Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858 - Discussion Clubs

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DISCUSSION CLUBS.

IT is the condition of a public-house that it must do a good business some way or other. Mr Hinton, who has just got his license for Highbury Barn, says the dining apartment fell off and he was obliged to institute Soirées Dansantes. Sometimes the publican gets a female dressed up in a Bloomer costume; sometimes he has for his barman a giant, or a dwarf, or an Albino, or a Kaffir chief - actually as an attraction to decent people to go and drink their pot of beer. I find the following advertisement in the Morning Advertiser:-
  
"The Sheep-eater of Hindostan. - To be seen, the Sheep-eater of Hindostan, representing an exhibition which took place on the 3rd of March, 1796, before Colonel Patrick Douglas and other officers of a battalion of Native Infantry, and a great concourse of the inhabitants of the military station of Futtehghur. It is engraved from a sketch, taken on the spot by a native artist, and [-100-] under the inspection of Major-General Hardwicke, F. R. S. The Sheep-eater was a native of India, about thirty years of age, five feet nine inches high, slender, well formed, and rather muscular. He was attended by a very old man, whom he called his father or preceptor, termed by the natives Gooroo or Priest, who stated he had formerly followed the same practice. He was above the ordinary stature of the natives of India, and wore his hair, which was of great length, coiled into the form of a turban; and his beard was twisted like a rope, and nearly reached his feet, being five feet eight inches in length. The exhibitor began his operation by raising the sheep from the ground with his teeth. He then threw the animal on its back, and, with his teeth and hands only, separated the limbs, and stript the flesh from the bones. After mixing dust with the meat, by rubbing it on the ground, in that dirty state he swallowed what he tore off. The last part of the operation was chewing the leaves of a plant, the local name of which is Madaar (asclepias gigantea), and the milky juice, which is of a very corrosive nature, he swallowed. Having made a collection of money, and the assemblage of people [-101-] being much increased, he offered to eat a second sheep, and actually commenced the operation as before. It may be proper to observe, that the sheep in most parts of India are as small as the Welsh sheep of Great Britain. No. 1. represents lifting the sheep from the ground with his teeth only. 2. Having thrown the sheep on its back, he extends the limbs, preparatory to No. 3. 3. Ripping the animal open from the flank to the breast. 4. Having removed the intestines, &c., he buries his head in the body, to drink the blood collected. 5. Exhibiting his face, after this sanguinary draught. 6. Having devoured every portion of flesh from the bones, he chews the plant Madaar. 7. After changing his waist-cloth, he returns with his Gooroo, or preceptor, and offers to eat the second sheep, for the satisfaction of the increased number of spectators.
    I do not give the name of the spirited proprietor, but in his advertisement he declares he intends exhibiting it over the bar for a short time gratuitously. This is rich ; it is like the doctor's advice gratis.
    Now in the same manner the publicans provide a weekly discussion meeting for that part of the public that loves to hear itself speak. There [-102-] is one at the Belvidere, Pentonville; another at the Horns, Kennington. Fleet-street is much favoured. There are the Temple Forum, the Cogers' Hall, and another large room in Shoe-lane. These are gratuitous, like the picture in the above advertisement-that is, you are expected to sit and drink all night. The most celebrated one is that which meets not far from the Temple, presided over by the editor of a Sunday paper, and assisted by several reporters connected with the daily journals. One of them not long since contested an Irish borough on Protestant principles, but unfortunately, instead of being returned, found himself in gaol for election expenses. Besides these, there are many third and fourth-rate literary men-a class, I fear (I speak of the minors), the most braggart, lying, and needy under heaven-men who are going to do wonders, but who never do-whose success, if such a term may be applied to their career, arises simply from their power of brag, and from the possession of an enviable amount of self- esteem. Then there are briefless barristers, but too happy to have an opportunity of airing their dictionaries, and tradesmen, and clerks, all fancying that there is no need why they should hide [-103-] their talents under a napkin. Still these places do not flourish, and there are more bad speeches made than good ones. You are cooped up in an inconvenient apartment, suffocated by tobacco-smoke, and very unpleasantly affected by the beer and gin-and-water which every one feels bound to consume. The waiter is in the room, and you are expected to give your orders. The speaking is a secondary consideration. The first thing you are required to do is to drink. I have now in my mind's eye a young fellow who was a great man at one of these places. He was a clerk with limited means, but he came to these places night after night, and drank and spent his money freely. It is the old tale over again. He was intrusted with his employer's cash. He applied some of it to liquidate his expenses. He was unable to replace it. Discovery was made at last; he is now in Newgate, and his wife - for he was just married - is breaking her young heart with shame and want. The curse of these public-houses is that they lead men into expense and reduce them into poverty, if they do not almost necessitate crime. A discussion is all very well, and the habit of being able to get up and say a few words when occasion requires pertinent and [-104-] apropos is invaluable, but to acquire that habit it is scarcely worth while to sit all night toping, while Smithers is playing old gooseberry with his H's, or O'Flaherty raving of the wrongs of the Green Isle. The questions discussed are generally such as are peculiar to the time. Was Lord Cardigan a hero? Does Sir Benjamin Hall deserve well of the public for his conduct with reference to Sunday bands? Does the Palmerston cabinet deserve the support of the country? Would Lord John Russell's scheme of national education, if carried out, be a public benefit? Let men talk on these subjects if they will, and as long as they will, but I think they will think more clearly, and talk better, and come sooner to a rational decision, if they do not drink. I am sure I have seen the audience and the orators more inflamed by beer than by eloquence, and when turned out into the street after a long sitting, many, I imagine, have seen a couple of moons and double the usual allowance of lamps and police. The worst of it is, that after the discussion is over, there will be always a few stop to have a bit of supper and another glass. I remember, just as the war broke out, I was at one of the places to which I have already [-105-] referred, the subject was the propriety of erecting on the ruins of Turkey a united Greece. The Philhellcnists came down in great force, and young Greeks, Sophocles and Ionides, and many more screaming at the top of their voices, were there as well. What with the excitement of the subject and what with the excitement of the drink; the whole affair settled into a regular argie, and the tumult of that night still rings wildly in my ear. Dumbiedikes would have stared at the gift of tongues exhibited on that occasion.
    If you admire pot-house oratory, then attend one of these places. The chair is generally taken about nine, and the proceedings close at twelve. A gentleman already agreed on commences the discussion, then the debate is left to drag its slow length along, sometimes giving rise to animated discussions, and at other times being a terrible failure. What is considered the treat of the evening is generally something of this sort-An indifferent speaker, perhaps a stranger, gets up and makes a short speech, which brings up one of the old seasoned debaters, great in his own eyes and in those of almost every one present. I assure you he is down upon [-106-] the modest debutant in fine style, making mincemeat of his facts, and ridiculing his logic. The easier his work is, the more does he labour at it. The audience frantically applaud, and the orator, as he sits down, evidently thinks Brougham could not have slashed an opponent in better style. The gravity of these speakers is really amusing. Did they speak the language of millions - did principles of eternal import dwell upon their tongue - did nations breathlessly wait for their decisions - did they shake the arsenal and fulmine over Greece - they could not set about their work in a more determined manner. And Jones, from his tremendous castigation of Palmerston, or fierce diatribe against Lord John, will sneak off quietly to his back garret in Pentonville, just as we can imagine Diocletian abandoning an empire to plant cabbages at Salone. It is clear some of the speakers are naturally good orators; but the regular stagers have a seedy appearance, and that peculiar redness of the nose or soddenness of the skin which indicates the drinker; and if you go much, you will find a paper with five-shilling subscriptions, and you will be asked to give your name, for the benefit of some prominent debater whose affairs do not [-107-] seem to have prospered, in spite of their master's matchless powers of oratory. The truth is, the money has been spent here in drink that was required elsewhere, and wife and children have starved at home while the orator was declaiming against Despotism abroad. I fear the only class benefited by these discussions are the landlords, who point to their door and whisper in your ears, Admission gratis. Yes, that is true; but the egress, ah, there s the rub! It is that for which you must pay, and pay handsomely, too, as hundreds of poor fellows have found to their cost.