Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 23 - London Holiday-Makers

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UNLOVELY sights may be beheld in London streets on public holidays; but not so unlovely, I think, and certainly, at any-rate by day, not so many of them, as may be witnessed in Edinburgh's High Street, Canongate, Cowgate; and Glasgow's Gorbals, Broomielaw, Argyll Street, Trongate, Briggate, Saltmarket, and Cowcaddens, on "fast" and other occasions of general festivity. John Barleycorn, in the form of what is ordinarily called malt liquor, does not madden as he does when meta-[-337-]morphosed into whisky. London holiday-makers do not look, perhaps, very wise as they take their walks and rides abroad. A considerable sprinkling of them are, at least "bemused in beer" very early in the day; a larger per centage take their pleasure in the serious style for which their forefathers were noted hundreds of years ago; but the bulk seem very "jolly." Eliminate the cowardly young "roughs" who go about in little mobs, jostling, howling, shrieking, shouting "Run 'em in," trying to get up rows, and measuring their enjoyment simply by the noise they make and the annoyance they cause, and good-nature would be pronounced the characteristic of Londoners when "all the world and his wife" are abroad.
    A fine Easter Monday is an excellent opportunity for watching London in the real, not the conceitedly exclusive "Society" sense, taking its pleasure. The Bank Holiday Act may, perhaps, have caused the day to be kept sacred from business a little more generally than it was before, but there was very little left to be done in that way.
    Of course, there are sulky faces to be seen in London on Easter Monday, chiefly amongst tram-car and omnibus men, river steamboat men, railway officials, and policemen. Just when the public at large is taking its pleasure, they have to work harder than usual. Humanity being what it is, the consideration must be [-338-] trying, even to their well-schooled tempers. Wouldst thou know, reader, what the lack of solitude and silence is, and the trials to which the public's servants' tempers are sometimes exposed, enter, if thou canst squeeze thy way in, and dost not dread an oleaginous atmosphere, a Whitechapel tram-car on a general holiday.
    The wheeled Noah's Ark glides in, humming on the trains, and disgorges its freight, who have to struggle through a stormy sea of in-surging passengers. Before the horses, zebra- striped with sweat, can be removed from one end of the car to the other, the inside is crammed with holiday-folk, each who can find a seat nursing a male or female mate, while an irresistible force takes the roof by escalade. The perspiring conductor enters the car, and facing an unflagging fire of "chaff," with now and then a heavier discharge of blackguardly abuse, at last succeeds in ejecting the standers and the nurselings; but whilst he mounts the companion to clear the deck, more insurge; amongst them obese East End "ladies," who do not spare the grinning East End "gentlemen" who will not give up seats to them.
    "Now look at all them gemmen," they satirically remark; "leastways, they fancies theirselves gemmen, an' yet there ain't one on 'em 'ill ride houtside to oblige a lady! Why don't you make 'em, driver ?"
    [-339-] "There ain't room," he half growls, half chuckles; "an' if there was, I couldn't make 'em. Cos why? They wouldn't go."
    (Here I may parenthetically mention that one wet Easter Monday night, when I chanced to have got a seat in an omnibus whose other inside passengers were all women, a drenched, but still rollicking Irishman, put his dripping hat in at the door, and gravely inquired, in a richly-racy brogue, Is there any lady who will ride outside to oblige a gintleman that has a divil of a cowld?")
When the tram-car conductor descends, he has all his tween decks work to do over again. Until the car gets under full way, he has constantly to repel adults who board on both quarters. Throughout the voyage he is persistently harassed by the more daring youngsters who hang on astern. The only poor little consolation that he might get he is too pestered to observe - to wit, that so many country cousins have come up to town that he and his vehicle are stared at ever and anon with the same open-mouthed, half-amused admiration they used to get in the days in which tram-cars were novelties in London. Cabmen also have more work than usual on holidays; but then their work is more than usually remunerative piece-work, and so, of course, they like it, and contribute their full quota to the general hilarity. Have not the cabman's wit and [-340-] humour, however, like the London street-boys' "cheeky chaff" grown faint and flabby of late - say since the would-be funny idiotic inanities of the music halls came into vogue? Or do we only fancy that we heard the comicalities we certainly do fancy that we used to hear on stand and street? My own impression is that there is far less genuine popular fun in London - and I may add literature - now than there used to be, but then I know this may be only the result of my own inability to find fun as I could of yore. I used to despise the old fogeys who could not see the "point" of the jokes which pleasantly pricked or tickled my youthful sense of the ludicrous, and my lack of appreciation of present-day facetiae may simply show that I have become in my turn a wooden-headed old fogey to the rising generation. "Like leaves on trees, &c.,"
only, together with general similarity there is marked difference in the successive outbuddings. Fun, like everything else, has its fashions, and mirth fulfils itself in many ways.
    Whatever may be the difference between the past and present in humour, in far greater numbers than of yore do Londoners now-a- days take their pleasure. In street after street on Easter Monday the shops on both sides are close shuttered. The medalled man in uniform still mounts guard over the great tailor's shop in Oxford Street, and its plate-glass windows [-341-] are unshuttered and full-dressed, but can anyone really expect that anyone will go in to buy ready-made clothes on such a day? The country folk on their way to Madame Tussaud's, who stop to stare in at the little wax girl on her stuffed pony, appear to be under the impression that the establishment is one of the gratuitous sights of the metropolis. Besides these country loungers who drift about, now on this, now on that side of the way, in little shoals, there are drearier London loungers, single and in couples. They have got a holiday, but they don't know what to do with it. They have no money to spend, nowhere in particular to go to. They can simply "moon" about all day, watching others hurrying to and from amusements of some kind. There are plenty for them to watch. Tram-cars and omnibuses are crammed outside and in. Hansoms are darting about like dragonflies; even growlers are going at a brisk trot. In private omnibuses and gaily-curtained excursion vans, provided with big stone beer-jars, brass bands, and flaunting banners, in wagonettes, phaetons, gigs, spring-carts, furniture-vans, greengrocers' light waggons, costermongers' harrows, on horseback and on velocipede, in thronged trains ever rumbling out of the station-sheds, and steamboats swaying from side to side beneath their densly-serried loads, swarm forth the holiday-makers. Cambridge blue in hat and bonnet, scarf, cravat, sometimes [-342-] even waistcoat, lights up the crowds, which are also enlivened by volunteer uniforms, cricketing and boating costumes, and the grotesquely-gay dresses of football-players, who remind one, somehow, of circus clowns as they rush about, shouting and tumbling over one another, on Blackheath or Hackney Downs. You might fancy that all London was going out of town, and yet in North London, in South London, and in East London - and in West London, too - there are districts in which the mill-wheel of every-day life is grinding round as unrestingly as ever. I remember once when I was wandering in a dingy part of Lambeth on Easter Monday I saw only two holiday-makers, a sallow man in dirty shirt-sleeves, and his dirtier wife in an unfastened gown, lounging, silent and sulky, half out of a first-floor window. The man occasionally amused himself by spitting upon a passing child, and then again resumed his stolid stare at nothing. That was his mode of keeping Easter. I can imagine livelier ones.
    It is in the very core of the City proper that the fact that Easter Monday is a general holiday most forcibly asserts itself from the negative side. Sealed are the Bank and the Exchange, all Princes Street and Lombard Street, save for the gaping letter-boxes of the Post Office. Capel Court and Austin Friars, Broad Street, Throgmorton Street, Threadneedle Street, Bartholomew Lane, Lothbury, are soli-[-343-]tudes. The cliff-like tenements in Cornhill give no sign of life save in the appetising culinary whiffs which issue, or rather the pleasant scent of spicy soup persistently breathed out like the aroma of a flower, from the ground-floor of one of them. Elsewhere in the great City restaurants there is no clink of glass, no rattle of knife, fork, and spoon; the waiters have ceased to hop about like seedy magpies; the cooks are eating, in the country, dinners which other hands than theirs have dressed. I wonder whether they enjoy them with peculiar gusto, or whether professional pride leads them to criticise their rural fellows unkindly, or at the best with contemptuous compassion. To show to what an extent the City that was full of people doth sit solitary on a Bank-holiday, I may mention that one Whit-Monday I witnessed a pic-nic luncheon of bread and cheese, sandwiches, and something drunk out of a black bottle, taken on the doorsteps of one of the Lombard Street Banks, a newspaper having been spread on the top step by way of table-cloth; and that shortly afterwards, turning into George Yard, I there came suddenly upon a most affectionate lovers' tryst, in broad daylight, between a maiden attired in Oxford blue and a swain sporting a Cambridge tie. I fancy that it must have been the making up of a lovers' quarrel caused through having taken opposite sides at the University Boat Race. [-344-] At any rate, Oxford and Cambridge had met together, Isis and Cam were very fondly kissing each other, when my footfall startled them. It was certainly fun to note how they bounded apart like electrified pithballs, but I was vexed with myself, and felt that they must feel half inclined to crucify me for having interrupted them. It is awkward, on both sides, to have to pass persons so suddenly severed when the startled and startler are the only three passengers in a hushed City court.
    I like to listen to the remarks of sight-seers on general holidays, "Look at that there," said an old lady to her grandchildren, as the bus in which we were all travelling cleared Temple Bar. "That was built in the time o' the Edwards or the Henrys - I forgit which on 'em it was exactly - an' now they're goin' to pull it down - aint it a shame? - a hinterestin' old place like that! An' up there they used to stick the 'eads that was cut off, an' inside they keep the old bankers' books - 'undreds and 'undreds on 'em!"
    Another time I heard a matron say, "We're a.goin' to the British Museum this year, though South Kensington's a deal better. There can't be no comparison. If you know any think about anythink, you're bound to enj'y yerself there."
    Without entering into the comparison, it may be readily admitted that the "General British Public," whilst inspecting its national museum, [-345-]does not look as if it was intensely "enj'ying itself."
    The Zoological Gardens and the Crystal Palace are, I think, two of the best places to visit, if you want to see the general British public so doing. Both places gather great crowds on public holidays. It is not to be wondered at. Even as mere pleasure-grounds the park-surrounded Zoological Gardens are very pretty with their trees, shrubs, grass, flowers, and ponds; and as Zoological Gardens I should say they have no superior - I fancy, so far as I have seen or heard - no equal in the world. Is it the kin-making touch of nature that always - and therefore more especially on general holidays - throngs the monkey house? There are more touches than one of common nature to be witnessed there; the comico-pathetically melancholy pair of orphan- like grey little monkeys cuddling each other in a corner- 
        "Like babes bewildered in the snow
        That cling and hudd1e from the cold
        In hollow tree or ruined fold;"
    the ourang-outang slyly putting out her paw for the buns, &c., which a keeper, whom she never takes her eyes off, is stationed to sec that she does not obtain; the chimpanzee assiduously pulling its chair to pieces, and then squatting down to mend it as industriously; the larking young spider-monkeys swinging round on ropes [-346-] and giving their non-swinging brethren sound boxes on the ear as they go by, &c., &c., &c.
    But the Crystal Palace finds even greater favour with the British public on holidays. There is more room to move about in there, and a greater variety of attractions. Let no one bound for the Palace on a public holiday take a first-class ticket under the impression that it will secure him "select company." The better way is to take a third-class ticket - and your chance. The third-class ticket gives you quite as good a chance, perhaps a better one, of being pushed into a first-class carriage, and in whatever class of carriage you may happen to be carried into by the excited throngs who "rush" the swiftly-succeeding trains, you will find much the same kind of crowded company. In all classes I have been nearly smothered, as it were between feather-beds, by plump matrons, and had my knees appropriated as perches by saucy servant girls. Of course, trodden-on-toes don't count. Everybody treads on everybody else's toes. The ride, however, is not a long one, and if you only keep your temper - do not give yourself airs - you may get a good deal of fun instead of annoyance out of the universal "squeege "- together with (owing to the lack of reticence which distinguishes your companions) an insight into various phases of London life and character, which it might cost you weeks of research to acquire in other ways. [-347-] Of course there is a free give and take of "chaff" on such occasions. If you don't know how to give it back effectually, at any rate take it in good part. In a return train from the Palace on Whit-Monday I had for a wonder succeeded in getting a seat which enabled the railway company to carry out the latter half of its first-class contract with me. One of my fellow-passengers was a costermonger, who exultingly exhibited his ticket to show that he had secured first-class accommodation without having been fool enough to pay for it. A very smartly-dressed servant-girl looked into the compartment. "Come in, miss," said the costermonger, "if we can't make room for ye no other ways, you can sit on my knee."
    Tossing her head in disgust at the "low feller," the servant girl flounced away, whereupon the costermonger put his head out of the window, and shouted after her, "Cushions ain't good enough for yer, ain't they, miss? Tellygrarf to the sekerinterry, an' maybe he'll send yer down a sophy."
    And then how heartily on holidays the "popular" appliances for pleasure in the Palace are appreciated - how quaintly original are the remarks made upon its treasures of arts and science. I quote a sample or two of those which I have heard at various times. "Lookee ere, Bill,-'ere's a jolly lot o' sanguinary niggers agoin' to be scragged," cried a hobble-[-348-]dehoy to his companion, pointing to the rope gang on the walls of the Egyptian Court.
    "Call them hanimals," incredulously exclaimed a confused wife to her almost equally confused husband, who had been hazily explaining, in reference to the megalosaurus, etc., that "there was sich hanimals, you know, afore the Flood."
    "Oh, them's the crockindiles you've read about in Egypt," said a sire to his little son athirst for science.
    "And what's them?" asked the son, pointing to smaller specimens in the same group.
    "Oh, them's the crockindiles' kittens," was the father's authoritative reply.

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