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ANY HOUR: FLATS
A GENTLEMAN wrote to the Daily Graphic not very long ago saying that,
twenty years since, he left London for the Colonies, and that of all the changes
he found on his return, the greatest was, perhaps, the modern Londoner's love of
a flat. "They used to say," he continued, "an Englishman's house
is his castle; and a good old-fashioned proverb it was in those days, when we
looked down on the foreigner who preferred living under the same roof as a dozen
others, to having a snug little house of his own in the suburbs. What is the
cause of this change in the Englishman's way of living?" Now, I take it,
that I should be altogether shirking my responsibilities, as one of the social
photographers of "London Up to Date," if I did not essay to draw, to
the best of my ability, a faithful picture of the London flat in its various and
certainly interesting phases.
A few brief preliminary observations may be permitted to me. The gentleman who came home the other day from the Colonies, and expressed his astonishment at the growing popularity of residential flats, must be very well aware that twenty years ago there were practically sets of apartments in all the Inns of Court, [-204-] and in some such Inns of Chancery as New Inn, Clement's Inn, and Lyon's Inn, which were to all intents and purposes flats, inasmuch as each suite of rooms was cut off from the other suite, and was provided with an outer door, popularly known as "an oak," which could be sported or shut in the face of duns, bores, and importunate persons generally, by the tenant of the segregated suite, who could listen with a light heart to the most desperate tuggings at the bell of the outer oak, and smile a smile that was childlike and bland, when the baffled besiegers proceeded to thump the unyielding portal with the knobs of sticks or the handles of umbrellas, or to kick with heavy boots at the derisive panels. But we used to call those shut-off suites of rooms, chambers, and not flats.
Five-and-thirty years ago I shared with a friend a set of chambers in Clement's Inn, Strand. The suite consisted of a very comfortable parlour, an office, and a large bedroom. My friend slept there; but I only used the chambers for journalistic purposes, domiciled as I was at the time at a quaint old mansion in Bucks, called "Upton Court," near Slough. The Clement's Inn of the past was a very queer old place, approached by a sham classical portico, supported by frowning pillars, beneath which nestled among other small places of business, a barber's shop, kept by a worthy figaro, who yet carries on business in Fetter Lane, Fleet Street, and on whom I am always careful to call to be shaved for the sake of auld lang syne, when I find myself in the E.C. district.
[-205-] Our chambers were in a courtyard, flanked by the Hall of the Inn, a dingy brick structure of the Georgian era, in the fašade of which, over the porch, was a vertical sun-dial with a horizontal gnomon, and the inscription beneath "In Hoc Momento Pulsat Eternitas." Beyond there was another courtyard with a bit of green in the middle, and a hideous effigy of a blackamoor cast in lead. There was an isolated dwelling also in this court called the Garden House, which, I believe, was at one time in the occupation of my old friend, Mr. William Moy Thomas. The entire length of Clement's Inn towards the east was skirted by an unutterably filthy alley called Clement's Lane which was not very safe to travel through at night, and in which during the daytime you were apt to be greeted, by the juvenile occupants of the lane, with tributes of brickbats and the exhausted shells of whelks and cockles. I mention these little peculiarities for the reason that metropolitan improvements have had a great deal to do with Clement's Inn within recent years, and I daresay that, were I to visit this once familiar nook of London, I should scarcely know it again.
Hard by Clement's Inn, to the west, there is, as you are well aware, a pile of very eligible and comfortable residential flats - only these were also called chambers in my time - known by the name of Danes' Inn. These chambers never had anything to do with the law; they were simply erected by an enterprising builder on the site of the Angel Inn, a very antique hostelry with wooden balconies running round its inner court, which [-206-] I remember as doing a very fair business in the year 1845. Then, too, were chambers to be obtained in Lyon's Inn, long since demolished, on the site of which stands the present Globe Theatre. Extending my recollections farther northwards, I find that about 1863 I must have been using for business purposes, a suite of chambers in Gray's Inn, or rather in Verulam Buildings, the portion of the Inn which borders Gray's Inn Lane. The rent of these chambers was ridiculously low, - to be sure they were very grimy and of a slightly ramshackle condition.
Then, leaving the north for the east again, it returns to me that when I was quite a small boy, close upon half a century since, I used frequently to visit a dear friend of our family, a young Irish barrister, who had residential chambers in Pump Court, Temple. I need scarcely say, that the installation of all the suites of rooms I have named was of the simplest and not of the most comfortable description. None of them had bathrooms, and primary sanitary arrangements were conspicuous by their absence. In a few, there might be an apology for a kitchen - that is to say, there was a polygonal den, dark and dismal, in which the "laundress" or glorified charwoman, who "did for" future judges and Q.C.'s, would cook a frugal breakfast for her employers; but when repasts of a more luxurious nature, of which you will find pleasant little sketches scattered through Thackeray's novels and essays, were required, the banquet had to be sent for from some hotel in Fleet Street.
At this period, not all the inmates of the Middle or Inner Temple, or, indeed, of the smaller Inns of Chancery, [-207-] were bachelors. In Clement's Inn, our neighbours, on the same floor, were a gentleman who had something to do with Natural History, and his wife, a French lady, who was the proud possessor of two prodigious white French poodles, which she was continually putting through manual exercise in the court; and either in the Middle or the Inner Temple resided, you will remember, the horrible Sloans, husband and wife, who were prosecuted and imprisoned for their abominable treatment of their servant-girl.
I am not Harlequin; yet, I have in some shape or another a bat, and wielding that wand I proceed to call up a transformation scene, the aspect of which astonishes me quite as forcibly as it seems to have done the gentleman who returned to England, home, and beauty, after twenty years' residence in the Colonies. All over western, south-western, and north-western London, huge mansions are rising up in the shape of residential flats. I have occupied one in Screech Owl Street, S.W., during the last five years. Here it is! Large, well-erected house - I have never cared to inquire how many storeys high - without the slightest suspicion of jerry-building about it. When I first went to live there the mansion was destitute of a lift; but that convenience has since been added to it, and the landlord carefully popped on ten pounds additional to the rent, as a solatium for the concession of the elevator.
Our flat is on the third floor. Unhappily there is no outer oak to be sported as is the present case in Inns of Court Chambers. I am destitute of any cunning [-208-] arrangement of lenses, by means of which I can reconnoitre the person outside, and determine whether he is a dun or a bore, or some other equally objectionable individual, and I have forgotten, too, to provide the inside of the door with a chain attached to the lock, so as to be able to open the portal about only a couple of inches, and ascertain whether the visitor belongs, as the Spaniards have it, to "the party of war, or the party of peace." The consequence is, that when the bell has been rung four or five times, we feel in prudence bound to have the door opened, lest the caller should be somebody bearing a patÚ de foie gras, or a piece of plate, or a bouquet, or a complimentary cheque, or something nice of that kind; but, in the case of the person ringing belonging not to the gente de paz, but to the gente de guerra, and having hostile and not pacific intentions, he is able to come down upon us precisely as of old the Assyrians came down on the fold; that is to say, like a wolf. He is in the entrance hall before you can say Jack Robinson. The dining-room is on the left; he may look to my luncheon, if he have a mind that way, in a jiffy. Next door to the lift is my private office, and if I have inadvertently left my keys in the lock of my Chatwood fire and burglar proof safe, the Assyrian, I mean the wolf, will find at his mercy my ledger and my cash book, my cheque book-account long since overdrawn, ha, ha!- and all my fully paid-up shares in the Hand-In-Your-Pocket Gold Mining Reef, and the Old Atrocity Cinnabar Mines of Tea-Potty-Wotty, New Zealand. Luckily, those securities are no longer [-209-] convertible into cash, both mining undertakings having long since been the prey of hideous ruin, and combustion dire.
If the wolf Assyrian - who after all may be only the bearer of a letter of introduction from a friend abroad or in the Colonies, who sends you, with his warmest recommendations, some exceptionally clever young gentleman, for whom he thinks you will at once be able to procure an appointment under Government, or on the staff of the Times newspaper - pursue his way along a narrow corridor he will readily gain admission into my study and my drawing-room, and then, making a short detour to the right, he will come to a bath-room, a large bedroom, and a smaller one. That is all. Stay! The kitchen and pantry are at the right hand of the entrance hall, and for four servants there is only one bedroom, so I am obliged to colonise one of them out, by taking a lodging for him in the neighbourhood.
Altogether, including kitchen and bath-room, we have nine moderately-sized rooms at our disposal. The front rooms look on to Screech Owl Street, and are light enough ; the back rooms are somewhat dark, not through any fault of our landlord, but because there rises in the rear of us another gigantic block of residential fiats, brand-new ones. For, when I first came thither, there was at the back a grimy old Bridewell, or House of Correction, or prison of some sort. When this gaol was pulled down a very large tract of ground was left unoccupied, and might have been appropriately converted into a public recreation ground; but no such [-210-] luck. A Panorama Company hired the land, and erected upon it an enormous building of galvanised iron for the exhibition of a panorama of the Battle of Waterloo. The exhibition was not a success, and I can always remember it, since from six to eight o'clock, during the many months occupied in erecting it, I rarely got a wink of sleep, so constant and so distracting were the noises of the hammering of rivets, and the dumping down of huge sheets of metal. After the panorama had collapsed they began to build the gigantic flats of which I have spoken, and again for months and months I was deprived of my morning rest by the noise made by the carpenters and bricklayers, and the hideous whirr of circular saws. But cruel Fate has decreed that, just as we are about to vacate our flat for a few months, peace reigns, and all noises without have ceased.
It cost me a pretty penny to get into this highly eligible flat. I was a widower when I went there, and therefore needed no boudoir drawing-room, but I wanted a long gallery for the bookcases holding what I call my "swell books"; that is to say, the rare ones, the editions de luxe and the triumphs of bookbinding which I possess; to say nothing of some pictures and bronzes and porcelain and other bric-Ó-brac. So, with the permission of the landlord, I had an arch cut between one room and another, and draped it with tapestry curtains, which could be closed if required. Altogether, what with taking away an old, elaborate, and dreadfully rusty bath apparatus and substituting a bath up to date for it ; what with money paid to the builder, and the [-211-] upholsterers, and the roller-blind makers ; what with cutting up large carpets to lay down in small rooms, looking to the gas installation, selling old articles of furniture at a loss and buying new ones; what with buying innumerable yards of brass rods for hanging pictures and prints on, and especially what with paying the workmen's time during the weeks upon weeks they were occupied in my nine rooms ; and, finally, what with the payment of eighty pounds to the obliging firm who moved my books and curios without so much as losing a volume or breaking a teacup, I found that it cost me close upon a thousand pounds to become the occupant of the fiat in question, at a rental of two hundred and ten pounds a year, plus ten pounds additional for the use of the lift, and plus, at the present, another twelve pounds per annum for the rent of the lodgings of the servant who sleeps out.
Now I came to Screech Owl Street from Mecklenburg Square, W.C., a large roomy house of twelve rooms. I could have entertained five-and-twenty guests in the dining-room, and given a ball to a hundred and fifty in the two drawing-rooms. In a back bedroom on the second floor I could find room for three thousand books, and altogether, when I left, I could comfortably house ten thousand volumes. Since that period, of course, I have bought many more books, but there is absolutely no room in the nine handsome cupboards in Screech Owl Street for anything else of any nature whatsoever - furniture, books, curios, or bronzes.
[-212-] Finally, in justice, let this picture of a strictly up-to-date flat be completed with one more observation. It cannot be denied that flats are cosy in winter time; and perhaps no more comfortable dwelling than a handsome flat could be devised for the home of a young married couple devoted to society, who are constantly out and about at balls, dinners, and receptions, and entertain very little at home. And again for a bachelor, his valet and housekeeper, a flat is a very comfortable domicile; but for large families, or busy people, whose business in life has to be carried on entirely at home, I contend that a house is a far more advantageous dwelling, as well as infinitely more comfortable than a flat.
P.S.-Since writing the above the lease of my flat in Screech Owl Street has expired, and I have moved books, bric-Ó-brac, and all to Brighton.
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