[... back to menu for this book]
BATHING IN THE FAR EAST.
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
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.