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THE VIGIL OF THE DERBY.
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
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.