Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - The Casino

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SOME time back - dates are dry things, so we need not care about the precise year - there existed in the neighbourhood of the Lowther Arcade an establishment called the Adelaide Gallery.
    It was at first devoted to the diffusion of knowledge. Clever professors were there, who emulated the transatlantic acquirement of "knocking all creation into a cocked hat," by teaching elaborate sciences in lectures of twenty minutes; fearful engines revolved, and hissed, and quivered, as the fettered steam that formed their entrails grumbled sullenly in its bondage; mice led gasping subaqueous lives in diving-bells; clock-work steamers ticked round and round a basin perpetually, to prove the efficacy of invisible paddles; and on all sides were clever machines which stray visitors were puzzled to class either as coffee-mills, water-wheels, roasting-jacks, or musical instruments. There were artful snares laid for giving galvanic shocks to the unwary; steam-guns that turned bullets into bad sixpences against the target; and dark microscopic rooms for shaking the principles of teetotalers, by showing the wriggling abominations in a drop of the water they were supposed daily to gulp down by pints.
    Then came a transition stage in the existence of the Adelaide Gallery, at first stealthily brought about. [-27-] The oxy-hydrogen light was slily applied to the comic magic-lantern; and laughing gas was made instead of carbonic acid. By degrees music stole in; then wizards; and lastly talented vocal foreigners from Ethiopia and the Pyrenees. Science was driven to her wit's end for a livelihood, but she still endeavoured to appear respectable. The names of the new attractions were covertly put into the bills, sneaking under the original engines and machines in smaller type. She was an exemplification of the old story of the decayed gentlewoman, who, driven to cry "Muffins" for her existence, always hoped that nobody heard her. 
    But, between the two stools of philosophy and fun, Science shared the usual fate attendant upon such a position - she broke down altogether. Her grave votaries were disgusted with the comic songs, and the admirers of the banjo were bored with the lectures. So neither went to see her; poor Science declined into the Gazette; and, vague as to money matters and accounts - her common failing - fled to America.
    But during all this time a mania for dancing had been gradually coming on, and at last burst forth. Not even the propensity of St. Vitus, when, in the middle ages, a red slipper placed on the highway was sufficient to collect and set going a host of dancing maniacs in his popular pas, could have kept pace with the movement. New dances were called for, and new music for them. The supply was equal to the demand; the domestic "Paine's First Set," of Quadrille's childhood, was laid aside for Herz; then for Musard; and then for Jullien, Weippert, Coote, Bosisio, and a host of others. Clever people had always defined the earth [-28-] to be one large ball, and there was every chance of its practically proving the truth of the statement.
    Travellers also began to tell bright legends of Terpsichore's palaces in her own land - of the  Chaumiêre, with its bosquets and Montagnes Russes; of the guinguettes beyond the barriers of Paris; of the Chateau Rouge; and lastly, of the glittering Bal Mabille, with its palm-tree lights and trellises of bronze vines - its ruling spirits, whose names became great facts in Paris - the "grande brune" Mogador, the graceful Frisette and Rigolette, the inimitable student Brididi -  le moulin perpetuel, as he was called in the Quartier Latin - whom no one could approach in his wonderful gyrations ; and finally, the veteran Chicard. And at last all the steam-engines and water-works were cleared away, and the Adelaide Gallery was devoted entirely to the goddess of the "twinkling feet," and called a Casino.
    Imagine a very long and very high room - so high that there are two rows of museum-like galleries running round the walls, between the floor and ceiling. At one end is a capital orchestra, and beneath it a refreshment room; the entrance staircases are at the other. As you enter, a polka is going on, and the coup-d'oeil from the gallery is well worth the visit. At first the salle exhibits a scene of moving confusion similar to that which the drop of water formerly showed in the microscope. The dancers - and there may be sixty or eighty couples - are taking all directions, and, in all styles, yet seldom coming into collision. Some are slowly progressing, with short creeping steps, round. the outer boundary of the polka; others, more daring, drive up and down the centre with fearful rapidity; [-29-] but all dance well - certainly as well as the mass of habitués of the Paris public ball-rooms, and without a shade of impropriety. Should any, indeed, transgress in this respect, they are immediately expelled. 
    The polka finished, refreshments are eagerly sought after, and of these the " sherry-cobbler" is the one in greatest request. It must be confessed that the peculiar vintage to which "the golden wine of Xeres" used in that beverage belongs, is difficult of detection. But nectar, whatever it was, could not have been more delicious to the gods of old, than sherry-cobbler to the polkers. It is not strong to be sure; but this is an advantage, in addition to that of the corresponding modesty of price. It is amusing to drink, involving pneumatic and hydraulic principles taught in a far more pleasing manner than was once the case with the air-pumps, and many others, on the same spot. It is the most social refreshment known, as two straws may be employed in its absorption - straws that show clearly which way the wind blows; and when eyes are so closely opposed to one another, no one knows what may result. And, to the observer, it has the agreeable property of offering an occupation, whilst his vision remains unobstructed to be employed about him.
    Raise your own eyes from the floating lumps of crystal you are so intently watching, and let us point out to you the persons who pass in this droll kaleidoscope of London life. That good-tempered young man leaning against the railing, and talking to a small silver- grey plush bonnet, is an Earl. He is making an engagement for the next dance, when you will ser him the most active of all. By his side are two unmitigated Gents in white coats, and hats out of the perpendicular, [-30-] short sticks, and flaring cravats, who think they are "doing the fast" -  types of an overwhelming class. The two young men, lounging round, arm in arm, are in the Guards. They are nodding to a good-looking fellow with long spiral mustachios and jet-black eyes, in the reserved seats above, next to a very florid, merry-faced gentleman, whose blood is as nearly royal as may well be, and voice the same, to judge from the specimen the public is best acquainted with. Then comes a square-built paletote'd barrister, the best deux-temps waltzer in the place - the "Brididi" of the Casino - followed by two or three of less renown, who hang about him to share his popularity. Anon, a tribe of young littérateurs, making the visit on the strength of the "orders" of the journals with which they are connected. Next, a group of shop-boys, who would like to smoke if it was allowed; a few men-about-the-City from Mark Lane, Lothbury, and Throgmorton Street; some provincial visitors; one or two university men, out on the loose; and then a crowd of those faces you are so familiar with, about, in the London world, but whose names or families you never knew. This singular mass keeps moving round and round; and then the music begins again.
    Laurent's band is the best for its mission in London. The Casino is worth a visit, if it be only to hear it, and especially with Trien on the cornet: it fairly lifts you off your legs. Weippert's is very good, but better adapted to the West-end drawing-room or the county ball, where the separate excellence of the performers comes out to greater advantage; and Jullien's requires an immense number of musicians to give proper effect to his repertoire. Barnard's would be perfect if the other instruments did not, at times, swamp his own [-31-] admirable piano playing; and Adams's has been so lost in a connexion who incline to Lancers and Caledonians, and other painful fandangos, that we hardly know what he can do. Certainly, what he, or the master of the ceremonies, puts down in his rococo programmes, he plays most excellently well; but the dances themselves are atrocious.
    We really believe that the Casino is a wholesome institution; and that, far from propagating Gentism, it has, in a measure, suppressed it. Individuals who are cooped up all day, on high stools or behind counters, must have some method of setting free their constrained energies. In France they despoil palaces and upset thrones, when they are out on the loose; in England, formerly they stole knockers and smashed lamps; and they also got wonderfully drunk. Now, at time conclusion of a Casino programme - after a two hours' sudatorium - all these rollicking propensities are so thoroughly taken out of them, that the bed, which was formerly looked upon as a "slow" refuge, to be patronised, like home, when everything else had been used up, is very calmly resorted to. We are not going to anatomize the company at the Casino too minutely. Bad ingredients there are, without doubt, in its composition - but so there are in every public assembly; and the question is, whether these objectionable particles might not be worse occupied than in listening to a capital band, sucking up most inoffensive sherry cobblers, or flying round and round in a polka or waltz, until they have hardly got an atom of wind in their lungs, or a leg to stand upon?


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