Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 2 - Southward Ho!

[... back to menu for this book]





Camberwell - New house - Severe frost - Maidens at the well - First railway Journey - Accidents.

OUR new dwelling was old-fashioned and stood in its own grounds, for it had a large front garden separated from the road by a tall brick wall in which was a wooden gate bearing the name of the house and furnished with a bell-pull; and a still larger back garden bounded by a brick wall on either hand and a dense hedge at the bottom. To the right a private lane divided the garden from that next door, but on the left our neighbour's demesne ran coterminously with ours. We heard that a public lane had once existed behind the hedge, but had been closed years before. What was beyond I cannot recollect, but it must have been fields or gardens, as the view was not restricted. It is very extraordinary that while my memory is most distinct and particular about many things, there are a few - like the nature of the toy bought to console me during the measles, and this beyond-hedge prospect - upon which it utterly refuses to respond.
    A modern wing had been added to the old house at right angles, projecting into the back garden and containing the kitchen and pantry with a good servant's bedroom above them. The original kitchen, a large, square, stone-floored apartment, had been converted into a scullery and wash-house, but still boasted a rusted range, with a huge folding toothed bracket upon which to hang the roasting-jack fixed to the mantel. By craning our necks over the range we could see daylight above through the capacious chimney. A copper in a brick setting, with its flue, had been built in one corner, and, with its well-boiled copper-stick, was a [-29-] conspicuous object. This utensil was used every week by the washerwoman. Public laundries were rare then and the day laundress ubiquitous - who occasionally employed gunpowder for the purpose of clearing the narrow chimney of soot. This was a performance in which we boys were much interested, but, unfortunately, it was usually completed before we were up. Presumably coppers were generally built with restricted chimneys, as the operation was common. It was popularly known as "skying the copper," owing to a tradition that a washerwoman, once on a time, had used too much explosive and directed the whole concern, copper, soot - and housemaid's sweetheart, who unluckily happened to be concealed therein - heavenward. Every year this cauldron was devoted to the sacred rite of boiling the Christmas pudding.
    Opposite the range a huge iron water-tank was reared on two brick walls about three feet high. Water was laid on and supplied the tank through a nozzle controlled by a lever and floating ball. The end of an overflow pipe protruded through the bottom of the tank between the brick piers. This tank - and incidentally the overflow pipe - was destined to prove a source of endless amusement and experiment to us youngsters. It was easy to climb and stand on the wall near the floating ball and thus survey and command the upper part of the tank and all its works. But grief occasionally mingled with our joy: it was not the overflow pipe only that emitted moisture.
    The scullery had but one window, which gave upon the back garden, and it was glazed with small greenish panes, every one of which had a big glass knob or projection near its centre. I understand such panes command a fancy price to-day: then they were contemned as old-fashioned and inferior to modern plain glass.
    The "front" door was at the side of the house, next the lane, and was on the top of a flight of steps which in one direction led to the front, and in the other to the back, garden. Apart from the old kitchen, I do not remember anything peculiar about the rooms except that they contained plenty of cupboards and that the dining- and drawing-[-30-]rooms were separated by folding doors. There was no bath-room. The stairs were a bit narrow, perhaps, but on the whole the house was cosy and comfortable. The front garden comprised a lawn bordered by bushes and two or three elderberry and laburnum trees; the back one not only had flower beds, but was a veritable orchard of apple, pear, cherry, and plum trees, with gooseberry and currant bushes. Such was a Camberwell residence of those days, and there were plenty like it in the vicinity. Many neighbouring houses had tall and weird-shaped brick chimneys, built at all sorts of surprising angles, but ours was commonplace in that respect and had nothing but ordinary straight chimney-pots to show.
    One of our first experiences at Camberwell was a very severe frost. For many mornings in succession we awoke to find the water in the jugs on the washstand only a few feet from our pillows frozen so hard that the ice could not be broken without danger of smashing the vessel; while Jack Frost had utilised the night hours to decorate our windows with elaborate and artistic designs so thickly laid on that much scraping was necessary to gain a glimpse of the sparkling crystal-laden trees outside. The ball in the iron tank became a fixture, and hammer and chisel had to be used on the ice cake before the water beneath could be drawn off. The Water Company's turncocks erected straw-bound stand-pipes in the street, and history seemed put back as troops of damsels hastened to them with all sorts of utensils and once more lingered and gossiped at the "well."
    The removal of old London Bridge some twenty-three years before had led to the prediction that the Thames would never again be frozen over, previous instances of that phenomenon being attributed to the arrest of floating ice by the narrow openings of Peter of Colechurch's grand structure; but in February, 1855, a long stretch of the river was completely iced over near Hampton Court. Some of the ships in the Pool below bridge became immovable, and their crews walked ashore opposite Billingsgate and Custom House Quay. The Serpentine had six and a half [-31-] inches of ice to its credit, and the morning bathers had to borrow gunpowder from their washerwomen before a dip could be indulged in. Some forty years elapsed before I knew a frost in London approaching this one in severity.
    Not long afterwards I experienced the first railway journey of which I retain a distinct and intelligent impression. From a very early age I had taken such interest in ships, steamers, railways and locomotives that my dear mother predicted that I was bound to become an engineer. I eagerly inspected pictures on these subjects and listened attentively to conversations and readings about them. I knew railway engines very well from illustrations, and had seen them all a-hissing and a-puffing during several suburban trips on the shiny rails, but never noticed things as I did on this occasion.
    We travelled from London Bridge to Greenwich (probably at my instigation, as it would have been easier to have taken one of the "Nelson" omnibuses which traversed the Old Kent Road for that destination) over the classic arches. The compartment was crowded, but by standing at the right-hand window I saw many trains, stationary and in motion. At Greenwich the engine had been detached before we had reached the exit end of the platform, and run forward on to a traverser, or semi-turntable, which a man, by working a crank, screwed round so as to permit the engine to go off on another track past the train it had just brought in. While the screwing over was in progress the tender was filled with water from a long hose hanging from a tank above.
    The locomotive was No. 5 of the South-Eastern Railway, which, in after-years, I learned had been built in 1839 - only nine years after the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway - by Sharp, Roberts & Company of the latter city. She rejoiced in plenty of bright brass work and green and red paint and stayed on the table all too short a time for my curiosity. When she went, the blast sounded loud and sharp under the station roof, and, with the revolving of her 5 feet 6 inch driving wheels, left me impressed with a sense of power and majesty. But what [-32-] a tiny concern this No. 5 would look beside one of the leviathan locomotives of 1924! This turntable arrangement remained in use at Greenwich terminus until 1878, when the line was extended to Woolwich, and Greenwich Station became only a wayside one. It and adjacent property was damaged by German bombs in 1917.
    Another early recollection of Camberwell relates to a rather serious accident that befell me, the mark of which persists to the present day. Racing my younger brother on all fours up the stairs, I slipped and struck my chin against a step, and as I was shouting lustily at the moment my front teeth were driven right through my tongue. Blood, tears, cries, alarms, culminating in the doctor, who came, saw, prescribed and put in a couple of stitches and a narcotic. For a fortnight at least I had to be fed on milk, broth, and suchlike unsubstantialities, besides being forbidden to so much as attempt to speak. I had to say even my prayers mentally. To replace my tongue I was furnished with slate and pencil, and this experience, I think, helped me not a little with my writing. Desperately hungry one morning, seeing my brothers enjoying eggs for breakfast, I took my slate and wrote, "I want an eg." An unfeeling parent - it being part of the game, when the first consternation had passed, to pretend that I was deaf as well as dumb - took the pencil and replied, "You shall have two [my eyes lighted up] - when the doctor orders."
    That same doctor could be a little sarcastic on occasion. Not long after my recovery, one very wet Sunday afternoon, we got some fish-hooks, tied them to walking-sticks with thread and, ascending the dining-room table, proceeded to angle round it. I got a bite, and jerking my rod with violence the hook flew back and went right through my left eye-lid. The barb prevented its extraction, so the doctor was again summoned. He came and asked for cutting-pliers. We had no such tool in the house, so he despatched a note to his own. Awaiting the reply, he took me on his knee and solemnly advised mother to engage him to live permanently with us in view of my special cleverness in getting in need of surgical assistance. He thought it [-33-] would come cheaper for her in the end. The pliers arrived. The barb was cut off and I was cured. But there was no more Izaak Walton business that afternoon. The wound smarted badly, and obviously I had had a narrow escape of losing an eye. How the hook could go through the lid without touching the ball was indeed surprising. Three years later that same eye was in peril again, and escaped by an almost equally narrow margin, as will be related in its place.
    This doctor, in common with many others of the period, employed a page-boy - in natty pot-hat and trim shell-jacket decorated with several rows of silvered buttons - to carry round and deliver his medicines.