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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[-37-] SIX O'CLOCK A.M.-COVENT GARDEN MARKET.

    An Emperor will always be called Caesar, and a dog "poor old fellow," in whatever country they may reign or bark, I suppose; and I should be very much surprised if any men of Anglo-Saxon lineage, from this time forward to the millennium, could build a new city in any part of either hemisphere without a street or streets named after certain London localities, dear and familiar to us all. There is a Pall Mall in Liverpool, though but an unsavoury little thoroughfare, and a Piccadilly in Manchester - a very murky, bricky street indeed, compared with that unequalled hill of London, skirted on one side by the mansions of the nobles, and on the other by the great green parks. Brighton has its Bond Street - mutatus ab ille, certainly, being a fourth-rate skimping little place, smelling of oyster-shells, sand, recently-washed linen, and babies. I question not but in far-off Melbourne and Sydney, and scarcely yet planned cities of the Bush, the dear old names are springing up, like shoots from famous trees. Antipodean legislators have a refreshment room they call "Bellamy's;" merchants in far-off lands have their "Lloyd's;" there are coffee- houses and taverns, thousands of miles away, christened "Joe's," and "Tom's" and "Sam's,'' though the original "Joe,'' the primeval "Tom," the first " Sam," most bald-headed and courteous of old port- wine-wise waiters, have long since slept the sleep of the just in quiet mouldy London graveyards, closed years ago by the Board of Health. On very many names, and names alone, we stamp esto perpetua; and English hearts would ill brook the alteration of their favourite designations. Long, long may it be, I hope, before the great Lord Mayor of London shall be called the Prefect of the Thames, or the Secretary of State for the Home Department be known as the Minister of the Interior!
    Foremost among names familiar to British mouths is Covent Garden. The provincial knows it; the American knows, it; Lord Macaulay's New Zealander will come to meditate among the mossgrown arcades, when he makes that celebrated sketching excursion we have so long been promised. To the play-goer Covent Garden is suggestive of the glories of Kemble and Siddons; old book-a-bosom studious men, who live among musty volumes, remember that Harry [-38-] Fielding wrote the "Covent Garden Journal;" that Mr. Wycherley lived in Bow Street; and that Mr. Dryden was cudgelled in Rose Street hard by. Politicians remember the fasti of the Westminster election, and how Mr. Sheridan, beset by bailiffs on the hustings, escaped through the churchyard. Artists know that Inigo Jones built that same church of St. Paul, in compliance with the mandate of his patron, the Earl of Bedford. "Build me a barn," said the Earl. Quoth Inigo, "My lord, I will build you the handsomest barn in England;" and the church is in the market to this day, with its barn-like roof, to see. Old stagers who have led jovial London lives, have yet chuckling memories of how in Covent Garden they were wont to hear the chimes at midnight in the days when they were eating their terms, and lay over against the "Windmill" in Moorfields, and consorted with the Bona Robas. Those days, Sir John Falstaff - those days, Justice Shallow, shall return no more to you. There was the "Finish," -a vulgar, noisy place enough; but stamped with undying gentility by the patronage of his late Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. Great George "finished" in Covent Garden purlieus; Major Hanger told his stories, Captain Morris sang his songs, there. In a peaceable gutter in front of the "Finish," Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Esq., M.P., lay down overtaken in foreign wines, and told the guardian of the night that his name was Wilberforce. A wild place, that "Finish;" yet a better one thin Great George's other "Finish" at Windsor, with the actress to read plays to him, the servants anxious for him to quit the stage, that they might sell his frogged, furred coats, and white kid pantaloons: the sorry end in a mean chair-unfriended, unloved, save by hirelings deserted. When the Hope of England is old enough to wear on his fair head the coronal and the three ostrich feathers, will he patronise a "Finish?" shall we have another wild young Prince and Poins, I wonder. To be sure, Mr. Thackeray tells us that the young nobles of the present age have "Spratts" and the "back kitchen" to finish up a night in; but, pshaw! the Hope of England takes the chair at the Royal Institution to hear Mr. Faraday lecture, and sits on the bench beside John Lord Campbell to see rogues tried.
    Covent Garden is a very chain, and its links are pleasant reminiscences. They are somewhat dangerous to me, for my business is not antiquarian, nor even topographical, just now; and I have but to do with the sixth hour of the morning, and the vegetable market that is held in the monks' old garden. I will dismiss the noble house of [-39-] Bedford, though Covent Garden, &c., are the richest appanage of that ducal entity - simply recording a wish that you or I, my friend, had one tithe of the fat revenues that ooze from between the bricks of the Bedford estate. You should not dig, nor I delve, then. We would drink brown ale, and pay the reckoning on the nail, and no man for debt should go to jail, that we could help, from Garryowen to glory. I will say nothing to you of the old theatre: how it was burnt again and again, and always re-appeared, with great success on the part of Phoenix. Of Bow Street, even, will I be silent, and proffer nought of Sir Richard Birnie, or that famed runner, Townsend. Nor of the Garrick Club, in King Street, will I discourse; indeed, I don't know that I am qualified to say anything pertinent respecting that establishment. I am not a member of the club; and I am afraid of the men in plush, who, albeit aristocratic, have yet a certain "Garrick" look about them, and must be, I surmise, the prosperous brothers of the "green-coats" who sweep and water the stage, and pick up Sir Anthony Absolute's hat and crutch in the play. And scant dissertations shall you have from me on those dim days of old, when Covent Garden was in verity the garden of a convent; when matins and vespers, complins and benedictions, were tinkled out in mellow tintinnabulations through the leafy aisles of fruit trees; when my Lord Abbot trod the green sward, stately, his signet-ring flashing in the evening sun; and Brother Austin hated Friar Lawrence, and cursed him softly as he paced the gravel walks demurely, his hands in his brown sleeves, his eyes ever and anon cast up to count the peaches on the wall. Solemn old conventual days, with shrill-voiced choir-boys singing from breves and minims as big as latch-keys, scored in black and red on brave parchment music-tomes. Lazy old conventual days, when the cellarer brewed October that would give Messrs. Bass and Allsopp vertigo; when the poor were fed with a manchet and stoup at the gate, without seeking the relieving officer, or an order for the stoneyard. Comfortable old days, when the Abbot's venator brought in a fat buck from Sheen or Chertsey, the piscator fresh salmon (the water-drops looked like pearls on their silvery backs). Comfortable old days of softly-saddled palfreys, venison pasties, and Malvoisie, sandalled feet, and shaven crowns, bead-telling, and censor-swinging. These were the days of the lazy monks in their Covent Garden. Lazy! They were lazy enough to illuminate the exquisitely beautiful missals and books of hours you may see in the British Museum; to feed, and tend, and comfort the poor, and heal them when they were [-40-] sick; to keep art and learning from decay and death in a dark age; to build cathedrals, whose smallest buttress shall make your children's children, Sir Charles Barry, blush; but they were the lazy monks - so let us cry havoc upon them. They were shavelings. They didn't wash their feet, they aided and abetted Guy Fawkes, Ignatius Loyola, and the Cardinal Archbishop of --- 
    It is six o'clock on a glorious summer's morning; the lazy monks fade away like the shadows of the night, and leave me in Covent Garden, and in high market. Every morning during the summer may be called market morning; but in the winter the special mornings are Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. It is a strange sight then in the winter blackness to see the gas glimmering among huge piles of vegetables hoisted highs on carts, and slowly moving like Birnam Woods coming to a Dunsinane of marketdom. When the snow is on the ground, or when the rain it raineth, the glare of lights and black shadows; the rushing figures of men with burdens; the great heaving masses of baskets that are tumbled from steep heights; the brilliantly-lighted shops in the grand arcade, where, winter or summer, glow the oranges and the hot-house fruits and flowers; all these make up a series of pictures, strange and sometimes almost terrible. There are yawning cellars, that vomit green stuff; there are tall potato-sacks propped up in dark corners, that might contain corpses of murdered men; there are wondrous masses of light and shade, and dazzling effects of candlelight, enough to make old Schkalken's ghost rise, crayon and sketch-book in hand, and the eidolon of Paul Rembrandt to take lodgings in the Piazza, over against the market.
    But six o'clock in the glorious summer time! The London smoke is not out of bed yet, and indeed Covent Garden market would at all times seem to possess an exemption from over fumigation. If you consider the fronts of the houses, and the arches of the Piazza, you will see that though tinted by age, they have not that sooty grimness that degrades St. Paul's cathedral into the similitude of a temple dedicated to the worship of the goddess of chimney-sweepers, and makes the East India House (what will they do with the India House when the directors are demolished?) look like the outside of the black-hole at Calcutta. Smoke has been merciful to Covent Garden market, and its cornucopia is not as dingy as a ramoneur's sack. All night long the heavily-laden wagons-mountains of cabbages, cauliflowers, brocoli, asparagus, carrots, turnips, and seakale ; Egyptian pyramids of red-huddled baskets full of apples and pears, hecatombs [-41-]

COVENT GARDEN MARKET : THE WEST END

[-42-] of cherries, holocausts of strawberry pattIes, chair wicker bosoms crimsoned by sanguinolent spots; and above all, piles, heaps -Pelions on Ossas, Atlases on Olympuses, Chimborazos on Himalayas, Mount Aboras on Mont Blancs - of PEAS, have been creaking and rumbling and heavily wheezing along surburban roads, and through the main streets of the never-sleeping city. You heard those broad groaning wheels, perturbed man, as your head tossed uneasily on the pillow, and you thought of the bill that was to come due on the morrow. You too heard them, pretty maiden, in the laced night cap, as you bedewed that delicate border of dentelle with tears, coursing from the eyes which should have been closed in sleep two hours since, tears evoked by the atrocious behaviour of Edward (a monster and member of the Stock Exchange) towards Clara (a designing, wicked, artful thing, whose papa lives in Torrington Square) during the last deux temps. That dull heavy sound was distinct above the sharp rattle of the night cabmen's wheels ; the steady revolving clatter of the home-returning brougham: for the sound of wheels in London are as the waves of a sea that is never still. The policemen met the market wagons as they trudged along, and eyed them critically, as though a neat case of lurking about with intent to commit a felony might be concealed in a strawberry-pottle, or a drunk and incapable lying perdu in a pea-basket. Roaring blades, addicted to asserting in chorus that they would not go home till morning - a needless vaunt, for it was morning already - hailed the bluff-visaged market carters, interchanged lively jocularities with them bearing on the syrup giving rhubarb and the succulent carrot, and lighted their pipes at the blackened calumets of the vegetarians. Young Tom Buffalo, who had been out at a christening party at Hammersmith, and had made the welkin ring (whatever and wherever the welkin may be, and howsoever the process of making it ring be effected) met a gigantic cabbage-chariot, as home returning, precisely at that part of Knightsbridge where Old Padlock House used to stand, and struck a bargain with the charioteer for conveyance to Charing Cross, for fourpence, a libation of milk, qualified by some spirituous admixture, and a pipeful of the best Bristol bird's-eye. And so from all outlying nursery-grounds and market-gardens about London: from Brompton, Fulham, Brentford, Chiswick, Turnham Green, and Kew; from sober Hackney, and Dalston, and Kingsland, bank-clerk beloved; from Tottenham, and Edmonton, sacred to John Gilpin, his hat and wig; [-43-] from saintly Clapham and Brixton, equally interested in piety, sugar-baking, and the funds, come, too heavy to gallop, too proud to trot, but sternly stalking in elephantine dignity of progression, the great carts bound to Covent Garden. One would think that all the vegetable-dishes in the world would not be able to hold the cabbage, to say nothing of the other verdant esculents.
    Delude not yourself with the notion that the market-carts alon can bring, or the suburban market-gardens furnish, a sufficient quantity of green meat for the great, insatiable, hungry, ravenous monster that men call (and none know why) London. Stand here with me in Covent Garden market-place, and let your eyes follow whither my finger points. Do you see those great vans, long, heavily-built, hoisted on high springs, and with immense wheels-vans drawn by horses of tremendous size and strength, but which, for all their bulk and weight, seem to move at a lightning pace compared with the snail crawl of the ancient market-carts? Their drivers are robust men, fresh-coloured, full-whiskered, strong-limbed, clad in corduroy shining at the seams, with bulging pockets, from which peep blotting-paper, interleaved books of invoices, and parcels receipts. They are always wiping their hot foreheads with red cotton pocket-handerchiefs. They are always in such a hurry. They never can wait. Alert in movement, strong in action, hardy in speech, curt and quick in reply, setting not much store by policemen, and bidding the wealthiest potatoe salesman "look sharp;" these vigorous mortals discharge from their vans such a shower of vegetable missiles that you might almost fancy the bombardment of a new Sebastopol. "Troy," the old ballad tells us, "had a breed of stout bold men; but these seem stouter and bolder. And they drive away, these stalwart, bold. spoken varlets, standing erect in their huge vans, and adjuring, by the name of " slow coach," seemingly immoveable market-carts to "mind their eye;" wearing out the London macadam with their fierce wheels, to the despair of the commissioners of paving (though my private opinion is, that the paving commissioners like to see the paving worn out, in order that they may have the "street up" again); threading their way in a surprisingly dexterous though apparently reckless manner through the maze of vehicles, and finding themselves, in an astonishingly short space of time, in Tottenham Court Road, and Union Street, Borough. What gives these men their almost superhuman velocity, strength, confidence? They do but carry cabbages, like other market-folk; but look on the legends inscribed on these vans, and the mystery is at once explained. [-44-]

COVENT GARDEN MARKET : EARLY BREAKFAST STALL

[-45-] "Chaplin and Home," "Pickford and Co," railway carriers. These vegetable Titans are of the rail, and raily. They have brought their horns of plenty from the termini of the great iron roads. Carts and carts, trucks and trucks have journeyed through the dense night, laden with vegetable produce ; locomotives have shrieked over Chatmoss, dragging cabbages and carrots after them; the most distant counties have poured the fatness of their lands at the feet of the Queen-city; but she, like the daughter of the horse-leech, still cryeth, "Give! give!" and, like Oliver Twist, "asks for more." So they send her more, even from strange countries beyond the sea. Black steamers from Rotterdam and Antwerp belch forth volumes of smoke at the Tower stairs, and discharge cargoes of peas and potatoes. The Queen-city is an hungered, and must be fed; and it is no joke, I need scarcely tell you, to feed London. When the King of Siam has resolved upon the ruin of a courtier, he makes him a present of a white elephant. As the animal is thrice sacred in Siamese eyes, the luckless baihlee, or garnishee, or possessor of the brute, dare neither sell, kill, nor neglect it; and the daily ration of rice, hay, and sugar which the albino monster devours, soon reduces the courtier to irremediable bankruptcy. Moral: avoid courts. If this were a despotic country, and her Majesty the Empress of Britain should take it into her head to ruin Baron Rothschild or the Marquis of Westminster (and indeed I have heard that the impoverished nobleman last mentioned is haunted by the fear of dying in a workhouse), I don't think she could more easily effect her purpose than by giving him LONDON and bidding him feed it for a week.
    Very sweet is the smell of the green peas this summer morning; and very picturesque is it to see the market-women ranged in circles, and busily employed in shelling those delicious edibles. Some fastidious persons might perhaps object that the fingers of the shellers are somewhat coarse, and that the vessels into which the peas fall are rudely fashioned. What does it matter? If we took this fastidiousness with us into an analysis of all the things we eat and drink, we should soon fill up the measure of the title of Dr. Culverwell's book, by "avoiding" eating and drinking altogether. The delicate Havannah cigar has been rolled between the hot palms of oleaginous niggers; nay, some travellers declare, upon the bare thighs of sable wenches. The snowy lump-sugar has been refined by means of unutterable nastinesses of a sanguineous nature; the very daily bread we eat has, in a state of dough, formed the flooring for a vigorous polka, [-46-] performed by journeymen bakers with bare feet. Food is a gift from heaven's free bounty: take Sancho Panza's advice, and don't look the gift-horse in the mouth. He may have false teeth. We ought to be very much obliged, of course, to those disinterested medical gentlemen who formed themselves into a sanitary commission, and analysing our dinners under a microscope, found that one-half was poison, and the other half rubbish ; but, for my part, I like anchovies to be red and pickles green, and I think that coffee without chicory in it is exceedingly nasty. As for the peas, I have so fond a love for those delicious pulse that I could partake of them even if I knew they had been shelled by Miss Julia Pastrami. I could eat the shucks ; I have eaten them indeed in Russia, where they stew pea~sheh1s in a sweet sauce, and make them amazingly relishing.
    But sweeter even than the smell of the peas, and more delightful than the odour of the strawberries, is the delicious perfume of the innumerable flowers which crowd the north-western angle of the market, from the corner of King Street to the entrance of the grand avenue. These are not hot-house plants, not rare exotics; such do not arrive so soon, and their aristocratic purchasers will not be out of bed for hours. These are simply hundreds upon hundreds of flower- pots, blooming with roses and geraniums, with pinks and lilacs, with heartsease and fuschias. There are long boxes full of mignionette and jessamine ; there are little pet vases full of peculiar roses with strange names ; there are rose-trees, roots and all, reft from the earth by some floral Milo who cared not for the rebound. The cut flowers, too, in every variety of dazzling hue, in every gradation of sweet odour, are here, jewelling wooden boards, and making humble wicker-baskets irridiscent. The violets have whole rows of baskets to themselves. Who is it that calls the violet humble, modest? He (I will call him he) is nothing of the sort. He is as bold as brass. lie comes the earliest and goes away the latest of all his lovely companions ; like a guest who is determined to make the most of a banquet. When the last rose of summer, tired of blooming alone, takes his hat and skulks home, the modest violet, who has been under the table for a great part of the evening, wakes up, and calls for another bottle of dew-and the right sort.
    It seems early for so many persons to be abroad, not only to sell but to purchase flowers, yet there is no lack of buyers for the perfumed stores which meet the eye, and well nigh impede the footsteps. Young sempstresses and milliner's girls, barmaids and shopwomen, [-47-] pent up all day in a hot and close atmosphere, have risen an hour or two earlier, and make a party of pleasure to come to Covent Garden market to buy flowers. It is one of heaven's mercies that the very poorest manage somehow to buy these treasures; and he who is steeped to the lips in misery will have a morsel of mignionette in his window, or a bunch of violets in a cracked jug on his rnantelshelf, even as the great lady has rich, savage, blooming plants in her conservatory, and camelias and magnolias in porphyry vases on marble slabs. It is a thin, a very thin, line that divides the independent poor from the pauper in his hideous whitewashed union ward : the power of buying flowers and of keeping a dog. How the halfpence are scraped together to procure the violets or mignionette, whence comes the coin that purchases the scrap of paunch, it puzzles me to say : but go where you will among the pauperum tabernas and you will find the dog and the flowers. Crowds more of purchasers are there yet around the violet baskets; but these are buyers to sell again. Wretched-looking little buyers are they, half-starved Bedouin children, mostly Irish, in faded and tattered garments, with ragged hair and bare feet. They have tramped miles with their scanty stock-money laid up in a corner of their patched shawls, daring not to think of breakfast till their purchases be made; and then they will tramp miles again through the cruel streets of London town, penetrating into courts and alleys where the sun never shines, peering into doorways, selling their wares to creatures almost as ragged and forlorn as themselves. They cry violets! They cried violets in good Master Herrick's time. There are some worthy gentlemen, householders and ratepayers, who would put all such street- cries down by Act of Parliament. Indeed, it must an intolerable sin, this piping little voice of an eight-years old child, wheezing out a supplication to buy a ha'porth of violets. But then mouthy gentlemen are all Sir Oracles; and where they are, no dogs must bark nor violets be cried.
    It is past six o'clock, and high 'Change in the market. What gabbling! what shouting! what rushing and pushing! what confusion of tongues and men and horses and carts! The roadway of the adjacent streets is littered with fragments of vegetables. You need pick your way with care and circumspection through the crowd, for it is by no means pleasant to be tripped up by a porter staggering under a load of baskets, that look like a Leaning Tower of Pisa. Bow Street is blocked up by a triple line of costermongers' "shallows," drawn by woe-begone donkies; their masters are in the market pur-[-48-]chasing that "sparrergrass" which they will so sonorously cry throughout the suburbs in the afternoon. They are also, I believe, to be put down by the worthy gentlemen who do not like noise. I wish they could put down, while they are about it, the chaffering of the money changers in the temple, and the noise of the Pharisees' brushes as they whiten those sepulchres of theirs, and the clanging of the bells that summon men to thank Heaven that they are not "as that publican," and to burn their neighbour because he objects to shovel hats. King Street, Southampton Street, Russell Street, are full of carts and men. Early coffee-shops and taverns are gorged with customers, for the Covent Gardeners are essentially jolly gardeners, and besides, being stalwart men, arc naturally hungry and athirst after their nights' labour. There are public-houses in the market itself, where they give you hot shoulder of mutton for breakfast at seven o'clock in the morning! Hot coffee and gigantic piles of bread-and-butter disappear with astounding rapidity. Foaming tankards are quaffed, "nips" of alcohol "to keep the cold out" (though it is May) are tossed off; and among the hale, hearty, fresh-coloured market-people, - you may see, here and there, some tardy lingerer at "the halls of dazzling light," who has just crawled away from the enchanted scene, and, cooling his fevered throat with soda-water, or whipping up his jaded nerves with brandy and milk, fancies, because he is abroad at six o'clock in the morning, that he is "seeing life." Crouching and lurking about, too, for anything they can beg, or anything they can borrow, or, I am afraid, for anything they can steal, are some homeless, shirtless vagabonds, who have slept all night under baskets or tarpaulins in the market, and now prowling and out of the coffee-shops and taverns, with red eyes and unshaven chins. I grieve to have to notice such unsightly blots upon the Arcadia I have endeavoured to depict; but, alas! these things ARE You have seen a Caterpillar crawling on the fairest rose; and this glorious summer sun must have spots on its face. There are worse on London's brow at six o'clock in the morning. 

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