Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XXVI - A Barmaid Show

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THE present age, denounced by some ungenial  censors as the age of shams, may be described by more  kindly critics as emphatically an age of "shows."  Advancing from the time-honoured shows of Flora  and Pomona - if not always improving on the type - and  so on from the cattle show, suggestive of impending  Christmas fare, we have had horse shows, dog  shows, and bird shows. To these the genius of  Barnum added baby shows ; and, if we are not misinformed,  a foreign firm, whose names have become  household words amongst us, originated, though not  exactly in its present form, the last kind of show  which has been acclimatized in England - an exhibition  of barmaids. We had two baby shows in one  year - one at Highbury Barn by Mr. Giovannelli, the  other at North Woolwich Gardens by Mr. Holland ;  and it is to the talent of this latter gentleman in the  way of adaptation that we owe the exhibition of  young ladies "practising at the bar." From babies  to barmaids is indeed a leap, reversing the ordinary  process of going from the sublime to the ridiculous,  for while to all but appreciative mammas those infantile [-213-] specimens of humanity savour largely of the ridiculous,  there can be no question that the present generation  of dames de comptoir is a very sublime article indeed.  I do not say this in derision, nor am I among those who  decry the improvements introduced during the last  few years, both into refreshment bars themselves, and  notably into the class of ladies who preside over them.  The discriminating visitor will decidedly prefer to  receive his sandwich and glass of bitter at the hands of  a pretty barmaid rather than from an oleaginous potman  in his shirt-sleeves ; and the sherry-cobbler acquires  a racier flavour from the arch looks of the Hebe  who dispenses it. If silly young men do dawdle  at the bar for the sake of the sirens inside, and occasionally,  as we have known to be the case, take unto  themselves these same sirens "for better or for worse,"  we can only cite the opinion of well-informed authorities,  that very possibly the young gentlemen in  question might have gone farther and fared worse, and  that it is not always the young lady who has, in such  a case, the best of the bargain.
    So, then, the " Grand Barmaid Contest" opened ;  and in spite of the very unmistakable appearance put  in by Jupiter Fluvius, a numerous assemblage gathered  in the North Woolwich Gardens to inaugurate a festival  which, whatever else we may think of it, is at all  events sui generis. Prizes to the value of 300l. were  to be presented to the successful candidates, varying  from a purse of twenty sovereigns and a gold watch [-214-] and chain, down to "a purse of two sovereigns," with  " various other prizes, consisting of jewellery, &c."
    Among the conditions it was required, that every  young lady should be over sixteen years of age; that she   should be dressed in plain but good articles of attire, " in which a happy blending of colours without prominent display is most suitable;" and it was moreover stipulated that each "young lady" should " ingratiate  herself with the public in the most affable manner at  her command, without undue forwardness or frivolity,  but still retaining a strict attention to business." No  young lady was permitted to take part in the contest  unless she had been in the refreshment business for  twelve months, and could produce good testimonials of  character.
    Upwards of 700 applications were made, out of  which Mr. Holland selected fifty. Whence the  large number of rejections " deponeth sayeth not." Of  these twenty-eight actually put in an appearance at  three P.M. on the opening day and four were expected  to join in a day or two. Every visitor is provided  with a voting ticket, which he hands to the lady of  his admiration, and which counts towards the prize.  Each young lady also receives 5 per cent. on what  she sells at her bar. The places are awarded by lot;  and, by a freak of fortune, the two most attractive  demoiselles happened to come together. These were  Numbers One and Fourteen. The former young lady  - who desires to be known by her number only, true [-215-] genius being ever modest - was certain to stand Number One in popular esteem ; and, if chignons are  taken into account, she ought literally to "head" the  list by a very long way. The room was tastefully  decorated by Messrs. Defries, and an excellent band  enlivened the proceedings. As evening drew on the  meeting grew more hilarious, but there was not the  slightest impropriety of any kind, the faintest approach  thereto leading to immediate expulsion.  Many persons may be disposed to ask, in respect of  such exhibitions, Cui bono? But at all events there  was nothing which the veriest Cato could denounce as  demoralizing. The "young ladies" were all most  modestly attired in " sober livery ;" and certainly though  comparisons are odious - not so pressing in  their attentions as we have seen some other young  ladies at Dramatic Fetes, or even some dévouées at  charitable bazaars. If we may judge from the large  numbers that visited North Woolwich, "in spite of  wind and weather," Mr. Holland was likely to reap an  abundant harvest from this latest "idea," excogitated  from his fertile brain. As the babies have had their  "show," and the stronger sex is not likely to be equal  to the task of being exhibited just yet, there seems  only one section of society open to the speculations of  a skilful entrepreneur. Why does not some one, in a  more serious line than Mr. Holland, try what Sydney  Smith calls the "third sex," and open an exhibition  of curates, with a genuine competition for prizes ? [-216-] There could be no possible doubt as to the success of  such a display, and the instruction to be derived from  it would be equally beyond question. In the meantime  we have advanced one step towards such a consummation.  The adult human being has taken the  place of the baby; and people evidently like it. Where  will the rage for exhibitions stop ? Who can say to  the advancing tide of shows, "Thus far shalt thou go,  and no farther?" Other classes of society will probably  have their turn, and may think themselves fortunate  if they show up as well as Mr. Holland's  "young ladies."