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A BABY SHOW.
THERE is no doubt that at the present moment the
British baby is assuming a position amongst us of
unusual prominence and importance. That he should
be an institution is inevitable. That he grows upon
us Londoners at the rate of some steady five hundred
a week, the Registrar-General's statistics of the excess
of births over deaths prove beyond question. His
domestic importance and powers of revolutionizing
a household are facts of which every Paterfamilias is
made, from time to time, unpleasantly aware. But
the British baby is doing more than this just at
present. He is assuming a public position. Perhaps
it is only the faint index of the extension of women's
rights to the infantile condition of the sexes. Possibly
our age is destined to hear of Baby Suffrage,
Baby's Property Protection, Baby's Rights and
Wrongs in general. It is beyond question that the
British baby is putting itself forward, and demanding
to be heard - as, in fact, it always had a habit of
doing. Its name has been unpleasantly mixed up
with certain revelations at Brixton, Camberwell, and
Greenwich. Babies have come to be farmed like
taxes or turnpike gates. The arable infants seem to
gravitate towards the transpontine districts south of
the Thames. It will be an interesting task for our
Legislature to ascertain whether there is any actual
law to account for the transfer, as it inevitably will
have to do when the delicate choice is forced upon it
between justifiable infanticide, wholesale Hospices des
Enfants Trouvés, and possibly some kind of Japanese
"happy despatch" for high-minded infants who are
superior to the slow poison administered by injudicious
"Farmers." At all events, one fact is certain,
and we can scarcely reiterate it too often - the British
baby is becoming emphatic beyond anything we can
recollect as appertaining to the infantile days of the
present generation. It is as though a ray of juvenile
"swellishness," a scintillation of hobbledehoyhood,
were refracted upon the long clothes or three-quarter
clothes of immaturity.
For, if it is true - as we may tax our infantile experiences to assure us - that " farmed" infants were an article unknown to husbandry in our golden age, it is equally certain that the idea of the modern Baby Show was one which, in that remote era, would not have been tolerated. Our mothers and grandmothers would as soon have thought of sacrificing an innocent to Moloch as to Mammon. What meant it then - to what can it be due - to precocity on the part of the British baby, or degeneracy on the part of the British parent - that two Baby Shows were "on" nearly at the [-53-] same moment -one at Mr. Giovannelli's at Highbury Barn, the other at Mr. Holland's Gardens, North Woolwich ?
Anxious to keep au courant with the times, even when those times are chronicled by the rapid career of the British baby - anxious also to blot out the idea of the poor emaciated infants of Brixton, Camberwell, and Greenwich, by bringing home to my experience the opposite pole of infantile development - I paid a visit, and sixpence, at Highbury Barn when the Baby Show opened. On entering Mr. Giovannelli's spacious hall, consecrated on ordinary occasions to the Terpsichorean art, I found it a veritable shrine of the "Diva triformis." Immediately on entering I was solicited to invest extra coppers in a correct card, containing the names, weights, and - not colours; they were all of one colour, that of the ordinary human lobster - but weights, of the various forms of Wackford Squeers under twelve months, who were then and there assembled, like a lot of little fat porkers. It was, in truth, a sight to whet the appetite of an "annexed" Fiji Islander, or any other carnivorous animal. My correct card specified eighty "entries ;" but, although the exhibition only opened at two o'clock, and I was there within an hour after, I found the numbers up to 100 quite full. The interesting juveniles were arranged within rails , draped with pink calico, all arrayed in "gorgeous attire," and most of them partaking of maternal sustenance. The mammas - all [-54-] respectable married women of the working class - seemed to consider the exhibition of their offspring by no means infra dig., and were rather pleased than otherwise to show you the legs and other points of their adipose encumbrances. Several proposed that I should test the weight, which I did tremulously, and felt relieved when the infant Hercules was restored to its natural protector. The prizes, which amounted in the gross to between two and three hundred pounds, were to be awarded in sums of 10l. and 5l, and sometimes in the shape of silver cups, on what principle I am not quite clear; but the decision was to rest with a jury of three medical men and two "matrons." If simple adiposity, or the approximation of the human form divine to that of the hippopotamus, be the standard of excellence, there could be no doubt that a young gentleman named Thomas Chaloner, numbered 48 in the correct card, aged eight months, and weighing 33 lbs., would be facile princeps, a prognostication of mine subsequently justified by the event. I must confess to looking with awe, and returning every now and then to look again, on this colossal child. At my last visit some one asked on what it had been fed. Shall I own that the demon of mischief prompted me to supplement the inquiry by adding, " Oil cake, or Thorley's Food for Cattle?"
On the score, I suppose, of mere peculiarity, my own attention - I frankly confess I am not a connoisseur - was considerably engrossed by " two little [-55-] Niggers." No doubt the number afterwards swelled to the orthodox "ten little Niggers." One was a jovial young "cuss" of eleven months - weighted at 29 lbs., and numbered 62 on the card. He was a clean-limbed young fellow, with a head of hair like a furze-hush, and his mother was quite untinted. I presume Paterfamilias was a fine coloured gentleman.The other representative of the sons of Ham - John Charles Abdula, aged three months, weight 21 lbs., and numbered 76 - was too immature to draw upon my sympathies; since I freely acknowledge such specimens are utterly devoid of interest for me until their bones are of sufficient consistency to enable them to sit upright and look about as a British baby should. This particular infant had not an idea above culinary considerations. He was a very Alderman in embryo, if there are such things as coloured Aldermen. Then there were twins - that inscrutable visitation of Providence - three brace of gemini. Triplets, in mercy to our paternal feelings, Mr. Giovannelli spared us. There was one noteworthy point about this particular exhibition. The mothers, at all events, got a good four days' feed whilst their infantile furniture was "on view." I heard, sotto voce, encomiums on the dinner of the day confidingly exchanged between gushing young matrons, and I myself witnessed the disappearance of a decidedly comfortable tea, to say nothing of sundry pints of porter discussed sub rosa and free of expense to such as stood in need of [-56-] sustenance ; and indeed a good many seemed to stand in need of it. Small wonder, when the mammas were so forcibly reminded by the highly-developed British baby that, in Byron's own words, "our life is twofold."
It is certainly passing, not from the sublime to the ridiculous, but vice versa, yet it is noting another testimony. to the growing importance of the British baby, if one mentions the growth of creches, or day-nurseries for working-men's children in the metropolis. Already an institution in Paris, they have been recently introduced into England, and must surely prove a boon to the wives of our working men. What in the world does become of the infants of poor women who are forced to work all day for their maintenance ? Is it not a miracle if something almost worse than " farming" - death from negligence, fire, or bad nursing - does not occur to them? The good ladies who have founded, and themselves work, these creches are surely meeting a confessed necessity. I paid a visit one day to 4, Bulstrode Street, where one of these useful institutions was in full work. I found forty little toddlers, some playing about a comfortable day-nursery, others sleeping in tiny cribs ranged in a double line along a spacious, well-aired sleeping-room ; some, too young for this, rocked in cosy cradles ; but all clean, safe, and happy. What needs it to say whether the good ladies who tended them wore the habit of St. Vincent de Paul, the poke-bonnet of the [-57-] Puseyite "sister," or the simple garb of unpretending Protestantism ? The thing is being done. The most helpless of all our population - the children of the working poor - are being kept from the streets, kept from harm, and trained up to habits of decency, at 4, Bulstrode Street, Marylebone Lane. Any one can go and see it for himself; and if he does - if he sees, as I did, the quiet, unostentatious work that is there being done for the British baby, "all for love and nothing for reward" - I shall be very much surprised if he does not confess that it is one of the best antidotes imaginable to baby-farming, and a sight more decorous and dignified than any Baby Show that could possibly be imagined.