[... back to menu for this book]
1852-7 - LIFE'S KALEIDOSCOPE - FRANKLIN - INDIAN MUTINY
Home life - Illustrated journals - A loving mentor - Chess - Great Duke - Crimean War - A Turkish Fenian - German champion for England - Dr. Palmer - George Herring - Sir John Franklin - Arctic and Antarctic - An American courtesy - Indian Mutiny - Day of humiliation - Spurgeon at Crystal Palace - Captain Lukis.
HAVING, so far, flitted over London in desultory fashion and
endeavoured, like Le Sage's Diable boiteux, to lift a curtain, if not a
roof, here and there with the result, I hope, that in some general fashion an
idea has been gained of not a few things as they were sixty and odd years ago, I
now propose to consult chronology a little in registering events within the
ambit of memory.
That my childhood and adolescence should leave such a legacy of recollections may seem strange, but we boys were fortunate in possessing parents who took notice of passing events and talked of them intelligently. Papa spent many of his evenings at home, discussed topics of interest at meal-times and allowed us to read the Morning Herald, one of the principal daily newspapers (costing 5d.) as soon as we were able. Then the Illustrated London News and Illustrated Times were taken weekly and bound up in half-yearly volumes. These, with their pictorial reviews of current events, constituted educative gold-mines. The bound volumes we called the "big books" and often asked for their production. We had also the Leisure Hour and the London Journal, both extremely instructive. Punch we often saw, too, but it was not taken regularly. In addition, I had the inestimable advantage of a brother eight years my senior whose superior knowledge and experience were always at the service of his younger brethren. He [-161-] drew and painted well; was a facile writer and versifier - I think a real poet, although an unpublished one - had an excellent knowledge of English literature; was above the average as a chess-player (for many years he was a member of the British Chess Club), and a sterling good fellow withal. We boys could all play chess at seven or eight years of age, but not one could ever beat him, either as youths or men. For such a guide, philosopher and friend I hope the Lord made us duly thankful; I know he did me.
The funeral of the great Duke of Wellington, the Crimean War, the search for Sir John Franklin, all mixed up with cholera and the disinfection of the Thames, were the first impressions of national, as distinct from home and local, life at the dawn of intelligence. The Duke's funeral I did not recollect, as it took place in 1852, but both parents had witnessed it and we possessed the file of the Illustrated London News, which had given the event special prominence. The aforesaid "big books" were indeed sibylline volumes to us, to be consulted reverently and turned over with care.
The picture of the Duke dying in his chair has remained with me all my life, and when in after-years I stood in the very room at Walmer Castle and by the very chair I found it easy indeed to reconstruct the scene. The Duke must have been a very great man, judging from the profound impression he had created in the public mind. I have known no one since spoken of with such awe and for so long.
Of the actual events of the Crimean War as they occurred I recollect but little, but when we boys became old enough to understand the bound-up volumes we had the illustrated history of it before us and all the place-names - Alma, Inkerman, Eupatoria, Balaclava and Sebastopol - became to us even as household words. The British and French generals, the Highlanders and Zouaves, the Sardinians with their plumed hats and the Turks with their fezzes, were discussed, admired or criticised. We felt cast-down, humiliated and resentful at our failure to capture the Redan while the French triumphed, with such apparent ease, at the Malakoff and, little kiddies as we were, were [-162-] acutely conscious that the British had not scored as they might and ought to have done.
Many years afterwards, about 1894, I accompanied a German professor - think of that in 1924 - to see Windsor Castle. Coming back in the train we had, as travelling companion, an old man with a corkscrew curl on each side of his forehead, who huskily announced himself as an old Royal Navy tar. "Yes, gentlemen, I served in the Crimea - I stood to the guns in the old wooden ships before Sebastopol. We pounded them, and they pounded us. Gentlemen, I expect you think we licked the Russians in the Crimea. But we didn't, gentlemen; they licked us, and God knows what they made peace for!" And an enigmatical smile crossed the face of my German friend.
But against this I may note a comment by another German. In Busra, in 1872, I spent an evening with L'Année-grace Effendi, a Frenchman in the Turkish service, and at his house met an Irishman, Murphy Effendi, likewise an Ottoman official, a good fellow, but such a rank Fenian as to be quite unable to see anything meritorious in English or Scotch although pro everything else - French, American or Esquimaux. Somehow the Crimean War came up and the Irish Turk soon took occasion to remark that it was strange that the English couldn't take the Redan, while the French stormed the Malakoff. There was present an old German doctor - the only European medico in Busra at that time, who replied - we were speaking French in compliment to our host - "Mais le Redan fut beaucoup plus fort que le Malakoff comme tout le monde sait bien! " I was gratified, of course, but it was a fact that the British generals ought to have known before they undertook to storm it with a handful of men unprovided with supports.
Poor Murphy was terribly discontented with the Turkish service, where pay was small and uncertain, and, notwithstanding his animosity to everything English, would have given the boots off his feet and the fez off his head for a chance in the British or Indian services. We had an Irishman in our department, too, whose contempt for the Turko-Celt was indeed colossal. Englishmen could be, and were, [-163-] friendly and amusedly tolerant, but the Irisher with an Indian appointment could find no soft place in his heart for the fez-weary Pat.
In 1856 the poisoner, Dr. Palmer, was tried and executed, and his deeds were a theme for every tongue. I knew the leading facts of the sad affair from hearing it so much discussed, but any gift of prescience I may have possessed did not inform me that one day I was to become acquainted with an actor in the sorry drama. One of the witnesses who gave important evidence about the doctor's betting transactions, which helped not a little to hang him, a mere clerk then, but in after-life a very well-known City man and reputed millionaire - George Herring - I came to know in the early 90s. He was of gipsy origin, went on the turf in post-Palmer days, made money, and developed into a financier and company promoter. He was quiet and unassuming, and, I believe, strictly honourable, although in the course of business, playing for what at the time he conceived to be his and our advantage, he did me and some of his other friends a shrewdly bad turn. That was in connection with the flotation of the New Telephone Company in 1892. The action he took with the best intentions proved the undertaking's ultimate ruin and confirmed the monopoly of the National Telephone Company which Herring himself sincerely desired to end. He interested himself in General Booth and the Salvation Army, of which he was a generous benefactor. The newspaper reports of May 1856, stated that George Herring was a "youngish man, not regular features, black hair which curls slightly. Rather gentlemanly, in brown uppercoat and dark trousers. While judges took notes he paused in his evidence and looked slily round at prisoner out of corners of his eyes." Thus in 1856 was the City millionaire financier of the 90s. The Palmer trial occurred just after the conclusion of peace with Russia.
Very few people to-day know much about Sir John Franklin, but during the whole of the 50s his name was familiar in even the poorest homes. This was due to the mystery in which the fate of his expedition in search of the [-164-] North-West Passage was enveloped for many years and the persistence with which his devoted wife refused to abandon hope of his ultimate return.
Sir John sailed in 1845 in the sailing-ships Erebus and Terror with which Sir James Clark Ross only a few years previously - in 1841 - had discovered the Antarctic Continent and the names of which are preserved in the twin volcanoes he there located. The romance of that great discovery has always struck me as exceeding all others. The ships had been pushing their way steadily southward for many days through a wilderness of ice floe and berg, until they were hundreds of miles farther south than ever navigator had been before, when one dark night a light was sighted. What! A light - there - in that howling waste, where no man was nor could be? Well might the sailors marvel! And it proved a volcano in eruption, guiding them from an elevation of 12,000 feet to perhaps the grandest geographical discovery ever made, or ever likely to be made, on this globe. And so Victorialand and Mounts Erebus and Terror were added to the map - and coloured red. On the happy occasion Ross's second-in-command was Captain Crozier, and he now sailed northwards with Franklin in the same capacity and in his old ship, the Terror.
The stupendous southern feat had been accomplished by sail alone, but when they left the Thames for the North-West quest, never more to be seen of men, the comrade vessels did so under steam, for auxiliary screw-engines had been provided. Years elapsed, and, nothing being heard, relief expeditions were fitted out, and between 1847 and 1857 nearly forty were despatched, both Government and private, for the affair became a national one. At last it was ascertained that the men had perished, that their gallant keels had succumbed to the ice, but not before the North-West Passage had been found although probably never actually entered.
The talks we had, the articles I read, the maps and pictures I examined, must have in themselves constituted no mean education. At the age of nine or ten I knew much about the multifarious things bound up in a Polar Expedition: of ships and sailors; of ice, glaciers, floes and bergs, of [-165-] sleighs and draught dogs, of Esquimaux and musk oxen, of whales, seals, white bears, Arctic foxes, of polar stars and pemmican, of the true north and magnetic meridian, of Aurora Borealis, midnight suns, solar haloes and snowshoes! But who wots of Franklin in 1924?
One of the would-be relief ships, Resolute, was frozen in and in May, 1854, was abandoned in latitude 77º N. In September, 1855, she was found by an American whaler floating 1,200 miles away, but still rigid with ice. The U.S. Government bought her for $40,000 and spent a lot more in repairing and refitting, after which they presented her, "a floating Pompeii," to the British Government, complete down to the officers' musical-boxes and pictures of ballet-girls on their cabin walls. She had a great welcome on arriving at Portsmouth, whence she proceeded to Cowes and, in December, 1856, was visited with great interchange of courtesies by the Queen, Prince Consort and royal family. That derided Victorian poet, Martin F. Tupper, wrote "An International Ballad" of six stanzas, the first and last of which were quite good, breathing John Bull's gratitude and amity. What a pity this great American effort of good-will did not persist! What a difference its substitution for the more popular pastime of tail-twisting would have made in the subsequent history of the two nations!
It would be curious to discover what our Government or Admiralty did with their magnificent present. Records are silent. Probably - judging from their ordinary procedure - sold her to the Germans for breaking-up purposes.
The Crimean War had scarcely faded when the Indian Mutiny sprang up. This we were able to follow day by day, for father frequently read from the papers in the evening and sometimes had further information culled in the City to impart. But the telegraphic link with India had not been forged in those days, and news was stale as well as terrifying.
The tension was terrible. The Government appointed a day of prayer and humiliation for October 7th, 1857. All places of business being closed, I went for a walk with [-166-] papa, who, to please me, directed our steps to where railways ran most thickly. We came to the viaduct carrying the London, Brighton and South Coast and London and Greenwich Railways near Corbett's Lane, the point where the two separate. The signal-box we saw there, in the space left vacant by the diverging lines, was famous as the first ever erected anywhere.
We noticed a constant stream of trains traversing the Brighton line, the down ones full of people, the up ones mostly empty. Every three or four minutes a crowded train steamed south. The explanation was that the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon was to preach at the Crystal Palace on the absorbing topic of the day. He did so from Micah vi. 9, to 23,500 persons, the largest congregation ever assembled, in modern times at least. The sum of £475 was collected for the victims' Relief Fund, averaging nearly fivepence per person present. Such was the power of a popular preacher in the '50s.
Spurgeon was a forceful speaker and a witty man, full of pungent illustrations, with no great admiration for the Church of England and decidedly no use for Popes or Cardinals. He was as thorough-going in his belief as the late General Booth, and one wonders what position he would occupy to-day when times have so much changed. But he has left a substantial and enduring monument in his Orphanage at Stockwell.
The Day of Humiliation was fine but windy, and at one point papa's top-hat suddenly started an independent career in the Crystal Palace direction; but, being cleverly fielded and restored by a working lad, a couple of "joeys," or four-penny bits, expeditiously changed owners. The South-Eastern Railway, which ran over the same arches, but had no connection with the Crystal Palace, made a very poor show that day in comparison with the Brighton, but we did notice one train with an engine, No. 44 by Stephenson's, which, in after-years I became aware preserved a certain historic interest owing to experiments to which she had been subjected when new. She looked dowdy and low-spirited that day in contrast with the many gaudy [-167-] Brighton engines flitting about in their uniform (of that period) of bright green, red and polished brass or copper.
Close by, the Brighton Railway had vast coke-ovens in which coal was converted into smokeless fuel for locomotives as required by statute. A costly process, since the precious coal gases and residues-more valuable than the coke manufactured-were lost in the air. Engineers knew no better: chemists-like Mr. "Aniline" Perkin - were beginning to perceive.
Well, we followed the Indian Mutiny from Cawnpore to Lucknow, and knew the names and deeds of Havelock, Outram, Cohn Campbell, Peel, Neil, Lawrence, even as we knew our nightly orisons; and, I'm afraid, exulted in the many pictures of mutineers being blown from guns, savage grimaces still imprinted on the whirling heads, and of other scenes of blood and desolation, all more or less authentic. At a fair on Peckham Rye there was a cock-shy stand flanked with rude paintings of this description. We thought them all true-indeed they accorded with details published in the press-but pity for British women and children so treacherously and savagely slaughtered at Cawnpore rendered it difficult to generate sympathy for the rebels.
In 1898 I came to know in Guernsey the noted antiquary, Captain Francis Dubois Lukis, who, on his death in 1907, bequeathed his interesting museum to the Island States for the public weal. In 1857 he belonged to the old 64th Regiment and was one of the first to enter the fatal building at Cawnpore after the massacre. He gave me gruesome and heartrending details of what he saw, and showed me a few relics gathered on the spot - some blood-stained, half-finished knitting and a similarly besmudged page from a child's drawing-book.
source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924