Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895 - The Derby

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THE DERBY

    I WILL not be so impertinent as to inquire what may be the things the first happening of which makes the most ineffaceable impression on a lady's memory. We men folk, however, usually preserve a keen remembrance of primary events in our lives. The first night at a big school; the rough cross-examination as to your parents' names and station in society, and the exact amount of the pocket-money which you have brought with you. These you will scarcely forget. If you be a smoker, you will never forget your first cigar, and how dreadfully sick the three-ha'penny Cuba, smoked on board a Gravesend steamer, made you, say, fifty years ago. As regards love matters, men, I take it, have longer memories than women; and they preserve an acute, keen, and abidingly sore remembrance of the first young lady who jilted them, or the first who was kind enough to say that she would regard them as brothers, but in no more affectionate light. I think, too, most of us are not apt to forget our first fish dinner at Greenwich; and how the salmon cutlets-it could not have been the champagne- disagreed with us the next morning. Can you recollect Your first silver watch, with the guard made from the [-38-] plaited hair of a dear sister ?-a watch which you not only exhibited to your schoolfellows, but also drew from your pocket, in secret, twenty times a day, to open and shut it, and fondle and kiss the chain. I can. I am sure, too, that you recollect your first pantomime just as vividly as you do the last grand Christmas spectacle produced by Sir Augustus Harris at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
    But I have reserved for the last, an event which very few Englishmen I should say - that is among the classes who do not think it wicked to witness a horse race - ever forget. I mean your first Derby Day. Pull yourself together; bid the roaring looms of Time be mute for a moment; indulge in a little introspection; and the name of the winner of the first Derby you ever saw will rise up before you, a beneficent Jack-in-the-box. My first Derby winner was a horse called Voltigeur; and although I have no Racing Calendar on my shelves, there is no need for me to consult the few horsey books I have - Stonehenge, Samuel Sidney, and the like - to recall the year when Voltigeur carried off the Blue Ribbon of the Turf. With a dear brother, who has been dead more than thirty years, and a renowned bass singer of the period just named, the late W. H. Weiss, did I undertake my first journey to Epsom to see the Derby run.
    It was a gloriously sunny last Wednesday in May, and we agreed to go by road-rather a costly project, as none of us enjoyed a superfluity of shekels. Being, however, young, in the highest health and spirits, and [-39-] on pleasure bent, we resolved for once on a neck-or- nothing outing. We could pinch a little afterwards, we thought, to atone for the reckless prodigalities of Epsom Downs; so we covenanted with a friendly livery stable-keeper at Camden Town to let us for the day a one-horse vehicle ample enough to accommodate three passengers. It called itself a phaeton; but whether it had a substantial claim to that aristocratic appellation, or whether it was a kind of combination of a gig, a dennet, a stanhope, a tilbury, a dogcart, or a one-horse chaise, I am not prepared, at this advanced period of life's evening, to come into any court of conscience, and make affidavit. At all events, the conveyance held us three very comfortably. It was Weiss who first took the reins. He was short-sighted, and drove very badly. My brother drove a little worse; and I could not drive at all. Somehow or another, I never could ride or drive, or even trundle a hoop, or wield a bat, or catch a ball in anything but a hopelessly clumsy and imbecile manner.
    I remember, once, being lowered into a boat with half a dozen companions, mostly ladies, exclusive of rowers, from a passenger steamer in the roadstead of Vera Cruz, in Mexico. The tiller-ropes were put into my hands, and I was bidden to steer to shore. Of course, I steered the wrong way, and brought the boat well up against the basement of the Castle of San Juan de Ulloa. A shriek of indignation, mingled with scorn, from my fair companions and the rowers, incited me to try back; and I steered the confounded wherry right into the [-40-] paddle-wheels of the steamer which had brought us from Havana. I was at once ignominiously deposed from the proud position of man at the helm; and, upon my word, I think it was a lady from New York, in a large auburn chignon, and a crinoline as big in degree as the Kolokol of the Kremlin, who successfully guided the boat to the wharf at Vera Cruz.
    This slight digression will serve as a sufficient explanation as to why I did not venture to take a turn at driving the anomalous conveyance in which we went to see Voltigeur win the Derby. There is a proverb as to a Providence which is said to watch over drunken men. We three pilgrims to Epsom went and returned sober enough; still, some kindly Fates must have watched over the two charioteers, who successively took the "ribbons." We bumped a good deal, and got "chubbed" often enough, and were sworn at in a most discourteous manner. But in the end we got through our ordeal without a mishap, and brought back the horse and trap safely to Camden Town. Our steed was a gaunt, long-legged animal, with a fiddle-case head, straight shoulders, drooping quarters, and a switch tail. I shall never forget when we took the equipage home, and the stable- men had unharnessed this Rosinante, and removed his blinkers, how the brute turned the fiddle-case head towards us three, and gave us One Look! He didn't speak-poor brute! He could not speak - yet was that look most eloquently articulate. It said unmistakably: "You precious duffers!"
    Let me hint that our expenditure on this, my first [-41-] Derby Day, although riotously extravagant when our existing means were considered, did not reach any serious pecuniary figure. Indeed, we only paid thirty shillings for the hire of the horse and trap. We lunched from a picnic basket, which our landlady at Camden Town had carefully packed up for us, - Weiss bearing his share of the cost - and which contained some pressed beef, a dressed crab, a nice, crisp salad, some cream cheese, a crusty loaf, a few hard-boiled eggs, and some Allsopp's pale ale. The total cost was under fifteen shillings. My brother drew "Voltigeur" in a sweepstake on the course, and won a pound; so that, on the whole, we had not to pinch very sorely on the morrow of the festival.
    I have no kind of remembrance of the number of Derbies that I have witnessed in the course of the last forty years ; I am as great a "duffer" in racing matters as I am in riding and driving; knowing nothing of the state of the odds, and being, as a rule, totally indifferent as to what horse wins or loses, either at the Derby or at any other of those races, in the enjoyment of which the eminently "horsey" English Public absolutely revel. I suppose, however, that I have witnessed twenty races for the Derby ; and I have never once travelled by rail. I have made one of a party in landaus and barouches, two-horsed and four-horsed. I have driven down in hansom cabs, and once in a good old-fashioned "growler," and in that humble, but comfortable equipage, we passed a most enjoyable day. Once also, I remember going down in a highly festive fashion, with poor Edward Sothern, the never-to-be-forgotten "Lord Dundreary."
    [-42-] Now, I may confess once for all, that I am endowed, and perhaps afflicted, with a somewhat hasty and "pesky" temper. On this particular Derby Day, Sothern, the kindliest, but still the most provoking of practical jokers, was as full of mischievous pranks as an egg is full of meat. He offered to bet me a guinea, before we reached Clapham, that I would lose my temper, and lose it badly, before 2 P.M. "But why, my dear Sothern", I asked, "should I lose it? The weather is beautiful; I did my day's work by getting up at six this morning; I am in the best of all good company, and I haven't got a penny on the race." "Never mind," persisted Lord Dundreary, "I will bet you one guinea that you will blaze up like a box of vesuvians thrown into the fire before 2 P.M." I seldom wager ; but for the fun of the thing I took the bet. It was half-past one when we reached the course ; and one of the officious red-jackets who haunt the Hill stepped forward to give me the customary brush-down. I strolled a few paces onward; when another red-jacket pounced upon me, and, notwithstanding my expostulations, brushed me down again, hissing meanwhile as though he were grooming a horse. I essayed to light a cigar, when a third brush-fiend was upon me; but when a fourth made his appearance, brandishing his implement of torture, the dams of my long pent-up temper broke down, and a torrent of adjectives, the reverse of complimentary, flowed over the fourth brush-demon. My wrath was at its height, when I found myself quietly tapped on the shoulder, and beheld the maliciously chuckling counte-[-43-]nance of Sothern. "I will trouble you for one guinea," he said, and proceeded to explode with laughter. Of course he had followed me about, and fee'd the brush-fiends to harry me to desperation.
    Yes, I have done the Derby, as American oyster saloon keepers proclaim of their bivalves, "in every style "- gigs, landaus, barouches, hansoms, shandrydans, a private omnibus, a wagonette, a brougham, the box-seats and the back-seats of drags, in all manner, indeed, of four-wheeled and two-wheeled machines, save a railway train. I could never, in my young days, muster up sufficient resolution to walk to Epsom, in what is known as "honest-man" fashion; but I remember once, disguised in very shabby garments, in the company of Henry Alken (the well-known race-horse painter, who equipped himself for the purpose in the garb of an ostler who had fallen on evil days), spending on the Course and its purlieus the whole night before the Derby. Such a fearsome Pandemonium I never witnessed in my life; and I hope that I shall never witness such squalid, and such profligate horrors again. I have tried to blot out the appalling scenes from the tablets of my memory. Still, ever and anon, they recur; and I see the Epsom Inferno again, as in a glass, not darkly, but in a crimson haze. The scenes of riot and ignoble revelry - scenes which even the police did not care to meddle with, or to take official cognisance of - come up to me with unsolicited, but irresistible distinctness.
    Some ten years since, happening to be the guest of a certain hospitable host, at a house well known more than [-44-] two hundred years ago to Mr. Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts to the Admiralty, close to Epsom Town, and called The Durdans, we strolled, one bright spring morning, before lunch, on to the Downs, and steadily "walked" the Derby course. The cheerfulness, the stillness, the balmy air, the few pearly cloudlets set in the blue sky, the singing of the birds, the happy peace and innocence of the fair English landscape, were suddenly, in my mind's eye, overcast by masses of confused life, now black, now lurid red. Ruffianly, violent, and ribald language-fighting, swearing, drinking, gambling- horrible to remember. It was the phantom of the Night Before the Derby.
    But Epsom, I may possibly be reminded, is in the county of Surrey, sixteen and a half miles south-west of London. How then can the Derby Day have anything to do with London "Up to Date"- a very large portion of which gigantic metropolis is in the county of Middlesex? I answer: Everything. On the Derby Day, and to a smaller, but still considerable extent, on the Oaks Day, London transports itself bodily to Epsom Downs. You see scarcely anything of the rural element at the Derby. The "County Families" may be there; but they do not affect airs of provincial supremacy, as they are apt to do at some other race meetings.  I have seen inscriptions on the stands at York and Doncaster, "For the County Families only," and have trembled, with respectful awe, at the portentous proclamation. At Epsom, the county element is completely swamped by the town one. Even the great professional "bookies" [-45-] from the Midlands and the North, who journey by rail to the Downs, and who represent, not only great power of lung, but also an immense amount of capital, are absorbed and, in a great degree, negatived, by the amazing rush of humanity hailing from Cockney Land.
    The Royalties, when sad bereavement does not keep them away from the racecourse; the nobility and gentry; the club dandies; the dashing young guardsmen; the old gentlemen from the more sedate clubs; the stockbrokers, and City men generally; the actors and actresses ; tire artists and journalists ; the acrobats, nigger minstrels, and gipsies; the costermongers ; the dancers on stilts, conjurors, and the Aunt Sally people; the very tatterdemalions who hang about the carriages to beg scraps of food or to lift a silver fork or a tankard if they can, when nobody is looking; the tramps, the pickpockets all have a London or, at least, a suburban aspect about them. Belgravia jostles South Lambeth; Capel Court and Pall Mall rub shoulders; a contingent from Bermondsey comes down in the same train with a cohort from Highgate; all ranks and conditions of men and women are jumbled together on the Course; even as all ranks and kinds of vehicles are visible on the road, from the regimental drag of the 90th Hussars to the spring-cart of the small East-End tradesman, -who drives down his wife and "missus" for a day's outing; from the open landau, - with four spanking greys, and postilions in blue jackets, buckskins, and white silk hints, to the free and independent costermonger, with his pal in the "shallow," tranquilly piloting  [-46-] his "little 'oss," or, perchance, his donkey, through the seething throng.
    It is the one great London holiday, which in variety, in cheerfulness, and in cordial good fellowship of all classes of the community, beats hollow, in my opinion, even the merriest of our Bank holidays; of which very many of our superfine classes do not at all approve, and shut themselves up in elegant, but sulky seclusion on the festivals of St. Lubbock, highly indignant in their own superfine manner because their tradespeople have shut up their shops, and they, the superior ones, have some difficulty in procuring new-laid eggs and hot rolls at breakfast. No such feelings of acerbity mar the enjoyment of the Derby Day; and pure democracy, while it makes itself manifest in its scores and scores of thousands, has no kind of envy or dislike of its oligarchical or plutocratic neighbours. The races are for everybody; and the poorest creature on the Course can see the sight, with a little pushing and squeezing, as well as the princes and princesses, the grandees and the millionaires, can see it from their windows in the Grand Stand, or on the lawn before it. Hearty, jovial, social equality are the order of the day; and for once the short pipe and the regalia are brethren, and the penny Pickwick is quite as good as the Laferme cigarette. Nobody puts on "side," or assumes superior attitudes. If he did he would be chaffed, as the say is, into or out of his boots.
    Nor, in my humble opinion, is there very much difference between the Derby Day "Up to Date" and the many Derby days that I have seen. One important [-47-] exception must of course be noted. The railway stations now come right up to the Course; and the trains run with amazing celerity and punctuality conveying a prodigiously larger number of passengers than they were formerly wont to do. Every year, again, we hear plaintive moans as to the falling-off of carriages, and the poor show of horse-flesh on the road; yet I will venture to prophesy that the road on the Derby Day of 1895 will be crowded, and joyous, and altogether as enjoyable as the many crowded joyous and hilarious roads of the past. Some pockets may be picked, some watches lost on the Course; a few heads may be punched, and a few roughs run in by the police, who, again, are mainly Metropolitan police, and bring London "Up to Date" into the midst of West Surrey; but the only perceptible falling off in the social aspect of the scene will be a decrease in the offensive horse-play, especially the flinging of nuts and bags of flour at the people in the carriages-  horse-play which rendered old-fashioned Derbies extremely uncomfortable. London "Up to Date" in squadrons and platoons, in regiments and legions, and grand armies recruited from every point of the Metropolitan compass, will duly deploy and manoeuvre, and march past, and stand at ease at Epsom, always under the watchful eye of the police; and by eight or nine o'clock in the evening, will straggle back somehow to the realms of Cockneydom, tired, dusty, but - if they have only managed to abstain from the perilous practice of backing the favourite - quite happy.

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