Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 18 - Sixpenny Telegrams Sixty Years Ago - The Bicycle's Ancestors

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Druggists - Shutters - Food - Sixpenny telegrams - Smallpox - Lamps  - Candles - Pantechnicons - Velocipedes - Insurance signs - Slaughterhouses - Toys and games - Skelt's sheets - Toy theatres - Magic lanterns.

THE shops of chemists and druggists affected coloured bottles much more than they do now; the space they occupied is probably better utilised for the display of the multifarious stock-in-trade of the modern magician of the pestle. The radiant flagons were larger and more numerous and, with a bright light behind them, were visible afar off. To me, always susceptible to lovely hues, whether manifested in rainbows or railway signals, they were attractive and, indeed, almost awe-inspiring, for I sometimes lost myself a little in contemplating such floods of resplendent light - that is, unless I happened to think of the abominable stuff harboured behind - and then I realised that the bewitching bottles were even as Lurline of the Lorelei, and "smiled but to deceive." Druggists sold matters little wotted of nowadays - saffron, tamarinds, camomiles, spirits of sweet nitre (potent for colds, that!) hartshorn, squills. Patent medicines, except certain brands of "anti-bilious pills," were few.
    Flexible winding shop shutters were not much in evidence, although I will not say that the germ of the idea had not appeared in places. Even important premises were closed by upright wooden shutters which had to be fetched from a storage place, put in position one by one, and then secured by a locked iron bar. In the 1860s some jewellers began to dispense with shutters, leaving their premises uncovered but well lighted. The watches within were thus more readily safeguarded by the watch without.
    [-153-] The topic of food prices is so insistent in 1924 that it will not be out of place to recall what housekeepers had to disburse some sixty years ago. We paid 4s. per lb. for tea, 5d. per lb. for moist sugar, and from 1s. 2d. to 1s. 4d. per lb. for butter. Lump (loaf) sugar was considerably dearer, and some grocers would not sell sugar at all unless tea were taken. Meat prices I do not remember, but I do call to mind the delicious boiled silverside of beef with huge marrow-bone attached that not infrequently graced our board, at the head of which sat a father charged with the duty of ministering to the appetites of seven healthy boys, and of sharing fairly the contents of that marrow-bone.
    Fish and vegetables were cheap. Market gardens abounded in the suburbs. The space between Bermondsey, New Cross Road and Deptford High Street, on both sides of the Greenwich Railway, was one vast expanse of them; and they wedged in between the Old Kent Road and the Bricklayers' Arms branch railway almost up to the Grange Road. And it was much the same elsewhere, so that road or railway carriage added but little to the cost of London's vegetables. The commoner kinds of fruit were also quite reasonable. Tomatoes were not used, except perhaps for making sauce, and were seldom seen. The prices mentioned continued until well into the sixties. We had no bananas, of course.
    In the 1850s cocoa was best known in the form of nibs. I believe Epps, the homoeopathic chemist, was the first to sell it powdered and in packets. He advertised it largely for many years as "grateful and comforting," and it was said that his two daughters had these cheering adjectives bestowed upon them as nicknames and were ultimately known by no others. In the early 1860s Fry sold square packets at 4d., and there was a popular preparation called Iceland Moss Cocoa, a supposed blend of reindeers' food and cocoa, packed in silver paper and costing a little more.
    It may surprise many Londoners to learn that their telegrams were cheaper in the 1850s and 1860s than in 1924, but it is a fact. The London District Telegraph Company established stations in many parts of the City and suburbs, [-154-] and accepted and delivered telegrams at 6d. per twenty words including addresses. To-day a similar message costs 1s. for twelve words. The Company also took telegrams for any part of the United Kingdom and abroad; these they transferred by wire to the other Companies concerned. Their chief office was in Cannon Street, and they were in existence many years, until the purchase of the telegraphs by the Post Office in 1870. This Company used the Morse ink-writer instrument, and, as a rule, employed girl clerks. Their engineers introduced at least one novelty in construction, being the first to bunch several insulated wires into a cable and hang it over the housetops. I believe the very first of these aerial cables, which, at a later period, were much employed by the Telephone Companies, crossed King William Street.
    The railway companies of those days had telegraph offices on the platforms of most stations, even quite small ones, and also transmitted and delivered telegrams - sixpenny ones within the metropolitan limits. Their instrument was usually the Wheatstone single-needle, although a good many of the more antique double-needles could be found on some lines - the South-Eastern, for example. I remember sending telegrams from the platform of the New Cross Station of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway which they delivered in the City by their own uniformed messengers. The Post Office abolished the 6d. tariff and closed all these wayside stations, compensating the companies out of the public purse, at the same time depriving the said public of a great facility. With monopoly twas ever thus. Fifteen years elapsed before Londoners enjoyed sixpenny telegrams again and then they only got twelve words for the money.
    Entrusting the telegraphs to the Post Office was a bad mistake. The march of improvement and invention was at once arrested. Before that event, British telegraph engineers were the foremost in the world - as witness the Atlantic cable. Subsequent to it they disappeared so far as new inventions and discoveries were concerned. The Post Office has always copied foreigners, and that at a long [-155-] distance, never themselves producing an invention of note. In the 1860s the various telegraph and railway companies were competing as to which should give the best service, and such enterprise, left to itself, would infallibly have yielded us better and cheaper telegraphs in the long run. But this is a topic containing in itself matter for a volume.
    A recrudescence of smallpox at Gloucester and elsewhere has recently caused alarm, which would have been no smaller had it been possible to throw on the screen some of the sights I knew when a boy. Persons badly pitted by the disease were too numerous to excite remark, while those blinded by it were many. At a butcher's in Camberwell there was a shopman whose face and neck were so covered with marks that certainly not a square half-inch of original skin remained; and there were others within my purview nearly as bad. An insect undertaking a voyage over such a countenance would have been like an Arctic sledge party in the presence of very hummocky ice. Persistent vaccination - then much less satisfactory than now, for lymph was taken from one person for use on another, and mothers were wont to be cheered by the family doctor saying that he knew a splendidly healthy baby "coming on" and she might depend on her own darling getting a supply from it - so improved matters, however, that, had it not been for the forgetfulness and carelessness inherent in British human nature, the disease would probably have entirely disappeared. And conscientious objections - a phrase more blessed than even Mesopotamia to shirkers of every class -  helped not a little in keeping it alive.
    Household illumination was very inferior. Paraffin-oil had not crossed the domestic threshold, and sperm-oil, burned in lamps, often of indifferent design, was largely used. The sperm we owed to the British whaling fleet, then a national asset worthy of national pride. The gas of those days had a pungency not now reeked of - whether it was more poisonous, recent experience renders very doubtful - and had not invaded the smaller class of house to any great extent. We used sperm-oil for the living-rooms, but, owing to the danger of transporting lamps, tallow candles [-156-] were mostly employed for the bedrooms. Sometimes these were enclosed in a tubular stand with spiral spring at the bottom, which, compressed by the introduction of the candle, forced it upwards against a collar until consumed. With a little ingenuity the tubes could be converted into guns and made to project missiles with considerable force, as we boys found out.
    Paraffin candles were not yet a commercial article, although an engineer named Gowans, employed on the construction of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway, had discovered the Scottish oil-shale and had shown a few candles made from it - very dark in colour, I was told - at the Great Exhibition of 1851. I came to know Mr. Gowans in the late 1880s, when he was Dean of Guild at Edinburgh.
    Tallow candles did not consume their own wicks, so snuffers formed an indispensable item of their equipment, and, as the tapers stank abominably if blown out, extinguishers were equally necessary.
    The rushlight, or farthing dip, now happily unknown, was a rush with a thin coating of tallow which served to illumine the poor man's cottage, or rather, somewhat tone down the darkness thereof. Four for a penny sounds cheap as illuminants go in 1924, but measured in therms the efficiency was certainly small. There was a great sale of them, however; I remember an oilman's shop in Deptford Broadway, backing on the Creek, long since demolished, which always had its doorposts festooned with great bundles of dips suspended by their wicks. It is said that the rush-light originated in Hampshire in 1785 - which was about the time when Murdoch invented its triumphant competitor, gas.
    I think that the Pantechnicon must date from the 1850s. Towards the close of that decade we used to see removal vans of the kind about, invariably bearing the name of Hudson and as universally ornamented with the picture of a railway-engine engaged in pulling a truck laden with one of them. These engines amused us, for it was very evident, even to boys, that the artist responsible for them had waded out of his depth. Some had wheels of different diameters [-157-] coupled together, which was the most obvious, but certainly not the only, fault. Sometimes the driver and fireman, in immaculate white jackets and red ties, used to stand back in the tender (which was destitute of coal) as if afraid that the boiler was going to burst, and they owed it to their wives and families to keep as far away from it as possible. However, the Pantechnicon had come to stay and Messrs. Hudson were not left their monopoly long. In after-years a removal firm at St. Albans brought out two vans with excellent paintings of real engines and trucks. As these were much admired, they may be in existence still.
velocipede.gif (66529 bytes)    I have mentioned that the typewriter had not arrived in the 1850s; neither had the bicycle, but premonitory symptoms of the latter were not lacking. Commencing with the hobby-horse, a two-wheeled seat without propelling mechanism, and usable only downhill, development had now progressed to the velocipede, a frame with four wheels, the hind pair being driven by cranks worked sometimes by hand-levers and sometimes by footboards, like the pedals of lathes or knife-grinding machines. Mr. Willard Sawyer of Dover, the inventor, was awarded a gold medal at the 1851 Exhibition for a machine of this description and another at the American Exposition of 1854. The Prince of Wales ordered a velocipede in 1857, and others were subsequently built for the Czar of Russia, the Prince Imperial of France and the Crown Prince of Hanover. During the early and mid 1860s they were let on hire at the Crystal Palace and at several places in London, so that velocipedes became quite familiar objects in the streets, especially on Sunday afternoons and holidays, when they were taken out by youthful Cockneys on exercise and excitement intent. The tyres were of iron, and rough riding no doubt the rule, but nevertheless quite respectable speeds were obtained by the said youths when racing against each other. Nine miles an hour seems to have been the rate attainable on long runs, 71 miles having been covered in 8 hours. One expert velocipedestrian did 526 miles in 20 days, or 26 miles per day; but it was claimed that 60 miles per day was possible without undue fatigue. Sawyer had a splendid [-158-] machine, price 100 guineas, at the 1862 Exhibition, fitted with a sketch desk and umbrella. There was a lady's velocipede with provisions for protecting the dress (this was very necessary), so that it could be used with "perfect decorum." Leg visibility had to be kept low. I understand that the two-wheeled bone-shaker did not appear until 1868, and then it came from France.
    London buildings were still freely decorated with the metal plates of the companies they were insured with. I believe these signs dated from the ownership of a private Fire Brigade by each Insurance Company. The tokens originally indicated to the watchman which company had to be called, and to the firemen, when they arrived, whether it was a building they ought to operate on or not. A school I attended bore several of these badges, one dated 1791.
    Butchers possessed their own slaughter-houses, often part of or adjacent to their shops. Some were not particular in closing their doors when exercising their craft and, in common with other children, my brothers and I had opportunities of witnessing all the processes incidental to the creation of chops and steaks. Repulsive and improper, many will say; but, after all, it taught us the truth about a sad feature of our civilisation, and was, probably, just as well.
   Something may be said about toys and games. Little girls had few outdoor toys. In addition to their swings, see-saws, skipping ropes and balls, the chief articles were light wooden hoops and shuttle-cocks. Here and there a tomboy (tom-girl, rather!) would, greatly daring, aspire to marbles or whipping-tops; but this was about the limit, although a girl might on occasion be admitted as stop-gap to a game of rounders, Croquet came to some, but not cricket or hockey. Lawn-tennis was not; nor "higher-and-higher," that adaptation of their skipping-ropes to jumping exercise which the short frocks of these modern days has rendered possible for the junior fair sex, and which I believe originated in the playing-grounds of the London County Council although now practised all over the kingdom.
    [-159-] Boys, more fortunate, had iron hoops; trap-and-ball (called knurr-and spell in some parts of the country); tip-cat; tops, both peg and whipping; marbles; buttons; rounders (father of American base-ball); cricket; hockey; and football. These, with running, jumping, rowing and swimming, all in the open air, afforded plenty of both muscle and brain nutriment, and I don't think the mid-Victorian boy often failed to uphold his country's credit when opportunity offered. Would that his descendants could truthfully say the same!
    A favourite indoor amusement was the toy theatre. A publisher named Skelt issued sheets of figures - characters in several simple plays, with appropriate scenery, which children coloured, pasted on cardboard, cut out and fixed to wires, so that they could be manoeuvred on a toy stage to dialogue spoken by the performer stationed behind. In one of the plays, The Miller and his Men, I think, a broken bridge was part of the scenery and led to surprising complications. How trivial all this must appear to the cinema-surfeited youngster of to-day!
    Skelt also published sheets for colouring, of soldiers, sailors, pirates, favourite actors, etc., and had quite a name in the boy-and-girl world. I don't think he survived the 1860s, but as late as 1895 I saw some of Skelt's sheets in a little shop near the Gare du Nord, Brussels, all yellow and discoloured, but oh I so eloquent of the days that were gone.
    Towards the end of the fifties, toy magic lanterns made their appearance. I had one in 1860. Judging from the slides, it was of Swiss or German make, but we soon got strips of glass from the glazier and manufactured some truly British ones. It burned sperm-oil and presented us with plenty of soot and smell.