Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 36 - 1865 - Justice off her Balance - First London Tubes

[... back to menu for this book]




Wreck of San Jacinto  - Saffron Hill murder - Pneumatic tubes - Electrical Parcel Exchange -Thames Tunnel - Thames subways - Serpentine bridge statuary - Cobden and Bright - Paxton - President Lincoln's assassination - Desolate cotton-fields.

THE year 1865 opened with an incident that sent no tremor of sorrow round the country. The American war-ship San Jacinto, which, under Commodore Wilkes, had stopped the R.M.S. Trent and taken the Confederate envoys from under the British flag, nearly causing war between the nations, was totally wrecked on the Bahama Banks on January 1st. A British gunboat stood by and heaped coals of fire on her - I mean, generously lent her aid. We cordially wished Davy Jones luck with his prize, although of opinion that he must often have bagged a more reputable one.
    The feeling aroused by the next event was very different indeed, for it tended to discredit English justice - judges, juries, jurisprudence, and all. One man shone brightly and earned universal commendation, but he was a foreigner. I allude to the notorious Saffron Hill murder case. Groups of Englishmen and Italians were assembled in different rooms at a public-house on Saffron Hill, the classical resort of Italian organ-grinders and others of that type. One of these entered the English room, stabbed a member of the party and escaped. A man named Pelizzioni was arrested and identified by the victim on his death-bed as his murderer. Others testified similarly, but there were several who spoke very strongly to the contrary. The prisoner was found guilty, the judge concurring strongly in the verdict, and sentenced to death.
    [-276-] Now came a dramatic surprise. Mr. Negretti, of the well- known firm of Negretti and Zambra, opticians of Hatton Garden, wrote to the Times analysing the evidence, showing how witnesses for the prosecution had disagreed, and alleging that the crime had been committed by another Italian, Gregorio Mogri. The police, he said, had been told so immediately after the murder, but had preferred to suppress evidence and press the case against the wrong man.
    Naturally this was received with much incredulity and was energetically denied, but Negretti produced Mogri, who had gone into hiding, but had been found and induced to come forward and confess. He was convicted of manslaughter, while Pelizzioni was "pardoned" and released. Sir Richard Mayne, Chief of Police, defended his myrmidons, but Negretti stuck to his guns and carried the weight of public opinion with him. As in the famous Adolph Beck case many years later, the police appear to have judged the matter for themselves at the first go-off, found Pelizzioni guilty, and thereafter shut their eyes to anything tending to the contrary. It was a sorry business. Signor Negretti's share in it commanded admiration and respect, feelings which I found that I still personally cherished when I came to have dealings with his firm thirty years afterwards.
    Early this year I saw at the Crystal Palace a tunnel 10 feet by 9 feet in diameter and 60 yards long, with some very sharp gradients, through which a large railway carriage containing sightseers (if they who travelled in darkness should so be called) at sixpence each, was blown by compressed air in the one direction and sucked back by vacuum in the other. This was an illustration of the principle of transport then being exploited by the Pneumatic Despatch Company which had already laid down an underground iron tube 33 inches by 30 inches in diameter for the conveyance of mails and parcels between Euston Station and the N.W. District Post Office, and were busily constructing a tube 4 feet 6 inches high and 4 feet wide, from the same terminus to St. Martin's-le-Grand.
    This was eventually completed but never seemed to work satisfactorily, great difficulty being experienced in keeping [-277-] the joints air-tight; so, after carrying parcels for some eight years, with intervals of quiescence, the traffic was closed down and the enterprise abandoned. As the years went on few remembered the existence of such a tube, although reminders came now and then when the papers chronicled that excavators had lit upon some or other portion of it.
    I had not forgotten, however, and impressed with the importance and possibilities of such a mode of transport, I amplified the old scheme, substituting electric power, which does not require an absolutely air-tight tube, for pneumatic, and in 1891 read a Paper at the British Association Meeting at Cardiff, entitled, An Electrical Parcel Exchange. It was well received by all but the Post Office officials, one of whom was a member of the Engineering Committee which accepted my paper, and another present when it was discussed. The position taken by these gentlemen was that the excellent horse-van service between the General Post Office and the various railway termini met all requirements and that my proposals savoured of Utopia, while the failure of the Pneumatic Tube eighteen years before was solemnly held before me as a warning. However, other engineers present, and eminent ones too, thought very differently.
    But a great change of opinion developed twenty-two years later, when, shortly before the war, the Post Office went to Parliament for leave to construct electrical tubes between the chief metropolitan postal and railway centres, practically borrowing my Cardiff proposals but in an unnecessarily expensive manner, using two tubes where one would suffice. From. the evidence of one of their witnesses before the Select Committee to which the scheme was referred, who said that the only previous proposal of the kind had been made by an Austrian engineer in regard to Vienna, it would appear that the Post Office had utterly forgotten both the pneumatic tube of the sixties and my Cardiff Paper of 1891.
    The grand finale came in 1923, when the Post Office apparently suddenly rediscovered the existence of the [-278-] old pneumatic tube and set about trying to acquire what remained of it for use as a telephone cable conduit.
    The enormous and ever-growing congestion of London streets will eventually render an underground service for goods and parcels imperative, and I am fully certain that some such scheme as my 1891 Electrical Parcel Exchange will have to be adopted. I concluded my Paper by predicting that modern London would ultimately have to be in two stories and it has already, with its numerous burrowings during the intervening thirty-three years, got an appreciable distance on the road.
    Being on subterranean topics, I will now mention the passing of an old and famous London institution - the Thames Tunnel - which, in September, 1865, was handed over to its purchasers of a year before, the East London Railway Company. "One up, t'other down;" some are born as others die, so, while the brand-new pneumatic tube was being pressed towards completion the old under-river burrow was passing the last customers through its turnstiles.
    The undertaking dated from the early years of the century, when the need of a crossing lower than London Bridge began to assert itself. Another bridge was impracticable owing to the shipping traffic, so a tunnel was decided upon, to be situated about one and a half miles below London Bridge, between Wapping and Rotherhithe. The soil to be penetrated proved treacherous and progress extremely slow. In 1807-8 the famous Cornish Engineer, Richard Trevithick, inventor of the high-pressure steam-engine and of the rail locomotive - and who ultimately found a pauper's grave at Dartford - made a strenuous effort to carry the driftway through; but old Father Thames, as if resentful of the attempt to undermine his time-honoured channel, placed there by Providence itself, kept breaking in and drowning the works. Rennie, builder of Waterloo, Southwark and new London Bridges, as well as of the graceful stone structure over the Serpentine, was another famous man who tried and failed.
    At last, in 1843, Sir Mark Isambard Brunel, father of the celebrated engineer of the broad-gauge Great Western [-279-] Railway (who himself acted for a time as Resident Engineer at the tunnel), after working on the problem since 1825, completed two brick sub-ways side by side. These were opened for passenger traffic, but, as lifts on the requisite scale had not been perfected, patrons had to descend one very steep shaft by means of a grand stairway, and ascend another - it must have been like climbing a buried Monument  -so that, after all, little relief was afforded to the pressure on London Bridge, and visitors were made up largely of country people and foreigners "doing" one of the recognised London sights. For their delectation stalls were opened - the tunnels being lighted with gas - for the sale of refreshments, pictures, keepsakes, etc. A note in the London Journal of April 7th, 1849, states that the visitors averaged 18,000 per week.
    The Tunnel Company's accounts for 1863 showed a profit of only 1,875, which on the capital cost of the work must have been a bagatelle. I am sorry to say that, except as a railway passenger after the East London Railway had got their line open, I was never through the Thames Tunnel, although frequent references to it at home had rendered its leading features quite familiar.
    My next younger brother and I made several attempts to get to it from Camberwell in 1860, but the journey was long and the approach by intricate and dirty streets frequented by rough people, and we never won through. A lady neighbour, who, I remember, was celebrated for her brew of elderberry wine, once kindly volunteered to take us and by means of an omnibus got close to Rotherhithe; but, on nearing the tunnel, we became enveloped in a disorderly crowd excited by some arrests just made by the police, and our conductress became so frightened that our excursion was incontinently abandoned even on the verge of accomplishment.
    The Thames Tunnel was the only London show place that I failed to explore, and therefore may claim a good record as compared with many Cockneys. I once met a retired official of the Fishmongers' Company who had sat in front of a window of their Hall for some forty-seven years so that [-280-] he could not help seeing the Monument every time he raised his eyes, and yet confessed that he had never ascended it.
    The Brighton Railway Company worked the Thames Tunnel Railway, by steam, first from New Cross to Wapping and then all the way to Liverpool Street. Later on the Metropolitan and Metropolitan District Companies participated. Now the steam-horse has been superseded and a constant traffic is conducted by electric traction. Brunel's substantial structure has given no trouble since opened in 1843.
    But the need of a tunnel for foot passengers below bridge persisted and in 1869 the Thames Sub-way from Tower Hill to Tooley Street was inaugurated. It consisted of a cast-iron tube seven feet in diameter, put together in pieces, Mr. Barlow being the engineer. It was expeditiously constructed without a hitch, in that respect forming a remarkable contrast to its unlucky forerunner. This sub-way was closed for traffic on the opening of the adjacent Tower Bridge, but remains intact, and I believe was usefully employed during the Great War. Its entrance kiosk still stands near the Tower gates. The London County Council have since made several sub-river tunnels, one at Rotherhithe itself, so justifying the old idea, but now they have expeditious lifts instead of wearying stairs, and moreover charge nothing for all their trouble.
    I have mentioned Rennie's handsome bridge over the Serpentine. Not many present-day Londoners, I imagine, are aware that it used to be adorned by four groups of statuary, one at each corner. These were emblematic of England's greatness and rather suggested the Playing-grounds of Eton point of view. The groups were: three young ladies in classical attire, presumably Graces, three cricketers, three grenadiers, and three Highlanders. Unfortunately, the stone chosen proved inferior and in the 1880s the weather, seconded by mischievous youths, had produced such dilapidations that it was discovered that the statues were no longer ornamental and they were removed to the St. James's Recreation Gardens situated between the [-281-] Hampstead Road and Cardington Street, N.W., under the shadow of Euston Station, where they have steadily gone on reverting to their elemental conditions as blocks of stone. The young ladies, who now preside over the flower-beds at the Gardener's Cottage, are - as is fit and proper and to be expected - by far the best preserved. The other groups forlornly distributed about the grounds are in evil case. A Scottish proverb declares that it is "ill takin' the breeks af a Hielan' man;" that is as it may be, but the London weather has clearly contrived to possess itself of these particular Hlighlanders' kilts.
    Several distinguished men finished their careers in 1865. Cobden, of whose doings I knew little beyond his championship of Free Trade (which all nations were to clamour for after a brief experience!) "Cobden and Bright" - never Bright and Cobden - was a current phrase familiar even to school-boys.
    Sir Joseph Paxton, whose work I knew and admired, followed. Although not by training an architect, be contrived to produce one of the most renowned of buildings, unique in its conception, unrivalled in its effects. Even such a specialist in fairy palaces as Aladdin, son of Mustapha, might have been proud of the edifice which rendered Sydenham Hill the Palatine Mount of London.
    President Lincoln's assassination caused a wave of genuine sorrow. He had sometimes stroked the British Lion the wrong way, and ruffled bus main; but the British lion likes a man of grit, and the task Lincoln tackled was generally recognised as a tremendous one. Coming, as it did, at the end of the Civil War, his fate was felt to be especially hard. The finish of the fratricidal struggle was welcomed in England, where the stoppage of cotton from the Confederate States had occasioned terrible distress. In 1898 I travelled extensively in Georgia and the South, and was shown forests growing where the slave-worked cotton-fields had existed thirty-five years before - and that for miles and miles and miles.