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

CHAPTER VII

THE DERBY

    How many days in the course of the year are there when London wears a peculiar aspect; when you can tell the date by the appearance of the streets, the excitement in the clubs, the vivacity of the mob, and the abnormal mixture of classes and of strangers? In truth, the influx of foreign elements must be vast to alter the complexion of Cockayne. But while the Christmas Cattle Show is on; on Christmas-eve, when people of every degree are bent on one absorbing mission, and the schools have disgorged their pupils; on Boxing Day; on Easter and Whit Mondays, when pleasure is the watchword of the people; and on the two national race-days--the boat-race and the Derby-London is not the old familiar, hard-working, solemn-visaged place of every day. On these far-between holidays there is a downright general determination to agree with AEsop, as interpreted by Dickens, that "the bow must be sometimes loose." 
    London at play! The foreigner will be inclined to maintain stoutly that the Londoner never amuses himself. What are these scores of poor urchins and men about? Are they not enjoying themselves among the keenest, cheering and chaffing well-to-do London on its way to the Downs? The May-pole has disappeared; the fairs have been put down. We have become too polite to suffer the continuance of the annual orgies of Greenwich. May-day rejoicings have faded out of mind. The Lord and Lady of the May are as dead as Gog and Magog. The broad archerygrounds of old London have been given up to the builders long since. Quarter-staff and single-stick, foot-ball and bowling-alleys, are lost English games, which have gone the way of bull and bear biting, prize and cockfighting; and young England has tried in vain to revive the best of them. Still the workers and the non-workers, the rich and the poor do sometimes amuse themselves- if "moult tristement"--as we shall assuredly see on this day, when many a traveller finds it impossible to get a bed, even in mighty London. 
    Mr. Gladstone admirably illustrated the English character when he defined recreation--calling it a change of employment--the, exchange of the debate and the Council-chamber for the preparation of Juventus Mundi. Among the educated classes, who are of the workers, this definition holds good; and it explains the suburban home life which is the relaxation and the delight of Londoners. 
    The late Bishop of Norwich* (* Aphorisms and Opinions of Dr. George Home, late Lord Bishop of Norwich. ) said: "Cheerfulness is the daughter of employment; and I have known a man come home in high spirits from a funeral, merely because he had had the management of it." The English mechanic can neither dance nor sing; whereas the Frenchman has both these wholesome amusements at command, and they lead him from intoxication and its cognate vices. He is employed, and consequently cheerful without stimulants. John Bull has the river-boats, the delights of Gypsy Hill, the Blackheath and Hampstead donkeys, the parks, with full liberty to feed the ducks, the Red House at Battersea, the improving spectacle of occasional pigeon-shooting, the gay amenities of Hornsey--with beer and ginger-beer and nuts everywhere. But these witcheries in the open are seldom available under the skies where fog, the snow-cloud, and the summer sun play the most fantastic tricks together. Londoners are not to be judged by their amusements, because they are not satisfied with them themselves. It is because their feasts are few and far between that we see "the violent delights" in which they indulge by the banks of the Thames at Easter, and on the Epsom Downs in May. 
    On the Derby morning all London wakes at cock-crow. The first flicker of light breaks upon thousands of busy men in misty stables; breaks upon a vast encampment of the Romans and other less reputable wandering tribes on the Downs; breaks upon lines of loaded pedestrians footing it from London to turn a penny on the great event. Horsy folk issue from every beer-shop and inn on the road. The beggars are in mighty force; the tattered children take up their stations. Who wants to see samples of all degrees of Cockneys has his golden opportunity to-day. From the Heir- Apparent, with his handsome, manly English face, to the vilest of Fagin's pupils, the observer may pass all our Little Villagers in review. The sharpfaced, swaggering betting man; the trim, clean groom with a flower in his button-hole; the prosperous, heavy-cheeked tradesman; the ostentatious clerk; the shambling street-singer; the hard, coarse-visaged costermonger; the pale and serious artisan; the frolicsome apprentice in flaming necktie; the bandylegged jockey; the nouveau riche smug in his ostentation; the merchant splendid in every appointment of his barouche and of his person; the would-be aristocrat flashing his silver mug of foaming Roederer in the eyes of the Vulgar packed close as pigs in a butcher's cart-these, catching a branch here or encountering a "spill" there-pass under the observer's eyes in a never-ending tide. And then the ladies! The ladies of the opera, and the Mile, and Almack's are not here. But if you desire to see the fresh buxom wives and daughters of the lower middle class, dight in their ideas of the fashion; if you wish to study the outward belongings of the workman's spouse and girl; if you would get a true idea of the apple-woman, the work-girl in holiday finery, the beggar's female companion, in a cart with Dick Swiveller and his pals-and all in the highest spirits, now is your opportunity; and it will last clear through the day, and even a fair stretch into the night. 
    The Derby is emphatically all England's day. It culminates in a result in which millions are keenly interested. The English people love the water and the road, the boat and the horse, the scull and the saddle. Every school-boy affects to know a good mount and the rig of a ship. On the eve of the Derby urchins pretend to be knowing in their playgrounds on the relative chances of the horses, and the maid-of-all-work will trip round to the butcher's to have early intimation of the winner. 
    On the road, and at the Derby, it is Dickens's children you meet, rather than Thackeray's. All the company of Pickwick-Sam Weller and his father a hundred times; Mr. Pickwick, benevolent and bibulous; Jingle on the top of many a coach and omnibus. Pushing through the crowd, nimble, silent, and unquiet-eyed, Mr. Fagin's pupils are shadows moving in all directions. The brothers Cheeryble pass in a handsome barouche, beaming on the crowd, and taking any passing impertinence as intended for a compliment. Their clerks are not far behind them, in the latest paletots-their beardless faces shining behind blue and green veils. Tom Allalone offers to dust you down as you get within the ropes. Mr. Jonas Chuzzlewit has travelled in the congenial company of Scrooge to mark their prey. Mr. Dombey is here, solemn, so that you wonder what on earth can have drawn him to the hurly-burly, and why he has planted himself in the thick of the grand stand. Barkis is as willing as ever, planted delightedly next a buxom country wench, and threading his way through the tangle of vehicles with a cheery and prosperous audacity; and few, if any, notice the solemn man who carries aloft a board, on which the wicked are warned to repent in time. 
    We admit that the halt at the road-side public-house falls naturally into a very English scene. Pots of beer flash through the crowd: are lifted to the roofs of omnibuses, passed inside through the windows, raised to the lips of ladies who are giggling in spring-carts, handed to postilions who drink while their horses plunge; and not an unwilling lip is seen anywhere. 
    "Again!" is the exclamation, as our horses are brought to a sharp stand at an angle of the road. Beer is ahead once more, and will be ahead many times before we get back to town. "The Big Pint" will have worked some strange scenes before it is put by for the night. Let us not shirk the responsibility of the whole scene, from thimble-rigger to the peer armed with flour bags. We are told that Englishmen take delight in providing themselves with frequent chances of breaking their necks, and that this is a very strange trait in our character. Our lads love perilous games; our men form a club for mutual encouragement in the art of passing a holiday on the edge of a crevasse, with chances of avalanches overhead to keep the mind fully engaged. For such a people this mad scamper of "a whole cityful" through the lovely sylvan scenes of our island to see two or three races, with the anticipation of a hundred accidents in the twilight on the way home, is a logical form of national holiday. To take an active part in it a man must be robust. And this is the quality which pervades the marvellous assemblage. Stroll through the enormous encampment that lights up the Downs on the eve of the Derby, and mark the strange hordes of men and women who are preparing to receive half London to-morrow--from the gypsies to the governors of the games, the proprietors of the great refreshment booths, and the thick-throated fightingmen who are to put on the gloves for shillings. In the throng are whole batallions of the vagrant poor intent on turning a few pence on The Event; but there is robust Will amid the poorest and feeblest. None are halfhearted. The shoe-black holds it a fine thing to be within sight of the Grand Stand, and has a boisterous spirit at the morning dawn, in defiance of chill and wet, of sleet and wind. He will warm, with the richest and happiest, to the event of the day, as the hours creep on, and the mighty tide of dusty travellers streams upon the Downs, creeps along the lines of the course, fills the Grand Stand with its dark flood, and ripples round The Corner. There is a brave, contentious spirit in the vast concourse, as the dealers in hundreds of articles, the tricksters, the mountebanks, the gypsies, and the betting-men bend to their work, and fill the air with a hoarse, bewildering sound.