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 has been my custom for many years past to regard the Streets of London as an open book, in which he that runs to and fro may read as he goes along, gathering not merely amusement and excitement, but valuable instruction too, from its ever varying pages. From time to time, as the opportunity of leisure has been afforded me, I have, often in the intervals of severe toil, jotted down the results of such observations as I was enabled to make, and transmitted them through the post to the editors of various periodicals, who, for reasons best known to themselves, have encouraged me, far more liberally than I either anticipated or deserved, to continue the practice. These contributions to the serial literature of the day have, in the course of the last six or seven years, grown by degrees to a considerable bulk; and, moved by the favour which some of them have met with, and by the flattering reception which has been accorded to a volume of personal memoirs, I am encouraged to test still further the good nature of the Public.
    In the "Working-Man's Way in the World" I had to draw upon my own experience for materials; and I cut short my tale when that experience no longer afforded matter which could be considered interesting to the general reader. But in the following papers I have had the experience of others to deal with, - so far, that is, as it was patent to observation - and the task of recording it has been one of more pleasure and less difficulty. The ways of men in London present an inexhaustible subject for the sketcher, whether he work with the pencil or the pen. The field, is so large - the variety so great - there is so much of the picturesque in form, and of the characteristic and suggestive in manners, habits, and modes of life, that that groat-less individual, the "man of observation," need never be at a loss for an object or a subject upon which to exercise his speculative tendencies, or his descriptive talent - if he have any. In assuming this character myself, and while indulging in the pleasure of delineating such humble phases of our social and artificial condition as the reader will find in the following pages, I have kept two things constantly in view. In the first place, I have cautiously refrained from knowingly overstepping the limits of fact - because, whatever merits a work professedly descriptive of human life and conduct may possess, it cannot lack fidelity and be of any real value. In the second place, I have endeavoured, however trivial the topics, to clothe each one in something resembling at least a literary garb. It is true there was no other necessity for this than the necessity, perhaps, of my own vanity or capricious fancy - but which was so far imperative, that had I not written in this way, I should not have written at all. The reader may, however, rely upon the truth of the details he will here peruse. The only fictions are those harmless and transparent ones in which the writer has chosen sometimes, for obvious reasons, to involve both himself and some designations of persons and places which it would not have been prudent to call by their real names. The several characters on his canvas are all studies from the life, and the back-grounds in which they figure may be verified at any hour by the dweller in London. In some few cases, where personal narratives are given, they are in substance the actual experience of the personages to whom they are attributed - with the exception of one or two, the living prototypes of which only supplied a general outline, which it was left to imagination to fill up.
    With regard to one of these characters, the "Blind Fiddler," whose history, recorded in his own words, will be found at page 80, I may be allowed in this place to return my acknowledgments to those unknown but benevolent friends who, instigated by the publication of his story in "Chambers's Journal," forwarded to me the means of ameliorating in some degree the hard conditions of his lot. It is a pleasant task to return thanks for unsolicited kindness to an unfortunate stranger; and there is no valid reason why I should not couple it with another pleasure-that of returning my compliments to a coterie of "respectable" rascals who promised to break my head for exposing the villany of the "Knock-Out."
    Having thus briefly discharged my obligations to friends and foes, nothing remains but to commend my book to the kind courtesies of the gentle reader, and I "still more gentle purchaser" into whose hands it may chance to fall.

Islington, Oct. 1853