Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - A First Word - Amusements of the Moneyless

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A FIRST WORD

THE following pictures of the varied phases of London life are presented to the public, not as finished performances challenging a critical judgment, but rather as selections from the random sketches of an observer accustomed to explore the metropolis occasionally with an eye to the picturesque either in costume or character. The several subjects have been delineated from different points of view, as suited the convenience or the whim of the writer, and the purposes of the different popular journals in which they originally appeared. Some of them are in the narrative form, and of those the framework has been necessarily fictitious; but they all embody such truths and facts of our metropolitan life as lie open to the discovery of any man who may choose to push inquiry and remark in the direction traced out by the author.
    In making this selection from some hundreds of a similar description printed within the last few years, I have been guided by the wish to amuse and interest the reader, while presenting to his consideration some materials for thought not discernible at all times [-vi-] through the conventionalisms of a society so artificial as ours. The surface-view and the undercurrent of London life are the light and shade of the pictures here rudely sketched out; both are well worthy of attentive regard, and both offer a wide field for not unprofitable speculation ; but in this case, as in most others, that which coyly shrinks from the light of day and the prying eye of the investigator, best rewards the trouble of the search.
    The metropolis of Britain, and of the world, is a literary mine, which a round number of workers with head and hand have been long quarrying out to the public advantage, and, it is to be hoped, to their own. I have had my share in the labour, and have no cause to be dissatisfied with the reward: if the public had not looked approvingly upon a former series of sketches not very dissimilar to these, I should not have presumed upon a second venture. With a grateful recollection of past favours I may be allowed to commend the present volume to their good natured sympathies.

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THE

LITTLE WORLD OF LONDON.

 AMUSEMENTS OF THE MONEYLESS.

A LIST of the amusements and recreations of London, were it only those of a single season, would be a catalogue comprising everything which the talent, the enterprise, and the ingenuity of men have accomplished for the gratification of their fellows' curiosity - their love of the beautiful, their sense of humour, their literary and artistic predilections, and their peculiar tastes, whether refined by cultivation on the one hand, or coarse and demoralising on the other. Fancies and hobbyhorses the oddest, the most grotesque and whimsical, have their enthusiastic patrons anti votaries in this all-embracing metropolis. We might run down the scale from a morning concert at Hanover Square, admission one guinea, to a midnight dog-show, or a duel of rats at Whitechapel, entrance twopence, including a. ticket for beer and, in the course of the descent, we should light upon whole classes of exhibitions which one half the world would as carefully avoid, as the other half would eagerly seek out. But such a. catalogue, comprehensive as it would be, would embrace very few indeed of the gratuitous entertainments with which the masses of London are amused. The number of those who cannot afford to pay for recreation is probably, quite as large as those who can. To them it matters nothing that the theatres, [-2 -] the music-halls, the casinos, the gala-gardens. the panoramas, or the free-and-easys, the  public-houses, and the gin -shops, stand perpetually open. They have no money to expend for purposes of amusement, and must be recreated gratis, if recreated at all. Confessedly, the amusements provided for the populace are too few - that item appears to have been entirely left out of the calculations of the authorities, who have not condescended to recognise a claim that way for many generations. The old athletic sports have long vanished, from want of space to practise them upon and the only relic of anything of that kind, are the games of the London street-boys - games played on so puny a scale, and in such feminine sort, as to excite the derision of the country youth, accustomed to "ample room and verge enough" for something like manly exercise. If the city boy contracts, as he frequently does, a sporting taste, he spends his leisure in catching fish, twenty-five to the pound, in the New River or, borrowing an old gun, in shooting at sparrows in the brick-fields. But, says the baud of Rydal Mount-
    "pleasure s spread through the earth-
    In stray gifts, to be claimed by whoever shall find;''
and amusement is spread through the metropolis in the same way; and so it is that the needy Londoner has a share in recreations and enjoyments of which his brother rustic knows nothing. Let us glance at a few of these stray gifts, and note how they are relished.
    It is a fine spring morning, the wintry frosts have all vanished, and a dry March wind is blowing into the face of an early April day. There is a review of one or two regiments to come off at ten o'clock in Hyde Park. The music of the various bands, marching from the Horse Guards and the neighbouring barracks, has drawn after them a prodigious tail of idlers and supernumeraries from countless courts and lanes within earshot and by the time the several regiments [-3-] have appeared upon the ground, they are surrounded, at a respectful distance, by forty or fifty thousand spectators, the majority of whom, it may be, will dine on that military spectacle, but who are none the less heroes and patriots for that. The soldiers go through their exercise; they form in close column, and march to the attack, banners flying and trumpets sounding ; they break into line, and deploy in separate ranks ; they fix bayonets, and rush to the charge; they unite in a solid square, front-rank kneeling, and, amidst the glitter of steel and the whiz and clink of ramrods, pour forth a running-fire, which never ceases for full twenty minutes. Look now, while this is going on, into the faces of the penniless lads who have rushed to this gratuitous entertainment - mark the parted lips, the flashing eye, the clenched hand, and rigidly erect gait of yon tattered vagabond, and ask yourself the question, whether any scene of mimic action before the footlights would yield him half the excitement of this warlike exhibition which he gets for nothing, and in consequence of which, in company with a band of his fellows, he may be found, with a cockade in his rimless hat, in the rear of the recruiting-sergeant before he is a day older.
    Again it is mid-day, and the muddy highway of the Thames is chequered with the shadows of a whole forest of masts and yards - shadows perpetually broken into shivers by the rapid passage of innumerable craft up and down the stream. The surface of the river swarms with life, for unemployed London is rushing to-day towards the docks at Woolwich, where a war-steamer is to be launched; she is pierced for 120 guns, and "Won't she give the Rooshins pepper?" is the note of admiration sung in her praise. Everything floating around her is covered with heads, while the shores are lined with a motley multitude, who, paying nothing for the spectacle, as the enormous mass swoops down into the flood, rend the skies with such a shout as neither [-4-] Middlesex nor Surrey will hear again till the dockyards of Woolwich add another man-of-war to the fleet.
    Or, it is the afternoon of the 1st of August, and now the grand rowing-match of the year comes off, when the "jolly young watermen" compete for the prize of Doggett's coat and silver badge. All the bridges that cross the course are crammed with eager spectators, and every point of vantage on either bank is similarly blocked up with human heads - this being a species of combat in which the river-side denizens of London especially delight. At regular intervals, cannon-shots re-echo from the shores, while stentorian voices are sounding along the water, warning penny-steamers and trespassing barges to leave the course clear. When at length the racers, surrounded by a swarm of wherries that dart out from every nook to join in the fun, and followed by the inch of all sorts as long as a comets tail, make their appearance, and shoot rapidly past, not one in a hundred of the straining eyes above and around can discern which are the competitors, among the shoal of boats that rushes by. That is of no consequence, however; the race is run, and the prize is won - and they have seen the sport - if Charley Jones isn't the winner, then somebody else is, and it will all come out by means of the newspapers to-morrow.
    The awkward fact, that a poor fellow has not a penny to spare, does not necessarily prove that he has no dramatic tastes and likings ; and it happens, too, that having them, the want of money is not always an absolute bar to their gratification. Penniless Jack contrives to see the great tragedian, when there is one, or the star of the season, in spite of his empty purse. If  you condescend to go to the gallery for an hour or two's amusement, and come away when you have had enough of it, or your time is up while yet half the performance is to come, you will find Jack at the door civilly inquiring if you intend to return. If you reply in the negative, he will beg your check; and without [-5-] waiting to split hairs on the morality of such a proceeding, will make use of it himself, and enjoy the after-piece as much as though he had disbursed a day's earnings for the privilege. Sometimes Jack has a penchant for studying great men, and you catch him in the Court of Chancery, conning the horse-hair wigs and the learned faces under them with evident symptoms of satisfaction; or he wanders from court to court, making acquaintance with the judges and the lord-mayor. But his best opportunity is at the entrance to the House of Commons, in Westminster and there you are pretty sure to meet with him, standing in the rank of lookers-on, whenever the House is sitting and watching the members as they go in. He knows Disraeli, Bulwer, and Lord John, Cobden and Bright, and all the great guns, as well as they know each other ; and before now, at an early break-up, has had the honour of calling a cab for a member of the cabinet. Of course, Jack knows the Queen and the Prince-Consort; he has hoorayed too often at Her Majesty's state-carriage, on her progress to open or close the parliament, to be ignorant on that score. If Penniless Jack does not know all the aristocracy by name, it is not so much from want of observation, as from limited means of information, and the perplexity of the study. Having nothing particular to do, unfortunately, at any particular spot, he is often found leaning pensively over the railings outside the ring in Hyde Park. Here he sees the whole aristocracy of the realm during the hour which fashion sets apart for exercise, defiling grandly before his eyes the dowagers and duchesses in their handsome equipages - the lords and dukes in barouche and brougham, or mounted on high-mettled steeds - fair ladies and faithful squires centering and careering along Rotten Row - and the whole imposing assemblage of England's nobility drawn out for his special amusement. What are his cogitations upon the scene we do not pretend to know, though we suspect they [-6-] are not wholly free from the myths and romance of the imaginative school.
    The street-spectacles of the metropolis, however remunerative they may be to their projectors, yet supply gratuitous entertainment to the mass of the spectators, inasmuch as not a tithe of those who look on contribute to the recompense of the performers. In some tranquil cul-de-sac of a street, perhaps abutting on the river, or ending in some wilderness of building-ground, one comes occasionally upon a wandering company of acrobats, conjurors, or jugglers, or all three united. They are dressed from head to foot in a light-fitting cotton suit, displaying their perfect symmetry of form they may be five or six in company, but there is no fool or clown, no nonsense, as they would say, about them. They mean business; such the stolid, matter-of-fact expression of their faces says that plainly. One of them bangs a big drum and blows a few inspiriting notes on the Pandean pipes, which is the signal for a general rush to that quarter from all the outlets of the neighbourhood. As the crowd gathers, the musician deposits his big drum on the ground, and as master of the ceremonies begins arranging the company in a grand circle. This he accomplishes by means of a wooden cannon-ball, attached to a string a couple of yards in length, which he flourishes vigorously around him on all sides, compelling all who have any regard for their shoulders or shins to keep at a respectful distance if the spectators are few, he is content with a small area; but as the crowd increases, he enlarges the circle with despotic impartiality, so that all may have a fair view. Meanwhile, a patch of old carpeting is spread in the centre of the circle, and the first performer steps upon it casting a tragic glance around, he immediately begins tying himself up in an inextricable knot, till he presents the figure of a compact ball rolling about under the impetus of the director's foot then a sudden transformation is effected - the performer's heels are clasped together behind [-7-] his neck his hands, thrust beneath his hams, represent the claws of a fowl; and upon his outspread fingers he hops about in the character of that "strornary bird what was cotched in China." A burst of laughter acknowledges the merit of this exhibition, and a few stray coins begin to drop on the carpet. Now another professor seats himself on the ground, and begins whirling round his head a whole galaxy of golden balls ; in a moment the balls drop into a box, and their place is supplied by a constellation of bowie-knives, gleaming, flashing, and shimmering in the sun, and the handle of each dropping momentarily into the man's hand, whence it whirls aloft to repeat its circular flight. This handy fellow finishes his display by a game at cup-and-ball, played in an ominous fashion:- tying a small cup round his temples, and inserting a. thick padding between that and his skull, he seizes a golden ball twice as big as your fist, and hurls it aloft in the air far above the chimneys, till it diminishes to a speck ;- as it comes clown with a momentum that threatens to smash it to shivers, he pops his bold brow beneath and receives it in the cup; had it missed the mark, you feel assured it would have crashed through the fellow's occiput. This feat brings another dribble of coppers, and the third performer now steps out. He flourishes an old silk handkerchief, holding it at one corner, and drawing it through his left hand, fast clenched, a dozen times in a minute. "What will you have, ladies each gentlemen?" he asks. "Did you say eggs?"- and incontinently the passage of the handkerchief through his clenched hand is stopped by three or four egg's in succession, which are carefully taken out and laid on the drum. " Did you say a pint pot?"- and immediately the silk, which an instant before was waving loose in the air is seen to contain a pewter pot, which also is taken out and laid with the eggs. "Did you say rabbit-pie?" - and the next moment a live rabbit is struggling in the folds of the handkerchief, and has to be let loose. " Did you say some-[-8-] thing to drink, sir? Certainly, sir. Here, you little boy with the speckled face - come here, sir. Hold that funnel to your chin, sir.'' Then seizing an ale-glass, the wizard works the boys elbow as though it were the handle of a pump, draws off a glass of ale from the spout of the funnel, and drinks it to the health of the company. When the wizard has finished his marvels, there follows a gymnastic display of the whole company united, remarkable chiefly for feats of agility and strength, which we need not describe, and generally closing with a grand pyramid, in which three men support two on their shoulders, and the two support another, all standing erect; sometimes the pyramid cant be done for want of bands and then it is a pillar of three men, the second climbing to the shoulders of the first, and the third to those of the second. The whole performance is over in half an hour; and if one in a dozen of the spectators pay it copper for the spectacle, the troop is not ill remunerated, as it will get a small sprinkling of silver besides in the course of the day.
    But instead of acrobats and conjurors, we may chance to light, in a similar spot, upon a curious fellow who, with a taste for natural history, has devoted all his time and energies to the education of birds and annuals. He has a platform upon wheels, flanked with a large cage in compartments, the residence of his performing pupils. There is a tight rope stretched upon the platform, upon which a canary has been taught to dance, and does dance too, gracefully, whistling the while. There is a pistol lying on the board, which a lop-eared rabbit has been taught to fire; and there is a bullfinch trained to sham dead, and lie motionless on its back at the moment of the discharge. There is a mouse which gallops a guinea-pig round the circus, and we know not what besides - except that there is a flea harnessed to a brass cannon on wheels, which it actually drags along - though this last curiosity is not a gratuitous exhibition, being only shown to those who pay their penny.
    [-9-] Or, the street-exhibition shall be a gladiator rat, champion of all England, ready at any moment to fight any rat that ever wore a tail. The champion rat lives in his master's bosom, and is produced whenever the challenge is accepted, and invariably "kills his man." This is rather a secret than a public exhibition, and takes place in by-corners and out-of-the-way localities ; but it is sure to be attended by a swarm of idlers, take place where it may. Or, it may be Punch and Judy, which is all the world's drama, and which all the world stops to laugh at. Or, it may be that nocturnal comedy played on the Punch-and-Judy stage, and by the same proprietor, in which the shadows of the performing figures are projected on a transparent curtain, and in which an unfortunate cobbler, suspected by a too jealous wife of an intrigue with a customer, undergoes all sorts of domestic miseries and mishaps, to the uproarious amusement of the audience. Or, it may be a chorus of ballad-singers and patterers, bawling the last new political ballad, with interlocutory explanations  - or a lament for the Crimean army - or a dirge for Nicholas, from which we learn that the czar lies "buried in a hole in famed Sebastypol.'' A hundred other things might be mentioned, and a hundred more to that, which the idler in search of amusement in London may participate in, if he choose, without being called upon to pay.
    But, after all, the grand source of gratuitous entertainment in London is the shop-windows and the shops. Here lies the veritable Great Exhibition, which is perpetually open to all comers, and of which nobody ever tires. It is an awful blunder to suppose that those only profit by the display in shop-windows who are in a position to purchase. Every shop-front is an open volume, which even he that runs may reach, while he that stands still may study it, and gather -- wisdom at the cheapest source, which may be useful for a whole life. To the moneyless million, the shops of London are what the university is to the collegian they teach them [-10-] all knowledge; they are history, geography, astronomy, chemistry, photography, numismatics, dynamics, mechanics - in a word, they are science in all its practical developments - and, glorious addition, they are art in all its latest and noblest achievements. While to one class of observers they are a source of inexhaustible amusement, to another they are a source equally inexhaustible of instruction. Therefore it is that the mechanic and artisan, out of work and out of money, wanders along the interminable miles of shop-fronts, peering here, puzzling there, guessing in this place, solving in that, some one or other of the mechanical problems presented to his view. A common thing with men and lads thus circumstanced, is to sally forth in groups, to dissipate the weary hours of enforced idleness by gazing in at the shop-windows, and speculating upon this or that unknown material or contrivance ; and guessing or, if practicable, inquiring into the circumstances of its produce or construction. A well-known source of gratis recreation to the unemployed is what is called "a picture-fuddle," when a party of idle hands will hunt up all the print-shops and picture-shops of a whole district, and spend perhaps the whole day in the contemplation of this gratuitous gallery, which, having the charm of novelty, recommends itself to them more than the the rooms of the National Collection or the long chambers of the British Museum. Others may prefer a book-fuddle, and these roam from stall to stall in the second-hand book-districts, beguiling the time by a chapter from a dog's-eared "Pickwick," or a brown-study over the columns of an old Mechanic's Magazine. There is no end to the entertainment derivable in tolerable weather from shop-stalls and shop-windows and it is our notion that he need be a clever fellow, indeed, who would undertake to specify in set terms the influence they have had in forming the mind, character, and habits of our city populations.
    But once a week comes Sunday, when the shops are shut [-11-] up and with the Sunday comes another phase of gratuitous recreation, not altogether pleasant to contemplate. People without money are not, as we all know, overmuch given to attending church and chapel. Unfortunately they find no recreation in that quarter, and they seek it elsewhere. If the weather be fine, the dark and squalid slums of the City vomit forth myriads of them into the fields and suburbs. For these there is a class of missionaries deputed to meet them in their favourite haunts, and collect them, if possible, within the sound of Wisdom's voice and the words of instruction; but the missionaries are met on this neutral ground by propagandists of another kind - by Netheists, Theists, Setheists, and Pantheists - by Reasoners and Secularists - by Southcotites and Mormonites ; and from this it has followed, that some of the suburban parks and Commons have become the scene of a species of amusement not always edifying, arising out of the discussions and disputes consequent upon the clashing of theological elements of so opposite a description. In winter, the ice, and not the fields and commons, is the resort of this numerous class ; and there, in company with their superiors in the social scale, you shall find from thirty to three hundred thousand in the course of the day, enjoying a gratification all the more welcome that it is flavoured with the probability of peril.
    There are shadows in the motley picture of gratuitous amusements in London, upon which we are not disposed to dwell. We have said nothing of the degraded and morbid taste which urges masses of the populace to be present at miserable, cruel, and harrowing spectacles - which drives crowds to the criminal courts, when wife-beaters and murderers are on their trial - which sets them yelling, like mongrel curs, on the trail of an unpopular candidate for public favour - which sends multitudes tramping over the swamps of Surrey, after the steam-boat laden with a couple of prize-fighters and their backers, bound for the borders of Kent, which they [-12-] must reach ere they can try conclusions - which drives a tenfold greater multitude to all the avenues leading to the scaffold, long before the hour of an execution draws near, and goads them, in the presence of a murderous and disgusting ceremony, to the display of loathsome wit and brutal jocularity. We must leave these things to time and a better clay ; we would ignore them if possible, and shut them from the light.
    We can pretend to have afforded the reader no more than a glance at the many-sided subject we have taken up. We have passed over unnoticed many things which we are perfectly aware are equally entitled to remark with those we have selected ; but we are not the wizard described above, and cannot cram into the limits of an article more than it will hold. We have shown, in some rude sort, how penniless London may be amused by the spectacle of London itself. That it is so amused, is a fact beyond question. The close association of large masses of mankind as certainly gives rise to the elements of mirth and entertainment as it does to those of misery and necessity that the former are sometimes born of the latter, a philosopher might tell us, is no valid bar to their acceptance ; and, in truth, it never is a bar to those who are in search of gratuitous enjoyment ; they are the last persons upon earth to look the gift-horse in the mouth, and maunder over his teeth. We may do well to learn a lesson even from Penniless Jack, though it is possible we may not sympathise in the vagabond recreations he snatches for nothing. But, sings the poet already quoted ,
       "They dance not for me,
        Yet mine is their glee;" 
and in the same spirit, though we may decline Jack's pleasures, we may make a pleasure out of Jack, and be all the wiser and better for the manufacture.

source: Charles Manby Smith, The Little World of London, 1857