Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - A Londoner's Sunday Outing

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SUNDAY outings are, by a large number of highly respectable and worthy people, denounced as having a direct tendency to demoralise the nation and encourage all that is low, vulgar, and objectionable. The sight of the great placards of the railway companies, which at the spring time of year so plentifully bedeck the walls, announcing that on next and every succeeding Sunday excursion trains will run at the rate of something like a farthing a mile, while they are so welcome to thousands who have been anxiously waiting for the cheap season to commence, are, to the more soberly disposed, lamentable indications of the increasing disregard of the people for the sanctity of the seventh day, which in their opinion should be a day of rest and religious exercise for everybody.
    It is their honest belief that it would be better if every railway engine-driver, guard, porter, and signalman were released from duty on the Sabbath day, and that the pleasure vans that at present convey light-hearted folk to Hampton or High Beech should be compelled to stay at home, and that the steamboats on the river, stokerless, all their crews, from the captain to the call boy, having Sunday's rest secured to them, should float idly at their moorings from Saturday night until Monday morning. That those who urge this reformed state of things do so out of their sincere conviction that it would be for the general good, there can be no doubt; but there is also no [-313-] gainsaying the fact that so sweeping a change would occasion consternation and dismay, if not rebellion, amongst the thousands who cannot  be made to understand that it is impossible for them to have respect for Sunday because they use it for their recreation.
    Sunday outing is a treasured institution amongst the working classes, and one that is in favour particularly with the female portion of the community. Not the gay and giddy of the sex, but the staid and steady hard-working mothers and sisters who really have no other opportunity for the enjoyment of a few hours in the green fields or a blow on the river. It is the last-mentioned who more strenuously, because with most cause, would oppose any interference with their Sunday. Their husbands have their evenings' leisure, their half-day on Saturday, and their amusements at the clubs and lodge houses, but it is only on Sunday afternoon that the working man's wife may, in accordance with her sense of duty to her family, snatch a few hours of relaxation, and no one can deny that she is justly entitled to it. It is not to execursionising on an extensive scale that the worthy soul in question is chiefly addicted.
    To go to Brighton and back in a day entails an amount of real hard work that, to her thinking, outweighs the advantages. What she and her steady husband most admire is a quiet jog-trot jaunt by water or otherwise, just a few miles away from home, where a change of air and a change of scene may be quietly enjoyed at so small an expense that the trip may be repeated half-a-dozen times, say, in the course of the summer, without any severe strain on the domestic exchequer.
    To Kew Gardens by steamboat is a favourite outing on a Sunday with these good people. From London Bridge, Blackfriars, Westminster, or Chelsea, the boats start at convenient times, and at fares that enable them to compete with the railways. But it is not a matter of a penny or so that would divert the patronage of this kind of excursionist from the river to the rail.
    [-314-] It must be borne in mind that the Thames is not as it used to be. There are now but few filthy and unsightly mudbanks to offend the organs of sight and smell; and nowadays steamboat accommodation - even for the very humblest penny customers - is such as might satisfy the most fastidious. To be sure, the Sunday steamboats to Kew are crowded, and it is not always that the luxury of a seat on deck may be depended on throughout the whole journey, but that rather adds than otherwise to the pleasure.
    If the steady-going excursionist of the class in question found the steamboat but scantily freighted, he would be at once troubled with qualms lest he were guilty of the extravagance of indulging in a treat that but few of his class thought fit to venture on, and he would have gloomy forebodings probably of his good lady and himself having Kew Gardens all to themselves.
    There is no fear on this score, however. From the time - and it is not so many years since - that the magnificent gardens at Kew were thrown open to the public, the privilege has been thoroughly appreciated, and fortunately by exactly that class of persons whom the authorities make most welcome. The regulations designed for the guidance and control of visitors, conspicuously posted at the various entrances to the gardens and pleasure grounds, are as liberal as could be desired; indeed, one or two of the clauses are vested in a good-natured vagueness of language which must cause the gatekeepers, who are the only responsible interpreters, some amount of difficulty.
    It is well-known to be a characteristic of the London holiday-seeker of a certain class to be jealously on the alert against the machinations of publicans and other refreshment vendors who spread their nets for the unwary in the immediate neighbourhood of places of popular resort. It is all very wel1 for the youthful and thoughtless - for free-handed sweethearting young Jacks who would scorn to be particular to a crown or so in [-315-] matters that affect the pleasure and comfort of the dear little Jills, their companions, and who, on their part, have no desire to thwart such generous sentiments - it is all very well for them to patronise the half-crown ordinary at the Crown and Cushion, and even after that to accept a card from the insinuating young lady who "touts" at the flowery gate of Honeysuckle Cottage, and discourses of tea with watercresses and unlimited shrimps for the small charge of eightpence a head; but it does not do for steady-going Darby and Joan, who have outlived such heydey vanities, and who, while they like as well as anyone to take their pleasure, would have no relish for it at all were it not thoroughly well-seasoned with the salt of economy.
    It is for Darby and Joan, worthy souls, who come to Kew Gardens on a Sunday, accompanied by their small flock of heavy-feeding youngsters, that "Clause E" of the "Regulations was specially invented. It says: "Packages and parcels and bags and baskets above a certain size are not allowed to be carried within the grounds." It is the indefinite phrase "of a certain size" that is the occasion of expostulation and argument, more or less mild, between the gatekeeper and his customers. A market-basket of the ordinary domestic pattern and capacity would, for example, be regarded by the officer as being inadmissible, nor would he feel at liberty to "pass" a half-gallon stone bottle artfully concealed by the creole skirt of baby's innocent robe, or a bundle handkerchief extended to its extreme dimensions with crusty loaves and boiled beef in the "round" and the inevitable knuckle of ham. It would be altogether against the rules to admit such wholesale victualling; but the keeper is too polite to turn away such visitors absolutely. He blandly, though firmly, suggests that the questionable luggage shall be left in his care at the lodge while its owners take their pleasure by making a tour of the gardens.
    It is not with such as these, however, that any difficulty arises. The idea of abandoning at the very outset the mainstay [-316-] of the day's enjoyment is not for a moment to be entertained, and the disgusted bearers of the bottles and baskets seek more congenial quarters in the village of Kew, returning in the afternoon eligible for admission, and casting, as they enter the guarded portals, glances of defiance at the beadle, whose objections to the provender under its amended form of stowage are no longer tenable. But the gate-keepers are by no means tyrannical, and make no objection to a bag large enough to contain all that moderation can require.
    The people are left to find out themselves the countless marvels and beauties which the Pleasure and Botanical Gardens at Kew offer to the sensible seeker. If the charge for admission was "one shilling," and every day there appeared in the columns of the daily newspapers glowing advertisements of the various attractions; if prodigious posters on the walls told of whole acres of splendid rhododendrons all in the glory of full bloom - of great plantations of the rarest azaleas, literally blazing like burning bushes, so dazzling is their wealth of crimson and amber and scarlet flowers, and all most delicately scented - of the great palm-house, with its matchless exotic treasures - of the tank where the marvellous Victoria Regia may be seen, of the water-lily house, and the Cape-house, and the tropical stove, and the house where there is on view such a display of orchids as no other gardens in Europe can boast of; if all these, which are but a few of the treasures of Kew, were paraded and announced with as much pains as are taken to make known the glories of the People's Tea Gardens at Peckham-rye, the great pleasure-grounds at Kew would be crowded Sunday as well as weekday. Not that there would be any great advantage in this. As the matter is now managed, those who find their way thither may make sure of enjoyment unalloyed; it would not be so if the authorities were to be at the pains of parading the attractions of Kew. If they did so, it would be a pity; for that plague of parks and of all public places where decent folks [-317-]  seek recreation - the "rough" - would surely respond to the invitation, and come, as is his wont, with his roaring, and his ravaging, and his rags, and his insolent defiance of all law and all order. There are no "roughs" at Kew Park at present. There is no printed law against their passing through the gates, but there seems to be something in their severe respectability, in the chaste gravelled way by which they are approached, and in the emblems of royalty with which they are conspicuously emblazoned, that is sufficient to warn off the tag-rag of humanity. Only respectable people - which, of course, includes the great body of working men and their families - visit the costly gardens, and that only respectable people are expected is proved by the singularly small staff of servants provided to take care of so great an amount of valuable property. There can be no question that half-a-dozen of the terrible gentry above hinted at, actuated by their usual inclination for wanton mischief might unperceived, and in an hour or so, do more damage in some of the choice places at Kew than many hundreds of pounds could repair. There are flowers that grow in profusion in solitary and unguarded nooks, to which the public have unchecked access, every bloom of which is worth, say, a shilling, and half-a-dozen of which might be snapped off by larcenous fingers and concealed in a hat or parasol, and very probably brought safely away; but it is gratifying to be able to state that anything so disgraceful is rarely attempted.
    "We, of course, should find it out afterwards, if not at the time," said a garden-keeper to me, "the plants are too carefully watched by the gardeners for there to be any mistake on that score, and it is a fact that, to the best of our knowledge, we do not lose a dozen blooms in a week."
    "Of course, there is no merit in abstaining from flower-stealing, any more than in refusing to yield to the temptation offered by unprotected goods displayed at a draper's door; but as regards the security of the flowers at Kew, it means something [-318-] more than an observance of common honesty by the people; it shows that every adult visitor has a personal care for the safety of the floral treasures. Every day of the week, including Sunday, are hundreds of children admitted to the gardens, including boys and girls of just that lawless age when they can no more resist flower-picking than dipping their ravenous fingers in an unwatched pot of jam. If the grown persons did not look after these idle hands, for which, according to Dr. Watts, it is the especial pleasure of Satan to find employment, it would go hard, indeed, with the azaleas.
    And it is not to any very heavy penalty threatened in the Garden Regulations that this vigilance on the part of parents and guardians is due. All that the printed rule applying to the safety of the flowers has to say on the matter is to the mild effect that, "It is hoped that visitors will abstain from touching the plants and flowers. A contrary practice can only lead to the suspicion, perhaps unfounded, that their object is to abstract a flower or cutting, which, when detected, must be followed by expulsion."
    My observations on the particular Sunday when I was there did not warrant me in asserting that this polite suggestion was observed in its strict integrity. The visitors did touch the flowers when they came on a handsome lot of them, and opportunity favoured the infringement. They touched them - holding them tenderly by the stems, mind - and took ecstatic sniffs at them; and in the case of one old lady, who carried a reticule of ample capacity, and who stood for fully half a minute drinking in the intoxicating scents, with her venerable nose fairly hidden among the flowering petals, I confess that I felt some alarm. She was an old woman, meanly dressed, and of that complexion which invariably distinguishes the dweller in close and pent-up places, where flowers refuse to grow - common flowers, such as the balsam and the wall-flower, let alone a blazing glory like that she was now fondling over. It was very [-319-] rash of her to get so close to it. She should have been content to admire it at a distance, instead of deliberately walking into such a hotbed of temptation.
    "Ah!" she exclaimed to her old husband, who was with her, and who evidently trembled for her honesty even more than I did; "lovely ain't a good enough word for it. I've smelt roses before now, Joe, but never like this. This must be the otter of 'em, I'm sure."
"Yes, and you'll find that you'll get it hotter than you expects if they ketches you a-clutching hold of it like that," returned the grimly jocular Joseph. "You come away, that's a good old gal."
    But I was afraid that the good old gal evinced symptoms of being anything but good. She took another powerful sniff, and uttered a prolonged "A-a-h !"-and then I heard a sharp click, and lo! the mouth of her reticule yawned wide open. Wishing her no harm, but all the good in the world, I should have felt rejoiced if at that moment a bee had started out of the flower and stung her to a sense of her perilous position. Should I warn her? Should I utter some admonitory sound from the sheltered bank on which I was reclining and all the time watching her? But I might have spared myself my alarms. In unclasping her bag, the worthy old soul had no more intention of committing a robbery than I had. She merely withdrew her pocket-handkerchief and, clapping it to her nose, exclaimed, "I'll keep the beautiful smell of it in as long as I can, anyhow," and so passed on innocently with her old man.