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A WRITER in Chambers's Journal some time since called attention to the
peculiar attractions of Highbury Barn. What are these attractions? I confess
that the place has connected it with the eating and drinking associations of
years; that here generations of cockneys have dined; that here, Sunday after
Sunday, they have come to drink bottled stout and smoke; that it is extensively
patronized by shopmen and milliners; that the society is not of the most refined
order; and that the love made in it is not of the noblest and purest character.
I cannot understand how Chambers could have been got to puff up such a
place to the public. I am sure the decent public will not thank Chambers for
Highbury Barn is an admirable illustration of the way in which Acts of Parliament are evaded. In 1852 Mr Hinton applied for and obtained a License for music, and he stated in his petition on that occasion, that his object was to have the [-161-] license as an adjunct to dinner-parties, a great number of which were held there; and at that time he had no idea whatever of having dancing in the place. In 1854, however, a different state of things arose, and, from a combination of causes, the parties and festivals at Highbury Barn fell off, and competition was so great, that Mr Hinton, having a large establishment, in which a great deal of capital was invested, was compelled to do something to meet the public taste, as he says, or, as I might say, to create it. Accordingly, on Whit Monday of that year, ho opened his establishment for musical entertainments with the band of the Grenadjer Guards. This was considered by the magistrates as an infraction of his agreement with them, and his license was refused. But Mr Hinton was not beaten; he had his large capital invested, and somehow or other the public must be got into his house. An ingenious plan was devised, by which Mr Hinton was enabled to carry on his music and dancing without a license, and yet be secure from the penalties incurred by the breakers of law. There is an assembly called Almack's, frequented by the élite of the land, held in Willis's Rooms. Those rooms are not [-162-] licensed according to Act of Parliament, yet all the leaders of bon ton there congregate, and they would be liable to be taken up as rogues and vagabonds under the Act. But the dancing is carried on there by an association, under the auspices of which tickets are sold. Well, Mr Hinton adopted a similar plan. The Highbury Club was formed, and the club kindly provided the youthful votaries of pleasure with the desired amusement. If we are to believe Mr Hinton, the result has not been very advantageous, as his receipts on the sale of alcoholic liquors fell off £600 - a statement rather difficult to reconcile with his former one, that he found his customers had left him, and that he must do something to call them back. Be that as it may, Mr Hinton has now his license, though three clergymen connected with the district concurred in stating that parties on leaving the Barn were disorderly and riotous, and disturbed the quiet of the locality, and that the licensing of that establishment would have a very demoralizing effect.
And now let us go to Highbury Barn. As we walk alone Highbury-place, we pass by many a father of a family grumbling at the idea of hav[-163-]ing his quiet invaded by parties coming home from the Barn; and yet there was a time, probably, when he heard the chimes at midnight; and the chances are, so wretchedly are our lads educated, that while the father is at home reading his religious magazine, the son is being initiated into fast life at the Barn. But on we go through a dark passage, admirably adapted for a garotte walk, till we come to the place of rendezvous. We pay sixpence and walk in. The first thing that strikes us is the Master of the Ceremonies. We are amazed,- in the distant West never have we met a more distinguished swell. His attitude is faultless; his raven hair is parted in the middle; his dark eye is turned in a languishing manner upward to the orchestra. In the intervals between the dances he walks up and down the room in an abstract and poetic manner, and Melancholy marks him for her own. You believe in the doctrine of metamorphoses as you look at him. He is a star fallen upon evil days. Beneath that faultless black dress-coat there lies the soul of a Beau Brummel or a Nash. Well, then, may there be a tinge of sadness on his cheek, and a cloud upon his brow. But let us leave him awhile and look about us. What [-164-] a noble room! we shall not see a finer one in London. At one end is a gallery; at the other a raised platform with very comfortable seats and tables. All round the room are illustrations of oriental scenery, and over the bar is the orchestra. But the place is not so crowded as we might expect, and the visitors are quieter than in the casinos of the West; the men and women are most of them much younger, - the men, many of them, have an exceedingly juvenile appearance, and think it fine to dance with young ladies of uncertain occupations, and to drink brandy-and-water and smoke cigars; but they have yet to cut their wisdom-teeth. As Thackeray says,
"Pretty page with the dimpled chin,
That never has known the barber's shear,
All your wish is woman to win;
This is the way that boys begin,-
Wait till you come to forty year."
Come here in the summer-time, and the attendance is then numerous; and of a Sunday evening, on the lawn before the Barn, or in the bowers and alcoves by its side, what vows have been uttered only to be broken; and what snares have been set for youth, and beauty, and innocence; and how many have come here with gay [-165-] hearts who have left with them bruised beyond the power of man to heal! Even in this room itself, what changes have been wrought by the magic hand of time! Where are the Finsbury radicals - all beery and Chartist, who here dined; the demagogues who duped them, the hopes they cherished, the promises they made? One after another have the bubbles burst, have the leaders palpably become shams, have the people woke up to disappointment and despair; and yet the nation has yet to learn that it is only by individual righteousness its salvation can be wrought. The dancing, instead of speech-making, is a sign of the times. Accompanied as it is by less drinking, let us hope it is a favourable sign. Let us judge in the spirit of charity and hope. But let us not be too sanguine,-it was during the terrors of the French Directory, when the
"Streets ran so red with the blood of the dead,
That they blush'd like the waves of hell,"
that Paris became a city of dancers, and that t to art reached a climax unknown before or since.