Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 14 - Plebeian Flower Shows

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A JULY afternoon sun was blazing down on. the Broad Sanctuary when I turned beneath the shady archway that leads into Dean's Yard. Carriages were rolling through it; carriages were setting down their freights at the gate of the yard's quadrangle of grass and trees; outside the rails, gratefully availing themselves of the flickering shade of overhanging plane-leaves, stood waiting carriage-horses, champing their bits with foaming mouths, and impatiently tossing off the pestering flies that presumed to light on their proud heads and buzz about their aristocratic noses. The upper windows of the houses that give upon the yard were thrown up, and amused eyes looked down thence on the motley crowd that made a merry hubbub in the wontedly cleri-[-201-]cally sedate enclosure. High up, on one side, the gilding of the Victoria Tower flashed in the blue, cloudless sky; on another, the twin towers of the Abbey rose above the roofs, seemingly almost as white and sharply-cut as if just fresh from the pious hands of the builders of "the elder days of art." Out of the low grey school, with its squat archways, gnawn like bones by time, and the iron-grey, more ancient portion of its wall patched above with dingy brick, like the ragged fringe of a dusty Welsh wig overlapping a hard-featured veteran's forehead, "Westminsters" were trooping, as Westminsters have trooped for nearly a decade more than three centuries: Westminsters, in the "chimney-pot" which seems to be the modern regulation headgear of the non-foundation public school-boy; Westminsters, arm-in-arm and four abreast, en route for Vincent Square, in gay cricketing flannels; Westminsters, in collegiate cap and gown and "white choker" - the tiniest, and most solemnly self-important amongst them looking ludicrously like right reverend Tom Thumbs. A few lingered at the palisades to peep at the show, or to chat with fair young friends and beaming aunts and mammas within; one or two sauntered over the grass-plat in collegiate costume, with a de-haut-en-bas-like drawling gait (most aristocratic of mortals, in his own estimation, is the English public schoolboy); [-202-] but "charity-bobs," in muffin-caps and bands, and very seedy at the elbows, boisterously chasing one another, and stray, sulphur-winged butterflies, over the fast-yellowing lawn, littered with prematurely withered leaves, were far more numerously represented in the enclosure. Plebeian small boys of all kinds enjoyed a Saturnalia in the garden of the Dean's Yard. The little cockneys crowded the seat of a reading-desk, placed in readiness for the noble distributor of the prizes, as their holiday- making parents crowd a cab, grinning applause, in constantly supplanted detachments, of a very humorous "little vulgar boy," who thumped the lectern and favoured the public with extemporaneous discourse as energetically as a ranter-preacher. The saucy little varlets were not in the slightest degree awed by the presence of the potent, grave, and reverend dignitaries who patrolled the grass in the well- to-do, glossy-black sleekness, and sleepily-sly good-humour, which characterize English rooks and English clergymen who have nests in the shadow of a cathedral. The learned, variously- and-copiously gifted Dean was the only un-typical parson in appearance there. "Which is the Dean?" I heard a good woman anxiously ask of her Westminster friend, who was showing her the local lions. "What, that pale little gentleman in the trousers?" was the querist's disappointed rejoinder, when the [-203-] Dean was pointed out. "I thought Deans was fat, red-faced gentlemen, as wore breeches." The Westminster parishioner was scandalised by this irreverent mode of discussing Dr. Stanley's claims to the character of (literal) Broad Churchman, and answered, in a tone of loftily-indignant offence, "That's all you know, then. He may well look pale, for he's allus a-readin' or a-writin', or a-doin' sumfink or other good, as a parson ought to was. Other popular critics expressed disappointed surprise that the lords and ladies who rubbed shoulders with costermongers and charwomen on the ground, did not stand out with unmistakable distinctness from the bulk of well-dressed people - so far as dress went, indeed, were even less "splendacious" than anonymous assisters at the show. In only one instance, however, so far as I could see, did these criticisms take a form offensive to their subjects. An elderly "strong-minded woman," of the Ida Pfeiffer type, elbowed her way through the greasy throng with undaunted sang froid. Her petticoats of somewhat peculiar cut, were kilted; a broad-brimmed hat shaded a bronzed face and short-cut, grizzled, capless hair; the lady had also what might pass for a beard and a moustache. "It's a man dressed up," whispered the women through whose gossiping clusters the self-reliant "unprotected female" forced her way [-204-] - loud enough for her to hear. She smiled with grimly contemptuous compassion for her unenfranchised sex, when she overheard the comment; to be taken for a mere man, she evidently considered no compliment.
    The general tone of the gathering, however, was mutual good-temper and cheerful loyalty. At one corner of the enclosure a Union-Jack lazily rustled in the fitful breeze; in another stood a, tent, wreathed with leaves and flowers, from which young ladies, who worked harder than any "slavey," brought out unfailing supplies of tea and bread-and-butter, for the women and children who were admitted in detachments to the seats enclosed in front of the tent. The tea was poured from great battered urns of zinc, that looked like exaggerated oil-cans, and its plenty, its strength, and the nature of the attendance, quite excited the good women. They blushed with delight, and shook with merriment, at the thought of being waited. on by smiling, soft-spoken young ladies in silks and satins, gossamery muslins, and lace falls. "So you've had some tea, have yen, Bob?" said a radiant grandmother to her little grandson, as he issued from the privileged enclosure, wiping his freshly greasy mouth on his antiquely greasy sleeve. "Well, now, it's sumfink like a show," says I, "when they gives yer suinfink to heat and drink!"
    Meanwhile, strolling or reclining on the [-205-] grass, and seated on very dusky rout-seats and rush-bottomed chairs beneath the welcome shadow of the trees, the bulk of the company, gentle and simple, listened to the music of a police band, whose puffing, thumping, and cymbal-clashing members were watched proudly by their wives and children, delighted at finding the populace-hated force figuring, for however short a time, in a generally popular capacity. The show proper was contained in a flag-decked marquee. "In everything give thanks, in leaves and flowers," and "God save the Queen," in white letters on a red ground, with a crown above the scriptural motto, were the appropriate, pious and loyal, internal- decorations of the tent, erected, under clerical patronage, in the shadow of one of the noblest fanes of the State Church. The fact that one of the Princesses had been to see the flowers seemed to give huge satisfaction to the exhibitors, who lingered about their exhibits, watching the glances, and trying to catch the work, of those who inspected them, as anxiously, and as jealously as a struggling artist notes the effect produced. by his first-admitted picture.  "Well, I don't think much on 'em - I've a-had as good myself," was the uncomplimentary judgment passed upon the flowers by a noncompetitor, possibly envious of the social distinction which her exhibiting neighbours had attained. The proportion of blossom to stem [-206-] and leaf was, perhaps, rather small on the average; but, considering the places in. which the plants had been reared, the show, nevertheless, was exceedingly pretty. Fuchsias and geraniums were most numerously represented: one of the fuchsias, trained upon a frame, was quite a giant. There were ferns in pot, and ferns in a handsome case. There were calceolarias, begonias, lobelias, balsams, musk-plants, nasturtiums, lupins, sweet peas, and almost solitarily-blossomed American marigolds - the precious flowers made prominent by paper ruffs. The favourite creeper appeared to be the creeping Jenny, which hung in pots all round the tent-pots which were constantly losing their equilibrium, as the larking youngsters outside bulged in the canvas. A good many of the exhibitors were school-children; some of the neatest of the plants came from Westminster Hospital; and a pathetic detachment had been sent from the Westminster Workhouse. A pauper window-gardener must regard his flower with a very peculiar interest, as being almost the only property which he can claim. The mode in. which the prizes had been assigned see med to give general satisfaction, but, of course, there were some exceptions. "They did ought to have guy a prize to that, I think," said the mother of a defeated exhibitor, as she pointed out to a friend a creeping Jenny which her son had trained round a Lilli-[-207-]putian summer-house of wire. "And he've done another beauty, jest like the Prince of Wales's plume." "Won't my little Jack be disappointed?" said another mother of a "nowhere" son. "His brother have got a prize for a plant jest the feller of his'n." The show of fruit consisted merely in the strawberries and cherries exposed for sale, together with ices, ginger-beers lemonade, cakes, and sweet-stuff, on the refreshment stall. The small boys buzzed about this stall like flies - especially when they found that their covetous eyes ever and anon induced pitying beholders to stand treat. One urchin, a little charity-boy, I saw curtsying, in the excess of his excited gratitude, to a lady who had promised him a choice geranium from her greenhouses as an encouragement of his horticultural tastes.
    The English reverence for a lord was amusingly manifested when the earl who was to distribute the prizes made his appearance. He was followed about at a respectful distance by a crowd of scrutinisers, who seemed to think it an intensely interesting fact to discover that a nobleman. used a pocket-handkerchiefs and shook bands with his acquaintances just like any common mortal.
    The company having crowded. round the rostrum, the distribution of the prizes began - their value varying from ten shillings to four. A policeman shouted out the name of the prize-[-208-]taker in a stentorian voice, like a crier calling a witness into court. The prize-taker appeared; the amount of his prize was handed up to the earl, and the earl dropped it into the palm of the prize-taker. There was something funny in the additional value which the money appeared to acquire in the recipients' eyes from having passed through a nobleman's fingers. However, the object was to gratify them, and it was certainly attained. In addition to their prizes each received a little pamphlet on window-gardening from one of the ladies. The prize-giving over, Lord Shaftesbury made a speech on the moral influence of floriculture. Then the Dean made a speech, finishing off with a call for three cheers for his lordship. The cheers having been duly given, a Canon mounted the rostrum, and announced the gratifying fact that the receipts at the gate had completely covered the expenses of the show. The tea, he said, had been given in celebration of the release of the Abyssinian captives. "I trust that we shall have no Abyssinian war next year -  though, then, you will get no tea," he added with a chuckle. The mirth which this mild, but most successful joke provoked having subsided, and the obstreporous small boys having temporarily been hushed, hats and helmets were taken off, and "Praise God from whom all blessings flow, was somewhat quaveringly sung beneath the [-209-] calrn evening sky. A good many of the vocalists, probably, were not much used to psalm-singing. It was a pretty, soothing scene nevertheless, that crowd of miscellaneous worshippers praising God in the island-like quiet of the Dean's Yard, before they went out again into the boisterous London life that was roaring on all sides. The exhibitors carried home their plants as carefully as if they had been firstborn babies. One could hardly help pitying the plants, borne away from the grass and trees, and comparatively fresh air, into close confinement for another year.

    An East-End Window Garden Show, however, is even more striking than one whose Mark-Tapley-like exhibits have striven hard and successfully to be joli under the very "creditable circumstances" of growth in Westminster slums.
    A dingy, crowded, East-End thoroughfare is broiling and bustling in the dusty sunshine. Ponderous waggons labour along its stone-trains, laden with sugar-hogsheads perspiring treacle; omnibuses rattle past, with passengers stewing within, and passengers set out to bake in batches on the knife-board. The dirty boots of cabmen, taking their siesta within, dangle from the doors of battered cabs. An irrepressible longing for beer appears to have seized [-210-] the majority of the population. The bars are crowded, and people who have passed them, suddenly turn back and dive in, taking off their hats and mopping their brows, and expressing aloud, as though onlookers required an apology for their vacillating conduct, their conviction that "A feller must have a swig on such a day as thisn." Impecunious personages loaf about the taverns, on the look-out for familiar friends and chance acquaintances, "safe to stand a pint." Sailors, whose bronzed faces shew that they are familiar with tropical suns, seem -at any rate so far as the necessity for extra drink is concerned - to have been quite as much overcome as landsmen by the English heat. In red shirts that annoy the eye like scarlet geraniums in a hot-house; in blue flannel and dreadnought, in which they have doubled the Horn; in cooler duck and dungaree - they "stagger" across the footpath, with glazed gaze, and idiotically solemn lips, and are easily hauled into another series of beer- shops by their hideous sirens, who are already abroad, without bonnets, and in low-necked white dresses. Guardsmen from, the Mint and Tower booze sleepily in filthy bars, nodding their caps, stuck on awry, and greasing their scarlet elbows, over fish-porters' scaly knots and baskets; or stride along with tunic-tails tucked back, loosened stocks, and flushed, fierce faces, as if inclined to run a muck at all they [-211-] meet. In the doorways of the stifling little drapers' shops, the master and his maidens gasp together in a bower of drooping "crinolines"; too deliquescent to care whether customers come or not - half hoping, indeed, that they may not be yet a while forced to go again inside. Cross-legged Jew brokers doze stertorously in the easiest easy-chairs to be found in their dusty stock, set out beneath most welcome awnings. The sun-broiled "block ornaments," the blue-bottles, the stagnantly loathsome atmosphere of the butchers' shops, are enough to make you abjure meat for ever. There is some relief in seeing a street-fishmonger break up a case, and haul out a big salmon from a bed of knobby ice; but, when you note the flabby, sanguineous section of the wares already on his stall, fish, too, seems likely, as the Scotch say, for ever after to "give you a scunner." His neighbour is languidly watering, with a "rose" that has half its holes stopped up, halfpenny slices of shrivelled, gritty cocoa- nut, temptingly arranged on blue paper mottled with brown patches, on whose greasy surface the water stands in dirty beads. Limp lettuces and wilted onions, beyond the power of water to freshen, form the attractions of the next emporium. The cherries on the fruit-stall are wrinkled and half baked; and the cheap damaged strawberries are piled in an amorphous heap of dusty jam, out of which sluggishly [-212-] trickles juice that looks like semi-coagulated blood. Altogether, life in the East End seems a hopelessly squalid form of existence, as you walk along that busy thoroughfare, and glance up the suffocating lanes that give on it, with their inhabitants sitting in slatternly dishabille upon their doorsteps, panting open-mouthed like dogs.
    Suddenly, however, you get a glimpse of dewy stars in the sultry East End gloom. 
    A white-and-red banner stretches across the mouth of one of the lanes, announcing the "East London Flower-show." You dive down the double row of meanly-built houses, of the colour of ginger-bread burnt in the baking, or a negro afflicted with jaundice, and looking so peevishly weary of having nothing better to stare at from week's end to week's end than their uninteresting opposites. You pass a swarthy Colosseum of a gasometer, and see at the bottom of the lane a pepper-and-salt church, and opposite it, a handsome red-and-black schoolhouse. Across the road stretches a gay string of bunting. Flags, too, flutter from the schoolhouse windows. In front of the door is congregated a crowd of male and female infantry - every other little girl nursing a child only a size smaller than herself, and all staring in solemn silence at a couple of boardmen, stationed like mutes on either side of the doorway. From the bills, you gather that [-218-] within the school-house is to be opened a "window-garden" exhibition, to which sixteen East End parishes have contributed. Ragged schools and workhouses are amongst the exhibiters. Down one side of a lofty room on the ground-floor of the school-house, sprawls an extemporised counter, covered with white cloths, on which are somewhat sparsely spotted little archipelagoes of cheap refreshments. Behind it stand extemporised waitresses in their Sunday best, with rosettes of ribbon on their bosoms, and, though nobody as yet appears to require their services, in a high state of gleeful excitement, caused by freedom from everyday-work, and a sense of official importance. At the end of this ball are displayed a few of the chief prize-plants; and some of them are downright bushes. You pay your shilling to the money-taker, when he can spare a moment from nicking the free-admission cards of exhibiters who are surging about his desk, and struggle with them up some stiffish flights of steep stone stairs. Every window in the room at the top of the house is open, and not without need, for otherwise the temperature would be Black-holish. Flagstaffs are thrust out of the windows, and through them you get glimpses of a prospect which is a strange surrounding for a show of locally-reared flowers; a wilderness of smutty tiles and stumpy chimneys, above which tower tall factory-stalks, gas-[-214-]works, grimy steeples, and the masts of ships that appear completely hemmed in with masonry. Their presence in such places is as puzzling as the flowers. Both would seem to have dropped from the skies. The plants are ranged in sloping stands, on all sides of the L-shaped room, with banners above, emblazoned with the names of the exhibiting school, parish, and so forth. Sooth to say, the show, for brilliant colour, is considerably more indebted to its bunting than its blossoms. Besides these banners, there are others with texts of Scripture on them; texts of Scripture stretch in parti-colour along the wood-work of the open roof, and in the corners of the room flags fall in folds. A very pretty sight it is; and as such, it is loudly appreciated by the little boys and girls who form the majority of the spectators. They interrupt the reading of the prize-list, and have to be silenced by reproachful hush, hush, hushes from the chairman, and perspiring activity on the part of indignant schoolmasters and mistresses, who dart hither and thither amid the throng, seizing on chief offenders like collies in a wilfully confused flock of sheep. Some of the girls are very stylishly got-up in white muslin mantles, gilt combs, and such-like finery, and condescend to their less smartly-dressed school-fellows with an evident consciousness of constituting a social elite. There are no swells amongst the [-215-] boys, and fewer clean hands and faces than could he wished for in little neighbours, whose bashful anxiety to get out of your way generally results in their shoving some other little boy up against you. 
    Seated in a horse-shoe are a dozen or more of those admirable men, the "working clergy" of the East End. (By-the-bye, is there not something either invidious or satirical in the epithet "working" so distinctively applied? Ought there to be any clergy who do no work?) Their faces are a pleasant study. To begin with : in spite of the unpleasant places in which the lines of clerical life have fallen to them, they almost all look cheerful; and gilding this habitual look, there is a gleam of abnormal excitement. The peculiarity of their "business look" is also piquant. You can see that they go heart and soul, and with a considerable sense of personal importance, into what most men would consider the unprofitable and peddling details of parochial book-keeping - the finance of "penny banks," and such like. But their business has left no furrows of carking greed and unscrupulous knowingness upon their countenances. They slave cheerfully for others, and as to all extra-professional matters, look as unsophisticated as children. A good many of the children with whom they come in contact, indeed, in their court and alley visitations, have a much more "worldly aspect." [-216-] Nearly one hundred prizes are announced, six shillings and eightpence being a frequently recurring amount. Then the excellent chairman, who is looked upon with affectionate awe as having written letters to the "Times" about the show, makes a pleasant little speech, all the "points" of which are rapturously applauded. Then the incumbent of the parish also makes a pleasant little speech, which is similarly received. He praises the perspiring chairman, but praises still more loudly the perspiring curate, and finishes off by proposing a vote of thanks to him, which, of course, is carried unanimously; the small boys holding up a couple of hands apiece. The curate returns thanks, and is applauded. A layman proposes a vote of thanks to "our respective chairman," and is applauded. The vote is unanimously carried amid great applause. Everybody appears inclined to applaud everything; and when the chairman, in returning thanks, announces that a real live member of parliament will distribute the prizes in a day or two, the assembly becomes ecstatic. Finally again amid great applause, the exhibition is formally declared to be open, and the company begins to circulate to inspect it.
    The show of blossom, as I have hinted, is comparatively small; but that such fine healthy plants should have been reared in the mephitic [-217-] air of the East End, appears astounding. And if the show of blossom is small, what there is of it is brilliant. In the whole exhibition, there is only one cluster with the faded, sickly look that might be supposed typical of East End flowers. A few of the plants, moreover, are in splendid blossom. There is a huge musk with almost as much gold as green in it, and an appropriately named "Daniel Lambert" geranium that would do credit to a conservatory. Balsams appear to he a favourite plant with the East Enders, and still more, creeping Jennies. There are oak-leaf geraniums, ivy-plants, a little fig-tree, and a Japanese honeysuckle. Some of the pots are tastefully swathed in tissue-paper. That a large proportion of the plants are literally the products of window-gardens, you can tell from their fan-like form. The upper sides of the leaves all turn the same way. It is curious to remark the long curved stalks which some of the geraniums have thrown out from behind in their eagerness to drink in the light at every pore.
    Every one first rushes to see his own plant. The officials experience a little difficulty in explaining to disappointed competitors how  their "exhibits" could possibly have been excluded from the prize list, and the explanation at last is evidently taken under protest. Still the harmony of the meeting remains [-218-] unruffled. The disappointed ones fully believe that the judges meant well, but are not quite so firmly convinced as the successful ones of their infallibility, and cherish more fondly than ever a silent faith in the unsurpassability of their own pet products. Parochial feeling is strong in the parsons. They delightedly clap prize-taking parishioners upon the back, and carry off their lady friends in triumph to look at "our stand"; expatiating on the merits of musks, as if they were most rare exotics. One clergyman sees a "highly commended" ticket unappropriated, and sticks it into a parishioner's pot, observing: "It may as well be there as doing nothing." The joy of the youthful prize-takers is comically pompous. "Have you got a prize, Jim?" asks a half- incredulous little girl of a beaming little boy.
    "Yes," says Jim, curtly, trying to look as if he had been certain of it.
    "How much, Jim?"
    "Oh, five bob," answers the boy with affected indifference.
    The little girl gazes on him with worshipful eyes, and is quite proud of being seen in his company, and on sufficiently familiar terms with such a public character as to be able to call him Jim. The mothers of the Jims more plainly show their exultation. With big babies at their breasts, they wander about, stopping every minute to talk over their sons' [-219-] triumph with their gossips. Heat and happiness combined have made the good women's faces as red as poppies. The men who are going round with syringes to water the flowers, take pity on the flushed, hand-tied matrons, and hold up great water-jugs to their lips, out of which they drink like horses out of pails.
    Altogether, it is a pretty scene of good- fellowship amongst all; and the character of the show, no doubt, has something to do with this good-fellowship. There is a humanising influence in the culture of flowers: they remove cantankerousness from the moral atmosphere, as well as carbonic acid from the air.

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