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

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IN the days of the gay and graceless Charles, Bow-street was the Bond-street of London. In the taverns of that quarter were the true homes and haunts of the British poets. That they were much better for all their drinking and worship of the small hours, I more than doubt. Pope tried the pace, but found it killing, and had the wisdom to go and live at Twickenham, and cease to play the part of a man about town. Describing Addison's life at this period, he says, "He usually studied all the morning, then met his party at Button's, and dined there, and stayed there five or six hours, and sometimes far into the night. I was of the company for about a year, but found it too much for me. I hurt my health, and so I quitted it." But the wits died off, and Tom's, Will's, Button's became desolate, and in their place the Cyder Cellars grew famous.
    You know Maiden-lane, where an old hair-[-109-]dresser had a son born to him, who, under the name of Turner, won his way to the first rank amongst English painters, - where Voltaire, "so witty, profligate, and thin," lodged at the house of a French peruke-maker, and corresponded with Swift, and Pope, and the other literary men of the times, - where Fielding laid the foundation of an eternal fame,-where Andrew Marvell refused courtly bribes, and in sublime poverty proudly picked his mutton-bone: there, some long time since, stood a mansion, the residence, in a green old age, of that Nell Gwynne of whom, with a strange perversity, the world speaks as kindly as if she were a Grace Darling, or a Florence Nightingale, or a Margaret Fuller, or an Elizabeth Fry. A portion of the old house still remains, with its ancient wainscotting. Well, on the site of this mansion was, and is, the Cyder Cejj~rs, the oldest house of its class in London, actually referred to in a rare pamphlet now extant in the British Museum, entitled "Adventures Under-ground in the Year  1750." In those days to drink deep was deemed a virtue, and the literary class, after the exhausting labours of the day, loved nothing better than to sit soaking all night in the Cyder Cel-[-110-]lars, where all restraints were thrown on one side, - where the song was sung and the wine was quaffed, and men were fools enough to think they were getting happy when they were only getting drunk. I can understand why the wits went to the Cyder Cellars then. Few of them lived in a style in which they would like to receive their friends. In a place like the Cyder Cellars they could meet after the theatres were closed, and the occupations of the day over, and sup and talk and drink with more freedom than in any private house; and no doubt many were the ingenuous youths who went to the Cyder Cellars to see the learned Mr. Bayle, or the great Grecian Porson, or the eminent tragedian Mr. Edmund Kean, and thought it a fine thing to view those distinguished men maudlin, or obscene, or blasphemous, over their cups. But the wits do not go to the Cyder Cellars now. Even the men about town do not go there much. I remember when that dismal song, "Sam Hall," was sung - a song in which a wretch is supposed to utter all the wretchedness in his soul, all his sickness of life, all his abhorrence of mankind, as he was on his way to Tyburn drop. Horrible as the song was - revolt-[-111-]ing as it was to all but blazé men, the room was crammed to suffocation,- it was impossible often to get a seat, and you might have heard a pin drop. Where are the crowds that listened to that song? My own companion - where is he? A finer young man, with richer promise, I knew not. He had a generous disposition, a taste for study, and was blessed with the constitution of a horse; he had received a liberal education; his morals had been carefully attended to; his parents were people of large property, and this son I always deemed his mother's favourite son; and now in his very prime, when he might have been a blessing to society, when in his successful professional career his parents might have reaped a reward, when the heart of some loving, tender, trusting woman might have joyed in his love, when fair young children, calling him father, might have c1ustered round his knees, he is dying, I am told, before their very eyes, slowly, and with agony, from the terrible effects of drink. And does it not really seem as if there were a curse attaching to those connected with the trade? A week or two since, had you been passing down Bridges-street into the Strand late on a Saturday night, or early on a Sunday [-112-] morning, on a door-step, in spite of the pouring rain, you might have seen a woman, in her rags and loneliness, trying to gather a few hours of sleep. She was too weak to pursue her unhallowed calling, and had she been so disposed on that cold, wet night, it would have been of little avail had she walked the streets. The policeman as he goes his monotonous rounds tells her to move on. See wakes up, gets upon her legs, hobbles along, and then, when he is past, again, weary and wayworn, seeks the friendly door-step. The policeman returns; "What, here still?" he exclaims. Ah yes! she has not power to move away. She is weak, ill, dying. The friendly police carry her to the neighbouring hospital. "She cannot be received here," says Routine, and she is taken to the workhouse. Again she is taken to the hospital, admitted at last - for is she not a woman, and a young one, too? - not more than twenty-five, it appears,- and on her face, stained with intemperance and sin, there is the dread stamp of death - in this ease, perhaps, a welcome messenger; for who would live, fallen, friendless, forsaken, with a diseased body and a broken heart? "The spirit of a man can sustain his infirmity; but a wounded spirit who [-113-] can bear?" Peace be with her! in another hour or two she will have done with this wretched life of hers, and have gone where "the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest." More than usual official cruelty is visible in this case, for all that is given her between her admission and her death is a simple cup of tea; and the coroner's verdict very properly censures the hospital authorities. Well, what connexion, you ask, is there with this girl's sad fate and the jollity of the Cyder Cellars? Only this, that her father made the Cyder Cellars so popular a place of resort. If I go there again I shall think of Louisa Regan, who began life as the daughter of a successful publican, who had been a governess in a nobleman's family, at the early age of twenty-five rescued from the streets by policemen, and dependent on charity for a bed on which to die. In the foaming cup, in the glitter of the gas, while the comic singer was most comica1, or the sentimental singer most sentimental, I could not be oblivious of her fate. Is there not poison in the bowl? Is there not madness in the merriment? To the night so bright does there not come a dolorous morrow? You may sing and laugh the hours away in the [-114-] Cyder Cellars for a while, but you must pay your reckoning, and then, I imagine, you will doubt whether the amusement was worth the price. Youth generally pays too dear for its whistle. Youth is finding this out; at any rate the days of the Cyder Cellars are numbered, and now, with its Judge and Jury and Poses Plastiques, it collects comparatively few.
    Let me ask, need the amusements of our leisure hours be thus based on false principles? Cambridge, in one of the pleasantest papers in the "World," says, "Among the numbers who have changed a sober plan of living for one of riot and excess, the greatest part have been converted by the arguments in a drinking song." Life is real, life is earnest. It is a battle-ground which requires heart and muscle, and where only the brave can conquer; but if I drop for half-an-hour into a music hail, I learn that pleasure is the great aim of life, and that gin can make me jolly and a genius.