Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 11 - The Queen's Bounty

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WE cannot pretend to understand holidays in America as they are understood in England. One would imagine that in the great commercial competition of a country so densely populated as England, and in a city so overcrowded with human beings as London, where it is so difficult for the poor to live at all, the loss of one day's wages would be a very serious matter. Apparently it is not, and, consequently when the Easter holidays draw nigh, rich and poor prepare to take an outing. The streets are crowded with "four-wheelers," loaded on top with hat boxes, bags, dispatch boxes and steamer trunks, the luggage of those departing to join house parties in the country. Members of Parliament, gentlemen and ladies of leisure, with men eminent in the professions, artists and literary people, are among the favored guests, it being the ambition of the host that his company shall be as varied and as interesting as possible. A lesser tide flows town-ward - boys coming home from Eton and Harrow, and older youths, with their bicycles and fox terriers, from Oxford and Cambridge. These, too, have their luggage - the younger lads odd little boxes fastened with padlocks resembling small, square wooden bee-hives. Even the show of attractive and high-bred dogs chained up in front of the Army and Navy Stores, while their masters and mistresses shop within, is quite thinned out; Fido and Jack and Dandy having also been taken away for a "holiday," for  [-115-] no right-minded Englishman would dream of leaving his four-footed companion behind.
    Announcements are posted several days in advance that places will be closed "from Thursday evening until Tuesday morning for the Easter holidays," for while the English church people apparently do not take their religion very seriously, even the Non-conformist tradesman would not think of transacting business on Good Friday. The day is universally observed, and London is as silent as it is on Sunday. This also means but one post Friday, Saturday and Monday; and the closing of district telegraph offices, except for a stated hour in the forenoon, forcing one to go long distances to the larger offices like Charing Cross, in an emergency.
    Provident housewives lay in a supply of provisions, as if they were preparing for a siege, for the butchers and grocers also share in the Easter holiday. Nothing can be bought from Saturday noon until Tuesday, except the supplies of the peripatetic milkmen and fishmongers, upon whose fiendish howls not even Good Friday or Sunday has a quieting effect, and which death alone can silence.
    The English people irrespective of class generally observe the Easter holidays. To the uninitiated they are an inconvenient interruption to ordinary life. Fortunately for the poor, thousands of places of cheap and harmless amusement are within reach, to which even the common laborer can take "the missus" and the children. On Easter Monday there is a grand exodus of costermongers to Hampstead Heath. 'Arry and 'Arriet are there in force, both arrayed in their gayest finery and 'Arriet with a pink tissue paper plume added to the already too-profuse trimming of her hat; games are set on foot and much rough chaffing, loud singing and eating and drinking goes on throughout the day.
    On Good Friday the ceremony known as "Visiting the [-116-] Sepulcher" is observed with great solemnity in the Catholic churches. Prayers are offered at the high altar upon which the Host, consecrated by high mass, is exposed throughout the entire day and night until "the mass of the Pre-Sanctified" the following morning. The Sepulcher at the Oratory in Brompton road-the most beautiful of modem Catholic churches in London, was in keeping with its noble surroundings; the altar was banked with azaleas, hyacinths and spirea, which reached the lofty ceiling, and was screened on either side by flowing draperies of scarlet silk. The Farm street church, which the Catholic members of the Diplomatic Corps attend, was also beautifully dressed with flowers, and the titled ladies of the congregation, English and European alike, knelt in prayer before the altar, the worshippers relieving each other at intervals, until the hour for mass on Saturday.
    During the week I had the privilege of witnessing that singular historical ceremonial at Westminster Abbey, "the office of the Royal Maundy"  - the survival of the ancient. custom, still observed literally in Catholic countries, of Europe, washing the feet of the twelve poor people publicly by royalty, on Maundy Thursday.
    The last English sovereign to actually perform this office was James II, whose personal piety, it must be admitted, was not remarkable. Since then the custom has undergone many modifications, the most important of which is the substitution of an additional sum of money for provisions "formerly given in kind," which is rather a vague phrase. The alms thus bestowed constitute "the Queen's Bounty," and the money is paid from the public purse.
    The beneficiaries were seventy-seven old men, and seventy-seven old women, corresponding to the number of years Her Majesty had lived. They had been selected from one hundred London parishes by the clergymen of [-117-]  each parish and recommended by him to the Lord High Almoner. Those who had been fortunate enough to secure stalls in the choir, and in the few other places of the Abbey from which the ceremony could be seen, were admitted as is customary, by card, at the door of the West Cloister. It was the first time during my sojourn in England that I had seen anything approaching unseemly elbowing and scrambling; but what I experienced led me to conclude that our British cousins have latent powers in this direction quite equal to those of our own robust and heterogeneous population. There were, however, few adults in the congregation as compared to the number of young boys and young girls accompanied by their tutors and governesses. The crowd that collected in the cloister, impatiently waiting the opening of the doors, pushed and struggled, and called from the two policemen on duty mild and ineffectual remonstrances: "O, I say now lady, you must stand back and wait your turn;" "Stop pushing !" "Be patient, be patient!" By a little opportune parting of the throng I managed to slip through the narrow doorway with unbroken bones. In the nave were a number of Yeomen of the Guard in their historic uniform making a fine show of color in the semi-twilight. Within the choir, ranged in chairs just beyond the lower tier of stalls, were the seventy-seven "poor men" and seventy-seven "poor women," the two rows extending the entire length of the choir; the men on one and the women on the other side, to the steps of the chancel, in front of which was a table draped in white, a reminder of the "fine linen towels" used in past years by the royal penitents.
    The beneficiaries were a sad and depressing company- all old, many of them blind and a few having terrible deformities; one aged man, feeble in mind, looked about him with dull indifference and babbled audibly through the prayers and anthems; another who sat beside him and who [-118-] held his stick in hands that were gnarled and twisted with rheumatism, yawned enormously, with a weariness which he did not try to conceal, and let the staff fall with a resounding clatter on the pavement. At that, a black-robed verger approached the culprit, gravely whispered a few authoritative words' in his ear, whereupon both offenders lapsed into dejected silence. The women were much more humble, and several of them seemed to have had acquaintances amongst the other "aged and meritorious persons;" for, before the service began, they moved about freely and without any self-consciousness, exchanging greetings and shaking hands; one daring soul, a woman, even crossed to the men and unabashed, carried on a lengthy conversation with one who was especially hoary and weather beaten.
    While it was understood that all were people of good birth, few of them gave any external evidence of this; most of them, men and women alike, seemed to have been inheritors of toil and poverty from the cradle, laborers and paupers throughout their long, suffering lives; few even appeared to be very intelligent. There were three exceptions-one man and two women; the man was tall, erect, with clear cut regular features, gray hair and moustache; his skin had the clearness and his eye the brightness of intelligence and temperate living. He was well dressed, with white, new linen, a dark silk scarf with a jeweled pin and a seal ring upon the third finger of his smooth and well kept hands. He was not more than sixty years of age and had the appearance of a man in vigorous health. He held up his head as if his presence in that motley company, stared at curiously by the inquisitive, was nothing strange or uncommon. When the Hundredth Psalm was sung he reverently turned his face to the altar and sang with the choir and Congregation in a voice of great sweetness and cultivation. He did not exhibit the slightest feeling of [-119-] embarrassment or humiliation, and, at first, I concluded he must be some one in authority who had accompanied the others and had been appointed to look after them; this opinion was dispelled when he took his portion of the Royal bounty, bowed like any well-bred gentleman and said quite distinctly, "Thank you very much," as he might have addressed a bank clerk who had just cashed his check.
    Of the two women, one was tall, slight and as pale as death; she, too, had an expression of marked refinement, but she seemed to feel deeply mortified and never once raised her eyes from the pavement. The other was a stout matronly person of fifty with her thick grey hair parted and prettily waved; she wore a becoming jet bonnet trimmed with black ostrich tips; a fur trimmed mantle, neat gloves and a new cashmere dress. She, however, accepted her lot with philosophic resignation and, apparently, was not discomfited, but she disappeared instantly after the recessional, and was seen no more. Beside her sat an aged crone, bent, withered and poorly clad; she was half-blind and from her forehead grew a hideous excrescence - a great, thick loop of purplish, calloused flesh. I saw her afterward hobbling away in her threadbare cloak, leaning on the arm of an emaciated, feeble boy, also poorly clad, who had waited for her outside the door.
    With the opening notes of the voluntary the visiting among the more sociable of the old women came to an end, and the men, with the exception of the irrepressible two, also ceased talking. Then the stately procession which had formed without in the nave marched slowly through the choir to the places assigned them. First came the beadle in black robes bearing the silver mace with the cross and coronet, the choristers and the gentlemen of the choir in their snow white surplices; clergymen in black gowns, representing the recipients of the Queen's [-120-] alms; the minor canon, the canon's verger, the canons, the sergeant major, a yeoman carrying the alms dish, Rev. Canon Eyton sub-almoner; the Rt. Rev. Lord Alwyne Compton, Lord Bishop of Ely, Lord Almoner to the Queen; the Bishop's chaplain, the deacon's verger, the children of the Royal Almonry - two boys and two girls; the secretary of Her Majesty's Almonry and his assistant; and last, the Yeomen of the Guard.
    The clergy and the four children of the Royal Almonry carried large bouquets of white, yellow and scarlet flowers that were typical of the sweet herbs used in the ceremonial during the Middle Ages; clergy and children also wore a very broad, white muslin scarf which crossed the shoulder and breast and passed around the waist, the wide ends falling to the knee. The Yeomen of the Guard were in full uniform, the long scarlet coat profusely trimmed in gold braid, with the rose, thistle and shamrock embroidered in silver on the breast; breeches of scarlet fastened at the knee with gold buttons and ornamented with huge rosettes of scarlet, black and blue, scarlet hose, black velvet hat with loops of black, blue and scarlet ribbon around the crown, white ruff and gloves. Each carried a pike adorned with a heavy gold tassel. On the head of one of the Yeomen who appeared in the body of the procession was borne the great gold alms dish heaped with purses, three hundred and eight, red and white, with the long draw-strings of red and white ribbon falling gracefully in a deep, fringe around the edge of the plate; in the center of the heap of purses were two silken bags which contained the portion of the bounty to be distributed first. The basin was deposited upon the white-draped table, after which the Lord High Almoner and the attendant clergy, passed to their places within the sacrarium, the children ranging themselves just without the railing, very quaint little figures in their white scarves with the red, white [-121-] and yellow flowers tightly grasped in their hands. The Dean of Westminster and the canons of the Abbey were seated in their purple-draped stalls at the rear of the choir, facing the altar; they, too, carried nosegays of white, yellow and scarlet flowers.
    The office began with the usual morning service, the congregation, including the beneficiaries, rising and standing through the processional. Then the Ninety-first Psalm was chanted by the choir: "Whoso Dweileth under the Defense of the Most High Shall abide under the Shadow of the Almighty." The first lesson was from the gospel of St. John, chap. XIII: 1-16 which was followed by this special collect: "Lord Jesus Christ who, when about to institute the Holy Sacrament at thy last supper, didst wash the feet of thy apostles, teaching us by thy example the grace of humility, cleanse us we beseech thee from all filth of sin, that we may be partakers of the Holy Mysteries, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end, Amen."
    The first anthem was: "Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin," and at its conclusion the Lord High Almoner, followed by the assistant and the secretaries descended from the chancel and passed down the line of women distributed to them, then to the men, the first portion of "the Queen's bounty." There was for each woman 1, 5 shillings, and for each man 2, 5 shillings "in lieu of clothing formerly given!" The Lord High Almoner came first, behind him the assistant and the two secretaries carrying the silken bags which were filled with small envelopes containing money. These were passed. by the secretaries to the assistant, and from the assistant to the Lord High Almoner who placed them, one after the other, in the one hundred and fifty-four out-stretched hands. As he proceeded with the [-122-] ceremony the fine benevolent countenance of the Queen's Almoner took on an added expression of benignancy.
    It was interesting to witness how the dole was accepted by the different beneficiaries, the women who had received much the smaller share humbly courtesying, the men merely bowing and replying "Thank you," "Thank you very much," or "Very much obliged." Of course it was not to be expected that the sums given the men and women would be equal, and it was difficult to understand why the women who had received one-half the sum awarded the men should have been so much meeker in their acknowledgment, but so it was. As the envelopes were distributed the women recipients stowed them away in the pockets of their gowns, somewhat furtively and fumblingly, the men placing theirs in the breast pockets of their coats, in a most matter-of-fact, business-like manner.
    The first distribution being finished the procession which had passed down one line and up the other, returned from the chancel with the second portion of the bounty in the purses each containing "as many pence as the Queen is years of age and given in silver pennies, two pence, three pence, four pence and the balance of the Maundy amounting to one pound, ten shillings each." This was contained in the two purses fastened together, which were passed from the secretary to the assistant and from his assistant to the Lord High Almoner and distributed as before. It was accepted with the customary courtesy by the women, and a bow and "thank you" by the men. This time there was no difference in the sums which they received, men and women, for once, faring alike. Then the Lord High Almoner and his assistants returned to the chancel; the Queen's bounty had been distributed. The services concluded with the anthem: "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy," and "The King [-123-] shall Rejoice in thy Strength O Lord" - Handel's magnificent composition which was given with great power and sweetness.
    It was followed by this touching prayer for the Queen: "We thank Thee O Lord and praise thy name that thou hast not only bestowed greatness and majesty upon our Sovereign Lady, Queen Victoria, but hast given her a heart to show mercy to the poor and needy. Accept this tribute which she pays to Thee, the Giver of all good; and make her fruitful in these and all other good works that her throne may be established in mercy; and stir up the hearts of all those who have now been a partaker of her bounty, to be truly thankful unto Thee for it, and to pray for her that she may have a long and prosperous reign in this world, and a heavenly kingdom in the world to come; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen."
    There were two more prayers, the conclusion of the regular morning service, followed by the Hundredth Psalm, and last of all, "God Save the Queen." Then the Dean from his purple-draped stall, with his nosegay lying on the desk before him, pronounced the benediction; the Lord High Almoner and his assistants followed by the choir marched into the nave and the Queen's beneficiaries straggled away and dispersed. The alms-giving over there seemed to be no one to look after them, and those who could see groped their way out and were joined by their poverty stricken kin, scantily clad and poorly fed, who were waiting to take them home. But it was pleasant to reflect that, whatever genuine and Christ-like humility the ceremony may have lacked, there were those who would feast for once, and have the luxury of warm clothing and other unaccustomed comforts, through the maintenance of an ancient custom which growing and antagonistic radicalism is doing its utmost to abolish, With nothing to offer the poor who have profited by it, as [-124-] a substitute. Whatever there may have been of mere form, of spectacular ecclesiasticism, in the ceremonial, - the Queen's pounds, shillings and pence were none the less real and efficacious in ministering to the needs of those who had that day received the dole.