Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 8 - Still on the Queen's Highway

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Tea-shops - Aerated bread - Chop and coffee-houses - Taverns - Railways and refreshments - Lake's - Lord Mayor's Show - Gog and Magog - Show Programmes - Mayors and Reeves -  Omnibuses - Fires - Manual engines - Fire escapes - Steam fire engines - Tooley Street blaze - Thames on fire - Braithwaite and Ericsson - Locomotive Novelty  - Turret ship Monitor - Hot-air ship - Motorcar radiator.

AN invitation to contemplate a London without tea- shops may seem rather hopeless, but nevertheless, up to about 1875, such an institution was, in the modern sense, to the Cockney unknown. And when it came it was not an innovation that caught on with the speed of the Great Fire. Probably the advent of the girl clerk prompted its inauguration, and her ever-increasing numbers favoured its development.
    Aerated bread was first heard of about 1860, and was the invention of Dr. Dauglish of Malvern, who aimed at the abolition of manual kneading with its associated nastiness and dangers to cleanliness and health. This he accomplished by means of yeast-less dough, mixed by machinery and impregnated with carbonic acid gas. Nothing but flour, water, a little salt and gas - no sweat! It was liked by many. For years the Company confined itself to the making and sale of its special bread and cakes.
    The first A B C shop to sell tea, coffee, milk, etc., and provide sitting accommodation which I knew was in the courtyard of Fenchurch Street Station and about the date named had only recently been opened. I understood it was the initial attempt and was prompted by the fact that the sale of bread alone was not proving a dividend-earning proposition. Things have developed with the A B C and its imitators since then, but little is heard now of the [-79-] mechanically mixed bread which was the Company's raison d'Ítre and its employees know about as much of Dr. Dauglish as they do of St. Francis of Assisi.
    In the 1850s those who lunched in the City had to rely on the chop-house or its humbler congener the coffee-house. There was the London Tavern, to be sure, and a few others where millionaires could revel, but of regular hotels with grill-rooms attached I doubt whether there was even one within the magic square mile. The Bridge House Tavern, just over London Bridge, had a name for lunches and dinners. The nearest railway stations (excepting Fenchurch Street) to the City were also just beyond London Bridge and the daily migration to and fro of business folk across Rennie's granite arches was enormous. Fenchurch Street, the terminus of the Blackwall, Tilbury, North London and Eastern Counties Railways, was the only station in the City, the so-called Bishopsgate terminus of the last-named line being really at Shoreditch. Neither did anything noteworthy in the catering line, whereas there were Refreshment Rooms of at least decent aspect at the London Bridge stations. It was not until the early 1860s that the chophouse tradition began to be broken into by a few lunching establishments, like Lake's in Cheapside, institutions which usually began as additions to existing public-houses.
    Lake's was reckoned very go-ahead, for there one could supplement one's luncheon by smoke, coffee, draughts, dominoes and billiards. They placed implicit faith in the honesty of their clients. On coming out you detailed what you had had to an elderly pay-clerk who instantly and unerringly announced the total due.
    I once or twice in the 1850s had experience of a City chop-house, with its sanded floor, straight-backed wooden seats, and primitive arrangements. Pewter plates and dishes were said to have been discarded quite recently by some of them. The things supplied were excellent - chops and steaks, of English meat of course - and an air of good-fellowship prevailed, room being made for a stranger with the greatest readiness. The Head Waiter was always addressed by his Christian name, and was often a man of [-80-] parts and character - wealth also sometimes - apt at repartee and free from the servility to which in later years the German waiter accustomed us.
   On Lord Mayor's Show day the chop-houses did roaring business, and yielded the unusual sight of ladies and children amongst their customers, for the Show was a great deal more popular then than now, and attracted the fair and the innocent from far and near. I saw it several times, on one of these occasions occupying, with my father and younger brother, a splendid position inside the railings - I believe they were still the famous ones of Sussex iron - of St. Paul's, standing on the base of one of the columns of the semicircular portico facing Cannon Street, along which the procession could be seen coming with its clouds of banners on its way past the Cathedral to Ludgate Hill. An advancing band could be heard before its precursor was out of ear-shot, so anxious was His Worshipful the Lord Mayor to prevent any lapse of enthusiasm; and we cheered ourselves both hungry and thirsty as the gilded and shimmering dream drifted by.
    If only Gog and Magog had been carried in the procession as they - or rather their predecessors, for the original figures were destroyed in the Great Fire-used to be! Without admiring the ugly features of those civic dignitaries we had seen enough of them in the Guildhall to lament their absence. The present Gogmagog and Corineus, for such are their proper names - Gog and Magog springing from a vulgar and quite unauthorised cutting up of the former cognomen - were born in 1669. They are of wood, whereas their forerunners were of wicker, which perhaps makes all the difference in portability.
    A feature of the Show in those days was the awful folding panoramic programmes, purporting to give an exact view of the procession, sold by dozens of hawkers. "Lord Mayor's percession! Highly coloured! Tuppence!" The crude and glaring tinting was ludicrous, even to children, but the really funny point was that they were precisely the same year after year, and so really bore no reference to the Show in progress. Apparently about 1790 or so, [-81-] judging from the artistic and other evidence, some enterprising printer made a block, bearing more or less resemblance to the pageant of his day, which was still utilised by his heirs or executors half a century or so afterwards, as each November 9th came round. Never mind - we had a jolly time! Vive le Lor Maire!
By the by, I have always thought it a pity that we adopted the French title of Mayor for our Chief Magistrates. In Reeve, still extant in the 1850s - for then some towns yet possessed their Town Reeve, or Borough Reeve - we had a good English word expressive of civic authority that afforded no opening for the scoffer and punster to liken the revered head of a whole community to a female horse or a Frenchman's mother. My Lord Reeve and My Lady Reeve - in my humble opinion - would have looked and sounded much better. But as I believe the change, except as regards London, which had had its Mayor for centuries,* (*The first Mayor of London was Henry Fitz Alwyn, 1189.)  was enacted by Parliament in its wisdom I had better say no more, having a proper fear of the Clock Tower before my eyes. Perhaps, knowing that a Lord Mayor was bound to be ennobled, or, at the least, knighted, and so made a Cavalier, the drafter of the Bill thought it well to anticipate the inevitable by associating the dignity with the genus equus from the beginning. In view of the taste prevailing for things German in those times we have to be thankful that Lord Burgomaster was not foisted upon us instead of Mayor.
    To and from the Lord Mayor's Show we went by omnibus, that being the ordinary means of communication between Camberwell and the City. There were hansoms and "growlers" for special occasions, but no railways or tramways. Many of the Surrey-side omnibuses terminated their runs in Gracechurch Street, turning between Fenchurch and Tower Streets, and waiting awhile there. So constant streams of home-bound business men converged on this point as offices closed and created a scene of much animation. Some buses had a complement of regular passengers, started to a fixed time-table, and made non-stop runs to their destinations.
    The driver of such a bus often wore a white top-hat, [-82-] carried a rose in his button-hole and a cigar in his mouth. The conductor - cad he was then often called, perhaps from his habit of "cadging" passengers from under the nose of a rival - also sported a topper (never a white one) and frequently a flower. He couldn't well smoke, in view of the acrobatic nature of his occupation, but often bore a twig or straw between his lips. He stood on a step to the left of the door, barely large enough for his feet, and supported himself by grasping a strap fixed high on the back of the bus and descending over his shoulder. From this proud eminence he hailed likely passengers, ogled the girls, and chafred the drivers of following buses or other vehicles. His was supposed to be a pungent wit. One of his duties in the crinoline age was to lean down from his perch and prevent with his hand the oval that hoops or whalebone had to assume when squeezing through the narrow doorway from rising to an indelicate height, as they were somewhat prone to do. "It's well I'm married," a cad once remarked to an outside passenger; "my place ain't fit for a single bloke."
    These "outsides" had to climb to the roof by a series of iron rungs on the right of the door, holding firstly to a strap and higher up to a rail, stairs not being yet evolved. On the top he guided himself to a vacant place on the "knife-board," a central seat running longitudinally the length of the roof and divided into two by a low vertical partition, so that "outsides" sat back to back with their feet against skirting-boards fixed to the roof edges. As may be supposed, women were but rarely seen on the knife-board-never in the ordinary way, but sometimes when buses were used for picnics and outings a ladder would be provided for their decent ascension - while all males looked the other way. There were usually only two box seats, one on each side of the driver, although some of the larger vehicles had four. These were mostly reserved as places of honour for known and favoured customers, gentlemen who arrogated to themselves the privilege of providing Jehu with cigars and drinks and occasionally "remembered" the conductor.
    [-83-] Inside, the bus was narrow and cramped. The floor was covered with a thick layer of straw - in imitation of stage-coach practice - dry and clean every morning, but, as may readily be supposed, in wet weather damp, dirty, and smelly for the rest of the day. It was warm for the feet and kept out draughts, but promoted a too-evident stuffiness, especially when the let-down window of the door was up and the portal itself closed - there were no microbes to worry us in those days - and if a sixpence or a four-pennybit were dropped the chance of recovering it was small indeed. There were no tickets to punch or bother about. The cad took what he could and paid in to his employer what he considered constituted a fair return on that gentleman's invested capital : the rest he shared with the driver. So when tickets were ultimately introduced and the conductors struck against them, people could understand what a real and substantial grievance these down-trodden drudges were protesting against.
    But there were employers who favoured the older system, under which the men let no traffic slip that they could possibly secure: when tickets came, the customers had to cadge the buses instead of the buses the customers, while dividends were no better and relations not so cordial. With all this, omnibus passengers were jolly enough. They travelled up-to-date and what voyager could want more? When in the middle of the '60s the Metropolitan Railway put on three-horse buses between Portland Road Station and Piccadilly Circus in connection with their trains, and provided them with staircases, all the world wondered and admired.
    The uniformity of name and colour which obtains with the modern London motor-bus was unknown. Every route had a distinctive name and colour in the old horse days - Paragons, Paddingtons, Favourites, Nelsons, Royal Blues, Camden Towns, King's Crosses, etc., etc. They seemed to possess the power of separating, like the spectrum analysis, the vagrant beams of white light that penetrated the London haze into all the colours of the rainbow - although when I come to think of it, I cannot remember a bus of violet hue.
    [-84-] Once, when riding on a knife-board, my bus was stopped by an obstruction due to a fire and gave me a first opportunity, and that from quite a point of vantage, of observing the working of the Fire Brigade. I won't be certain of the year, but we had just passed Camberwell Green and I had noticed that the brick gate-posts for the enclosure then being effected, had been erected, but as yet neither the gates themselves nor the encircling railings were in situ. Perhaps it would be 1857. I do not know whether London boasted any steam fire-engines then; if so, they had not turned out on this occasion and the mischief was being fought with three manual machines worked by long handles on either side, the motive force being men and youths, some of them in top-hats, six or eight to each handle, one up and t'other down. They were volunteers who were paid, I understood, a shilling each for a prescribed spell at the pumps. The feeble squirts resulting were directed by brass-helmeted men, not very differently clad from those we see to-day, and others stood around with ladders.
    There was no fire-escape present on this occasion. A few such, recently introduced, existed in London, but not in connection with the Fire Brigade. They were owned and managed by a charitable society resembling the Life Boat Institution of the present day. The sliding sectional ladder on wheels called a Fire Escape was the invention of a barber, one Abraham Wivell (he was also the first to propose a system of London sewers delivering into the Thames towards the sea) whose endeavours to get his idea taken up met with the greatest discouragement from the Authorities that were, in spite of the fact that several lives were lost through fires in London every year. The non-receptive obstinacy of people in power, of whatever category, to new propositions is indeed marvellous.
    Ultimately a Society supported by voluntary contributions was organised, and for many years this praiseworthy body kept Fire Escapes with trained attendants at specified stations throughout the metropolis. When called to a fire the attendant wheeled the machine himself (although usually he found willing helpers) to the scene and there did [-85-] whatever rescuing that was required, all off his own bat and quite independently of the Fire Brigade. I suppose he could rely, however, on aid from the police if necessary. I think things thus continued until the advent of the London County Council as Fire Authority, or nearly so. But poor Wivell got little out of it and had to go on scraping chins for a livelihood, and that not a very lively one.
    If the London Fire Brigade did possess steam fire-engines they could not have been numerous, for when the great Tooley Street blaze occurred three or four years later, at which the Fire Superintendent, Mr. Braidwood, was killed, and Ned Wright, the burglar-pugilist, afterwards Evangelist, was converted, the Press wanted scalps because a dozen steamers - which they said would have flooded the place in no time and put the fire out like a damped squib - were not forthcoming. Messrs. Shand and Mason had exhibited steam fire-engines working successfully in August, 1859; the London Fire Brigade had ordered several and I believe two or three of these were actually at the Tooley Street fire. Several floating steam-pumps certainly were.
    I saw that conflagration from a distance of about five miles - from the spot where the London County Council's Electric Generating Station at Greenwich now stands - and doubt whether fifty steam-engines would have done much. The Thames was really set on fire that night. Blazing fat floated far down the stream and imperilled the wooden vessels moored in the Pool. For days afterwards, as far afield as Erith, the river banks and mud fiats were coated with grease which was energetically salved by hordes of men, women and children.
    Steam fire-engines had been originally introduced over thirty years previously by the firm of Braithwaite and Ericsson while fire extinguishing in London was still in the hands of the Insurance Companies. One engine did the work of many manuals, but Conservatism was strong and the wise-acres in power didn't like them. They were heavy to pull about and took a long time to get up steam, they said. Braithwaite and Ericsson sent a locomotive, the Novelty, in 1829, to compete for the prize of £500 offered [-86-] by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway for the best locomotive, which was won by George Stephenson's Rocket. The Novelty was fundamentally one of the firm's fire-engines adapted to turn wheels instead of working a pump and was a good little engine in its way but too light for the task prescribed.
    Ericsson afterwards went to America and designed the Federal iron-clad, revolving-turret ship Monitor which so decisively smashed the Confederate armoured vessel Merrimac during the Civil War, and originated a new type of war-ship. He was a clever engineer and tried many things, propelling ships by hot-air engines instead of steam being one of the most noteworthy of his achievements. In 1853 he built a paddle-wheel ship called the Caloric (sometimes termed the caloric ship Ericsson) which was driven by hot air, but as the machinery and fuel about filled the hull and left no room for cargo or passengers she was not voted a financial success and after a few trial trips was converted to an ordinary steamer. She was of 1,900 tons measurement and resembled a paddle-wheel ship except that the absence of visible funnels rather suggested that she consumed her own smoke, albeit that was an unlikely characteristic for an American production of those days.
    Strange to say, in 1866 I saw her in the river Scheldt at Antwerp, equipped with a "walking-beam" steam-engine, while I was in the company of an agent of Shand and Mason, builders of steam fire-engines, which had come mightily into vogue since the Tooley Street disaster. There had been a big fire in Antwerp Docks and he was over trying to get orders for his engines. British manufacturers were not then reproachable for want of enterprise. So Ericsson's name once more became linked, although in a round-about fashion, with his steam fire machine of forty year~ before. At that time the Caloric was trading across the Atlantic. After Ericsson left for America his old firm became Braithwaite and Milner and built locomotives on the Stephenson model in the New (now Marylebone) Road, some of which went to the United States: one, the Rocket, constructed about 1838, is still preserved at Chicago. Braithwaite [-87-] afterwards became engineer to the Eastern Counties Railway.
    One of the devices invented by Ericsson for the Caloric was a cooler or radiator arranged so as to expose the greatest possible surface of metal to the air. It is used to-day, modified in various ways, on practically every petrol motorcar.