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

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BOXING NIGHT.

I AM rather out of conceit with Christmas boxes. I have been wished the compliments of the season by no less than six individuals this very morning, and for those good wishes I, poor man though I be, with family of my own to work for, have had to pay half-a-crown each. I grow suspicious of every smiling face I meet. I walk with my hands in my pocket, and my eyes cast down. I wonder how it fares with my strong-minded wife at home. I know she will have had a rare battle to fight. She will have had the Postman - and the Dustman - and the Waits - and the Sweep - and the Turncock - and the Lamplighter - and the Grocer's lad - and the Butcher's boy; and if she compounds with them at the rate of a shilling a-piece, she may bless her stars. I feel that I cannot stand much of this kind of work, and that for a merry Christmas and a happy New Year I shall have to pay rather handsomely. Stop at home - tie up your [-167-] knockers-say you are sick or dead, or a shareholder in the Royal British Bank, still you cannot escape the tender mercies of a London Boxing day. Mind, I have not one word to say of the various good wishes and gifts offered by friends and relatives to each other as pledges of esteem and goodwill. I would be the last to find fault with the customs originating in the warm heart of love, and honoured by the sanction of the whole civilized world. By all means let us reverence them ten-fold. But I have a right to complain that I am compelled to pay for mercenary goodwill, and that on me, or such as me, a tax is levied which does no good in most cases, and frequently does an immense amount of harm. When I read, as I am sure to do, in the police reports of the next day, that, "yesterday, being the day after Boxing day, the time of the magistrates was chiefly occupied with cases of drunkenness," am I not right in wishing that I had kept the money in my own pocket? Some of my friends would do that, but then for the next twelve months they are hampered and inconvenienced in a thousand ways. As wise man, I choose the least of two evils, but I am an unwilling victim nevertheless. But [-168-] a truce to my meditations; let us look at London on a Boxing night. By daylight you would scarce know London. A new race seems to have invaded the streets, filled the omnibuses, swarmed in the bazaars and the Arcade, choked up the eating-houses and the beer-shops. Smith with his Balmoral boots, Brown with his all-round collar, Jones with his Noah's Ark coat, Robinson with the straight tie, which young England deems the cheese, delight us no more with their snobby appearance and gentish airs; to-day this is the poor man's holiday. You can tell him by the awkwardness with which he wears his Sunday clothes, by the startling colour of his ties, by the audacious appearance of his waistcoat. If he would only dress as a gentleman dresses, he would look as well, but he must be fine. Well, it matters little so long as he be happy, whether he is so or not; and let him pass with his wife and children, all full of wonder and delight as they stare in at the shop windows and think everything-how happy are they in the delusion! - that all that glitter is gold. Let us wish them a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.
    And now the dull, dark day, by the magic power of gas, has been transformed into gay and [-169-] brilliant night. The thousands who have spent the day sight-seeing are not satiated, and are flocking round the entrances of the various theatres. Let us stand on the stage of the Victoria, and see them to the number of fifteen hundred mounted upon the gallery benches. Through the small door near the ceiling they come down like a Niagara,and you expect to see them hurled by hundreds into the pit. What a Babel of sounds! It is in vain one cries "Horder! " "Ats off!" "Down in front!" "Silence!" Boys in the gallery arE throwing orange peel all over the pit; Smith halloos to Brown, and Brown to Smith; a sailor in a private box recognises some comrades beneath, and immediately a conversation ensues; rivals meet and quarrel; women treat each other to the contents of their baskets - full of undigestible articles, you may be sure, with a bottle of gin in the corner. The play - it is that refreshing drama, the "Battersea Brigand" - proceeds in dumb-show; but the pantomime, the subject of which is, "Wine, War, and Love, and Queen Virtue in the Vistas of Light or Glitter," - with what a breathless calm that is ushered in. It is an old silly affair. Harlequin, clown, and [-170-] pantaloon, are they not all very dreary in their mirth? Yet the audience is in a roar of laughter, and little babes clap their tiny hands, and tears of laughter chase each other down the withered cheeks of age. This night in every theatre of London is a similar scene witnessed. The British public is supposed to be unusually weak at Christmas, and tricks that were childish and stale when George the Third was king, and jokes venerable even in Joe Miller's time, are still supposed to afford the most uproarious amusement to a people boasting its Christianity, its civilisation, and enlightenment. Of all conventionalisms those of the stage are the most rigid, antiquated, and absurd.
     But the thousands outside who did not get in - what are they about? Look at that respectable mechanic; you saw him in the morning as happy as a prince, and almost as fine; he stands leaning against the lamp-post, apparently an idiot. His hat is broken-his coat is torn-his face is bloody - his pockets are empty; not a friend is near, and he is far away from home. It is clear too what he has been about. Come on a few steps further - three policemen are carrying a woman to Bow-street. A hooting [-171-] crowd follow; she heeds them not, nor cares she that she has lost her bonnet-that her hair streams loosely in the wind-that her gown (it is her Sunday one) is all torn to tatters - or that her person is rudely exposed. The further we go, and the later it grows, the more of these sad pictures shall we see. Of course we do not look for such in Regent-street, or Belgravia, or Oxford-street, or the Strand. Probably in them we shall meet respectable people staggering along under the influence of drink-but they are not noisy or obstreperous-they do not curse and swear-they do not require the aid of the police. We must go into the low neighbourhoods - into St Giles', or Drury-lane, or Ratcliffe-highway, or the New-cut, or Whitechapel - if we would see the miseries of London on Boxing night. We must take our stand by some gin-palace. We must stay there till the crowds it has absorbed and poisoned are turned loose and maddened into the streets. Then what horrible scenes are realized. here an Irish faction meet, and men, women, and children engage in a general melee, and cries of murder rend the air, and piercing shrieks vex the dull ear of night. There two mates are stripped and [-172-] fighting, who but this morning were bosom friends, and who to-morrow would not harm a hair of each other's heads. Here a mechanic with a bloody head is being borne to the neighbouring hospital, to lie there a few months at the public expense, while his family are maintained by the parish. Again, we meet two wives nursing young babes scared into unnatural silence, clenching their fists in each other's faces, and with difficulty restrained from acts of more savage violence by their drunken husbands. Their day's holiday has come to this. In the metropolis in 1853, the number of public-houses was 5729 - the number of beer-shops 3613. These figures give a total of 9342. If on this night we suppose on an average one fight in the course of the evening takes place in each of these drinking shops, we can get some idea of what goes on in London on a Boxing night. In passing at midnight down Drury-lane, I see three fights in a five minutes' walk. Enlightened native of Timbuctoo, will you not pity our London heathens and send a few missionaries here!