Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London : A pilgrimage, by Gustave Dore and Blanchard Jerrold, 1872

CHAPTER IV

ABOVE BRIDGE TO WESTMINSTER

    Between London Bridge and Westminster the banks of the Thames are peopled with the shadows of the great and gifted of "the days that are no more." It was the citizens' daily highway, in more picturesque fashion than that of Express and Citizen steamboats covered from stem to stern with advertisements. Palaces were by the banks. People at Westminster took water at "the gate" to go to London. It was a daring and popular feat to shoot the rapids of London Bridge. The Old Swan Pier has been the Old Swan for many centuries, and was an ancient name in the time of Elizabeth. When the River Poet was plying his trade, and grumbling at the conveyances upon wheels that were growing on dry land, Essex Stairs and Paul's Wharf had been landing-stages to many generations of musical watermen, who had immortalized the first Lord Mayor who had gone to Westminster by water. Standing by these Essex Stairs, amid the unsightly work of the Embankment, it is not difficult to conjure up the glorious days of the sweet-willed river, when the great Cardinal was passing anxiously to and from Blackfriars and Westminster; when the Royal wedding procession of Henry the Fourth glided up, and the crafts of London escorted poor Anne Boleyn to her grim lord; and then when the first Charles and the daughter of Henri Quatre were rowed, in golden state, through a deluge of rain.* (* It was in the very glory of a London summer that Henrietta Maria came, and not, like Alexandra, in the spring, as Isa Craig prettily sang, "With the violets." Henrietta Maria's reception by water, with whole fleets of gay boas in her wake, and the river-side palaces packed with welcoming crowds, would make a charming companion picture to the reception of the gentle Alexandra, sweeping round St. Paul's amid pyramids of smiling faces.) Then the Middlesex bank was not the black mud bank we remember, but was lined with the dwellings of the great; and they travelled by the tide in boats befitting in appointments the dignity of the owners. It was-shall we say--"the lady's mile" by water; and the stream was crystal then, and there were salmon in it. By this "lady's mile" of the seventeenth century the nobles were proud to conduct great strangers from abroad; but fashion has fallen away from it, as from Covent Garden, the streets by the Strand, and Soho. It is a business route now, enlivened by trim iron boats filled with busy citizens, sailors returning to the Docks and Rotherhithe and Greenwich and Blackwall; soldiers for Woolwich, servants holiday-making, revellers for Rosherville Gardens, and noisy parties for Gravesend. The cheap boats are essentially, and almost exclusively, for the people; and nothing can be much more prosaic or suggestive of the London struggle than a penny boat, every available surface of which is given to a tradesman's puff. The keen newsboys, the negro minstrels, the lavender girls in the spring, the little vendors of cigar lights, the harps and violins and other instruments of torture; the women laden with bundles and children, and heavier bundles of care mothers of families whom it is difficult to feed; the boy-men bound on legal errands between Westminster Hall and the City, premature smokers, and ostentatious wearers of flowers, cravats, and jewelry; the crisp, clean crowds of business men preparing for the day's tussle in the ancient lanes of the City (as little aware, for the most part, of the history of the street in which they earn their bread as they are of the topography of Yeddo) the lawyers with their blue bags, who land at the Temple; the shop-girls and bar-maids of ample chignon and prodigal of color, whom the clerks regard with tender glances these, massed with rough journeymen cracking nuts or smoking, and a few street boys at horse-play compose no picture for the colorist. An English crowd is almost the ugliest in the world, because the poorer classes are but copyists in costume of the rich. The exceptions are the followers of street trades- the costermongers, the orange-women, and the tramps. The workman approximates his nearest to the cut of Poole. The English carpenter wears a black tail coat-like the waiter, the undertaker, and the duke. Poor Englishwomen are ghastly in their patches trimmed in outlandish imitation of the fashion. 
    Le Follet's plans penetrate to Shoreditch; and the hoop, the chignon, and the bonnet no larger than a doyley are to be seen in Drury Lane, and behind apple--stalls. In these base and shabby copyings of the rich the poverty of the wearers has a startling, abject air. It is, as I heard a stranger remark, "misery advertised." 
    The reader will perceive, in the scenes which have caught the attention of the Pilgrims, how the poor Englishwomen with their unsightly bonnets and shawls have struck their attention. A Frenchman has never seen a shawl draggling to the ground from the shoulders of the wearer. But in England all classes, except the agricultural, dress alike--with a difference. Observe this lemonade vendor. His dress is that of a prosperous middle-class man, gone to shreds and patches. It was otherwise in the time when Bankside held the dramatic glory of England, in the time of Shakespeare, when there were bear-gardens, and when the way to the theatre was across the water in wherries. Present dramatic arrangements are more convenient; and the Citizen is a shapelier and speedier craft than the most handily managed waterman's ferry; but the beauty of the river scene has almost gone. The low southern bank is squalid and dirty; very busy at points, but unsightly everywhere. There is money-making behind; but the front, waiting the Embankment, is a mud bank, garnished with barges. It was not to be helped, perhaps the river is in a transition period. It was covered with picturesque life: it will be presently a stately water-way, confined in granite walls and flanked by groves and gardens. At least let us hope so, for there is economy in greenery in a city like London. 
    Jean Paul's practical pushing man* (* "If I see him praying on a Mount of Olives, he is about to built an oil-mill up there; does he weep by the brook Kedron, he is about to fish for crabs, or to throw some one into it." ) has put away the gilded barges, and all the bravery that was so rich in color and form in the olden day. Let us see what we have in the place of the highway of Elizabeth and Charles. 
    The view immediately to the west of London Bridge is a many-sided one. The whole round of modern commercial life is massed in the foreground, and the mighty dome which dominates London swells proudly over the hum and hiss and plashing and whistling and creaking of the hastening crowds. The bales are swinging in the air; files of dingy people are passing into the steamboats; the sleepy barges lower masts to pass the bridges; the heavy traffic between the City and the Borough is dragging over Southwark Bridge; trains glide across the railway arches into the prodigious Cannon Street shed. Factories, warehouses, mills, works; barges, wherries, skiffs, tugs, penny-boats; smoke and steam blurring all; and the heaving water churned from its bed, and feverish in its ebb and flow--have a grandeur that enlivens the imagination. A little pulse of the mighty organization is laid bare. It is an eddy in the turbulent stream of London life. It is eminently suggestive of the activity that is behind the wharves and landing-stages and mills. The Seine has a holiday look; and the little, fussy steamers that load for London under the walls of the Louvre seem to be playing at trade. But to the west as to the east of London Bridge the surging life and vehement movement are swift and stern. There is no room for a holiday thought. 
    The mills are grinding the corn, by steam; the barges are unloading hastily, the passenger boats are bound on pressing errands--the train shoots over the river towards the Continent, and crosses another with the mail from India. The loiterer will inevitably be crushed or drowned. The very urchins, knee-deep in mud upon the banks, are intent on business mud- larks prospecting for the droppings of the barges! 
    The first view above Bridge, with Fishmongers' Hall on the immediate right, is the most striking in the way of movement, and the proportions of the commercial buildings on the two banks--the vast establishment of the City of London Brewery Company stretching to All-hallows Pier-being the central object. Between Southwark and Blackfriars the scene changes. The shore buildings have another, and a less pretentious, character. They are older, and of busier outward aspect. Messrs. Chaplin and Horne's dark warehouses lean against Southwark Bridge. By St. Paul's Pier jets of steam are spouting about the sombre confusion of buildings. All the houses gape with the broad openings through which sacks and barrels are being lifted from the barges. A steam flour-mill of prodigious height crowns the view toward the Ludgate Station; and on the Surrey side the only breaks in the low level of the wharf are the tall factory chimneys, with distant spires of Southwark churches behind-suggestive of the ancient and the modern story of the busy borough from the Canterbury Pilgrims to the building of the new Hop Exchange, and of all the quaint nooks and corners of the venerable place, which are still massed and propped amid the new buildings. 
    Between new Blackfriars Bridge and the railway bridge that is thrown alongside it, composing a curious scene of river, railway, and roadway traffic, crossing and passing in every direction, the river broadens and bends away on a bold southerly dip past the Houses of Parliament to Vauxhall. The scene is less busy. The greenery of the Temple, the handsome proportions of the Library, the noble lines of Somerset House, are a relief to the eye. Spires to the right and the left indicate the stretches of the great city through the heart of which the river flows. 
    The Embankment changes the whole aspect of the scene as we pass under Waterloo Bridge, which M. Dupin described as "a colossal monument worthy of Sesostris and the Caesars." The great buildings are now piled on all sides. On the Surrey bank the Shot-Tower and the Lion Brewery give a new dignity to the shore which is not yet embanked. 
    The Adelphi buildings; the pointed roofs of the Charing Cross Hotel; the vastness of the brick railway station; the fine threads of the line carried across the river reach--with the glimpses of the new Westminster Bridge beyond; the Houses balanced by the new Hospital-combine into a picture, with barges and boats for foreground, that gives a gracious and lively idea of London on the Thames. The gardens of Whitehall with which the name of Sir Robert Peel is associated in the English mind, and the palatial town dwelling of the bold Buccleuch, lead the eye pleasantly to the Westminster clock tower-and so on to the Halls of Parliament. 
    The Thames contemplated from the low parapets of the new bridge at Westminster, to the East and to the West, is at its best, its brightest; at its newest and its oldest. The ancient monuments crowd on the sight, and the new lie thick among them. The Hall of Rufus is blocked by the palace of Sir Charles Barry. You must cross to the eastern footway of the bridge, and pass by an underground railway station (where you may be cast into the hurly-burly of a workman's train, as we were), and the steps to a steamboat pier, to get a good view of the Abbey of the Confessor. But from the western parapet of the bridge the Old and the New are brilliantly suggested. The dark walls of Lambeth Palace face the ornate lines and terraces of the modern Houses of Parliament; the river that has ebbed and flowed since Archbishop Boniface was commanded by the Pope, by way of expiation of his misdeeds, to build an archiepiscopal seat opposite Westminster, sparkling between. None pause by the "great gate," and few lift their eyes to the Lollard's Tower. The tower is mouldering; and gone is more than half its grace since it showed the effigy of Thomas a Becket. When last we mounted it, it was a summer wonder, and an extra sight at a charity bazaar. From the Great Hall the ancient uses are swept away, but works of charity are gayly done there every season. There are no longer clerks of the spicery, cup-bearers, yeomen of the ewry, and hosts of serving-men to wait upon these tables of the Archbishop's great guests in that modern habitable part of the Palace built by Archbishop Howley. With the old magnificence in feasting has departed the form of charity that accompanied it, but not the spirit. The revellers are gone-and so have not the poor. The hungry were welcome at the great gate. The almoner's table was spread, at which he who chose to come found food, and each was placed in order of the dignity due to his social quality. 
    From Westminster to Vauxhall, past the gloomy Millbank prison on the Middlesex shore, and the coarse Lambeth potteries on the Surrey side, we may hasten. The river shows fewer boats and barges, but lines of tall chimneys still to Vauxhall. Between the Westminster Road and the old spot where the coarse revelries of our grandfathers were held lie the grounds of old industries, as he who travels by railway may perceive by his nostrils as well as his eyes. The candle-makers, famous Lambeth potters, bonepickers, are massed here; and the glimpses of the squalor amid which the industry is conducted are terrible realities that strike upon the mind with painful blows. Here, if anywhere, the traveller understands what Heine, hailing from 32 Craven Street, Strand, meant:-- 
    "Send," he said, "a philosopher to London, but by no means a poet. This bare earnestness of everything, this colossal sameness, this machine-like movement, this moroseness of joy itself, this exaggerated London, oppresses the imagination and rends the heart in twain." The hurry, as of mortals in anguish, which oppressed the imagination of the German poet, is the unpleasant influence which seizes upon the Frenchman, the Italian, and the Spaniard. I can see the great man from Dusseldorf turning into the throng of Cheapside at four o'clock; into the New Cut; into the Broadway, opposite Lambeth, and vexing his soul with the hurly-burly of the fierce Bread-battle. He who had stood awe-struck as a boy, in his native town, before Napoleon, "high on his charger's back, with the eternal eyes in the imperial face of marble looking down, regardless of destiny, on the guards that were marching past him," and to whose life this passage of the hero had given an abiding color, could not find patience with multitudes elbowing, scrambling, grinding their very hearts to powder for their daily bread. He saw a throng of creatures "where the insolent rider treads down the poor foot-passenger; where each one that falls to the ground is forever lost; where the best comrades unfeelingly haste away, over each other's corpses, and the thousands who, weary unto death and bleeding, would vainly cling to the planks of the bridge, are hurled down into the cold ice-pits of death." The poet envied us our Shakespeare. That he could not see how nor why the greatest poet could have birth under all the influences which cover England sunless England-explains other errors of his, and of many foreign writers in regard to us. He did not see truly, because he did not peer deeply, nor explore broadly. 
    Big Ben vibrating through these Lambeth potteries on one of those gray days, of which London holds the secret elements, seems to threaten the busy, heavy-faced crowds who are loading vans, boiling bones, sorting rubbish, making coarse paste into drain-pipes and chimney-pots, that they may still mend the pace before he speaks his deep bass again. The Solemn and Venerable is at the elbow of the sordid and the woe-begone. By the noble Abbey is the ignoble Devil's Acre, hideous where it lies now in the sunlight! 
    The shores between which the river, released from the commerce of the greatest port in the world, glides smoothly, buoyant and bright with the trifles of cockle-boats and pleasure steamers, that just give a light animation to the scene, represent the London that is fading away, and the London that is young. When George the Fourth rebuilt Buckingham House he drew from the centre of the town all who love the vicinity of Courts. 
    The birds of Court plumage began to nest in the dangerous old Blue Fields, where Peter Cunningham told me he had played at cricket. What is called "all London" made a Western movement. Behind the new, trim pier, back over many squares and thousands of porticoes and acres of all the treasures a wealthy class can gather for their Lares and Penates, to the green southern line of Hyde Park, the modern splendor of London is spread. The Blue Fields are forgotten; and upon their site might be counted a diamond for every daisy of Peter Cunningham's boyhood. The brilliancy of the Georgian and Victorian quarter never shows by the riverbanks. The banks are nowhere graced by the presence of palaces nowexcept where the Buccleuch lives-until we reach the sylvan and classic sweetness of Richmond and Twickenham. 
    Under another railway bridge--a fantastic bridge; past the new bare park of Battersea on the Surrey shore, to Chelsea. We are getting away from London houses, London smoke, and London commerce. We are almost quit of the black barges. There are bits of greenery. The air is clearer. We have left cement and water works, lime and other works, and Hutton's mill. On the Middlesex side is our great military retreat-our Invalideswhere Chelsea reach is broadest. The aspect of the river between the new park and the old hospital and its grounds is a relief after the turmoil of the port through which we have passed. We are making rapidly for the grassy banks, the meadows and the uplands, the villas and the parks, the anglers and the punts, the locks, the picturesque barges, and the towing- paths. The Red House is a sign dear to the humble Cockney reveller. Battersea Fields (now prim as a park, and, in summer, radiant with flowers) call to mind shooting-matches and the duellists' ground, and, notably, the Duke of Wellington and Lord Winchilsea, who fought there, more than forty years ago. London is indeed pushing out of town. Cunningham remarks on the famous asparagus-beds of Battersea, as well as the Red House and the tumble-down wooden bridge. Those beds are gone: I remember them of vast extent at Putney; and where I knew them and watched the cutting often on summer mornings I saw, as we toiled home in the tedious file of carriages, cabs, omnibuses, and carts from last University boat-race, that stucco had covered the beds; and upon the lovely common where we gossiped with the gypsies, and thought ourselves a day's journey from London smoke, was a shabby little cemetery, and the villas were gathering fast around that. There are many who will be astonished to hear that upon the land which is covered by the Consumption Hospital at Brompton the market gardener grew roses for the London market; but I remember the roses and the gardener. 
    If Battersea have lost the interest its asparagus gave it in the sight of the epicure, and if the sombre fame of the duelling-ground of the great folk of London be a thing of the past, and the disorderly fields dedicated to Cockney horse-play have sobered to the respectability of ordered flowerbeds and scientifically labelled shrubs, there is consolation to the searcher of the picturesque and the historical along the opposite shore. Battersea shows in the Conqueror's survey as Patricesy; and its past is associated with the name of St. John. The great Bollingbroke and his second wife, the niece of Madame de Maintenon, lived and died in the ancient place, and a tablet in the church records the well-known fact. But white-lead and turpentine works and chemical factories block out all memory of Bolingbroke; and people remember only that there is a dock there, and  that the Old Swan still nestles against the wooden bridge. There is just a Bolingbroke Row that stretches to the river by the Rodney Iron Works, and a Bolingbroke Road in the busiest part of the little out-of-the-way suburb; but there is everything around to make the traveller that way forget that the great St. John ever lived and thought in the seclusion of Battersea. 
    We are at Cadogan Pier, Chelsea, and can see the old tower of St. Luke's and the archway that, in the happy young days, led to the famous Chelsea bun-house. The pleasure-boats lie serried near the shore, like smelts upon a silver skewer. It is the place where the poor, tired Londoner of humble means paddles in the stream, and feels, even in this narrow reach, a strange breathing-room, which expands his imagination with his lungs. 
    Ancient Chelsea is charged with memories of recent as well as of by-gone times. This, I say, is its special privilege. It can go back firmly to the days when Sir Thomas More dated a letter to his grim master from "nmy pore howse at Chelcith." Chelcith in the days of Henry the Eighth, and when Queen Elizabeth was a little girl, would repay the study of a painter, the dreaming of a poet. The river had unbroken green banks; and Chelcith was parted from London by the Blue Fields and other foot-pad meadows. 
    Chelsea has few save gracious or quaint and jocund memories. To have been famous at once for buns and custards and china; to have beheld the great Queen in her childhood; to have owned all the rare scenes and stories of Ranelagh Gardens; to be the haven of our wounded soldiers, was history enough. 
    Modern Chelsea, however, enters a claim. The names of Turner, Leigh Hunt, Carlyle, and of very many lesser lights, cluster round St. Luke's. The great poetic landscape painter fought his hardest battle in this quietude and in this cheerfulness (for I insist very much on the ineradicable cheerfulness of Old Chelsea, even with white-lead and chemical works opposite the narrow passage from the Church to the Bridge). I remember also another young painter who patiently worked, looking out upon Chelsea reach, before the name of Holman Hunt had taken wing. The silver trumpet has sounded the welcome notes; but also, alas! that sorrowful morning in the lives of men has come and gone when the illusions of youth, and its warmth of feeling, and the careless spendthrift freedom are to be soberly laid aside. The boy in an hour becomes a man: and the lost clew can never be regained. We fall into the sober, certain step, and thereafter our pulses beat evenly, and we get to calculations. My fellow-Pilgrim told me in one of our by-way gossips that the inevitable desillusion fell upon him one morning over his café au lait, and parted his youth evermore from his manhood the romance from the reality of his life. The crape was drawn across the drum for him. 
    Chelsea, however, calls to our mind the names most in harmony with its character. Quaint china; the simplicities of buns and custards; the revelries of the open river; the pretty cottages and shady trees-whom do they suggest as an appropriate foreground figure, if not that pleasantest and most informed and poetic of gossips of our modern Babylon-Leigh Hunt? After old William Godwin in a dark room in the ancient House of Commons, my earliest recollection is of a visit to Leigh Hunt in Chelsea in the care of my father. In Leigh Hunt there was the mild, soft heart, and the melancholy at the same time which is inseparable from the man whose imagination tortures him with perpetual beau--ideals, and therefore with hourly disappointments. Shade and shine pass over his face, as upon the marble record under the willow. Mother-of-pearl presents to me the shiftings of Leigh Hunt's mental being: the shade is not very deep, and the light is mellow. He and Mr. Carlyle were neighbors. To the lightly judging the men appeared born antagonists. But a truth in human nature is that men have a friendly affinity for those who bring them in contact and, as it were, supply them with the qualities which themselves do not possess. The philosopher is drawn to the poet, the painter to the harpsichord, and will ever be till Chelsea Water Works have put the world under water. 
    And now we turn away from the river-its modern wonders and rich and rare history--to the great city through which it flows. 
    "Hansom!"