Victorian London - Publications - Lectures - The Early Years of Queen Victoria's Reign, by Henry Holland Burne, 1896

The Early Years of Queen Victoria's Reign

A Paper read before the Bath Literary Club on the 10th of February 1896



Sessional President




     The Early Years of Queen Victoria's Reign

     Having been born in London in one of the houses in Spring Gardens, near Charing Cross, looking up New Street into St. James's Park, and having remained in London until Christmas 1842, as a schoolboy, I have vivid recollections of the first five years after the Queen's accession, and I propose to record them in the following short sketch.
     At that time Trafalgar Square was an open space entirely unoccupied, with the National Gallery on the north, St. Martin's Church and Morley's Hotel,  with the Post Office under the Coffee-room, on the east, the blank wall of Northumberland House [-2-] with its huge double doors always closed, surmounted by the Lion now moved to Sion House, Isleworth, on the south-east, and the shops much as at present on the south side, except that Farrance, the celebrated confectioner, occupid the corner of Spring Gardens, where is now the Union Bank of London; on the west were the Union Club and the College of Physicians, the latter not long established in that locality. There was no Nelson's Column, there were no fountains, and no Landseer's Lions, simply a large open Square paved with pitching stones, without even a refuge. There was no access to the river except by a narrow street out of the Strand, called Northumberland Street, and Scotland Yard, entered by an archway out of Whitehall, and where Northumberland Avenue now extends were the Gardens of Northumberland House, perfectly inaccessible to the public. At the top of the Admiralty Buildings in Whitehall was the Semaphore Telegraph, by which [-3-] messages were transmitted to Portsmouth by means of a succession of stations on elevated points adjoining the Portsmouth Road. These stations were looked after by Lieutenants of the Royal Navy, one of whom, Captain Donelan, who commanded that at Ripley in Surrey, died in Bath some years ago. This telegraph has long been superseded by the Electric Telegraph, which was brought into a practical state in 1837. The short line from Paddington to Slough, "which hung Tawell the Quaker," was one of the first to be open to public use.
     The space now occupied by the Charing Cross Station of the South Eastern Railway was then laid out and used as a Fish Market called Hungerford Market. It ran down to the river, and smacks used to come up with cargoes of oysters from Whitstable, and various sorts of fish from other ports. Adjoining were the principal stairs at the west end for embarking on the river steamers, or in wherries, which were then still plying. [-4-] The foot suspension bridge was afterwards erected, only to be removed and superseded by the present railway bridge, and to be re-erected at Clifton, where it is now a conspicuous object as we leave Bristol for the west by the railway.
     North of Charing Cross was a labyrinth of narrow streets and courts reaching to The Seven Dials, all now opened out by Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue. This locality was even then a terror to parents for fear lest their precious offspring should be kidnapped, and as children we were taught by rote, so that should we be lost we could tell clearly where we were to be taken to.
     Temple Bar stood where the City Griffin has since been erected, and on certain occasions, particularly when the Sovereign visited the city, the massive wooden gates or doors used to be closed, and the formality of knocking and the offer by the Lord Mayor [-5-] of the city keys used to be gone through. All of this was swept away when the new Law Courts were erected. Belgrave Square had not long been finished, and Eaton Square, Chesham Place, and the adjoining streets were in course of completion. I well remember the public-house (The Lowndes Arms) in Lyall Place, still in existence, as the only house standing in that locality. Sloane Street was not the fashionable locality it is now, but was the resort of maiden ladies of small means.
     The March Able now standing opposite Great Cumberland Place was then in front of Buckingham Palace, the quadrangle of which had then only three sides, the present front not having been built till later. At Hyde Park Corner, the arch now at the top of Constitution Hill fronted and was parallel with the entrance gates of the park, and it was not till long after the years under consideration that the Duke of Wellington's statue was erected upon it. Turnpike gates [-6-] on every road out of London existed, one of the best known being the Marsh Gate just over old Westminster Bridge. This bridge at that time was a narrow roadway with narrow footpaths, having several semi-circular refuges with stone seats on either side and lamps overhead. Instead of being almost level, as it is now, there was a steep ascent to and descent from the crown of the bridge, rendering it almost dangerous and very laborious for the traffic. This bridge, that at Blackfriars, and London Bridge, were the only toll-free bridges. Even foot-passengers had to pay a halfpenny at the others. The river Embankment had not been thought of, nor had St. Thomas Hospital been moved to its present locality.
     At the Queen's Coronation I saw the Procession from the top of a shop-front in Charing Cross: Marshall Soult's carriage, a coach decorated with silver crowns at each corner of the roof, was one of the great sights. The whole of Trafalgar Square [-7-]  was filled with people as thick as they could stand. The special copy of the Sun newspaper records all that took place.
     At that time the drive in Hyde Park was from Grosvenor Gate to Hyde Park Corner, and Count D'Orsay in his cab and Lady Blessington in a park phaeton with a pair of greys and two grooms mounted on greys, were familiar figures: the drive was a full on Sundays as on other days, and Sunday card parties were then talked of: the burning of the old Marchioness of Salisbury at one of them having been held out to us children as a judgment on her for having so transgressed.
     Church services were then, except at St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey, universally conducted by the Parson and Clerk. No chanting of Psalms: the Canticles, or some of them, might be chanted, and the Metrical Version of the Psalms by Tate and Brandy took the place of Hymns. [-8-]  The organist usually played a short Voluntary before the first lesson. An afternoon Service was always held at which the gentry attended, evening Services being frequented only by the lower orders, and being considered to border on the hysterical. At the Foundling Hospital professional singers were engaged to sing anthems in what was called the organ loft, a large sort of pew in front of the keyboard of the organ in the South gallery; and at that time the Foundling Hospital Chapel was a fashionable resort, the congregation assembling after morning Service to see the children dine. Popular preachers then had proprietary Chapels which were much resorted to, Mr. Beamish's Trinity Chapel in Conduit Street being very celebrated. The older Bishops, such as Henry of Exeter, still wore wigs, at the Judges do now; and the Clergy preached either in their academical gowns, or Geneva gowns, with bands, and they almost always wore [-9-] gloves, a great contrast to the present fashion.
     Domestic arrangements were much more primitive: machines for sweeping chimneys were not invented, but little boys used to climb the chimneys are had to put their heads and brushes out of the chimney pots at the top of the house and cry sweep, to prove that they had done their work effectually. Lucifers had scarcely been invented, and the tinder box with flint and steel had still to be resorted to, with large matches tipped with sulphur to catch the sparks. Nightlights, too, were unknown, the sick chamber being lighted by a tall rushlight in a japanned tin cylinder pierced with holes which seemed to ascend the walls as the light burnt down. Charles Dickens in "Pickwick" calls it a gigantic lighthouse in a very small piece of water. Gas illuminated most of the streets but Grosvenor Square was lighted by oil lamps, which the lamp-lighter used to light from a large [-10-] smoking torch. It was very rare for the interior of houses to be lighted with gas, and I remember that the jet over the front door of the house in which we lived was our only gas light, and that was lighted from outside by the public lamp-lighter. That official then carried a ladder, and he had to rest this ladder against every lamp and ascend and descend to light it and put it out, a much more dilatory and laborious process than lighting by the present staff with a small lantern at the top of it.
     The tax on tea was then 2s. a lb., and it was almost universal in making tea to use black and green tea: all tea-caddies, which were then usually locked, had two receptacles for tea, one for green, and the other for black, with a sugar vase in the middle. Even black tea was never less than 5s. a lb. Oysters instead of being the luxury they are now were within reach of all classes, indeed Dickens remarks [-11-] that Poverty and Oysters always seemed to go together. My father * (* John Burne, M.D., for many years Treasurer of the Club) in his diary in 1839 records making presents of barrels of oysters to relatives and friends in the country at 5s. 6d. a barrel. To do so now costs at least 30s. The custom of playing whist after a dinner party seems to have been very common, for my father over and over again records that he stayed at a friend's house till one or two o'clock in the morning playing rubber after rubber, though the dinner hour was six o'clock. Now on our arrival at 7.45 we are saluted with an order to turn out at half-past-ten, and we cheerfully obey it.
     At one of these parties my father records the following occurrence. The day was the 9th November 1841, and the host was a Dr. Waterfield, well known as an original member and habitual frequenter of the Oxford and Cambridge Club. [-12-] "Dined at Waterfield's, who has lately been appointed Metropolitan Commisioner in Lunacy by Lord Lyndhurst: Locock (the Physician Accocheur) had delivered the Queen that morning, and he came in the evening about 9 o'clock direct from the Palace to join us. He told us the Queen was delivered 12 or 10 minutes before 11 o'clock, Prince Albert, Mrs. Lilly (the Nurse), and Dr. Locock in the room. The State officers with Sir James Clark, Dr. Ferguson and Mr. Blagden in the Ante-room. It became a question of how Prince should be annouced in the bulletin: Peel said precedent of 1762 had been searched for, and the Baby had then been announced as the Prince. Locock was sent to the Queen to ascertain if she approved of this. Her Majesty with her usual quickness at once said: 'Oh, that won't do, for if it is announced that the Queen and Prince are doing well, the public will laugh and say it is Prince Albert.' [-13-] Her Majesty then suggested 'The Infant Prince,' which was adopted. It is usual fro the Tower and Park guns to fire on the occasion, but it was suggested that the Park guns should not fire lest the noise shuld disturb Her Majesty: on the question being asked the Queen said 'Oh! no, let them fire: I should like to hear them.' Locock was in excellent spirits: after having sat with us for half-an-hour he returned to the Palace."
     The Income-Tax was first imposed by Sir R. Peel in 1842 at 7d. in the £, and has been a hardy annual ever since at varying rates, the highest being 1s. 4d. in the £. or 1/15th of the income: or, to bring it still more home to us, twopence out of every half-crown received. This was during the Crimean War. Bachelors also had to pay a double tax on their men servants.
     Athletics even by the male sex were but little practised: one used to hear Angelos' Fencing School talked of, but I [-14-] remember being much impressed, as a boy, at seeing the little lads at the Duke of York's School at Chelsea on a prize day going through a course such as is now common enough for both sexes.
     Locomotion was very different to what it is now: Stage coaches still ran out of London, and were then at their very best, those to Bath, Portsmouth and to the North travelling at the rate of 10 miles an hour including stoppages. The accommodation, however, was very cramped inside, and outside the passengers were exposed to all weathers: a great contrast to the luxury of a modern railway train. To the suburbs what were called Short Stages ran at frequent intervals, and just a few omnibuses were making their appearance: but they were very slow, with long stoppages, and no fare less than sixpence. The hackney carriages consisted of hackney coaches being really super-annuated family coaches with steps to let [-15-] down drawn by a pair of horses, and the fare 1s. a mile. The only hack cabs were like a modern gig with a hood, on very high wheels, and on the right-hand side outside the gig body was a very small square ledge on which the driver say. Accident with these cabs were very frequent from the horses falling, collisions and other casualties. The fares were 8d. a mile, an arrangement giving rise to constant altercations when settling the fare. Hansom cabs were first brought out about 1840 and were called Patent Safety, and they soon superseded those mentioned above.
     For the wealthy, post chaises were in vogue, much like our coupé broughams, but hung very high on cee springs with small windows divided into four panes. No driving box, but a pair of horses with the postillion riding the near horse. Posting with a pair of horses cost 1s. 6d. a mile, and 3d. a mile for the post-boy, and turnpikes brought the amount up to 2s. a mile. [-16-] There were still little costermongers carts drawn by dogs to be met with on the roads. The railways out of London were just beginning, and I remember walking to Primrose Hill one summer evening to see the Birmingham mail train pass with five or six mail coaches, with the guards sitting in their seats behind, mounted on carriage trucks, to be taken off at Tring, that being the limit to which the line was then opened.
     There were then only two classes of carriage corresponding to the inside and outside of a stage coach: the first class very luxurious like a private carriage, but the second, except for a roof, open to the weather and with bare wooden seats. One advantage of coach travelling was lost. I allude to the facility of obtaining information from the coachman or guard as to the localities passed through: they were always ready with anecdotes more or less amusing and instructive.
     In London the aristocracy had only [-17-] family chariots with steps to let down from inside, and it was universal to have a footman and often two, standing on a board at the back. Broughams did not come in till afterwards. Physicians used to go about town in chariots, and Dr. Locock, afterwards Sir Charles, was the first to dispense with a second man, his plan being to drive in a very high Victoria with a solid apron, which he could throw open, and with one fixed step reach the pavement.
     The Duke of Wellington had an open carriage apparently composed of two gigs, one behind the other, the rear gig being attached to the fore gig by a hook and staple like a gun carriage. His Grace in this way only had a coachman and no footman. The fashionable bachelor's vehicle was a Cabriolet, with a high-stepping horse, and a very small tiger handing on behind.
     At that time beards were unknown: I remember my mother speaking of the sensation created a dinner party when [-18-] one of the guests who had been travelling in Persia pulled out from under the white neckcloth then universally worn, a long beard reaching to his waist. Moustaches were worn only by foreigners, and fur coats by actors. Tall beaver hats were always worn, and blue coats with brass buttons, and buff waistcoats and nankin trousers were very common. Breeches had very nearly disappeared, but the watch was worn in a fob pocket with a chain and seals hanging loose. The Albert chain with the watch in the waistcoat pocket only came in after the Queen's marriage. About that time black stocks even for evening dress were worn, but by old-fashioned people were much objected to, the proper neck-cloth being an ample cambric half square, starched and folded very broad, so as almost to reach to the ears. It was carried twice round the neck and tied in a bow in front. This neck-cloth was said to have been made the fashion by [-19-]  George IV to hide the marks of the King's evil with which he was afflicted. In private life the frock coat was quite an innovation, but as white ducks, as they were called, were then worn, the tailor used to recommend a frock coat as enabling the wearer to sport the same pair of ducks a second day. The ample cloak, a survival of the capa brought from Spain after the Peninsular war, was the usual outer garment for travelling. Rugs only came in afterwards with railways and on stage coaches straw used to be handed up to keep the feet of outside passengers warm. In hackney coaches and cabs it was universal to have an armful of straw in the well, and Thackeray remarks on the distress of an otherwise smart bachelor entering a room with a straw sticking to his shoe. Military uniforms were made with swallow tail coats and stiff stocks, epaulettes and white trousers, which latter were cleaned and kept white with pipe clay, much to the [-20-] detriment of the soldier's health. Even policemen had swallow tail coats, tall hats with glazed tops, and white trousers, and general postmen had much the same equipment except that their coats were scarlet and their hats had a broad gold band. The two-penny postmen had blue coats ; and there were for carrying letters between one London post office and another, young lads mounted on galloways with little leather valises for the letters strapped to the crupper between the saddle and the horse's tail.
     Ladies' hair was dressed in a totally different fashion to the present. It was parted down the middle with perfectly smooth hands confined by side combs, whence it spread out into minute ringlets projecting from the sides of the forehead. Sometimes a wide plait of hair was erected on the crown of the head. Low bodies for full dress were universal, and elderly people wore turbans and other massive head-gear.
     [-21-] Bonnets were very large, and were called coal-scuttle bonnets, and sleeves rather resembling those now worn were called leg of mutton sleeves, and the lady of the house, who in those days often carved at~ table, used to have to pin them up before setting to work at her task.
     Smoking was very unusual and was considered to belong to the pothouse. My father in his diary in August, 1839, speaks of a young fellow-passenger on a stage coach returning from Hamburg as "smoking cigars! " Now were he to travel with the young man in similar circumstances the remark would be that he did not smoke cigars.
     At the theatres, and even at the opera, there were no stalls: the pit, as in the Bath Theatre, went right up to the orchestra and there used to be bills up at all the libraries advertising pit tickets for the opera for sale at 7s. The pit then formed part of the house, and these pit tickets [-22-] gave the entrée to all parts of the house. Always after the opera there was a ballet, and the artistic musicians, when the opera was over, made way for another and inferior band to play for the dancers. The ballet then was very, different to the ballet now. The few dancers were very lightly dressed in muslin, and the style of dancing was very refined, and proficiency was only attained after years of study and practice. Astley's was the great resort of the lower orders, and a never failing attraction was the representation of the Battle of Waterloo, with Shaw the Life Guardsman, who slew so many Frenchmen with his own hand. In those days there was a footman's gallery to which footmen on the application of their masters could gain admission without payment.
     The Queen, then quite young, used to open Parliament in person, and more than once I saw the procession in St. James's Park, with the State Coach and the eight cream-coloured horses. This team is, I [-23-] believe, still kept up, but like the State Coach is never seen now except in the Royal Mews. In the Regent's Park, the Zoological Gardens were in existence, but even on week-days a Fellows' order was necessary before you could enter even on payment. It was just as popular, but a greater treat than now. There was also in the Regent's Park the Coliseum, where a kind of revolving lift took you to the top of the building, where there was a bird's- eye view of London, taken from the ball at the top of St. Paul's Cathedral. I forget how many years it was said it took the artist to paint the Panorama. The Adelaide Gallery, where Gatti's Restaurant now is in the Strand, was a great place for us children, as there were electrical machines, spun glass, the steam gun, and other wonders, and close by was the Lowther Arcade a most attractive spot.
     On the Queen's Birthday there was the procession of mail coaches which used to [-24-]  form in the City. All the coachmen and guards in new scarlet liveries, bordered with gold lace the coaches newly painted, and the harness looking its best ; and they used to make their way to the West End, and parade before the Postmaster-General's residence. In the evening there were illuminations almost entirely by means of little oil buckets hung to wooden frames. Gas designs were very rare, and of course. electric lights were not thought of. Tattersall's Yard was then where Grosvenor Crescent now is, just below St. George's Hospital, and then as now it was a popular resort on Sunday afternoons but it was very rare to see a lady amongst the crowd. I am not quite sure, but I believe there was then no Ladies' Gallery at the House of Commons, and one lady I knew used to be pointed out to me as having donned male attire to get into the Strangers' Gallery. So modified have customs become with reference to the softer sex.
     [-25-]  To proceed to that branch of the subject more particularly belonging to this Club, viz., Literature, though a beginning had been made towards general education, it was more the rule than the exception for adults among the lower orders to be unable to read and write, and a servant who could do so was considered among his other fellows a "Schollard." Anything like the attainments servants now have was unknown. Difficulty and consequent unwillingness to write a letter was not confined to them, but extended much higher in the social scale. I remember when staying with a school-fellow in the house of his father, a Cornish squire living near Penzance, the old gentleman talked much of applying to a friend in a high position at time War Office about a commission for his eldest son, and at last lie said to his butler, " Richard, be good enough to see that there are pens, ink and paper in the library, for I am going to write a  [-26-] letter to-morrow. Evidently such a literary effort was very rare with my school-fellow's father."
    Taxes on knowledge were then numerous and heavy: there was a tax on paper: and a heavy one on newspapers; and to read and write by daylight even involved paying a tax, for what was called the Window Tax, viz., a tax on the number of windows a dwelling-house contained, was still levied. Advertisements in newspapers were taxed at 1s. 6d. each for time very smallest. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge was beginning to circulate cheap literature in weekly numbers, the Penny Magazine and the Penny Encyclopedia being two of their productions These, however, were considered rather unorthodox being connected with the London University, then in its infancy. The Saturday Magazine at the same price was the proper publication to patronise "Pickwick " was the first  [-27-] publication to be issued in monthly shilling numbers, as Dickens himself records in the Preface. It began in 1836, the year before the Queen's accession, and when a pupil of my father's brought home a shilling number, we children were told it was a great extravagance, and we were warned against imitating it. Now the number of monthly and weekly publications is legion, and it is the exception rather than the rule not to buy them.
     A daily London paper could not then be bought under fivepence, and the result was that the same copy was read by several families before it was done with. In hotel bars and public-house tap-rooms, company used to meet to linear the news read out by one of their number from the single copy taken in by the house. At the time of the accession, postage was very heavy, and correspondence was not only hampered by expense but by the regulation that the letter must be on one single sheet  [-28-] without enclosure of any kind. Even a cheque or slip of paper would make it a double letter subject to double postage. Post offices and receiving houses for letters were few and far between, and between 5 and 6 o'clock every evening general postmen in their scarlet coats used to go round the frequented parts of London carrying a large leather bag in one hand, and a bell like a dinner bell in the other, collecting letters for the post at the rate of one penny each. Living in London as we did, my brother and I were sent every year to spend the Midsummer and Christmas holidays in Shropshire, and I well remember that a letter from home used to cost one shilling for postage, a halfpenny more having to be paid to the public-house on the mail road for "taking it in" ; and a penny more to a boy or girl for bringing it from that public-house to the farm-house at which we were staying, and all this postage was paid on the delivery of the [-28-] letter. Letters were then folded in what now appears to us a peculiar manner, and were closed by the aristocracy with sealing-wax, and by tradespeople with wafers. Even now one or two of the very old-fashioned private bankers in London, I believe, communicate with their customers by such letters, but they have become quite obsolete. When Penny Postage became law on 10th January, 1840, and the restriction on enclosures was removed, the envelope was invented. The only occasion previous to this period when I recollect envelopes being used was on the occasion of my father circulating his testimonials amongst the subscribers to the Westminster Hospital previous to his election as physician to that institution, when my mother and two of his sisters, sat up all night cutting out envelopes from letter paper and folding and gumming them. In a paper prepared by Rowland Hill before Penny Postage, with the title " On the Collection of Postage  [-30-]  by Means of Stamps," they are described as the little bags called envelopes, and it was not till 31st December, 1840, that Captain Basil Hall, writing to Rowland Hill, said "It strikes me that a great convenience might be added to the envelopes if there were put a small lick of the gum which is used for the stamps at the angle where the wafer or wax is put, so that the envelope might be closed without the trouble of a wafer, or the 'double toil and trouble' of a seal implying lucifer matches, tapers, and wax." It was not till the Exhibition of 1851 that the envelope-folding machine was brought out. The cheapness and rapidity of communicating by letter effected by penny postage gave a great impulse to education, but it was long before masters and mistresses could reconcile themselves to their servants wasting their time in reading and writing letters, and it was a constant practice for servants to induce the postman to deliver their letters  [-31-] surreptitiously without their master's or mistress's knowledge.
     Amongst the higher orders the study of the German language as distinguished from the French language only came in with the Queen's reign up to that time French was all important, it being a common saying that it would carry a traveller anywhere. A journey through France to Rome was the usual limit, and to become a candidate for admission to The Traveller's Club in Pall Mall, it used to be necessary to have visited that city. Ever since the Queen's marriage, German has come to the front, and a knowledge of that language is now considered indispensable.
     Photography was in its infancy, and my first recollection is of Claudet in the Quadrant in Regent Street, a locality where the footpaths were then covered by arcades, like Bath Street adjoining this Hotel, or the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. The pictures were then taken on metal and covered  [-32-]   with glass, and the stereoscope was a favourite form for taking portraits. A lady's handkerchief would be dyed with coffee, and other devices were then employed to counteract the effects of light, since rendered unnecessary by new discoveries. The "Book of Beauty " was the precursor of the photographs of professional beauties now sold in the Burlington Arcade and elsewhere, and the present Dowager Lady Sawle as "Rose Paynter" appeared in it about the time of which I am speaking.
     I have thus noted down, I fear in a very disjointed manner, these peculiarities, trivial enough, of the first five years of the Queen's Reign which I have been able to recollect, the idea of so doing having arisen from the fact that Her Majesty has now reigned longer than any other crowned head. In the opening paragraph of the first article in last month's number of the Edinburgh Review, the writer gives the same reason for his composition, but it will be found  [-33-]  that he has treated the subject in a much more general and statistical manner.
     In conclusion, I feel sure I shall only express the unanimous hope of the members of the Literary Club here assembled that our Most Gracious Queen, of the early years of whose long reign I have ventured to communicate my personal recollections, may for many years to come continue to wield the sceptre of Government in peace and concord with all the world.

THE END.      

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