Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 14 - Bridges - Gardens - Churches - Parsons

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CHAPTER XIV

BRIDGES - GARDENS - CHURCHES - PARSONS

Hungerford Bridge - Market and Pier - Lambeth Bridge - Battersea Timber Bridge - Old Westminster Bridge - Old Blackfriars Bridge - Cannon Street Bridge - Rosherville Gardens - North Woolwich Gardens - Cremorne and Royal Surrey Gardens - Rev. C. H. Spurgeon - St. George's, Camberwell - Churchwardens' staves - Pulpits, clerk and beadle - Boys and girls - Problems and peppermint -The Rev. Samuel Smith.

I HAVE mentioned Hungerford several times, a name now in desuetude, but then, owing to its market, bridge and landing-stage, a household word in London. The South-Eastern Railway is responsible for its wiping out, for in 1862 they built their Charing Cross terminus on its site, and used the piers of the bridge for their own viaduct.
    Hungerford Market, for meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, was a large two-storied building, opened 1833, which took the place of one built in 1680 by Sir E. Hungerford. It had a quadrangular yard facing the Strand which formed a convenient starting point for many omnibuses.
    Hungerford Suspension Bridge was Opened in May 1845. It was 1,342 feet long, 14 feet wide, with a central span of 676 feet. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was responsible for the broad gauge of the Great Western Railway and had much to do with the s. s. Great Eastern, including its ultimate launch, was the engineer. The upper structure had been removed by January 1863, and part of it employed for Clifton Suspension Bridge at Bristol, completed in 1864, which soon earned an unenviable reputation as a jumping- off point for suicides.
    At Hungerford a halfpenny toll had been charged, and the Act which handed the property over to the S.E.R compelled them to provide foot-paths alongside their railway track and authorised the levy of a corresponding toll. [-123-] To patrons of the penny steamers the bridge was a familiar object, and the landing-stage at its base one of the busiest.
    Lambeth was another suspension bridge erected by a limited company on halfpenny tolls intent. It was opened in November 1862, and about 1904 was closed to vehicular traffic as dangerous. Unlike Hungerford, it was of unprepossessing design, cheap and mean, and such as no Authority in the world other than the British Legislature would permit to be erected over such a river as the Thames in the immediate vicinity of such buildings as the Parliament Houses at Westminster.
    Other bridges, not now existent, were Blackfriars, Vauxhall, Westminster: old-fashioned stone structures; and Battersea, a timber erection of some twenty narrow spans, the passing under which on a steamer always generated a thrill, for until actually on the spot it looked impossible that the wide-spreading paddle-boxes could ever get through. Old Westminster Bridge I once crossed in a cab in 1858 and recollect, approaching from the Surrey side, being struck (I, of course, had my head out of the window) by its steep and even mountainous appearance. It was financed by a public lottery, like the British Museum and other old-time works were, and completed in 1749. In February and March of that year occurred severe shocks of earthquake. These it successfully withstood, thereby controverting current rumours of instability. Similar stories regarding its successor were circulated for years after its erection. The old bridge disappeared about 1860, being provisionally replaced by a timber roadway. This was brilliantly illuminated at night by oxy-calcium lamps - the lime-light of the theatres and a not inefficient precursor of electricity.
    Old Blackfriars Bridge was closed in June 1864, a temporary wooden construction meeting traffic requirements during the erection of the new. The old bridge quickly disappeared and the foundation stone of its successor was laid in July, 1865.
    An experience in 1866 will ever cause me to remember this rebuilding of Blackfriars. Going for a long pull in a four-oared cutter one summer evening, we were delayed [-124-] in getting home to our Club boat-house by a heavy storm, and had to pass under the twin bridges at about 1 a.m. in the midst of such a downpour that the coxswain had to divide his attention between steering and baling. The tide was running like a mill-race and the darkness such that on approaching the bridge we had to go easy until a flash of lightning showed an opening to aim for. The contracted timber carriage-way and the building scaffolding created a formidable obstruction - and as we forged under the arch into still greater obscurity the stream was swirling and foaming with a loud swishing sound amongst the piles, which the tips of our oars barely cleared. We felt - I especially, for I was pulling bow - the boat plunge and dip as she passed the dammed-up waters and descended to the lower level beyond. It recalled the stories we read about shooting Old London Bridge. Had we met anything in the narrow channel, inevitable disaster would have resulted, but we were the only craft under way at that hour-at least we thought so, until met and challenged by a police boat a little further on.
    An entirely new Thames crossing, the South-Eastern Railway bridge at Cannon Street, was completed September 1st, 1866. Like Charing Cross, it was provided with footpaths, but for some reason these were never opened to the public.
    Before quitting the subject of bridges the curious fact may be mentioned that in 1671, a Parliament of Charles II debated for several days a Bill to build a bridge at Putney, and eventually threw it out by thirteen votes on the ground that it would affect the tideway and destroy London by blocking the river. A member who suggested that obstruction might be obviated by building the bridge of iron was derisively laughed at.
    Rosherville, which I have mentioned several times, was a pleasure garden, a mile or so west of Gravesend, the laying out of which was reputed to have cost 20,000. It had a steamboat landing-stage, and, being without a railway station within convenient distance, was principally dependent on old Father Thames. It was situated partly in an ancient [-125-] chalk quarry, contained many foreign trees and shrubs embowering statues of nymphs and fauns and goddesses, and was undoubtedly an attractive place. It had concert-rooms and dancing-floors, and, being energetically managed, lured the cockney and his lass in their thousands. Although hilarity often reigned, disorder was rare. The Master of Ceremonies for some years was a Baron von Something-or-other-hausen, a rather undersized man of very many-pounds-to-the-square-inch dignity and self-importance, whose Marshal's baton, a collapsible opera-hat, no reveller ventured to disregard. The legend from its posters "The Place to spend a Happy Day," was so familiar that it was practically interchangeable with "Rosherville." These gardens will be recalled as the opening scene of Anstey' s funny and clever novel The Tinted Venus. It was a Cremorne on a small scale and at a distance. When the steamboat traffic decayed, the twenty miles separating it from its chief source of patronage could not be overcome, and the erstwhile happy days had to be sought elsewhere. For many years after closing, the site was overrun at will by boys and vagabonds; its buildings, statues, trees, destroyed, defaced, overthrown, plundered; now-last scene of all - it is, I believe, to give place to a huge margarine factory.
    Pleasure gardens as a form of amusement are now quite dead-in London, at all events-but in the 1850s and 1860s there were several in full swing - Vauxhall, Cremorne, Surrey Gardens, North Woolwich, and divers minor ones. Except Rosherville the last-named was, I believe, the very latest survivor and specialised in baby- and barmaid-shows in the days of its decadence.
    We children often watched for the fireworks at Cremorne. Condemned to bed before drowsiness had asserted itself, we used to stand on a table in our room and from the window look over the back garden far away to Chelsea, where, at a certain hour, the sky frequently became radiant with rockets and coloured stars, always finishing up with a grand salvo of variously-tinted fires spreading out like the tail of a peacock and lasting a minute or two. Then we listened for the tremendous reports that were bound to follow such a [-126-] discharge and sometimes thought we caught them faintly. Perhaps we did. Big Ben used to sound so loud and close in certain winds that there seemed nothing ridiculous in noise-waves enduring all the way from Cremorne to Camberwell. After the grand salvo we went contentedly to bed. When fireworks were shown at the Surrey Gardens, which was not so often, they could be seen from the same window and to better advantage. I have viewed fireworks blazing at Cremorne on the left, while in the sky, to the right, Donati's comet was having a high old time, serenely outdoing them all.
    The Surrey Gardens bulk largely in my earlier recollections owing to the disaster there on a Sunday evening in October 1856. Mr. C. H. Spurgeon - the so-called Surrey Side prophet - then twenty-five years of age and already famous as a preacher - engaged one of the Surrey Garden Halls, warranted to hold 10,000. On this occasion some 12,000 forced their way in and 7,000 more remained outside. Find me in 1924 a preacher who can attract a congregation of 19,000! Mr. Spurgeon had just commenced to pray when a cry of "fire!" was raised. The usual result, a stampede for the doors, followed, although the minister continued his prayer in the hopes of calming the multitude. But in vain. Seven were killed and many injured. One little girl aged six, taken to Guy's Hospital, could not tell her name or where she lived. As she was never claimed it was supposed that her custodians had perished. Parallels to this touching incident occurred at the loss of the Princess Alice in 1878, and of the Channel Island boat Stella in 1899. I heard the account of this dreadful accident read from the newspaper, and the memory has always remained. One of its consequences was the building of Spurgeon' s Tabernacle, Newington Butts, opened 1859. It was said to seat 5,000 "in comfort "- a statement doubted in some quarters in view of the doctrine preached.
    The Surrey Side prophet was not our pastor, however. We attended St. George's, Camberwell, situated in Wells Street, close to the Grand Surrey Canal. Dating from 1824, this commodious church had been erected out of a [-127-] parliamentary grant voted as a Thank Offering for the "crowning mercy" of Waterloo, and consequently was one of the temples known as "Waterloo Churches." That we heard of no similar offering after the Great War does not exalt the piety of our latter-day Parliaments.
    St. George's Grecian portico gave entrance and exit to a numerous congregation. There were two pulpits, one containing a lower stage with a seat for the parish clerk, who gave out the hymns, always prefacing the number with the exhortation, "Let us sing to the praise and glory of God";  led the responses; said Amen to every prayer; proclaimed banns of marriage and other necessary announcements. The minister above him conducted the service, reading the prayers and also the lessons, a separate lectern for the latter purpose being then unusual. A much higher pulpit was reserved entirely for sermonising. An awe-inspiring beadle of the type already described kept order by force of personal magnetism or majesty or something, no child of either sex daring to meet his imperious glance. To see him standing with his wand of office, cocket hat and calves on the top of the steps leading to the classic portico as we filed into church banished all ideas of naughtiness; he prevailed more mightily than many sermons.
    We sat about half-way down the main aisle, to the left, somewhat in advance of the churchwardens' pews, which were marked by two black staves, about six feet long, one surmounted by a gilded crown, the other by a crimson mitre. They were kept upright by being passed through holes in the seats upon which the wardens sat in solemn awfulness. We understood that the beadle sometimes handled these staves; that they were used for beating the bounds. Being loose, they might obviously also be employed for beating boys.
    Even as our father was endowed with a quiverful of boys, the families in front and behind us were each blessed with quiverfuls - I ought perhaps to say cornucopiafuls - of girls, who, notwithstanding the modesty and bashfulness understood to be innate in every female bosom, stared at us when we happened to come in after they were settled.
    [-128-] And much to our confusion. I used to feel my face burn under the ordeal and could by no means nerve myself to encounter, much less return, their gaze. My younger brother, if possible, felt the situation even worse. We sometimes discussed girls and wondered what the use of them was. They couldn't play games, not even throw a ball decently; cried for nothing, and made pretence that dolls were babies so thoroughly that they often ended by really believing it. And we had to take off our caps to them, give way to them, and generally knuckle down to them! However, there they were - no doubt about that - and we had to shape accordingly.
    Not long after the service had commenced a sense of peppermint-in-the-air used to diffuse itself both from the front and the rear. Chocolates as children's sweets were then as undiscovered as the North Pole and mint was the favourite maiden delicacy, so that the odour of sanctity came to mean for us something pungent and not unappetising. Prayer and peppermint seemed the rational complements of each other, and to think of one was to feel the influence of both. And Eve had all the apples, for we were not allowed to take anything consumable to church on any consideration whatever. The vicar, the Rev. Samuel Smith, was a middle- aged gentleman about whom I can remember nothing definite except that lie wore a white surplice, was particular in enunciating his texts and talked of matters beyond our comprehension. Of all the sermons preached in my presence - I cannot say listened to - not one phrase has survived. But that must not be taken as a reflection on him. Strange, but true, I remember the clerk and beadle much better than the vicar. But I learnt to find my places in the Prayerbook - indeed, came to know the morning service almost by heart.