Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895 - Five P.M. : A Corner of the World - Westminster 

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FIVE P.M.: A CORNER OF THE WORLD - WESTMINSTER

    DID I not fear indignant contradiction, I would say that the south-western extremity of Parliament Street, Westminster, where I stood for half an hour on a recent afternoon, and, watching the passing show, hammered out this paper on the anvil of my mind, was not only a corner, but the corner of the civilised world. I know well enough, however, that were I to venture on such a dogmatic assertion, I should be told that the "corner of the world," so far as London is concerned, is to be found at Charing Cross, or at the Mansion House; while others might contend that the real corner is at Hyde Park, close to Apsley House. Controversy, however, on these points might be deferred until a more convenient opportunity. As things stand, I have got my corner here in Parliament Street, and I mean to stick to it till I have said my say.
    My readers may be discreetly informed, that one afternoon Self and Partner, after a long day of hard work, fled from the series of cupboards in Victoria Street, in which they were condemned to pass a portion of every year - fortunately not the whole of it - with the intention of [-72-] solacing themselves by a visit to a few picture galleries, when the happy thought occurred to them that it would be a very good thing to drive down to Greenwich, and dine at the "Ship." We ventured, moreover, to think that the little holiday might be utilised by seeking after some recipes for Water Zootje, whitebait, and other Greenwich dainties.
    I did not tell you, however, that ere we started on our expedition - taking the route of the Westminster Bridge Road, the Elephant and Castle, the New Kent Road, and New Cross - it was necessary to make some trifling travelling arrangements, in the way of sending our charioteer back to the flat in quest of overcoats and wraps in view of the contingency of a wet or a chilly evening. Our Jehu might have gone and returned in ten minutes; but of course, when he reached Victoria Street, he was waylaid, first by a boy from the printer's; and next, by a clerk from a newspaper office in Fleet Street, the one laden with proofs, and the other groaning beneath a burden of correspondence, the writers of which all demanded - some of their number fiercely - immediate answers to their occasionally recondite queries. They shall all be answered in good time. Moreover, the progress towards Parliament Street of our humble conveyance on its return journey was blocked over and over again by the prodigious concourse of vehicles proceeding north, south, east, and west; and it was half- past five before our automedon returned.
    When I was a young man I was a tolerably good pedestrian, and could do twenty miles in a day "without [-73-] turning a hair," as the saying goes; but for nearly twenty years I have walked seldom, slowly, and never without pain, for the reason that in a dreadful illness in 1873 I lost entirely the use of my lower limbs, and although I partially recovered such use, I walk "over my feet," so to speak, or "on both sides of the way." Thus, much of modern out-of-door London is to me comparatively unknown; and when on rare occasions I do contrive to crawl shamblingly through the streets for half an hour or so, I am wonder-struck at the changes revealed to me in London Up to Date, as contrasted with the Great City, through every district of which I used to trudge merrily thirty and forty, and fifty years ago.
    Among all these transformations-and their name is legion - I am not aware of one more marvellous than that which I noted at the corner of Parliament Street on the afternoon of which I speak. Of course, when I begin by mentioning the prodigious augmentation of the "traffic" which has taken place in this immediate neighbourhood during the last thirty years, I know well enough that I am liable to be pulled up pretty sharply by philological purists, who will acrimoniously remind me that "traffic" really means exchange or barter in trade, and is a term wholly erroneous when applied to vehicular or pedestrian locomotion. Never mind ; we have long since agreed to call street movement "traffic"; and for all that purists can say, we shall probably continue to use the word in its now widely accepted sense. I say, then, that the traffic at the corner of Parliament Street, at 5 P.M., is simply gigantic and bewildering.
    [-74-] The omnibuses and road-cars seem to me to be about three times bigger than they were a generation since; and they are always crowded, inside and out. The ladies riding on those "garden-seats," which have replaced the old "knife-boards," look as though they were altogether to the manner born, and had not the slightest idea that, five-and-twenty years ago, no member of the fair sex, above the rank of a servant-girl, would have condescended to travel outside an omnibus.
    Long streams of these huge vehicles which look so cumbrous and so overladen, but which, I am told, cause no discomfort to the horses which draw them, are passing up Parliament Street, and proceeding, by the Abbey and the Broad Sanctuary, up Victoria Street to Victoria Station; while another parallel line of buses is streaming downwards from the railway terminus, down, down, to Whitehall, through Trafalgar Square and the Strand, citywards. Another stream rolls its wheeled waves over Westminster Bridge, to the Surrey, and from the Surrey side again; while cabs, carts, railway vans, broughams, and landaus; cyclists, tricyclists; cavalry orderlies on prancing chargers; mounted policemen, nurse-maids wheeling perambulators; wedding guests, brave in bouquets, fresh from a nuptial feast at the Hotel Windsor, and possibly a hearse or two to remind us that we are mortal, surge by Parliament Square and turn off by the Victoria Embankment to Charing Cross, to Waterloo, and to Blackfriars.
    There is a prodigious multitude on foot. Members of both Houses of Parliament, bound to the Palace of [-75-] the legislature, which they enter by the portals, both in Old and New Palace Yard; witnesses who have been under examination before Parliamentary committees, civil engineers, architectural draughtsmen, solicitors, and parliamentary agents, and their clerks; barristers, who have been retained as counsel, for or against the proposed Elevated Railway, from the Duke of York's Column, through Waterloo Place, Piccadilly, and Hyde Park, to the Marble Arch; American tourists and country cousins, fresh from the exploration of the venerable glories of Westminster Abbey; a great cavalcade of lady-patrons of the Army and Navy Stores ; a regiment of volunteers, possibly, marching for drill in the Park; boys selling the evening newspapers, fruit-sellers, and street-vendors, indeed, of all kinds of small and cheap articles of food; ballad-singers, organ- grinders, beggars, and tramps are mingled in one astounding mass of humanity; with horses, dogs, and wheeled carriages, which, at the first blush, make you think that Chaos is come again, but which in reality are quietly, steadily, and efficiently controlled by a few police-constables standing at the corners of the many diverging roads or in the thick of the crowd of carriages. These stalwart municipals do their duty firmly, and if need be vigorously; but they are uniformly good tempered. Very rarely do they harry the drivers of the vehicles without just and proper cause for so doing; and they are always ready to help females and children across difficult bits of the roadway, and to give information to that floating population of [-76-] foreigners and provincials who are continually in a chronic condition of being "lost in London."
    I suppose, that with the exception of the guardians of the peace in Japan, and in some of the smaller South American Republics, I have seen and marked the ways of police-constables at street-corners all over the world - from the burly Irishmen who patrol George Street, Sydney, and Collins Street, Melbourne; who guard Broadway, New York, and Chestnut Street, Philadelphia; to the sallow Creoles who do duty at New Orleans - and smoke cigars on duty; - from the police of Havana, in their Panama straw hats and suits of white "seersucker," to German, Austrian, Russian, Greek, Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, and Indian police agents. They have all been more or less familiar to me. Am I drifting into the Jingo condition, I wonder, when I say, that take him for all in all, the London police-constable is the most capable, the honestest, and the best-natured constable that I have met with, and that he deserves much better pay than he actually gets?
    "Ah, bah!" you may exclaim, have not the reading public been told all these things fifty times before? Have I introduced a single element of novelty into this oft-told tale of the motley crowd of carriages and people at the corners of every important thoroughfare in London, at the height of the season? It may be so. It very likely is so; and, looking at the enormous quantity of printed matter concerning London that every day, week, and month issues from the press, it practically must be so.
    [-77-]  Yet you will bear with me, I hope, for two reasons. First, because the scene I saw that summer afternoon, between five and half-past five, was to me, as a pedestrian, quite new, and strange, and wonderful. When I was in towns I traversed Parliament Street, on an average, thrice or four times every day, going to or coming from our flat ; but I traversed the street, for reasons which I have explained, on wheels, and the last time that I made an excursion into Parliament Street on foot was one morning on the day of the opening of Parliament, two or three sessions since, when I went by invitation to breakfast with a well-known firm of wine merchants, who continue the business first founded by Mr. Bellamy, the historic caterer to the House of Commons. It was Bellamy, you remember, who supplied - and at very moderate prices, too - Mr. Sampson Woodfall with his daily breakfasts, dinners, and suppers, at the time when the undaunted printer of Junius was confined, by warrant of the Speaker, in the custody of the Sergeant-at-Arms. It was for a curious purpose that I went to the modern Bellamy's. It is the hospitable custom of the firm in question to entertain at a handsome repast, washed down by generous vintages, on the first morning of the session, the Beefeaters, or Yeomen of the Guard, whose duty it has been ever since the time of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot to explore the cellars beneath each of the Houses on the first morning of the session, in order to make sure that no combustibles or explosives are concealed in those extensive subterraneans. And a very jovial forenoon did I [-78-] spend in the company of those scarlet and gold doubletted, trunk-hosed, Tudor Rose-hatted, beruffed halberdiers.
    And, finally, there is another plea which I may deferentially advance for describing once more a scene which has been narrated so often and so graphically by other hands than mine own. Musing earnestly as I did for every minute of that half hour, it was impossible that my thoughts should not revert to the Westminster of the past - my own past - and that of history. The great expanse now formed by New Palace Yard, Parliament Square, and the opened-up Sanctuary, now surrounded by splendid buildings, I can remember, when I was young, to have been a cloaca of narrow, tortuous, shabby, stifling, and malodorous streets. The block of houses at that very corner of Parliament Street where I was standing was only so many stacks of dingy, tumble-down tenements. The Victoria Embankment was not dreamt of; and in lieu of the spacious and noble bridge constructed by the late Mr. Page, there was old Westminster Bridge, narrow, ill-paved, and inconvenient. The New Palace at Westminster did not exist. I remember seeing the ruins of the old Houses of Lords and Commons which were destroyed in the Fire of 1834; and I recollect when the legislative business of the nation was carried on in a group of makeshift structures, scarcely dignified enough to serve as a parish vestry hall, and at which the members of the existing high and mighty County Council, and the School Board for London, would most assuredly, could [-79-] they be asked to transact their affairs in such squalid premises, turn up their ineffable noses.
    As for Westminster Abbey, there stretched to the south and the west of that antique fane large tracts of indescribably dirty, profligate, and felonious slums; and the Chapter House of the Abbey itself, in this generation so tastefully restored by Sir Gilbert Scott, had fallen into a deplorable condition of dilapidation and neglect ; the interior being lined with tiers upon tiers of deal pigeon-holes, crammed with obsolete parchment writs and other processes of the Courts. The corner of Parliament Street, Westminster, but for the towers of the Abbey visible in the distance, afforded a vista of little else save ugliness, unvenerable old age, and squalor; and yet for all that, it was a Corner of the World when I first kenned it, more than half a century ago; since by that corner passed to and fro, day by day, when Parliament was sitting, or the Courts in Westminster Hall were open, the greatest statesmen and lawyers of an epoch when there were intellectual giants in the land.
    But it was at New Palace Yard and at the portal of Westminster Hall that my eyes peered most curiously through the grand new railings, with the handsome lamps at intervals which were erected a few years ago to form a comely frontage to the wondrous Hall of Rufus. Time was when access to Westminster Hall was free to all and sundry; when the Law Courts, with the exception of the Court of Chancery, held their sittings in an ugly range of building, designed by [-80-] Sir John Soane, the wealthy architect, of whose old curiosity-crammed museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields everybody has heard, but very few people have seen; and who disinherited his eldest son because he had written uncomplimentary criticisms on the paternal architecture in the magazines of the day.
    I knew the disinherited George Soane well - a  gaunt, sad man, earning a precarious livelihood as a minor poet and playwright. In particular was he the author of the libretto, or "book of the words," of Edward Loder's most tuneful opera of The Night Dancers. His phantom just flits across my mental mirror as I seek for the Soane Law Courts, to the north of the Hall; but they have been swept away, and replaced by some Gothic structure which has an uncomfortably fresh and new-fashioned look when contrasted with the grey old buildings. For hundreds of years, indeed, buildings have been vanishing from the immediate vicinity of Westminster Hall. If you look in old books of engravings you will find that even so late as the middle of the eighteenth century the fašade of the Hall was disfigured by a number of rubbishing tenements, booksellers' shops, wig-makers, and so forth; even as old St. Paul's used to have nestling under its exterior buttresses, cook-shops, pie-shops, and the establishments of dealers in rabbits and poultry. In the seventeenth century, indeed, there were shops inside the Hall itself; and scriveners had their desks, and usurers their "pews," there, sitting at the receipt of custom, and lending [-81-] broad-pieces-generally clipped-to spendthrifts always eager to pay high interest. 
    The far-off Hall brings me a mint of memories. A long procession of State prisoners, preceded by the headsman bearing the axe, with the edge now turned from, and now towards the nobles accused of high treason, sweep across Parliament Square on their way to their trial before the House of Peers sitting in judgment in the Hall itself. Nobles, said I? Amid the crowd of captives destined to lose their heads on Tower Hill, in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and in Whitehall - Strafford, Laud, Lord William Russell, Derwentwater, Balmerino, Kilmarnock, wicked old Simon Fraser of Lovat, there rises the shade of Charles the First, King of England. Verily if Parliament Street be not a Corner of the World, it is one of the corner-stones of the History of England.

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