Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Twice Round the Clock, or The Hours of the Day and Night in London, by George Augustus Sala, 1859    

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    Exists there, in the whole world, civilised or uncivilised, a nation of such inveterate grumblers as the English? We grumble at everything. We are five-and-twenty millions of bears afflicted with perpetually sore heads. Are we charged sixpence extra for a bed? is the tail of our mutton-chop underdone? does our mockturtle soup disagree with us? is a railway train late? or the requisite amount of hop deficient in our pale ale? does an Italian itinerant split our ears while we are endeavouring to solve the Seventh Problem in the First Book of Euclid? does the editor or manager refuse to return the manuscript of our poems or our farces? do we buy a silk dress that turns out to be nine-tenths cotton? are we surcharged by the commissioners of income-tax, (they say I make a thousand a year, I say I don't make a hundred and fifty but may difference of opinion never, et cetera)? forthwith we call for pen, ink, and paper, and indite a letter to the "Times," that providential safety-valve for the great legion of grumblers. What are our public meetings but organised arenas of grumbling? what the "leaders" in our Sunday newspapers but extra facilities for grumbling after we have been grumbling all the week? I think it was Mr. Horace Mayhew, in his "Model Men and Women," who told the story of a waiter at a city tavern, who took but one holiday in the course of the year, and then enjoyed himself by paying a visit to another waiter at another tavern, and assisting him in laying the knives and forks. In like manner the ordinarily-understood holiday for the gentlemen of the daily press - there being no diurnals published on Sunday - is Saturday; whereupon, after lying in bed somewhat longer than usual on the sixth day's morning, they indulge in the dulce desipere in loco, by writing stinging leading articles in the journals which publish editions on the Sabbath. This is due to their inveterate propensity for grumbling. And, mark me, this licensed and acknowledged grumbling is the surest safeguard of our liberties, and the safest guarantee for our not drifting from our snug roadstead of constitutionalism, where we can ride at anchor, and smile at the timid argosies and caravels of despotism, moored and chained in the grim granite basins of the inner port, and all without launching [-285-] into the troubled oceans, full of breakers and white squalls, of utter democracy. We seize upon a wrong, and grumble at it, till, after a few months', and sometimes a few years' grumbling, we find that the wrong exists no more, and that we have gained another Right. But we have had no barricades ad interim, no fusillades, no bombardment of private houses, no declarations of the "solidarity" of anybody, no confiscations, no deportations, and no guillotinings. Our rulers, grown wise by experience of smashed windows, pelted heads, and occasional (when the people were very hard driven) political annihilation, and hurling into the limbo of red tapisrn, have of late years placed few or no restrictions upon grumbling. The noble lord at the head of the Government daily receives deputations, who grumble at his measures, or at the measures he won't guarantee to propose, fearfully. In the Parliament House, no sooner does our gracious Queen, in her silver bell-like voice, speak the speech that others have written down for her (I daresay she could write a much more sensible discourse herself), than Lords and Commons begin to grumble about the sense of her words, and move amendments to the address which is to be presented to her. Downstairs, all through the session, parliamentary committees are grumbling at witnesses, and witnesses are grumbling at the committee ; and in outlying boroughs vicious electors are grumbling at the members of the Commons' House of Parliament. The country newspapers and the London newspapers grumble. The barristers grumble at the judge, and the judge at the jury. The public grumbles at the way soldiers are treated by the officers, and the soldiers (who are about the only citizens who are not addicted to grumbling) go out and fight and win battles, at which we at home grumble, because so many lives have been lost. And I daresay the Prime Minister grumbles because he has the gout, and the Queen on her throne grumbles because "Punch" caricatures the Prince Consort, and "Punch" grumbles because the Prince Consort does not often enough give occasion to be grumbled at. I grumble at being obliged to write for your amusement, and you grumble because I am not half amusing enough. We grumble at the cold dinners at school, at the price of the marriage license, at the doctor's bill for our first child's measles, at the cost of the funeral of Uncle John, who left us all his money. We grumble because we have to live, and grumble when the physician tells us that we must die. Does it not all resolve itself into our purer, better Fielding's aphorism in " Vanity Fair"- "Ah! vanitas vanitatum? Who of us has not his hobby, or, having it, is [-286-] satisfied? " Yet there is much virtue in having at least liberty to grumble. 
    These thoughts come over me as I wend my way at Ten o'Clock at night along the New Road - what do they call it now? Euston Road, Pancras Road, Paddington Road - que scais-je - towards the suburban district of Pentonville. It won't be suburban much longer; for Clerkenwell and Islington ,  Somers Town and Finsbury, are hemming it in so closely that it will be engulphed some of these days by a brick-and- mortar torrent, like the first Eddystone Lighthouse. A. pleasant spot once was Pentonville, haunted by cheery memories of Sir Hugh Myddleton, the New River Head, Sadlers' Wells Theatre, and the "Angel" at Islington - which isn't (at least now-a-days, and I doubt if it ever was) at Islington at all. They began to spoil Pentonville when they pulled down that outrageously comic statue of George IV., at Battle Bridge. Then they built the Great Northern Railway Terminus - clincher number one ; then an advertising tailor built a parody of the Crystal Palace for a shop-clincher number two (I am using a Swivellerism). The pre-ordinate clincher had been the erection of the hideously lugubrious penitentiary. However, I suppose it is all for the best. The next step will be to brick up the reservoir, and take down that mysterious tuning-fork looking erection, which no doubt has something to do with the water supply of London, and the New River Head; then they had better turn the Angel into a select vestry-room or a meeting-house for the Board of Works ; and then, after that, I should advise them to demolish the "Belvidere."
    Whose connection with grumbling you shall very speedily understand. At this famous and commodious old tavern, one of the few in London that yet preserve, not only a local but a metropolitan reputation, there is held every Saturday evening - ten o'clock being about the time for the commencement of the mimic Wittenagemotte - one of those meetings for political discussion, and the "ventilation" of political questions, whose uninterfered with occurrence, not only here, but in Fleet Street, in Bride Lane, and in Leicester Square, so much did rouse the ire of the sbirri, and mouchards, and unutterable villany of Rue de Jerusalem spydom, in the employ of his Imperial Majesty, Napoleon III.
    I have run the gauntlet of most of these harmless symposia of political talk ; and with all, save the Westminster Forum, I can claim acquaintance. I have been one of the Alumni of Cogers or "Codger's" [-287-] Hall, Bride Lane, where the gentleman who occupied the chair was addressed as "My Noble Grand" by the speaker. I have attended a meeting at the Forum, held at the Green Dragon,* (* There is a curious story about this "Green Dragon" tavern, a dim record, embosomed in the musty records of the "State Trials." In a note to one of those chronicles of crimes and suffering, it is hinted at that the daughter of the executioner of Charles the First was a barmaid at the Green Dragon in the reign of Queen Anne.) Fleet Street, where visitors are invited to join in the discussion; and where, one evening, joining in the discussion as a stranger, the meeting objected to my political views, and a vote passed the chair that I was to be thrown out of the window; from which ignominious exodus I was only rescued by the advent of' a friendly Templar, who had dropped in from chambers to the Forum to oil his rusty eloquence in time for the coming Western Circuit. I have dropped in, too, occasionally, at Mr. Wyld's Reading- Room, in Leicester Square, and have listened to much drouthy eloquence on subjects home and foreign. But nowhere have I seen such tableaux as the governmental journals of Paris have depicted, in the gloomiest of colours, as images of the political discussion meetings of perfide Albion. Nowhere have I seen a bowl of blood on the table, the chairman sitting on a barrel of gunpowder - to be subsequently used for the conflagration of the Thames - the orator addressing his hearers from the summit of a pile of ball-cartridges erected on a coffin; or dissentient members launching obuses, charged with fulminating mercury, at an unpopular speaker's head. Dark and dangerous meetings, of dark and dangerous men, do certainly take place in London. Oppressed, despairing, starving, outlawed, outraged exiles, do meet in holes and corners, do plot and conspire, do hurl, in speech, denunciation and sarcasm, at despots. But you must not go to Fleet Street, to Bride Lane, to Leicester Square, nor, least of all, to Pentonville, to find them. The doors of those mysterious meeting-places are "tiled" as securely as Freemasons' lodges. Now and then a traitor, by lies and hypocrisy, gains admittance, but woe to the traitor if he be discovered in his treason. He dies within the year.
    The "Belvidere" is distinguished above its kindred discussion halls, by its eminently respectable aspect. The subjects broached are bold enough, and are as boldly treated; but you are puzzled to reconcile the full-blown democracy of some of the speakers, with their mild, bank- account-possessing, rate-and-tax-paying, housekeeping appearance. They [-288-]


[-289-] bark but do not bite. The usages and prestige of the place, too, demand a certain amenity in discussion and forbearance in reply, which throws an extra tinge of respectability over the whole. Looking at this spacious, handsome room, panelled and pillared, comfortably and brilliantly lit, with its doubled rows of mahogany tables covered with bottles and glasses full of steaming compounds that do comfort the flesh outwardly and rejoice the spirit inwardly - in strict moderation, mind; looking at this burly, substantial auditory, ensconced in their cosy chairs, smoking their cigars, and listening with attentive ears to the orator ; looking at the thoughtful waiter slipping from table to table, administering refreshment and receiving orders with a subtle swiftness, yet taking, I will be bound, an ardent mental interest in the discussion; looking at the grave chairman in his comfortable high-raised fauteuil - you might fancy this to be one of the parochial "representative councils", as vestries are now queerly christened, or a freemasons' lodge, when, "labour" being over, "refreshment" commences, or an ordinary club of middle-class men accustomed to meet one another, and talk upon the topics of the day over a social glass. And, in truth, were you to suppose this, you would not be so very far out in your calculation. These are, indeed, vestrymen - or representative councillors - freemasons, benefit-club, middle-class men. But the topic of the night is invested with authority, and its discussion is subject to rules; and the highest compliment I can pay to the "Belvidere" is that, if in that other Discussion Hall, held between the months of March and August, in a green-leather and oak-carving furnished chamber, nigh unto the crypt of St. Stephen's Chapel, Westminster, as much sobriety, decorum, and persistence in adhering to the matter in hand were shown, as in this convivial parliament, the business of the nation would progress much better, and we should have much less cause to grumble at most things.
    See a speaker on his legs - a fluent speaker, somewhat of a florid speaker, occasionally somewhat of a violent speaker, though his violence is strictly confined to words and gesticulations. What withering sarcasms he hurls at kings and ministers! How eloquently he tells those tyrannical puppets that, when they are forgotten, when the force and direction of personal satire is no longer understood, and measures are felt only in their remotest consequences, his words shall still be found to contain principles worthy of being transmitted to posterity! How sneeringly he assures our rulers that they have but a copyhold interest in the state, that they cannot waste, that they cannot alienate, and that [-290-] the fee-simple is in us! How menacingly he assures the monarchs of the earth that the crowns which were gained by one revolution may be lost by another! and how much, listening to his impassioned exordium, to his whirlwind argument, to his scathing peroration, I become impressed with a notion that the orator has a capital memory, and has been an assiduous student of certain letters, which were addressed, in our great-grandmothers' time, to Mr. Woodfall, the printer of the "Public Advertiser," by a mysterious correspondent - a correspondent whose motto was, "Stat nominis umbra," and who chose to assume the pseudonym of "JUNIUS."
    In these orations you are sure to hear a good deal about Catholic Emancipation, the Test and Corporation Acts, the Spa Fields Riots, the Peterloo Massacre, the "Piccadilly Butchers," the "Dorsetshire Labourers," Queen Caroline's Trial, Richmond the Spy, and similar topics. They are not very amusing, perhaps, but they are of infinite service in keeping juvenile politicians au fait with the political memorabilia of thirty or forty years since. I have even heard an ardent reformer, with scarcely so much as a tuft on his chin, declaim in burning accents upon the great case of Horne Tooke versus the House of Commons - "Once a priest forever a priest" - on Jack Wilkes, Number Forty-five, and the question of general warrants, on the cruelty of Lord Ellenborough to William Hone, the trial of Colonel Despard, and the eventualities which might have followed the successful assassination of Lord Sidmouth by Arthur Thistlewood.
    A staid, middle-aged gentleman follows the reformer, and proceeds, genteelly, to demolish him. He is a staunch upholder of our ancient institutions, and sneers at the presumptuous and levelling tendencies of the age. He has some neat things to say about the "Pig and Whistle" style of oratory, at which the ardent reformer winces, chews the end of his cigar, and empties his glass indignantly ; and he concludes with a glowing eulogium on church and state, our glorious constitution, and our noble aristocracy.
    Ere I leave these placid tribunes of Pentonville Hill, discharging their harmless philippics at men high in place and power, I muse a little over the tavern itself, and call to mind a certain story I once heard respecting it, possessing what foundation of truth I know not, but which, if not true, is assuredly ben trovato. Thus runs the dubious legend: You remember the fair young daughter of England, the good princess, the virtuous daughter of a wicked father, and in whom, from [-291-] her cradle to her marriage, the hope and love of this stolid but strong- feeling nation were centred. You remember her husband: he is a king at Brussels now. You remember how, when she died, all England burst into a passionate lament; how thousands went into voluntary mourning; how clergymen wept in the pulpit, when they discoursed on her virtues; how an awful darkness and despair seemed to overshadow the ill-governed land when the news came that the Princess Charlotte was dead. There is little need to say that her husband (who, I am glad to believe, loved her very truly and fondly) was at first inconsolable for her loss, and grieved long and bitterly for her. But time was good to him, and heaven merciful, and by degrees his sorrow wore away. Still he was melancholy, pre-occupied, and loved nothing so much as to be left alone. It was about this time that the then landlord of the Belvidere began to notice that about eleven o'clock almost every forenoon during the week a gentleman in deep mourning, and on horseback, would stop at the door of the tavern, leave his horse in charge of his groom, enter the large room, call for a pipe and a pint of ale, and quietly enjoy those refreshments for about the space of one hour. The room would be at that early hour of the day almost deserted. The one or two tradesmen who would occasionally drop in for a crust of bread and cheese, and a peep at the "Times," would be bidden a civil good morning - in a slightly foreign accent - by the stranger; but he never entered into conversation ; he never read the newspaper ; he "kep hisself to hisself," the waiter said. But he was so punctual and so regular in his attendance, that the people of the house came to look out for his daily visit in his suit of sables, and a special pipe was laid, a special dish of tobacco prepared, and a special chair and spittoon arranged, every day for his use. So things went on for many weeks; till one luckless morning, just after the departure of the black horseman, a customer of the house - I believe he was a commercial traveller, who had just returned from a journey in the west of England, and who had been enjoying his pipe and pint in the society of the taciturn stranger - called the landlord on one side.
    "Do you know who that chap is?" he asked.
    "Not a bit," answered the host. "Comes here every morning regular. Pint of mild sixpenny ; bird's-eye; gives the waiter twopence, and goes away. Groom has a glass of ale sitting on his horse. Pays his way like a gentleman."
    "He's somebody," said the commercial traveller, significantly.
    [-292-] "So I should think," returned the landlord, quietly.
    "He's a high fellow," added the bagman, mysteriously.
    "I shouldn't wonder," said the landlord, tranquilly.
    "Why, bless your heart, man alive!" broke out, impatiently, his interlocutor, "can't you guess who he is? He's Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. I have seen his Royal Highness a hundred times, and know him by sight as well as I do you."
    The next forenoon, when the sable horseman arrived, he found a roll of crimson baize laid down from the pales before the tavern to the doorway, which was lined by American aloes in tubs. The staircase was freshly carpeted; in the stranger's customary place was a table covered with a crimson cloth, backed by a crimson chair with gilt legs. The landlady, her daughter, and the barmaid, were all in holiday attire, and when the unknown rang the bell, the landlord himself; in a blue coat and brass buttons, and his hair newly powdered, brought him the beer in a silver tankard, and a wax candle at which to light his pipe. The black horseman said nothing, drank his ale, and smoked his tobacco, paid his reckoning, made his way downstairs amidst a profusion of bows and curtsies, mounted his horse, and - never came again. So runs the legend. The commercial traveller may have been wrong in his assertion, or may have been hoaxing the landlord; but I incline to the belief that this was really Prince Leopold. Why not? The incident is trifling enough ; yet there is something touching in the picture of the good-natured young German brooding over his bereavement, yet consoling himself in the simple German fashion, over his pipe and beer. 
    Friend of mine, if you have the slightest hope or thought that whither I am now taking thee is one of the gay and merry scenes of London night-life, prithee dismiss the thought, for thou art in error. Prithee pull up the collar of thy coat, stiffen thy neckcloth as much as possible, take that wicked cigar from thy mouth, cast down thine eyes, and assume a decorum, if thou have it not. We are going to Exeter Hall.
    Don't be alarmed: this is not the month of May or the season for meetings in aid of missions to the Quashiboos, the Rumbatumbas, or the Oolalooloo cannibals. We are not going to hear John B. Gough lecture on temperance. We are going to hear an oratorio, conducted by Mr. Costa-an oratorio in which Mr. Sims Reeves, Mr. Weiss, Miss [-293-] Dolby, and Madame Clara Novello, are to sing - and to listen to a band and chorus brought to a degree of perfection which only the genius of such a conductor could insure, or the gigantic resources of the Sacred Harmonic Society command. 
    There would seem to be in an oratorio something essentially germane to the English mind and character. The sounding recitative and swelling hymns, the rolling choruses and triumphant bursts of exultant music, have a strange affinity with the solemn, earnest, energetic English people, slow to move to anger or to love, but, when moved, passionately enthusiastic in their love, bloody and terrible in their great wrath. The French can no more understand oratorios than they can understand blank verse. I remember going to see Mendelssohn's "Elijah" once in Paris. It was winter time, and the performances took place in Franconi's great, windy, for-summer-built horse-riding circus in the Champs Elysées. The band and chorus shivered as they scraped and sang; the prima donna's nose and lips were blue, and the music paper quivered in her hand; the contralto looked exquisitely uncomfortable at not having to wear a page's dress and show her legs. As for the audience, the ladies sat muffled up in shawls and furs - it was a morning performance - and whispered among themselves ; the men sucked the knobs of their canes, twirled their moustaches, stared up at the chandeliers, and murmured, Quelle dróle do musique / They didn't repeat that oratorio, and I don't wonder at it. To the French it was neither fish nor flesh, neither ecclesiastical nor secular. If the first, they might argue, give us the chanting priests, the swinging censers dispensing fragrant clouds, the red-cassocked altar boys, the twinkling tapers, the embroidered canopies, and the swelling paeans of the concealed choristers. If the last, let us have a drinking chorus, a laughing chorus, and a dagger chorus, a prima donna to make her entrance on horseback, a contralto in tights, a ballet in the second act, and some red fire at the end. But this is neither mass nor opera.
    They think differently in England. To the seriously-inclined middle classes the oratorio supplies the place of the opera. And it behaves you to consider what a vast power in the state those serious middle-class men and women are. It is all very well for us, men and citizens of the world, yet living in a comparatively contracted circle of acquaintances as cosmopolitan as ourselves; it is all very well for us, who see "no harm" in sitting at home and reading the newspaper,  [-294-] while our wives go to church; who support Sunday bands, Sunday steamboats, and Sunday excursion trains, and are agitating now for the opening of museums, and galleries, and palaces on the Sabbath; who talk lightly on serious topics, and call clergymen parsons ; it is all very well, I say, for us, travelled, and somewhat cynical as we may be, to pretend that the "serious" world is an amalgam of bigotry, hypocrisy, and selfishness, and to ignore the solemn religious journals that denounce hot dinner on Sundays, or a walk after it, or the perusal of a secular book on the sacred day, as intolerable sins. Yet how many thousands - how many millions - of sober, sincere, conscientious citizens are there, who are honestly persuaded of the sinfulness of many things which we consider harmless recreations who would shrink back in horror, if they heard a tithe of the conversations that go on every night in hundreds of well-conducted London drawing-rooms! who look upon dancing as an irreligious and Babylonish pastime! whose only light reading consists of tracts, missionary chronicles, and memoirs of sainted cheesemongers, and the beatified daughters of dairymen! I declare that I never see a theatre in a country town - where, at least, two-thirds of the population consist of such as I have described - without wondering at the lunacy of the person who built it, without marvelling at the idiocy of every fresh speculator who enters on the management. We may pretend to despise the Puritan world, write books and farces against them, and quiz the "Record" or the "Wesleyan;" but it is folly to ignore the vast numerical strength of these same Puritans. They purchase such books as "Memorials of Captain Headly Vicars" by thousands; they subscribe thousands of pounds yearly in an almost insane hope of converting heathen barbarians to a better faith ; they give away millions of tracts; they flood the platform and the auditory of every public meeting. It won't do to ignore them. Cromwell's Ironsides and Sir Harry Vane's Fifth-Monarchy Men have made too deep a mark upon the people of England to be lightly passed over.
    But the serious world, and that section who are worldly, meet on neutral ground at an Exeter Hall oratorio. The religionists see no sin in listening to sacred music; the mundane come to listen with delight to the immortal strains of Handel, of Haydn, and of Mendelssohn. "When shall their glory fade" asked Tennyson, singing of the Six Hundred at Balaclava. When shall the glory of our great oratorio writers decay? Never - I hope.
    [-295-] A resident at Bethlehem Hospital - he wasn't either a doctor or a keeper, but wore, habitually, a strait-waistcoat, took shower-baths very frequently, and kept his head close shaved - once divided the world into two classes : people who were mad, and people who would be mad. I, too - but out of Bedlam, thank heaven ! - have made a somewhat analogous classification. I divide the world into people who have and have not seen Ghosts. I belong myself to the first class. I am continually seeing ghosts. I shake hands in the street with friends who have been dead these ten years. A dear dead sister comes and sits by mc at night when I read, and tells me, with a kiss, that I am a good boy for coming home so early. I was troubled some years ago with a man with his head off, who, in that unseemly position, and holding his head on his knees, sat continually before me. I dismissed him at last as being an unworthy hallucination, and not a genuine ghost. I meet a good many ghosts now - friendly ghosts, pleasant ghosts - but chiefly do they favour me with their company at places of public entertainment. It may be that I am a bad listener to music or theatrical dialogue, that I am absent in mind, and distrait; but so surely as I go to a theatre or concert, so surely do I fall a conjuring up mind-pictures, till the theatre or the hall, and its occupants, quite fade away, and I find myself in entirely different company, talking to people who are mouldering in their graves, or who are thousands of miles away.
    And so the oratorio goes on, the assemblage paying a grave and decorous attention to the music, and bearing themselves far more like a congregation than an audience. They are so devotedly rapt in the magnificent performance, that I expect every moment to hear the vast mass of them join in the choruses; and when, at the first bar of the sublime "Hallelujah Chorus," the hearers all stand up, the singers in the orchestra seem to me like priests. In truth, I think that to hear an oratorio, chastens and purifies the mind, and that we go away from those grand performances wiser and better men. There is a natural disinclination to return - at least, immediately - to frivolous and trivial pursuits, after listening to those solemn and ennobling strains. I know that some exist upon whom music has no effect whatsoever; but I believe that the vast majority of mankind are influenced for good or evil by the sound of music. The most heartless woman in the world whom I know, cries when she hears "Kathleen ma vourneen." Napoleon could never listen to "Lascio ch'io piango la cruda sorte, without crossing himself. How grandly does John Dryden set forth this theory [-296-]


[-297-] in his immortal St. Cecilian Ode! with what exquisite art has he shown us Alexander moved to alternate joy, pride, shame, weeping, frenzy, as old Timotheus sweeps the lyre in varied strains!
    Now, in sober broughams and in hack-cabs - driven, I hope, by regenerated cabmen, who give tickets before they are asked for them, and never charge more than thirty per cent. above the legal fare - or haply, if the night be fine, on foot, the serious audience, well cloaked and bonneted, leave the hall. For half an hour afterwards, the Exeter Hall side of the Strand, both east and west, is dotted with serious groups in search of the last omnibus, or, perchance, boldly walking home. I wonder how many of the serious ones know anything of the thoroughfare. They may traverse it at noonday, or pass down it every morning for twenty years in omnibuses on their way to the city; but do they know anything of the night aspect of that most mysterious of London thoroughfares? It is better, perhaps, that they should not.
    Minute by minute they grow scarcer, and by ten minutes to eleven there are no serious groups in the Strand. They are all gone home to supper-hot ones, very probably, for the serious world is not at all un-addicted to good living - and sober. I, too, have liberty to go and sup, if I so choose; but not, alas! to bed. Still have I work to do, and for some hours. 

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