Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 10 - Buildings, Beer and Bears' Grease

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CHAPTER X

BUILDINGS, BEER, AND BEARS' GREASE

Buildings - Beer - English v. French - Brewers - " Entires " - Convinced M.P.- Shop and tavern signs - London Bridge railway termini - Southwark Town Hall - Crimean plum-puddings -Wellington Clock Tower - New London Bridge as Rennie left it - Skating on London Bridge - Glengall Grove bridge - A puzzle for future antiquaries - Moses and Sons - Harper Twelvetrees - Boars' grease and bears - Antimacassars - Hair-brushing by machinery.

AND were the streets and buildings of the 1850s very different in appearance from those of to-day? Not so very different. Things were suggestive of a smaller scale, but analysis fails to detect, allowance being made for the non-existence of rabbit-warren offices and steel-framed structures, any startling differentiations. Public-houses were more in the foreground, for beer, together with roast beef, was supposed to be the spring of the Englishman's exuberant vitality and the source of his ability (never questioned when I was a boy) to take on and beat a trio of Frenchmen at any moment of the day or night. Such a development as Carpentier would have been incomprehensible, impossible and ridiculous to the ordinary Briton of those times; and it is even doubtful whether Shakespeare, when he wrote,
        "I thought upon one pair of English legs
         Did march three Frenchmen,"
had any distinct premonition of the Georges punch.
    A result was that brewers' names were household words. Wherever there was a tavern it had a deep skirting board running round the roof which announced in the brightest colours, never allowed to get dingy, the name of the supplier of the nectar on tap within. The word ENTIRE - always with a capital or all in capitals - which had a magic meaning to [-96-] beer-drinkers, suggesting, apparently, unutterable bliss, was never absent. Barclay and Perkins' ENTIRE; Courage and Company's ENTIRE; Whitbread's ENTIRE, and so on, appealed to the thirsty from the sky-line, and not in vain. One firm used to put GENUINE ENTIRE, thereby, unfairly perhaps, suggesting that their competitors' ENTIRES ought, in reality, to be termed mere FRAGMENTARIES. Courage was indeed an excellent name for a brewer, for it hit off exactly the popular belief in the soul-raising properties of the mash-tub - a belief that died hard and may still in some districts be extant.
    At any of these resorts compounds unknown to the modern bar-maid might be called for. Such as porter, a thin black fluid suggestive of liberally-watered stout, and "cooper," a half-and-half mixture of porter and four-penny ale - which was a "small beer" costing 4d. per quart, this being likewise the market price of porter.
    In the 1890s I knew a very worthy brewer who had been elected by a discriminating community who liked his ENTIRE to make laws at Westminster. He was accustomed on all occasions to express complete confidence in the nourishing power of malt and hops, and when sitting in Select Committee would have a huge tankard brought him as lunchtime approached which he supped unconcerned by the presence of counsel, witnesses and audience. I thought that indicated a very thorough belief. His name wasn't Courage, but it deserved to be.
    In this connection it may be remembered that a British constituency once sent a brewer to Parliament in company with but in front of Mr. Gladstone.
    Tradesmen indulged in striking signs more freely than they do to-day. Near the Bricklayers' Arms were two grocers who displayed huge tea-pots on brackets in front of their shops. One, painted red and owned by a Mr. Rose, endured to my knowledge for over fifty years. On the Elephant and Castle tavern, Old Kent Road, used to stand a well-carved elephant with howdah, visible afar both from the east and west. The Swan, already mentioned, had a large and well-proportioned bird on the top of its signpost; and many other taverns had well-executed picture [-97-] signs. The World Turned Upside Down had a geographical globe with the southern shores of all continents facing northwards; if anybody wanted Spitzbergen or Nova Zembla he had to seek them in the far Antarctic, while Tierra del Fuego changed latitudes with Labrador.
    The vicinity of the London Bridge stations was very different then-a-days. The Charing Cross Extension railway being non-existent, there was no viaduct over the Borough and to pedestrians coming across London Bridge the view was considerably more open and extended. The exterior of the Brighton Station was much as it is now, except that there was no canopy shelter over the roadway in front.
    Neither has the adjoining South-Eastern building been altered materially as regards frontage, although radically different as a station. Next to the South-Eastern Railway stood the terminus of the Greenwich Railway, a mean structure which was pulled down to make room for the Charing Cross extension. Portions of one of its boundary walls still remain, however.
    Between the stations and Duke Street stood an Arcade, containing small toy and sweet-stuff shops, through which wayfarers could walk if they chose on approaching or leaving the railways. In the Borough, at the junction with the present Southwark Street, then non-existent, stood what was known as the Southwark Town Hall. What use it was put to latterly I do not know, but when pulled down, well on in the 1860s I think, it was stated that in the cellars were found crates containing petrified plum-puddings addressed to the troops before Sebastopol. Probably bought by patriotic public subscriptions, those puddings, and incautiously left to the War Office to forward and by them strategically shunted into Southwark cellars.
clocktower.gif (73014 bytes)    In a building close at hand was situated the railway parcel office at which Wainwright, the Whitechapel murderer, left the body of Harriet Lane. At the southern end of the bridge, at the corner of Duke Street, stood a Gothic clock-tower as a memorial to the great Duke of Wellington, which was removed to Swanage when the railway extension to Charing Cross upset all the street arrangements at this [-98-] point. The clock had been made by a Mr. Bennett of Blackheath, who had taken care to inscribe his name on it very legibly, and as the Duke of Wellington's was nowhere apparent it seemed to us more like a Bennett clock-tower and our small bosoms felt lifted up accordingly.
    The London Bridge footways were paved with huge granite slabs laid side by side across the whole width of the path. They wore well but got slippery and had to be periodically roughened with mallet and chisel. The parapets were of solid granite blocks with recesses over the piers. There were granite seats in these recesses, fortunately for us boys, as we were too small to see over the parapets and the seats afforded points of vantage from which to view undisturbed the bustling river scenes below. In those days the inconsiderate conduct of bridge builders who made parapets too high for boys to see over was a standing grievance with me. The circulation over the noble arches was enormous, probably greater than now, for there was then neither a Tower, nor a very practicable Southwark, Bridge, while several new river crossings farther west have diverted much vehicular traffic. And Railways and Tubes have certainly seriously depleted the floods of pedestrians. Then the footways were solid masses of moving humanity while the roadway for hours together was packed with horses and wheels often without space for even a single addition. The bridge is now considerably wider, but I doubt whether that fully accounts for the comparative sparseness of traffic.
    In January, 1866, I witnessed a strange sight on London Bridge - people skating. Late one evening there was a slight rainfall in London followed by a sharp frost with the result that pavements and roads everywhere became coated with a thin layer of ice. Carriage transport was arrested and foot passengers greatly harassed. I had several miles to walk, all cabs and omnibuses being stalled, and fell several times in spite of every care. Crossing London Bridge I saw two young men skating merrily on the eastern footpath and thoroughly enjoying the novel experience, the large and well-laid granite slabs evidently favouring the sport. The bridge across the Grand Surrey [-99-] Canal at Trafalgar Road was then being rebuilt and a temporary one approached by steep banks of earth was doing duty. After several vain attempts to walk up the slope from the Peckham side I had to sacrifice dignity and swarm up on hands and feet. That night was a bad one for wires, and London was practically isolated telegraphically for days afterwards. Ice formed on the wires to the thickness of a man's wrist, and its weight brought them, and often the poles they were attached to also, to the ground.
    When we first went to Camberwell there was no bridge across this canal at Glengall Grove (now Road), which was a cul-de-sac. But in 1858 or 1859 a bridge was erected and approaches thereto of tipped rubbish formed. This contained, at least on the northern side, quantities of old but mostly unbroken ink bottles in glass and stoneware, many different shapes and makes being in evidence. There was one pattern in glass, elaborate and pretty, that could only have come from a mould, and yet moulded glass bottles were being boomed as a new invention thirty or forty years later. We made quite a collection. Antiquaries may perhaps find them at some distant period, wonder what they are and start theories to account for their presence beneath the soil of London. Anybody wanting ink bottles to-day has only to obtain the permission of the Local Authority to dig there and he will find.
    Conspicuous in London of the 1850s were the tailoring shops of Moses and Sons. This firm liked prominent corners and especially the wedge-shaped premises-what the Scotch call "gushets" - which occur at the convergence of two thoroughfares. They occupied the gushet at the junction of New Oxford Street and Hart Street, that at the corner of Aldgate and the Minories, and several others. At the Minories they had for a time one of the first installations of electric light for shop purposes that I know of. Whether the newly-invented magneto machine or primary batteries were used I cannot say, but the enterprise must have proved a costly one. Arc lamps were of course employed.
    One continually encountered on hoardings and walls the imposing name of Harper Twelvetrees, generally in very [-100-]large blue letters. This gentleman was a specialist in laundry blue - a sort of pre-historic Reckitt - and took care to let the world know it. His name would certainly have required an inordinately large bushel to hide it, so there was, perhaps, some excuse for him.
    In hairdressers' windows and over barbers' shops notices relating to bears' grease were perpetually seen, such as, "Bears' grease fresh this week"; "Bears' grease personally prepared" ; "Try our special Bears' grease." And less frequently, "We kill a bear this week." In the 1850s it was an article of faith that even as beer nourished the muscles so did bears' fat nourish the scalp and what was rooted therein. The benighted early Victorians, poor souls, knew not the late G. R. Sims nor Tatcho, and when they wanted hair went - shall I say bare-headed? - for bears' grease. The barbers naturally fostered the delusion and sold sweet-smelling unguent in pellucid china pots, nicely packed in lead paper, at the rate of about 2s. 6d. per ounce. This was inscribed "Refined bears' grease" usually on a semi-circular label surmounting the picture of a bear - sometimes a grizzly on a peak of the Rockies, sometimes an Arctic bruin on an ice-berg. Even those not given to scepticism might have doubted the power of fat from two such dissimilar creatures to produce analogous effects but then Nature is very wonderful.
    Some barbers even pretended to kill their own bears, they were so very particular and conscientious. One day we heard that a barber on Oakley Terrace had a live bear on view which was doomed to slaughter on the proximate Saturday. We proceeded there "non-stop" and found a small crowd gazing down a cellar grating in front of the shop windows, in which was a notice that a bear of pure race had been acquired at enormous expense and would be killed for the benefit of the firm's customers. As only a limited quantity of refined grease could be prepared from even the largest animal it was considerately suggested that it would be good business for intending purchasers to give in their orders immediately.
    Down in the area beneath was a poor lean greyish bear, [-101-] large certainly, but quite incapable, one would think, of yielding any grease. He sat on his haunches and sniffed. There was a baker's shop almost next door and perhaps be smelt the buns, although I doubt it-he had such a strong scent of his own.
    The next week, happening to be in the Walworth Road, I noticed a crowd round a barber's shop, and, investigating, discovered down a grating what was indubitably the same bear, with a similar notice of slaughter for Saturday in the window. Evidently it was poor Bruin' s sad fate to be carted about London and converted into bear's grease every Saturday. No wonder he was lean! There are few things deader than bears' grease in London to-day, but it was a boom that lasted many years.
    The men of to-day are wiser about their craniums than were their - may I say, forbears? - the Victorians of 1850. Then greasing and pomading and plastering and oiling of hair and waxing of moustaches were practised almost universally. The chief rival to bears' grease was Macassar oil-hence antimacassar to designate a device for preventing the fouling of furniture. Gardez l'huile!
  
Very curious is human nature. I have already recorded the disinclination of the Victorian female for illicit or over-decoration, but her abstinence was, it must be admitted, largely neutralised by the insanitary ostentation of her masculine adorers.
    Hair-brushing by machinery came in while we were at Camberwell and I well remember my first experience of it. It was said to produce a most exhilarating effect and I tried hard to feel lifted up accordingly. At first the machine was generally turned by a small boy and I recollect Punch's picture of an irate barber proceeding upstairs to oil the stopped machinery with a cane. But it was not long before other methods obtained. An enterprising barber near Newington Butts put a very pretty little two-cylinder horizontal steam-engine in his window, which drove his brushes and attracted attention for years. Hair brushed by steam! It must be admitted that even the early Victorians were edging away a little from Noah's Ark.