Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 35 - 1864 (continued) - The Hero of Italy

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1864 (continued) - THE HERO OF ITALY

Garibaldi - Barclay Perkins - Kisses - Red blouses - Austrian double-faced eagle - For France in 1870 - Old Garibaldians in Mesopotamia and Inverness - Foolish protest by Common Council - Last of the Fleet prison - Penny parcel-post - Sinking of Alabama - Gallant fight - Belvedere explosion.

THE visit of Garibaldi was the next event I remember. The red-shirted hero landed at Southampton amid general enthusiasm and travelled by train to the Queen's private station at Vauxhall, whence he drove to Stafford House as the guest of the Duke of Sutherland. Never before, I will venture to say, had a foreigner received such a universal welcome. His reception was super-regal. His campaigns against Naples and Rome, assisted by a corps of English volunteers - and especially by "Garibaldi's Englishman," a Mr. Peard, of Looe, Cornwall, who was always at his side and to whose counsel he ever hearkened - and his subsequent gallant efforts to burst asunder the fetters which bound his native Italy were known to, and admired by, all - all Englishmen I mean, for Garibaldi's antagonism to the Papal States had so incensed the Irish Catholics that his life would not have been safe in the southern portions of the Emerald Isle. They had even raised an Irish Brigade to help the Pope to combat him. So he basked in British smiles and smiled at Hibernian sulks. The visit of the Italian patriot was a continuous triumph, so monotonously so, that ditto ditto is all that need be said about his reception at every stage. Of course he went to the Crystal Palace and to that other National show of those days - Barclay Perkins's Brewery, where his entertainment was very different from that of the Austrian [-270-] general previously recorded. Young ladies kissed him, and when one reflects that they were mid-Victorian damsels it can be guessed that he was a favourite-the "jolly good fellow" of the song in propria persona, no less. We had Garibaldi biscuits before he came; when he had gone there was an epidemic of Garibaldi shirts. The girls especially went in for red blouses, so that any assembly of them resembled a field of poppies. And the craze endured in a modified form for years. Garibaldi was one of my own special heroes, and, although school tyrannically deprived me of any chance of seeing him, I followed his movements with great attention. In 1907 I visited at Monte Video the house in which he lived while battling for the freedom of Uruguay.
    Very soon after his friendly call on Britannia he was fighting the Austrian double-faced eagle on the foot-hills of the Alps, striving to win back Venice to its fatherland; and he was again in arms in 1870, chivalrously aiding his old enemy France against the Teuton, when he was the first of its generals - I am not sure that he was not also the only one - to capture a German flag.
    Garibaldi's championship of France in 1870 had one rather comical effect. Gratitude for what Napoleon III had done to support the Pope's temporal power induced many of the Papal military force, including the Papal Zouaves and some of the Irish Brigade, to volunteer for service against the Germans and so to become brothers-in-arms of the hated red-shirted patriot they had so often fought against. The Papal troops did gallant service for France.
    What a strange contrast was the situation in 1914! Then, instead of being the favourite son of the Church as in 1870, France had become, owing to its anti-clerical legislation, little short of anathema, and Papal sympathies were clearly with Berlin. Belgian priests were slaughtered and Belgian prelates imprisoned, but Rome had nothing to say. Was there a bargain, I wonder? In the event of German victory was such forbearance to have been rewarded by a restoration of temporal power?
    [-271-] And it was in 1870 that I met in Mesopotamia a Levantine named Sabit who had worn the red shirt and marched with Garibaldi to Naples and Rome. He told me many things about the hero and his ways, but unfortunately I cannot be sure that they were all strictly true. Another Garibaldian I came to know in the flux of years was Signor Cesari, manager in the 1880s of the Highland Railway Hotel at Inverness, a very good fellow, who had been wounded and made prisoner by the Austrians at Custozza in 1866. He helped me not a little in establishing the Inverness Telephone Exchange in 1885.
    The success of the one-year-old Metropolitan Railway caused several projects for lines into the City to be mooted. Certain merchants and shopkeepers conceived that such an invasion of railways could only result in mischief to the citizens of the sacred square mile and moved the Common Council to petition Parliament against them. This the Common Council in solemn conclave assembled was silly enough to do. The old Lady of Threadneedle Street with a broom trying to sweep back the rising tide of railways! How foolish does such failure to appreciate the ever-changing moods of circumstances appear to-day! Clearly Gog and Magog were not the only denizens of Guildhall that might reasonably be suspected of possessing wooden heads.
    In June, 1864, was announced the sale to the London, Chatham and Dover Railway for 60,000 of the Fleet Prison site which had lain waste for some twenty years. This enabled that very pushing company, to whose enterprise London owed its first really urban railways, to extend from Ludgate Hill to Snow Hill and join up with the Metropolitan underground system. I was a traveller on the first day that the L.C. and D.R. ran into Moorgate Street over this extension. The locomotives employed were tender passenger engines fitted with condensing apparatus for use in the tunnels, and for a short time some small tank engines were kept to help trains up the very steep incline from Snow Hill to Ludgate, but aid was soon found to be unnecessary. From this development sprang later on Holborn Viaduct terminus and hotel. The whole of the purchased site was [-272-] not, however, required for railway purposes, and in 1868 the portion at the corner of Ludgate Hill and Farringdon Street, which included the last remnants left standing of the historical Fleet Prison and a part of its boundary wall, was disposed of for building purposes.
    About this time London was greatly interested by a proposal to institute an express parcel collection and transport service, with a delivery every hour to a distance up to twelve miles from Cornhill: charge, one penny per parcel, payable by the sender! This was putting Rowland Hill and his penny post somewhat in the shade, and the matter was at first treated as a joke. But a prospectus was actually issued, and with it the project ended. In those days a penny, properly managed, would go a long way, but not quite so far as this scheme implied.
    The year 1864 was memorable, too, for the sinking of the celebrated Confederate privateer Alabama by the U.S. war-ship Kearsarge off Cherbourg after a gallant action. At first sight the connection of this incident with London may not be very apparent, but when it is recollected that subsequently the Alabama claims had to be dealt with at Westminster and Whitehall and some 3,000,000 raised in the City to pay them withal, first impressions may well be corrected. Alabama was only an ordinary merchant screw-steamer armed with a few small guns, which the U.S. alleged - and their contention was upheld by the International Arbitration Court to which Mr. Gladstone agreed to refer the matter - that the British Government had negligently allowed to leave the Mersey and gain the high seas, where for a year or so she preyed on American commerce with rightdown American freedom.
    She was at last cornered in Cherbourg by Kearsarge, a regular man-of-war, much larger and better armed, and moreover specially protected by chain cables hung from rail to water-mark. Nevertheless, Captain Raphael Semmes, the Confederate Commander, announced that he would go out and fight; and, what is more, courageously did so on June 19th. The action was brisk but brief, Alabama being sunk after losing nine killed and twenty-one wounded. [-273-] Captain Semmes was taken out of the water and brought to England by the English yacht Deerhound, belonging to Mr. J. Lancaster. Everybody, including my humble self, admired his bravery, and the pictorial papers did not lack exciting illustrations.
    Some two years later we were mildly surprised to read that Captain Semmes had been appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy and English Literature (good that they should go together!) to the Louisiana State Seminary. History is rarely original. It is recorded that, before he took definitely to piracy, the Viking Hastings, Alfred the Great's old opponent, spent a year or two in England studying law - which, after all, is of course only moral philosophy highly magnified.
    Captain Semmes's application of moral philosophic maxims to modern commerce destroying cost this country a pretty penny. We paid over 3,000,000 without demur - the Americans had claimed 130,000,000 or so - honouring the finding of the judges we had accepted; but that the amount was excessive there can be little doubt. The Washington authorities, after satisfying all claims, found themselves, it was reported, with a good balance in hand. This, one would have thought, ought to have been politely handed back to England. But Uncle Sam didn't like to affront the judges by slighting their decision in that way, and I never heard that any restitution was made. The verdict was for some 3 millions certainly; but, when it was shown to be excessive, moral philosophy - as Captain Semmes would certainly have taught them - required that it should be repaid.
    The remaining incident of 1864 to which I shall refer commenced with a personal experience. I was sitting at breakfast on Saturday, October 1st, when the windows rattled loudly, articles on the table became endowed with life, the cat leaped off the hearth-rug, and then came a resounding bang which seemed to roll and linger like thunder sometimes does. Evidently an explosion, and a big one too; but where? Later in the day, we learned that Messrs. Hall & Sons' gunpowder mills at Belvedere, near Erith, had blown up with fatal consequences. It seemed that a powder-[-274-]laden barge alongside their wharf had led the way, and the mills had promptly followed skywards. Numbers of windows in Woolwich and Charlton fell out, but Greenwich had escaped with comparatively light casualties. Erith church was reported wrecked, and at the Crystal Palace, in addition to breaking a fair quantity of glass, the explosion had very considerately, but rather superfluously, rung the fireman's alarm-bell.
    It came into my head that the scene would be worth seeing, so next day, Sunday, instead of going to church, I walked to the New Cross Station of the South-Eastern Railway-Greenwich then possessing no rail connection with Charlton, Woolwich or Erith - and booked for Belvedere. It appeared that the same idea had occurred to several thousand others, with the result that special trains were being run. At Belvedere I found a big crowd already assembled, with hawkers of fruits and refreshments in attendance. But there was nothing to see. The mills had been entirely dispersed, with the exception of a few fragments of wall, while trees, and a few cottages and out-buildings (the powder-mills had stood, as was fitting, in a somewhat secluded position) had been levelled for a considerable distance around. I could only discern two or three haystacks erect in the distance, and wondered why they should have escaped while much more substantial structures had departed. In reading and endeavouring to realise the effects of mines and monster shells on the French front during the Great War this Belvedere experience stood me in good stead.
    I soon returned to the station and home. It was lucky that I did so, for later in the day great delays and crushes occurred, one man being pushed under a train and killed. The railway company failed to rise to the occasion as they might have done, and the last load of returning sightseers did not leave Erith until three o'clock on Monday morning.

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