Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - Seaside Insanity

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The doubtful delights of "eight hours at the seaside "- Painful contrast between the family man with his flock, going and returning - The universal hankering for a taste of the "briny " - The advantages of staying at home - Discomfort of seaside private lodgings - What one sacrifices, and what he gets in return - Rapacity of lodging-house landladies - Mysteries of the kitchen - Duplicate keys, and the nightly forage.

THERE are thousands of worthy and industrious British workmen and women who never saw the sea or tasted its salt in natural solution, or impregnating and deliciously seasoning the air that blows over the breezy downs overlooking the white cliffs that skirt the broad ocean. They have, maybe, visited Gravesend, and there faintly caught the flavour. When the wind blows from a favourable quarter, and the tide serves, there is a distinct brackishness in the water that washes the feet of Gravesend Pier, and the black and wispy festooning that hangs about the piles, and which has the appearance of unclean wood-shavings is really seaweed of a sort. If any further proof is wanted that those who come in sight of Windmill Hill are really at the threshold of the "illimitable briny," it is furnished by the presence of the mussels in the mud, and the vast abundance of brown shrimps on which the fame of the loyal borough is in great part founded. There are tens of thousands of their more fortunate fellow-creatures who have enjoyed the high privilege of visiting the domain of Neptune  - of perambulating the shingly beach, and taking a header from a bathing-machine  - of going fairly out to sea, probably in a shilling yacht, and braving the perils of sea-sickness - and all within the space of a dozen hours, four of which were consumed in the journey to and from London. They have, however, never enjoyed a longer holiday than eight hours by the seaside. They may be, and probably are, immensely gratified and delighted, but there is a mingling of sadness with their satisfaction. It is, of course, very enjoyable, and a privilege to be grateful for, this single day at Margate or Brighton, but it is, at the same time, tremendously hard work, just as hard, indeed  -as regards the preparation for the start, [-45-] the early rising, the hurry-skurry of reaching the railway station, &c. -as though the visit was to be of a fortnight's duration. And if the eight hours' excursionist is of this opinion, with the day's delights before him, and while he is fresh and strong to bear fatigue, and his wife is in high spirits, and the children ready to clap their hands for joy, what must he think when the station bell reminds him that he has now reached the termination of his tether, and his holiday is at an end? His "eight hours" have expired, and the railway authorities, stern sticklers for the terms of contract, will start the return train within twenty minutes, and all those who are not there in time will be left behind.
    It is at this point when the one day excursionist, who, as well as his wife, has an olive-branch or two with him, finds his fortitude suddenly collapse. With the youngest but one (his good lady, of course, carries the baby) bestriding his shoulder, he puts his best foot foremost from the beach to the town so as to be in good time at the station. He is hot and fagged, and his temper is not improved by the knowledge that the cherub to whom he is giving a "flying angel" is smearing his Sunday hat with the seaweed with which its little fists are full. It is at such a time that the reflection comes home to him with fullest force - if he was possessed of means like other folk! He sees the enviable beings all about him. While he is pushing and elbowing with the crowd of his fellow-excursionists, with his back to the sea, the favourites of fortune, with perhaps a fair fortnight still before them, are sauntering beachward - not in a perspiration as he is, and with his face aglow and his neckerchief disarranged, but unruffled and tranquil, heeding that confounded bell no more than though it hung round the neck of a sheep on the adjoining downs, or was being swung by the town crier - with nothing on earth, or sea either for that matter, but pass the time in delightful idleness until dusk or bed-time, and then to retire to snowy sheets, and with the fragrant breath of the ocean sweetening the air of the bed-room, to be up again next morning bright and early, for a jolly ramble across the cliffs, or to take a pull in a little boat, and so get up a tremendous appetite for a breakfast, the staple of which is fish that, in a manner of speaking, has made but a single leap from the fishing-net into the fryingpan. It is, I say, not very much to be wondered at should the [-46-] individual, the space of whose seaside happiness is actually measured by mere hours, feel a pang of envy at the better luck of his fellow-mortals, and that he should silently register a vow that, if ever his time does come, he will make up for all his previous holiday shortcomings.
    But it may happen that this year he is worse off - such at least is his opinion - than last. It may be his hard fate to find it impossible to allow himself and the partner of his joys and sorrows even the limited outing of a single day at the seaside. An increase of family cares and responsibilities, an unfortunate speculation, illness, a dozen untoward events, seperately or in combination, may have absorbed his modest savings and left him without a holiday feather to fly with. Moodiness and depression of spirits are the inevitable results, increasing with the summer sultriness and the unmistakable evidence of other people going out of town, that force themselves on his attention on every side. There was a time when he, too, found a pleasure in perusing the tempting placards stuck against walls and hoardings, concerning cheap south coast trips by rail, but now they are but a source of bitter mockery and vexation of spirit. Such recreation is not for him. He is one of the unlucky sort, he discontentedly murmurs to himself. To be sure, he has a comfortable home, and nothing to complain of, generally speaking but he feels that he requires a change, and that nothing would do him so much good as a trip to Brighton or Hastings. He is a man who sticks close to business all the year round, and it is only his due. A numerous and healthy family of boys and girls may be all very well, but he begins to think it is one of those "good things" it is possible to have too much of. If it had not been for the last infantile blessing bestowed on him-!
    It would be cruel to argue with such a man that he is altogether mistaken, and that in being debarred from a day's, or even a week or a fortnight's seasiding, he is as well off, and even better, than if he had the means to gratify his longings. Nevertheless, it is a fact, and one that every town-bound malcontent may at the present time find comfort in. It is, of course, highly heretical to preach such a doctrine, and the individual who boldly avows his preference for staying at home, content with his familiar social surroundings and his pleasant [-47-] house situate within easy distance of such delightful places as Hampstead, Hendon, Highgate, Enfield, and a dozen others that might be enumerated, and which are, as it wecre, brought next door to every Londoner by means of the railway, would be listened to with incredulity by those blind idolaters who make annual pilgrimage to and sacrifice at the shrine of Neptune.
    It is not impossible that he might be told that a case somewhat similar to his own occurs in the " Fables of Aesop" in which a bunch of grapes and a fox figure conspicuously. To such an unkind insinuation it might be fair to retort that there is another legend in the ancient volume alluded to, and one in which Reynard also has a place. It is the fable of a certain animal that, during a predatory excursion, had the misfortune to have his tail snapped off in a trap, but ashamed to acknowledge the ignominious truth, he mendaciously declared that he had purposely amputated his caudal appendage, and was so delighted with the increased comfort and convenience he had enjoyed ever since, that he earnestly invited his friends and neighbours to follow his example. The comparison is not invidious. A man is not always a free agent in such matters, and it is quite as well for him, perhaps, that it is so. As regards the seaside business, domestic and conjugal influences are sometimes brought to bear against him and what he presumptuously supposes to be his superior judgment. He is at a disadvantage, for whereas in nine cases out of ten he has no other weapon to defend himself with than that which is represented by the mean and mercenary plea that he cannot afford the expense, his wife, aided and abetted by his grown daughter, probably is armed at all points. He has to contend, as it were, against sword, bayonet, and bullet, the enemy being sure marksmen and cunning at fence beyond description. Mild and moderate measures are at the first instance taken for, the victim's subjugation. He is approached frankly and with a plain statement, as though there was not the least likelihood of opposition, and it was a mere matter of arranging details in a harmonious manner. This, the first overture, being un~ compromisingly repulsed and rejected, it is promptly followed by coercive manoeuvres more or less severe as the occasion requires. By pathetic remonstrances, mournful resignation, [-48-]  tearful reproach, by sulks perhaps, and that failing, by odious comparison and allusion to the husbands of other wives, who, with even less means, recognize it as their duty to make even some personal sacrifice rather than see their children pining for a change and for salubrious air, their health meanwhile failing them so palpably that the neighbours notice it, and a premature grave yawning for them in the not dim distance. It is nothing to a man's discredit that, so pressed and importuned, he eventually yields ; and, indeed, it is not to him that the parable of the tailless fox particularly applies. At all events, he does not make voluntary sacrifice, nor can he be said to come within the category of those who make a practice of migrating to the seaside in the autumn-time, and can give no other reason for their so doing while, of the thousands who weakly yield to the infatuation, how many are there who on returning can conscientiously declare that they considered the money it had cost them was well spent, and that the satisfaction they derived from the trip was such as to induce them to look forward with pleasure to the time when the treat would be repeated ?
    How is it possible, in countless cases, that such a comfortable conclusion can be arrived at? I am, of course, not speaking of people who have ample means at their disposal, and who command the most eligible lodgings in the place, with every corresponding convenience, but of the multitude, of the thousands with whom the setting aside for the purpose the sum of ten or fifteen pounds is a serious matter, and only to be accomplished by the practice of strict economy in the ordinary way, before and after. Like most forms of mental derangement, the one in question delights in showing contempt for the way of wisdom. It is rumoured that Ramsgate, Margate, or wherever it may be, is fast filling, and straightway the daily arrivals begin to increase in number. It is full, and there is scarcely a lodging to be obtained, and then the railway companies feel justified in putting on extra carriages with each train, confident that now the rush will come. It is a race for the few places that remain unlet. The first comers are tolerably well served, maybe, but what as to those who flock there afterwards? They have come, setting their minds on staying. Their luggage is at the railway station. Even if the grave question of expense did not present itself; to retreat and go elsewhere might be to make bad worse. [-50-] There is no help for it, they must push in somewhere - and they do. Such cases are not isolated. In the month of August there is not a popular watering-place in all England that could not furnish hundreds of such instances.
    It is marvellous the length to which this seaside insanity will lead a man who, when at home, is the shrewdest economist, the strictest domestic disciplinarian, the most uncompromising stickler as regards all that pertains to the proper conduct of a household, and the health thereof. His house must be built on a gravelly soil, the drainage must be faultless, the water supply as near perfection as possible. But first and foremost, he is particular as regards the sleeping arrangements. His domicile may not be an extensive one - it contains not more than ten rooms probably; but the largest, the lightest, and the best ventilated are those where, with his family, he passes the night hours. But when, for a brief season, he takes leave of his perfectly comfortable suburban abode, he at the same time takes leave of his senses as regards domestic sanitation. If, seeking a permanent dwelling near London, nothing better offered than tenements such as Barnacle Street is composed of, he would turn from them in scornful disgust, and declare that he would rather camp with his family out on a common.
    But lodgings in Barnacle Street being the best that can be obtained, he good-humouredly agrees with his wife that they must make the best of them. And bad, indeed, is the best. The furniture of the sitting-room is shabby and slovenly; the iron springs are cropping well up to the squab of the couch; it is a grim joke to call the only cushioned chair in the room an easy one, the windows are untidy, and there are proofs innumerable on the drab venetian blinds that it is the maid-of-all-work's custom to draw them up immediately after she has blackleaded the grate. The bed-rooms that complete the suite are two in number - the front and back parlours, the former accommodating a wooden bedstead with stuffy hangings; and while at home the visitor would not even tolerate the blocking up the chimney draught, here immediately over the kitchen, where cooking is going on from morning until night, it is nobody's fault, perhaps, if the apartment is warmer than from choice one would desire it to be on an August night, or that there is a strong odour of the pantry about it. The back parlour, in which the [-50-] children sleep, is smaller, and is free from the last-mentioned objections, but compensates for it by another in the shape of a well-filled dustbin just beneath the window. The house is not much larger than his own private one up in London, but the number of lodgers it is made to accommodate during the crush of the season, as it is called, is at once amazing and bewildering. He is constantly passing people whom he never saw before in the hall, and encountering strangers on the stairs, who bid him good morning with a free and easy familiarity, betokening that they have as much right there as he has. There are "families" on every floor, and the landlady has a husband and a large family of children. Where on earth do they find dormitory accommodation? 
    Hush! that is an "after dark" mystery that had better not be too closely inquired into. There are more secrets connected with lodging-house economy in Barnacle Street than those which affect the question of sleeping. It is not until after dark - long after, when the weary lodgers have retired to their bed-rooms, and left the coast clear-that pillaging commences. Materfamilias may smile at this. Thank goodness it is not in vain she has studied her manual of household management, and abroad, as well as at home, she scrupulously observes its main precepts. Confiding and simple-minded wives who accompany their husbands and children to the seaside are too apt to put temptation in the way of the lodging-house keeper, either by resigning not only the ordinary food and the groceries, but the wines and spirits, to their keeping, or by carelessly leaving in the locks of cupboards and chiffioniers the keys, that should be removed and carried away at bed-time. But, my dear madam, it does not make the slightest difference. It is the custom of lodging-house keepers of the Barnacle Street type (thank Heaven there are others more honest !) to be provided with duplicate keys for every lock on the establishment, and you might as well have the doors wide open as to lock them, for all the difference it will make as regards the raid that begins as soon as quiet reigns and every lodger is slumbering. 
    It is reprehensible, of course, but no one is much the worse for it. It is only a little that is cribbed from each cupboard, and the abstractions are so judiciously made that though, in the aggregate, they represent enough for a hearty supper for the [-51-] landlady herself and her family, with tea and sugar and butter and marmalade for breakfast next morning, the owners of the various viands would be sorry to swear to the loss of them, even though they had their suspicions. The petty larceny may not be justifiable, but excuse may be pleaded for it. In a manner of speaking, you and the rest of the lodgers turn the poor soul out of house and home. She would have been content to have kept her abode to herself; and to have applied herself; to the best of her ability, to the discharge of her wifely and motherly duties; but you come to her insisting on being accommodated with lodgings, and you tempt her with extravagant sums to put up with all manner of shifts and inconveniences, that you may take your ease. Her whole time and that of her maid is so entirely engaged in cooking for you and attending on you, that she has not a moment to spare to prepare regular meals for those who have natural claims on her. They are bundled off out of her way, out of her sight, anywhere, all day long, and what is more natural than that there should be a family reunion when the toils of the day are over, and her taskmasters are at rest? If there is anything more natural it is that she should for the family benefit make reprisal from the joints the proprietor of which has robbed her children of her care and solicitude, and condemned them to go dinnerless, except for hasty scraps bestowed on them. Nor is uncertainty of meals the only affliction they endure for the lodgers' sake. Who would begrudge them their pilfered repast, or the stiff glass of gin or brandy and water on which their parents and the maid-of-all-work regale after supper, and by way of a "nightcap," if they were made acquainted with the secrets of their uncomfortable stowage until the morning? What is the hardship of you being the poorer for the lodging- house keeper's pickings and stealings, and of you having to pay half a guinea a night for your bed, compared with that of Sarah Jane, who, elbowed out of her proper sleeping-chamber, is compelled to couch on the kitchen dresser, where she is guardian of two or three of missus's younger children, who have a "shakedown" on the pot-board beneath her, while father and mother share a mattress in the wash-house? There are common lodging-house inspectors in London whose duty it is to make unexpected nocturnal visits to the "threepenny ropes" where [-52-] overcrowding is suspected; but probably revelations quite as startling would be made if the official bull's-eye was turned on at midnight in the kitchens and underground offices of scores of seaside lodging-houses of the Barnacle Street kind.