Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - A Holiday with the Sea-Fishers

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MESSRS. TINKER, TAILOR, arid CANDLESTICK- MAKER, respected brother toilers and gainers of bread by the sweat of your manly brow, to as many of you who, on a fair and sunshiny Saturday afternoon, standing in the proud and enviable position of men who have just concluded another of many satisfactory weeks' work, and have got the wages snugly buttoned in your breeches pocket to prove it, and who having deliberately argued the matter, have arrived at the sensible conclusion that a bit of a holiday is now your due, and that you mean "going in for it," this paper is in all good fellowship dedicated.
    About the holiday! What is to be the extent of it, and where are you going to enjoy it? Is it your intention to join the party that has chartered the greengrocer s pleasure-van with the blue silk curtains and the pair of grays and piebald leader, which starts to-morrow (Sunday) morning at eleven o'clock precisely, from the "Three Cows," its destination being Epping Forest? Are you for boating it on the Lea, or for steaming to Greenwich, to disport in the park there and invest ninepence in tea with shrimps on the summit of One-Tree Hill? Are you bent on a day's jaunt with the missus in Wiggins' shaycart, along with Mr. and Mrs. W.? or shall Citizen Z. and a Putney tea-gardens partake of your patronage? Maybe there are many worse ways than either of those mentioned of spend-[-296-]ing a holiday certainly there is at least one way that is both better and cheaper.
    It must be observed, however, that this better and cheaper way demands the sacrifice of Monday as well as Sunday. "Then that," I think I hear Mr. Candlestickmaker exclaim, "that settles the business. It is pull enough out of a man's bit of savings to spend a dozen or fifteen shillings on a Sunday, and it can't be done cheaper, if you only take the missus and the baby, go the cheapest way to work ; but when it comes to wasting Monday, to say nothing of the extra spending, why, it can't be done. It may be all very well for chaps that can afford it - single chaps who carry all their cares and responsibilities under their hat, or for snobs who never on any account work on Monday ; but with a respectable mechanic like myself it is different. I'm a sober man, and stick to my work, and if I for once in a while let the rope fall slack on a Sunday, I'll bet a penny that you find me hauling at it precious soon next morning towards fetching it all right and taut again. I'm bound to do it I should very soon find my affairs in a tangle if I did not."
    All very nice and proper, Mr. C., a very noble sentiment, and one in which Betsy your wife coincides. But did you never find - this between ourselves, of course - did you never find in footing it along the rigid line which, in your bumptious self-reliance, you chalk out for yourself, that you have obliterated the chalk mark to such an extent as to make it difficult to recover your way, when having gone the length of your before-hand measured tether you turn about for your starting-point? Did it never happen to you that when Wiggins, who is a fat and good-humoured man, and never such jolly company as when he is mellow, observed, "Come, let us have another sixpen'orth round before the ostler puts the mare in the shay ; we don't kill a pig every day, Mr. Candlestick- maker" - did it never happen, I ask, that you have been led to consent solely out of your excellent opinion of yourself as a [-297-] man utterly incapable of porcine slaughter for as many even as two days consecutively, and who consequently for the time being can afford to act generously towards himself, and that you have had that other glass of grog - ay, and another after that, just to keep the cold out, for by this time it is late in the evening, and chilly driving through the green lanes? Don't be ashamed to own to the weakness, Mr. C. ; there is really very little sin in it. It is one of common perpetration. I can answer for myself, at all events. I am not of your guild, but I, as well as yourself, know a Wiggins, and have yielded to the pleasant villain's seduction many a time, and am still on the friendliest terms with him.
    But there is this difference between us, Mr. Candlestick- maker. After an evening with Wiggins, for the life of me I cannot rise with the lark next morning. I am full of yawns and gapes, and have an ache in my head, and an unpleasant sensation at the pit of my stomach, and want of all things to lie still yet a while. But you are all right, Mr. C., or rather you would be, only that those detestable shrimps you had yesterday at tea at Greenwich, or the nasty smell of the river as you were coming home from Putney, or the disgusting indisposition of Mrs. Swigger in the greengrocer's pleasure-van during the homeward journey; or the damp grass on which you injudiciously sat down in Epping Forest, has quite upset you and on waking at half-past five am., very little reflection convinces you that rather than carry such a sorry-looking face amongst your shopmates you had better lose a "quarter" and "pull yourself together a bit." And very much refreshed are you for that extra hour's sleep and that cup of tea of extra strength, and quite chirp and cheerful you set out for the shop after breakfast. But as ill-luck has it, just as you are turning the corner - thinking of nothing in the world but the day's work before you-whom do you ran against but Mr. Tinker and Mr. Tailor, who were your companions of yesterday, and [-298-] who strangely enough find themselves unaccountably " upset" as you were, so much so indeed that they began to grow alarmed, and when you encountered them they were on the way to your house to inquire if you likewise were a sufferer. Such tender solicitude must not pass unrecognized, especially as the "Three Crows," the house from which the van started, is close at hand, and the best beer in the neighbourhood is drawn at the "Three Crows," and at the rear of that hostel there is a good dry skittle-ground. And there goes your Monday, Mr. C., and there go several more shillings than you would care to tell Betsy of, when, still a little unsteady from the effect of those pernicious Greenwich shrimps, you return home at 11 pm. with a peace-offering in a little bottle in your pocket.
    I won't inquire the number of shillings invested at the "Crows" or the gross amount of them and the twelve or fifteen shillings spent on Sunday. I will guarantee that together they will make a sum sufficient, or very nearly, to defray the expenses of the holiday that I recommend. So put the money in your pocket and follow me, and I will show you such value for it as shall satisfy you, or you are indeed hard to please.
    You shall start from London Bridge, Betsy, and the baby, and yourself, while it is yet early in the fair and sunny Saturday afternoon - (you knock off at two o'clock, please to recollect) and taking train, shall enjoy, through two hours and a quarter, a swift and healthful journey through a lovely country of pasture, and hops, and growing grain, finally alighting in one of the prettiest and quaintest, and cleanest sea towns in the kingdom. Whilst yet in the railway carriage, and distant a mile of your destination, you shall know that you are approaching the sea by reason of its soft breezes coming out to welcome you, and leaving the flavour of their kisses on your lips; and stepping out at the station you will be at once for rushing down to the beach. This, however, would not be fair towards Betsy, who finds baby a tremendous drag at ordinary times, and now that its infantine [-299-] appetite has been invigorated by the keen country air, its mother's distress must be something considerable. Besides, you have a lodging as well as a tea to seek. And with little or no trouble you shall find both - a tea ten times nicer and quite as cheap as can be procured at a close unclean London coffee- shop, and a bed the hangings and sheeting of which, on account of their snowiness, make Betsy hold her breath in awe and admiration.
    After tea there yet remain to Saturday three fair hours of daylight. Then you shall fill your pipe and accompanied by your wife, go down to one of the most wonderful beaches to be found round the British coasts. This if the tide is out. If it is not you shall find delightful seats so close to the ocean that you may kick a stone into it, and there you may sit with the evening sun sparkling on the watery wilderness before you and on the few-and-far-between white sails of the yachts and black sails of the fishing-boats, and on the waves looking like white sea horses with their ample snowy manes all blown a-tangle racing for the shore; meanwhile you calmly smoke your pipe, and discourse to Betsy of the azure main and as many of its wonders as you are cognizant of.
    Let us hope that the tide is out, however - far out, for then you shall see something that shall astonish you. You shall see protruding through the brown, fast-set sand, gnarled roots and mighty boles of trees snapped off short as you could snap a tobacco-pipe, and when you see this you see all that remains of what was once a great green forest skirting the sea; but one night, three hundred years ago and more, there arose a mighty tempest, and the sea put out its giant arms, and bursting its old boundary, captured the land on which the forest stood, and dredged it of its trees and shaped it to suit its will, and from that time to this would never let it go.
    And you shall walk a little farther along the brown sands soft as any carpet, and presently you shall come on a broad space of [-300-] heaped-up stones, each of a ton weight at least, and skirting the stones short butts of timber worn sharp as needles through constant wave-washing. And when you see this you see all that remains of a magnificent pier (the second or third) constructed at a vast expense by good Queen Elizabeth, and great was the pride and rejoicing of the townsmen. "But behold when men were most secure, and thought the worke to be perpetual, on All Saints' Day, in 1597, appeared the mighty force of God, who with the finger of His hand, at one great and exceeding high spring tyde, with a south-east wind, overthrew the huge worke in less than an hower to the great terror and abasement of all beholders."
    Walk still farther along this wonderful beach for the distance of about a mile, and you shall come on another marvel. Bedded in the brown sand there is a ship that foundered there a hundred years ago. You may count her ribs jutting out here and there like old teeth, and thereby tell her shape and length. It is only her upper works that have gone to decay; locked in the sea bed her under decks and her hold are sound enough, as was proved scarce forty years since, when a  party of adventurers, taking advantage of an uncommonly low tide, set manfully to work to dig the sand out of her. They dug down as far as the old ship's bows and fished out a barrel of knives and some other trifles, but the sea would stand no further trifling with her lawful treasure, and rising up with a will drove the daring landsmen off, and somehow since that time the experiment has not been renewed. There is a fortune for you, Mr. C., if you can hit on a means of raising that old Dutch ship; her hold is known to be full of sheet copper!
    By the time you have explored this last wonder, and smoked out a pipe sitting on one of the buried ship's ribs, the tide will be rising, and you had better turn your face lodging-ward, or you will find no time to play "ducks and drakes," to which sport of your boyhood you will be irresistibly enticed by the [-301-] thousands of handy little flat stones lying about the shore. The windows of the house where you are to lodge shall overlook the sea, and until deep dusk, in happier chat with Betsy than you recollect for many a day, and with a brown jug of simple ale, you shall there sit. Now you shall discover another odd fact in connection with this holiday. Dusk shall find you sleepy and inclined for bed. It is Saturday night, and were you in London bed would be out of the question for two hours to come at least, but here you shall have retired and be soundly and healthily asleep long before half-past ten of the clock. Your artificial Cockneyfied habits will not avail you in these parts. Nature has the great sea to look after, and cannot waste time pottering over you, and making as regards roosting, one law for you and another for cocks and hens.
    You shall rise early next morning, which is Sunday morning, and while Betsy is busy over her own and baby's toilet, if you take my advice you will stroll down to the beach, and at the price of a couple of pots of beer avail yourself of one of the greatest luxuries in life - a sea bath. Then back to the enjoyment of a jolly country breakfast. Then for as delightful a walk as can be imagined - field, forest, flowers, fruit, and sea all combining to make the scenery perfect. Then, if you have a mind to church; to a lovely old church, tiny as a barn, and shapeless under its ivy mantle. Or if you choose you shall instead climb a huge cliff 400 feet high, and ramble over the ruins of one of the very oldest of English castles, so old that nobody knows who built it. It is a poor old tottering wreck now, and looks as though it was under considerable obligation to the green climbers whose tough limbs bind about its gray stones; but once, a thousand years ago about, it was a tremendous place, with a great army within its walls to resist the landing of any of Britain's foes that might design to attack us by way of the sea. Times are altered since then. Admission to the castle cost William Rufus the flower of his army; now you may get in for [-302-]  3d., and in place of the whiz of cross-bolts the invader hears nothing more harmful than the popping of the corks of ginger-beer, which potent beverage is retailed by the old lady who keeps the gate at the rate of 2d. per bottle. Home to dinner, afterwards sauntering on the beach. Home to tea, afterwards sauntering on the beach, sitting about, lying about, picking up shells, hunting for star fish, for mussels, for whelks-anything till bed-time.
    "And up in the morning, once more to walk, sit, and lounge upon the beach, I suppose," says Mr. Candlestickmaker, with the least bit of a sneer disfiguring his manly countenance. Not exactly, Mr. C. If that were all I had to offer you I should not have been so pressing in my invitation for you to prolong your holiday till Monday. No ; the best part of all is in store for you. Be up betimes, and you shall see the fishermen come home in their black boats and be witness to the sale of their night's catch. It is a strange sight for a Cockney who never saw fish except in a dish at home, or at the fishmonger's, or any other sort of fisherman but he of the rod and line at the New River's brink expending fourpen'orth of bait for a ha'porth of gudgeon.
    Our fisherman himself is a being worth the journey to behold. He is a brown being-rusty, ruddy brown. His smock is of that colour, as are his heavy, baggy blanket trousers, and his great hairy hands and his long, odd-looking, weather-beaten face his very hair is rusty, and his brown tarpaulin sou'-wester seems to have ripened in the sun like a pear. He is a slow man - slow of gait, slow of speech and deliberate, and meditative in his puffing out of tobacco smoke. His eyes have a solemn look about them as those of a man grown used to constantly impending peril and past fear of it.
    But he can be brisk enough when briskness is required, as you shall witness, if you rise betimes and watch him manoeuvring his boat to the beach to get the first of the market. By his [-303-] boat I mean the row boat that attends his smack. There are twenty such smacks standing off the shore, and the business of each is to land its catch with all speed, so as to secure a good sale. From the smacks the fish is brought to the beach in baskets in the row boats, and then turned out in heaps-plaice, flounders, mackerel, eels, anything the sea may have yielded. The buyers for the town and for the London markets gather round the heaps, and the auctioneer is present. He is not a spruce, black-coated auctioneer like his brother of London, but a brown man like a fisherman, and dressed as such. He does not go about his business like a London auctioneer, but backwards. There are no biddings. Standing by a heap of fish on the shingle, cries the auctioneer, "Who'll give ten shillin' for this lot of plaice? Who'll give nine shillin'? Eight and six? Eight? Seven and six ?" "Snaps!" somebody shouts, and that somebody is the buyer. ("Snaps" is the magic word that clinches every bargain.) And so with all the heaps, one after another, and in an hour's time you may meet the fishwives, and even the fishers themselves, in all parts of the town bawling their dabs, and their soles and their mackerel; which they carry in tubs or baskets, slung to a yoke, after the fashion of London milkmen.
    You, however, must not go home empty handed to breakfast, Mr. C- you must buy of the catchers a brace of fine mackerel bright from the briny, and have them instantly split and grilled with a little butter and pepper and salt. The worst of the treat is that your appetite for London mackerel is spoilt for ever afterwards.
    After breakfast- But exigency and space forbid. After breakfast you must find your way about without my guidance, Mr. Candlestickmaker. I am allowed but one more line, and that I will devote to giving you the name of the wonderful place in question - it is Hastings.