Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XIII - Sunday in a People's Garden

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I HAVE often thought that an interesting series of  articles might be written on the subject of "London out of Church," dealing with the manners and customs  of those people who patronize no sort of religious  establishment on the Sunday. I have seen pretty well  all the typical phases of religious London and London  irreligious ; but these would rather be characterized as  non-religious than as irreligious folks. They do not  belong to any of the varied forms of faith; in fact  faith is from their life a thing apart. It is in this  negative way that they are interesting. Sunday is  with them only a regularly recurring Bank Holiday.  It would be interesting to know what they do with it.  A special difficulty, however, exists for me in any such  inquiry, resulting from the fact that, in my capacity  of clerical casual, I am pretty generally engaged on  the Sunday; and when I am not, my Day of Rest is  too valuable to be devoted to any of the manifold forms  of metropolitan Sabbath-breaking. I have a great  idea that parsons ought to be frequently preached at;  and so I generally go to some church or chapel when [-109-] out of harness myself; and if "hearing sermons" constitute the proper carrying out of the things promised and vowed on my behalf at baptism I must have undergone as complete a course of Christian discipline as any man in Christendom, for I have been preached at by everybody from Roman Catholics down to Walworth Jumpers and Plumstead Peculiars.
    But impressed with anxiety to know about the doings of the non-Church-goers, I have for a long time cast sheep's eyes at the Sunday League, and more than once definitely promised to join one of their Sunday outings; but I am strongly of Tom Hood's opinion that-

The man who's fond precociously of stirring
Must be a spoon

    The Sunday League commence their excursions at untimely hours; and it is a cardinal point in my creed that Sunday ought to be a Day of Rest, at all events in the matter of breakfast in bed. I missed the excursion to Shakspeare's House in this way, and the paper on the Bard of Avon, full of the genius loci, must have been as edifying as a sermon. So, too, on a recent Sunday, when the Sunday League on their way to Southend got mixed up with the Volunteer Artillery going to Shoebury, I was again found wanting. But still the old penchant remained, and Sunday was my last free one for a long time. How could I utilize it? I  had it; I would go to the People's Garden at Willesden. I had heard that  [-110-] certain very mild forms of Sabbath breaking prevailed  there. I would go and see for myself.
    I had been at the People's Garden twice before ; once on the occasion of a spiritualistic picnic, and once, more recently, at a workmen's flower show; and felt considerable interest in the place, especially as the People had been polite enough to send me a season ticket, so that I was one of the People myself.
    This People's Garden was not exactly a Paradise  yet, though it is in a fair way of becoming one. It  is a spot of some fifty acres reclaimed from the scrubbiest  part of Wormwood Scrubbs, and made the focus  of a club of working men, of whom I am very proud  indeed to be one. Indeed, I do not see why throughout  the remainder of this article I should not use the  first person plural. I will. Well, then, we secured  this spot, and we have got in the first place one of the  finest - I believe the finest - dancing platform in  England, for we as a community are Terpsichorean,  though I, as an individual, am not. I felt it necessary  to give up dancing when my weight turned the  balance at fourteen stone odd. Then we can give our  friends refreshments from a bottle of champagne down  to tea and cresses. We have all sorts of clubs, dramatic  and otherwise, and rather plume ourselves on  having put up our proscenium ourselves, that is with  our own hands and hammers and nails. There is the  great advantage of being a Working Man or one of the People. If you had been with me that Sunday [-111-] you would have seen a glow of conscious pride suffusing my countenauce as I read the bills of our last  amateur performance, consisting of the "Waterman"  and "Ici on parle Franqais," played on the boards  which I, in my corporate capacity, had planed, and  sawn, and nailed. My route last Sunday lay across  the crisp sward of the Scrubbs; and it was quite a  pleasure to be able to walk there without danger of  falling pierced by the bullet of some erratic volunteer ;  for there are three butts on Wormwood Scrubbs, which  I examined with minuteness on Sunday, and was exercised  to see by marks on the brickwork how very  wide of the target a volunteer's shot can go. I  wonder there is not a wholesale slaughter of cattle in  the neighbouring fields. The garden lies on the other  side of the Great Western Railway, across which I  had to trespass in order to get to it. But the man in  charge regarded me with indulgence, for was I not a  working man and a "mate?" The portion of the  garden abutting on the rail is still unreclaimed prairie.  The working men have begun at the top of the hill,  and are working downwards.
    There is a good-sized refreshment-room at the  entrance, with all the paraphernalia of secretary's  office, &c. ; and this large room, which is exceedingly  useful in wet weather, opens right on to the dancing-platform,  in the centre of which is a pretty kiosk for  the band. We have no gas ; but tasty paraffin lamps  at frequent intervals give sufficient light, and, at all [-112-] events, do not smell worse than modern metropolitan  gas. There is a large tent standing en permanence  during the summer for flower shows, and terrace after  terrace of croquet lawns, all of which it will, I fear,  shock some Sabbatarian persons to learn were occupied  on that Sunday afternoon, and the balls kept  clicking like the week-day shots of the erratic riflemen  on the Scrubbs. I had a young lady with me who was  considerably severe on the way in which we workmen  male and female, handled our mallets. There was, I  confess, something to be desired in the way of position;  and one group of German artisans in the corner  lawn made more noise than was necessary, howling  and uttering all sorts of guttural interjections, as  though they were playing polo at least, or taking part  in a bull-fight, instead of in croquet-beloved of  curates.
    And then the flowers. We are making the desert  blossom like the rose. It is really marvellous to see  what has been done in so short a time. We might  have been a society of market gardeners. We don't  get so many flowers along the walk of life, we working  men ; so that we want to see a bit of green sward  and a flower or two on Sundays. There is a capital  gymnasium, and our observation of the young men  who disport themselves there would lead an uninitiated  observe to form the opinion that the normal  condition of humanity was upside down. The way  one youthful workman hung by his legs on the tra-[-113-]peze was positively Darwinian to behold. Swings attracted the attention of the ladies ; and I regret to  say that the particular young lady I escorted - who  was of the mature age of twelve-passed most of the  afternoon in a state of oscillation, and was continually  adjuring me to push her.   
    An interesting addition to the gardens - our gardens -  since I was last there, consisted of a cage of  meditative monkeys, four in number, who were stationed  so near the gymnasium as inevitably to suggest  the Darwinian parallel. They had their gymnasium  too, and swung gaily on their tree-trunks at  such times as they were not engaged in eating or  entomological researches. I could not help thinking  what a deprivation it was to the gymnasts that, in  course of evolution, we have lost our tails. They  would have been so convenient on the horizontal bar,  where that persevering young workman was still  engaged in the pursuit of apoplexy by hanging head  downwards. Soon after we got there an excellent  band commenced playing, not in the kiosk, lest we  should be beguiled into dancing. The first piece was  a slow movement, which could scarcely have been  objected to by any Sabbatarian, unless he was so uncompromising  as to think all trumpets wrong. The second was the glorious march from "Athalie ;" and then - my blood runs cold as I write it -a sort of  pot pourri, in the midst of which came the "Dutchman's  Little Wee Dog," considerably disguised in the [-114-] way of accompaniment and variation, I own, but the "Little Wee Dog" beyond a doubt. Then I understood  why the band was not in the kiosk; for, fourteen  stone though I be, I felt all my toes twiddling  inside my boots at that time as wickedly as though it  had been Monday morning. There were fourteen or  fifteen loud brass instruments, with a side and bass  drum and cymbals. All these were playing the  "Little Wee Dog" to their brazen hearts' content,  and only one gentleman on a feeble piccolo-flute trying  to choke their impiety by tootling out a variation,  just as the stringed instruments in the glorious  " Reformation Symphony" of Mendelssohn try in  vain to drown with their sensuous Roman airs the  massive chords of the old Lutheran chorale-" Ein  feste Burg ist unser Gott." I really could not bear  it any longer, and was rising to go when they  stopped; and as the gentleman who played the circular  bass got outside his portentous instrument, I  found he had a little wee dog of his own who retired  into the bell of the big trumpet when his master laid  it on the grass. Perhaps it was in honour of this  minute animal the air was selected. However, I could  not lend myself to such proceedings ; so I bribed my  youthful charge with a twopenny bottle of frothless  ginger beer to come out of her swing and return to  the regions of orthodoxy. The Teutonic gentlemen  were still hooting and yelling as we crossed the  corner of their croquet lawn, until I expected to see [-115-] them attack one another with the mallets and use the  balls for missile warfare ; but it was only their peculiar  way of enjoying themselves.
    My little friend described the action of our working  men in the croquet lawn as "spooning," and also  drew my attention to the fact that two lovers were  doing the same on a seat, in the approved fashion  prevalent among us workmen, with the manly arm  around the taper waist coram publico. This arrangement  is quite a necessity with us. We should often  like to forego it, especially when little boys make rude  remarks about us in the street; but it is expected of  us, and we submit.
    The sun was beginning to sink grandly over that  magnificent panorama of country visible from Old  Oak Common as we passed down the hill and again  violated the bye-laws of the Great Western Railway  Company. The spires of the West End churches  were bathed in the soft glow of departing day; and  in the distance the Crystal Palace glittered like a  fairy bower. We got back after making a little  detour on account of some gentlemen who were  bathing in a very Paradisiacal way indeed - we actually  got back in time to go to church like good  Christians ; and I do not think either of us felt much  the worse for the hours we had spent in the People's  Garden - save and except the wicked Little Wee  Dog !