Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858 - The Respectable Public-House

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THE RESPECTABLE PUBLIC-HOUSE

Is situated in one of the leading thoroughfares, and is decorated in an exceedingly handsome manner. The furniture is all new and beautifully polished, the seats are generally exquisitely soft and covered with crimson velvet, the walls are ornamented with pictures and pier-glasses, and the ceiling is adorned in a manner costly and rare. Such places as Simpson s or Campbell's in Beak-street, or Nell Gwynn's, almost rival the clubs, and, indeed, are much smarter than anything they can show at the Milton. Time was when men were partial to the sanded floor, the plain furniture, the homely style of such places as Dolly's, the London Coffee-house, or the Cock, to which Tennyson has lent the glory of his name. Now the love of how is cultivated to an alarming extent. "Let us be genteel or die," said Mrs Nickleby, and her spirit surrounds us everywhere. Hence the splendour of the drinking-rooms of the metropo-[-144-]lis, and the studied deportment of the waiters, and the subdued awe with which Young Norvals fresh from the Grampian Hills and their fathers' flocks tread the costly carpets or sprawl their long legs beneath glittering mahogany.
    Let us suppose it is about nine or ten in the evening, and we step into one of the numerous establishments which are to the respectable classes what the gin-palace and the beer-house is supposed to be to the class who are not. The reader must pardon my use of the word respectable. It is a word which, from my heart, I abhor, and, as it is commonly employed, merely denotes that a man has an account at a bank. There are but two ways in which human actions can be contemplated - the worldly and the philosophical or Christian. I use the term respectable merely in its worldly acceptation, but I skip this digression and pass on. Undoubtedly at the first blush it is a cheerful scene that first meets our eye. In this box are two or three old friends discussing a bottle of claret, who have not met perhaps since bright and boisterous boyhood, and who may never meet again. Of what manly struggle, of what sorrow that can never die, of what calm pleasures and chastened hopes, have [-145-] they to tell! No wonder that you see the tear glistening in the eye, though there is laughter on the lip. Pass on; here are some bagsmen red with port, and redolent of slang. In the next box are three or four young fellows drinking whisky and smoking cigars, and of course their talk is of wine and women; but there is hope, nevertheless, for woman is still to them a something divine, and the evil days have not come when they see in her nothing but common clay. Look at this retired old gentleman of the old school sitting by himself alone; yet is he not alone, for as he sips his port memories thicken in his brain, of ancient cronies now sleeping in churchyards far away, of a sainted wife no longer a denizen of this dark world of sin, of daughters with laughing children round their knees, all rosy and chubby and flaxen-haired, of sons with Anglo- Saxon energy and faith planting the old race on a new soil. Cross to this other side and look at these reckless, dissipated fellows, whom the waiter has just respectfully requested not to make so much noise, as it disturbs the other gentlemen in he room. Possibly they are Joint Stock Bank directors or railway officials, and after a few years it will be found that for their revelry to-[-146-]night a deluded public will have to pay. Here are a host of city merchants discussing politics, and it is wonderful how common-place is their conversation under the influence of alcohol.
    "Palmerston is a great man, by ---, he is a great man, sir," says one. "Yes, and no mistake," is the reply. "There is no humbug about Palmerston," says another. And so they ring the changes, originating nothing, gaining nothing, only getting redder in the face and more indistinct in their pronunciation. At length they button over their great coats, pay their bills, and generally very good-naturedly, but very unsteadily, steer towards the door. It may be that a noisy discussion takes place. One man a little more gone than the rest disturbs the harmony of the evening by his flat contradictions, uttered somewhat too rudely, and backed by a blow from the fist on the table, which breaks a couple of glasses. But next morning he apologizes; "It was only my wine contradicting your wine," he says, without any sense of shame. But this rarely happens. The respectable classes have more command of their temper, and do not get so idiotically drunk as the frequenters of low public-houses, and so the habitués are in no [-147-] hurry to move and leave the light and luxurious room for the muddy streets and the winter night. But they must do so, and young men with their passions unnaturally stimulated, and the conscience proportionately deadened, are left to the temptations which await men who arc out in the small hours; and old fogies, believing that if they go to bed mellow, they live as they ought to live, and die jolly fellows, find their way to their respective dwelling-places in a state as lamentable as it is degrading. Yet next Sunday you will see these men at church, and hear them joining in solemn and contrite prayer. Do they think these purple faces tell no tales? Do they think it is only the wife knows how they drink - in respectable company - in respectable hotels? Do they forget that in the midst of their revelry, under the flaming chandeliers, peering over the shoulders of courteous waiters, listening to their vinous laughter and ancient jokes, Death, with his dart, is there? Ay, and one night lie will ride home with his victim in the Hansom, and will see him placed, all smelling with drink and under its influence, in the bed, side by side with his wife, and next morning she will as usual give her husband the seidlitz powder or soda-[-148-]water, and leave him to sleep for a short while longer, and when she comes back will find that his is the sleep which knows no waking. And then the inquest will be held-and a medical man will perplex a plain case with useless show of knowledge, and a jury will return a verdict of "Death from natural causes.! You and I know better - you and I know that if the man had not gone into the respectable public-house he might have lived another ten years - that it was because he went there night after night, and sat soaking there night after night, that the blood-vessels became gorged and clotted, and that the wonderful machine stood still. "Poisoned by alcohol" is the true verdict-  by alcohol sold and consumed in the respectable public-house. How long will society sanction such places? How long will they retard the progress of the nation by wasting energies, and time, and cash, and opportunities that might have been devoted to nobler ends? How long with their splendour - with their gilding and glass - with their air of respectability and comfort, will they attract the unwary, ruin the weak, and slay the strong man in his strength and pride?