Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 33 - 1863 (continued) - Tragedy, Pathos and Farce

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1863 (continued) - TRAGEDY, PATHOS AND FARCE

Ionian Isles cession - Donnybrookopolis - Everything declines except taxes - Pathos in Houndsditch - Steam fire-engines competition - Manhattan defeated - Baked potato-can - American leveller in the Philippines - Moonshine blindness - Catastrophe at Santiago - Cardinal Manning's exorcism - Accident at New Cross - Sources of the Nile - Mr. Banting - William Crookes and thallium.

IN January, 1863, was completed the cession of the Ionian Isles to Greece, an act which met with my distinct disapproval, for the political sagacity incidental to my thirteenth year could find no health in any dismemberment of the British Empire. My opposition had no origin in party proclivities. The islands were ceded by a Liberal Ministry, Mr. Gladstone being particularly concerned; but in later years I was even more indignant at the surrender of Heligoland - of which islet and its inhabitants I had some first-hand knowledge - by Lord Salisbury and his Conservatives. We had been in the Ionian Islands since 1809. The people had multiplied and communities prospered under our rule although the patriotic or pro-Greek enthusiasts were very unwilling to admit the fact, and great rejoicings took place when the news of the magnanimous renunciation arrived. But the immediate fruits were deplorable. The scenes that took place were almost foreshadowings of those in Ireland in 1923 when the Hibernians were left to govern themselves. Donnybrookopolis would not have been a bad name for the capital. Two years later and the Times reported: Perfect anarchy; homicides and assaults; fights and loss of life with pistols, knives, stilettos, yataghans; police don't interfere; old post [-259-] office employees replaced by incompetents and service disorganised, etc., etc. 
            "When Greek meets Greek, then comes the tug of war!"
    Well, that tug came along all right as soon as the British ships of war had gone - and took the islanders in tow! Population and prosperity - indeed everything except taxes - declined as soon as Britannia's shield had been withdrawn, and to this day there are Ionian Islanders who would like to nestle under it again.
    In 1892 it was my fortune to meet an ex-military officer who once, in the absence of the Governor, had had charge of one of the principal islands and for a period reigned in his stead. He had fallen on very evil times, and had become a canvasser for telephone subscriptions. One day his duty led him to Houndsditch, to call on a Jewish dealer in old clothes (there are several in the neighbourhood). On entering the shop he saw displayed for sale a complete uniform and equipment of an officer of his old corps, and, moreover, of his old rank. Tears came into the poor fellow's eyes as he told me. (And he failed to secure Aaron as a subscriber.)
    This much may be said for the Ionian Isles cession - it constitutes, I believe, the sole example on record of one nation voluntarily ceding valuable territory to another. And this was done by the very people denounced by Germans and others as the champion land-grabbers of the universe.
    This summer an event which interested me greatly - a trial of steam fire-engines took place at the Crystal Palace. It was a matter in which much progress had been made since the Tooley Street catastrophe of 1861, and on this occasion the Americans, thinking they could show the British a wrinkle or two, sent three engines to compete. The New York Fire Brigade, esteemed the smartest of all, entered their best machine, Manhattan. The engines had to draw water from an 18-feet well and deliver it to elevated points through 400 feet of hose. The Americans were nowhere, their best being a vertical jet 50 feet in the air as against 190 feet British. Several pictures appeared of the Yankee [-260-] steamers, and one irreverent reporter likened Uncle Sam's Manhattan to a baked potato-can.
    I once met in Baltimore a steam fire-engine maker who had recently returned from England after a vain attempt to persuade the authorities there that his squirts were better than theirs. One of his arguments was that, when the Americans took the Philippine Islands, Manila was served by British machines of such feeble capabilities that he had no difficulty in proving the superiority of his own American brand. That, in a sense, was true, but I afterwards heard that the English pumps were designedly of limited power, as the Manila buildings were mostly very flimsy and couldn't stand much battering. In fact, the first time the Baltimore engine was turned on a fire it flattened out all the houses involved and left the proprietors wondering which had proved the worse affliction - the fire or its extinguisher.
    In the autumn a misfortune which attracted wide-spread attention occurred to a boy of normal sight who went to sleep in a field, the harvest moon full on his face, and woke up-blind. Without being able to account for such an effect, the doctors said that cases had been reported before, although not completely credited by the faculty. Result: solemn injunctions to boys never to indulge in moonlight naps. " Tis sixty years since," but to-day I should not neglect this warning without misgiving, although I cannot understand how the feeble reflected rays from our satellite can affect the eyes so powerfully through closed lids.
    This was the year of the fearful fire in the cathedral at Santiago, Chili, when some two thousand women and girls were burned, smothered and crushed to death. On the occasion of the Festival of the Virgin the church was packed with worshippers, nearly all females, when some of the festooned decorations suddenly blazed up. The fire ran rapidly along the paper chains, dropping burning fragments on the crinoline-clad ladies beneath. A terrible stampede ensued, the doorways were blocked by wedged-in victims, and one of the record holocausts of history resulted. A few were saved by being lassoed by vaqueros and dragged out [-261-] over the heads of the immovable throngs and through the windows. A wave of pity ran round the world and the British applied their usual panacea - a subscription-list of goodly proportions. The Cathedral priests were subjected to outspoken censure for their assumed carelessness in permitting such decorations and selfishness in not getting burned themselves. This did not please good Cardinal Manning. He sent "for his candle, his bell and his book," and the daring censors learned too late, and no doubt much to their dismay, that they were no better than so many jackdaws of Rheims and mere utterers of disrespectful and ineffective blasphemies.
    On October 30th occurred a lesser tragedy of which I should have been a witness had I been on the scene one short hour earlier. During a heavy south-west gale I Left London Bridge by the 4.15 p.m. Croydon train; as it ran into New Cross I was startled to perceive that one of the big engine-sheds at the northern end of the platforms had disappeared and in its stead lay heaps of bricks, slates and broken timber piled confusedly on the top of seven or eight locomotives, one of which was derailed and displaced, while numbers of men were working on and around the ruins.
    I was out of the train before it had stopped and across the line in a few moments, just in time to meet four navvies bearing a stretcher on which lay the covered-up form of a man. The engines were half-buried, battered, dented and dusty. Water was being played into the fire-box of the derailed one, and I gathered that a fitter had been crushed to death between her sand-box and edge of the ash-pit over which she had been standing.
    It appeared that at 3.30 a tremendous blast of wind had entered the shed at its open end, and, finding no exit, had lifted the roof, which collapsed, and in falling had knocked down the walls. The building had been 145 feet long by 42 wide, with 14-inch brick walls strengthened by 23-inch piers. Yet Titus fresh from levelling Jerusalem could not have made a more thorough job, certainly not in the time.
    At the inquest the driver of No. 111, the derailed machine, [-262-] said that, seeing the roof rising, he with his fireman and a fitter had dropped into the ash-pit under his engine. They immediately heard a crash and saw the locomotive sink upon them. Had it come a little farther he and the others must have been crushed; as it was, they were imprisoned and had to be dug out. The deceased had probably tried to follow their example, but was caught. Three other men were seriously and many slightly injured.
    On tearing myself away from the dismal but fascinating scene and running home - being far too excited to walk - I noticed several houses unslated and trees blown over along the New Cross Road.
    The shed was rebuilt and is the one which stands with its entrance opposite the end of the up slow platform; alongside this platform is another shed which dates from the 1840s and was unscathed by the gale.
    Another event of 1863 was the discovery of the sources of the Nile by Speke and Grant. Almost forgotten now, the question of where the Nile came from had from remote antiquity been a perennial subject of speculation and discussion, and its solution by two Britons was naturally gratifying. But we regretted that the grand result was marred by a quarrel between the able and gallant discoverers.
    At the end of 1863 these serious matters were set off by one that provided merriment for many a day and year. A Mr. Banting, who was so fat that he could not tie his shoestrings, had to descend stairs backwards and involuntarily provided cheap entertainment for street boys, wrote to the papers (and he afterwards also published a pamphlet) that, after taking innumerable Turkish baths, drenching himself at mineral springs and rowing until he was not only fat but dripping, all in vain and more, he had rid himself of a fabulous number of stones by following a simple course of diet. A big discussion followed, many imitators adopted his plans with varied results, and "doing Banting" became a household expression. I doubt whether it is quite extinct yet. The comic papers and singers made themselves merry; every burlesque and pantomime scored its joke, [-263-] and Banting found himself great in fame as well as in person, rivalling (for a time) even those weighty immortals, Falstaff and Sancho Panza.
    In 1924 the name of Banting is again famous, and this time without any aid from facetiousness. All honour to this London doctor, the inventor of Insulin, and to Canada, whose authorities enabled him to demonstrate its potency.
    An English chemist, William Crookes - in after-years Sir William, and one of our most famous scientists - had discovered a new metal in 1861 which he named thallium, from the Greek word for green owing to the colour of its line in the spectrum. This year a German chemist, who was also somewhat of a crank, created amusement by alleging that the ancient Mexicans had known all about Crookes's new metal, which they had used for producing the green fire prescribed in the worship of Vitzliputzli. He apparently did not know that the material from which the first thallium had been recovered had been brought from the Hartz Mountains. Crookes was also the discoverer of that beautiful and mysterious little motor which he called the radiometer, and it was his vacuum experiments and tubes which rendered possible, and led up to, the German discovery of X-rays. It was not my lot ever to work with this distinguished man, but I had the good fortune to meet him in Guernsey in 1908.