Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter VI - A Baby Show

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[-51-]

CHAPTER VI.

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 [-52-] 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.