Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 15 - Belgian Civic Guards - Whitebait at Greenwich - Lord Palmerston

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CHAPTER XV

BELGIAN CIVIC GUARDS - WHITEBAIT AT GREENWICH - LORD PALMERSTON

English Volunteers in Belgium - Festivities - Dining with the King - Field of Waterloo - "Abas le Roi!" - Luminosity in North Sea - Belgian Gardes Civiques in England - Troop-ship Serapis - Thames steamers - La Vivandiêre - Turtle famine at Guildhall - No lunch at Wimbledon - Dinner with the Queen - Merriment at Crystal Palace - All forgotten in 1914 - Whitebait at Greenwich - Lord Palmerston and Ministry in 1861 - German opinion of "Pam" - Trimmings and turtles.

I HAVE not quite finished, however, with the Thames steamboats. In 1867 some of them were employed for an unusual and very special purpose. The previous year a contingent of English volunteers had been received and feted in Brussels on the occasion of the Tir National, at which that year they were both guests and competitors. I know because I was there, although not quite as a volunteer. On my way to spend a holiday in Belgium I made the acquaintance, on the Great Eastern Railway Company's steamer Zealous, of a party of marksmen from various corps - jovial fellows, who, when they found that I could speak French, invited me to join their party and paid all my expenses. They started singing in the train from Antwerp and startled a timid priest who incautiously took the only vacant seat in our compartment at Malines, with "Come, landlord, fill the flowing bowl," "Pour out the Rhine wine, let it flow! " and other rousing choruses.
    While the train was travelling at considerable speed we were amused, and also somewhat surprised, by a novel experience. A guard suddenly popped his head in at one of the carriage windows and demanded our tickets; afterwards proceeding along the train by the foot-board, holding on from window to window and from carriage to carriage. [-130-] I afterwards discovered that this dangerous system of ticket inspection was common in Belgium and other continental countries, and so continued for many years. An anticipation of corridor trains with the corridors outside! I myself saw it practised in Germany in 1891 and in Denmark in 1895.
    At Brussels we all went to the Hotel de Saxe, Rue Neuve, (since pulled down) and, in return for my unofficial interpretership, I received invitations to several functions, with, I'm afraid, the result of sometimes introducing me to scenes not altogether suited to my age. One glimpse of continental manners I got was seeing a Belgian officer half draw his sword on a café waiter who had displeased him. We had a reception at the Hotel de Ville, which was beautifully illuminated, and the King gave a dinner to 1,400 riflemen, including about 700 English, in a big shed, somewhere down by the canal docks, no ordinary room in Brussels being found large enough. It was decorated lavishly and produced the impression of a baronial castle with a Crystal Palace flavouring. The banquet was sumptuous and my friends could (and did) pour out the Rhine (and other) wine, and make it flow to their hearts' content. It was rumoured that the contract price was 40 francs per head. No wonder men jumped on their chairs and roared "Vive le Roi!"
    Leopold II, who had only recently become King and was as great a hero with his people as in his old age he came to be despised, made a nice speech in English in reply to Colonel Loyd Lindsay's proposal of his health - Loyd Lindsay, who four years later was to be one of the first to enter Paris after the siege with provisions and medical help for the starving inhabitants. Forty years afterwards, in 1906, I was again at Brussels and saw on the walls of the King's palace at Laeken many scribblings abusive of that monarch - "A bas le roi!" "Vive la République!" - and worse. After the banquet a convivial Belgian got me in a corner, persisted in repeatedly shaking hands while he ejaculated "England and Belgium one nation!" All this was in October 1866, the Tir National having been postponed from September owing to the prevalence of cholera in Belgium. My party [-131-] paid an interesting visit to Waterloo. At Sergeant Cotton's museum musical instruments found on the battle-field were noticed in the show-case. A fife was handed out by request and once more made to discourse sweet music by one of our riflemen.
    All this was sufficiently exciting for a lad of sixteen and a half, but one more experience remained. Returning from Antwerp on the Zealous, night fell soon after we had left the Scheldt and it became evident that the North Sea was in a state of luminosity. Every ripple was a flash of brightness - wherever there was motion a greenish splendour burst forth. The waves from the paddle-wheels were cascades of phosphorescent light. Leaning over the bulwark and watching them intently seemed to carry me away to other regions: I lost myself in dreamy, fitful visions; semi-hypnotism probably. One of the officers who had sailed the North Sea continuously for thirty years said he had never seen the like nor anything approaching it. And it was not until I got to the Persian Gulf, some five years later, that I saw the phenomenon again and then in no greater brilliancy.
    But where do the Thames steamboats come in? Here. The magnificent reception of the English in Belgium woke a responsive thrill on this side, and Belgian marksmen were invited to take part in the Wimbledon Rifle meeting of 1867. The idea was to bring our guests to Gravesend by sea and convey them thence to Charing Cross by river steamers, in the fond hope that they would be suitably impressed, if not actually dumbfounded, by the resulting views of the Thames and all its glories. Unfortunately, the whole programme of the visit was spoiled by mismanagement. The most incompetent persons seemed to be in charge throughout. Item after item miscarried, and the Belgians went back disillusioned and sore.
    To begin with, the troop-ship Serapis, afterwards famous as an Indian relief transport, but then quite new, was directed to make her first essay in carrying troops by proceeding to Antwerp and there embarking the 2,000 or so Gardes Civiques who had accepted our invitation. They [-132-] had mustered on the quay, when the Burgomaster received word from the captain of the Serapis that he had anchored twenty-two miles down the Scheldt for want of water and would like the troops sent on to him, please; so all available steamers had to be requisitioned, and it was not until after great delay that the warriors began their cruise under the White Ensign.
    At Gravesend they were packed like dominoes in a box on my old friend the Swift and half a dozen of her congeners, which then made sail for Charing Cross pier. There I saw them arrive, hungry and thirsty, but cheerful, about 7 o'clock on the evening of July 11th, 1867. Owing to the close packing few of them had seen much of the river. About 2,400 landed and marched up Villiers Street and along the Strand to Somerset House amidst the cheering of an immense crowd, to whom their uniforms and peculiar glazed top-hats with cocks' feathers appealed with all the force of complete novelty. But they had something more striking still - a real live vivandiêre, or cantiniêre, a young and comely lady in tunic, breeches and top boots, carrying slung from the shoulders a dainty little barrel. This was an entirely unexpected sensation. A girl in trousers off the stage in those days was quite a new experience, and her success was immediate and tremendous. The girls shrieked, while the men laughed and applauded. There likewise marched with the visitors a drum-major 6 feet 4 inches in stature, wearing a busby 2 feet 6 inches high, decorated with a 2 feet 4 inches feather. But compared with the vivandiêre he was a mere dwarf in public estimation.
    The Belgians lunched with the Lord Mayor at the Guildhall, but the meal was "scant, mean and meagre" beyond description, and, as the Times said, "went a long way to obscure the character for hospitality upon which the Corporation prides itself." The Sultan of Turkey was to arrive on the 13th, and it looked as though the City fathers were saving their turtle-soup and toothsome titbits f or him. Speeches, however, were numerous and cordial, and might possibly have made up for the lack of physical nourishment had more than one man in a hundred understood them.
    [-133-] On the 14th the Belgians went to Wimbledon and were received by the Prince of Wales. It was a very wet day and refreshments were served only in one small room, the existence of which was not made known to the men. Most of them went hungry and thirsty. Some bought things for themselves, and many bystanders purchased food and drink and distributed it. Verily the poor Gardes Civiques thought they had struck the country of Pharaoh's lean kine. On the same occasion it had been intended to present every man with a commemorative badge, but these mementoes ran 400 short! On July 16th they went to Windsor as guests of the Queen and dined - but Her Majesty did not show herself.
    They were also entertained at the Crystal Palace, where the concluding foolishness was perpetrated. Each man - and the vivandière - was presented with a silver medal inscribed "Vive la Belge!" It was received with roars of laughter, for it was thought to be a delicate, if rather eccentric, compliment to the vivandière, who blushingly came to the same opinion herself. It did not at first strike them that in this great city of London responsible officials could exist so ignorant as to substitute "la Belge" (meaning the female Belgian) for " la Belgique;" but it was so!
    As may be supposed, those who had experienced the lavish hospitality of Brussels the previous year were much incensed and, as Englishmen, disgusted at these sorry proceedings. I was heartily ashamed. Miss Burdett Coutts, afterwards the Baroness, always patriotic, was very good to the strangers, and fortunately so were many others.
    In 1914, when the Germans were declining to recognise the Belgian Gardes Civiques as soldiers and were shooting them wherever found, I thought often of my old friends. And I was surprised that not one of the papers called to mind in that connection their invasion of London, 2,400 strong, in 1867.
    One last reminiscence of the Thames steamboats. In the old days the Queen's ministers were wont to dine together once a year on whitebait (and trimmings), and for that purpose resorted to Greenwich, either to the Ship [-134-] hotel near the pier, or to the Trafalgar tavern at the other extremity of the hospital riverside walk. One day in 1861 I noticed a common barge, fitted with a temporary deck laid over with red cloth, moored in front of the Trafalgar, and a gangway fixed between the barge and one of the hotel windows. I heard that Lord Palmerston with his Cabinet were coming down by steamer from Westminster that evening, so took care to be on the spot. A crowd had assembled, but I managed to push to the front and finally secured an excellent position against the railings. About 7 o'clock a Citizen steamboat decked out in awnings and flags hove in sight, revealing a group of gentlemen in tall hats and light overcoats standing aft. The steamer passed the hotel, turned, and, describing a graceful half-circle, was dexterously brought alongside the improvised landing-stage with her stem pointing up-stream; a gangway was run across and a file of legislators - no one daring to say "Tickets, please" - strolled over and through the window into the hotel. The third or fourth was Lord Palmerston, and he was greeted with well-sustained cheering. I knew him at once, for his portrait was often published and was to be seen in many a home and shop-window. I was only some fifteen paces off, and looked for the straw which, according to Punch and other authorities, he always bore in his mouth. It was not there. Perhaps, like the Gladstone collar of after-years, that straw was mostly chaff. Mr. Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, was probably one of the visitors, with other well-known men; but the crowd cheered only Palmerston.
    The Citizen remained moored to the barge, no doubt to conduct the roisterers safely home after sufficient whitebait had been absorbed.
    Some four years later, in October 1865, I remember my father coming home with the evening paper, and saying in a shocked voice, "Lord Palmerston is dead!"
    Well did the Times express the popular voice - There never was a statesman who more truly represented England ; and the Cologne Gazette, in a two-column eulogy, declared that in future ages the name of Palmerston will be synony-[-135-]mous with England's greatest glory. And I'm afraid that Time is going to prove this German forecast correct: we shall never be so pre-eminent again. Those were the days when England was admired and feared in a few places and admired and respected in many others - the latter particularly in Germany, where it was fashionable to christen the boys Tom., Dick or Harry, and fair-haired frauleins answering to the names of Betsy or Nellie were to be met with at every turn.
    Palmerston - he of  "the silver tongue, the hand of steel" - believed in England and England believed in him. Nemo me impune lacessit was not only Scotland's but Britannia's motto in those days - and nobody did!
    I mentioned trimmings in connection with the ministers' whitebait, and some old stagers may think that I alluded to the Cabinet pudding which the popular wit of the time alleged to always follow the tittle-bats. Not entirely. A day or two before, passing the Trafalgar, I had happened to glance down a cellar grating at the back, audio I beheld a couple of large turtles, while at the door below stood a cook in musing contemplation. So, without much mental computation, I put two and two together and deduced that Aldermen were not the only consumers of the verdant-fatted Chelonia. Evidently there was to be greenbait as well as whitebait at the ministerial banquet. Well, Lord Palmerston was reputed to be somewhat of a bon vivant. But he carried on bravely to the last, for it is recorded that in January 1865, ten months before be died, he had followed the Hursley bounds and finished "well up."
    Captain Marryat mentions the Trafalgar in his novel Poor Jack, written in 1840. Ah, how it and its famous rival, the Ship, have altered since the halcyon days of which I write! The Trafalgar is now an Engineering Institute and Club, and so may be held to have grown in usefulness as well as age.