Earth has not anything to show more fair!
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
A sight so touching in its majesty;
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
This City now doth like a garment wear
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1803.
"How many?" the Brighton landlord asks, as the
loaded carriages drive to the door.
The din of arrivals for Goodwood--of the opening of the Sussex fortnight--is all around me while I prepare to give the patient reader some account of the original conception, and, I fear, the imperfect carrying out, of this Pilgrimage through the Great World of London. It was in the early morning-such a morning as broke upon Wordsworth, in September about seventy years ago--that it was first conceived. Also it was in the happier days of France, when war seemed nearly as far off from Paris as the New-Zealander appears to be still from the ruins of London Bridge, that the plan of a Pilgrimage through the mighty City was discussed seriously. The idea grew upon the Pilgrims day by day.
Notes accumulated upon notes. As we sailed, the sea seemed still to broaden. There would be no end to it. It would be the toil of a lifetime to gather in the myriad shapes of interminable London.
I proposed that we should open with a general description of the river-from Sheerness to Maidenhead; and we were to arrive by the London boat from Boulogne. I insisted it was the only worthy way. As the English coast is made, a white fog is thrown about the ship, daintily as a bride is veiled. The tinkling of bells is heard around. We anchor.. Our whistle answers the screams of other ships. We are of a fleet in a fog: undoubtedly near England. It is a welcome and an exquisite sight when the first faint beaming of the morning light smiles through imprisoning vapor. The lifting of the silver veil, as I have watched it, vanishing into the blue above, leaving the scene crystal clear, is a transformation that would give the Pilgrims, it seemed to me, the best first glimpse of Albion, and the broad mouth of the silent highway to London. The water alive with ships; the ancient ports nested in the chalk; the Reculvers brought to the edge of the rock; the flaunting braveries of Ramsgate and Margate, with the ship-loads of holiday folks passing to and from the Pool; the lines of ocean ships and coasting vessels bearing, as far as the eye can reach, out from the immortal river, with the red Nore light at the mouth; the war monsters lying in the distance by Sheerness; the scores of open fishing boats working for Billingsgate Market; the confusion of flags and the astonishing varieties of build and rigging--are a surprise absolutely bewildering to all who have the faculty of observation, and pass to London, this way, for the first time. The entrance to the Thames, which calls to the mind of the lettered Englishman Spenser's "Bridal of Thames and Medway," is a glorious scene, with Sheerness fronted by guard-ships for central point of interest. Between the Nore and Gravesend are places of interest, as the bygone fishing station, Leigh, that once rivalled Hamburg with the luscious sweetness of its grapes. Unlikelier spot to woo the sun to the vine was never seen. Then there is Cliffe, that was Bishop's Cliffe in the time of William the Conqueror. But spots of antiquarian and of human interest come and go, to the pulses of the paddles, at every bend of the stream. Higham, the ancient corn station; Tilbury; the anchored merchant fleet off Gravesend; Gadshill, that lies away from the shore, full of pleasant and sad memories; Long Reach, where the united Cray and Darent fall into the Thames; Purfleet; Erith, gay with river yachts; Hornchurch, where are famous pasturages; Woolwich and Shooter's Hill, whither the Tudor princes went a-Maying; Blackwall and Greenwich, redolent of whitebait.
A tempting way to travel, had we not been in haste to open upon the heart of London. But by Greenwich we have often lingered and loungedover our work. We watched, one lazy day, the ebb and flow of London's commerce by water from the windows of the "Ship." While the pencil worked --upon the figure of a traveller by Greenwich boat among others-we ran through vast series of subjects to be done.
Before us the tugs went to and fro in quest of Indiamen, or towing clippers that were rich with gold from the Antipodes. The hay and straw barges went gently with the tide; and we talked of a sleep upon the hay, under the moon's light, along the silent highway. The barges of stone and grain went in the wake of the hay. The passenger steamboats cleverly rounded them, now and then with the help of a little bad language. The boatmen ashore, fumbling in their dog's-eared pockets, leaned over the railings of the embankment fronting the Hospital, and exchanged occasional gruff words. The Greenwich boys were busy in the mud below, learning to be vagabond men by the help of the thoughtless diners, flushed with wine, who were throwing pence to them. The "Dreadnought" was a splendid bulk of shade against the sky, and looked all the gloom which she folded in her brave wooden walls, big enough to accomplish the Christian boast upon her bulwarks--that her gangways were open to the sick seamen of all nations.
Greenwich without the pensioners is like the Tower without the beef-eaters. The happy, peaceful old men who used to bask against the walls upon the stone benches, realiing Francis Crossley's derivation of the old place--the city of the sun, or Grian-wich--were pleasant fellows to chat with. And they were picturesque withal, and gave a meaning to the galleries under which they hobbled. The Invalides cleared of pensioners, Chelsea without a red coat, the National Gallery pictureless --these would be parallel places to the Hospital at Greenwich as it appeared tenantless. "It is the socket of an eye!" was once a companion's observation.
The Bellot Memorial fronting the Hospital I take to be the finest lesson that could be carved in stone by the banks of the river along which the sailors of all nations are forever passing. It expresses the gratitude of a great maritime nation towards an intrepid foreign sailor, who put his life deliberately in peril, and who lost it, on a mission of help to an illustrious brother sailor. With the name of Franklin that of Bellot will live. This simple obelisk was a suggestive and humanizing fact to look upon by Pilgrims of the two nations concerned in it. It was on our list; but we end our Pilgrimage without it after all. A happier or sunnier spot is not near London-and I cling to Crossley's definition-than the river front of Greenwich on an early summer evening, when the whitebait eaters are arriving, and the cooks are busy in the remote recesses of the "Ship" and the "Trafalgar." During our planning I cited Isaac Disraeli on local descriptions: "The great art, perhaps, of local description is rather a general than a particular view; the details must be left to the imagination; it is suggestive rather than descriptive." He gives us a good illustration of the writer who mistakes detail for pictorial force, Senderg, who, in the "Alaric," gives five hundred verses to the description of a palace, "commencing at the facade, and at length finishing with the garden." If mere detail were descriptive power, an inventory would be a work of high art. The second illustration advanced by Mr. Disraeli is better than the first, because its value has been tested, and by it the feebleness of mere details as agents for the production of a picture to the mind is demonstrated. Mr. Disraeli takes the "Laurentinum" of Pliny. "We cannot," he justly remarks, "read his letter to Gallus, which the English reader may, in Melmoth's elegant version, without somewhat participating in the delight of the writer in many of its details; but we cannot with the writer form the slightest conception of his villa while he is leading us over from apartment to apartment, and pointing to us the opposite wing, with a `beyond this,' and a `not far from thence,' and `to this apartment another of the same sort,' etc." The details of a Roman villa appear to be laboriously complete-as complete as a valuer could make his statement of the spoons and forks and glasses of the "Trafalgar," the curtains of which are flapping lazily, making the setting sun wink upon our table, while we are talking about the province of the pen and that of the pencil. Careful translators have bared all the mysteries and recesses of Pliny's meaning to architects, who hereupon have aspired to raise a perfect Roman villa.* (* "Montfaucon, a most faithful antiquary, in his close translation of the description of this villa, in comparing it with Felibien's plan of the villa itself, observes `that the architect accommodated his edifice to his translation, but that their notions are not the same; unquestionably,' he adds, `if the skilful translators were to perform their task separately, there would not be one who agreed with another.' " Isaac Disraeli.) "And," says Mr. Disraeli, "this extraordinary fact is the result--that not one of them but has given a representation different from the other!" I remember an instance given me by a writer on London. He had commissioned a colleague to visit Covent Garden early in the morning, and write a faithful and comprehensive description of the scene. The whole produced was minute as the "Laurentinum," and, for power to produce a vivid picture in the mind, as useless.
"I assure you," my friend said, "he dwelt on the veins in the cabbage leaves!"
Lounging and chatting against the railings of the "Ship," with the after dinner cigar, the artist catches the suggestion that will realize the scene. A striking pictorial fact is enough. Selection is the artistic faculty. Who that is river-wise does not remember this loaded barge gliding upon the tide into the golden west, or under the beams of the lady moon, when the water was speckled with the lights of the boats and ships, and the larboard and starboard steamer lanterns gave such happy touches of color in the gray blue of the cold scene?
We agreed that London had nothing more picturesque to show than the phases of her river and her immense docks. And hereabouts we tarried week after week, never wearying of the rich variety of form and color and incident.
My note-books were filled with the studies that were to be made before we entered the streets of London. Smacks, barges, shrimp-boats; the entrance to the Pool; the Thames Police; the ship--building yards; sailors' homes and publichouses; a marine store; groups of dock laborers; the Boulogne boat at St. Catherine's Wharf; the river-side porters; St. Paul's from the river-these are a few of our subjects-selected, and then rejected for others. The art of excision has been throughout a difficult one to practise. Our accumulated material might have filled half a dozen volumes; but herein is the cream--the essence of it.
It is impossible, indeed, to travel about London in search of the picturesque, and not accumulate a bulky store of matter after only a few mornings. The entrance to Doctors' Commons; Paternoster Row; the drinking-fountain in the Minories surrounded with ragged urchins; the prodigious beadle at the Bank; the cows in the Mall, with the nurses and children round about; an election in the hall of the Reform Club; clerks at a grill in the City; the "Cheshire Cheese;" Poets' Corner; inside Lincoln's Inn Fields; the old houses in Wych Street; Barnard's Inn; a London cab stand; a pawnbroker's shop on Saturday; the turning out of the police at night; the hospital waiting-room for out-patients outside the casual ward; the stone-yard in the morning; the pigeons among the lawyers in Guildhall Yard; a London funeral; frozen-out gardeners; a drawing room; a levee; a sale at Christie's; a mock auction; the happy family; London from the summit of St. Paul's; the Blue-coat boys; Chelsea pensioners; Waterman's Hall, St. Mary-at-Hill, in Lower Thames Street; the costermongers; the newsboys-these are only a few of the subjects set down. We repeat, we have taken the cream of them.
London an ugly place, indeed! We soon discovered that it abounded in delightful nooks and corners, in picturesque scenes and groups, in light and shade of the most attractive character. The work-a-day life of the metropolis, that to the careless or inartistic eye is hard, angular, and ugly in its exterior aspects, offered us pictures at every street corner.
I planned several chapters on work-a-day London, of which the workman's train and the crowds pressing over London Bridge were to be the keynotes. We were to analyze the crowds of toilers, and present to the reader galleries of types: as, the banker, the stockbroker, the clerk, the shop-boy. Instead of a gallery of types, we have given comprehensive pictures.
A day's business in the City was another subject; and we were to lunch at Lloyd's, go on ?Change, see the Bank cellars, attend the Lord Mayor's Court, note the skippers in Jerusalem Coffee-House, describe St. Martin's-le-Grand at the closing of the boxes; and then to see the weary host retire home by every City artery to the suburbs. Presently we were to study the departments of the State, with the statesmen, judges, peers, and commoners in the neighborhood of Westminster Hall. Sunday in London was a tempting subject on my list. "The excursion train; the Crystal Palace on an Odd-Fellows' day and on a fashionable Saturday; a trial at the Old Bailey; a Cow Cross audience; an Irish funeral; a green-grocer's shop, and other picturesque shops; the London butcher and his boy; a dust-cart and dust-men; street musicians; the boys of London contrasted with the gamins of Paris!" There are abundant studies of the picturesque in Paris--in the Marais, at Montmartre, and in the neighborhood of the Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve; but I am not sure that there is so much more to tempt the artist's pencil and the writer's pen by the banks of the Seine than we have found lying thick upon our way in our Pilgrimage through the Land of Cockayne.
In the narrow streets and lanes of the City, for instance, we found tumultuous episodes of energetic, money-making life in the most delightful framework. Such places as Carter Lane, spanned by bridges from warehouse to warehouse, and pierced with cavernous mouths that are helped to bales of food by noisy cranes, lie in a hundred directions amid the hurly-burly of the City. There is a passage leading from Paternoster Row to St. Paul's Churchyard. It is a slit, through which the Cathedral is seen more grandly than from any other point I can call to mind. It would make a fine, dreamy picture, as we saw it one moonlight night, with some belated creatures resting against the walls in the foreground-mere spots set against the base of Wren's mighty work, that, through the narrow opening, seemed to have its cross set against the sky.
But we had no room for it. It is impossible to put a world in a nut-shell. To the best of our judgment we have selected the most striking types, the most completely representative scenes, and the most picturesque features of the greatest city on the face of the globe-given to us to be reduced within the limits of a volume. We have touched the extremes of London life. The valiant work, the glittering wealth, the misery and the charity which assuages it, the amusements and sports of the people, and the diversions of the great and rich, are gathered together between these covers, interpreted by one whose imagination and fancy have / thrown new lights upon the pages of Milton, of Cervantes, of Dante, of Hood, of Tennyson, in the companionship of an old friend whose lot has been cast along the highways and byways of the two greatest cities of the earth for many years.
The two Pilgrims (whose earliest travel in company was to see the Queen of England land at Boulogne in 1855) have belted London with their foot-prints, and have tarried in many strange places, unfamiliar to thousands who have been life-long dwellers within the sound of Bow-Bells. Wherever human creatures congregate there is interest, in the eye of the artist and the literary observer; and the greatest study of mankind may be profitably pursued on any rung of the social ladder-at the work-house threshold or by the gates of a palace.
We are Pilgrims, wanderers, gypsy loiterers in the great world of London--not historians of the ancient port and capital to which the Dinanters, of Dinant on the Meuse, carried their renowned brass vessels six hundred years ago. Upon the bosom of old Thames, now churned with paddle and screw, cargoes were borne to the ancestors of Chaucer. It is indeed an ancient tide of business and pleasure-ancient in the fabled days of the boy Whittington, listening to the bells at Highgate. We are true to remote amicable relations between the two foremost nations of the earth-we, French artist and English author-when we resolve to study some of the salient features of the greatest city of the world, together. Under the magic influence of its vastness, its prodigious unwieldy life, and its extraordinary varieties of manners, character, and external picturesqueness, a few pleasant days' wanderings through the light and shade of London became the habit of two or three seasons. Our excursions in quest of the picturesque and the typical at last embraced the mighty city, from the Pool to the slopes of Richmond.
We are wanderers; not, I repeat, historians.
And we approach London by the main artery that feeds its unflinching vigor. We have seen the Titan awake and asleep-at work and at play. We have paid our court to him in his brightest and his happiest guises: when he stands solemn and erect in the dignity of his quaint and ancient state; when his steadfastness to the Old is illustrated by the dress of the Yeomen of the Guard, or his passion for the New is shown in the hundred changes of every passing hour. Hawthorne has observed that "human destinies look ominous without some perceptible intermixture of the sable or the gray." We have looked upon the Titan sick and hungering, and in his evil-doing; as well as in his pomp and splendor of the West, and in the exercise of his noble charities and sacrifices. We have endeavored to seize representative bits of each of the parts of the whole.
Our way has lain in the wake of Leigh Hunt and Charles Lamb, rather than in that of Cunningham or Timbs. In his pleasant recollections connected with the Metropolis, Hunt observes, in his usual light and happy manner: "One of the best secrets of enjoyment is the art of cultivating pleasant associations. It is an art that of necessity increases with the stock of our knowledge; and though in acquiring our knowledge we must encounter disagreeable associations also, yet, if we secure a reasonable quantity of health by the way, these will be far less in number than the agreeable ones; for, unless the circumstances which gave rise to the associations press upon us, it is only from want of health that "the power of throwing off their burdensome images becomes suspended." This is Hunt's cheery, speculative custom. He is, hereupon, off into the quarters that in his day were, to the ordinary man, the dreariest and most repulsive in London. But Leigh Hunt bore his own sunshine with him. The fog was powerless upon him. In vain the rain pattered upon his pleasant, handsome face. I think it is R. H. Horne who wrote, " ?Tis always sunrise somewhere in the world." In the heart of Hunt, Orion was forever purpling the sky. He is in St. Giles's--as St. Giles's was in his time: "We can never go through St. Giles's but the sense of the extravagant inequalities in human condition presses more forcibly upon us; but some pleasant images are at hand even there to refresh it. They do not displace the others, so as to injure the sense of public duty which they excited; they only serve to keep our spirits fresh from their task, and hinder them from running into desperation or hopelessness. In St. Giles's Church lie Chapman, the earliest and best translator of Homer; and Andrew Marvell, the wit and patriot, whose poverty Charles II. could not bribe. We are as sure to think of these two men, and of all the good and pleasure they have done to the world, as of the less happy objects about us. The steeple of the church itself, too, is a handsome one; and there is a flock of pigeons in that neighborhood which we have stood with great pleasure to see careering about it of a fine afternoon, when a western wind had swept back the smoke towards the city, and showed the white of the stone steeple piercing up into a blue sky. So much for St. Giles's, whose very name is a nuisance with some." And so the happy spirit trudges through the shadiest places; or will linger to gossip by London Stone of the mighty tides of life that have passed by it. Fletcher and Massinger lying in one grave at St. Saviour's in the Borough; Gower, Chaucer's contemporary, hard by-these give sunshine (with the memories folded about the Tabard) to Southwark. Spenser was born in Smithfield. It is a hard spot; but the poet, pacing Lombard Street, remembers that it is the birth-place of Pope, that Gray first saw the light in Cornhill, and that Milton was born in Bread Street, Cheapside.
Fleet Street holds a crowd of delightful associations. It is not the Queen's Highway, it is that of Johnson and Goldsmith, and all their goodly fellowship. The genius of Lord Bacon haunts Gray's Inn; that of Selden the Inner Temple; Voltaire appears in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden; Congreve in Surrey Street, Strand; John of Gaunt in Hatton Garden; and all the wits of Queen Anne's time in Russell Street by Drury Lane. As Hunt observes (he never went into a market, as he affectedly remarked, except to buy an apple or a flower), "the whole of Covent Garden is classic ground, from its association with the dramatic and other wits of the times of Dryden and Pope. Butler lived, perhaps died, in Rose Street, and was buried in Covent Garden Churchyard; where Peter Pindar the other day followed him."
This amiable, scholarly outlook upon London is, as Hunt insists at the opening of his essay, a healthy habit of association. "It will relieve us, even when a painful sympathy with the distresses of others becomes a part of the very health of our minds." We have taken care that the happy images of the past which people the dreariest corners of London "never displaced the others, so as to injure the sense of public duty which they excite;" but we have leaned to the picturesque--the imaginative-side of the great city's life and movement. I apprehend that the lesson which Dore's pictorial renderings of our mercantile centre will teach, or discover, is that London, artistically regarded, is not, as the shallow have said so often, an ugly place, given up, body and soul, to moneygrubbing. London, as compared with Paris, has a business air which tires the pleasure-seeker, and revolts many sentimental observers who will not be at the pains of probing our life. All classes and ranks of Englishmen in London have the air of men seriously engaged in the sordid cares of commercial life. Selden's remark that "there is no Prince in Christendom but is directly a Tradesman"* (*There is no Prince in Christendom but is directly a Tradesman, though in another way than an ordinary Tradesman. For the purpose, I have a man; I bid him lay out twenty shillings in such commodities; but I tell him for every shilling he lays out I will have a penny. I trade as well as he. This every Prince does in his Customs." ) is that of a purely English mind. We are not prone to the picturesque side of anything. We seldom pause to contemplate the proportions of St. Paul's, the grandeur of the Abbey, the beauty of the new Bridge at Westminster. How many have paused to watch one of these familiar hay or straw boats floating to London in the moonlight? How few turn out of Fleet Street (it is but a child's stone's-throw) to mark the quiet, neglected corner in the Temple where the mortal part of Oliver Goldsmith is laid! The mind of Hunt, in its exquisite sensibility and kindly vivacity, was Italian. He saw in our dismal alleys the cradle of the poet, the grand death-bed of the historian, the final agony of the forlorn boy who had nothing but a slate between his head and the thunder-cloud.
One Sunday night (we had been talking over a morning we had spent in Newgate, and of our hazardous journeys through the Dens and Kitchens of Whitechapel and Limehouse) Dore suddenly suggested a tramp to London Bridge. He had been deeply impressed with the groups of poor women and children we had seen upon the stone seats of the bridge one bright morning on our way to Shadwell. By night, it appeared to his imagination, the scene would have a mournful grandeur. We went. The wayfarers grouped and massed under the moon's light, with the ebon dome of St. Paul's topping the outline of the picture, engrossed him. In the midnight stillness there was a most impressive solemnity upon the whole, which penetrated the nature of the artist.
"And they say London is an ugly place!" was the exclamation.
"We shall see," I answered.
We note between Greenwich and London that Commerce has not
laid her treasures equally upon the right and left banks of the river, "as
the herring-bone lies between the two sides," to use a Manx expression. But
now, after passing the famous Hospital and the revelry-haunted Trafalgar, with
its gay balconies and windows, the great proportion of the river activity leans
to the right, where the shipping at the windings of the river appears to stand
in serried rows and masses, out of the mainland. At hand the sky is webbed with
rigging. The water swarms with busy men. You catch scraps of every tongue. The
stately ocean fleets are the guard of honor of universal Trade-welcoming the
guest just coming from the sea. These have borne the golden grain from the far
East and the far West. The lightermen are receiving the barrels, the bales, the
sacks, the hides. The creak of cranes and rattle of pulleys; the pulses of the
steamships under way; the flapping of the idle sails ; the hoarse shouts of
sailor-throats; the church-bells from many quarters; and through all the musical
liquid movement and splashing of the water-strike a cheery note in the brain of
the traveller who comes to us, by the Port, to London.
No artistic eye can watch the momentarily varying combinations and activities of the shore and especially of the Middlesex shore-without frequent determinations to return and land. The glimpses of dark lanes and ancient broken tenements; the corner public- houses delightfully straggling from the perpendicular; the crazy watermen's stairs; the massive timber about the old warehouses; the merchandise swinging in the air midway from the lighter to the storage; the shapeless, black landing-stages, and the uncouth figures upon them-all in neutral tint, under a neutral-tinted sky make the gay stern of a barge, or the warmth of an umber sail, or the white feather of steam (no sign of cowardice here), grateful resting-places, or centres, to the eye. The many forms and directions which human energy has taken on our scene fix and fascinate the attention. You wonder at the forests of masts that stretch far inland, lending to the docks a limitless expanse in the imagination. A train glides between the forests and the shore! A tug spurts smoke into your face They are dancing on the deck of the Gravesend boat. The stern-faced Thames police are pulling vigorously from under our bows. There is hoarse and coarse comment from the bridge of our good ship, delivered by the river pilot, and addressed to a pleasure party in a wherry, making for the rude and savage enjoyments of Shadwell. To the right lie, in trim array, some strange ships from Denmark; to the left, Italian decks. The Ostend and Antwerp hulls are of imposing build. Then there are the burly Scotch boats, and some Clyde clippers.
The Clyde! We are drawn to the Kentish shore, which presents a woful river-side spectacle. The great ship-yards and lines; the empty sheds, like deserted railway stations; the muddy, melancholy bank, and all the evidence of immense doings which are ended-smite us with a sad force as we pass Cherry-tree Pier. Behind this jetty of pretty name, suggestive of pranks in laughing gardens, lies, in the lanes and streets of Deptford and thereabouts, the worst part of the Great City's story. This shore, from Woolwich almost to London Bridge, is idle. The "clanging rookery" of shipwrights is as silent as the Chapels of Westminster Abbey. There is rust upon everything. There are cobwebs in the wheels, and dust on all-except the little emigration offices. "Better a good dinner than a fine coat;" but it has so happened that the coat is in pawn, and the dinner is not in the cupboard. This is the dead shore. No breaking of bottles upon new bows; no flags; no sweet voices to name the noble ship! The convicts have departed from the highway; and so have the doughty Thames shipwrights, who put the Great Eastern and fleets of ocean steamers together. But crowded craft afloat close up before the desolation of the empty, silent yards, as the troops mass themselves before the ugly gaps on a royal progress. Should another songster of the Thames-another John Taylor, the Water Poet-arise, to sing of the pageantries of commerce, which are the water tournaments--the quintainsof our time, we can only wish him the independent manliness of the ancient bard of the sculls, who plied his trade and sang, and found his inspiration
"A kingdom of content itself."
Through nearly two centuries and a half have these waters ebbed and flowed, fruit-laden with the natural bounties of every clime; and yet we find the "jolly young waterman" as rare by stairs, or jetty, or pier, or bridge, as ever. But as a grumbler he has established a reputation only equalled by that of the British farmer.
And still the bustle thickens upon the tide. The boats come and go, and sidle and shift, and bewilder the sight and sense. The water is churned with paddles and oars; and the tiny skiffs dance and plunge in the swell of the steamers. We have passed the old Thames Tunnel stairs --with more brilliantly accidental lines of sheds and houses and stores all in neutral tint still; and the Tower of London appears, through the tangles of tiers of ships; and we see the muddy Thames lapping idly against Traitors' Gate--with the whirl and stir of red Billingsgate beyond receiving the disgorgement of the fishing-boats and screws. The progress of our big ship now appears to be a well-contested, inch-by-inch fight. The pilot waves the little interloping boats out of the way, and they pass to starboard and larboard within a hand's-length of the paddle-wheels. The barges, broadside to the stream, float on--the bargees remaining wholly unconcerned at the passion and vociferations of the pilot. We are within an ace of running into everything before us; while the sailors in the fleets at anchor on either side smoke their pipes leaning over the bulwarks, and smile at every difficulty.
London Bridge stretches across the river. London Bridge and the Pont Neuf are the two historical bridges of the world: bridges charged with mystery, romance, and tragedy. It is curious to see the eager faces that crowd to the sides of a steamer from the ocean when London Bridge is fairly outlined against the horizon, and the dome of St. Paul's rises behind. This is the view of London which is familiar to all civilized peoples. "Le Pont de Londres!" the Frenchman exclaims, carrying his vivacious eyes rapidly over its proportions. The laden barges are sweeping through the arches, dipping sails and masts as they go; the Express boats are shooting athwart the stream above bridge; the Citizen boats are packed to the prow; the Monument stands clearly out of the confusion; the parapet of the bridge is crowded with dull faces looking down upon us as we swing about towards the sea again: we perceive the slow, unbroken stream of heavy traffic trailing to and fro, behind the gaping crowd, over the bridge. The deep hum of work-a-day London is upon us, and the churchbells are musical through it, singing the hour to the impatient moneymakers!
London Bridge is invested with a charm that belongs to no other fabric that spans the Thames. Nearly at this point of the river London city was connected with Southwark in the days of William the Conqueror. It was the only passage in the olden time between London and the Continent; the single road by which we communicated with the ancient Cinque Ports and the Foreigner. It was the highway of State; the mouth of London communicating with the rich and populous South. It was the scene of a battle in 1008, when the bridge was turreted and protected by ramparts, and literally tugged from its foundations by King Olave's boats. Here it is-much as Samuel Scott painted it in 1645-and here--as we came upon it the other day. It was swept away by a hurricane: it was consumed by fire. And then came a stone bridge-built upon wool,* (*The cost of the new erection is supposed to have been principally defrayed by a general tax laid upon wool-whence the popular saying, which, in course of time, came to be understood in a literal sense, that London Bridge was built upon wool-packs."--Knight.) as the citizens said; just as the modern Londoner may say of the Holborn Viaduct, that it was built upon coal-sacks. And a very pretty transaction (for themselves) the City Corporation have effected in regard to the Viaduct. A pinch of fire is taken from every Whitechapel costermonger to pay for this fine work-and for the Corporation's astute bargain!
The bridge upon wool is that of which romance-writers have made use; which survives, in its picturesque masses of houses, arches, and piers --an irregular street across a broad and rapid stream--in a hundred old drawings. It appears a grand mass of suggestive bits: and when the tournaments and processions enlivened the flood; and the state barges of the great, and the boats bearing prisoners to the Tower, streamed through its many narrow arches; and the windows and parapets were alive with citizens it must have made a fine picture ready to the artist's pencil. Between Peter of Colechurch's Bridge and that which spans the river near its side, there are differences which suggest ages of time; and yet hardly more than a century has elapsed since the houses were razed from the ancient structure. The shapely span of stone, from the low parapets of which the sad faces of poor citizens are forever gazing upon the sea-going ships at St. Catherine's Wharf, is of the time of William the Fourth.
The parboiled heads have been thrust out of sight (they stood upon pikes over Traitors' Gate, thick as pins in a milliner's cushion), and Time and Fire and Water have cleansed the ancient site; and yet all is not holiday bravery, nor prosperous trade, nor Right, nor Goodness that is upon the bridge to which our faces are turned while our ship is brought alongside the wharf. We shudder at the bare imagination of the heads of William Wallace and Sir Thomas More-raised upon pikes, in the wicked, barbarous old times: when there was a bloody record upon every pile, and a horror associated with every footstep. But there are terrors still upon the bridge: shadows-we have watched on many a night-flitting everywhere amid this pride of trade and splendor of commercial power.
The ship touches the unsteady landing-stage: the gangway is cleared, and now the stranger makes his first acquaintance with the Londoner. If the Silent Highway to London shows one of the city's brilliant and imposing sides, the shores of the Thames expose its poverty. The poor fellows who wait by London Bridge to rush on board any steamer that has passengers with luggage to land make many a traveller's first impression. In their poverty there is nothing picturesque. The Londoner reduced to hunting after odd jobs by the river-shore is a castaway, whom it is impossible to class.
He is a ne'er-do-weel nearly always, but without the elasticity and spirit of the Paris chiffonnier or the New York loafer. His clothes are picked anywhere: a black tail-coat of the most ancient date, a flat cap or a broken silk hat-everything fifth hand! nothing suited for his work or intended for him. A hungry, hunted look-craving a job with brutal eagerness; at the same time a sneaking servility, ready to turn into insolence the moment the hope of gain is past. The crew of these pushing and noisy nondescripts, who wind through the passengers to pounce upon the luggage, gives many a man a shudder. For they express chronic distress in a hideous form; and their fierce internecine war for a few pence puts their worst expression upon them. It is an ugly corner of the battle of life.
From Rennie's bridge the cousins of these poor fellows carrying trunks upon their bare shoulders, up the jumbled ladders and stairs by which the traveller reaches the intricacies of the wharf, are looking down, down upon the scramble. The foreigner desiring to make another effective book of a "Voyage de Desagrements a Londres" could not select a better opening than the sheds and passages, half stable and half yard; the shabby pestering loiterers, and uncivil officials; all leading to the first experience of a London Cab. It should be a wet day, for completeness; for then the cabman will probably have upon his shoulders such a coat as no other city can show upon a box seat; and about his legs a sack.
London now lies before us--where to choose our points of view and find our themes.
And, in starting on our pilgrimage, let me warn the reader once again that we are but wanderers in search of the picturesque, the typical. A settled, comprehensive, exhaustive survey of all that is noteworthy in the greatest city in the world would be the work of a lifetime. We hope to show that as observers, who have travelled the length and breadth of the wonderful City by the Thames, we have not passed over many of its more striking features and instructive and startling contrasts. "We touch and go, and sip the foam of many lives," says Emerson. Ours is a touch-and-go chronicle.