Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 23 - 1860 - Gladiators, Ha'pence, Murders, Wrecks, and Trams

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Sayers and Heenan  -One arm versus No eyes - National enthusiasm - Heenan in railway accident - Marries a poetess - Heenan's backers presented at Court - New bronze coinage - Old coppers - Victoria Station - Approach through glass tunnel - Constance Kent - Repercussion of Grace Darling - First street tramways - George Francis Train - Eccentric telegram.

ON April 17th, 1860, occurred an event which stirred England to its depths - the Sayers-Heenan fight. What a sensation it caused! Tom Sayers, Champion of England, conqueror of Tom Paddock and Bob Brettle, and a prime public favourite, aged thirty-eight, five feet eight inches, bricklayer by trade, had been challenged by Jack Heenan, surnamed the Benecia Boy, from California, aged twenty-two, 6 feet 2 inches, Irish-American, and the best bruiser in the United States. Sayers had become champion without an actual contest. His intended opponent, the famous Ben Caunt, kept a tavern in St. Martin's Lane, of which the Middlesex magistrates threatened to cancel the licence if he fought: so, rather than lose his counter and beer-pumps, he forfeited his stakes.
    The meeting took place at Farnborough, on the borders of Surrey and Hampshire, whither fared by a special train from London Bridge at 4 a.m. some ten hundred admirers of the sport, including many persons well known in society - lords, lawyers, soldiers, sailors, poets, painters, authors, artists - even, it was whispered, churchmen.
    Sayers had the sun in his face, but drew first blood and punished his gigantic and, it must be owned, gallant opponent severely. But in the seventh round Sayers got his right arm injured in stopping a vicious punch and for the rest of the [-190-] encounter was unable to use it; nevertheless, the plucky little Englishman, with one arm out of action, stood up to the giant Irish-American round after round, until the Benecia Boy's eyes were of little more use than a newly born kitten's. It was reported that he hit one of his own seconds in mistake for Sayers.
    How the fight would have ended had the police not interfered cannot, of course, be certainly known; but that Tom Sayers had proved himself staunch amongst the staunchest could not be denied and there was national (and natural) jubilation accordingly.
    My father was no great admirer of the prize-ring, but he brought the news home with radiant face and enlarged on the doughty Tom's performance for days. Oh, that national spirit, that pride in one's country, was good! Why have we not got it still? Clergymen, and even bishops, so it was said, contributed to the subscriptions raised for the champion. The Stock Exchange gave him a grand reception, and underwrote 3,000 with which an annuity for the champion was purchased.
    Sayers attended the stakeholder's office on the 18th when his arm was still useless. The Benecia Boy was too ill to appear. One of the Englishman's backers was a Mr. Bennett, but not of our circle.
    Poor Tom Sayers derived but brief and doubtful benefit from all this glory. The Ultimus Romanorum of the prize- ring, was carried to his last resting-place in Kensal Green some five and a half years later.
    And hard fortunes attended Heenan too. He was badly hurt in the collision on the London and South-Western Railway at Egham on June 7th, 1864, between trains coming home from Ascot races. He, however, retained sufficient vitality to marry, later on, Miss Adah Isaacs Menken, the famous Mazeppa of Astley's Circus and of some renown as a poetess. If Tom Sayers did close the Benecia Boy's eyes it may pretty safely be conjectured that she helped to open them again.
    A curious and almost inconceivable echo of the Sayers-Heenan fight occurred at the Queen's Levee of April 24th, [-191-] when the American Minister presented to Her Majesty two of Heenan's backers, American journalists, one of whom had acted as correspondent to the New York papers on the great occasion. The Lord Chamberlain's wits were surely fooling around somewhere at a distance that day. The London papers naturally wanted to know when the Englishman's seconds were going to St. James's. Fancy the British Minister at Washington presenting Tom Sayers at the White House!
    The year 1860 was notable in the history of British coinage, for then the bronze "coppers" with which we are familiar were first issued. One evening my father brought home several sets of brilliant pennies, halfpennies, and farthings, drawn that day from the Bank, which appeared absolutely beautiful in comparison with the dingy, greasy, hall - obliterated coins to which we were habituated, and announced that such were to form the circulating medium for sweets, etc., as soon as the old and mouldy - the street boys' adjective was no misnomer when applied to the ancient coinage - counters could be got in. To encourage the public to exchange their old coins for new, a premium of 2 per cent. was allowed.
    My elder brother started collecting examples of the more interesting coppers then in use, and succeeded in preserving a good many specimens, which are in my possession to-day. As they have never been cleaned they are just as withdrawn from circulation, with the dirt of 1860 thick upon them. There is a twopenny piece of George III dated 1797, a very fine coin weighing exactly 2 ounces; a penny of the same date weighing 1 ounce; a milled penny of 1807 weighing ounce; a milled halfpenny of 1799 weighing exactly ounce (such was our ancestors' idea of small change); other halfpennies going back to George I, and seven farthings of George III, II, and I, William and Mary, James II and Charles II. None of Queen Anne.
    The coins, worn and dirty, comprised fine specimens of numismatic art; their age and diversity constituted an ever-present reminder of the mutability of human kind - a trousers-pocket edition of English history. An Irish halfpenny of 1723 with George II's head; and a coin, dated [-192-] 1783, that looked like a halfpenny, bearing Washington's head on one side and Britannia on the other, the latter a copy of the British coin except that the trident was replaced by a cap of liberty, were amongst them. The worn state of most of the "coppers" favoured the circulation of anything resembling them, for nobody took the trouble to scrutinise closely: so such intruders were not uncommon.
    The new bronze coins bore a ship and lighthouse in the background to sustain fitly Britannia's role as Mrs. Neptune and lend support to her trident, just as the old coppers had done, and these emblems, so appropriate to a maritime nation, "whose home is on the deep," were continued for many years until some official possessed, one must think, of a very low co-efficient of understanding - I am sorry to be rude to a civil servant - removed them without consultation with anybody or anything but his own poor wit.
    Victoria Station, Pimlico, covering eleven acres and costing 675,000, was opened this year by the London, Brighton and South Coast and London, Chatham and Dover Railways. Great opposition had been offered to the Bill in Parliament by neighbouring property owners, who feared the effects of smoke and noise, and the promoters had been put under the obligation to roof the railway in with iron and glass practically all the way from the Thames at Grosvenor Road Bridge. The trains therefore appeared to be travelling through a glass tunnel for hall a mile or so before reaching the station. As engines drawing outward trains had to work hard to get up the steep 1 in 70 incline to the bridge, passengers had the wisdom of their elected legislators rather noisily brought to their notice in that confined space. The superstructure was removed some twenty years ago, but vestiges can still be detected by old stagers, for instance, the Hole-in-the-Wall signal-box which was originally really built in a recess in the wall supporting the glass roof. One effect of Victoria Station has been to almost abolish the word Pimlico, once so familiar, as the name of a London district. The station was the property of a separate Company and only last year (1923) was sold to the new Southern railway in pursuance of the grouping scheme.
    [-193-]  In 1860, too, occurred one of those crimes which excite "our especial wonder" - the Constance Kent murder. A widower of Road, Somerset, with several children, married again and had an infant son born to him. His eldest daughter, Constance, about fifteen years of age, resented her father's remarriage and repelled the new wile's attempts to establish friendly relations. One morning the infant was found cruelly murdered in a garden lavatory. The affair attracted great attention, the more so as the local police, aided by Scotland Yard detectives, failed to find the murderer in spite of very persistent efforts. Their suspicions fell on a nursemaid; but, do all they could, no evidence sufficient to justify a conviction was procurable.
    This was still the position in 1863 when the investigation was given up as hopeless. But in 1865, by which time the affair had got well on the road to oblivion, a tremendous sensation was awakened by the news that Constance Kent had confessed to her brother's murder. It was true. Remorse had driven her to confide in a Brighton clergyman (so it was said) who advised her to make the only reparation in her power and confess publicly.
    It seems that resentment and jealousy had moved her to rise from bed after midnight when all was quiet, take the sleeping boy from his cradle, get out of the nursery window, kill him with her father's razor, and hide the body in the drain. She afterwards washed out two spots of blood from her nightdress and returned to bed, but later she burned the dress and restored the razor to its place. That was the pretty story pretty Constance had to tell. She was disposed to be erratic, for when thirteen years old she had cut her hair short and run away dressed in a brother's clothes. Sentence of death followed in due course, but public opinion was not prepared to allow it to be carried out: penal servitude for life was substituted, and she was transferred to Fremantle, West Australia. I remember reading of her release after serving some twenty years.
    It is interesting to recall that one detective, cleverer than the rest, Inspector Whicher of Scotland Yard, had been astute enough to deduce the identity of the culprit at a very [-194-] early stage. He discovered the absence of the burnt nightdress, and, dissatisfied with the explanations tendered, wished to arrest Miss Constance; but his superiors had made up their minds about the nursemaid and disallowed any such action.
    Mother found this crime peculiarly shocking, and had to admit that, however naughty her boys were, and they were certainly often sufficiently trying, none of them quite came up to the Constance Kent standard. Place aux dames!
Some years before - in 1857  -had occurred the, if possible, still more famous case of Madeleine Smith, another pretty girl of nineteen, who was accused of poisoning her sweetheart with whom she had fallen out of love. But that happened in Scotland, and I knew nothing about it until 1881.
    When I was a boy Grace Darling was still a national heroine. Everybody knew how, in 1838, she had put off in a small boat from Longstone Lighthouse, Northumberland, with her uncle, the keeper, and in spite of a raging sea rescued the survivors from the steamer Forfarshire wrecked on one of the Farne Islands, and everybody could tell how, after being lionised and even petted by duchesses, she had died of consumption while still quite a girl.
    In October, 1860, the memories of some twenty years before were revived in a singular manner. A steamer called the Trio went ashore only a few yards from the spot which had proved fatal to the Forfarshire. The crew got on to a rock with difficulty, the wind and sea being terrific. Fortunately, James Darling the co-hero of 1838, who was still keeper of Longstone and now seventy-five years of age, perceived their perilous position, put off in a boat, this time single-handed, and rescued them. The old man found himself famous once again, and I believe was given something more substantial than a laurel crown. The credit of originating regular life-boats rests with England; although dating from 1789, they were both new and few before Grace Darling's time. Forth of Britain there was none at all.
    It was in August, 1860, that the first street horse-car tramway in England was inaugurated at Birkenhead and [-195-] shortly afterwards followed by one along the Bayswater Road from near the Marble Arch almost to Notting Hill, and other short sections in Westminster and the Kennington Road. Such lines had been working successfully in the United States for years, and Mr. George Francis Train of Boston undertook to introduce the facility to England and the Continent of Europe. He obtained leave to construct these routes experimentally, although the suitability of tramways for English cities was much debated and the Board of Trade had its doubts. The track used was that common in the United States, consisting of a "step" rail which could only be crossed at right angles by ordinary vehicles at the expense of rough jolting and diagonally scarcely at all. In America, where roads were very hummocky at best, this counted for little, but in England it was otherwise, and, although the cars were largely patronised, owners of road carriages objected strenuously. Friction was constant, and when the daring projector wanted to double the line and extend it through Notting Hill High Street, there was a regular rebellion of tradesmen and others, and Train was ordered to take up his trains and begone by October 4th, 1861. A similar result was avoided at Birkenhead by promptly substituting flat grooved rails for the step ones.
    So the enterprising Train got badly shunted, in Yankee parlance side-tracked, to the great damage of his banking account. Naturally he felt angry with the unprogressive Briton, and conceived an animus against England which nothing could assuage. It was unhappily accentuated by an accusation brought against him by a woman, which was only dismissed after a long police court investigation. Returning to America, he spoke often and bitterly against John Bull, so that when, in January, 1868, he honoured us with a second visit, he was arrested at Queenstown in the belief that he probably intended to translate some of his vehement speeches into practice. He acquired another grievance by being taken second-class on the railway and being told, when he offered to pay the difference I or himself and captors, that such a course ill became an ardent republican. Eventu-[-196-]ally he was released on the American Minister vouching for his harmlessness.
    I had not been oblivious to this tramway controversy - in fact, as a very small boy, knowing nothing of American achievements, I had dreamed dreams of street railways to take the place of the knife-board omnibuses, and had even pictured a favourite locomotive, No. 46 of the Brighton Railway, puffing along the Old Kent Road in front of a long string of carriages, whistling every now and then to get costermongers and their donkeys out of the way - and I regretted the failure and pitied G. F. Train. Later on, however, his animosity against Great Britain roused my ire - and amusement as well.
    In 1870, when the Franco-German War broke out, I was in Mesopotamia, at a place where telegrams between Europe and India by the Turkish route were retransmitted. One day, I was shown a message which had just passed. It was from Colombo, and addressed to the Emperor Napoleon, Tuileries, Paris. It said in English, "Drop Germany and fight England. - George Francis Train." The eccentric American, who had formerly interviewed Napoleon-le-Petit about tram- ways, travelling in Ceylon, heard of the impending war and had promptly availed himself of the British cables and telegraphs to vent his spite on the contemners of step-rail tramways. However, Louis did not take the sage advice - and Sedan and the capture of Paris were the awful consequences. Poor G. F. T. got more and more eccentric as the years went on, and in his old age became a greater butt for his own countrymen than he had ever been for Britons.
    It is worthy of note that Paris had a horse tramway as early as 1853. It extended from the Place de La Concorde to Passy, 2 miles, and was superior to those introduced by Train inasmuch as the rails were grooved and presented no obstacle to ordinary wheeled traffic.