Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - A Sketch from the West-End

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IT is very curious to speculate as to what part of England will ultimately be the West-end of London - no less than to watch the gradual progress that the apparent desire of the fashionable world to get still nearer the sunset has made in that direction for many years. Keeping within the recollection of old inhabitants still extant, we find that the anomalous neighbourhood between the Foundling Hospital and Red Lion Square, north and south, and Gray's Inn Lane and Bloomsbury, east and west, was once the patrician quarter of London. The houses, even in their decay of quality, have a respectable look. Their style of architecture is passť, it is true; but they evidently make a great struggle to keep up appearances. If chance leads you into them, you will find that they are all similarly appointed, even to their inhabitants. All the furniture is rubbed up to the last degree of friction polish, and the carpets are brushed cleanly threadbare. The window-curtains, blanched in the sun of thirty or forty summers, until their once crimson hue has paled to a doubtful buff: the large semicircular fireplace, with its brass-handled poker and latticed fender: the secretary and large flap-table, on which is the knifecase with its forlorn single leaf, or shell, in marqueterie on the cover - all remain as they were. Even the ancient [-85-] landladies have given the same conservative care to their flaxen fronts and remarkable caps. They are grave and dignified in their demeanours, for they believe Great Ormond Street still to be the focus of the West-end. It is long since they have been out, to learn to the contrary: left stationary, whilst Time has flown by them, like an object in the tranquil side-water of a stream whilst similar ones are hurried past with the torrent, they still regard Russell and Bedford Squares as their Belgravia - for at every epoch all fashionable parts of town had an ultra-aristocratic neighbourhood. So, when the superior classes still moved on towards the west, colonizing Percy and Newman Streets and the old thorougfares [sic, ed.] about Soho, Fitzroy and Golden Squares were in turn looked up to.
    Proceeding in two parallel directions, divided by Oxford Street, Hanover Square gradually declined before that of Grosvenor, and Portman rose above Manchester. Still fashion kept marching on-the former division tending towards May Fair, and the latter to the Edgware Road; until the first turned aside in its course by Hyde Park, reached the site of Belgravia, and the second, heedless of the associations connected with the gallows, and the decaying foliage of the Bayswater tea gardens, colonized Tyburnia for its territory.
    And powerful indeed are the rules which fashion issues from these strongholds. She directs our tastes in amusements, and regulates our own private economy, whether we will or no. She turns night into day - sends us to bed in the fresh morning, and calls us up at noon, if indeed so early; she even sets the laws of Nature at defiance - repudiates the four seasons of the [-86-] old calendars, and merges them all into one, which begins and ends whenever she pleases.
    We cannot learn the ingress of the West-end London season by the almanacs. None of those mystic marks which Francis Moore so delights in - those hooks and eyes and signs from chemists' bottles - would be of the slightest use in determining its commencement, even to those who understood them. But there are certain signs by which the initiated recognise its approach, and prepare for it accordingly, as certainly as though they were anticipating a shower of rain from a low weather-glass.
    The earliest indication of this is the opening of the theatre for the French plays, when, in astrological language, Mitchell enters St. James's. Before that, we do not know who is in town; but the subscription list collects the earliest harbingers of spring - long before the swallows - together. The shutters of the West-end squares open again, and the newspapers that covered the blinds disappear: the chandeliers cast their brown holland skins, and the chairs, sofas, and ottomans, that have been hybernating in the same manner, come out as gay as ever. Then, before the pantomimes have died, away in the blaze of their last scene - before the clown has put his head under the curtain, and bidden a final "good night" to his friends, come the announcements of the Operas; dinner-parties collect the autumnal truants together again, and cards increase in the bowl of the drawing-room, or looking- glass frame of the chambers, until Easter passes, the days lengthen, and the Season, par excellence, commences in all its glory.
    And then, indeed, the West-end generally is, towards [-87-] afternoon, worth seeing-as different a world to the City in its habits, its population, and its pursuits, as though the two parts of the metropolis were hundreds of miles apart. In what a whirl are the great thoroughfares : it puzzles one to think where so many pretty women, and fine horses, and elegant equipages, can come from. The pavement, too, is almost obliterated by the flaneurs, and the entrances to the shops blockaded by servants. Every shade of tint in the prism may be found in the dresses that the eye can gaze at in ten minutes; every style, or mode, of dress that Paris can invent will pass within the same time. And there is no repose - no cessation of motion in this turmoil. Crowds of fresh women, and horses, and equipages, succeed the others ; the thunder of wheels and knockers never dies away; the last parties going home to dinner meet the first coming down to the operas or theatres. Until grey morning does this dash, and glitter, and heated dusty excitement go on; and then the West-end population goes to bed, and, for a while, leaves the stage clear for those whose exertions are required to administer to its wants or fancies.
    The close of the West-end season must not be taken as the close of summer weather - very far from it. When it ends, the leaves are still deeply green upon the trees, the sun bright and warm, and the days sufficiently long for anything. New pleasures, new whirls of excitement begin for the patricians, and, following as usual in their wake, the parvenus. Then come the pleasant parties at country-houses, for race-balls, picnics, and charades; the creeping about the coast, or, perhaps, boldly crossing to Cherbourg in yachts, or sleeping in Southampton water, or glittering in the [-88-] sunlight off Cowes; the attempt to reproduce Regent Street and the Parks on the cliffs of Brighton.
    And now the West-end becomes a perfect desert. The thousands who leave London make no difference to the stream of life that daily flows along its business thoroughfares; but Regent Street assimilates to Pompeii in its loneliness. There are no more lines of carriages at the kerb ; no concert programmes at the music-shops; nor bouquets and lap-dogs on the pavements. Men run in and out of their clubs in a shy and nervous manner, as though they were burrows; not caring to be seen, and inventing lame reasons for their continuance in London. You may wander all round Eaton Square without finding a single window lighted up, or meeting one carriage rolling along, with its lamps like two bright eyes, to a party. All have departed  -the handsome girls to recruit their somewhat jaded strength, and recover from the pallor induced by late hours and the thousand fretting emotions of society; the men to shoot, and ride, and sail; the heads of the families to retain their caste, because it is proper to do so; but all to get away as soon and as fast as they can, when Parliament is prorogued, and the grouse are reported to be ready for slaughter.
    It is a matter of some interest to inquire where the autumnal tourists intend to go this year. Every avenue of the Continent appears to be so closed to them that Europe has become a species of enormous maze, requiring the utmost caution and ingenuity to thread its perplexities in safety. This state of things will not induce home-travelling, as the Cumberland and Llan-eversomuch innkeepers fondly believe ; because a man gets no attention paid him in society if he only talks about [-89-] Derwentwater or Snowdon, whereas he commands an audience directly if he alludes to Zurich or Vesuvius. Some new route will, without doubt, be struck out, and all the world - which means the West-end and its dependencies - will follow it. Where it will be we cannot as yet state, but we may perhaps attempt to pourtray the feelings of the "travelling English" in this dilemma, in the following lyric:-




The season's drawing to a close,
And all are leaving town- 
Some seek the lakes, and Wales, and some
To country-seats go down!
But I dislike home travelling,
It is so dull and dear!
And so one question worries me,- 
Where can we go this year?


I've walked upon the Ramsgate sands- 
I've seen the Isle of Wight,
And nodded to the Gravesend bands 
That play from morn till night.
And Guernsey is too far away,
And Brighton is too near,
And dreary Worthing s like a tomb- 
Where can we go this year?

[-90-] III.

We cannot venture into France, 
For every one s afraid
Of being upset, coach and all, 
To form a barricade!
Besides, all those who value life 
Must see at once "Mourir 
Pour la patrie"
is rather slow- 
Where can we go this year?


We cannot even see Mont Blanc; 
In fact I scarcely know
Whether or no Sardinia's heat 
Has melted all its snow.
About the Schleswig-Holstein row 
My notions are not clear,
Except that they are fighting too- 
Where can we go this year?


And even Milan's handsome streets, 
So tidy always kept,
By Lombardy's artillery
Are night and morning swept! 
And on to Venice, all the way
We should be in the rear
Of fighting troops and bellowing guns- 
Where can we go this year?


And Spain just now is not at all 
The lodging for John Bull,
[-91-] And e'en the "bella Napoli"
Of squabbling mobs is full.
In fact, whichever way you turn, 
One sentiment you hear,
Which seems to mean "A bas le monde!"
Where can we go this year?


America is insolent,
The Cape won't do at all,
And China s used-up since the junk 
Was anchored at Blackwall.
And Chartists soon at Botany Bay 
Will swarm-indeed 't is clear
That Timbuctoo's the only place 
For tourists left this year.


[-nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.-]