Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Days and Nights in London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1880 - Chapter 9, 10

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IX

LONDON'S EXCURSIONISTS.

MOST of my London readers know Southend. It is as pretty a place, when the tide is up and the weather is fine, as you can find anywhere near London. Standing on the cliff on a clear day it is a lovely panorama which greets your eye. At your feet rolls the noble river, to which London owes its greatness, and on which sail up and down, night and day, no matter how stormy the season may be, the commercial navies of the world. On the other side is the mouth of the Medway, with its docks and men-of-war; and farther still beyond rise those Kentish hills of which Dickens was so fond, and on the top [-183-] of one of which he lived and died. Look to the right, and you see over the broad expanse of waters and the marshy land, destined, perhaps, at some distant day to be formed into docks and to be crowded with busy life. Look at your left, and the old town, with its pier a mile and a quarter long, really looks charming in the summer sun. Or you see the shingly beach, at one end of which - you learn by report of artillery-firing and the cloud of blue smoke curling to the sky - is Shoeburyness. Far away on the open sea, and on the other side, the tall cliffs of the Isle of Sheppey loom in the distance. 
    Lie down on the grass and enjoy yourself. What ozone there is in the atmosphere! What brightness in the scene! What joy seems all around! Is it not pleasant, after the roar and bustle and smoke and dirt of London, to come down here and watch the clouds casting their dark shadow on the blue waters ; or to follow the gulls, dipping [-184-] and darting along like so many white flies; or to see the feathery sails of yachts and pleasure- boats, floating like flakes of snow; or to mark the dark track from the funnel of yon steamer, on her way (possibly with a cargo of emigrants, to whom fortune had been unfriendly at home) to some Australian El Dorado- to which, if I only knew of it, I might probably go myself-  
        Where every man is free,
        And none can be in bonds for life
        For want of s. d.
Well, you say, this is a fairy spot, a real Eden, where life is all enjoyment, where health and happiness abound, if you could live but always there. My dear sir, in a few hours such a change will come over the spirit of the dream, such a diabolical transformation will be effected, so foul will seem all that now is so bright and fair, that you will flee the place, and, as you do so, indignantly ask, What is the use of [-185-] British law? and wherein consists the virtue of British civilisation? and of what avail is British Christianity, if in broad daylight, in the principal thoroughfares of the town, your eyes and ears are to be shocked by scenes of which I can only say that they would be deemed disgraceful in a land of savages? Let us suppose it midday, and the usual excursion trains and steamboats have landed some few thousand men, women, and children, all dressed in their best, and determined, and very properly, to enjoy themselves. What swarms you see everywhere! One day actually, I am told, the railway brought as many as eleven thousand. You say you are glad to see them; they have worked hard for a holiday; and, shut up in the factories, and warehouses, and workshops of the East-End, none have more of a right to, or more of a need of, the enjoyment of a sea air. Dear sir, you are right; and for a little while all goes on as you [-186-] desire. The enjoyment is varied, and seems to consist of wading up to the knees in the sea, in listening to Ethiopian serenaders, in the consumption of oysters and apples, in donkey- riding, in the purchase of useless ware at the nearest caravan or booth, in being photographed, in taking a sail, or in strolling about the beach, and, as regards the male part of the excursionists, smoking tobacco more or less indifferent. But unfortunately the trains do not return before seven or eight o'clock, and of course the excursionists must have a drop of beer or spirits to pass away the time, many of them have no idea of a holiday, and really and truly cannot enjoy themselves without; and the publicans of Southend lay themselves out for the gratification of the excursionist in this respect. They have monster taps and rooms in which the excursionists sit and drink and make merry according to their custom. As the day wears on the merriment becomes [-187-] greater, and the noise a little less harmonious. The fact is, all parties - men and women alike - have taken a drop too much; the publican begins to feel a little anxious about his property, especially as the two or three policemen belonging to the place- wisely knowing what is coming, and their utter inability to cope with a drunken mob, and the ridiculousness of their attempting to do so - manage to get out of the way, and to hide their diminished heads in a quieter and more respectable quarter of the town.
    At length quarrels arise, oaths and coarse language are heard, and out in the street rush angry men to curse, and swear, and fight. The women, it must be confessed, are ofttimes as bad as the men, and I have seen many a heavy blow fall to the lot even of the sucking babe! In the brief madness of the hour, friends, brothers, relatives rush at each other like so many wild beasts, [-188-] much to the amusement of the throng of inebriated pleasure- seekers around. No one tries to interfere, as most of the men and cardrivers, who make up the aboriginal population of the place, evidently enjoy the disgusting spectacle. Once I stopped four weeks in this place, and I began to tremble at the very sight of an excursionist. I knew that the chances were that before the day was over my little ones would have to look on the worst of sights. I saw one powerful fellow in three fights in the course of one day; in one he had kicked a man in a way which made him shriek and howl for an hour afterwards; in another case he had knocked a woman down; and I left him on the railway platform, stripped, and offering to fight anyone. I begged a policeman to interfere and take the brute into custody, and in reply was told that their rule was never to take a man into custody unless they saw the assault committed, a thing the [-189-] Southend police very properly take care never to do; and yet on the occasion to which I refer the landlord of one of the best hotels in the place was in vain, for the sake of his respectable guests, begging the police to put a stop to the scene which he himself rightly described as pandemonium. I must admit the police are not inactive. There was a crowd round the beershop, from which a man hopelessly intoxicated was being ejected.
    "Here, policeman," said the beershopkeeper, "take this man away, he has insulted me." And the policeman complied with his request, and the poor fellow, who was too drunk to stand upright, speedily embraces mother earth.
    On another occasion a policeman displayed unusual activity. He was after a man who had stolen actually an oyster, and for this the policeman was on his track, and the man was to be conveyed at the expense [-190-] of the country to Rochford gaol. Let me draw a veil over the horrors of the return home of an excursion train with its tipsy occupants, swearing eternal friendship one moment while trying to tear each other's eyes out the next. It is bad enough to see the excursionists making their way back to the railway station; here a couple of men will be holding up a drunken mate, there are flushed boys and girls yelling and shrieking like so many escaped lunatics. Now let us retrace our steps. You can tell by the disorder and ruin all around where the excursionists have been, their steps are as manifest to the observer as an invading army. Is there no remedy for this state of things? Is a quiet watering-place, to which people go to recover health and strength, to be at the mercy of any drunken swarms who happen to have the half-crowns in their pockets requisite for the purchase of an excursion ticket? Of course this is a free country, [-191-] and the right of a man to go to the devil his own way is a right of which I would be the last to deprive my fellow citizens; but an excursion train is a monster nuisance, of which our ancestors never dreamed, and for which in their wisdom they made no provision. Of course total abstinence is a remedy; but then the British workman is not a total abstainer, and that is a question which I am not about to discuss. All I want is to call attention to what is a daily scandal in the summer- time ; and to bid good people remember- while they are talking of heathenism abroad - that heathenism at home, which, under the influence of strong drink threatens to destroy all that is lovely and of good report in our midst.
    Lest it be said that I exaggerate, that I give an erroneous idea of the drinking customs of the working classes, let me quote the following confession of a working man, when examined before a coroner s jury, as [-192-] to the way in which he had spent his holiday last Good Friday:
    "We went for a walk, and had two pints of beer on the road. We got as far as the Holloway Road Railway Station, and turned back. Deceased saw me home, and then left me."
    "Did he again call on you ?"
    "Yes; at about twenty minutes to three o'clock."
    "By appointment?"
    "Yes, to go to the Alexandra Palace. We left my place about a quarter to three o'clock, and just had time for a drink at the public-house next door to where I am living. We had two half-quarterns of whisky neat. I there changed a sovereign. We then walked up the Holloway Road, and I called on my father-in- law. He asked me to stop to tea, but I said I was engaged to go to the Palace. Deceased and I then got as far as The Manor House, where we had two glasses of bitter [-193-] beer. We went on farther to The Queen's Head, which is the next public-house, and had sonic more drink. From there we went to Hornsey, stopped at a public-house, and had some whisky. We stopped again at The Nightingale, and had half-a-quartern of whisky each. We could see the Palace from where we then were, but did not know how to get there. We inquired the way, and as we were going along we met the deceased's younger brother, with a lot of other boys, and we said a few words to them. Afterwards we went into a public-house just opposite the Palace gates, and had either some brandy or whisky, I don't know which. We got chaffing with the man at the payoffice, saying that he ought to, let us in at half-price, as it was so late, but he did not do so. We paid one shilling each to go in. We went into the building and strolled about, looking at different things, and had three pints of bitter ale at one of the stands. [-194-] We then walked about again, and afterwards had some brandy. We then began to get rather stupefied, and after waiting about a little longer we had some more brandy. I know we stopped at almost every buffet there was in the Palace, and had something to drink at each of them. The lights were being put out as we left the Palace. Deceased had hold of my arm, and we went up to one of the buffets for the purpose of getting some cakes, or something to eat, but the barmaid refused to serve us. Deceased said to me, 'I feel rather tidy, Joe,' so I took hold of his arm, but in moving away we both fell over some chairs. We left the Palace, and deceased said to me, 'Have you got any money?' I said, 'Yes; what I have got you are welcome to.' I then gave him a two-shilling piece, out of my purse, which he put with the money he already had of his own. It must have been very late then. We lost our way, but [-195-] I think I said to the deceased, 'This is the way we came in.' Then we both fell down again. I don't remember getting away from there, or how I left deceased. I remember nothing else that took place. I don't know how we got on the steps of the Grand Stand. I cannot remember seeing the boy Braybrook, nor how I got out of the grounds, or to my own home."
    "You say that you were drunk ?"
    "Yes, we were both drunk, almost before we got to the Palace."
    "You say that the deceased was also drunk?"
    "Yes."
    "You don't remember leaving the deceased upon the ground?"
    "No, I cannot remember how I got my hands cut, or the bruise on the back of my head. I found my hat broken in the next morning, and my wife put it right for me."

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X.

ON THE RIVER STEAMERS.

ONE fine summer day a friend agreed with me to go down the river. Sheerness was fixed on, not on account of its beauty, for that part near the harbour is by no means attractive, and like most of our naval and military stations it is full of low public-houses, which by no means add to its attractions, but simply on account of the fact that the place could be reached and the return journey made in the course of a day; that we could be on the water all the while, and that we should have a pleasant breathing space in the midst of a life more or less necessarily of toil. For people [-197-] who cannot get away for a few weeks, who cannot rush off to Brighton, or Margate, or Scarborough, or Scotland for a month, it is a great treat to be able to go down to Sheerness and back for a day in a luxurious steamer, where everyone has elbow- room. And on the day in question it was a treat to us all in many respects; the day was fine, the boat in which we sailed was that favourite one the Princess Alice - now, alas! a name which sends a thrill of tragic horror through the land. To us and the public at that time she was known merely as the safest, and fastest, and pleasantest vessel of her class.
    We had beautiful views of marshes well filled with cattle, and of fields waving with yellow corn, and with hills and green parks, and gentlemen's seats and churches afar off; the river with its craft great and small going up or coming down is always a source of interesting study; and as the fine fresh [-198-] air, to be encountered below Gravesend, gave us an appetite, we had a good dinner on board, well served and at a very moderate price; tea and shrimps at a later period of the day were equally acceptable; and many were the ladies and gentlemen who had come and found what they sought, a pleasant outing. There were also many little children who enjoyed themselves much, and the sight of whose pleasure was an unmitigated enjoyment to old stagers, like myself and my friend. Altogether it was a very agreeable day so far as the outward passage was concerned. It was true that there was an unnecessary demand for beer, even from the moderate drinker's point of view, before the dinner hour. Bottled ale and stout may not be taken with impunity on an empty stomach; smoking may also be carried to excess, and as there are many persons who dislike the very smell of it, the mixture in the [-199-] atmosphere was certainly far more than was desirable; but on a holiday on a Thames excursion boat one must give and take, and not be too prone to find fault. People often act differently abroad to what they do at home; we must allow for a little wildness on such an occasion on the part of the general public. it is not every day a man takes a holiday. It is not everyone who knows how to use it when he has it. To many of us a holiday rarely comes more than once a year, and gentlemen of my profession, alas! often do not get that.
    Altogether we must have had at the least some seven or eight hundred people on board. They swarmed everywhere; indeed, at times there was little more than comfortable standing room, and the only locomotion possible seemed to be that directed towards the cabins fore and aft in pursuit of bottled beer. 
    In the morning we were not so crowded, [-200-] but in the evening we began to experience inconvenience of another kind. It was at half-past ten A. M. that we left the lower side of London Bridge; it was nine o'clock in the evening when we arrived there again. All that time we had been on board the steamer, with the exception of an hour and a half spent at Sheerness, and all that time the demand for beer had been incessant. I never in all my life saw such a consumption. I remarked to a friend enough beer had been drunk to have floated apparently the Princess Alice herself. Everybody was drinking beer or porter, and the bottles were imperial pints and held a good deal. Of course there were music and dancing; and the girls, flushed and excited, drank freely of the proffered beverage, each moment getting wilder and noisier. Old ladies and old gentlemen complacently sipped their glass. It seemed to do them no harm. Their passions had long been extinct. They [-201-]
had long outlived the heyday of youth. All that the beer seemed to do for them was to give them a bit of a headache, or to make them feel a little more tired or sleepy, that was all. On the deck was a party of thirty or forty men who had come for a day's outing; decent mechanics evidently, very respectably dressed. They kept themselves to themselves, had dined on board together, had taken tea together, and now sat singing all the way home, in dreadfully melancholy tones, all the old songs of our grandfathers' days about "Remembering those out," "The Maids of merry, merry England," and then came a yell in the way of a chorus which would have frightened a Red Indian or a Zulu Kaffir. After every song there was a whip round for some more beer, till the seats underneath seemed to be choked up with empty bottles. They were all a little under the influence of liquor, not unpleasantly so, but placidly and stupidly; and as they [-202-] listened with the utmost gravity while one or another of the party was singing, you would have thought they were all being tried for manslaughter at least. It is true they had a comic man in the party, with a green necktie and a billycock hat, and a shillalagh, who did his best under the circumstances, but he had to fight at tremendous odds, as hilarity was not the order of the day on that part of the deck.
    I went down into the cabin in search of it there, but was equally unsuccessful. Every table was crammed with bottles of beer. Opposite me was a picture indeed; a respectable- looking man had drunk himself into a maudlin state, from which his friends were in vain endeavouring to arouse him. He was a widower, and was muttering something unpleasant about her grave, which did not seem to accord with the ideas of two gaily-dressed females - one of them with a baby in her arms - who hovered around him, [-203-] as if desirous to win him back to life and love and duty, his male friends apparently having got tired of the hopeless task of making him understand that he had been brought out with a view to being agreeable, and to spending a happy day, and that he had no right to finish up in so unreasonable a manner. Now and then he appealed to me, declaring that he had no friends, or promising in reply to the playful appeal of his female friends to be a good boy and not to give them any more trouble, that it was no use trying. It was the women who stuck to him alone, now and then suggesting lemonade, and then forcing him up on deck with a view to a dance or a promenade. Some of the passengers around, as tipsy as himself, interfered; one of them, evidently a respectable tradesman, with his wife and children around, requesting the widower to sing "John Barleycorn," assuring him that as he had lost his teeth it would have to be sung [-204-] with a false set oh, a joke which the widower could not see, and the explanation of which at one time seemed about to end in a serious misunderstanding. Other parties besides interfered, and the confusion became hopeless and inexplicable. It ended in the weeping widower wildly embracing the female with the baby, and then making a mad rush on deck with a view to jump over- a feat, however, which he was easily prevented from accomplishing; and as I landed I saw the would-be suicide with his male and female friends contemplating a visit to the nearest public-house. It was really a melancholy spectacle, and one that ought not to have been permitted in the cabin of a saloon steamer. Quite as pitiable in its way was the sight of a couple who had unwarrantably intruded into that part of the steamer which is presumed to be kept solely for the use of those who pay first-class fares. One of them was indeed a [-205-] study; he had been out for a day's pleasure, and he showed in his person traces of very severe enjoyment; his clothes had been damaged in the process, and an eye had been brought into close contact with some very hard substance, such as a man's fist, and the consequence was it was completely closed, and the skin around discoloured and swollen. He had never, so he said, been so insulted in his life, and once or twice he reascended the stairs with a short pipe in his hand, a picture of tipsy gravity, in order that he might recognise the ticket collector, with a view apparently to summon him before the Lord Mayor. His companion was a more blackguard-looking object still. A couple of the officers attached to the ship soon sent him forward, to mingle with a lot of men as disgusting in appearance and as foul in language as himself, but who had sense enough not to intrude where they had no right, and to keep their proper places. And [-206-] thus the hours passed, and the sun sank lower in the horizon, and we rushed up the mighty river past outward- bound steamers on their way to all quarters of the globe, and found ourselves once more in town. The day had been a pleasant one had it not been for the indulgence in bottled beer, which seems to be the special need of all Londoners when they go up or down the river. If this state of things is to be allowed, no decent person will be enabled to take a passage on a river steamer on a St. Monday or a Saturday, especially if he has ladies or children with him. It does seem hard that people on board river steamers may drink to excess, and thus prove a nuisance to all who are not as beery as themselves. It may be, however, that the steam- packet companies promote this sale of intoxicating liquor in order to promote the cause of true temperance; if so, one can understand the unlimited activity of the ship stewards, as it [-207-] becomes at once apparent to the most superficial observer that he who tastes the charmed cup has 
        Lost his upright shape,
        And downwards falls into a grovelling swine.
    If anyone doubts this let him proceed to Sheerness in a river steamer on a people's day.