Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 1 - Early Days

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Islington - City Road - Cholera - Measles and Weasels - New River - Pranks - London Bridge - The Pool - Crimean War - P.s. Prince - H.M. S. Tiger.

TO one who has had the opportunity of comparing by personal experience the conditions which prevail to-day, in 1924, with those that ruled the lives of Londoners sixty and seventy years ago, it is very obvious that in many ways things are not what they were. Whether the changes are all for the public weal may be doubted; that they have occurred is beyond dispute.
    As a very little boy I lived in the north of London, not far from the erstwhile fair village of Islington. When nearly five years old a family migration happened, and Camberwell, not yet the forlorn locality we know to-day, became the scene of my small activities. Five years later these shifted to Greenwich. So my knowledge of Suburbia did not lack variety.
    My recollections of Islington are confined to the years 1853-4, probably mostly to the latter, and are naturally not very numerous. The most vivid, perhaps, have reference to the stepped terrace upon which the pathway from the Angel tavern to near Liverpool Road is raised. In itself it has certainly undergone no considerable change Since then, although the Angel and some of the shops have been rebuilt.
    It is likely that my observation was concentrated on this terraced walk, not so much because of its unusual construction as from the fact that among the shops which it fronted were two, trading respectively in cakes and toys, [-18-] that were wont to arrest my particular attention. Which attracted me the more I cannot say, but I sometimes remained in suspense between them, much as Mahomet's coffin is fabled to hover between opposing magnets.
    Two mishaps which have never been forgotten occurred to me on this terrace. I once got my left foot wedged between the bars of a cellar grating in front of the confectioner's and was held prisoner in midst of a gaping but sympathetic crowd until a man, rough both in attire and language, appeared with a crow-bar and by prising apart the tenacious irons set me free. On another occasion a coal-heaver carrying a 2-cwt. sack on his back turned suddenly to enter a doorway just as I was passing and struck my face with one of the stiff corners of the sack, giving me my very first black eye.
    An earlier recollection - the most ancient of all my surviving infantile memories - was of riding along the terrace in a two-seated perambulator with my baby brother, fast asleep, with his head on his left shoulder, facing me. I also seem to sense that he was dressed in white or very light-coloured clothes and wore a cap to match; while I could almost swear an affidavit that when this occurred I sat with my back to the direction of motion, which was towards Highbury. In after-years this remembrance occasioned some wonderment, although its precision was not challenged, for at the time my comings and goings on this planet had all been performed within the limited span of some twenty-eight months.
    I remember the Angel dimly (we were not supposed to notice public-houses); the reservoir on Pentonville Hill, Sadler's Wells theatre, and the Waterworks adjacent to it, very well.
    Not far from the theatre was the churchyard in which two men prominently connected with it in its palmy days were buried - Charles Dibdin, the talented writer and composer of nautical songs, and Joe Grimaldi, the famous clown. I had never seen a pantomime, but had come to know somehow that a clown was an exalted personage, and Grimaldi the very pick of his kind.
    [-19-] Our walks sometimes extended to another public-house, the celebrated Eagle in the City Road, which could not be ignored, for did it not possess a theatre (where the great Sims Reeves made his first appearance on any stage), and have annexed to it a pleasure garden in which General High Jinks held permanent command?
    Was it not recorded that there a daring acrobat once attached a horse instead of a car to a balloon, and seated on its back surpassed even the Eagle in his flight and discharged fireworks in the very face of the wondering stars? And that, when ho descended, near Twickenham, the horse began to gallop as soon as his feet touched earth with the result that he jumped over a Quakers' Meeting House (causing much mute astonishment), and then cleared Eel Pie Island and the encircling Thames, all at a bound and without turning a hair? And did not a difference of opinion develop between the acrobat and certain tender- hearts-the one being certain that the horse enjoyed the entertainment quite as much as he did himself and the others that it was cruel and ought to be put down?
    And could we not sing the ditty which has rendered the house classic if not immortal :
        "Up and down the City Road,
            In and out the Eagle"?
    To reach this resort of the Muses - in after-years (until purchased and captured lock, stock, and barrels by the Salvation Army) to become familiar to gay young Londoners as "The Bird "- whose glories we were only permitted to contemplate from across the way, we had to pass the bridge over the Canal Basin in the City Road. In 1854 hoardings covered with advertising posters much like those which adorn it to-day were already there. The bills, perhaps cruder and less artistic than their successors of 1924, were equally numerous and insistent. I have sometimes thought that these hoardings - which I did not like, for they prevented any view of the canal and navigating barges below - and the terraced walk at Islington ought justly to be reckoned amongst the most stable of London's monuments.
[-20-] Certainly St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey have changed more.
    The cholera was bad during the latter part of our stay at Islington, and I remember having imbibed an impression that in some way or other it was connected with chickens in confined spaces, for walking one day with my father in or near the Goswell Road we came upon a lot of fowls in piled-up coops, the topmost containing a great yellow cock, who, as we passed, flapped his wings and crowed lustily as if announcing himself far and wide as king of the castle. "Should we catch cholera by going very near them?" I enquired. Thenceforth, long before I knew anything about quarantine flags and their significance, I somehow associated yellow with disease, and especially cholera. Some seventeen years later I was in a village in Mesopotamia which was suddenly occupied by a Turkish Kurdish regiment on the march to embark for El Katiff in Arabia which the Ottomans were then invading. They had cholera amongst them so badly that they were losing a. man about every hour with great regularity. Once more that yellow cock clapped his wings and crowed in my imagination.
    This feeling about yellow may have been assisted by the fact that I took measles at Islington and occupied for many days a yellow-painted iron cot in the parental chamber - segregation for measles had not then been dreamed of - an apartment the form and arrangements of which I remember perfectly. My yellow cot lay to the left of the main bed, beyond which was the door. To the right on entering was the fire-place, and facing the beds were two windows. Beyond the fire-place were the washstand and towel-rack, and against the left wall was an antique wardrobe. A dressing-table occupied the space between the windows and a circular clock hung on the wall above it.
    When the doctor came he made a brief examination and said: "He's got the measles - got 'em badly. Now I had never heard of measles, but in connection with my elder brother's rabbits was familiar with the word weasel, [-21-] which I knew designated a wicked little animal, for not long before one had got into a hutch and killed the dun-and-white mother of fifteen. So I jumped to the conclusion that he meant that I had the weasels, and, not without apprehension, began to wonder how they had got into me and why I didn't feel them running about inside.
    Connecting chickens with cholera was by no means an extravagant idea for those days. The fell disease was not understood, and in the prevailing ignorance all sorts of notions were current. The water supply, however, was beginning to fall under suspicion, and the merits of chloride of lime to be mooted. Remedies recommended were numberless. Acorns, mustard plasters, castor-oil, laughing-gas, cold mutton broth, and hot mint-tea each had its strenuous advocates.
    While I lay ill my father received a present of a pair of handsome china vases which he, as I remember vividly, brought up to show me one afternoon. After due admiration they were placed on the mantel-piece and next day supplied with water and flowers. Blooms were considered refreshing for a sick room then. Those vases remained in the family for many years, miraculously surviving the perils incidental to a household finally containing seven boys, and did not, I think, completely disappear - they were pretty fragmentary before that happened - until well on in the 1880s. Father, also, another day, brought me a large toy, with which I was greatly pleased, although its nature, strange to say, I have completely forgotten.
    A recollection of these yellow-cot days is of watching little groups of flies circling and apparently gambolling in the centre of the bedroom, continuing at the game, seemingly without change of personnel, for hours. I used to wonder what they were really doing and why they always waltzed in the centre of the room and nowhere else. These speculations went on for years, but nearly seven decades later remain unsolved. As I write, flies are dodging each other in the air over my head and in the exact centre of [-22-] the room. Yet what they are after or up to I know no more now than then. But as there is usually an upward atmospheric current in that position, especially if a gasalier or electric pendant hangs there, they may be catching nutritious trifles - small deer in the shape of germs, for instance - in the ever-rising and changing air.
    I remember a chemist's shop not far from the Terrace, but not on it, at which we sometimes made purchases, where there was a large rectangular aquarium with gold and silver fish. Close to it stood a globular receptacle for leeches which the doctors of those days, not yet entirely emancipated from the craze of blood-letting, were fond of prescribing, and a stock of which every druggist was bound to keep for sale or hire. The proprietor had a bald head, and him I detested, for he sold a peculiarly disgusting grey powder which he was insistent on all occasions in recommending for little boys.
    My elder brother, eight years my senior, met with two mishaps during our stay at Islington. Coming home from school one day he was interfered with by a butcher's boy. A tussle ensued, and my brother was thrown violently upon an iron grating and his left arm broken. This caused a commotion in the house, as may be imagined, and it was long before he was convalescent. I remember him with a toy drum of mine hanging round his neck which he was beating with his uninjured hand. As he kept rabbits and was fond of books and drawing he made the time pass not entirely without profit.
    The other occurrence was on Guy Fawkes Day, 1854. Gunpowder Plot was kept up in those days! My brother bought materials and made up fireworks of his own which, in the evening, he let off from an apple-tree in the back garden, to the admiration of his parents and younger brothers. He seemed slow in coming down the tree afterwards and in to supper, and when he did appear mother noticed that he was pale. Later, showing clumsiness in managing his food, she caught his hands, and lot on the palm of the right was an angry and extensive burn. One of the home-made fireworks had exploded in his grasp. [-23-] And he was trying to emulate the Spartan boy with the fox!
    At Islington we, of course, heard much of Sir Hugh Myddleton and his New River, and I was shown places where this was said to run underground. When, some years later, I was told that in certain vast caverns eyeless fishes inhabited pools and subterranean streams, I wondered if in the portions of the New River which flowed underfoot the fishes were eyeless too. The pit of Sadler's Wells was reputed to be situated immediately over some springs, and close by, Grimaldi once swam across the river in his haste to get to the theatre, in which a panic, due to a false alarm of fire, was in riotous progress.
    I'm afraid that apart from a big snow-storm - my first - and some personal escapades that might have happened to any naughty boy anywhere, these reminiscences of Islington must be the last.
    I have mentioned the filthy grey powders vended by the bald druggist of piscatorial tendencies. These I would only take under the strongest compulsion, and one morning refused absolutely all solicitations and threats. The powder was all ready in a spoon, unmixed-on the advice of the pernicious chemist - with jam or any other tempting qualifier. I felt that it would make me sick and said so. That morning the chimneys were being swept and the house-maid most treacherously suggested - it was long before I forgave her, if I ever did - that the sweep, then "doing" the kitchen, should be sent for to make me take the powder. I treated the proposal with derisive defiance, but was alarmed when, a few minutes later, the dingy craftsman was ushered in. His face was very black and his general get-up, including smell, deplorably sooty. He was apparently one of those objectionable individuals - I have met several during my life - who think they cannot effectively communicate ideas without pushing their faces close against that of the person addressed. Accordingly, friend sweep put his dirty countenance close to mine, and in a husky voice said: "Young master, you must please take your nice powder." I opened my mouth to deny [-24-]  that it was nice, when in was popped the spoon and dismal contents. What I had feared immediately took place. I retched and discharged the whole dose straight into the sweep's face. A chorus of dismay rose from the women folk; and a minute later, I heard the water running in the scullery where the sweep had at last been compelled to wash his face. When he left the house it was as a cleaner and, possibly, wiser man. His medical practice had been brief.
    More than thirty years afterwards I one day entered a druggist's shop near the Town Hall, Carlisle, and found myself confronted with a rectangular aquarium containing gold and silver fish. Instantly I thought of Islington, and once more felt the taste of those grey powders in my mouth. Such is the power of suggestion.
    A few years before that I had been very ill near Kilmalcolm, Renfrewshire, and the doctor there, who afterwards attained some eminence in his profession, prescribed his medicine in the form of powders. I protested, offering to take any sort of liquid mixture without winking, but he insisted that in any other form the medicine would be less effective, so, to please him, I accepted a dose. The usual consequences ensued, and I refused to try again, notwithstanding his urgency, which amounted almost to entreaty, and when he found himself up against a stone wall he called me "an obstinate Englishman" and went off in a pet - but I recovered. His drug was not the same as the Islington one, but suggestion was at work and proved all-powerful.
    My good mother sometimes tried to circumvent my hatred of the powders by concealing them in pleasant disguises. Once she gave me a specially nasty one in a fig, and it was fully twenty years before I could bring myself to taste that fruit again.
    One afternoon, on going out, my mother left a sovereign  - think of that in 1924 ! - on the dining-room table, together with an account which she thought might be called for in her absence. I found the coin and took it under the table, where I played at being a miser and hiding it from all the [-25-] world on ledges and projections I found there. Being summoned to tea I left it bidden and forgot all about it. Mother returned after I had been put to bed, and as the expected collector had not appeared asked where the sovereign was. The maid was, of course, quite unable to explain, a fact that seemed rather extraordinary. On father reaching home the matter was reported to him, and the poor girl fell under some suspicion. Fortunately, I was asked next morning if I had touched the coin, when, diving under the table, I triumphantly produced it. The lecture that followed was not of the kind that goes in at one ear and out of the other - but it certainly knocked at one of them.
    My mother was very fond of flowers, and one afternoon father sent home a plant covered with beautiful white blooms which pleased her very much. It was placed on a circular table in the dining-room window. I found it there, and possessed by the spirit of mischief or something of that sort, carefully picked off every one of the blossoms and ranged them in rows on the window-sill. I had cause to remember that escapade too.
    My elder brother wore the expansive white collars then deemed indispensable for schoolboys. A box of new ones was left at the house and placed on a table on which a pair of scissors was unluckily lying. I found the deposits, and putting two and two together, as it were, cut off all the bands from the collars, afterwards coiling bandless collars and collarless bands neatly together and restoring them to the box and the box to its wrappings.
    But, Islington, I must leave thee and thy memories! At the end of 1854 we removed to "the other side of the water," as The Ratcatcher's Daughter, a popular song of those days, had it. After the last furniture had left and the old house was closed, mother and I boarded an omnibus and travelled to Camberwell. The bus had very bright scarlet cushions, upon which I stood as it crossed London Bridge, and, through the windows, got my first brief glimpse of shipping. The river at that point presented a very different aspect from the present one. Docks were few, [-26-] and ships, especially sailers, were many, for it took a dozen or two of such small craft to equal in carrying capacity one of the huge steamers of to-day. They were moored almost stem to stern, in what was called the Pool, in two tiers, each tier consisting of two or three craft abreast, extending down the river further than the eye could reach. Between the tiers an open channel was kept for steamboats, and between the tiers and the river bank barges and wherries navigated. The Harbour Master's job in those days was no gilded sinecure. Cargoes were discharged and loaded by barge, and the Thames waterman was a person of many privileges and high prestige. Steamers - which he struck against and tried to stop when they were novelties - and docks have robbed him of much of his importance. But I shall have occasion to return to London Bridge later on.
    The Crimean War was in active swing before we left northern London, but I cannot recollect learning much about it there. It was father's wont to bring home and discuss the news, but early retirement to my yellow cot deprived me of much chance of hearing it.
    A few years later, events which occurred in 1854 interested me intensely. One was the wreck of the 2,600-ton paddle-steamer Prince, which left London full of sorely-needed stores for the troops, and was lost with many of her crew off Balaclava before she had landed an ounce, in the famous Black Sea hurricane. Another was the destruction of the paddle-frigate Tiger near Odessa. Going ashore in a dense fog she threw all her guns but one overboard in an effort to get off. When the fog cleared she found herself under the Russian batteries, which opened fire, and in a few minutes knocked out the captain - who afterwards died - and killed and wounded some of the crew, besides setting the ship ablaze in two places. Hopelessly situated and unable to get her sole remaining gun to bear, she struck her flag. It is pleasant to record that the Muscovites did their best for the wounded and treated their prisoners well. In the 1880s an elderly man once asked me for alms in St. James's Park, remarking that he had seen service in the navy. Enquiring particulars, he said that he had been in the [-27-] action of the Tiger in the Sea of Azof. But alas! a little cross-examination proved him a yarner for, in addition to being adrift in the wrong sea, he knew practically nothing of either the action or the ship. If that old sinner had the luck to splice the main-brace that afternoon it was not at my expense.