Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 19 - The Mercers' Hall (Cheapside)

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CHAPTER XIX

THE MERCERS’ HALL (CHEAPSIDE)

IT is not the least pleasant part of writing of dinners and those who eat them that it brings me some varied correspondence, and perhaps the pleasantest letter I have received was one asking me if I would like to dine with the Company of Mercers ; for if I would, my correspondent offered to send me an invitation.
  
If  there was one City Company that I was anxious to dine with it was the Mercers, for most of my forebears had been of the guild. My great-great-uncle, who was Lord Mayor and an M.P., and who fell into unpopularity because he advocated paying the debts of George IV., was a Mercer; my great-uncle was in his turn Master of the Company, and my grandfather, who was a very peppery and litigious old gentle­man, has left many pamphlets in which he tried to make it warm for everybody all round because he was not raised to the Court of Assistants when he thought he should have been. I had looked out Mercers’ Hall in the Directory, and found [-138-] its position put down as 4 Ironmonger Lane, Cheapside; so a few minutes before seven o’clock, the hour at which we were bidden to the feast, I found my way from Moorgate Street Station to Ironmonger Lane, and there asked a policeman which was the Mercers’ Company Hall. He looked at me a little curiously and pointed to some great gates, with a lamp above them, enshrined in a rather dingy portal. I passed a fountain, of which two cherubs held the jet and three stone cranes contemplated the water in the basin, and found myself in a great pillared space. A servant in a brown livery, of whom I asked my way, pointed to some steps and said something about hurrying up. At the top of the steps a door led me into a passage, on either side of which were sitting gentlemen in dress- clothes. I looked at them and they looked at me, and I thought for a second that the Mercers’ guests were rather a queer lot; and then the true inwardness of the situation burst on me. I had come in by the waiters’ door.
  
I was soon put right, my hat and coat taken from me, and my card of invitation placed in the hands of a Master of the Ceremonies, who in due time presented me to the Master, to the Senior Warden, and to the House Warden, who stood in a line, arrayed in garments of purple velvet and fur, and received their guests.
  
The ceremony of introduction over, I was able to look around me and found myself in a drawing-room that took one away from the roar of Cheapside to some old Venetian palace. The painted ceilings, the many-coloured marbles, the [-139-] carved wood, the gilding and inlaying make the Mercers’ drawing-room as princely a chamber as I have ever seen.
  
While the guests assembled my host’s Sons took me away into another room, which, with its long table, might have been a council chamber of some Doge, and here were hung portraits of the most distinguished of the Mercers. Dick Whittington looked down from a gilt frame, and Sir Thomas Gresham, and there was Sir Roundell Palmer in his judge’s robes. But, preceded by some one in robes carrying a staff of office, the Master was going into the hall, and the guests streamed after him. “It only dates from after the Fire,” said my host as I gazed in admiration at the magnificent proportions of this banqueting house, the oak almost black with age, relieved by the colours of the banners that hang from the walls, by the portraits of worthies, by some noble painted windows, by the line of escutcheons which run round the room, bearing the arms of the Past-Masters of the Company, and by the carved panels, into all but two of which Grinling Gibbons threw his genius, while the two new ones compare not unfavourably with the old. At the far end of the hall is a musicians gallery of carved oak. A bronze Laocoon wrestles with his snakes in the centre of one side of the hail, and on the other, on a mantel of red marble, a great clock is flanked by two bronzes. Three long tables run up the room to the high table, at the centre of which is the Master’s chair, and behind this chair is piled on the sideboard the Company’s [-140-] plate. And some of the plate is magnificent. There are the old silver salt-cellars, there are great silver tankards, gold salvers, and the gold cup given to the Mercers by the Bank of England and the Lee cup and an ornamental tun and waggon, the first of which is valued at £7000, and the second at £10,000.
  
“Pray, silence for grace,” comes in the deep bass tones of the toastmaster from behind the Master’s chair, and then all of us settle down to a contemplation of the menu and to a view of our fellow-guests.
  
This was the dinner that Messrs. Ring and Brymer, who cater for the Mercers, put upon the table

Madeira. Tortue. Tortue claire.
Consommé printanière.
---
Salade de filets de soles à la Russe.
Saumon. Sauce homard.
Blanchaille.
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Sauterne.
Chateau Yquem,
1887.
Champagne.
Pommery,
1884.
Ortolans en caisse.
Mousse de foie gras aux truffes.
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Ponche à la Romaine.
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Hanches de venaison. Selles de mouton.
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Burgundy.
Chambertin,
1881.

 

Canetons.
Poulets de grain.
Langues de boeuf.
Jambons de Cumberland.
Crevettes en serviette.
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[-141-] Claret.
Chateau Latour,
1875.
Macédoines de fruits. Gelées aux liqueurs.
Meringues a la crème.
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Port.
1863
Bombe glacé.
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Quenelles au parmesan.

    I always rather dread the length of a City dinner, but in the case of the Mercers the House Warden has just hit on a happy compromise, the dinner being important enough to be styled a banquet, and not so long as to be wearying. Messrs. Ring and Brymer’s cook is to be con­gratulated, too, for his Mousse de foie gras was admirable.
  
There were some distinguished guests at the high table. At the far end, where Sir Cecil Clementi Smith, the Senior Warden, sat, there were little splashes of colour from the ribbons of orders worn round the neck, and the sparkle of stars under the lapels of dress-coats.
  
The Master had on his right a well-known baronet, and on his left Silomo. Next to the friend of the Turk was an ex-M.P., and next to him again one of the humorists of the present House of Commons—an Irish Q.C., with clean- shaven, powerful face.
  
At the long tables sat as proper a set of gentlemen as ever gathered to a feast; but with no special characteristics to distinguish them from any other great assemblage. The snow- white hair of a clergyman told out vividly against the background of old oak, and a miniature volunteer officer’s decoration caught my eye as I looked down the table.
  
[-142-] The dinner ended, the toastmaster’s work began again, and first from the gold loving-cup and from two copies of it, the stems of which are said to have been candlesticks used when Queen Elizabeth visited the Company, we drank to each other “across and across the table.” The taste of the liquor in the cup was not familiar to me, and when my host told me how it was compounded I was not surprised. It is a mixture of many wines, with a dash of strong beer.
  
Grace was sung by a quartet in the musicians gallery, and then the company settled down to listen to speeches interspersed with song. By each guest was placed a little cigar case, within it two cigars ; but these were not to be smoked yet awhile. While we sipped the ‘63 port, we listened to Silomo gently chaffing himself as he responded for “The Houses of Parliament.” Later the Irish Q.C., who spoke for “The Visitors,” caught up the ball of fun, and tossed it to and fro, and Madame Bertha Moore and Miss Marian Blinkhorn, and others sang songs and quartets, and my host told me, in the in­tervals, of the great store of the old clarets and ports that the Mercers had in their cellars, which was enough to make a lover of good wine covet his neighbour’s goods. And still later, after the cigars had filled the drawing-room with a light grey mist, I went forth, this time down the grand oaken staircase, with its lions clasping escutcheons. I passed into Cheapside with a very lively sense of gratitude to the Mercers in general, and my hospitable host in particular.
  
7th June.