Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 37 - 1865 (continued) - Excursions and Alarums

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1865 (continued) - EXCURSIONS AND ALARUMS

Jersey- P.s. Normandy - Harvey monument - Sark - French p.s. Comete - Langham Hotel - Dr. Pritchard - Fun in Rotten Row - Chignons - Cheap Sunday excursions - Boulogne-sur-Mer - A venturesome Cornishman - Science Museum - Spain v. Chili - First bombs - Rabies, Cholera and Fenianism - Jamaican insurrection - Governor Eyre - Samphire collision - "Free" Trade.

IN July I made my first sea voyage and spent an agreeable and interesting fortnight in Jersey. There I saw the paddle-wheel mail-steamer Normandy, belonging to the London and South-Western Railway, which on the previous May 31st had made a record passage from Guernsey to Southampton. She left at 9.25 a.m., passed the Caskets at 10.35, Needles at 2.55, and arrived in dock at 4.35 p.m. Speed 14~75 knots (nearly 17 miles) an hour. The engines made 34 revolutions per minute, while the steam pressure per square inch was only 23 lb. This performance is not greatly excelled in 1924, when twin-screws are used and the pressure carried is not far short of 200 lb. per square inch. In 1922 I crossed in one of the best modern steamers, which likewise took one hour ten minutes between Guernsey and the Caskets.
    Alas! Normandy had a tragic end. In the early morning of March 17th, 1870, in a dense fog, she collided with another vessel in the Channel and went down. Her gallant captain, H. B. Harvey, with his chief mate, J. Ockleford, the engineers and most of the crew, got the passengers into the boats, stood by their ship and sank with her. A granite obelisk to their memory stands on the eastern pier at Jersey, close to the berth where the Normandy was wont to moor. Such were the men of the days when Britannia really ruled the waves!
    During my Jersey trip I paid a visit to Sark, travelling [-283-] in the French paddle-wheel steamer Comète, which had a very ornamental engine of a lever type that I had not seen before. The captain wore a top-hat, and I afterwards heard that his chief steward knew more about Channel Islands navigation than he did. There was no lighthouse on the Corbiere in those days, and I have a vivid recollection of the skipper on the bridge holding his topper on as we rounded those foam-beaten rocks. Jersey has altered more than most places during the fifty-nine years since that took place.
    The middle of the year was marked by the opening of the Langham Hotel, the first of London's great caravanserais. The tavern, coffee-house and chop-house era was fast drawing to a close and the day of the big hotel and and tea-shop close at hand.
    Dr. Pritchard, the Glasgow poisoner, who murdered his wife and mother-in-law with antimony, was executed about the same time. His crime, as was fit and proper, occasioned great indignation. In 1881 I made the acquaintance of a Scotsman who had waited up all night to see him hanged and told his wife before starting that he would volunteer for the job himself should anything happen to Calcraft. But that old practitioner kept his appointment, and the learned doctor was leisurely but effectively suspended. The gruesome spectacle so affected my valiant friend that he went home feeling too ill to sup his porridge - to the mixed amazement and amusement of his better half, for at breakfast his abilities as a trencherman were usually of no second-rate order.
    In June a round of hilarity was caused by a young fellow riding slowly along Rotten Row at its busiest hour holding a chignon on the end of a cane. Every lady he met clapped her hands to the back of her neck, while an expression of alarm crossed her face. In case "chignon" should have ceased to be a dictionary word in 1924 I may explain that the article was a pad of hair worn in the crinoline age by every self-respecting female, whatever her native endowments in the hirsute direction might happen to be, on the nape of the neck and upon which was perched the "porkpie hat and neat little feather" of the popular song. There [-284-] was money in chignons. In 1866 one Parisian firm retailed 15,000 at prices ranging from 12 to 70 francs, a few extra superfine, presumably for queens and princesses, fetching 250 francs. Red and flaxen hair, principally, it was said, imported from Scotland, was the most expensive. The total French export totalled up to £45,000 per annum, England and the United States being the best customers.
    In August I made another sea trip and honoured the Empire of France with my presence for the first time. Those were the days of cheap Sunday excursions. The Brighton Railway had inaugurated them not many years before with 2s. 6d. day trips to Brighton and 4s. day trips to Hastings and Eastbourne. That company had had the good fortune to possess as Chairman and Managing Director a benevolent philosopher, Mr. Samuel Laing, agnostic of the Spencer and Huxley School, moralist and worker of good deeds, author of Modern Science and Modern Thought, and other pithy volumes; and it was primarily to him, if I mistake not, that the toilers of London owed this boon. Preachers of all denominations disapproved of the Sabbath desecration, and when, on an August Sunday in 1861, two of the Brighton Company's trains were involved in the dreadful Clayton tunnel accident, they thumped their pulpits vigorously, but without stopping the excursions.
    The South-Eastern Railway followed after a time whit similar facilities to Ramsgate, Margate, Dover, and this year that company advertised a Sunday trip to Boulogne-sur-Mer via Folkestone for 7s. 6d. return. I was permitted, in company with a young friend of seventeen, to avail myself of the opportunity, and a jolly and exciting time we had. Leaving London Bridge at 7.30 a.m., we got to Boulogne about 11.30, and, as the return steamer did not sail until 7 p.m., we had a good long time on shore.
    My friend was from Cornwall, and, although older, knew far less about things in general that I did. He had read that the Boulogne fisher-girls were extremely good-looking, and in spite of my protests, for I wanted to go to the railway-station, insisted on clearing up the point by following and inspecting from a respectful distance (he was too shy [-285-] to go close) every short-skirted female who hove in sight. Most revealed to our gaze were elderly, however, until an unmistakable girl in sabots and with naked legs was discerned ascending a side-street with many steps. Chase was given, but - horror - the limbs, when near enough, were seen to be covered with pustules! The Cornishman fled, but had some compensation in meeting a little later a procession of snowy-clad maidens on their first communion intent. I was afterwards told that the lass on the steps was no doubt a shrimper, and that, as her limbs represented a common consequence of spending hours daily in salt water, there was nothing to run away from.
    We dined in the Rue Pot d'Etain, making merry at that quaint name; at the menu with its ragouts and other unaccustomed terms a la this and a la that; at our waiter, who addressed all remarks to my friend, who understood no French and was invariably replied to by myself who did. We had gloria - coffee with cognac and sugar - afterwards, the beet-root sugar being sawn up into accurate oblongs like little bricks. And the way in which the tall-hatted lieges of the Emperor pocketed the pieces they did not use was amusing too.
    In the afternoon we hired a boat and had a row on the little river Liane; also paying a call at the railway-station, which we found in a state of quietude, only one small locomotive with its boiler sheathed in brass and a tall stove-pipe kind of chimney being visible.
    Ultimately we got back to London Bridge about midnight, thoroughly tired but quite satisfied with our outing and unique experiences. I especially so, for I had tried my London - learnt French on real live Frenchmen and found it good - at least in parts! This excursion will show that railway facilities were not quite a minus quantity in the metropolis of Queen Victoria. I fancy the Londoner of 1924 would rather appreciate a 7s.6d. train to Boulogne and back. The Southern railways, so often sneered at in later times, showed the way to many things in the earlier days.
    It was in this year, too, that I paid my first visit to the recently opened Patent (now Science) Museum at South [-286-] Kensington. I was now fifteen and a half years old, and personally conducted two of my younger brothers. We were specially interested in the pioneer locomotives, Puffing Billy and Rocket. This latter I would have liked to see rehabilitated and put to work on the line between London Bridge and Greenwich. The Newcomen pumping-engine and the ancient clock from Glastonbury Abbey were as novelties to us, while the sectional models, set in motion by the visitors themselves, of steam-engine cylinders, pistons and valve-gearing were highly instructive as well as amusing. Altogether a magnificent educational acquisition for the metropolis and our visit was the precursor of many another.
    If 1865 had its "excursions" it also had its "alarms." There was the war of Spain against Chili, during which bombs disguised as lumps of coal were discovered in the bunkers of a Spanish war-ship-so the grade of civilisation attained in 1914-18 was already being foreshadowed. I thought that dastardly, and that all was not fair in war whatever might obtain in love. There was a hydrophobia epidemic and muzzling of canines, and towards the end of the year outbreaks of cholera and Fenianism - plagues both. The deaths of Tom Sayers and Lord Palmerston have already been noticed. In view of the slighting manner in which most Liberals now speak of this world-renowned Prime Minister, it is interesting to recollect that Gladstone termed the news of his death "appalling."
    In October occurred the breaking out and prompt suppression of the Jamaican insurrection, of which the repercussion was destined to endure for years. The rebels, of whom many were so-called Baptists, commanded by one of their preachers-all coloured, of course-committed barbarous murders and outrages. But in Governor Eyre they were up against a Briton worthy of the name. Militia and volunteers turned out, ships were hurried up, and, after sharp fighting, in which some two hundred rioters were killed, the revolt was stamped out and its ring-leader tried and executed. Was the country grateful to Governor Eyre? Did Parliament pass him a vote of thanks? Not a bit. The "Nonconformist conscience" had been lacerated by [-287-] the hanging of a Baptist preacher and refused to be pacified. Palmerston had gone, Gladstone had come in, and the policy of deference to clamour, of which we have had such shining examples in recent times, had begun. "Lo! he hath slain a Baptist," they cried; "let him be crucified!" And the Government responded, Ecce Homo.
On December 13th, about 11.30 p.m., the night being dark and hazy, the London, Chatham and Dover Railway Company's mail-steamer Samphire, from Dover to Calais, was run into by an American barque, Fanny Buck, and badly damaged, several passengers being drowned. Both ships were towed to Dover, where, the following month, I had the good fortune to see the barque, still with her bows stove in and stem and bowsprit broken away. Such a shivering of timbers would have done the old Greenwich pensioners good to see. The Inquiry turned on whether Fanny Buck had shown proper lights, and ultimately it was found that she had not. Still the captain of the Samphire was censured for driving his ship so fast on a murky night, but his certificate was not suspended. The skipper's name was Bennett, which heightened my interest in the affair. He had behaved very gallantly by leaping into the sea in an attempt to rescue a passenger, a foreign Count, who lost his head, and, if I remember aright, in his excitement jumped or fell off the starboard paddle-box.
    Free Trade was one of the topics much to the fore at this time. The East Indian Railway placed a large order for locomotives with a German firm, an act that greatly pleased the Times, which hailed it as a satisfactory demonstration of free trade. But the Germans complained that as the use of English iron had been specified an injustice had been done to the Fatherland. In fact, they made out that, if it was free, it was decidedly not fair, trade. A well-known Leeds firm - Manning, Wardle & Co. - wrote a sarcastic letter suggesting extension of the free trade advocacy to the removal or reduction of the German Customs tariff which practically excluded British locomotive builders from the German markets. Could any sane person imagine anything more fatuous than rejoicing by a leading newspaper at this [-288-] diversion of many thousands of pounds in wages from British workmen's pockets? At the age of fifteen I marvelled how a direct transaction between India and Germany, free as it might be, could form a subject of jubilation for Great Britain; and the reason remains obscure even yet.

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