Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - The Latest Derby Prophecy

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MY dear unfortunate brother Jack-of-all-work-and-no-play, to-morrow morning we shall read in the newspapers that yesterday (to-day that is), the scene of the great national horse race was more than ever numerously attended - that all London and a greater part of the provinces assembled to grace and do honour to the joyous occasion. This is what the newspapers say invariably on the morning following Derby day; but you and I, Jack, as business men (alas ), know that this, if not all fudge, is so to the extent of seven-tenths at least. The stay-at-homes may be counted in thousands and hundreds of thousands, hapless ones whom "all the Queen's horses and all the Queen's men" would be unequal to the task of tearing from the hum-drum wheel to which they are eternally bound. The next best thing to going to the fair is to listen to the wondrous account of some privileged being who has sniffed the aroma of lamp oil, whose blest ears have drank in the dulcet music of the gong, and whose favoured feet have tripped it amongst booth sawdust. I may therefore be doing not amiss if I endeavour to bring to the labour-fettered Turk the mountain that he may make no pilgrimage to.
    My gossip shall take the form of a prophecy, and I will wager even money (not being of that greedy and grasping nature that hankers after odds) against any man's that in the main I am correct. There is no secret in it, I have no private [-319-] information from the clerk of the course, nor have I the ear of the stable mouse, or any other treacherous listener, four-legged or two. Seeing the Derby is like seeing the Lord Mayor's show or a wedding - especially a wedding, that being a ceremony the terms of the performance of which are immutable, except as regards the names of the competitors about to start in the race of life. So is a Derby a Derby, last year, this year, next year, any year.
    The first bona fide Derby arrivals from London make their appearance about the dusk of evening. They emerge in twos and threes from the road that leads to the metropolis-poor, limping, lame, and ragged ones, wearied nigh to fainting with their long tramp, and dusty, and oh! so hungry and thirsty. These are the hangers-on and pickers-up of crumbs that fall from the field of the cloth of gold, the humble servants and willing slaves of the rollicking well-to-do host that to-morrow will camp on the Downs. They, the tired and famished ones, bring with them their stock-in-trade, their cigar fuzees, their boot blackers and shiners, and their humble single brushes with which to "brush you down, sir," for a penny. They enter a flourishing town, these poor down-at-heel beggars ; the shops arc aglare with gas, and everybody is preparing something that may be sold to eat to-morrow. When you get past the town clock from the London end, it is like putting your head in at a kitchen door where a feast is preparing. The confectioners' windows are piled with buns as though a whole week of Good Fridays was before them; the interior of the regular eating-housekeepers' shops are invisible beyond mounds of boiled and roast and pyramids of handy-sized pies ; and even the humble wayside cottages are bold in their announcements of "hot water for tea parties," and the window boards, where customarily the sweet-smelling flower-pots stand, are now laden with loaves of bread and unpicturesque saveloys. The famished ones from London rejoice to see such abundance of cheap fare, and [-320-] hurry to buy a supper with that painfully-reserved twopence halfpenny. But alas for them, poor beggars, racing prices have already begun; penny loaves have passed out of the knowledge of men, and saveloys are quoted at a hundred premium. But they must deal in the town as best they may; they have to go farther and may fare worse even. They have to go the length of that dreary, steep, chalky lane, that more than any other that ever was planned is like to that oft-quoted lane destitute of turning, and smuggle a bed under the hucksters' carts, or, failing this, stretch their travel-strained limbs on that sacred plain that to-morrow shall sprout guineas thick as buttercups. If any gentleman has his doubts about this all taking place, I will back my prophecy against his opinion for a "pony," or a whole horse, or a whole hog, or anything else he may fancy.
    Likewise I will bet level that last night, long after the betting men lodging in the town had gone to their feverish beds, there emerged from a white house just outside the town - a pretty innocent-looking house - a carriage drawn by stout horses, and driven by a sturdy coachman. Within the vehicle are two able men at least, as had they need to be who guard a treasure. If anything happened to that chariot in its passage up the hill - and it is not impossible, for there are many thieves abroad in and about Epsom to-night - to-morrow's Derby will be recorded as an imperfect Derby, by reason of its lacking the indispensable "c'rect card." The types from which the "c'rect cards" are printed are arranged in a secret chamber of the pretty white house, and are carried up to the Grand Stand, where there is a printing machine, and where, before four o'clock in the morning, cards by the thousand will be struck off, all ready for the ragged speculators who come at that early hour clamouring to buy them.
    Again, I prophesy that at an early hour this morning, the theatre of what by-and-by will be all so rich, and gay, and [-321-] sparkling was as much like Bartlemy fair as bereft of its gangs and roaring showmen is possible. None of the "company" have as yet arrived - no, not one; but if you counted the multitude swarming in the vicinity of the race-course, you would find that they number a thousand at least - servants all of the legion by-and-by to arrive with lots of money to spend. There are the proprietors of refreshment booths and sparring booths, and booths for fiddling and dancing; there are the thimble-rig men and the Aunt Sally men, and the men who have tramped from London with a couple of pails, and who mean to drive a roaring trade as water vendors; and there are the "niggers," dozens and dozens of them, poor wretches, with yesterday's blacking mottling their sad faces, the straw in their towzled hair revealing the secret of their last night's bed; there are the clothes brushers, and the shoe blackers, and the hopeful merchants whose heart and hope is in the bundle they carry, enveloped in a dirty pocket-handkerchief and comprising noses and hair for the wear of idiots, and absurd little dolls to stick in hat-band or button-hole, and gay garlands of coloured paper for the decoration of the brows of tipsy costermongers and their women. All these and many, many more, unwashed and shivering and hungry, throng about the jolly bright cans where the coffee was steaming, and where bread and butter might be purchased at a halfpenny a slice. I will wager, too, that, bustling in the throng-the busiest of the busy-there was a red-nosed old barber, with the tools of his craft stuck in his belt, and his hot-water pot mounted atop of a sort of tinker's brazier swinging in his hand, crying out, "Who'll be scraped! who'll be scraped for a brown!"
    Neither do I find it more difficult to predicate that as the morning grows towards noon there will emerge from that long lane extending from the town to the Downs the vanguard, the prudent few who eschew uproar, and have an eye to a choice of situation from which to view the race - of the mighty host [-322-] presently to follow. Then will the "Grand Stand," all spick and span, and showing white as a mushroom sprouting out of the green, wake to life the rapidly-filling galleries, dispelling the idea founded on a view of its gigantic emptiness that never by any possibility could it be completely occupied. There will be Mammon's acre, commonly known as the betting-ring, but which is no ring at all, but merely a straight slip railed in in front of the Grand Stand and abutting on to the course, show signs of animation that each succeeding minute increases. They are not all members of the aristocracy who seek and gain admission to Mammon's acre, but, as a rule, vulgar journeymen bettors, who come to Epsom in the same business spirit that moves the grazier and the butcher to visit the cattle market. If you are in pursuit of gaiety and frivolity, seek it not on Mammon's acre; it is no more a holiday feature than the maggot that gnaws at the core of an apple is part of that fruit. No laughter, no mirthsome joking, nothing but grim and sour- mouthed chaffering, buy, buy-buying and bartering, and bargain-driving. Regard these throngers of the ring, and learn that "making a book" is no more a pastime than is balancing a ledger at a grocery store. It is hard work - work fitter to be performed in shirt sleeves than in dandy coats, as is evident from the copious perspiration that bedews the brow of every votary of the pencil and little book as he goes to and fro, elbowing and crushing his way through the mob, roaring out what he will bet and what he won't bet, and seeking whom he may devour. My dear brother, Jack-of-all-work, depend on it that you are safer at home. There is contagion in the breath of these roarers, the flourishing of the little book ; the sheen of the leather satchell slung at the roarer's side is as fatal to the unwary one as the bird trapper's daze is to the lark, and nothing but having no money in your pocket can save you from falling to his lure. See now how the poor pigeons, excluded from the hawk's cage by that inexorable half-guinea entrance [-323-] fee, swarm about the bars, and thrust between their little bets fast as the pretty birds within can gather them! But they are never satisfied ; they take, take, take, and still, like young ravens, their beaks are agape, and they go on crying, " More! more! more!"
    They will go on crying while the long lane extending to the town disgorges its troopers, and the vast hill over against the Stand grows thicker of men than corn stalks in a field; and all round about, and extending in a long, long line far as Tattenham Corner, which is a full quarter of a mile from the winning- post, are barouches, and drags, and coaches, and busses, and wagons, and carts, and costermongers' barrows in so compact a mass that it would not be a very severe acrobatic feat to skip from one to the other the whole length without once touching the ground. They will continue to roar, and cry, these men of the ring, until the ringing of a bell. This signifies "clear the course." Up to this time, the sacred way has not been strictly guarded against intrusion. It is railed in on either side, but many have crept beneath the rails, and lie sprawling on the turf, happy to rest their wooden heads where the mighty hoofs of Vauban or the Marksman may presently tread. But now they must clear out, for at the ringing of the bell suddenly appears from the police barracks within the Grand Stand an army of policemen, who spread themselves across the course, and sweep all before them, wasting no words with trespassers, but hustling and squeezing them beyond the rails, head first or heels first, until the way is clear.
    Then the roarers of the ring will cease their hubbub, for the first race is about to be decided. There will not be much excitement over this amongst the multitude. As a body it has but a rude appetite for horse racing, and views these little affairs as merely the fish and soup that precede the more substantial - the Derby, at which each and every one of its items intend to carve a stake, be it never so small a one; so, during this minor [-324-] affair, the melody of the niggers is scarcely hushed, and may be distinctly heard the cracking of the bullets against the.iron targets, there sped by daring riflemen, who shoot through a length of tin tubing, "for fear of hacksidents," as the prudent proprietor of the butts remarks.
    The two preliminary and minor races disposed of, then approaches the Great Event. There will be a considerable lapse of time between the race for the Burgh Stakes and the Derby race, which will be made the most of by the men of the "ring." Since the last race they have remained for a few minutes quiet; but now they will begin again, gradually raising their voices until the Babel is deafening, but it will not be remarkable since the infection has spread all abroad through the line of carriages, and coaches, and busses, and barrows, and right away over the hill, and everybody is at the delirium of betting fever, and there is a universal shaking of hands that is worthy of a better cause. This amongst the novices, however; there is no shaking of hands with the betting men of business, black and white and a deposit on the nail being a system much preferred.
    Then once more will the bell toll, louder and bolder this time, as if conscious of the tremendous affair it heralds; and again will the doughty A's charge the trespassers, and drive them back beyond the boundary. Then will be seen emerging from the neighbouring paddock, where the equine champions have been saddled, a long string of horses, gaily mounted by their jockies in butterfly suits. But although they enter the course it is not to race, but merely that their various patrons may see their paces as they perform a preliminary canter by way of warming to the work before them. There will be a general hum of admiration, and no wonder; for surely, as a grand sight, that of a troop of splendid horses, in the glory of their youth and strength, can scarcely be surpassed. Then they will be off and away to the other side of the hill, where a severe old gentleman, in a scarlet coat, awaits them to marshal them [-325-] in proper order and give the momentous signal for the start and all this time the roarers of the ring are hard at it, anxious to gobble up a few more verdant ones while there is yet time.
    Time flies. Clang! clang! clang goes the bell as merrily as though it had a sure bet on the race, and ten thousand voices will exclaim "Now they're off!" and then there will be a silence. It n-ill even seem that the tolling of the bell betokened the departed lives of the roarers, they will be so still. But lo! they revive again. On the dizzy summit of the Grand Stand an eager scout, spying through a glass, has caught sight of the striving team turning the bend of the horse-shoe course, and gives instant word of which is foremost, and the precious name will be caught and spread quick as ignited gunpowder. "It's Marksman! He walks in!" "No, no! It's Vauban! Ha, ha! Vauban, Vauban!" "Palmer! It's Palmer! by jingo, it's Palmer!" "No, no, Vauban!" "Marksman!" "Van Amburgh!" "Vauban!" "Marksman! Ha, ha." "No, no!" "Yes, yes!" "Palmer !-Vau-Vauban-"
    Who on earth is to complete a prophecy in a satisfactory manner in the midst of such a clamour!