Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Preface - Chapter 1 - Going Down to London

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THAT period between the opening of Parliament in August, 1895, and the celebration of the Diamond Jubilee in 1897 must be recorded as a peculiarly interesting epoch in English history. In that interval the Conservative party was returned to power with such a majority as it had not boasted "for two generations;" after twenty years of parley the reduction of Ashantee was effected in which the life of Prince Henry of Battenberg was sacrificed; the controversy which had been pending between Great Britain and Venezuela relative to their boundary lines was submitted to arbitration, after more than fifty years of controversy; the invasion of the Transvaal by Dr. Jameson with an armed force was followed by the arrest of the leaders, their return to England, their trial and conviction. The Jubilee year, marked by important state ceremonials, brilliant pageantry and universal public rejoicing, was specially set apart as a season of profound interest; the national and international congratulation and veneration of a sovereign, whose long reign had been one of unusual splendor, and whose greatness as a ruler had been equaled only by her virtues as a woman. The Jubilee year was also a marvelous reminder of the extent, the power and wealth of an empire whose possessions girdled the globe.
    While these events are already familiar to the reading public, it has been thought worth while to gather together their salient features and their more interesting details, as they came within the observation of an eye-witness, and to preserve them in this condensed form for the [-2-] convenience of any one who may desire definitely to recall them.
    The chapters relating to the Jameson trial were written from notes carefully taken, day by day, throughout the hearing of the cause, both at Bow street and before the Lord Chief Justice. The evidence has been condensed as much as possible, only such portions being used as were necessary to complete a connected account of the raid, from its first inception to its conclusion; and, while it may be thought that incidents of an insignificant nature have been recorded, this has been done advisedly, in the belief that it has added to the accuracy and vividness of the narrative. I desire in this connection to acknowledge my indebtedness to the London daily newspapers for copies of dispatches and such verbatim extracts from speeches as have been quoted.
    It is a trite saying that "comparisons are odious," and comparisons between England and the United States seem capable of giving peculiar and marked offense; yet it is only by comparing that which is unfamiliar to the reader to those things familiar to both the writer and his public that an approximate idea may be conveyed of matters discussed or described; consequently where such comparisons occur in this volume there has been no desire either to discredit England at the expense of the United States, or the reverse.
    Powerful and prosperous as the United States may have become, the daughter still has much to learn of the mother-country whose guidance she has thrown off; reverence for  law, respect for traditions that are entitled to survive; a willingness to live and let live, that "triumphant democracy" threatens to deny.
    On the other hand, the older government might profitably emulate American adaptability and readiness in resource and emergency, and ability to relinquish that [-3-] which should be discarded; all of which are essential conditions of growth and development.
    Aside from the interest of general and important political events, which I have imperfectly described in this book, the three years spent in England are an unmarred memory of happiness and benefit; it was learned conclusively, for one thing, how impossible it is to know a people except beside their own hearth and under their own roof; or to judge a country and its institutions with any certainty except by studying them, without prejudice, upon the soil in which they are rooted.


December, 1898.






    TEN days upon the grey Atlantic, sailing against head winds, enveloped in icy fog and wintry rain; it was a contrast to the tropic glow and color of the South Pacific! But the Fortunate Isles lay beyond, and they were to be reached only by those willing to endure the discomfort of the cold, northern voyage. The summer of 1895 was remarkable for the number of Americans who visited England; it was estimated that at least two hundred thousand were in London for a greater or less period during the season; the large hotels were crowded, lodging and boarding houses were filled to overflowing, and tourists could be counted by scores along Piccadilly, thronging the shops in Oxford and Regent streets, and wandering through the National Gallery, St. Paul's and Westminster,- the women beautifully dressed consulting the inevitable Badaeker.
    While planning a short tour in England that summer, no definite time had been fixed for my departure. It was postponed from day to day, and from week to week, until the latter part of July. Making the rounds of the great shipping offices in Chicago, it was found that, failing to engage a berth in advance, but, one was to be had, [-6-] and this on one of the small steamers plying between New York and Glasgow. It was secured and my cabin shared with three persons, each one of whom was more impossible than the other; an old English woman who had lived for years on Staten Island and was going "home" to visit her relations; a pert and ill-bred young Irish girl, and another young woman who could be described and dismissed as harmless. Being a good sailor, the deck, in fog and rain, was my refuge, and our enforced companionship came to end when we sighted Moville. For the first time the sun came out, and the dispirited passenger~ plucked up a little courage, and those to whom the scene was new looked out with keen delight upon the rocky islands, and the shore beyond which was of intensest emerald green; the breath of the land was sweet, and there was a tenderness in the low-hanging clouds of softest outlines, strangely unlike those that swept across the far-reaching zenith of the Western continent. From the sea the north of Ireland is a land of plenty and of pastoral loveliness; of rich fields, of solid manor houses with clustering conservatories and wooded parks; there was no squalor; no thriftlessness, and the few passengers who came on board, well-clad, well-bred, gave hints of an Ireland unknown to the American, who has acquired his knowledge of the Irish exclusively from the tens of thousands in the United States who have had so large a part in shaping the politics of their adopted country.
    The landing at Greenock was made the more pleasurable by an unlooked-for invitation, sent out to the ship, to spend a few days in Edinburgh where I acquired my first knowledge of the fine, unpretentious hospitality of the World. There was one day in Glasgow, five days in Edinburgh, every moment of which was precious, seeing the wonders of that most beautiful of ancient cities, in the companionship of friends whom I seemed to have [-7-] known all my life; visits to Holyrood, to Edinburgh Castle and to Roslin. There was one amusing episode: I must be shown the Town Hall; and my friend asking admission, was told that "it was closed to visitors for that day." He explained that I was an American, the open sesame to every place and everything British, and that I was leaving the following morning. The rules were instantly suspended, the closed door was opened, and we entered. I had had rather an extensive experience in Town Halls in my own country, and recalled their bareness, their shabbiness, the dead, musty air and the generous provisions that had been made for the ubiquitous tobacco-chewer. This was the stateliest of council chambers, with a richly carpeted floor, wainscoted and paneled walls, upon which hung the portraits of generations of municipal dignitaries; a great table of polished oak occupied the center of the apartment, around it were ranged carved oak chairs and upon the shining surface of its entire length were bowls of-flowers-actually, flowers, odorous roses, pansies and mignonette! It was the most striking evidence I had yet perceived of the wide difference between the Old World and the New.
    "I know," said the kind and delighted old friend who was showing me about, "that this will seem very small and insignificant to you after the Council Chamber of Chicago!"
    And I looked again at the exquisite order, and cleanliness and taste, the refined and intelligent faces looking down from their frames above the wainscoting; I recalled the Chicago Council Chamber as it was when last I saw it, the air thick with smoke and poisonous from lack of ventilation, the floor defiled, with a confusion of tongues in the spluttering talk that went on, which recalled the building of Babel. I have never been a blind worshiper of crude, bald, brutal bigness, and I would rather have six [-8-] feet by ten of order, comfort, taste, than a Sahara stretch of bare boards and bleak plaster. However, I was not there to betray the city of my adoption, a city of splendid possibilities, of tireless enterprise, of acknowledged attractions, which has amongst its citizens some of the best and most truly cultivated people in the world: I therefore said not a word, preserving a prudent silence.
    The sailent features of one's first impressions of Scotch and English towns is greyness, cleanliness, and an ever present smell of smoke. In crossing Scotland it seemed strange to see factories in the fields with gravelled walks leading to the entrance, and the grain growing thickly up to the very walls. The poppies tossing in the wind shone through the yellow wheat, red as the scarlet of a fiery sunset. As we rushed across the border into England the landscape softened, the bare and rocky hill-sides were left behind, and there were meadows of velvety smoothness, clipped hedge-rows with elms standing alone that reminded one of a Japanese nosegay-a single flower in a vase. Thus isolated, every outline was distinct, the boughs drooping in softened curves, foliage that had a sleekness as if it had been stroked by the hand. The rows of stone cottages by the road-side in the country were unfamiliar, but the fat farm horses with their shaggy fet-locks and thick manes, the wide, rumbling carts, the people that we saw passing along the roads, were the horses and carts and people that the English artists had put into their pictures ace the days of Hogarth; and I recognized them, just I would have recognized friends whom I had never seen, from their portraits.
    The preconceived ideas which the Americans have of the English at home are strange and puzzling; the Scotch, for some reason, they know better. The American who visits England for the first time is usually warned against brusqueness, the cold reserve which he is destined [-9-] to meet on every hand; he is cautioned never to ask questions of any but policemen and the custodians of public places; the penalty, one is told, of disregarding this instruction is a chilling rebuff that will not be easily or unwisely forgotten. It is unfortunately true that the manner and conduct of many British tourists in the United States gives reasonable ground for this opinion, as the noisy boasting, the vulgar display and expenditure of money, the ignorance and indifference of the American nouveau riche who goes abroad, furnishes the type from which unenlightened Europeans form their estimate of the people of the United States.
    The little railway carriage in which the long journey was made from Edinburgh to London was crowded; but travel in the colonies had familiarized me with the narrow quarters, the door at the side, half the passengers sitting with their backs to the engine, and the absence of the teasing news boy heaping your lap with cheap novels and prize packages, and the unrestrained child racing up and down the aisle like an unbroken colt. But the politeness, the thoughtfulness of my fellow passengers was certainly a surprise: the young man in the corner when he had finished his newspaper passed it to his neighbor: a charming girl who got out at York left me her magazine, and the rosy-faced matron with the capacious lunch basket pressed upon me cakes and sandwiches from her abundant store.
    In an English railway carriage, particularly if one is an American not too vain of the mere bigness of his country and the tallness of its seventeen story buildings, the traveller meets the most delightful people, both men and women, who take evident and sincere pleasure in pointing out places of interest, historic ground, about which gather a thousand memories and traditions.
    Upon reaching London one is surprised by the swiftness with which the train speeds through suburbs and arrives [-10-] at the railway station; it seems but an instant until the last of the fields and hedges are left behind, and one is looking down upon roofs and chimney-pots -  the sunken city of George Meredith. It may be that the approach seems sudden because all of England is so blossomy, so rich in verdure, and from the actual fields to the shady garden plots of the suburbs the transition is so gradual that the streets are at hand before one realizes it.
    It is in the railway station that the new arrival first learns that most things English, intended for the public comfort, are designed for convenience and not at all for show. The great echoing, shadowy King's Cross station is barn-like in its bareness, but there is your cab just across the strip of asphalt; there is the polite, good-natured porter with his hand at the cap peak, ready to put you into it and pile your luggage on top. Your address given the driver, plainly and distinctly, you and your belongings are taken straight to the door of the hotel. One has little real cause for regret over the lack of the American checking system; the advantages on that side are overbalanced by the privilege of taking your bags and boxes with you, and of paying a shilling fare, where, in New York or Chicago you would be charged ten times that sum.
    To one already impressed by the immensity of London the first sight of its tangled streets is like surveying an interminable labyrinth, which is without beginning and without end; and here again how grey are the houses with their amazing and unfamiliar chimney-pots; how confused and confusing the tangle of traffic, the endless proof carriages, omnibuses, carts and vans, and how like the pictures of Cruickshank, Leech, and Du Maurier is panorama of the pavements - the men, women and children, the soldier and nursery maid and the handsome guardsman. In an incredibly short time the tangle un-[11-]ravels itself; you learn where you are, you become familiar with your surroundings; you are taught to take the first turning on the left and the fourth on the right with intelligence and accuracy; you learn a lot of new names for every-day things - to call your seat in a theater a "stall," to "book" at the "booking office," to address your maid by her surname, and to post, not mail, your letters; you learn to drink your tea at five o'clock like one to the manner born; you become inured to tarts, and with persistent determination even grow tolerant of Brussels sprouts. The acceptance of the bedroom candle, the absence of "hot and cold water in every room," seem a small price to pay for the homely every-day comfort, and the abounding and never-failing joy of perfect service, the precious privilege of living in England. And how kind with all their shyness, how generous, how fine and simple and sincere, always exaggerating any small courtesy on your part, and never forgetting an obligation, do these, our English kinsmen become, when we at last begin really to know them and take up our sojourn in their midst.