Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XVII - Boxing-Day on the Streets

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BOXING-DAY in the London streets, and especially a  wet Boxing-day, can scarcely fail to afford us some  tableaux vivants illustrative of English metropolitan  life. In a metaphorical and technical sense, Boxing-day  is always more or less "wet" - generally more,  and not less; but this year the expression is used  climatically, and in its first intention. Christmas-eve  of the year about which I write was bright and  springlike ; Christmas-day dismal, dark, and un-Christmas-like ; but Boxing-day that year was essentially  muggy, sloppy, drizzly, and nasty. A day to  avoid the London streets if you want to take a  romantic Rosa-Matilda view of London life ; but the  very day of all others, if you wish to see real London  as it is. Boxing-day will inevitably be "wetter" in  every sense than usual this year, internally and externally.  So let us commence our series of living  pictures at ten o'clock in the morning. Suppose we  begin with something that shall bear reference to the  past festival - the eve and the day of the Great Birth,  recollect. See, here is Grotto Passage, Marylebone,  and at its extremity Paradise Street -  the names [-135-] sound promising, but alas for the reality! We are going to turn for a moment into the Marylebone  Police Court, where Mr. D'Eyncourt is dispensing  summary justice to the accumulations of the last two  days. These are the people who have been spending  Christmas-eve, Christmas-day, and some portion of  Boxing-day already in the police-cells. Let us take  one as a typical case. Let that poor little eight-year old  Arab step down from the dock and go off with his  mother, who, we hope, will take the magistrate's excellent  advice, and keep the child from begging - that  is why he has spent Christmas in the cells - lest he  be sent to a school for eight years, and she have to  pay for him - God help her! she does not look as  though she could afford very high terms. A bruised  and bleeding woman, not young or good-looking,  enters the box with her head bound up. Her lord  and master confronts her in the dock. It is the "old,  old story." A drop of drink yesterday - the day of  the Great Nativity, never forget-series of "drops of  drink" all day long; and, at five o'clock, just when  gentility was beginning to think of dinner, the kitchen  poker was used with frightful effect. A triangular  cut over the right eye, and another in the dangerous  neighbourhood of the left ear, administered with that  symbol of domestic bliss, the kitchen poker, sends the  wife doubled up into a corner, with an infant of two  years old in her arms. The head of the family goes  out for a walk after his exertions. The woman lies [-136-] there bleeding until the neighbours hear her "mourning,"  as she terms it - the result being that the lord and master's "constitutional" is cut short by a policeman, and the happy pair are this morning separated  for six months, at the expiration of which period  Paterfamilias is to find surety for another six months'  good behaviour. Such, starred round with endless  episodes of " drunk and disorderly," "foul language,"  and so on, is our first tableau this Boxing-day. It is  not a pleasant one. Let us pass on.
    Along Oxford Street, despite the Bank Holidays  Act, many shops are open, chiefly those devoted to  the sale of articles eatable, drinkable, and avoidable;  these last being in the shape of chemists' shops, and  shops for Christmas presents - to be shunned by  miserly old bachelors. Let us turn into the British  Museum and see sensible, decorous Boxing-day there.  At the corner of Museum Street there is a lively itinerant  musician, evidently French, who plays the fiddle  until his bow tumbles all to pieces, but he goes on  playing with the stick as though nothing had happened.  When his instrument has come entirely to  grief he turns to a clarionet, which he carries under  his arm, and plays "Mourir pour la Patrie" with  extraordinary vocal effect and irreverent gestures.  Punch-and-Judy is largely attended at the other end ;  Punch is kitchen-pokering his wife, too, like the gentleman  we have just left; but we pass in with the [-137-] crowds to the Museum itself. Halting a moment in  the reading-room, to jot down there a few notes, one  is struck with the scanty show of students. They  are spending Boxing-day somewhere else. Passing  through the little knot of people who are permitted  by special order to come as far as the door of the  reading-room, and who evidently regard the readers  as some curious sort of animal exhibited for their  special delectation - perhaps the book-"worm" of  which they have heard so much - we go up the stairs,  now thronged with crowds in unwonted broadcloth  and fragrant with the odour of the inevitable orange.  Next to the drinking fountain, which is decidedly the  chief attraction, comes the gorilla, and then the  extinct animals. One stout old lady, contemplating  the megatherium and mastodon, inquires in what  parts "them creeturs" are to be found, and seems  considerably damped by being informed that Nature  has been "out" of such articles for several aeons. The  mummies, with the bones of their toes sticking out,  also come in for a large share of admiration. There  is a good deal of rough flirtation going on; but, on  the whole, the pleasure is rather of a placid order,  though still contrasting favourably with the settled  gloom visible on the faces of the attendants in the  various galleries. How well we can understand such  gloom! How utterly hateful must that giant elk  and overgrown extinct armadillo be to a man con-[-138-]demned to spend a lifetime in their close contemplation!
    But let us pass on to the artistic Boxing-day  keepers at the National Gallery. The walk will take  us through the Seven Dials, and can scarcely fail to  be suggestive. It is now one o'clock, the traditional  hour of dinner ; and in Broad Street, St. Giles's, I see,  for the first time to-day, the human barometer evidently  standing at "much wet." A gentleman in a  grey coat and red comforter, who bears palpable signs  of having been more than once on his back, has just  reached that perplexing point of inebriety when he  can walk quickly or run, but cannot stand still or  walk steadily. He is pursued by small children,  mostly girls, after whom, every now and then, he runs  hopelessly, to their intense gratification. The poultry  and bird shops in the Seven Dials are objects of some  attraction, though they savour too much of "business"  to be in very great force. The National Gallery is  crowded with unaccustomed art students. There is  about the visitors a quiet air of doing their duty, and  being determined to go through with it at any price.  One brazen-faced quean speculates audibly - in fact,  very audibly - as to which " picter" she should choose  if she had her "pick," and decent matrons pass the  particularly High Art of the old masters with half-averted  gaze, as though they were not quite sure of  doing right in countenancing such exhibitions. [-139-]  Hogarth's evergreen "Marriage a la Mode" is a great  centre of attraction, and the youngsters never tire of  listening, as "with weeping and with laughter still is  the story told" over and over again by their elders.  Gainsborough's likeness of Mrs. Siddons is also a great  favourite; but perhaps the picture that attracts most  attention is Van Eyck's "John Arnolfini, of Lucca,  and his Wife." The gentleman wears a portentous  hat, which tickled the fancy of the Boxing-day people  immensely. There were great speculations too among  them as to whether the curious Tuscan pictures at the  top of the stairs were "needlework" or not. Still,  who shall say that these visitors were not the better  for their visit, surrounded as they were by forms of  beauty on every side, even if they did not examine  them with the eyes of connoisseurs ?
    Boxing-day on the river : The silent street is almost  deserted. There is no rush for the Express boat today.  It is literally the streets - muddier and sloppier  than the Thames itself - that are the attraction. Some  little boys are making the trip from Westminster to  London Bridge as a treat; and it is an intense joke  with them to pretend to be dreadfully seasick.  Boxing-day in the City is synonymous with stagnation.  It is a howling wilderness, with nobody to howl.  On the Metropolitan Railway I verily believe travellers  were tripping it like the little boys on board the  penny boat. And so theatre time draws on, and the [-140-] interest of Boxing-day grows to a climax. Soon after  five o'clock groups furtively collect outside the playhouses,  half-ashamed of being so early, but gathering  courage from numbers to form the disorderly queue,  so unlike that of a Parisian theatre. Boxing-night in  the theatres others will describe. It is too much to  expect of one whose mission has been the whole day  long on the streets.