Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 16 - The Historian himself becomes History - Of Various Matters, Regal to Ragged

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CHAPTER XVI

 

THE HISTORIAN HIMSELF BECOMES HISTORY - OF VARIOUS MATTERS, REGAL TO RAGGED

Lord Macaulay - Model locomotive - Opening of Parliament - "Stop thief!" - St. James's Park - Balloons - Mouldy coppers  -Vulgar speech - Other errors - Swear words - Affected speech - Names-Manners - Rough boys - Effects of pugilism not all bad - Baiting eccentrics - Boys and cats.

SPEAKING of famous men, one day in January 1860, a younger brother and I were at Westminster when a funeral procession of considerable length passed towards the Abbey. There were mutes, nodding plumes, many carriages and sombre pomp. Passers-by stopped, but there was no big crowd. I have tried to recollect whether bystanders raised their hats, but cannot be sure. It was the biggest affair of the kind we youngsters had seen, and it impressed us. In the evening we learned from papa that we had witnessed the last journey of Lord Macaulay. The name did not convey much to me then - his writings were too grown-up for a lad of ten. Neither have they always appealed to me since.
    We had been looking at one of the shops - an optician's - between the bridge and Parliament Street. We never passed without doing so, for in it there stood, under a glass cover, a beautiful model of a locomotive, an accurate representation of Robert Stephenson's long-boiler engine with "single" driving-wheels and "hay-cock" dome. It interested us particularly because we knew an engine, No. 2 of the South-Eastern Railway, which resembled it in all its details except that the boiler of the model seemed thinner in proportion and the dome smaller than No. 2's. The exhibit remained in the window for several years: afterwards, I often wondered what had become of it, for it was [-137-] really good, while so-called locomotive models often leave much to be desired. Revisiting the Science Museum, South Kensington, about 1918, I found amongst several models recently added to the fine collection there was my old Westminster friend, instantly recognisable after fifty-eight years or so. I now saw that the difference from a real engine consisted in the omission of the usual lagging or heath protecting covering from the boiler, probably to show its construction, which was peculiar: the effect being to make the model slighter in proportion than the actual machine.
    This type of locomotive did the Stephenson fame no good. The great length of the boiler in comparison with the wheelbase caused unsteady running whenever high speed was attempted, and most railways altered those they had bought after some experience. The South~Eastern Railway purchased a good many, but No. 2 was, I think, the only one that continued to work in its original form. The wheel-base of a number supplied to Germany was extended after one of them had nearly killed King Wilhelm I of Prussia, subsequently the first Kaiser, by running off the rails while drawing the royal train - and thereby coming close to preventing the Franco-German War and its dreadful sequel of 1914-18. Had Stephenson's brought this about they would have deserved celebration equally with "the little gentleman in velvet" so fervently toasted by the Jacobites in connection with the death of our own William III.
    We once witnessed the Queen's procession to open Parliament, and were duly impressed by the Life Guards, with their kettle-drums, the grand state carriage and especially by the flunkies, some of whom visibly quivered as their fat was jerked about by the jolting of the vehicles hung on leather straps, to which they clung. Her Majesty had an enthusiastic reception. I regarded her with unspeakable awe, and had she happened to bow politely at me I really don't know what I should have done. While awaiting the procession a cry of "Stop thief!" arose, and we saw a young man of the Bill Sykes tribe running along the back of the crowd fringing the carriage-way. Right opposite to our stand (a form within the park railings) [-138-] an on-looker in a white top-hat stepped out of the throng, opened his arms wide, and, the fugitive running straight into them, was instantly clasped tightly to his waistcoat. Two pot-hatted constables immediately appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and led the youth away. As soon as they were out of hearing a gang of similar rapscallions surrounded the captor and abused him for interfering, with many an oath and lurid look. But several decent men gathered round and they eventually went off.
    St. James's Park has not changed essentially since then, Buckingham Palace, the Victoria Memorial and environment, the new Government Offices at Storey's Gate, the Admiralty Buildings and arch excepted. The Mall leading up to the palace has been replanted; then the trees were mostly old and lofty, but not uniform. The Cadiz mortar and its companion, the Chinese cannon, used to stand well out on the parade ground, each in an enclosure of iron railings. There were, as now, strange fowl on the lake, and boats, the rowers of which had, as at present, to duck their heads under the suspension bridge, which not many years before had taken the place of the old wooden structure of Chinese or Willow-plate design.
    One summer's evening a fine balloon crossed St. James's Park at a low elevation and was greeted with a chorus of "Ha-ba-balloon!" from the children assembled there. Balloons frequently went up from the Crystal Palace or one or other of the pleasure gardens - those were the days of Green, Coxwell, and Glaisher, famous aeronauts - and whenever seen were welcomed by the youngsters in all parts of London with this chorus or chant. After our war experiences I imagine that the passage of a gas-bag would now leave the metropolitan innocents pretty indifferent.
    Another refrain of vulgar youth was "Throw [or chuck] down your mouldy coppers!" This was used to induce millionaires and others assembled on a balcony, a coach-roof or other vantage point, to bestow a modest portion of their superfluous wealth on the votaries of melody in the street below. Why it was considered desirable that the coppers should be mildewed I could never ascertain, nor [-139-] did I ever see any returned as failing to comply with that specification. The dining-room of the Trafalgar tavern, Greenwich, as already mentioned, overlooked the river, and at low water an expanse of mud lay exactly under its windows. Cabinet ministers dined there only once a year at most; on other occasions humbler guests did and, at peace with all mankind after banqueting and speechifying, were wont to respond to musical invitations from ragged urchins assembled on the shore beneath by casting forth coppers, which, whether mouldy or not, speedily became muddy. The intellectual gratification of seeing youngsters roll over each other in the slimy filth must have been great, since the practice never seemed to stale.
    The up-trains on the Greenwich Railway used to stop at Spa Road Station, Bermondsey, for several minutes for ticket collection; this they did close to the parapet of the 20-feet-high viaduct. The carriage windows were in full view from the street below and groups of children, standing at the junction of Rouel Road and Frean Street (then called West Street and West Street North) made it a practice on summer evenings to attend every train and extract contributions from the passengers by vociferating their chant of mouldy coppers. Return trippers from Greenwich - then a shrine of Cockney festival - were often jolly. One would throw and a royal tumble ensue; another, perhaps in the next carriage, would follow, and before the train moved on the scramblers might be sixpence or more to the good. The tolerant police never interfered, so far as I could see, and, as a pretty constant traveller on the line in the early sixties I had opportunities for observation. It was said that a cruel engine-driver once heated coppers on a shovel and caused much damage and lamentation by throwing them to the crowd. But I never believed this, for, firstly, in drawing the train alongside the platform the engine had to proceed past the point of assembly and stop where the driver had nothing but roofs beneath him; and, secondly, because an early Victorian engine-driver would in all probability consider beer a more solid investment for his liquid cash.
    [-140-] When Croesus happened to be throned on a coach or omnibus and the vehicle moved off the chorus was sometimes changed into an acrobatic display by the urchins running alongside and throwing what were called "cart-wheels" - turning heels over head on their hands - in the streets, dusty or muddy, hard or soft. This I understood to be a survival from stage-coach days when poor lads assembled at the inn yards would often speed the traveller on his way by such a display of cheerful agility. Possibly "mouldy coppers" had the same origin.
    The language used by these children was not refined, but I should hesitate to assert that it was very much less so than that of County School pupils to-day. Many of the present vulgar errors were current then, and there were others; but, on the other hand, modern youngsters make mistakes which an 1850 boy or girl would have contemned. I cannot honestly say that I remember ever hearing, except in a humorous way, the substitution of W for V and V for W which Dickens makes so much of. I knew that Cockneys of the period were supposed to say werry for very, wanity for vanity, and so on, but I don't think they did so in our district, and we often heard rival butchers'-boys and others chaffing. According to my experience W = V existed only in books and plays. The misuses of the aspirate were no worse than now.
    There was sometimes dubiety about possessives and plurals. Between Greenwich and Charlton there was an estate owned by Mr. Angerstein, M.P., a great gun at Lloyd's, which was famous for birds'-nests. The place was always referred to by the proletarian jeunesse dor?e as "Angersteenzez," and the objects of their predatory excursions as "birds' nestezez." "Fists" sometimes figured strikingly as "fistezez." Nevertheless, plurals were often correctly expressed. The word "fanets," used by children at play to demand pax, or truce, now called "fay-nites" by London County Council School scholars, was then pronounced "fay-nets," which was better both as regards force and euphony.
    The modern exclamation "Oo-ah!" used, especially by [-141-] little girls, to express alarm or surprise, was then quite unknown. "Them" and "them there" for those; "That there"; "This here"; "see" for "saw" ; "come" for "came," were probably not more common than now. Other expressions were: "I can't do nuthink"; "I ain't got fur to go."; "He built them houses what he lives in"; "What are you a-doing of?"; "He got shook up"; "I see him do it" ; "I didn't have no luck" ; "We ain't got no brass" (money); "Tea without no sugar" ; "Don't lay on the grass - set on the wall" ; "I come by rnyself". "Oh crikey!" expressive of astonishment, was a common phrase and the misuse of bought for brought quite prevalent.
    But I'm afraid that many, if not all, of these may be paralleled to-day after fifty-four years of public education, even by scholars who have triumphantly passed all the County Council standards. And yet they have not improbably been taught French.
    "Genteel," "genteelest," expressive of refinement, and "nosegay" now almost invariably rendered by bouquet, were in common use. A current phrase for a penny postage stamp was "Queen's Head." "Intended" was the popular designation for one's betrothed.
    Almost universally current was the use of "don't" for doesn't. Dickens, Thackeray, Marryat, nearly all popular authors, fell into this error, although not one would have written, for instance, "It do not fit." Many writers were hazy about the subtlenesses of "lay" and "lie." But are things any better now ? In 1923 a prominent politician addressing his fellow legislators at Westminster twice (according to the Times report) spoke of matters lying near his heart as one might discuss the doings of fecund hens.
    But of one strange modern error, the confusion between "effect" and "affect," which has become so common of late years and even invaded leading articles of leading newspapers, the early Victorian knew nothing. Anyone writing to him "This will not effect you" would  have been mistaken: it would have affected him - to laughter. And a newspaper report I have before me that certain people were "effected" by a gas escape would have excited both comment and [-142-] sarcasm. And the queer modern phrase "substituted by," used even by Cabinet Ministers, when they mean "replaced by," would have evoked at least mild surprise. It is interesting to note that in 1868 the Times still spelt a banker's order, "check."
    Swear words were common. Workmen rarely conversed without the use of forceful expletives - do they now? - and it was surprising what a sanguinary complexion things assumed once the flood-gates of democratic eloquence stood open. Birth-pangs of the Red Flag perhaps.
    At my age I did not consort with the high and mighty, and, as the people about me spoke decently, it was not my fortune to hear the eccentricities, such as, "Bwing me a Welsh Wabbit," to which superior people were supposed to be addicted. But I often heard such mannerisms mimicked and when I came to see and laugh at Lord Dundreary at the Haymarket there was no occasion to instruct me on the subject. Dundreary was a caricature, of course, but one founded on a good bed-rock of fact - at least as regards whiskers.
    "Swell" and  "toff," to designate a fashionable or pretentious person, were familiar expressions; "macaroni" had gone out and "masher" and "dude" not yet arrived.
    Names, especially girls' names, have varied a good deal in sixty years. In the 1850s not only were Marys much more numerous than now, but there were galaxies of Harriets, Jemimas, Sophias, Adelaides, Carolines and Fannys. Ethels, Muriels, Gladyses, Kathleens, Daisies and Ivys were not yet. The one name as prevalent then as now was Nellie. It is curious that, in spite of the great and long-continued popularity of the Queen and the prestige and sonorousness of her name, it was but rarely bestowed at the font and little girl Victorias were never numerous. Before the Crimean War there was only one Florence - surnamed Nightingale; not many years afterwards and there were legions. Amongst the boys one would have to have looked closely for Cyrils and Cecils, and probably not have found a Gordon at all; but I cannot call to mind any once common name that has dropped out of use.
    [-143-] Manners were rougher than they are now, at least street manners. Not in all respects, perhaps, as when an omnibus conductor enquired, as he frequently did, "Will any gentleman go outside to oblige a lady?"  -females, be it recollected, couldn't mount to the knife-board - he never asked in vain. But boys were often really bad. Rough lads would wantonly attack decently clad youngsters and often assault them cruelly. I have already related how my elder brother had suffered a broken arm through being molested by a butcher' s boy. Once, when about ten years of age, I was in company with a younger school-mate, an amiable little chap named Greenfield, when we were stopped in a lonely place by two boys of twelve or over, one of whom, exclaiming, "I'm Tom Sayers!" gave Greenfield a heavy blow in the face. Then they ran away.
    On another occasion I was attacked near home by a much bigger boy without any provocation whatever. Finding that I could make no sort of fight against him I ran for our garden gate, and, holding it unlatched, turned and - with much regret do I confess it - called him a fool, qualifying the noun with a lurid adjective, nowadays usually considered sacred to Mr. Bernard Shaw - in short, that "Waterman's word" which we had been so sternly forbidden to utter. But while I ran he had stopped to pick up a stone and no sooner had I got the opprobrious sentence out of my mouth than I was struck under the left eye and a cut made the mark of which I distinctly bear sixty-four years afterwards. Never was disobedience to parental precept so promptly punished! Another inch and I should have lost my eye. When he saw my face covered with blood he turned and fled.
    On May 1st in three consecutive years, 1859-60-61, I had street fights with aggressive urchins, with varying fortune. I quite expected, and was prepared for, a similar encounter on May Day, 1862, but the charm was apparently broken, for nothing happened.
    Perhaps the high estimation in which the prize-ring and its leading gladiators were held had something to do with this pugnacity on the part of the rising generation; on the [-144-] other hand, the principles of fair play and manly behaviour it inculcated were certainly of educative value. The knife of the Italian and Greek was abhorrent to the worst of these rude boys - that an Englishman should trust to his fists was their accepted creed.
    This theory may not seem reconcilable with the instances of wanton aggressiveness cited, but once an affair came to a regular set-to fair-play was the rule and, if necessary, would be sternly enforced by the bystanders.
    Both boys and girls would call after, surround, and torment any eccentric person of either sex, especially if old and infirm. A foreigner in his native costume would often be jeered at. Unamiable characteristics on the part of young Londoners, of which I write with regret. In after-years I found much the same sort of thing existing in Glasgow. Is this tendency a vestige of that instinct which impels birds and animals to attack and destroy the weak, injured and unfit amongst them?
    Then no boy - of the proletariat - would dream of passing a cat without throwing at it, setting a dog on it, or chevying it in some way. That cats now come on to public pathways and sit and go to sleep on doorsteps and window-sills is eloquent of the softening of manners which has occurred. No mid-Victorian cat would have been such a fool.
    It was not, however, only vulgar boys pussy had to fear. In Woodgate' s Reminiscences of an Old Sportsman it is related that on the eve of the Oxford and Cambridge boat-race of 1862 the rival crews met at Richmond and jointly indulged in a friendly cat worry, Oxford supplying cats and dogs and Cambridge hiring a shed for the sport. It would be interesting to turn up the lists of the crews and discover how many of these intellectual athletes afterwards rose to eminence in the Church, in Parliament or politics, at the Bar, or otherwise.

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924