Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XX - Bathing in the Far East

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VISIONS of Oriental splendour and magnificence float  across the imagination at the mere mention of the  storied East. Soaring above all the routine of ordinary  existence and the commonplaces of history, that  creative faculty within us pictures Pactolus with its  golden sands; or recalls from the legendary records  of childhood the pomp of Aladdin's Princess going to  her luxurious bath ; or brings back to mind the almost  prosaic minuteness with which the Greek poet, describes  the bath of Ulysses when he returned from  his wanderings. In the East the bath has ever been  an institution - not merely a luxury, but a necessity ;  and it is a proof of the eclectic tendencies of our  generation that we have domesticated here in the  West that great institution, the Hammam, or Turkish  bath, which the Romans were wise enough to adopt,  after their Eastern experience, more than two thousand  years ago. Of none of these Oriental splendours,  however, has the present narrative to tell. I ask  those interested in social questions to take a very  early Sunday expedition to the East End of London,  and catch a glimpse of those whom, after what I [-158-] have to relate, it would be libel to call the "Great Unwashed." We will look at East London engaged in the interesting process of performing its ablutions.
    Very enjoyable is a Saturday afternoon stroll in Victoria Park. Those gentlemen of London who sit  at home at ease are apt to 0 think of the East End as  a collection of slums, with about as much breathing  space for its congregated thousands as that supplied  to the mites in a superannuated Cheshire cheese. Let  us pass through Bethnal Green Road, and, leaving  behind the new Museum, go under a magic portal  into the stately acres which bear the name of our  Sovereign. On our right is the Hospital for Diseases  of the Chest, of which the foundation-stone was laid  by the Prince Consort, and the new wing of which  our Orientals hope one day to see opened by her  Majesty in person. Most convincing test of all is  the situation of this Consumptive Hospital - showing  the salubrity of the Eastern breezes. Inside the imposing  gate the visitor will find extensive cricket-grounds  interspersed with broad pastures, whose flocks  are the reverse of Arcadian in hue. Cricket-balls  whiz about us like shells at Inkermann; and the  suggestive "Thank you" of the scouts forces the  passer-by into unwonted activity as he shies the  ball to the bowler. Then there are roundabouts  uncountable, and gymnasia abundant. There are  bosquets for the love-makers, and glassy pools,  studded with islands innumerable, over which many [-159-] a Lady of the Lake steers her shallop, while Oriental sailor-boys canoe wildly along. There are flowerbeds which need not blush to be compared with Kew  or the Crystal Palace. But it is not with such that  we are now concerned. On one of those same lakes  over which, on Saturday evening, sailors in embryo  float their mimic craft - and one young gentleman,  slightly in advance of the rest, directs a very miniature  steamship - we see boards suggesting that daily,  from four to eight A.M., the Orientals may immerse  themselves in the limpid and most tempting waters.  The depth, they are paternally informed, increases  towards the centre, buoys marking where it is six  feat; so that our Eastern friends hare no excuse for  suicide by drowning.
    East London birds are early birds, and to catch  them at their bath you must be literally up with the  lark. Towards six o'clock is the most fashionable  hour for our metropolitan Pactolus; and, as it is  some miles distant from what can, by any stretch of  courtesy, be called the West End, and as there are no  workmen's trains on a Sunday morning, a long walk  or cab drive is inevitable for all who would witness  the disporting of our amphibious Orientals. Rising  thus betimes on a recent "Sunday morning before  the bells. did ring," I sped me to the bathing pond,  judiciously screened off by shrubs from the main path.  It was between the appointed hours that I arrived;  and, long before I saw anything, the ringing laughter [-160-] of the young East reached me through the shrubs.  Threading the path which led to the lake, I found  the water literally alive with men, boys, and  hobbledehoys, revelling in the water like young  hippopotami on the Nile. Boys were largely in the  ascendant - boys from ten to fifteen years of age  swam like young Leanders, and sunned themselves on  the bank, in the absence of towels, as the preparative  to dressing, or smoked their pipes in a state of nature.  It is only just to say that while I remained, I heard  little if any language that could be called "foul."  Very free and easy, of course, were the remarks, and  largely illustrative of the vulgar tongue; not without  a share of light chaff directed against myself, whose  presence by the lake-side puzzled my young friends.  I received numerous invitations to "peel" and have a  dip; and one young urchin assured me in the most  patronizing way possible that he "wouldn't laugh at  me" if I could not get on. The language may not  have been quite so refined as that which I heard a  few days before from the young gentlemen with tall  hats and blue ties at Lord's; but I do say advisedly  that it would more than bear comparison with that of  the bathers in the Serpentine, where my ears have  often been assailed with something far worse than  anything I heard in East London. In the matter of  clothes, too, the apparel of our young friends was indeed  Eastern in its simplicity; yet they left it unprotected  on the bank with a confidence that did honour to our [-161-] common humanity in general, and to the regulations  of Victoria Park in particular. Swimming in some  sort was almost universal among the bathers, showing  that their visit to the water was not an isolated event  in their existence, but a constant as it is a wholesome  habit. The Oriental population were for the most  part apparently well fed; and one saw there lithe and  active frames, either careering gracefully along in the  old style of swimming, or adopting the new and  scientific method which causes the human form divine  to approach very nearly to the resemblance of a rather  excited grampus.
    But inexorable Time warns the youthful bathers that they must sacrifice to the Graces; and some  amusing incidents occur during the process. Generally  speaking, though the amount of attire is not  excessive, considerable effort in the way of pinning  and hitching is required to get things in their proper  places. A young gentleman was reduced to inexpressible  grief, and held up to the scorn of his fellow-bathers,  by the fact that, in the course of his al fresco  toilette, one of his feet went through his inexpressibles  in an honourable quarter, instead of proceeding  by the proper route; the error interested his friends  vastly - for they are as critical as the most fastidious  could be of any singularity in attire, and they held  the unfortunate juvenile in his embarrassing position  for a long time, to his intense despair, until he was  rescued from his ignoble position by some grown-up [-162-] friend. Then, the young East is prone to the pleasures  of tobacco. It was, I presume, before breakfast  with most of the bathers, and smoking under those  conditions is a trial even to the experienced. Some,  pale from their long immersion - for theirs was no  transient dip - grew paler still after they had discussed  the pipe or cigar demanded of them by rigorous  custom. Fashion reigns supreme among the gamins  of the East as well as among the ladies of the West.  Off they went, however, cleaner and fresher than  before - tacitly endorsing by their matutinal amusement the motto that has come down from the philosopher  of old, and even now reigns supreme from  Bermondsey to Belgravia, that "water is a most excellent thing."
    The day may arrive perhaps when, having embanked  the Thames, we shall follow suit to the Seine  and the Rhine, by tenanting it with cheap baths for  the many. Until we do so, the stale joke of the  "Great Unwashed" recoils upon ourselves, and is no  less symptomatic of defective sanitary arrangements  than the possibility of a drought in Bermondsey.  But we are forgetting our bathers. They have gone,  leaving the place to solitude - some, I hope, home to  breakfast, others out among the flower-walks or on the  greensward. It is a gloomy, overcast, muggy, unseasonable  July morning ; and the civil attendant by the lakeside  tells me that the gathering has not been so large  as usual. The young Orientals - as is the custom of [-163-] their race - love sunshine. They get little enough of  it, Heaven knows. The next bright Sunday morning,  any one who happens to be awake between the hours  mentioned, and who would like to add to his experiences  of metropolitan existence, may do a worse  thing, and see many a less pleasant sight, than if he  hailed a hansom and drove by the principal entrance  of Victoria Park to our Eastern Bath.