Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XVIII - The Vigil of the Derby

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IN those days - happily now gone by - when public strangulation was the mode in Merry England, there was always an evident fascination appertaining to the  spot where, on the morrow, some guilty wretch was  to expiate his crimes on the gallows. Long before  the erection of that elegant apparatus commenced,  and generally on a Sunday evening, when decent  citizens had newly come from houses of God, where  they had heard the message of life, crowds began to  collect on that central spot in the heart of the great  City dedicated to sudden and violent death. The  coming event seemed to cast its shadow before; and  throughout the night the roisterer or belated traveller  made a detour to visit the human shambles. I confess  to having felt the attraction. I could not then  bring myself to be present at the strangulation  proper ; so, as the nearest approach to a "sensation,"  sometimes visited Newgate on the eve of the victim  elect's last morrow. In the same way, being unfortunate  enough to be London-bound on the day of our  great annual holiday, and having heard graphic accounts  of the Downs on the eve of the Derby, I [-142-] determined that year, as I could not go to the race  by day, to visit the racecourse by night. Let me own  the soft impeachment : I am not a racing man-not  in any degree "horsey." When I do go to the Derby  it is to see the bipeds rather than the quadrupeds ; to  empty the hamper from Fortnum and Mason's, rather  than to study the "names, weights, and colours of the  riders" on the "c'rect card." If you prefer to have  the sentiment in Latin - and there is no doubt Latin  does go much farther than English - I am not one of  those " quos pulverem Olympicum collegisse juvat,"  except in so far that "homo sum; nihil humanum  alienum a me puto." It was to see humanity under  a new aspect, I took the last train to Epsom on the  eve of the Derby.
    In order to combine business with pleasure, and  economy with both, I took a third-class ticket at  Victoria, and was fortunate enough to find a compartment  already occupied by a nigger troupe. In this, which under ordinary circumstances  I should have avoided, I took my seat, and was  regaled all the way down with choice morceaux from  the réipertoire of my musical friends. The "talking  man" of the party, too, enlivened the proceedings by  anxiously inquiring of the porters at the different  stations what they would take in the way of refreshment,  and issuing unlimited orders to imaginary  waiters on their behoof. It was a strange sensation,  being whirled away from home and bed down to a [-143-] wild heath towards midnight ; and as we neared our  destination, the air began to "bite shrewdly," and  the sky to look uncommonly like rain - a contretemps  which would have been fatal to my proposed experience.  We had to change carriages at Sutton, and here a sociable Aunt-Sally-man, struggling under the  implements of his craft, sought to beguile me from  my African friends by offers of a shake-down in his  tent, with which he proposed to walk across from  Ewell and erect, instead of journeying on to Epsom.  My Ethiopian friends jumped at the proposal, and  forthwith fraternized with Aunt Sally. I determined  to follow out my previous plans ; so having drunk to  our next merry meeting, we parted, ostensibly until  to-morrow, but, I fear, for ever.
    I had been led to expect "high jinks" at Epsom - sort of Carnival in the quiet town. Nothing could  have been farther from the truth. The town, so far  as outward semblance went, was almost as quiet as  ever. A few sporting men thronged the bar of the  principal hotel, and stragglers hung about the low  beer-shops ; but there was nothing at all to indicate  the imminence of the great event. So I fell back on  my usual expedient of applying to the executive, and  found not only an active and intelligent but exceedingly  civil sergeant of police, to whom I told my  errand. He was pleased with the novelty of the idea,  and as he happened to be then going the round of  the town previously to visiting the course, I cast in [-144-] my lot with him for the night. We first visited what  he termed the "German Opera," on Epsom Common.  This is an encampment of organ-grinders, hurdy-gurdy-players, German bands, &c., who pitch  their tents here instead of going to the Downs.  It was, however, rather late when we reached the  spot where these artists were bivouacking, and they  had retired for the night, so we could not form much  idea of them beyond their numbers, which seemed  considerable, and their odour, which was unfragrant.  Thence we passed down a short alley to a railway  arch, which was aglow with many fires, and rang  with the sounds of many voices. Bidding me make  no observation, whatever might be said, and requesting  me to try and look like an officer in plain clothes,  my cicerone led me into the strange arcade, which I  certainly could not have entered without his protection.  Hundreds of men, women, and boys were  gathered in groups round coke fires, some partaking  of coffee, others singing, the majority sleeping. After  satisfying himself that the fires were legitimate ones,  and not composed of broken fences, my guide left this  teeming hive unmolested. We then steered for the  course, not by the high road, but skirting it along  the fields. The policeman, like myself, carried a stout  stick, which really seemed to be endowed with creative  powers that night. Wherever he poked that  staff - and he did poke it everywhere - a human being  growled, or snored, or cursed. Every bush along the [-145-] hedgerow bore its occupant - often its group of four  or five, sometimes a party of a dozen or a score. One  shed filled with carts yielded at least a hundred,  though the sergeant informed me it must have been  already cleared several times that evening, as he had  a file of men along the road, besides a cordon inside  the Park palings, which border a great portion of it.  It is with these palings the tramps chiefly do mischief,  pulling them down to make fires along their  route. Wherever my guide found these, he trampled  the fires remorselessly out, and kicked the burning  embers over the sleepers in a manner that must have  been uncomfortable. The men submitted in comparative  silence; but the ladies - where there happened  to be any - exerted the privilege of their sex,  and treated us to some choice specimens of the vernacular.  In one case, a female cried out that he was  kicking the fire over the "childer;" and, sure enough,  we found half-a dozen little ones huddled up asleep.  The policeman remonstrated with her for bringing  them to such a place; but she informed us it was to  "make their living." In what way, she did not add.  To us, it seemed very much like reversing the process,  and causing their death. Fancy young children  camping out on the road to the Downs at midnight!  Boys of thirteen and fourteen abounded, sleeping in  large groups along the hedgerows, and sometimes out  in the open fields, where the dew lay thick.  At length, after many windings, we reached the [-146-] Downs. The white booths, following the direction of  the course in their sinuous lines, looked like stately  white marble streets and crescents in the dim, uncertain  light of that hour which, between May 31  and June 1, is neither day nor night. Under the  stands and around the booths, tabernacling beneath  costermongers' barrows, and even lying out openly  sub dio, were still the hundreds of human beings. In  one small drinking booth was a sight the policeman  said he had never seen equalled in his twenty years'  experience. A long, narrow table ran down the  centre, with benches on each side. The table itself  was occupied with recumbent figures ; on the benches  the sleepers sat, bending forward over it, and under  the benches sleepers sprawled upon the grass. The  whole of the front of the booth was open, and exposed  to the biting wind; but there they snored as  calmly as though on eider-down. We climbed the  steps of the stand above the ring, and waited for  the day, which slowly broke to the song of the  lark and nightingale over that strange scene. With  the first suspicion of dawn the sleepers awoke and  got up; what for I cannot imagine. It was barely  two o'clock, and how they were going to kill the  next twelve hours I could not guess. Rise they did  however, and an itinerant vendor of coffee, who  was literally up with the lark, straightway began to  drive a roaring trade. I saw no stronger drink than  this consumed; nor did I witness a single case of [-147-] drunkenness during the whole night. But this was  before the Derby ! At this juncture we were all surprised  by the apparition of a hansom-lamp toiling up  the hill. Two adventurous gentlemen from Liverpool,  it appeared, had arrived at the Euston Station, and  insisted upon being driven at once to an hotel on  Epsom Downs. The Jehu, secure of a fabulous fare,  drove them accordingly; and, of course, had to drive  them back again to Epsom - the hotels on the Downs  quietly but firmly declining to be knocked up at that  untimely hour even by gentlemen from Liverpool.  As the sun showed his first up-slanting rays above the  horizon, with the morning star hanging impertinently  near, the two gipsy encampments began to exhibit  signs of life. The Zingari encamp exclusively by  themselves, and some picturesque specimens of the  male sex, looking remarkably like the lively photograph  of the Greek brigands, showed themselves on  the outskirts. The ladies reserved themselves for  later in the day. My guide cautioned me not to  attempt to enter the encampment, as the men are  dangerous, and their position on the Downs a privileged  one. It was only when the tramps were trespassing,  or evidently bent on mischief, that they were  disturbed. On the Downs they were monarchs of all  they surveyed.
    When the sun was fairly up, and the morning  mists rolled away from those glorious Downs, I felt  my mission accomplished. I had seen the sun rise on [-148-] Epsom course. As it was many hours before a train  would return, and I still felt fresh, I resolved to give  the coup de grace to my night's adventure by walking  home - at least, walking to the radius of workmen's  trains. The vanguard of the Derby procession now  began to show strongly in the shape of the great unwashed  climbing the ridge of the hill by the paddock ; and I felt I should see some characteristic sights  along the road. Bidding good-bye, therefore, to my  guide at Epsom, I set out on foot along the now populous  road, mine being the only face turned  London-wards. Carts laden with trestles and boards  for stands now began to be in force. By-and-by the  well-known paper bouquets and outrageous head-gear  showed themselves as forming the cargo of costermongers'  carts. The travellers were all chatty, many  of them chaffy. Frequent were the inquiries I had to  answer as to the hour and the distance to the course.  Occasionally a facetious gentleman anxiously inquired  whether it was all over, as I was returning ? I believe  the majority looked upon me as a harmless  lunatic, since I was travelling away from Epsom on  the Derby morning, and pitied me accordingly. An  Irishman aptly illustrated the genial character of  Hibernian chaff as compared with English. "Good  day to your honner!" he said. "It does me good to  see your honner's happy face again;" though, of  course, he had never seen it before. As I passed on  with a brief salutation, he took the trouble to run after [-149-] me, and slapping me on the shoulder, added, in a  beautiful brogue : "Wait a minnit ; I don't want to  ax you for anything, but only to tell you how glad I  am to see yer honner's happy face agin. Good  mornin'!"
    So through Ewell, Cheam, and Morden, up to  Tooting; the throng increasing at every mile. At  Balham, finding no train for an hour, I footed it  again. I found preparations for endless Aunt Sally  already being made on Clapham Common. Soon after  six, I jumped into a train on the London, Chatham,  and Dover, and came home "with the milk ;" having  not only had a healthy night's exercise - for the  weather had all along been splendid - but having  added to my experiences of London life one new  "winkle" at least : I had seen the life of St. Giles's  kitchen and Bethnal Green lodging-house a la campagne.  What I had already seen under the garish  candlelight of the Seven Dials and Commercial Road  I saw gilded into picturesqueness by that glorious  and never-to-be-forgotten sunrise on Epsom Downs  which ushered in the Derby Day.