce of the whole neighbourhood. It is grocer and tea-dealer, and stationer and bookseller, and draper and haberdasher, and chemist and druggist, and jeweller and ironmonger, and seedsman and toyman, and egg-merchant and butterman - and though it be neither butcher, nor baker, nor tailor, yet it kills a periodical pig and sells country pork, and retails fancy loaves, biscuits and bricks (crusty), and slop coats and trowsers and gaiters and overalls, and a hundred things besides; in short, it does the work of Cheapside, Holborn, and the Strand, in a commercial way, all under one roof, for its own peculiar population. Such was the shop of our village in days of yore. Who was its prosperous proprietor we cannot recal to mind, and we are loth in this veritable narrative to instal any apocryphal Mr. Jones or Mrs. Brown in a dignity to which they have no just claim. The shop itself still lives in our memory as the seat of much merchandise and more gossip, and there are yet a few pages of closely written foolscap in our possession, which, under the denomination of bill-paper, we bought at its counter to serve as the record of some of our earliest lucubrations. We do not pretend that this one was the only shop in the village; it had a baker who was nothing but a baker, and a butcher who was nothing but a butcher, and both of them had shops of their own. Then there was the dress-maker who made a shop of her parlour window, where, having not yet learned to believe in gas, she stuck a single candle in the long winter nights to show the delicate beauties of a mob-cap and gophered collar-; and where she exhibited a notice, "Crimping done here," and displayed the identical crimping-machine, consisting of a couple of cogged brass cylinders, hollow for the reception of hot-irons, and turned by a small wooden handle affixed to the framework with which the mysterious process was accomplished. She was a tall and almost incredibly thin personage, with no shoulders and sharp cheek bones, and a wandering eye; she had the character of haughtiness with her customers, who were mostly servant maids. Mrs. Wiggins, who had a good word as well as a cordial for everybody, once described her in our hearing as "a good soul enough, but very unbending;" which, by the way, was not a precisely exact description if taken literally - seeing that Miss Gaudy, that was the dressmaker's name, did bend a little, only it was backwards and not forwards; in aspiring to the character of an upright woman she had attained to that and something beyond it.
    Her familiar friends called her Mrs. Gandy; the implied Mr. G. was however nothing more than a complimentary fiction; the dress-maker had never married, but she had passed the uncertain limit of a "certain age," and the matrimonial appellative was due to her mature appearance, and perhaps, who knows? was a balm to her feelings. 
    Then there was the village tailor, a sharp-nosed, fiery-eyed man of unknown proportions, seeing that we never beheld him elsewhere than at his open window, where he sat all day long, with a couple of pale--faced urchins at his side, upon a board level with the sill, cross-legged like a Turk, and stitching with his needle or singeing with his goose from one year's end to the other. We don't know how it came to pass, whether it was owing to the ferocious expression upon the man's face, or what - but certain it is that we identified him in imagination, from the very first, with the cruel tailor of Delhi, who stuck his needle into the elephant's trunk, and got a shower-bath of dirty water for his pains. He was the very man to have done such a thing, and we felt certain that if at any time an elephant out for a walk had happened to wander that way, and to have turned an inquiring snout into Rosser's open window, Rosser would have stuck his needle in it, as sure as fate: it wasn't in him to have helped it. So we never think of the resentful elephant of Delhi without thinking, too, of Rosser and his two pale-faced apprentices, and that shining sleeve- board and hot-smelling goose, and the dreadful contortions of countenance which their master used to exhibit when engaged in the ticklish experiment of covering a blind button with a jacket of stiff corduroy.
    As we stand gazing in at the tailor's open window we hear, with memory's ear, the metallic sound of the broad hammer of the blacksmith. "The brawny blacksmith bangs broad bars for bread" just round the corner: he is a short, sturdy fellow, and, like most members of his trade, strong and of a massive build, with a beard which has been growing ever since last Saturday night, and a pair of shaggy eye-brows, beneath which a couple of fat eyes wink and glimmer like sparks from his forge. He can hammer out a horse-shoe in,, we forget exactly how many minutes, or fractions of a minute ; and he is known through all Westminster among the hackney- coachmen and grooms, as a cheap, safe, and expeditious hand, at a horse's foot. He is strong enough, as the village barber says, to make a show of, and can bend a crown piece and straighten it again, with his fingers; and could knock your life out with a blow of his fist if he chose, only he doesn't choose anything of the sort, being tender-hearted, and fond of children and pet birds, and lop-eared rabbits, and everything or anything that is weak and helpless. You should see him lay aside his work and forge a new tooth for a peg-top, to pacify a whimpering boy, the child of a neighbour, who has disabled his toy by rough usage, and note how tenderly  with his hard hands he wipes away the tears from the child's' face, ere he sends him off exulting to his playfellows. It is, one of nature's compensations, that such formidable Samsons as our village blacksmith are rarely found without some touch of tenderness in their composition, which tames their wilds strength, even when, from the untoward circumstances of their life, the influence of education is not brought to bear upon them. Our blacksmith, though he can barely read a chapter in the Testament, and keeps all his accounts with a piece of chalk and the back of his smithy door, is a practical musician, and you may hear him of a Sunday afternoon hammering out upon a set of pendent bells, the psalm tunes he has heard at Westminster Abbey in the morning; and you will hear too, if you listen long, that he has a family around him who are chiming in with very faint and juvenile voices, which gladden his heart as he enjoys his weekly holiday.  
    We have mentioned the barber. Our barber is, however, not exactly a barber-not to the manner born, or bred. He is an old soldier with a pension of twelve pounds a year, who has resigned the sword and assumed the razor. He rarely shaves except on a Saturday, and then, as he remarks, he reaps a very sandy crop, and is obliged to cultivate a peculiar kind of razor to reap it at all. The rest of his time he employs in strop-making, with which he does, it is said, a good stroke of business. He travels the city every Monday, carrying his wares in a bag, which he generally contrives to bring home empty in his pocket. He is hand and glove with the Wigginses, so he is in fact with everybody, and executes all their commissions in town; and it is observed that he always calls upon Miss Gandy on the morning of the day when he sets forth on his weekly tour. What is the nature of the business that he transacts for her, nobody knows: and he is never heard to breathe a syllable about it himself, which, by the way, is a sure sign that he is not a real barber.
    Our village - the reader will remember we are carried back in spirit thirty years - our village has no doctor, no apothecary, no surgeon, though it is not wanting in patients, and, indeed, is a favourite resort of poor invalids and convalescents who cannot afford a better. Its doctor and surgeon and apothecary, we are bound to confess, is Westminster Hospital* (* Westminster Hospital removed to the new building in Broad Sanctuary, at the eastern end of Tothill-street, in 1833.) which stands not very far from the western boundary of the village, and within an easy walk for the out-patients. The hospital is one source of Wiggins's prosperity; he serves the daily beer ordered for the patients, and, at dinner-time and supper-time, is busy as a bee in filling a monstrous travelling-can, which be wheels himself to the hospital door, when it is lifted into the hall, and the nurses being in attendance, they are served in rotation. The patients receive, of course, what is prescribed for them by the medical men, and the household staff have what is allotted by the established dietary. It is reckoned an honour to serve the hospital, and it is a profit to the publican in more ways than one, inasmuch as that beverage which medical practitioners prescribe for their patients may be justly regarded by the public as what it professes to be - the genuine brewst of malt and hops. On a fine summer's evening the out-patients of the hospital, not a few of whom have temporary lodgings in the village, may be seen sunning themselves at their doors, watching, with smiles on their wan faces, the children at play, and inhaling the fresh breeze that blows at sundown after the heat of the day. When the nurses have a holiday, they love to spend an hour in a visit to the village, and a gossip with their old proteges, the convalescent patients, with whom they exchange news of the world within and the world without the hospital. 
    Our village, in appearance, does not much resemble the rest of the brick and mortar paradise of London. Properly speaking, there are no regular streets in it; rows of houses, chiefly cottages, there are, but they do not stand face to face, like the two sides of a street proper - but face to back, like ranks of soldiers in a regiment; and it is thought that, like a regiment, they will be marched off the ground some day.
    There are little odd-shaped and triangular patches of ground here and there, which might perhaps, by a stretch of courtesy, be called streets; but nobody calls them streets - they are Palmer's Village, all of them, and nothing else - the post- master and the postman lump them all together, and the latter I has to learn the whereabouts of each inhabitant, or if he can't find him to leave the letter at the Prince of Orange, where the correspondent will be sure to get it when he comes for his supper-beer. Most of the ground not required for  traffic - and there is not very much of that - is laid out in gardens, which, though they have a rather dusty hue, abound in summertime with the old English cottage flowers, the hollyhock, the polyanthus, the bloody-warrior, the cabbage-rose, the marigold, the sun-flower, all intermingled with flat beds of onions and vistas of kidney-beans and scarlet-runners. After a shower, when the rain has washed the dust off them, they look uncommonly bright and gay, and then there is a grateful perfume in the air not to be encountered in any other district in London, broad as it is. The gardens are well-railed off, securely though in a homely way; if they were not they would soon cease to be gardens, because the natives of our village are a good many of them descendants of certain patriarch goats, and pigs, and geese, and ducks, and bantam fowls, who came in with the early settlers, when there was plenty of grass land in the neighbourhood for their accommodation. From time immemorial their sires were free of the village, and though the several races have considerably diminished of late years, there are yet enough of them remaining to give the locality something like a farming aspect. The ducks yet contrive to pick up a living, partly helped by the remains of everybody's dinner which are daily thrown out to them, and partly by the care of the duckweed merchant, who makes his periodical rounds; it is they and the geese, we suspect, who have gradually eaten up the best part of the village green, of which the last straggling roots of grass are dying out. There is an old Billy goat, with a long beard, which ought to be grey, though it isn't, who is the progenitor of half the guardian goats in London. We say guardian goats, because there exists a superstition among the ostlers, grooms, and stable-keepers in London, by which goats of all grades enjoy protection and good treatment; it is supposed that the presence of a goat in a stable, or in that cancatenation of stables called a mews, secures all the horses there stabled from the attacks of certain diseases to which they would otherwise be liable. Hence Billy or Nanny is a pet in the stable-yard, and is so well fed and well used that he or she is familiar with all and afraid of nobody. Perhaps this superstition might be traced back to the old Mosaic ceremonial of the scape-goat of the wilderness - who can tell? We cannot say much in favour of the pigs; they are voted a nuisance, and seem to be conscious that they are not in good odour; but they are learned in their way, and know the map of Westminster as well as the postman. They invade Petty France, which is not half a mile off, every morning, and amidst the ineffable filth of that indescribably filthy district they grout and grunt and snuffle through the livelong day.
    We have met the village pig before now as far away as the Broad Sanctuary, but we never knew of his losing his way, or failing to return at night to his supper and his sty. We must not omit all mention of the village cow; she is the last of her race, and always reminds us, by her melancholy face, of poor Io, who was vaccinated by Jupiter from fear of Juno's jealousy. She wanders about the village, turning a woebegone countenance and lack-lustre eye this way and that in search of her lost calf; and to the tune of "New Milk from the Cow," bellowed in alt by Jerry Dings her owner, parts with the precious beverage, a ha'porth at a time, to the lovers of the genuine article. Poor thing she is an impostor after all; the milk she gives is sheer sky-blue, and would no more yield a dish of cream than the veriest chalk and water concocted in the Seven Dials. But she cannot help it. She has never grazed a green field since her horns first budded; the cud she chews is composed of brewers' grains and musty hay, instead of the dewy daisied sward or croppings from the cowslip bank. She totters on her feet as she drags on her daily rounds, and is already resigned to inexorable fate, which, in the shape of a sausage-machine, is "looming in the distance."
    But we must awake up from the visions of the past. The remorseless now puts its extinguisher upon these old recollections, and compels us, however unwilling, to record the decline and fall of what is now but an empire of dreams. The decline of Palmer's Village may date, if we mistake not, from the invention of cabs, which some few years before the hospital was removed to its new site, began to overrun the metropolis. The cabs and their struggling proprietors pitched, as if by instinct, upon the village and its patches of enclosable land, and by degrees monopolised a good part of the territory. Shed-built stables rose on the sites of the pleasant gardens - dung-heaps banished the bloom and the fragrance of the flowers - broken-kneed, broken-winded, glandered, blind, and spavined hacks supplanted the pigs and the poultry. With the cabs of course came cabmen, and with the cabmen  equally of course came late hours and midnight riot, and gin-drinking and squabbling. Then the hospital moved away, and the Prince of Orange lost his best customer; the village shop followed in its wake, and was transformed into a chemist and druggist's. Poor Miss Gandy took fright at the onset of the Jehus, and carried off her crimping machine to a quiet retreat in Pimlico. We ourselves stood it out as long as we could; and indeed Palmer's Village had been swallowed up and buried alive in unmitigated Westminster - the filth, moral and material, of the dirty world around had got possession of its sacred precincts, before we could find heart, like Dick Dowlas, to pack up our linen in a blue-and-white pocket handkerchief, and bid a final farewell to the pleasant home of our youth-at length a pleasant home no longer.
    Since then we have wandered far and wide about the world, and done and suffered many things, about which we are not going to say anything here; and time has thinned our flowing hair, and grizzled what is left of it; and we have forgotten many things which it might have been as well to have remembered-but we have never forgotten, we could not forget, the old village. The other day- "last Wednesday was a week," as Boniface says, one of those pensive events which sometimes occur in the lives of all of us, the particulars of which we need not relate, sent us impromptu on an exploring expedition to see what had become of Palmer's Village. The overland route from merry Islington, where it is our lot to dwell, is easily practicable by means of the "Favourite" omnibus, which, for the modest charge of four-pence, takes you up at Highbury, and drops you, after a wholesome shaking of four or five miles, within the shadow of Westminster Abbey, from whence a walk of twenty minutes takes you to the site of the subject of our paper. It was riot without a gush of tenderness, and a twitching at the heart and the eyelids, that leaving the Abbey behind us, we plunged into the narrow, dirty throat of Tothill-street, where Southerne, the author of "Isabella" once dwelt, in a house yet standing-and where yet stands, too, the "Cock" public-house, which stood while the Abbey was re-building by Henry the Third-and proceeded on our way towards the once well-known spot. We might have saved ourselves the trouble and the pain. Arrived at the place where it ought to have been, not a vestige of it could we trace, but in its stead there ran a broad new road sheer through the heart of it, which had pushed the whole village out of its way in its unceremonious advance. The new road is almost upon a level with the roofs of the old cottages, which are thrown down and their sites converted into building-ground, which, as everybody knows, is of all wildernesses the most desolate and forbidding.
    "Pa'mer's Willidge," said a sallow-faced Westminsterian youth of whom we made inquiry; " there ain't no sich place as I knows on." And we were obliged to have recourse to a reverend elder who sat at the door of a marine store in a neighbouring street.
    "Palmer's Village," said he, "why, your honour's the fust as has axed me that question for many a year; rek'let it? to be sure I do, man and boy fifty year and more. Why, bless. your art, I don't think there's a bit on it left stannin'. Let me see; yes, there is though. You see them boards yander over the brick wall - that's abit on it; but taint much you'll say; but you won't find no more on it, I reckon. 'Tis curous that you should ax arter it though."
    "And what have they done with the Prince of Orange?"
    "There ain't a lath on it left-all gone as clean as a whistle; but they're a buildin' a new un, a slap up house to match wi' the new neighbourhood as is to be."
    "And Mr. Wiggins - what is become of him?"
    "There you has me hard! Wiggins didn't do kindly like, arter his wife's death (she were a goodish soul, she were, a spry little ooman) ; and he gived up the Prince, and they do say he went to Jarsey, and died there ; but I can't tell'ee for sartin."
    "One question more -What became of the blacksmith?"
    "What - that used to play the bells?"
    "The same."
    "Well, he can play the bells all day if he likes now. Why, he made a fortune out o' railway carriage buffers, or suth' n o' the sort, and he's quite a gemman now. I seen him four year agone a drivin' in a open carriage wi' a pair o' grey ponies over Westminster Bridge. He's all right anyhow, I should think."
    And this was all the information we could obtain - the whole and sole record of the vanished village, of which not a trace beyond a few old walls, and rusty, mildewed hoardings remained. We strolled musingly about the deserted spot, over the piles of irregular earth and among the mounds of broken bricks and dried mortar; occupied the while in the anxious attempt to connect any, the slightest, vestige yet on the ground with our cherished associations of the past. It was not to be done. The home of some of our happiest years had been blotted out of the world; and its very memory must soon pass away from the earth, seeing that it lives in the recollections of few who care to remember it, and that no local historian has condescended to allot it a place in its pages.
    This brief sketch will soon be all that survives of Palmer s Village; and perhaps it may be allowed to serve at once for its history and its funeral oration.