Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 21 - 1858 - The Pantomime Jogs On - Invading the Ocean Bed

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Don Quizote - Astley's - St. James's Theatre - Prestidigitation - Dinner at Leicester Square - Orsini - Perim - Queen at Cherbourg - First Atlantic cable laid - Whales, American barque and Irish steamer - Disaster and disappointment - Jersey-Coutances cable.

DURING 1857 the Gates of Janus had persistently stood open and England had felt the thrills and sorrows of war in no common degree: yet when Christmas came it brought the usual crop of festivities and pantomimes. My younger brother and I were attracted by the press notices of one of these. It was Don Quixote and his Steed Rosinante; or, Harlequin Sancho Panza, at Astley's Amphitheatre. It so happened that we had just made the acquaintance of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance through a book with many pictures, one of which, and that which appealed to us most, represented the Don charging the windmills.
    Now the critics alleged that the best scene in the pantomime was based on this very incident: so we put up a petition to be taken to the famous circus in the Westminster Bridge Road. One Saturday afternoon in January, 1858, we went, but, being somewhat late, failed to get in. Sympathising with our natural disappointment, papa hailed a cab and drove over Old Westminster Bridge (it was on this occasion that I noticed its mountainous appearance) to the St. James's Theatre, where we were just in time to see the beginning of a conjuring performance by a foreigner with a terrible name that in itself suggested conjuring to anybody trying to pronounce it, and who from his speech we judged, perhaps erroneously, to be French. He did many wonderful things quite new to us - producing globes [-176-] of goldfish from his coat-tail pockets, smashing with a hammer and afterwards restoring watches, and so on. In connection with the last-named trick and others he several times said, "Now I vill fetch my little ham-mar'," going behind a screen for the purpose. This phrase caught our fancy, and we mimicked it and its accent for months afterwards whenever a Frenchman came into our conversation.
    After the performance we went, father, mother and two boys, to dinner on the first floor of a building at the corner of Leicester Square and Wardour Street, which has long since been rebuilt. This was also a new experience, as we were waited on for the first time by servitors in bob-tail coats and white ties who, I think, were English. The German waiter may have existed then, but the native article still preponderated.
    The following Saturday, papa having taken the precaution to book seats, we got in to Don Quixote and saw the windmills duly charged. There were three mills, but, as it was evident that Astley's scene-painter had, by some mistake, not sketched the same machines as the illustrator of our book, and as they were, moreover, comparatively diminutive, we did not think much of the feat. We liked Sancho Panza better than the gloomy Don. The box we occupied on the right of the proscenium was apparently located over a stable, for the prevailing smell was not of rosemary.
    The same month Orsini tried to blow up the Emperor Napoleon III, but only succeeded in killing his coachman and some spectators. One of the papers had an illustration of the bomb exploding under the carriage, which implied passably rapid sketching on the part of the artist. This was the first bomb outrage I knew anything about. But I got near several others in after-life, finishing up (at least I hope so) with a pretty thorough experience of the German raids over London, at most of which it was my fortune to "assist.''
    This year the British took possession of the island of Perim at the mouth of the Red Sea. The story went that [-177-] a French expedition with sealed orders to annex the island put into Aden, where the Governor, without any knowledge of the fact but at a loss to account for the Frenchman's presence in those waters, and suspicious - telepathy perhaps - invited the commandant to dinner while he despatched a boat to hoist the British flag. The next day the French sighted Perim all right and also the flag. "Sacrés tonnerres!" echoed amongst the rocks, but the ensign is there to this day. Good Governor!
    This little incident did not prevent Napoleon from inviting the Queen and Prince Consort to Paris. They landed at Cherbourg in August and had a splendid reception. The Emperor was naturally gratified at such a recognition of his not too secure position, and in his enthusiasm kissed Her Majesty. Like his impudence! A chorus of indignation ran round England like a fiery cross. My mother, with whom the erstwhile prisoner of Ham was no great favourite, wondered how the Queen could have brought herself to permit it. I think the railway to Cherbourg must have been just opened - it had been built by Brassey and his English navvies - as part of the festive proceedings was a blessing of locomotives at the terminus there. The Illustrated London News had several pictures of such events. I remember two - blessing the engines at Strasbourg and again at Toulouse. These illustrations excited our unmeasured contempt, the locomotives depicted were so extremely unlike the real article. And the bishops - bless them! - knew so very little about oiling engines that they invariably applied the unguent or lubrication where it could not possibly be of any earthly use.
    And August, too, saw the completion of a grand work - the Atlantic telegraph cable, a first attempt at which had been made the previous year. It was greatly talked about, especially as the expedition had been harassed by terrible weather. The cable had been manufactured entirely in England with capital that was mainly British, yet the wish expressed that America should participate in the laying was willingly acceded to. So two men-of-war, Agamemnon British, and Niagara American, were each to ship half; [-178-] steam to mid-Atlantic; splice the cable and pay out, one to the east, the other to the west.
    The ships encountered a bad south-west gale on their passage to the starting-point. Agamemnon had a deck cargo of coal, which broke loose, and the cable in the tanks shifted with the rolling, so that the loss of the ship by capsizing at one time appeared imminent, and her escort, the paddle-wheel frigate Valorous, and Niagara, stood by to pick up the pieces. Fortunately she recovered, but the damage sustained was so serious that a return to port was necessary. A month later the expedition was restarted, and this time finished the work. Soon after paying out had commenced a huge whale was seen making, apparently, straight for the cable and, passing astern, just grazed the precious filament as it entered the water. And as Agamemnon was nearing Ireland an American barque failed to see the cable and steered dangerously close. Valorous fired a blank cartridge, and then, as she took no notice, a shot across her bows. Whereupon the barque hove to but evidently without understanding affairs, and so remained until out of sight.
    I can quite comprehend the Yankee skipper's failure to notice the cable. To begin with, such a thing as cable-laying was new to the Atlantic and the ships probably did not carry the signals familiar to-day; and, secondly, when the offing is otherwise clear an obstacle of the kind is apt to be overlooked. I was a passenger from New York in the Cunarder A urania in 1898 when she broke her crank- shaft and was towed into Queenstown by the Elder Dempster steamer Marino. Entering the harbour, the Aurania was deflected by a current and for a time the two ships were wide apart with the massive chain tow cable across the fairway between them. A City of Cork Company's steamer proceeding to sea failed to notice the obstruction, which was many times bigger than the 1858 Atlantic cable, and ran into it full speed, practically at right angles. The hawser broke, its linked ends flying high in the air, and the Corker was brought up standing for an appreciable time. There was nobody on deck: for the obstacle had been noticed a few seconds [-179-] before striking and every man Pat, captain included - he was indeed a skipper on that occasion - had run below, justly fearing that the cable might slip up the stem and sweep the deck. So I can appreciate the Yankee's surprise at being popped at on that August morning.
    The cable was laid and Queen and President exchanged congratulations, and many other messages - altogether 732 - were passed, including the news of peace with China and the end of the Indian Mutiny; but whether there had been a defect in manufacture - it was a tremendous undertaking for that date, the first submarine telegraph cable, Dover and Calais, being then only seven years old-or the cable had been damaged in the storm, a fault in the insulation soon appeared, got steadily worse and put a stop to communication after a few weeks' use. Eight more years were to elapse before the Great Eastern successfully accomplished the telegraphic linking of the two hemispheres. A more advanced knowledge on the part of the electricians in charge would probably have extended the life of the 1858 cable - it is said that it received its final quietus from the injudicious application of the very excessive pressure of 2,000 volts in an attempt to quicken the signalling, whereas with the Thomson mirror galvanometer, which was available, something like 2 volts would have been nearer the mark - but that had to come with experience. The best that can be written is that the attempt was a glorious failure.
    The general quality was excellent; a length, recovered from the Atlantic, was laid between Jersey and Coutances in the early 60s and is still (1924) in use. The fiasco led to much experiment and study, and the next attempt, in 1865, was made under the direction of a group of British engineers and electricians who have never been rivalled for genius, skill and courage. How little did I foresee, when hearing about this unique expedition and studying the published pictures, that my own life was destined to be linked up with electric cables!

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