[back to menu for this book]
THAT we are a nation of shopkeepers I believe, not only on the evidence of
the first Napoleon, but from what I see and hear every day. There are few people
in the City who are born wealthy, compared with the number who do manage in the
course of a successful mercantile career to win for themselves a fair share of
this world's goods. The other night I was spending the evening at the West-End
mansion of a City millionaire. As I left, I asked a friend what was the secret
of our host's success. "Why," was the answer, [-209-]
"I have always understood he began life with borrowing ten shillings."
If that is all, thought I to myself, it is not difficult to make a fortune, after all. Accordingly, I negotiated a loan of a sovereign, thinking that if I failed with ten shillings I should be sure to succeed with double that number. At present, I regret to say, the loan has not been so successful in its results as I anticipated, and fortune seems as far off as ever. Should it turn out otherwise, and my wild expectations be realised, I will publish a book, and let the reader know how a sovereign became ten thousand pounds. And yet I believe such a feat has been often accomplished in the City and by City men. Everybody knows a man who walked up to town with twopence-halfpenny in his pocket, who lived to enjoy a nice fortune himself, and to leave his wife and family well provided for.
I met the other day in the Gray's Inn [-210-] Road a master-builder, who told me that he was going to retire from business and pass the evening of his days in quiet. I had known the man since he was a boy. I knew his father and his mother and all his family. If ever a fellow had a chance of going to the bad that poor boy had. His father was a drunkard; the poverty of the family was extreme; of schooling he had none whatever; yet he left the little village in Suffolk where he was born, resolved, as he told me, to be either a man or a mouse; and fortune favoured him beyond his most sanguine expectations. Yes, the streets of London are paved with gold, but it is not everyone who has sense to see it or strength to pick it up.
It is to be feared the large class who come into the streets to deal are not of the class who mean to rise, but who have seen better days. For instance, I often meet a porter selling Persian sherbet in the City, [-211-] who seems to have dropped into that situation from mere laziness. He had a fair chance of getting on in life, but he never seems to have had pluck enough to succeed. Another man I know held a respectable situation as clerk; he appeared to me economical in his habits, he was always neatly dressed, he was never the worse for liquor, nor did he seem to keep bad company. All at once he left his situation, and rapidly went to the dogs. For a little while he borrowed of his friends; but that was a precarious source of existence, and now he may be seen dealing in small articles, on which it is to be hoped for his own sake the profits are large, as I fear the demand for them is small. Then there are the restless characters who take up street-selling partly because they like to gammon the public, partly because they dislike steady industry, and partly because I fancy they cherish expectations of another sort. These [-212-] are the men who give away gold rings, who exhibit mice that have a wonderful way of running up and down the arms, who sell gutta-percha dolls which seem in their hands to have a power of vocalisation which leaves them at once and for ever as soon as you have purchased the puppet and paid for it and made it your own, who deal in cement which will make an old jug better than new, who retail corn-plasters which are an inevitable cure, and who occasionally deal in powders which are a sure means of getting rid of certain objectionable specimens of the insect tribe.
"But how do you use the powder?" asked a flat of a countryman who had been deluded into the purchase of sixpennyworth of the invaluable powder. "How do you use it ?" repeated the purchaser.
"Well, you see, you catch the animal and hold him by the back of the neck, and then when his mouth opens, just [-213-] shove in the powder, and he'll die fast enough."
"But," said the countryman, "I suppose I could kill the insect at once when I've caught him ?
"Well," said the salesman, "of course you can, but the powder is, I repeat, fatal nevertheless."
A little while ago there was an illustrated paper presumedly more fitted for the moral atmosphere of New York than London. Its chief sale, before it was suppressed by the law, was in the streets, where, with its doubtful engravings, it was a bit of a nuisance. Of course, the sale of Evening Hechoes, and Hextra Standards, is a thing one is obliged to put up with; nevertheless, one must often regret that so useful a trade cannot be pushed in a quieter and less ostentatious way. The ingenious youth, who devote themselves to the sale of a paper especially devoted to the interests of matri-[-214-]mony, are a real nuisance. How they pester many a lad that passes with their intimation that, by the purchase of their trumpery paper, they can secure an heiress with a thousand a year, as if such bargains were to be had any day, whereas, the truth is, that they are rather scarce, and that - whether with that sum or without - matrimony is a very serious affair. Unprotected females have to suffer a deal of impudence from these fellows. I saw a respectable, decently- dressed, manifest old maid, exceedingly annoyed and shocked by one of these fellows pursuing her half way up Cheapside, with his shouts, "Want a 'usband, ma'am ?" "Here's a chance for you, ma'am," "Lots of 'usbands to be had," and so on, in a way which she seemed to feel - and I quite understood her feelings - was singularly indelicate. What an insult to suppose that any virtuous and accomplished lady is in need of a husband, when she has only [-215-] to raise a finger and she has, such is the chivalry of the age, a score of adorers at her feet!
The newsboys are, of course, the most prominent of our street salesmen, and they affect the City for many reasons. In the first place, in and around the Mansion House there is a finer opening for business than anywhere else; and in the second place, a City business is often a very remunerative one. City men who have made their thousands on the Stock Exchange or elsewhere are not particular in the matter of change; and a fourpence or a sixpence is often the reward of the lad who is the first to rush up to a City swell as he leaves his office with a "third hedition of the Hecho," or a special Standard with some important telegram. In wet weather times go very hard with these poor fellows. On the contrary, when it is fine, business is brisk. They rely much on sensational telegrams. [-216-] A war is a fine thing for them, and so is a case like that of the Claimant, or a spicy divorce case, or an atrocious murder. It is when such things as these occur that they flourish, and that their joy is abounding. They must make a good deal of money, but it goes as fast as it comes. An attempt was made to establish a newsroom for these boys, and very nice premises were taken in Gray's Inn Lane. The coffee and bread and butter were excellent, and the arrangements were all that could be desired. Nevertheless the undertaking was a failure, because it was not supported by the class for whose benefit it was especially intended. The news-boys did not like the confinement, the regular hours, the decent behaviour, the cleanliness and attention to little things required. They wanted beer and 'baccy, and other little amusements, more in accordance with their independent position in life. As a rule I [-217-] fancy they are honest; they certainly never cheat a man if they think they will be found out. I never had any difficulty in getting my change but once, and then I was in an omnibus, and the chances were in the boy's favour. What is wonderful is that they do not meet with more accidents. How they rush after omnibuses as they urge on their wild career! Some of them are great radicals. "Allus reads The Hecho of a Saturday," said one of them to me, "to see how it pitches into the haristocracy," when the articles signed "NOBLESSE OBLIGE" were being published. It is to be wondered at now and then that their impertinence does not get them into grief. For instance, to the young man who has any respect for the fair sex, how disgusting to be told of women, good-looking, amiable and accomplished, well-to-do, and apparently possessed of every virtue under heaven, advertising for husbands. I suppose The Matrimonial [-218-] News is a success; but, if so, certainly that is not a pleasant sign of the times. If people will buy it, the newsboys are not to be blamed for hawking it about. They take up what they think the public will buy. Last year they were retailing "The Devil," price one penny, and this year they have taken up Town Talk, and an ingenious puzzle, called, "How to find out Lord Beaconsfield." I wonder some of our publishers of real good illustrated literature do not try to push the sale of it in this way. I think it would pay. The public would then have the bane and the antidote side by side. Mr. Smithies might do much to increase the sale of The British Workman if he had it hawked about the streets.
As to the costermongers, their name is legion; and that they are a real service to the community must be evident to anyone who sees what their prices are and what are those of the fruiterers in the shops. They [-219-] bring fruit within the reach of the community. In the summer-time we naturally require fruit. It is good for grown-up men and women, it is good for little children. In London they have no chance of tasting it were it not for the costermonger who floods the streets with all that is desirable in this respect; one day he has West India pineapples for sale; another bananas or shaddocks; another grapes, and apples, and pears, and apricots, and greengages, and plums. One day he deals in strawberries and another in cherries; and then, when the autumn comes on, what a tempting display he makes of filberts, and walnuts, and chestnuts! The amount of fruit thus poured in upon the market, much of which would have perished had it not been sold off at once, is really prodigious; and infinitely indebted to him are the poor clerks who lay in a pennyworth of apples or pears as they leave the office for the little ones at home. At one [-220-] time I had a prejudice against these rough and noisy dealers ; that prejudice has vanished since I have taken to dining in the City and indulging in "a penny lot" after dinner. What I admire is the way in which they do up strawberries, and cherries, and plums in little paper bags, which seem to contain as much again as they really do. Occasionally a man gets cheated, but that is when there is a woman in the case.
Oh, the flower-girls of the streets, what deceiving creatures they are ! It is not that, like the flower-girls of Paris, they spoil a romance with pecuniary views, but it is that they cheat you through thick and thin, and sell you camellias made of turnips, and roses and azaleas equally fair to see and equally false and vain. Can I ever forget my friend Dr. R. and the little mishap that befell him when he assisted at a little dinner - at which I had the honour to be a guest - given by a Scotch poet to Scotch poets, and press-men, [-221-] and barristers, in honour of the immortal Robert Burns? Crossing by the Mansion House, in the dim light of a winter evening, the doctor was accosted by a handsome lass, who offered to sell him a camellia. The lady pressed her suit, and the doctor fell. Granite in the discharge of duty, the doctor has a soft place in his heart, and that woman finds out at once. It is the old tale - the woman tempted and the doctor gave way. As he came proud and smiling into the drawing-room, the splendour of the doctor's camellia arrested every eye. A near scrutiny was the result, and at length the doctor had to confess that he had been the victim of misplaced confidence in a London street flower-girl.
Then there are the men who deal in what they call pineapple sweetmeat; their barrows are adorned with paintings representing dimly the riches and luxuriance of the East.
Sunday brings with it its own peculiar [-222-] dealers and trades. One of the sights of poor neighbourhoods is that of a large barrel, painted red, on wheels. At the top is a seat for the driver; at the other end there is a small shelf on which are placed a tray of water and a row of glasses. Some of these glasses look like porter with a head, and are retailed at prices varying from a penny to twopence. Outside, in great gilt letters, I read, "The Great Blood Purifier ;" then we have another line, "Sarsaparilla, Hilder, King's Road, Chelsea." Another line is devoted to the announcement of "Dandelion and Sarsaparilla Pills." Another intimates that sarsaparilla is the "Elixir of Life." At the back, the door over the shelf contains a portrait of apparently a fine gay person, female of course, who has received signal benefit from the ardour with which she has swallowed the dandelion and sarsaparilla pills; and around her, as witnesses and approvers of [-223-] such conduct on her part, shines a row of stars. The salesman is assisted by a small boy, who washes the glasses and places them on the rack, and in other ways makes himself generally useful. The salesman is by no means guilty of the trick of underrating his wares. Accordingly, he lifts up his voice like a trumpet as he deals out his pennyworths of the Elixir of Life. In some cases he is familiar, in others argumentative, in others bold as brass; and he gets a good many customers. The race of fools who rush in where angels fear to tread is by no means extinct. As I watched the poor skinny quadruped, groggy and foot-sore, I felt how hard it was that Sunday should shine no day of rest for him; but he had a good deal more go in him than you would have imagined from his appearance. Mi at once in the far distance appeared two respected members of the City police; the gentleman with the Elixir of Life closed his [-224-] door, jumped up into his seat, pulled his small boy up after him, and was off like lightning. This Arab steed could run after all.
THERE are some people who are always grumbling. Hit them high or hit them
low, you can't please them. I don't think I belong to that class. I like to look
on the sunny side, remembering as the poet used to say when I was a good deal
younger than I am now-
'Ti's wiser, better far.
In the words of a still greater poet-
I take the goods the gods provide me.
And if the lovely Thais sits beside me, provided she does not lay a stress upon my [-226-] head and purse (I am a married man, and the father of a family, and always hope to behave as such), I don't object. He is not a wise man who quarrels with his bread and butter; he is a fool who expects to find no thorns amongst his roses. What I have gone through, dear madam - for it is to the ladies I appeal - what I have gone through, dear madam, is really astounding, at any rate to myself. How I have survived at all is "one of those things no fellah can understand." Repeatedly ruin has stared me in the face. Repeatedly have my young affections run to waste. Repeatedly have I been crossed in love, and tramped up and down Cheapside and Fleet Street, a blighted being. At this very moment, if I may trust to my medical knowledge, I am now suffering from three distinct diseases,. any one of which is mortal; and yet if you were to meet me in the street, or have a chat with me in a quiet café over a cigar [-227-] or sit next me at a City dinner, you would swear that I was one of those old fogies whom nothing troubles, without nerves or feelings, who vegetated rather than lived in the little tragi-comedy we call life. It may be that little personal details are uninteresting. I admit they are not matters of transcendent importance. You do not need master them if you are going up for your degree, or going in for a Civil Service examination. I mention these merely to show that I can put up with a good deal- that I am not easily put out of the way; and that I should be one of the last persons in the world to call anything a nuisance, unless it were really such. Under these circumstances, I may claim a right to be heard; and, when I state that I have no private aim, that, laying my hand upon my heart, my only motive is the public good, I believe that I shall not lift up my voice in vain.
[-228-]Well, to waste no more words about it, of the nuisances of London it may he said their name is legion. In the first place, there are the streets. If you get out at Farringdon Street Station, and walk towards the Holhorn Viaduct, it is of little use your having had your boots cleaned that morning - a little shower of rain, and the pavement is covered with mud. This ought not to be. Let us take another nuisance. All at once, as you walk along, you see a chimney vomiting forth clouds of smoke. This is a great nuisance, especially on a fine summer day, when the atmosphere of the City may be said to be almost clear; and this nuisance is the more unbearable as there is a law to put it down, which law is actually to a certain extent carried out. Let anyone take his stand on some spot where he can get a good view around him, and he will be sure to see some chimney, in spite of the law, darkening the sky and poisoning the [-229-] air. Then there is the orange-peel, which has shortened many a valuable life, and quenched the light of many a home. Then there is the crowded traffic of the streets, which renders all locomotion impossible, and keeps you sitting, angry and fuming, in a cab, when it may be you are hurrying off to save a bill from being dishonoured, to keep an appointment with a rich aunt or uncle from whom you have great expectations, to have a last fond look at someone whom you clearly love. As to the disputed points as to the pavements, I have nothing to offer. To those who have to live and sleep in the City, asphalte, I should say, must be the greatest boon devised by the art of man. With asphalte you may talk pleasantly to a friend in Cheapside, you may get a reasonable night's sleep in St. Paul's Churchyard, or you may crack a joke without bursting a blood-vessel opposite the Mansion House itself. Be that as it may, [-230-] as the question as to the comparative merits of asphalte, or granite, or wood will be settled by wiser heads than mine, I say no more; but what I complain of, and what is a nuisance to everyone, is the perpetual tinkering and repairing always going on in the streets, and the consequent blockade for a time of certain important thoroughfares. What with the drainage, and the water, and the gas pipes; and the telegraph wires, there is in most of the City ways as much bustle almost under the street as on it, and an ominous board with a notice from the Lord Mayor turns aside a tremendous traffic, and is a terrible nuisance as long as it lasts. Surely this waste of time and annoyance is, a great deal of it, unnecessary. All that is wanted is a little more contrivance and forethought. I was once discussing the subject with a leading City man and an M.P., as we were travelling [-231-] together in a railway carriage on our way to a pleasant gathering of City people many miles away beyond the sound of Bow Bells. "Well," said he, with a suggestive wink, "the thing is easily explained; the rule is, for the surveyor s son to marry the contractor's daughter, or something of that sort, and so between them they manage to play into each other's hands, and always have done so." Of course the M.P. was joking. No one could conceive it possible that our civic guardians, our common councilmen, our aldermen, our City officers, would allow themselves to be imposed on, and the public to be robbed in this way; but, alas! it is a pity that there should be ground for such a joke, that it should seem in any way to be founded on a fact. We are not so bad as we were, I admit, but that is no reason why we should not be better. Even now there are parts of [-232-] London to which Gay's lines are applicable when he writes:
Though expedition bids, yet never stray
Where no ranged post defends the rugged way;
Here laden carts with thundering waggons meet,
Wheels clash with wheels, and bar the narrow street,
The lashing whip resounds, the horses strain,
And blood in anguish bursts the swelling vein.
Something like this may be met with any day when the stones are greasy on Fish Street Hill, as the waggons turn up from Thames Street laden with the heavy merchandise of that quarter of the town. As I have quoted Gay, let me give another quotation from him. In one of his fables he writes:
How many saucy airs we meet
From Temple Bar to Aldgate Street.
Proud rogues who shared the South Sea prey,
And spring like mushrooms in a day,
They think it mean to condescend
To know a brother or a friend.
They blush to hear their mother's name,
And by their pride expose their shame.
[-233-] There are just such men as Gay wrote of to be met in our streets, and they are a nuisance, but the law of libel, in the interest of rogues who live by getting up bubble companies, is hard on the press, and I prefer to quote Gay to making original remarks of my own, remarks which may be true, which may be useful, but for which the proprietor of any paper that would publish them would have to pay heavily, at any rate in the way of costs.
Later in the day, one of the nuisances in the streets is "Those horrid boys." They have come home from work, or school; they have had their tea, it is too early for them to go to bed, their fathers and mothers don't know what to do with them at home, and so they loiter about the streets, and carry on their little games in them, much to their own satisfaction, but very much to the annoyance of everyone else. One of their favourite amusements is to run in groups, [-234-] like so many wild Indians or a pack of wolves, howling and shrieking in away very alarming. It is no use talking to them. It is no use putting the police on after them. The belated citizen, on his way home to the inevitable suburb, is frightened into fits ere he reaches his much-hoped-for haven of rest. And the small shopkeepers in the quiet streets - which they more especially affect - in terror rush to the door, believing either that there is a fire, or that Bedlam has broken loose, or that the Fenians have come. In some parts, as in Whitechapel, the wild girls of the streets are even worse.
There are many local nuisances in London; one of the chief of these is the conduct of the watermen about the landing- places near the Custom House. Females and foreigners, who have to take boats to the large steamers lying in the river, are frightfully plundered in this way. These men feel that they can rob you with impunity, and they abuse their privileges.
[-235-] "Ah," said one, after he had squeezed a five- shilling piece out of a poor foreigner for rowing him a few yards, "I'll put up with it this time, but don't do it again, as if he, the boatman, and not the poor foreigner, had been the victim of a most atrocious fraud.. Such fellows as these should be kept honest somehow. Who does not recollect that chapter in "Vilette," in which Charlotte Brontë has recorded her waterside experiences? How she was landed by the coachman in the midst of a throng of watermen, who gathered around her like wolves; how she stepped at once into a boat, desiring to be taken to the Vivid; how she was fleeced by the waterman, as she paid an exorbitant sum, as the steward, a young man, was looking over the ship's side, grinning a smile in anticipation of the row there would have been had she refused to pay. I had an experience somewhat similar myself. Perhaps I got off easily. In [-236-] those dark wharves on that black river, here and there lit by a distant and dimly-burning lamp - at that midnight hour, when all good people are in bed, it is well that there is nothing going on worse than robbery in such a mild form. Had I been dropped overboard, I am sure few people would have known it; and I am not certain that I have no reason to be grateful to the lot amongst whom I found myself that they attempted nothing of the kind. Late at night there are many dark and lonely spots in the City suggestive of dark deeds. In sonic one walks with fear and trembling. Suspicious people have a knack of turning up in such dark places; and the police can't be everywhere.
Then there is the water supply. It is all very well to have a spirited foreign policy abroad, but we do want a little common sense at home; and the sanitary state of the nation is of the first importance. You can [-237-] not blame a man that he refuses to drink bad water, and takes beer instead; and if anything be clearer than another, it is that the water supplied to the working man is bad; for whilst the rich man can have his cisterns regularly cleaned out, and his water filtered, the working man, as a rule, uses the water as he can get it, and suffers in consequence, both in person and in pocket. Under the influence of this state of things, it is not surprising to find mothers refusing to allow their children to drink water on the plea that it is bad for their health. Nor are these mothers to be blamed. It is a fact that in England and Wales alone upwards of eight hundred persons die every month from typhoid fever; a disease which is now believed to be caused almost entirely through drinking impure water. It is a fact that in London we have little pure water to drink, the companies are put to a great expense to filter their water, and yet [-238-] every week we read such reports as the following from Dr. Frankland, the official to whom is entrusted the analysing of such matters: "The Thames water, delivered by the West Middlesex, Southwark, and Grand Junction Companies, was so much polluted by organic matter as to be quite unfit for dietetic purposes." The other day I had to pay my water rates; imagine my disgust at having to do so when the Government inspector in the daily papers informed me that the water supplied by the company was totally unfit for dietetic purposes! The evil is no new one. It has been ventilated in every way; and yet in London, the wealthiest city in the world, we cannot get a cup of pure water. People can have it in Manchester and Glasgow and New York; but in London - which claims to be the capital of commerce, the seat of Legislation, the model city - we have poison in the cup - as science tells us that we cannot take [-239-] with impunity the living organisms and fungoid growths with which London water more or less abounds. Lately the working men met at Exeter Hall to say that it was time to put a stop to this disgraceful state of things. As Cardinal Manning said, if they wanted to give a subject the slip, the proper way was to get a committee of inquiry, and if they wanted to bury it altogether the right thing to do was to have a Royal Commission. Action is what is wanted. There are ten Parliamentary boroughs, and it was proposed to hold public meetings in each of them, to form a central committee, and thus to create a. public pressure to which Parliament would have to give way. As it is, as Sir Charles Duke pointed out, we have eight water companies in London who have increased the cost of water all round without improving the quality. What is to be asked is, that a body of men be formed in London [-240-] to have the care of the water supply; and, as Mr. J. Holms, M.P., pointed out, the sooner this is done the better, as every year the companies' properties increase in value, and there will have to be paid to them additional compensation. The importance of the subject was, perhaps, most pointedly brought out by Dr. Lyon Playfair, who argued that, as in each average individual there were 98 lb. of water to 40 lb. of flesh and bone, he calculated that there were before him at that time as many as 25,000 gallons of water; and if that water was impure it must vitiate the blood and lower the health of all. We must have, he said, a good supply of water, pure at the source. We must have good receptacles for storing it, and we must have a constant system of supply.
What great events from little causes spring! Last year a gentleman was run over by a butcher's cart through the careless driving of the butcher; and finding that [-241-] accidents of that nature were of frequent occurrence and were increasing, he, with other gentlemen, obtained a return of the number of accidents from Sir Edmund Henderson, the chief of the Metropolitan Police, which showed that, in 1878, 124 persons were killed and 3,052 run over in the Metropolitan districts. But this is not all. The return only showed such accidents as came under the knowledge of the Metropolitan police. Accordingly application was made to the Registrar-General of Deaths, and from him it was ascertained that 237 persons were killed by vehicles and 3,399 run over during that year in and around London; and hence the formation of the society for the prevention of street accidents. Further researches made by the secretary among the London hospitals resulted in learning that run-over cases formed the most common class of accidents. The house surgeon of the principal hospital wrote that [-242-] he computed there was an average of thirty "run-over" cases a week brought there for treatment, which, in that one hospital alone, would make 930 accidents attended to there yearly. The result of the society's operations are satisfactory. At any rate this year the returns show one death less, and a falllng off in run-over cases to the number of 517. Such decrease the society claims to be the result of its labours, on the ground that every year during the last ten years has showed an increase of six per cent. If this be so, it was well that the secretary was run over, especially as apparently he was not much hurt by the operation. Physically he is as fine a man as you would wish to see; and though undoubtedly the sensation at the time was not an agreeable one, yet, if it has led to the reduction of street accidents, how much cause have we to rejoice. It seems almost as if Mr. Buckle were right when he questions the beneficial effect of morality on [-243-] national progress. At any rate, if I were a lover of paradox I would quote Mandeville to show how private vices become public benefits. A butcher boy recklessly ran over Mr. Keevil, and the result is a decrease of street accidents and mortality. Statues have been erected to men who have less benefited the public than that butcher boy.
But accidents will happen, and I fear, as the Lord Mayor truly said at the first annual meeting of the society held in the Egyptian Hall of the Mansion House, it is to be feared most of them are really accidents, that is, things that cannot be prevented. The society aims to prevent accidents by enforcing existing laws; by petitioning Parliament to amend them; by prosecuting offenders for furious driving; by granting donations or loans to sufferers; by compulsory carriage of a lamp on all vehicles, trimmed and lighted after sunset; by compulsory use of brake-power; and by stationing the society's [-244-] mounted and other officers in the leading thoroughfares of the metropolis, and other towns, to check and pursue offenders, and to enforce the claims of the society. At its first meeting we had an array of elderly peers and distinguished persons, that was really overpowering. One reverend speaker looked quite pathetic, as, with an arm in a sling, he narrated how he had been the victim of a street accident. Let it not be thought that I am inclined to write of the reverend gentleman and the society with levity. I, too, have suffered. The other night in the fog, in a street-crossing, I experienced a disagreeable sensation on the side of my head - which fortunately nature has made thick enough for ordinary wear and tear- and in the gloaming found that a cab had driven up against me. Fortunately, I escaped with a slight contusion, but it would have been a sad thing for my small home circle had it been a serious matter. Alas! to men every [-245-] day accidents occur that are serious; and there are women white with terror, and children struck dumb with an undefined sense of impending ill, as the news comes to them that the husband and father is in the hospital. Sometimes the agony is prolonged, as they do not even learn that; and who can tell the bitterness as the weary hours of the night pass away and the cold gray of morn reappears, as the watchful ear tries to fancy in every sound of the passing footstep the return of one never to come home more? By all means let us, if we can, prevent street accidents. Life is not so bright, earth is not so full of joy, that we may neglect, when an opportunity occurs, to save one breaking heart, to prevent one solitary tear.
Sir Arthur Helps, just before his death, published another of his popular volumes, "Friends in Council," in which certain friends - men of the world and of high position- are supposed to discuss the several [-246-] problems of the day. The scene is laid in a villa on the banks of the Thames. The host is Sir John Ellesmere - not Mr. Milverton. The subject is "Social Pressure," a subject which may certainly be said to come home to our businesses and bosoms. The aim of all the speeches is how we are to be comfortable; and, as citizens of this great city, as was to be expected, London occupies the chief place in their thoughts, is referred to in all the arguments- in short, points the moral and adorns the tale. Milverton reads an essay on the subject, which lays it down as an indisputable truth that one of the greatest evils of modern life is the existence of great towns. The metropolis is pointed out as an illustration. First we are told the loss of animal power is enormous. Four or five hundred horses are carried to the knacker's yard each week in London. After a day's business it is a pleasure to take a walk in the country; but, [-247-] it is asked, Who can do that in London, where there are, in several directions, ten continuous miles of houses? Then, as to the pleasures of society, these are destroyed by the immense extent of the metropolis. Even the largest houses are not, relatively speaking, large enough for the town in which they are situated. As regards questions of health, Dr. Arnott, whom Sir Arthur terms one of the greatest sanitary reformers of the age, remarked that though London is a place where the rate of mortality is not exceedingly high, yet it is a place where nobody except butchers' boys enjoy perfect health - the full state of health that they are capable of enjoying.
In spite of the somewhat extreme notions of the "Friends," who seem to forget that men are driven into cities by the necessity which compels most of them to earn their daily bread, it must be admitted that in the question of air they have hit a blot. The [-248-] first article of food, namely, fresh air, is that which is least under the command of man. Mr. Milverton says there is no danger of London being starved for want of animal food. There is more and more danger every year of its health being diminished from the want of a supply of fresh air. It is stated, in confirmation of this fact, that every year the hospital surgeons in London find it more difficult to cure wounds and injuries of all kinds to the human body, on account, it is supposed, of the growing impurity of the London air. This bad air kills off the cows. A London cow does not last a third part of the time one does in the country. On this head much more might have been said. The author might have referred to the mournful fate of the fine cattle, who, recently, on the field of their triumph, the Smithfield Club Show, found, not laurels and rewards, but a grave, in consequence of the fog. We read that that famous man, Count Rumford, used [-249-] to estimate the number of millions of chaldrons of coals which were suspended in the atmosphere of London, and to dwell upon the mischief which was caused to furniture by the smoke when it descended. But there are other special causes of injury, such as dust and chemical emanations of all kinds. The result is that everything in such a city as London soon loses all bloom and freshness, and, indeed, is rapidly deteriorated. The more beautiful the thing, the more swift and fatal is this deterioration. The essayist calculates the injury of property in London, caused, not by reasonable wear and tear, but by the result of the agglomeration of too many people upon one spot of ground, as not less than three or four millions of pounds per annum. It is to be feared the estimate is not exaggerated.
There is a further illustration. Sir Rutherford Alcock, as we all know, represented our interests in China. While there [-250-] he visited the Chinese Wall, and brought back two specimens from it in the way of bricks. These bricks must have been many centuries old, but they had kept their form and betrayed no signs of decay in that atmosphere. Sir Rutherford put these two bricks out in the balcony of his house in London. This was about two years ago. One of these bricks has already gone to pieces, being entirely disintegrated by the corrosive influence of the London atmosphere.
In another way we also suffer. Certain kinds of architecture are out of place in London, says our essayist: "All that is delicate and refined is so soon blurred, defaced, and corroded by this cruel atmosphere, that it is a mockery and a delusion to attempt fine work." There ought to be a peculiar kind of architecture for such a metropolis - large, coarse, and massive, owning neither delicacy nor refinement, and not [-251-] admitting minute description of any kind. And, again, that coarse work requires to be executed in the hardest material, otherwise the corrosion is so great as to cause the need for constant repair.
Another danger is pointed out in the following anecdote. At a former time, when this country was threatened with an invasion of cholera, the speaker (Milverton) was one of a committee of persons appointed by Government supposed to have some skill in sanitary science. "We found," he remarks, "that a most deadly fever had originated from the premises of one of the greatest vendors of oysters in the centre of the metropolis. Attached to his premises there was a large subterranean place where he deposited his oyster shells; this place was connected with the sewers. The small portion of animal matter left in the under shells became putrescent and from the huge mass of them that had accumulated in that [-252-] subterranean place there finally arose a stench of the most horrible nature, which came up through all the neighbouring gratings, and most probably into some of the neighbouring houses."
My readers need not be alarmed. Such a nuisance would not be permitted now; and as oysters are getting dearer and scarcer every day, it is to be questioned whether these shells will be ever again in sufficient numbers as to form a putrid and pernicious heap. But that the air is polluted by noxious substances and trades is one of the greatest and most pressing evils of the ever- threatening perils of such a Babylon as that in which we live. We suggest, advisedly, the removal of all noxious trades from London, in spite of all that the political economists can say to the contrary. This, however, is of course but a small part of the question. The main object is to see what can be done to render [-253-] this vast agglomeration of animate and inanimate beings less embarrassing and injurious. The first thing that must occur to almost every mind is the necessity for preserving open spaces, and even of creating them, a necessity of which the Corporation of London is at any rate aware.
There is more of novelty in the following: "Another evil of great towns is noise. There is the common proverb that half the world does not know how the other half lives, which, perhaps, would be a more effective saying if the word 'suffers' were substituted for 'lives.' It is probable that there is no form of human suffering which meets with less sympathy or regard from those who do not suffer from it, than the suffering caused by noise. The man of hard, healthy, well-strung nerves can scarcely imagine the real distress which men of sensitive nerves endure from ill-regulated noise- how they literally quiver and shiver [-254-] under it. Now, of course, the larger the town, the more varied and the more abundant is the noise in it. Even the domestic noises are dreadful to a man of acute nervous sensibility."
In the City we have done much to remove this evil. The asphalte pavement has wrought wonders; the police have been also efficacious in putting a stop to some of our roughest and most discordant cries; and yet there is a volume of noise, ever rising up and filling the air, which must shorten many a life, and which must be a permanent source of misery. There are few of us who have not realised what Sir Arthur Helps describes as the terrors and horrors of ill- regulated noise, or have not wondered that so much intellectual work is done so well as it is in these great cities. Now that Sir Arthur has called attention to the subject, it may be other people will think it worth consideration.
[-255-] Damascus and Babylon are referred to for the purpose of drawing a comparison to the disadvantage of London. Babylon, we are told, had in its densest parts what is deficient in London. Babylon contained within its walls land sufficient for agricultural purposes, to enable the inhabitants of the city to be fed by those resources during a siege. Well, of course, that is quite out of question as regards London. Then comes Damascus, which, "from the presence of large gardens, forms a most pleasing contrast to London and other large cities ;" but Damascus has the plague, and that London, with all its magnitude, escapes. Then we are told London is built so badly that were it to be abandoned by its population it would fall during that time into a state of ruin which would astonish the world. This, it is to be feared, is true of the suburbs, where builders are allowed to scamp their work just as they please, but [-256-] certainly cannot be said of the City, where there is proper superintendence and most vigilant care. Another evil to which the "Friends" refer, is the absence of raised buildings, partially covered in, which should enable those in the neighbourhood to take exercise with freedom both from bitter winds and driving rains; in fact, an elevated kind of cloister - where it is suggested recreation and amusement might be provided, especially of a musical kind. It is to be feared space is too valuable for this in the City; and, until our roughs are educated under the new School Board, we know no part of the metropolis where such a thing is practicable, even though, as hinted, the attractions of such a place would counteract those of the gin palace. There was a Piazza in Regent Street, which was removed on account of the shelter it gave to improper characters. One suggestion is made, which is really [-257-] practicable, and which would be a great boon to Londoners. Ellesmere wishes that he were a Lord of the Woods and Forests, as, if he were, he would add to Kew Gardens the eight hundred acres now lying waste between them and Richmond; he wants a vegetable-garden there, and a recreation-ground for the people, and the ground, he argues, is admirably adapted for such purposes.
Ah! these poor Londoners. They fare but poorly at the hands of the "Council." "Hail a cab in any part of London where there is a large stream of passers-by, you will observe that several grown-up persons and a large number of boys will stop to see you get in the cab. That very commonplace transaction has some charm for them - their days being passed in such continuous dulness." Thus, says one speaker: "At Dresden or Munich, on their holidays, the whole population flock out to some beautiful [-258-] garden a mile or two from the town, hear good music, imbibe fresh air, and spend only a few pence in those humble but complete pleasures ;" and then this picture is contrasted with that of the head of the family here, who spends his holiday at the neighbouring gin-palace round the corner. Certainly this is a very unfair comparison, as anyone knows who visits our public gardens and parks and health resorts on the occasion of a national holiday. There is another picture, which it is to be feared is more common. It tells of a sanitary reformer who noticed how a young woman who had come from the country and was living in some miserable city-court or alley, made, for a time, great efforts to keep that court or alley clean. But gradually, day by day, the efforts of that poor woman were less and less vigorous, until in a few weeks she became accustomed to and contented with the state of squalor which surrounded her, [-259-] and made no effort to remove it. It is true, as Milverton remarks: "We in London subside into living contentedly amidst dirt, and seeing our books, our pictures, our other works of art, and our furniture become daily more dirty, dusty, and degenerate."
Our grandfathers lived in the City, and were glad to do so. It is a pity one has to waste so much time travelling backward and forward between one's shop and country house, and office and one's home, but if you can't get fresh air in the City - if you can't rear children in its atmosphere - if its soot is fatal to your health - if its fogs carry one off to a premature grave - if its noises wear out your nerves - one has no alternative. Is it a dream to look forward to a time when beggars and rogues shall disappear from its streets - when it shall be the home of a peaceful, virtuous, and enlightened community - when in the summer-time as you look up you will be able to see the sun - [-260-] when you will be able to drink pure water - when, within the sound of Bow Bells, you shall be able to live to a good old age - and when, on the Sabbath, its churches and chapels, now empty of worshippers, shall be filled with devout men and women'? Or is it to go on daily becoming more gorgeous to the eye and more desolate to the heart? Alas! it seems nothing but a deluge can save the City, and as much now as ever the wearied citizen will have to sing:
Oh, well may poets make a fuss
In summer time, and sigh O rus.
What joy have I in June's return
My feet are parched; my eyeballs burn;
I scent no flowery gust.
But faint the flagging Zephyr springs,
With dry Macadam on its wings,
And turns me dust to dust.