[--back to menu for this book--]
FIVE P.M.: A CHILDREN'S FESTIVAL AT THE CRYSTAL PALACE
I SUPPOSE that the myriads of little folk scattered
throughout the great House of Glass at Sydenham, and in the gardens thereof,
have been here since early in the forenoon; but it was five o'clock ere we could
get away from work, and enjoy one of the most delightful drives of which I am
aware - that from London, through Brixton and Dulwich, to Norwood. Apparently,
some hundreds - it may be thousands - of boys and girls have just finished some
grand musical performance; since we watch them streaming down the degrees of the
great orchestra; and in another part of the palace there is a gymnastic contest
going on, the view of which, however, to a late corner, is barred by serried
ranks of anxious, yet delighted, fathers and mothers, who are watching the
exploits in calisthenics of their small offspring.
Now and again you catch a glimpse of a youth in cricketing flannels, or of a tiny maiden in a blouse and knickerbockers, performing some athletic feat, which, so far as I am concerned, I am perfectly certain I was never able to do. But I am delighted to see that [-149-] gymnastic, and almost acrobatic, training is making so much headway in the education of girls.
Such training will conduce towards making them healthy and strong; and as I have always been a fervent advocate of woman's rights, it strikes me that, during the next generation or so, what remaining rights women have to secure, will be much more easily obtained, if the women themselves have not only the mind but also the muscle wherewith to demand justice. It will not be easy to trample on the sex when they have become physically strong enough to take you by the scruff of the neck if you argue with them, or give you "one in the eye" if you refuse them the Parliamentary franchise.
It is a sight, and a most exhilarating one, to see these troops of children, from little dots of four and five in sun-bonnets, to big girls of twelve and fourteen with their hair down their backs, or twisted into those pig-tails which were fashionable when Charles Dickens was writing Pickwick more than fifty years ago, and which - as is the case with most fashions - have recently come into vogue again. It was as delightful to contemplate the merry, round-faced, chubby boys, the smaller ones in those knickerbockers, the origin of which, as an article of small boys' wear, has yet to be cleared up.
So far as I can make out, knickerbockers have not an American origin, in the sense of the garment having been devised by an American tailor; and, if my remembrance serves me correctly, it was an English [-150-] lady, writing to the Times, some six-and-thirty years ago, who stated, that she had made for her little boy some very neat and cosy galligaskins out of a pair of old trousers belonging to her husband. She had given, she added, the name of "knickerbockers" to these garments, because she had been looking at George Cruikshank's illustrations to Diedrich Knickerbocker's - that is to say, Washington Irving's - History of New York, in which George has depicted divers Dutch worthies arrayed in prodigiously voluminous breeches. Even at present there is an old Manhattan family in New York who bear the highly suggestive name of Ten Brock.
To behold the youngsters at tea was likewise a joy. The quantities of bread and butter they put away; the cups of tea and cocoa and milk and water they consumed; the numbers of buns and slices of plum-cake they contrived to dispose of filled me not only with delight, but with bewilderment. The staying powers of those little boys and girls demolishing their holiday grub, reminded me of a little white Pomeranian dog of which, for at least a dozen years, I was the proud possessor. He had during his long career several names. Sometimes, I believe he was called Tradelli, at others Dr. Biggs; sometimes he was Bismarck, and occasionally Hobson Jobson. His real appellation, I believe, was Ivan the Terrible, and when he came to me, a puppy, his then owner triumphantly declared that he would never be big enough to fill a quart pot. He grew somewhat larger than that measure of capacity; [-151-] but he was always a very diminutive bow-wow. He had fought every dog and bitten every child in Mecklenburg Square; but in the domestic circle he was the kindest little creature imaginable, and had clearly the heart that could feel for another. His greatest accomplishment next to begging was barking; and it often used to puzzle me how so much bark could come out of such a small dog. I brought him with me to Victoria Street, where he died of old age, and we had him buried in Hyde Park; and I will never have another dog.
It was the sight of the children merrily "wolfing" their tea, that brought back the image of Ivan the Terrible, with his many aliases, to my mind. To be sure, the children at the Crystal Palace did not bark; but it was enrapturing to listen to their rippling laughter and chatter. When at length their repast was over, they scattered again, and went trotting about the palace, pattering with their small feet like so many armies of white mice, and then pouring out down the great staircase by the fountains into the gardens, gamboling and racing, and sliding down steep embankments, and enjoying themselves with a thoroughness of glee, that to my mind only English children can display.
The Crystal Palace is not only a great school of artistic and technical education, and a place of varied and innocent amusement, but it is likewise the finest playground for children in the whole kingdom; and, in the interests of the public happiness and the [-152-] public morality, it ought to have a handsome endowment from the State. It is wicked and nonsensical to assert that private enterprise, and private enterprise alone, should be the purveyor of amusement to the people. It is idle, wicked, and mendacious into the bargain, to say that the State cannot afford to endow such a thoroughly national institution as the Crystal Palace. How many thousand pounds a year do we blow away in gunpowder on Woolwich Common, or on Southsea Beach? How many thousands more have we recently spent on torpedoes - beshrew their murderous name! - which are being tested, and turn out to be utterly worthless?
You are not to think that these legions of little ones were destitute of adult guides, philosophers, and friends; or that they were allowed to wander about the palace and grounds at their own sweet wills, or revel entirely in their own devices in the way of play. When we had had our own dinner, and I came out into the garden about eight o'clock to smoke a cigar, the children in regiments, in battalions, in squadrons and platoons, were being marshalled and formed in line for the purpose of merrily marching them towards the entrance leading to the railway stations; or, rather might they be likened to so many flocks of sheep under the guardianship of careful shepherds and shepherdesses, who, with walking-sticks and umbrellas in lieu of crooks, were collecting the lambs and gently gathering up those who were straying; and who, although to the stranger the children might have been at tea-time, or [-153-] at their games, even as "forty feeding like one," were evidently familiar with the faces of every one of their young charges. It was growing dusk ere the last flock had got well on their way out of the palace; but, in the remote distance, one could hear their shrill cheering as they entered the carriages which were to take them home, a little tired perhaps, but ah, so happy!
As to ourselves, we lingered in the palace grounds till the dusk had deepened into night; and driving home through the green lanes, one of our companions, a lady, undertook to count the couples of sweethearts whom we encountered placidly strolling along in the moonlight. She left off at a hundred and eighty-seven, by which time we were in sight of the late Bon Marché, Brixton. After that there were no more sweethearts; there were only the blazing gas, and the blinding electric light, and the striving, palpitating crowds, filling the streets of Nineveh, that Great City.
No sweethearting couples did I count; for all the time that I had passed at the Crystal Palace, and all the way home, I had been thinking of the magnificent Pleasure Dome, which the genius of Joseph Paxton imagined, and which the will of the nation, guided by the counsel of the wise and good Prince Consort, decreed. I witnessed the opening of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park by Her Majesty the Queen; and I can see her in the mirror of my memory now, with the Prince Consort, in a Field Marshal's uniform, by her [-154-] side. With her, also, were the little Princess, eleven years old, who is now the Empress Frederick of Germany, and a little boy a year younger arrayed in Highland dress, and who is Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. I can see the Archbishop of Canterbury in lawn sleeves pronouncing the benediction on the enterprise that day inaugurated; and then the Sovereign, with her Consort and her children, followed by the Primate, the Lord Chancellor, and the Judges, and a host of great officers of State, courtiers, diplomatists, Exhibition commissioners, and committee-men, made the circuit of the entire building; the route being kept by the Yeomen of the Guard, with their glittering halberts, and the Royal trumpeters meanwhile blaring out joyous fanfares from their silver trumpets.
You know that when the Great Exhibition of '51 had run its marvellous and unprecedented course, notwithstanding the bitter opposition of good old cranky Colonel Sibthorpe, who was continually thanking Providence that he had never entered "the bazaar full of rubbish," the Crystal Palace was somehow or another transported to a site near Upper Norwood, which, although not actually in Sydenham, the greater part being in Lambeth parish, is always considered to belong to Sydenham. How they got the thousands of tons of iron, and the thousands upon thousands of panes of glass, to Sydenham Hill, there is no room here to describe, if indeed I could tell the tale. I only know that the thing was done; and that visiting the works in progress at Sydenham sometime in 1853, I wrote in [-155-] Household Words an article entitled, "Fairy Land in 54," pointing out what would be the chief attractions in the palace and grounds, then rapidly approaching completion.
Perhaps after all that which was, humanly speaking, a fairy structure, was brought from Hyde Park to Sydenham on a magician's carpet; but whether that was the case, or whether the thousands of tons of iron and glass were conveyed to Sydenham in balloons, or in Pickford's or Carter-Paterson's vans, there stands the palace, the rebuilding of which I watched just as I had done its original edification in London. The party which visited the fairyland that was to be, and which left London on a murky late October day, comprised Sir Joseph Paxton himself; Mr. William Henry Wills, the assistant editor of Household Words; the famous dramatist, essayist, and wit, Douglas Jerrold; Mark Lemon, the editor of Punch; Owen Jones, the decorative architect, and author of The Grammar of Ornament; Charles Knight, of Penny Cyc1opaedia, History of England, and Shakespearian Commentary's fame, and your humble servant, with the exception of whom, not one of that merry band of pilgrims to Sydenham survives. We tramped manfully for a good two hours through the stiff soil from which was rising a structure more wonderful even than its forerunner; but I fail to remember the hotel at which we afterwards dined. Possibly it was a humble village inn at Beulah Spa- for the transformation of Sydenham, Anerley, and Upper Norwood into a handsome suburban city, as [-156-] beautiful and as smiling perhaps as one of those twenty-two cities which once glorified the now desolate Campagna of Rome, had not then been begun.
Still, the hill to be crowned by the palace and grounds commanded a prospect which, if it did not equal in sublimity that of the hills which girdle Rome, yet possessed features of unequalled loveliness in richly wooded and softly undulating plains, rising at last to the distant acclivities of Kent and Surrey. I was at the opening of the palace in 1854; but ere that pageant took place, I dined as a guest of the distinguished comparative anatomist, Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, in the interior of the model of some gigantic Saurian, on a margin of the lake, where also were to be seen other life-sized models of the former gigantic inhabitants of the earth. I cannot remember whether it was in the stomach of the Iguanodon, or in that of the Malaeotherium, the Anoplotherium, the Plesiosaurus, or the Megatherium, that we feasted; but we did hold a very joyous banquet in an improvised dining-room not much larger than the cabin of a small yacht.
Another exceptional dinner that I partook of within the walls of the palace itself was about a year after it had been opened. Shareholders did not then enjoy the privilege of visiting the palace on Sundays; but I happened to know one of the early Directors of the Company. I was one of a small party of his personal friends who went down to the palace one Sunday afternoon and dined in the Alhambra Court. We squatted on our hams à la Turc round the Fountain [-157-] of the Lions, and the bill of fare comprised pillafs and kibabs, which we pretended to like and didn't; and then we proceeded to the terrace to enjoy narghilés and chibouks, and pretended to like the Latakia tobacco and the thick grouty Mocha coffee which accompanied the pipes ; but I am afraid we liked those post-prandial refreshments no more than we had done our pillafs and kibabs.
You very rarely see a narghilé, which is the Turkish equivalent for the Indian hookah in Constantinople, in the present day. It has been dethroned by the cigarette ; and, indeed, the last time that I was in the Levant it was not until the steamer touched at the Greek island of Syra, where we spent a few hours, that I could manage to obtain at the café a narghilé on which to experiment. The pipe had to be "cooked," or preliminarily smoked, in the kitchen before it was brought up to me, for, to the Oriental mind, no Frank is capable of drawing the first twenty puffs through the glass reservoir, filled with rose water, and so, through many convolutions, through the amber mouthpiece between his lips.
Some weeks afterwards, however, I did manage to purchase a narghilé in the Bezesteen at Stamboul; and taking it to the house of my dear friend-now, alas! deceased, - Eugene Schuyler, who was at the time Consul-General of the United States at the Sublime Porte, we had a narghilé séance. It was scarcely a success, and I speedily abandoned my own hookah for a cigar. Schuyler managed his narghilé, with that [-158-] phlegmatic determination worthy of a member of an ancient Dutch long - piped smoking family. An American friend of his, who had come to Turkey for the purpose of studying early Byzantine architecture, and who was so venturous as to struggle with the old-fashioned Turkish pipe, had an experience of it not altogether agreeable. He had been drawing away at a narghilé for about a minute and a half, when we noticed that his countenance grew first very yellow, then very green, and then very white. "How do you like it?" we asked. "Oh !" he replied, in a very faint voice, and with many gasps, "it is delicious; it is ethereal-it's heavenly - it's - I don't think I shall live five minutes;" and he tumbled off the divan on to the carpet in a dead faint. To be quite Oriental, our friend had swallowed the smoke, which we had to press and pummel and knead out of him in spirals issuing from his nostrils and his mouth, and, as I thought, from his eyes and his ears. We got him round at last, by the administration of a liquid a little stronger than sherbet; but he declared that that particular narghilé the first that he had ever tried to smoke, should likewise be the last. In all probability he kept his word.
[--nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.--]