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

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THE EAGLE TAVERN

Is situated in an appropriate locality in the City-road, not far from a lunatic asylum, and contiguous to a workhouse. From time immemorial the Cockneys have hastened thither to enjoy themselves. Children are taught to say-
        "Up and down the City-road,
            In and out the Eagle,
        That s the way the money goes,
            Pop goes the weasel."
And the apprentice or clerk, fresh from the country, and anxious to see life, generally commences with a visit to the Grecian Saloon - Eagle Tavern. As a rule, I do not think what are termed fast men go much to theatres. To sit out a five-act tragedy and then a farce is a bore which only quiet old fogies and people of a domestic turn can endure; and even where, as in the Grecian Saloon, you have dancing, and singing, and drinking added, it is not the fast men, but the family parties, that make it pay. [-219-] There you see Smith, Brown, Jones, and Robinson, with their respective partners and the dear pledges of their well-regulated loves. They come early, sit out Jack Shepherd with a resolution worthy of a better cause, listen to the singing from the Music Hall, return again to witness the closing theatrical performances, and enjoy all the old stage tricks as if they had not heard them for the last fifty years. These worthy creatures see a splendour in the Grecian Saloon which I do not. Then there are the juvenile swells. Anxious mothers in the country, fearing the contaminations of London and the ruin it has brought on other sons, lodge them in remote Islington, or Hoxton, still more remote. It is in vain they do so. The Haymarket may be far off, but the Grecian Saloon is near; and the young hopefuls come in at half-price, for six- pence, and smoke their cigars, and do their pale ale, and adopt the slang and the vices of their betters with too much ease. And then there are the unfortunates from the City-road, with painted faces, brazen looks, and gorgeous silks; mercenary in every thought and feeling, and with hearts hard as adamant. God help the lad that gets entangled with such as they! [-220-] It requires no prophet to foretell his career. Embezzlement - first with a view to replace the sum appropriated to guilty pleasures, - then, embezzlement hopelessly continued because once begun, - then discovery, and punishment, and shame, and despair. Youth must have its pleasures, I know. Young blood is not torpid like that of age; and song and woman will ever be dear till time furrows the brow and silvers the hair. But why need we seek them where the air is contaminated-where the evening's amusement will not bear the morning's reflection - where, though pleasure lead the way, scattering sweet flowers, vice and shame and premature old age bring up the rear? Look at those lads; they cannot have been long emancipated from school. The erect collar, the straight hat, the long coat, indicate the fact that they belong to the Young England party; and here, listening to indifferent songs, and witnessing inferior dramatic performances, and associating with the refuse of the other sex, they are learning to be men. What a manhood to look forward to! And if there be no excuse for them, there is still less for what I may call the domestic part of the audience, - the fat old women with their baskets [-221-] filled with prog, the pursy old tradesmen that drop in to smoke a pipe, and the various tribes of gents and bagsmen on their way home from the city.
    Let me say a word on our domestic life. When there is so little difference between the majority of men and women, why should the line of demarcation be so severely drawn? We talk very prettily about home, sweet home, and poets sing its love and purity and charms; and a popular picture is that which the artist draws when he groups together the gray-haired grandfather and grandmother, seated by the fire, and father and mother by their side, and brave lads and graceful girls around listening, by the warm light of the lamp, to some tale of manly struggle or Christian chivalry, or lifting up together the glad voice of song. But why should your son or mine, immediately he goes out into the world and leaves the parental roof, become a stranger to all this? If the Englishman's home be his castle, why should we cast out into the ditch, to lie down and die in its mire, all who are not of the family? Think of the thousands and thousands of young men who yearly come up to town, strangers to every one, [-222-] and with no chance of getting into female society, except such as they find at such places as the Eagle. These women are not lovelier than you meet with in respectable houses - not better educated nor more correct in their principles ; yet, as by natural instinct one sex seeks the society of the other, we condemn our youth to the company of such. Paterfamilias is afraid the young men will pay attention to his daughters. Perhaps the young lady-daughters fancy it to be beneath them to be civil to their father's young men. Perhaps the young men themselves believe that an honourable connexion is beyond their means, and deliberately pursue a career of vice. In all these cases, in my humble opinion, very serious blunders are involved. The life of a bachelor under the circumstances I here allude to is quite as costly as that of a married man, without the stimulus to exertion which the latter has. Paterfamilias forgets that the young man he fears maybe the suitor for his daughter's hand, though he is poor to-day, may be comparatively rich tomorrow; and the young ladies should remember that it is rather too much to expect that a young man just entering upon life will be able to launch out in the same style as those who for thirty or [-223-] forty years have been pursuing a successful commercial career. It is our false pride that eats us up,-that makes us sneer at love in a cottage,- that turns our women into cross old maids, and our men into gay Lotharios, very disreputable and, to a certain extent, deliriously gay. I admit that we have much more outside respectability, but is society the better? Have we more true happiness? If Wordsworth is correct, "plain living and high thinking" go together. But our aim is high living, and I fear the thinking is very, very plain in consequence. We nurse up in our midst, and reverently worship-and denounce as worse than an infidel every one who utters the truth respecting it - an aristocracy the richest and most luxurious in the world, - an aristocracy which would long ere this have become intellectually effete, did it not recruit its ranks from successful adventurers in the shape of lawyers ; and the commercial classes vying with this aristocracy in outward show, the effects are manifest all over the land, in the general attempts to live beyond one's meals, and to get into a circle supposed to be superior to that in which originally we moved. In Germany they manage better; the noble and the trading classes never [-224-] have a rivalry, the gulf is impassable, and hence the home life is less pretentious and happier than ours. In England "the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he galls his kibe." What we want is a return to the plain living and high thinking of an age gone by; less show and more reality; the destruction of the wall of partition, either of poverty or of false pride, and the widening and enhancing the charms of the domestic circle. If now and then the result is a marriage not very intelligible on pecuniary principles, let us consider even that as a lesser evil than that resulting from the companionship, on the part of our youths, with the women who infest such places as the Eagle, and without which it is clear such places could not pay.
    I will call evidence as to the character of the amusements at the Eagle Tavern. In the parliamentary report on public-houses, I find Mr Balfour is examined respecting it. He says, "The most detrimental place of which I know, as far as women are concerned, is the Eagle Tavern in the City-road. There are gardens, and statues round the gardens, and everything to attract. There is a large theatre, and there [-225-] are theatrical representations during the week. I have seen women there whom I have recognised next day as common street-walkers. The gardens are open, with alcoves and boxes on each side, and lads and young persons are taken in there and plied with drink. The house is opened on Sunday evening, but on Sunday evening there is no dramatic representation nor music. I have seen gentlemen come out drunk." On a Sunday night when Mr Balfour visited the place, he said, "There were various rooms. There is what is called the Chinese-room, the ball-room, and the concert-room. They were all filled with persons drinking, and I saw a great number of female servants, and females of a certain description; there is no doubt upon that subject at all." Now, Mr Conquest, the present proprietor, must have read all this evidence, yet I do not see that he has taken any steps to reform the evil complained of. It pays, I suppose, and that is enough. Much money has been made by it. The late proprietor retired a wealthy man. The present proprietor, we presume, trusts to do the same, and if the establishment panders to vice, if women date their ruin to Sunday evenings there, if mothers see [-226-] their sons robbed of all that would make them decent men owing to their visits there, what s the odds? cries the dram-seller, who, like another Cain, asks if he be his brother's keeper.
    The regular attendants see this not. "It s a beautiful place," says Mrs Smith to Mrs Robinson, "a'nt it, my dear?" as they sit eating questionable sausage rolls, and indulging in bottled beer. They see the pictures in the balcony, and think the gas jets quite miraculous, and admire the weak fountains and ambitious grottoes - and they laugh even at the comic singer, a feat I cannot achieve anyhow. Evidently the Eagle Tavern audience is of the same genus as an Adelphi audience, a people easily moved to laughter, and much given to taking their meals with them, - a people not prone to look before or after,  - who would be drowned rather than get up and walk into the Ark, and who see no chance of their own house being burnt down in the fact that their neighbour's house is in flames. I don't believe naturally men or women are these dull clods, but custom makes them such, and they see no danger, nor perhaps is there where they are concerned.