Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 19 - An Easter Revival

[... back to menu for this book]





A PLEASANT place, the Fenchurch Street Railway Station, to a person who knows at which of the numerous pigeon- holes he should apply for his ticket, and who does not mind running the chance of being sent to Margate when his destination is Kew. A pleasant place for a person without corns, who is, what grooms say of horses, "well ribbed up," and whose sides are impervious to elbow-pressure; who is complacent in the matter of being made the resting-place for bundles in white-spotted blue-cotton pocket-handkerchiefs, who is undisturbed by squirted tobacco-juice, who likes the society of drunken sailors, Jew crimps, and a baby-bearing population guiltless of the wash-tub. It has its drawbacks, the Fenchurch Street Railway Station, but for that matter, so has Pall Mall. It was crammed last Easter Monday - so crammed that I had literally to fight my way up to the pay-place, above which was the inscription, "Tickets for the Woodford line;" and when I had reached the counter, after many manifestations of personal strength and activity, it was disappointing to receive a ticket for a hitherto unheard-of locality called Barking, and to be severely told that I could not book to Woodford for twenty minutes. I retired for a quarter of an hour into the shadow of one of the pillars supporting the waiting-hall, and listened [-204-] to the dialogue of two old farmers who were patiently waiting their turn. "A lot of 'em!" said one, a tall old man with brown body-coat, knee-cords, and top-boots, having at his feet a trifle of luggage in the shape of a sack of corn, an old saddle, and a horse-collar. "A lot of 'em all a pleasurin' excursionin', I s'pose!" "Ah!" said the other, a wizen dirty-faced little fellow in a long drab great-coat reaching to his heels, "it were different when we was young, warn't it, Maister Walker ? It was all fairs then!" "Stattys" said the first old boy, as though half in correction; "there were Waltham Statty, and Leyton Statty, and Harpenden Statty, and the gathering of the beastes at Cheshunt, and that like!" And then the two old fellows interchanged snuff-boxes and shook their heads in silent lamentation over the decadence of the times The twenty minutes wore away; the Barking people disappeared slowly, filtering one by one through the smallest crack of a half-opened door; and a stout policeman shouting, "Now for the Woodford line!" heralded us to the glories of martyrdom through the same mysterious outlet.
    What took me out of town last Easter Monday? Not a search for fresh air; there was plenty of that in London, blowing very fresh indeed, and rasping your nose, ears, and chin, and other uncovered portions of your anatomy, filling your eyes and mouth with sharp stinging particles of dust, and cutting you to the very marrow, whenever you attempted to strike out across an open space. Not an intention to see the country, which was then blank furrow and bare sticks, where in a couple of months would be smiling crops and greenery; not with any view of taking pedestrian exercise, which I abominate; not to join in any volunteer evolutions; not to visit any friends ; simply to see the " revival of the glorious Epping Hunt" which was advertised to take place at Buckhurst Hill, and to witness the uncarting of the deer before the Roebuck Inn.
    [-205-] We were not a very sporting "lot" in the railway carriage into which I forced an easy way. There were convivialists in the third and second classes (dressed for the most part in rusty black, carrying palpable stone-bottles, which lay against their breast-bones under their waistcoats, and only protruded their black-corked necks), who were going "to the Forest," and who must have enjoyed that umbrageous retreat on one of the bitterest days in March; but we had no nonsense of that kind in my first-class bower. There was a very nice young man opposite me, in a long great-coat, a white cravat, and spectacles, which were much disturbed in their fit by the presence of a large mole exactly on the root of his nose between his eyebrows, upon which the glasses rode slantingly, and gave him a comic, not to say inebriated look a curate, apparently, by the way in which he talked of the schools, and the clubs, and the visitings, and the services, to the old lady whom he was escorting; a clean, wholesome-looking old lady enough, but obviously not strong in conversation, as she said nothing the whole journey but, with a sigh of great admiration, "Ah Mr. Parkins!" and rubbed her hands slowly over a black-and-white basket, like a wicker draught-board. Then there were two City gentlemen, who had " left early,"  as they called it, and were going to make holiday in digging their gardens, who, after languidly discussing whether the reduction in the Budget would be on insurance or income, waxed warm in an argument on the right of way through Grunter's Grounds. And next to me there was a young lady, who, from the colour and texture of a bit of flesh between the end of her puce-coloured sheepskin-glove and the top of her worked cuff, I judged to be in domestic service, but who had on a round hat with a white feather, a black silk cloak, a scarlet petticoat, and a crinoline which fitted her much in the same way that the " Green" fits Jack on the 1st of May. We dropped this young lady at Snares-[-206-]brook, where she was received by a young man with a larger amount of chin than is usually bestowed on one individual; the two City men got out at Woodford, with the Grunter's Grounds question still hot in dispute; and at Buckhurst Hill I left the curate and the old lady sole occupants of the carriage.
    There was no difficulty in finding the way to the scene of the sports, for the neighbourhood was alive and crowds were ascending the hill. Not very nice crowds either, rather of the stamp which is seen toiling up Skinner Street on execution mornings, or which, on Easter Mondays, fifteen years ago, patronised Chalk-Farm Fair. Close-fitting caps pulled down over the eyes, with hanks of hair curling out from underneath, no shirt-collars, wisps of cotton neck-cloths, greasy shiny clothes, thick boots, and big sticks, characterised the male visitors : while the ladies were remarkably free in their behaviour. The resident population evidently did not like us; all the houses were tight closed, and the residents glared at us hatefully out of their windows, and received with scornful looks our derisive remarks. A prolific neighbourhood, Buckhurst Hill, whither the moral and cheerful doctrines of the late Mr. Malthus have apparently not penetrated, as there was no window without a baby, and there were many with three; a new neighbourhood, very much stuccoed, and plate-glassed, and gable-ended, like the outskirts of a sea-side watering-place; very new in its shops, where the baker combined corn-chandlery and life-assurance agency - the greengrocer had a small coal and wood and coke tendency - and where you might be morally certain that under the shadow of the chemist's bottles and plaster-of-paris horse lurked bad light-brown cigars. On Buckhurst Hill one first became aware of the sporting element in the neighbourhood by the presence of those singular specimens of horse-flesh which hitherto had been only associated in my mind with Hampstead and [-207-] Blackheath - wretched wobegone specimens, with shaggy coats, broken knees, and a peculiar lacklustreness of eye, and which got pounded along at a great pace, urged by their riders, who generally sat upon their necks with curled knees, after the fashion of the monkeys in the circus steeple-chase.
    When we got to the top of the hill, we emerged upon the main road, and joined the company, who, possessing their own vehicles, had disdained the use of the railway. The most popular conveyance I found to be that build of cart which takes the name of "Whitechapel," from the fashionable neighbourhood where it is most in vogue; but there were also many four-wheeled chaises, so crammed with occupants as to merit the appellation of "cruelty-vans," constantly bestowed upon them by the light-hearted mob; there were pleasure-vans filled with men, women, and children; a few cabs, and a large number of those low flat trucks, which look as if a drawer in a conchologist's cabinet had been cleared out, put upon wheels, and had a shambling pony or depressed donkey harnessed to it, and which, I believe, are technically known as "flying bedsteads." The dust raised by these vehicles, and by a very large pedestrian crowd, was overwhelming: the noise caused by the traffic and by the shouting of the many-headed was terrific; and the thought of an early lunch in some secluded corner of the Roebuck (a tavern whence the hunt starts, and which has for many years enjoyed an excellent reputation) was my only source of comfort. A few minutes' walk brought me to an extemporised fair, with gingerbread stalls, nut-shooting targets, and two or three cake-stands, with long funnels projecting from them like gigantic post-horns : which I found from their inscriptions were, "Queen Victoria's own Rifle Gallery," "The British Volunteers' Range - Defence not Defiance - Try a Shot; "and beyond this fair lay the Roebuck, charmingly quaint and clean, and gable-ended, and purple-fronted.
    [-208-] The crowd round the door was rather thick, and it was with some difficulty that I edged my way over the threshold, and then I came upon a scene. What should have been the space in front of the bar, a passage leading through into a railed courtyard joining, upon the garden, some stairs leading to the upper rooms, and a side-room, the parlour of the place, were all completely choked with visitors. And such visitors! The London rough is tolerably well known to me; I have seen him in his own peculiar territories in the neighbourhood of Drury Lane and Shadwell; I have met him at executions and prize-fights I have been in his company during the public illuminations; but I never saw such specimens as had taken indisputable possession of the Roebuck Inn, nor did I ever elsewhere hear such language. All ages were represented here - the big burly rough with the receding forehead, the massive jaw, and the deep-set restless eye; and the old young boy, the "gonoph," whose oaths were as full-flavoured as those of the men, and, coming from such childish lips, sounded infinitely more terrible; brazen girls flaunting in twopenny finery; and battered women bearing weazened children in their arms. Approach to the bar-counter was only possible after determined and brisk struggles, and loud and fierce were the altercations as to the prices charged, and the attempts at evading payment. I could not get out of the house by the door at which I had entered, as the crowd behind was gradually forcing me forward, and I had made up my mind to allow myself to drift through with the mob, when I heard a cry of "Clear the road!" and, amid a great shouting and laughing, I saw a gang of some thirty ruffians in line, each holding on to the collar of the man in front of him, make a rush from the back door to the front, pushing aside or knocking down all who stood in the way. Being tall and tolerably strong, I managed to get my back against a wall, and to keep it there, while these Mohocks swept [-209-] past; but the people round me were knocked over like ninepins. This wave of humanity ebbed in due course, and carried me out with it into the garden, where I found a wretched brass band playing a polka, and some most atrocious-looking scoundrels grotesquely dancing in couples to the music.
    I got out through the garden to the stables, and thence round again to the front, where I found an access of company, all pretty much of the same stamp. I was pushing my way through them when I heard my name pronounced, and looking round saw an old acquaintance. Most Londoners know the appearance of the King of the Cabmen a sovereign whose throne is a hansom driving-box, and whose crown is the curliest-brimmed of "down the road" hats. I have for many years enjoyed the privilege of this monarch's acquaintance, and have, in bygone days, been driven by him to the Derby, when he has shown a capital appreciation in the matter of dry sherry as a preferable drink to sweet champagne, and once confidentially informed me - in reference to his declining a remnant of a raised pie - that "all the patties in the world was nothing to a cold knuckle of lamb." The monarch couldn't quite make out my presence on Buckhurst Hill (he was evidently there as a patron of the sport), but he struck his nose with his forefinger, and said mysteriously, "Lookin' after 'em, sir?" I nodded, and said, "Yes;" upon which he winked affably, declared, without reference to anything in particular, that he "wasn't licked yet, and wouldn't be for ten year," and made his way in the direction of the tap.
    The aspect of the day now settled down into a slate-coloured gloom, and a bitter east-wind came driving over the exposed space in front of the Roebuck where the crowd stood. Hitherto there had not been the slightest sign of any start ; but now some half-dozen roughish men on long-haired cobs - ill-built clumsy creatures, without the [-210-] ghost of a leap in any of them - were moving hither and thither; and in the course of half an hour the old huntsman, mounted on a wretched chestnut screw, blowing a straight bugle, and followed by four couple and a half of harriers, made his way through the crowd and entered the inn yard. After another half-hour, we had another excitement in the arrival of a tax-cart containing something which looked like the top of a tester-bed in a servant's attic, but under which was reported to be the stag; and the delight of the populace manifested itself in short jumps and attempted peepings under the mysterious cover. Then we flagged again, and the mob, left to itself, had to fall back on its own practical humour, and derived great delight from the proceedings of a drunken person in a tall hat, who butted all his neighbours in the stomach - and from a game at football, which had the advantage of enabling the players to knock down everybody, men, women, and children, near to whom the ball was kicked. At length even these delights began to pall the start had been advertised for two o'clock - it was already three; and discontent was becoming general, when a genius hit upon the notion of setting fire to the lovely bright yellow furze with which the heath was covered, and which was just coming into blossom. No sooner thought of than accomplished! Not in one place but in half-a-dozen smoke rose, crackling was heard, and in a few minutes in place of the pretty flower was a charred and blackened heap. This was a tremendous success and the mob, though half stifled by the smoke and half singed by the flame, which leapt fiercely from bush to bush under the influence of the wind, and roared and crackled lustily, remained thoroughly delighted, until the crowd of mounted sportsmen had much increased, and the deer-containing cart was seen to be on the move.
     Bumping and jolting over the rugged ground, the cart was brought to the bottom of a small hill, and shouts arose [-211-] that a space should be cleared into which the deer could be uncarted. But this phase of your British public does not like a clear space; it likes to be close to what it wants to see; and the consequence was, that the crowd clustered round within four feet of the cart, and steadfastly refused to go back another inch. The persons who managed the business seemed to object ; but, as all remonstrance was futile, they took off the top of the tester-bed, and a light-brown deer, without any horns, and looking exceedingly frightened, bounded out of the cart, took two short side jumps, amid the roar of a thousand voices, leaped some palings into an adjacent garden, and then started off across country at a splitting pace. The horsemen did not attempt to follow, but struck off, some to the right and some to the left, to find an easy way into the fields; and the pedestrians climbed on walls, and gave a thousand contrary opinions as to where "she" had gone. The dogs I never saw, nor did I see any further traces of the mounted field, nor of the stag, nor of the huntsman, nor did I find anyone who had. No sooner was the stag off than the people began to return home ; and I followed their example convinced that of the numerous silly "revivals" of which we have heard of late, this attempt to resuscitate the Epping Hunt is one of the least required and the most absurd.