Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894


The last day of the season— Its beginning—Ladies at the races - The Fourth of June at Eton—Eton in my young days—The procession of boats-—Reminiscences of Ascot—The Master of the Buckhounds— Amusing scene at Ascot Races—A contemptible manoeuvre—A funny story of this year’s race meeting—his lordship outwitted—Falling off in poklitical entertainments—How marriages are “knocked up”— The Row on a Sunday morning—Coaching Club meets—The July Meeting at Newmarket—Goodwood—Exclusiveness of Cowes society—The river forty years ago—A complete change for the worse—All is vanity.
    THE twenty-eighth of July—the first day of glorious Goodwood, and practically the last of the London season! The private omnibuses, laden outside with luggage and inside with domestics, are already to be seen in the West End thorough­fares. The few people of the monde who are not able to leave the metropolis, at any rate for the time being, have shut up the front part of their houses, and are leading a sort of secret life in some other portion of the premises.
    For my part, I am of opinion that London is never more pleasant to live in than when it is what is called unfashionable, that is, when the season is practically over. Over? By the way, when does it actually commence?
    Matters have changed very much since my young days, and I suppose the beginning of the season is now somewhere about Derby week. Of course I am leaving out of account the short Easter season, when in these days there are so many smart parties.
    Ladies never, or very seldom, went to the Derby forty years ago. They were content with gracing the Epsom gradients on the “ladies” day,” when the Oaks was run. I don’t suppose [-229-] that, as late as Hermit’s year, half-a-dozen representatives of the fashionable female world would have been seen on the entire course on Derby Day. True, the date I specify is not altogether an appropriate one, for there was more than one snowstorm that year.
    Things are very different now. In the present day the boxes and stands are crowded with ladies. Indeed, since the institution of Sandown, Kempton, Hurst Park, and other meet­ings near London, racing has become almost as great an amusement for fashionable women as for fashionable men, and though the former do not wager in such high figures as the latter, they are pretty universally imbued with the spirit of gambling.
    Thus it comes about that London is pretty well filled by the week in which the carnival of the English turf takes place.
    There is nothing very much in the way of fashionable gatherings between Epsom and Royal Ascot, excepting, of course, the ordinary dinner-parties, dances, and receptions, and also excepting, of course, the pleasant jaunt to Eton for the popular Fourth of June. This gathering is naturally pretty much confined to the relatives of the boys, but as there are now over a thousand of the latter, representing all the aristo­cracy and wealth of the country, there are few more patrician and fashionable assemblages than that to be seen, on the date in question, in the Upper School at “Speeches” in the morn­ing, in the Playing Fields after the declamatory entertainment is over, and at the fireworks and procession of boats in the evening. Dear old Eton! things have greatly changed since my day.
    The aquatic gathering then generally took place in Ascot week, and that, in my opinion, was a much better arrangement than the present one. During race week fashionable London occupied the Windsor hotels—the “White Hart,” the “Castle,” and all the available furnished country houses in the immediate neighbourhood, and the result was a splendid attendance at the Eton Festival.
    There were under six hundred boys only then. The boats were of very different build and calibre to those of the present day. First in the procession came the ten-oared Monarch, and a good old barge she was. The “eight” and the Upper and Lower boats followed. Nearly every craft had for steerer an old Etonian, whose privilege it was to provide the champagne, which was securely packed in a hamper and placed in the stern. He it was who afterwards headed the table at the supper at Surley.  [-230-] During my time one or the most popular providers of the juice of the grape was the Duke of Newcastle—the grandfather of the present Duke—whose eldest son was in my remove. I suppose that the Fourth of June gathering will continue as long as this fine old school exists, which no doubt will be until the end of time.
    Ascot, too, has undergone some changes. My first appear­ance on the Royal course was, I fancy, when Van Tromp, Cossack, and Chanticleer raced for the Emperor’s Vase, and a splendid trio they were. Chanticleer, who belonged to Mr. Merry, was ridden by the “boy in yellow,” and was, I believe, last, but I remember for a certainty that he was a grey. I subsequently saw the Flying Dutchman contend with Canezou, the former gaining an easy victory. The gold vase was th~ yearly gift of the Emperor of Russia, but this gift was discon­tinued after the Crimean War.
    As I have said, the Ascot of those days was very different from the Ascot of to-day. It will be remembered that at that time there had been no domestic loss to overshadow the life of our Imperial and Gracious Queen. The presence of Royalty on the course used to be the occasion of a most gorgeous pageant.
    At the time of which I am speaking, the Great Western had not opened to Windsor, Slough being the nearest station. There was a branch of the South-Western to Windsor, the terminus being in Datchet Lane, but there was no actual line to Ascot, Virginia Water, and Sunningdale. People bent on having a week’s racing usually hired one of the extremely pretty houses in the immediate neighbourhood of the Park. The Grand Stand was not so large and gorgeous as at present, and there was no Royal enclosure to excite the jealousy and envy of the plutocrats, nouveaux riches, and arrant snobs who are never tired of using every kind of trickery and meanness to elbow their way into society.
    It has often occurred to me that, during the week or ten days immediately preceding the festive gathering, the life of the Master of the Buckhounds can scarcely be a happy one. The holders of that office for many years have been two old Etonians, schoolfellows of mine, who, as is usually the case, having been known as the best of boys, turned out the most amiable and popular of men.
    It is not of much use trying to race if you are staying down at a house in the neighbourhood. When you get into the enclosure you find there are many things beside [-231-] horses to engage your attention. There are chairs, cloaks, race-glasses, and so forth, to be looked after, greetings to be exchanged, and general conversation to be indulged in, while he would indeed be a monster who could spare no time to scrutinise the pretty faces and exquisite costumes to be seen on every side.
    One year at Ascot I witnessed a sight that caused me much amusement. There appeared at the gate, which opens directly into the course, and at which one of the keepers in green and gold is always stationed, a little man in a grey suit and bright scarlet tie, who was accompanied by his wife, a very stout lady, and his daughter, both of whom were arrayed in all the colours of the rainbow. Their appearance very forcibly put me in mind of a whimsical communication that was once made to me by an individual of Eastern origin, whose great weakness was a belief—Heaven knows whence derived—that his family, who always dressed in the most vulgar manner possible, were remarkably distinguished and patrician-looking people. In relating their holiday experiences, he said to me:
    “You know my sisters dress beautifully, don’t you?”
    Well, I knew they dressed, and I knew their eye for colour was alarming; so I vouchsafed an affirmative reply.
    “Well,” he continued, “they have been a tour in Germany, and they couldn’t go down the streets without being mobbed. The German inhabitants took them for English Royalty.”
    I had no doubt as to the mobbing; but I could not help shaking my head over the alleged cause.
    But to return to the three visitors to Ascot. The gentleman presented his tickets to the doorkeeper, who eyed them rather suspiciously, but was ultimately satisfied. The trio then marched down the centre of the enclosure—which was pretty well deserted, as everybody had passed into the paddock to see the horses saddled—and stopped immediately underneath the Prince of Wales’s box, a part which, out of respect, is never used, save by His Royal Highness and his intimate friends. Into this part of the enclosure the three new arrivals promptly scrambled, and, throwing themselves back, they ble~v them­selves out as much as to say: “Now, my good friends, what do you think of this?”
    The bell rang for clearing the course, the horses left the paddock, and the people poured back into the enclosure. It was immensely funny to note the sensation that the new-comers [-232-] caused. I recognised the little man at the first glance. He was a City magnate, and of some little importance in the Cor­poration. All eyes were turned on the box, pince-nez went up, glasses were levelled, a general titter passed through the throng, and some tolerably loud whispers were exchanged. People walked backwards and forwards, as if they could never tire of the sight before them. There the trio remained, looking just as happy and pleased as if they were sitting for their photo­graphs, and I have not the slightest doubt that there was floating through their minds some such idea as that which took posses­sion of my friend whose relatives were mobbed in Germany.
    The three waited to see a race or two, and then quitted the enclosure by the gate at which they had entered. Ten minutes later I saw the little man return through another gate, accompanied by his daughter and eldest son, the latter being, if possible, a more vulgar-looking dog than his papa. This was breaking the rules with a vengeance, it being distinctly understood that tickets of admission to the enclosure are in no way transferable.
    There is rather a funny story told in connection with the Royal enclosure this year. Mrs. B——, a lady hailing from the Colonies, had been introduced into a certain section of London society by a noble lord who had the reputation of possessing a sensitive and gallant heart. Among other places where he had lanced the lady was the house of a well-known City man. She stayed there with his lordship, and not only became extremely popular, but was of great assistance to the City dame in entertaining and getting to the house certain celebrated society people. The lady’s dress was simply perfect. All that wealth could procure, that Doucet or Worth could design, and that a rather seductive figure could show off; was “en evidence”; but it subsequently turned out, much to the horror of the hostess, that for months past the accounts for the dresses had been defrayed by the master of the establishment.
    While staying at the house the lady became acquainted with Lord S——, the husband of a very charming lady greatly admired in society. His lordship at once struck up a friend ship of the most intimate character with Mrs. B—, and they visited together many popular resorts, including the “Star and Garter,” at Richmond, the “Ship,” at Greenwich, Bushey Park, and Hampton Court. It was upon one of these jaunts that Mrs. B—— informed his lordship that ever since she had been in England the darling wish of her heart had been to visit the [-233-] Royal enclosure at Ascot, and she went on to request him to take steps to gratify her desire. Now, Lord S —— had been noted from his school-days for being one of the most careful and particular of men. Here, then, was a pretty dilemma for him to be placed in! To ask for a pass in the lady’s name was out of the question, as he would bring himself into un­pleasant notoriety by the request, which, moreover, would certainly be refused. He did his best to dissuade the lady from her project, hut all to no purpose. One day, however, his lordship made his appearance at the “Grosvenor Hotel,” where Mrs. B— was staying, and, with his face beaming with delight, exclaimed:
    “It is all right; you can go with me to Ascot, and be in the Royal enclosure on the Hunt Cup day—all day long, if you, please—and that day, you know, is one of the most fashionable of the week. We can go down quietly together by the train, and have a regular day of it. And how do you think I’ve managed it? Why, simply by cross-examining her ladyship, and going over with her all her engagements and plans for the week. I asked her whether it would not tire her too much to go to and from Ascot every day, and sit out the races, especially as she was not over strong. She seemed quite delighted at my being so thoughtful on her account, and deter­mined that she would stop in town on the Cup day. So you see my pass for two will do for us both, and with the official at the door you will pass as Lady S
    Mrs. B— was in the seventh heaven of delight, and profusely complimented his lordship on his ready wit.
    The day arrived, and the pair took a train from Vaux­hall, and arrived in due course at Ascot. His lordship’s confusion, however, was great when the man at the door, after looking at the card, became very confused and stammered out:
    “I am afraid there must be some mistake, my lord. Her ladyship arrived only an hour ago. She said she expected’ your lordship by the next train, and that your lordship was in possession of a pass for you both. Knowing her ladyship well by sight, of course I admitted her at once. Your lordship will find her on the lawn.”
    The biters had been bit, and the pair did the best thing possible under the circumstances, beat a hasty retreat.
    After Ascot there is very little stirring in the fashionable world except the ordinary dinner-parties, dances, and receptions. By receptions I mean such entertainments as are given by the [-234-] Marchioness of Salisbury, Lady Stanhope, and the wives of other political leaders. Of course these gatherings are most successful during the time the Tories are in office, for they have both the houses and the money necessary for entertaining. In the matter of hospitality there has been of late years a noticeable falling off among those who are in authority as Liberals, or rather, as Home Rulers and Radicals. Mr. Gladstone, of course, has his official residence in Downing Street, but Lord Rosebery is a widower, and Lady Hayter does not now entertain to the extent she did formerly. Political entertainments on the Liberal side are, indeed, practically things of the past. This is not, however, much loss, for what, after all, are these entertainments, to obtain cards for which some people put themselves to so much trouble? They are neither useful nor interesting. The Foreign Office is certainly an extremely pretty sight, to see once and have done with it; it certainly does not repay a second visit.
    As for the balls and parties of society in the present day, they are nothing. Men don’t dance now, at least the young men don’t. It is too much of a bore, and it is always too hot. They prefer to “sit out.” A man takes up a young girl for the evening, and they pass the time in quiet nooks and corners. What a change from the good old robust English society of fifty years ago
    It is at these entertainments that most of the marriages of the year are knocked up. I say “knocked up” because that ex­pression fittingly describes what takes place. It may be that some wretched girl has been hawked about for three or four seasons, and has come to be regarded as a drug in the matri­monial market. Her mother, who should be her protectress and well-wisher, is never tired of reproaching her. The cost of her dresses is thrown in her face, and she is constantly re­minded that Lilian So-and-So and Gertrude So-and-So, with­out half her looks or figure, have married rent-rolls of thousands a year. At last the girl becomes callous, and, utterly regard­less of all that should bring two hearts together, allows herself to be sold to the highest bidder, in nine cases out of ten not caring sixpence halfpenny for the bargain.
    Not an uninteresting place during the season is the Row on a Sunday morning. You see some curious sights there.
    Whether the people who carry prayer-books have all been to a place of worship I cannot say. To judge by their doings, I should think it rather doubtful. Here can be seen youth that [-235-] has been sacrificed to age. It is true, you are told that that old gentleman—some noble earl, it may he—is devotedly attached to his fair young companion, and that she returns his affection. Well, it doesn’t look much like it, to judge by’ the way she gazes wistfully around, heedless of the nonsense he is pouring into her ear.
    Then there are the Coaching Club meets, which are always fashionably attended; the trooping of the colours on the Queen’s birthday, and other entertainments “ejusdem generis.”
    But I must not forget one attraction of the season, notable for being free from all the nonsense and humbug of society—I mean the week behind the ditch at Newmarket, the July Meeting. Now, this really is a glorious time. In my humble judgement —and I love a horse almost as keenly as does a Yorkshireman— this is by far the pleasantest race meeting of the year.
    Head-quarters, as they call it, is, after all, the only place at which to race. The whole town thinks of nothing but racing and dreams of nothing but racing; it is plunged in racing from six o’clock in the morning to twelve o’clock at night. The entire life of the place is different from that which you live elsewhere. If you are staying at a nice house— and the owners of nice houses at Newmarket are the most hospitable people in the world—you have nothing but sport and enjoyment from morning to night.
    Getting up early you go out on to the Limekilns, where you see strings of race-horses brought out by their owners to be exercised. If you last year felt a little “hit” it would have restored your spirits in no time to see Tom Jennings, on an honest cob and with a piece of broom in his mouth, watching Prince Soltvkoffs Sheen, Gold, or Mephisto, doing an early morning gallop; and if, just before the Cesarewitch, you had been standing by his side and heard him whistle and cry “Sheen I” between his teeth, as the old horse went by, you would have felt you had a good tip for the coming race.
    What visitor to Newmarket does not know “the Captain,” and his faithful trainer, Jewitt? Then there are other trainers too numerous to mention.
    I was very much amused one morning when, on strolling away from my host, a popular trainer of race-horses, who was en­gaged on the Limekilns watching his favourites go through their paces, I came upon a sign-post, on which some one had written the following: “Robert S— is a d—n fraud. He never tells his — boys nothink.” The allusion was to a well-known [-236-] trainer, who, I believe, is not celebrated for imparting his secrets to other persons.
    After Newmarket comes Goodwood, and then Cowes, which is the last “go” of the year. Cowes has always been rather a puzzler for people trying to wedge their way into society. If you are not in the set on the lawn, at the fireworks, etc., you might just as well be at home in London.
    After Cowes, unless there is cholera on the Continent, or some other startling preventive, everybody goes abroad, save, of course, those who affect the river.
    The river, also, is not what it was. I am now fifty-seven years of age, and at the present moment I am casting my mind back to the time when I was fifteen. In those days there were scarcely any boats to be seen between Boveney Lock and Maidenhead Bridge, and none at all further up, between Maidenhead and Cookham. There were, moreover, no filthy house-boats and no steam launches to wash away the banks of the river, and place the angler’s life, or rather soul, in jeopardy —for the number is unknown of the oaths he utters, day by day, at being unloosened and washed away from his moorings. Those unable to afford a boat could fish from the bank with a fair prospect of good sport; and their more prosperous comrades could row down to Water Oakley and Bray, and catch their thirty or forty dozen gudgeon a day.
    What has the river become now? The banks are stuccoed, and there is no chub fishing, no barbel fishing, and scarcely any gudgeon fishing to be had. The whole thing has been completely ruined. Look at Boulter’s Lock on a Sunday afternoon; turn your eyes towards the lovely woods of Clive­den, formerly the property of Lord Orkney, and now owned by the Duke of Westminster; think of Skindle’s, the “Orkney Arms,” kept then by the original proprietor himself; and lastly, look across the river at the new hotel, where some skirt-dancer is indulging her admirers in a corner with a suddenly ­inspired rehearsal of “Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay.”
    And then a word as to the occupants of the punts, with their Japanese umbrellas as screens, who moor their craft in the nooks of Cliveden Reach on a Sunday afternoon. I am -not a particular man, but I cannot help taking exception to the behaviour of these people.
    One season runs its course, there is a brief interlude; and then the gay crowds reassemble for their frolics. There are changes in the programme, but the vanity of the thing is immortal.

[----nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.----]