Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 39 - 1866 (continued) - Plagues of Sorts - Penal Punishments

[... back to menu for this book]




London's last choler - Quarantined - Cat-o'-nine-tails - Treadmill - The main point - First public ball - Nellie Power - The old, old story - After-years - Leicester Square - George II in charge - Baron Grant - Meteors - Hyde Park railings - Crystal Palace fire - Mr. Gladstone.

THE completion of the cables was almost coincident with the last outbreak of cholera experienced in the British Isles. It had been bad in various parts of the Continent, and now appeared in the East End of London. Great efforts were made to combat the plague, but it persisted through the autumn, gradually increasing in intensity, until late in August thirty-five deaths were registered daily, with, of course, a much larger number of nonfatal seizures. In October the daily death-rate had decreased to thirty, and thereafter followed a gradual fizzling out. A Mansion House fund was opened to relieve the consequent distress. There were no deaths in our neighbourhood, and my most vivid recollection of the visitation is seeing the London Hospital lighted up in almost every window fronting the Whitechapel Road when I passed there late one evening. I was told that the resources of the Institution were stretched to the utmost, and that a large extra staff could scarcely keep pace with the demands. Much was learned by our medicine-men on this occasion, and the cholera fiend, who had first invaded Britain in 1831, has troubled us no more. But in the influenza demon he certainly has a persistent and vindictive successor.   
    As already mentioned, a few years later I came cheek by jowl with Cholera Jack in Mesopotamia. My last experience, and that not a close one, of him was in 1892, when the disease was extremely bad at Hamburg. Going from Lon-[-296-]don to Gothenburg by the Swedish steamer Thorsten, we found on arrival that a case of suspected cholera having been reported from Hull, all shipping from England must undergo three days' quarantine. Our affair was aggravated by one of the stewardesses confessing a stomach-ache to the quarantine doctor. That settled the business, and our steamer was ordered to a bay some miles to the south, where we fished, vegetated and grumbled in various languages for the stipulated period.
    In September Legal Practitioner Calcraft bad a rather unusual and spectacular show. He flogged three men convicted of robbery with violence at Newgate with the cat-o'-nine-tails. Two powerful Irishmen got forty stripes each, a younger accomplice being let off with twenty at the intercession of the doctor. Philanthropists asked, with pained emotion, "What could possibly become of the self- respect of men so treated?" I don't remember whether this conundrum was ever successfully solved, but I do know that there were not many crimes of the same nature in the next calendar. Being a member of the Old Bailey Grand Jury in 1895, I was shown over Newgate and saw this identical cat-o'-nine-tails handled by a stalwart warder, who flogged a milk-can therewith with resounding effect. Having seen, I could comprehend to a certain extent that after such an experience the Irishmen would be likely to respect other people if not themselves - which, I take it, was the main point.
    In those days able-bodied convicts were often put on the treadmill. It was a sort of revolving staircase up which, holding on to a fixed bar, the prisoners were forced to tramp without ever getting any higher. Driven by their weight, it turned a corn or other mill and generally made itself useful. In olden times cranes were often worked by man power so applied. Just before the war I saw several still in position on the banks of the Moselle at Trier, which, I was told, were .even yet sometimes used to lift guns from barges, soldiers providing the motive force. And at Mont Saint Michel an old specimen likewise survives.
    The progressive softening of prison discipline abolished [-297-] the treadmill, which, if one could believe them, was almost as shocking to philanthropists as to Messieurs the convicts. Flogging, though very rarely inflicted, has survived it, in spite of the better-founded objections of many earnest persons. Why not revive the mill specially for those prone to conjoin the arts of assault and robbery? Instead of so many stripes let the judge prescribe so many days or weeks on the treadmill. Then may flogging finally disappear from our code and the cat~o'-nine-tails be safely sold to Madame Tussaud.
    It would not be necessary to erect a treadmill in every prison, nor for the Judges of Assize to carry a portable one with them on circuit. One or two machines of good capacity in central positions to which malefactors could be consigned from all parts of the kingdom would suffice. Concentrated in this way the power generated might prove of some moment and capable of useful application.
    This autumn I attended my first public ball. The occasion was a benefit given for the family of the victim of an accident. He was not known to me, and I took a ticket to oblige a friend, not, at first, intending to be present. The locale was the well-known Horns Tavern at Kenningtofl, of which I had vaguely beard as a centre of frequent festivities. I found some two hundred guests assembled in the capacious ballroom, in full enjoyment of waltz, mazurka, polka, schottische and quadrille, all danced with vigour, the scene presented being novel and curious to an unsophisticated youth like myself.
    But the event of the evening was an unexpected one. Between the dances it was announced that Miss Nellie Power, the celebrated child artiste, had most kindly given her services, and at 9 o'clock would sing one of her popular songs. At that hour, the musical conductor - a Frenchman got up like Napoleon III - and his orchestra of perhaps half a dozen performers, took station in front of a platform, towards which the guests immediately crowded and packed themselves in a compact mass.
    An elderly lady and a little girl of thirteen or so appeared at one side of the dais; a cloak and hood were laid [-298-] aside, and Nellie Power - her real name, I believe, was Lingham - sprang, a cloud of gauzy white drapery, up the steps and smilingly curtsied amidst frantic applause. The Napoleonic conductor, with a gravity and assumption of importance that struck me as almost comical, lifted his baton, and, when silence was finally obtained, started the prelude to Buy a Broom. Extremely good-looking and with a powerful yet sweet and sympathetic voice - that in after-years caused people to cry with Tis but a Little Faded Flower - the youthful songstress made the room reverberate with melody, especially when she came to the florid refrain, or jodel, as I believe it is called. An encore was insisted upon of course, given, and yet another called for. But the M.C. pitilessly announced, "Dancing will now be resumed," and Napoleon III filed back to his original station, while Nellie vanished.
    On an adjoining chair to mine sat a young Frenchman from Grenoble, to whom I had been introduced earlier in the evening. He was about twenty years of age, handsome, but very dark, with a tiny silky moustache and slight downy black whiskers. He was evidently much struck with the little singer and asked me rather excitedly, "Do you know Mees Nellie?" "No." "C'est dommaqe; but I will get an introduction." And he disappeared in the throng.
    Half an hour later, during a waltz, I noticed a mass of creamy gauze approaching, and in another minute my young Frenchman came past twirling Miss Nellie with tremendous earnestness, looking down on her countenance with an expression of pride and triumph. That countenance, at the moment, was not exactly in repose, for its owner was evidently enjoying sweetmeats of some kind and mastication was keeping time more or less with the music. She was certainly very charming, and my French friend had every reason to be gratified, for be had had the heroine of the evening for the only dance she was permitted to indulge in. I understood afterwards that he had introduced himself as a compatriot to Napoleon III, and through him had managed to score his bull's-eye. I don't think that I had realised up to that time that a little girl could be so clever [-299-] and so pretty, and I remember wondering why all girls couldn't be like that and like it all the time.
    In after-years I saw Nellie Power often, sometimes on the regular stage, where she played in burlesques and as principal boy in pantomimes with huge acceptance - at the Surrey Theatre she was the star for several seasons in succession - and more rarely at music-halls, where her turns of singing and dancing were ever welcome. It was sad and pathetic indeed that such a bright and amiable personality should have bad such a brief career and unfortunate end. Blighted affection - unhappy marriage - broken heart - early death; poor Nellie!
    The present Leicester Square garden, with its statue, fountain and flowers, hut little resembles the forlorn quadrangle of 1866 and a good many years before. A dilapidated equestrian image of George II presided over a wilderness of grass, nettles, dead cats and broken bottles, the whole enclosed in a boarding pierced by many a gap. Its condition was often cited as a scandal, but some disputed point of law was understood to stand in the way of improvement. One October night some larkish young men-supposed to be medical students, for most escapades were referred to the faculty in those days - penetrated the circumvallation, whitewashed the statue, spotted the charger with black, tucked a birch broom under the regal arm and placed a foolscap on the curly-wigged bead, at the same time splotching the pedestal with red, like a camouflaged steamer during the submarine campaign. So in the morning a comical sight met the gaze of the dwellers m Soho and all the world waxed merry. The authorities gave speedy relief to outraged royalty and mended their fence, but the site remained an eye-sore and a reproach until the advent of Herr Gottheimer, alias Baron Grant and his money-bags in 1874. Hey, presto! He waves his cheque-book and the transformation scene shimmers out. Fountains squirt; King George II is dethroned (or unhorsed) and King Will Shakespeare I - and last-reigns in his stead. Truly a princely gift for London. But what, I wonder, became of the King and his mount?
    [-300-] The beneficent donor was elected M. P. for Kidderminster (not inappropriately although Kidder-Westminster would have been better) the same year, but was unseated on petition. He came to grief over the Emma Mine litigation about 1880 and the staircase from the magnificent mansion he had built was transferred to Madame Tussaud's new museum. The wits did not leave him alone. One inquired, in reference to his Soho public garden,
        "What can he hope from this affair
        Save to connect his name with something Square ";
and another,
        "Monarchs give titles but honour they can't.
        Rank without honour's a real barren grant !"
    During the night of November 13th-l4th occurred the most magnificent display of meteors it has fallen to me to witness. Most fortunately, I was out late and had a splendid view, for the maximum bombardment of Mother Earth. by the celestial rocket brigade took place between 12.30 and 1.30 a.m. The falling stars were far too numerous to count, twenty or more often being simultaneously in the field of vision. Eight thousand were reported to have been seen from Greenwich Observatory, but that must have been mere conjecture, and I thought ludicrously below the mark. As a matter of fact, it would only have been possible to keep approximate tally by dividing the sky into numerous small areas and employing as many observers.
    The aerolites were of different degrees of brilliancy, some exceeding the splendour of Venus at her best, and lighting up the firmament; of several colours; many leaving a luminous tail or track behind which persisted to the sight for a second or two after the head had disappeared. A faint crackling sound was sometimes audible to country spectators, but the ever-persistent rumble of London prevented me from hearing it. The heavens were much more open-handed with signs and omens and awe-inspiring sights in mid-Victorian days than they are now. Recent generations of youngsters have bad neither Donati comets nor cascades of shooting stars to excite their "especial wonder" [-301-] and awaken reverence in their souls-perhaps not altogether to their advantage. Sublime manifestations of this order are potent enough to make even the most perverse trifler pause and - perchance - think.
    This was the year of the Hyde Park railings affair. Beyond reading about the riot I had no concern in it: only wondering at the reforming zeal which scorned barricades of iron and "mocked itself" at Park Rangers, even although of royal blood. I thought the police unsportsmanlike and even cowardly in using their truncheons, as they were reported to have done, on the limbs of youths who had climbed into the niches of the Marble Arch. The effort to stop railings inside the Park by interposing railings without was never repeated, so that democracy certainly scored a triumph that feverish day.
    The last event of 1866 which stands out in my memory is the unlucky fire at the Crystal Palace on Sunday, December 30th, which reduced the Tropical Department to rums and consumed a whole Zoo of birds and animals, comprising monkeys, chimpanzees, parrots, humming-birds and a hippopotamus. Had it not been for the screen between the Tropical Section and the rest of the mighty building, erected for the purpose of keeping that specially-heated region apart, the whole of Sir Joseph Paxton's masterpiece would have been wrecked that afternoon. Henceforth the Crystal Palace was a lop-sided structure, its beautiful symmetry destroyed, for the company had not the wherewithal to rebuild. I had a good but distant view of the catastrophe. A great column of dark smoke extended from the burning building at an angle of about 45 degrees, the base of which gradually but appreciably crept towards the central transept. It looked as though the whole Palace was doomed, and I was very thankful indeed when the smoke at last grew thinner and whiter, assumed a more vertical and cloud-like aspect, and appeared to make no further advance.
    It was just as he was leaving the Tropical Department that, a year or so before, I had had my first view of Mr. Gladstone. He was not yet the Grand Old Man, but his appearance was decidedly intellectual and striking. He carried [-302-] his hat in his hand in the midst of a little group of admirers which included several ladies, and was smiling pleasantly. Perhaps he had been enjoying the antics of our lesser brethren from overseas or gauging the voting power of the chimpanzee. I had been on the point of entering the Tropical Department, but had to fall on one side to make room for the crowd that seemed actually to spirt after the great politician through the rather narrow doorway.

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