Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895 - Four P.M. : A Garden Party at the Tower

[-back to menu for this book-]

[-170-]

FOUR P.M.; A GARDEN PARTY AT THE TOWER

    You have not, like the Puritan Ironsides in Lord Macaulay's ballad, "Come forth in triumph from the North, with your hands and your feet and your raiment all red;" neither has "your rout sent forth a joyous shout," and you have not been treading grapes in any wine-press whatsoever. As a matter of fact, the company among which, in a very pleasant mood, you find yourself at 4 P.M. on a golden July afternoon - not the July recently expired-is composed of some of the "smartest" people in London, whom it would be outrageously insulting to designate "a rout"; and, touching the wine- press, you do not possess such an article, even if you felt disposed to take off your boots and socks, and tread the grapes, which you have just purchased from Miss Mary Ann Solomon, in the Central Avenue of Covent Garden Market.
    Still, you are entitled to go thus far with Macaulay, as to ask yourself, wherefore you have come forth, not from the North, but from the South-western district, and why you find yourself arrayed in your best frock- coat, patent-leather boots, lavender kid gloves, a carna-[-171-]tion in your buttonhole, and an ebony cane with an ivory crutch in one hand; the whole forming the war- paint, or exceptionally festive gear, which, as a rule, you only assume at wedding breakfasts, and on Private View days at the Royal Academy. You are thus attired "up to the nines," for the reason, that the Chief Commissioner of Works has honoured you with an invitation to a Garden Party at the Tower of London; and that is why you are waiting at the river-steps of the Houses of Parliament, for the arrival of the steamer Little Ease, which is to convey the numerous party, of which you are the humblest member, to the grim old fortress which you have known for more than fifty years, under very varying circumstances.
    By the way, the fact of your being a thorough Cockney, old and experienced in the ways of the town, does not at all necessitate your knowing anything about the citadel, which Julius Caesar did not build. At a public dinner given in London to Sir George Dibbs, sometime Premier of New South Wales, I met an old friend from Melbourne, who told me that in his youth he lived somewhere near St. Katharine's Docks, while the counting-house in which he was engaged was in Lower Thames Street. His directest route, from point to point, was through the Tower; and on six mornings and afternoons in every week, for some years, he regularly passed in at one postern and out at another, and so, vice versa, between home and business. "I declare," remarked my Melbourne friend to me, "that during all these years I never bestowed a single thought [-172-] on the White Tower, the Beauchamp Tower, the Brass Mount, the Jewel Tower, St. Peter's Church, the Tower Green, or the Moat. They had nothing to do with me, and I had nothing to do with them.
    Many scores of thousands of Cockneys are, I daresay, in the condition which was once my friend's. There are born, and bred, and case-hardened Londoners, who have never been to the top of the Monument, nor inside St. Paul's, and to whom the interior of Westminster Abbey is as unfamiliar as the Thames Tunnel or the Museum of Economic Geology. Economic Geology has been humorously defined as the "Art of Skinning Flints"; but be that as it may, I have never visited the establishment in Jermyn Street; I have never been to Sir John Soane's Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields; never to Kew Gardens; and I have never seen the interior of the Banqueting House, Whitehall, although, when I am in London, I usually pass Inigo Jones's noble structure at least twice a day. So you see, that even as a Cockney, I have a great deal to learn.
    The steamer Little Ease belies her name; she is in reality a very trim and comfortable little craft, and when she has shipped her "smart" freight of passengers she looks quite festive; the quarter-deck is covered with crimson cloth, above which has been stretched a pretty pink-and-white striped awning. Then there are banners galore, a profusion of flowering plants, and a brass band discoursing merry tunes. There is a dense throng of ladies and gentlemen in gay attire; and, unless you are mistaken, there is a Royalty on board. You only hear [-173-] a dim and distant rumour to that effect, since you are comfortably wedged up at the bow, between a major-general and a Scotch baronet. However, you comfort yourself with the surmise that a point-lace parasol, far away towards the stern, may be Royalty's parasol; and that should surely be enough for you. The old lady who went to hear John Wesley preach, found the congregation so tremendous that she was unable to get within listening distance of the illustrious Methodist; but she remarked afterwards, "that she had seen the wagging of his blessed wig, and that," she added, "was enough for her."
    As the Little Ease puffs, and pants, and snorts, and gasps down stream, you find yourself lamenting for the fiftieth time, that petty parochial jealousies and sordid vested interests should have prevented, after the Great Fire, the complete execution of Sir Christopher Wren's magnificent scheme for embanking both sides of the river from Lambeth to London Bridge. The great architect was not even permitted to carry out his less ambitious scheme "for building a commodious quay on the whole bank of the river from the Tower to Black- friars. Since Sir Christopher's time, many public-spirited architects and projectors have brought forward plans for embanking Old Father Thames; and at length Sir J. W. Bazalgette constructed the Victoria Embankment, to which was subsequently added the Albert, from the Lambeth end of Westminster Bridge to Vauxhall, and a third section extending from Millbank to the Cadogan Pier, Chelsea.
    [-174-] But you and a multitude of Londoners want such a thorough embankment of the river, as exists at Paris, and at St. Petersburg - long riverain terraces, lined with palaces, churches, public halls, hotels, and schools. Of course the commercial value of our river must be fully recognised; but surely a time will come when the wharves and the "works," the breweries, the factories, and the warehouses will be banished a long way down the Thames; so that the river, between London Bridge and Battersea Bridge, will assume that aspect which properly belongs to the metropolis of the world - an aspect of structural splendour and beauty. Possibly, you will have been eating your salad by the roots for many years before that happy consummation comes; but come it will, some day, or you are a Dutchman.
    Here is the Tower. Antique, frowning, formidable to look upon, as you have known it for more than half a century. You do not land at Traitor's Gate. As a matter of fact, the water-way passing under St. Thomas's Tower, to the flight of steps in Water Lane, and generally known as Traitor's Gate, has been blocked up; and what has become of the massive old timber gate itself; you do not know. About a dozen years ago, your old friend, the late Phineas T. Barnum, called on you with the interesting information that he had just bought Traitor's Gate at a sale of old Government Stores, and that he was about to re-erect it as a portal to his Museum at New York; and "would you, as an early student of the Tower of London," the great showman continued, "be kind enough to give him a certificate or testimonial [-175-] to the effect that the ancient wooden barrier which he had bought was the identical construction which bad been opened so often for the admission of State prisoners. You declined, for obvious reasons, to give the voucher in question; but you told your old friend that if be was not Barnum enough to make the American public believe that this mass of timber was the veritable Traitor's Gate, be was not half Barnum enough for you.
    You must have landed, if your remembrance serves you correctly, at the Tower wharf; yet, did you linger by St. Thomas's Tower for some few minutes, pondering on the stories of the many famous captives who were rowed by the water-way, to land at the fateful staircase. Was it not brave Queen Bess, who, when as Princess Elizabeth she was consigned to the Tower by her vindictive sister Mary, sat down on the steps, and, notwithstanding the persuasions of Master Lieutenant, refused to budge an inch, saying, "That she was no traitress, and would not make a traitor's journey." If the plucky princess, afterwards the "bright Occidental Star" of the prayer-Book, and the "Fair Vestal throned by the west" of Shakespeare, really sat down on those stone steps, you know not. But Shakespeare's undying apostrophe! You do not believe in second sight ; still, every time you read Oberon's enchanting speech to puck, in the Midsummer Night's Dream, and repeat the melodious verses that tell how "Cupid all armed" took a certain aim at the Vestal, and "loosed his loveshaft smartly from his bow, as it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts," you see, as distinctly as you see the [-176-] White Tower now, the complacent smile that must have beamed on the lips of the Virgin Queen, as her ravished ears sucked in one of the most eloquent and the most exquisitely subtle compliments ever paid by mortal man to mortal woman. How proud and glad at that bright moment our Eliza must have been, to know that she and her people had their Shakespeare.
    There is no need to apologise for thinking of the Bard of all Time on the occasion of this memorable Garden Party, for the Tower of London is almost as much Shakespeare's land as Stratford-on-Avon is. The poet, no doubt, knew every nook and cranny in the fortress of his time ; yet it has always been a subject of bewilderment to you, that he never got into trouble with authority, for the astonishing boldness, not to say audacity, which he displayed in his description in Henry VIII. of the trial of Katharine of Aragon, and of the fall of Wolsey. For far less outspoken utterances, more than one poet of Shakespeare's epoch was clapped, not into the Tower, but into Newgate or the Fleet. Perhaps the Queen, remembering that inimitable compliment in the Midsummer Night's Dream, forbore to criticise very narrowly the language in the play of King Henry VIII.; and, after all, the king does come out in Shakespeare's drama the bluffest of King Hals.
    Then, for another hour or so, the "smart" company are personally conducted round all the show-places in the fortress, while you follow at a discreet distance, musing. All the Tower "lions" are trotted out by the attendant warders; the visitors are shown St. John's [-177-] Chapel in the White Tower, and they even ascend to the lead-covered roof of that antique keep. They are introduced to the Beacon Tower, the Bloody Tower, the lantern, the Salt, and the Devlin Towers; the Armouries, the Jewel Tower, and the Church of St. Peter-on-the-Green. They are shown the platform on which, when Sir, Francis Burdett was imprisoned in the Tower under warrant of the Speaker of the House of Commons, he used to take morning and afternoon exercise; and, in particular, the company - the ladies especially - peep curiously at the cross-chamber vault - the real Little Ease - darker and damper than its two brethren, in which Guy Fawkes, and the other Gunpowder Plot conspirators, are said to have been incarcerated.
    Then there is an adjournment to a marquee on the parade before the barracks, where there are long buffets piled high with "all the delicacies of the season" - of the afternoon tea order, at least; and while chalices of Lipton's tea are going round, and "other lips" have made acquaintance with cunningly-concocted champagne and cider cups, the band of the Grenadier Guards is making the sunny time melodious with selections from Carmen and La Cavalleria Rusticana.
   
It is impossible, we all know, to get a quart of any liquid into a bottle of which the measure of capacity does not exceed a pint. Intellectually speaking, you do not hold much more than a gill; and the Tower, from the historical, picturesque, and social points of view, may be estimated as at least a gallon. If you [-178-] proposed, then, to fill ten royal octavo volumes, small print, with successive gills of observations on the Tower, until the full gallon measure was reached, your readers would rise up in insurrection against you, and you would be voted a dismal and disastrous bore.
    Take one of the Tower warders, for instance. Here he stands on the Tower Green, over against the little church of St. Peter-in-Chains. Scan him well; he is worth looking at. A tall, hale, grizzled veteran, his broad breast covered with medals, he has fought, it may be, in the Crimea, in China, in India, in South Africa; he left the army with the rank of sergeant-major; his old commanding officer, who knew and appreciated the worth of the valiant old non-com., used his influence for him, and got him the comfortable, honourable berth which he now holds. Please to understand, that a Tower warder is not a Beef-eater, and that he belongs to a corps altogether distinct from that of the Yeomen of the Guard. Indeed, he never goes West officially; save on the rare occasions of Her Majesty opening Parliament in person. Then, he and a brother warder take the Imperial crown, sceptre, and sword of State, in a Royal carriage to Westminster. Whether the warders take the regalia back with them to the Tower; or whether, on the return journey, the splendid baubles are in the custody of the Yeomen of the Guard, you are not precisely aware; but in all probability the regalia on the journey both westward and eastward is accompanied by a strong escort of police.
    The Tower warder this afternoon is in undress [-179-] uniform - a blue cloth tunic, and trousers, with scarlet cuffs to the first, and stripes of the same hue to the second; all of half military, half rnedieval fashion. But you can remember to have seen him, in "full fig," as the saying is, when the warders were paraded on the Tower Green on the day when brave old Field-Marshal Sir John Burgoyne was buried in the vault of the parish church of that Tower, of which he had been the Constable. The warder's full dress is almost identical with that of the Yeomen of the Royal Body Guard; but there is some slight difference, so you think, between the trunk hose of the Tower warders, and those of their congeners at St. James's. The former, however, on gala days, are as gorgeous to look upon as the " Yeoman of the Guard" in Sir John Millais's noble picture. Scarlet doublet, the Royal cognisance embroidered in gold on front and back, crimson hose, rosetted shoes, Elizabethan ruff, low-crowned Tudor hats, encircled by the roses of York and Lancaster.
    You remember, finally, an odd little circumstance in connection with the Tower warder's ruff at the funeral of Sir John Burgoyne. The veteran, you know, was in the fullest of full dress, and carried his glittering halbert with a rich tassel of mingled bullion and crimson silk; but, eyeing him closely, you were amused to perceive that, within his ruff, his neck was encircled with a pair of stand-up linen collars, of the regular old-fashioned tying-with-tape-behind pattern, - "a pair of gills," as you used to call them when you were young, and wore removable collars, tied behind with tape, yourself.
    [-180-] Was there not something slightly incongruous, slightly absurd, in the assumption by this medievally clad warrior of shirt-collars, almost Gladstonian in their angularity? Had the warder been twitted with that which seemed to be a solecism in his costume, he might have pointed at a notable precedent for the apparent anomaly. You have at home an engraving after Sir Thomas Lawrence's renowned full- length portrait of George IV. in the full robes of the Garter, which include a ruff a little smaller than that of a Beef-eater, or of a Tower warder, and, if you will carefully examine with a magnifying glass the upper part of the Royal costume, you will find that, inside the ruff, His Majesty wears a pair of stand-up collars, as Gladstonian as those worn by the warder at the interment of Sir John Burgoyne.

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