Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 25 - The Princess of Wales' Dinner

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CHAPTER XXV

THE PRINCESS OF WALES' DINNER

THE Princess of Wales, who, it is said had never been very actively interested in philanthropic or charitable enterprises, proposed that one feature of the Jubilee celebration should be a dinner given in various quarters of London to the mendicant poor. All sorts of dire evils were prophesied - the gathering of beggars and criminals from all parts of the kingdom; the great difficulties with which the police would have to contend, their endurance and intelligence already taxed to the utmost with the greatly increased difficulties of their duties throughout Jubilee week. Then it was urged that it would he a foolish expenditure of money - a dinner that would be eaten in a few moments, the cost of which would furnish the poor with supplies of necessaries that would last them many days. Various plans, however, were presented, amended and altered, until the anticipated difficulties were successfully overcome and no apprehension of failure remained. Instead of one great dinner, it was wisely decided that there should be many; each under the management of some well organized society accustomed to dealing with the poor; especially with those in the East End, although the charity was not to be confined to that district. Seven hundred were fed in Central Hall, Holborn; 400 at Clerkenwell road; 1,000 at Northampton Institute; 1,000 at St. Martin's Town Hall; 1,000 at Assembly Hall, Mile End road; 6,000 were feasted at dinners held in Spitalfields; 10,000 in the mission and parish schools of Islington; 600 indi-[-322-]gent blind at Surrey Chapel, Blackfriars road. In West Ham, the rule was varied, and, instead of a dinner 10,000 were each given a half crown, which bought bread, meat and vegetables that the recipients were able to take home and share with their families.
    In many places the tables were spread and the guests were painstakingly served; in others, each man and woman was handed a paper bag containing bread, meat, cheese and fruit. But the benefaction was not confined to adults; children were included in the feast and they were certainly the most deserving, because they were helpless and unaccountable for their ignorance, poverty and misery. With other great undertakings, the Ragged School Union had consented to provide for 1,000 crippled children, as their part in the expenditure of what was called "the Princess of Wales Jubilee Fund." The children most needy and deserving had been carefully looked out by the district visitors attached to the Union; alphabetical lists prepared, giving the name and residence of each one of the fortunate thousand. Upon the teachers and visitors also devolved, in many instances, the duty of seeing to it that the little cripples were clean and properly clad. For this reason, when they appeared at the dinner, they did not seem half so miserable and neglected as might have been expected; very few were ragged, for the clothes given them had been carefully mended, and even those who suffered most keenly were, for the moment, gladdened and comforted.
    Through the courtesy of the Lord Mayor, Sir Faudel Philips, and Mr. John Kirk, the Secretary of the Ragged School Union, I received a card to the dinner given the crippled children in Queen's Hall, People's Palace, Mile End road. The card was quite formal and artistic, the border and vignette portrait of the Queen in gold, with gold and scarlet lettering.
    [-323-] The morning was oppressively hot, the sun blazing in a cloudless sky, and the long journey by the underground railway, in an atmosphere stifling with smoke and gas, was like a descent into the Inferno. I had anticipated some difficulty in making my way through unsavory and ill- smelling crowds, which it might reasonably be expected would assemble in Mile End road. But the poor cannot indulge too frequently in holidays, and shops were open, people were occupied as usual, and there was nowhere any indication that any unusual event was pending. Many of the decorations of Tuesday still remained; flags, portraits, and loyal mottoes and paper flowers, gaudy and profuse.
    Approaching the People's Palace the cripples began to appear; first, a stout, panting woman in a heavy black woolen dress climbed up the steps of the tram, carrying with difficulty a little girl of ten; she held the card of admission in one coarse rough hand, the nails black and broken, and the other the child kissed repeatedly in her delight; two girls, rather larger than this child, on heavy, awkward crutches, were helped in at the next crossing, with three at the next, until the seats were full; all were bound to the banquet.
    At the entrance of the palace there was some excitement, though still no crowd; but two detachments of police were drawn up in line on either side of the gate, and an officer on horseback rode to and fro, keeping the wide road free of traffic. Then great vans rolled up, one after another, and out of these, children, big and little, sad and gay, laughing and sighing, were tenderly lifted; others were wheeled in ugly perambulators of wood or wicker, such as are used by the poor, and from these also the little guests were carried through the entrance and the wagons pushed to one side.
    The guests who had been permitted to look on were asked to sit upon the platform, but, being unaware of this [-324-] I went up into the gallery, which encircled three sides of the great hall. From there the view was excellent, and I sat amongst the people, the mothers and relatives of the children, and listened to their conversation which proved to be deeply interesting.
    At one end of the hall a large carpeted platform was hung with crimson cloth and decorated with plants; to the left, doors opened into a conservatory, or winter garden, which extended the entire length of the building. Twenty tables had been spread in the main body of the hall, each capable of seating fifty children, twenty-five on each side. These tables were divided into groups intersected at right angles by an aisle through which the helpers passed to and fro; the tables were covered with a white cloth and decorated with flowers, and at each place was a knife, fork and spoon, an orange and glass of bright yellow lemonade. The waiters who had volunteered their services wore a white band around the right arm by which they might be distinguished, and the officers of the school a purple ribbon lettered in gold. Both young men and young women served as waiters, the latter bright eyed and rosy cheeked, in white caps and aprons.
    As the children arrived they were at once assigned their places at the table, some of them carried in the arms of men; one poor tired, feeble looking woman brought a little girl of eleven who had lost a foot. The maimed child had a face of angelic sweetness and beauty which was partially hidden by a vail of fair, silken hair. Three could not be removed from their wheeled chairs and sat in them throughout the dinner; there were poor, thin wasted bodies, deformed and crooked legs, shapeless feet, hunchbacks; and one wan face looked up from a hideous protruding breast ;a child of twelve held in her lap a limp little form, with a pretty face, a tangle of soft curly brown hair, and brown eyes that followed hungrily the kind, sisterly [-325-] hands that ceaselessly ministered to its comfort; it was a tiny infant, apparently, deaf and dumb and with no power of lifting its head. Beside me sat a woman in a shabby black gown, who had with her a bright little boy of four, well and neatly dressed; evidently all that she could scrape together had been spent on the child. The mother talked to me, very timidly at first, and then more readily and with less embarrassment. The little girl with the imbecile child had her especial sympathy, and she said, "That pore little girl takes care of 'im all the time; she don't never go nowheres without 'im. She taikes 'im to the cripples' school. E doesn't know anythink at all, but the little girl's as kind. 'E looks loike a babby, but e's five years old."
    The attendants and nurses were kind and watchful and wonderfully efficient - two virtues that are not always found, combined; the poor little people were spoken to very gently and their suffering bodies were carried very tenderly. One of the most sympathetic and cheerful of the helpers was a high dignitary with a purple ribbon around his sleeve, and as usually happens, his subordinates readily followed his example.
    At the head of each group of tables, cards had been posted with large white letters on a red ground, "A," "B," "C," "D," and so on ; and side tables were heaped with hot plates, immense smoking joints and basins of steaming potatoes with gravy, over which presided a ruddy-faced cook. It was understood that this was not to be the usual mission-school tea; the food was substantial and there was plenty of it. The menu consisted of bread, roast beef, with two vegetables, jelly, pastry, lemonade and an orange for each child. For this one dinner 600 pounds of the best beef had been furnished, half a ton of potatoes, bushels of tarts, gallons of jam and marmalade, 2,000 apples and 3,400 oranges.
    There were many vacant places - children who, at the [-326-] last moment it was found, were unable to come; but even these were not forgotten; their dinner was sent to them. The bread was passed first, and laid upon the cloth; if the children were hungry they knew how to wait patiently, and not one touched the thick slice until the signal to begin was given. Even after the first were seated, relays of guests kept arriving, carried in their parents' arms, swinging in on their crutches, tottering and reeling in torturing braces; a child of seven walked painfully between two black-gowned nurses; a little boy bent and twisted with some cruel spinal ailment, rested his white cheek against his mother's bosom, tranquil and contented, and, for the time, happy. It was the most pathetic sight I had ever witnessed, and none but a heart of stone could have looked upon it unmoved. There was not a child in that great multitude who was not racked with pain, and there was not one that did not bear its suffering submissively and uncomplainingly. They had been disciplined in poverty's stern school of endurance and they had acquired the fortitude of heroism. With the first note of the organ voluntary Lord Compton, now the Marquis of Northampton, the chairman of the Ragged School Union, and his assistants hastened from the platform to the door, to welcome some mysterious visitors of whose arrival only they had been notified. Two lines were formed, the staff, the teachers and nurses on either hand; and then, after a moment's delay the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Princess Victoria, Prince and Princess Charles of Denmark, the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, entered the hall. This explained the police detail. The royal visit had been kept a secret, and the children were quite taken by surprise and of course they were delighted. Such a cheer as they gave! for they recognized the royal visitors immediately. The most demonstrative were two lads who stood upon their chairs, as [-327-] did all who could accomplish such a feat; one was in his shirt sleeves which was very much soiled, the other wore a man's overcoat that touched his heels and he held his battered cap under one arm; they were the only noticeably untidy children present.
    As they entered the hall the Prince and Princess of Wales looked about them in wonderment; their first expression was one of smiling amiability, but as they observed the suffering, distorted and stunted little figures more closely they were moved with profound sympathy.
    The Princess of Wales was very charming; she wore a pretty gown of white and lilac, with lilac gloves and bonnet, and she must have appeared quite like the Princess of their ideal to the imaginative children. The Princesses, her daughters, were also in pretty, simple summer toilettes.
    The Lord Mayor, Sir Faudel Phillips, who received the Jubilee honor of a baronetcy, wore the great jeweled badge of his office and the purple ribbon across his breast; the Lady Mayoress was in deep mourning.
    When the Royal party had ascended the platform "God Save the Queen" was sung standing-or at least by those who were able to stand; then two little girls, in the neat blue uniform of the school, stepped forward and presented the Princess of Wales and the Lady Mayoress each with a bouquet. As the Princess stooped to receive the flowers with her usual gracious smile, one of the little maids was so overcome with emotion or timidity that she burst into tears, and the kind Princess comforted her with a few, gentle reassuring words. Behind me stood a haggard, melancholy woman and as she saw the weeping child, she wiped away the tears of sympathy that streamed down her hollow cheek. A brief speech was made by Lord Compton, who dwelt upon the interest that the Prince and Prificess of Wales had manifested in all good works; he re-[-328-]ferred to the Royal Hospital Fund of which the Prince of Wales was a liberal patron, and the Jubilee Dinner Fund which the Princess of Wales had instituted and which would enable the poor of London to feast as they had never feasted before; making the day one long to be remembered. The Prince of Wales replied, his agreeable, well-modulated voice, with its distinct enunciation being clearly audible in every part of the hall, and the children listened with the most profound attention. He said, addressing the chairman:
    "The Princess begs me to thank you for your very kind words. As you are well aware the Princess is most anxious to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee by some act of philanthropy on her part, and she thought that by giving a feast in the poorest parts of the metropolis, it might make a remembrance in the days to come. We are glad to come here to see the members of the Ragged School Union. We are glad to see so many bright faces, though some are sick and hungry. It has given us great pleasure to come here to take part in this great ceremony; and before the children sit down I will call for three cheers for the Queen." The Prince, himself, gave the signal, waving his hat as he stepped a little closer to the front of the platform and the cheers were given with a will. Then he smiled good-humoredly and said:
    "Now begin."
    Knives and forks were seized, the plates were set before the children heaped with smoking beef and vegetables. There was no display of greed or hurry, hungry as most of the children must have been; considering who and what they were, their good behavior was remarkable.
    The speech-making over, the Royal party descended the platform and walked about amongst the children. The Prince of Wales escorted by Lord Compton paused at the first table, patted one child on the head asked some amused [-329-] question about the lemonade and then drank from the glass that was handed to him to inspect. This delighted the children beyond words, and they laughed and applauded rapturously - laughter in which His Royal Highness joined very heartily. The Prince of Wales is said to be one of the greatest connoisseurs of wine in Europe and if the democratic beverage proved unpalatable, he drank it and made no sign. Presently he approached the child who was holding the imbecile baby; his face grew grave, and he paused beside her chair and spoke to her kindly and seriously, and the little mother looked up at him fearlessly and honestly, too simple or careworn to feel awed or abashed.
    In the meantime, the Princess with her daughters, the Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress were also walking about; and her Royal Highness frequently paused here, and there, speaking a word of encouragement and approval, neither patronizing nor indifferent, but touched, as any warm-hearted woman must have been, by that sight of suffering childhood.
    There were two aspects in the meeting of these extremes - royalty born to the purple and these representatives of the East End poor. On the one hand, the simple and unassuming demeanor of the royal visitors, their unaffected simplicity and kindness explained the profound loyalty of the common people toward their rulers. In the manner of the Prince of Wales, whose hereditary place and honors were secure, there was nothing of the political aspirant bidding for the support of a constituency, nor was there the coldness and superciliousness, and the plainly indicated impatience to take his leave as soon as possible,~ which may be seen, on occasion, among the nouveau riche who play at philanthropy in my own democratic country. On the other hand, there was something fine in the self- respecting dignity with which both the mothers and chil-[-330-]dren who were addressed received the attention of the Prince and Princess. As they passed out of the hall some elegantly dressed women of the middle class made the lowest obeisance; but the humbler women in their serge gowns stood erect, and looked royalty straight in the face; and answered the questions addressed to them respectfully, but without hesitation or confusion, and with an independence that does not flourish always in the atmosphere of Mayfair or Belgravia. I had seen ladies of high degree almost kneel in the dust, and Americans even surpassing these high-born toadies in the excess of their self-abasement. But these poor women, their hands hardened by toil, forgot the rank and title of their future King and Queen and recognized only the man, the woman, the friend.
    When the Royal party had departed the serious business of the day - eating the dinner - was begun in earnest. The plates were speedily emptied, but here and there was a nervous, highly-wrought child too much overcome by all the excitement, or too ill to eat; and before such the food remained untouched.
    At the close grace was said, the doxology was sung, and when the plates were removed a programme of music and calisthenics was given by the pupils of the school, for the entertainment of the children, the, gymnasts being strong, active and well-trained girls.
    Altogether, the Jubilee dinners, both at the People's Palace and throughout London, were most successful, and, had the day brought nothing more than a happy respite, a few brief hours of pleasure and satisfaction to those thousand crippled children, it must have more than repaid the men and women who had expended the Princess of Wales' Fund with such wisdom and impartiality.