Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - Views of Life from a Fixed Stand-Point

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I AM not a philosopher. I know nothing of logic and metaphysics, and abstract sciences and speculations; I wasn't brought up to it, or else I might, perhaps. But I see a good deal of human life and human nature, and other nature too, without being a philosopher ; and there is many a story I could tell that is well worth the telling, if I knew how to tell a story to purpose. I am an Omnibus Conductor, and the stand-point - I can't be very far wrong in calling it that, for I stand on it sixteen hours a day, and no sitting allowed - the stand-point from which I contemplate men and things is the "monkey-board," as it is called in the profession, at the tail of my bus. I consider that that's not by any means a disadvantageous position from which to regard my fellow-creatures if not a very elevated one, it is sufficiently so to exalt me above the general level, and enables me to look over the heads as well as into the faces of all that section of mankind that comes in my way. I travel through six miles of city and suburbs, and I do it, there and back again, six times a day. If there is a great sameness in leading this sort of life - doing the same journey, one way and the other, four thousand times and more a year - there is also a great variety, taking into account the times and seasons, and changes in the aspect of the weather. Seven years' experience in the position I occupy, have enabled me to make some observations upon that portion of man and womankind that rides in omnibuses; and a very respectable class they are, upon the whole, though I say it that get my living by them. But it is a class [-14-] that comprises a good many classes - an omnibus is everybody's coach-and-pair, and everybody gets into it that's tired of walking, or afraid of the wet, and has threepence or sixpence to spare but notwithstanding that it belongs to everybody, it is curious to note how regularly it is monopolised by certain people at certain hours of the day, days of the week and weeks and months of the year. Thus, the first journey to town of a morning, all the year through, winter and summer, wet or city, is the quickest journey of the whole day, because the bus carries a cargo of office-clerics, the old gentlemen inside pushing about their silver snuff-boxes and exchanging the news, and the young ones outside smoking cigars. The second journey is pretty much the same, with a mixture of masters and merchants, bankers, and so on, who are as regular as time itself; so that I see the same faces inside, and mostly sitting in the same places, about three hundred times in the course of the year, at these morning-trips.
    Now, I dare say, any one of the gentlemen that gets out every morning at ten o'clock, or thereabouts, at the Bank, or within a quarter of a mile of it, would be taken aback a little if he knew how much I know of him - though it would do him no harm for the matter of that. Only just look at one gentleman - for instance, Mr. Philpotts - and mark what I know about him, though neither he nor anybody else ever told me a word of it intentionally. Mr. Philpotts was born at Truro, in Cornwall; his father saved money in the pilchard-fishery, and articled his son to a drysalter in Thames Street, with whom he did business forty years ago. Young Philpotts turned ship-broker when he attained his majority. The old man died, and left him his money, and he lost every penny of it in unwise speculations before he was thirty ; and had to begin the world again with a wife and two daughters - and nothing else. His wife's father, who was a wealthy cotton-spinner, got him a Manchester agency, and he had to [-15-] put the screw on pretty tight to make both ends meet; he worked the screw so long that he couldn't leave off working it when there was no longer any occasion for it ; and he works it now as tight as ever - living in a two-storied cottage in a second-rate street, when he might live in a mansion, and riding in a bus when he might keep his own carriage. His two daughters are in danger of growing old maids, because he won't come down with a portion as long as he lives ; and he has kept them in seclusion until their juvenile charms are vanishing. Philpotts has more money than he knows what to do with, and is deep in every well-paying speculation of the day; he is verging on sixty, and is rather fond of good living when it costs him nothing or not much - and is as likely to live ten or fifteen years longer as not. All this I learned concerning Mr. Philpotts from the conversation of his companions, chiefly during his own absence. Now, I never wanted to learn a word of it; and it doesn't concern me a morsel, though I do feel sorry for the young ladies that ought to have been married ears ago. I could tell a tale almost equally particular with regard to nearly every one of the twelve gentlemen whom I pick up and drop down every morning, though they little think of it; and I have a notion there is not a single one of them who knows as much of the private history of either of the others as I do of the whole twelve.
    After the purposes of business are served in the morning, come those of pleasure. I have a suspicion that more people ride for play than for work, judging from the fact, that during summer and fine weather my family is always larger than it is in the wet and wintry days. Towards mid-day, the ladies begin to honour me with their company ; if the sun shines fair, they are abroad shopping in multitudes, and I am continually taking up and setting clown at the most splendid shops on my route the wives and daughters of the identical clerics, merchants, and gentlemen, who make up the [-16-] cargoes of the morning. That younger Miss Philpotts, by the way, let me say, is not an old maid yet, if I'm anything of a judge : I set her down at the new bonnet-shop yesterday afternoon, and she don't look as if she had seen seven-and-twenty yet.
    The ladies, when they are mammas, are fond of taking the children a ride in the 'bus. Sometimes I get a whole family of children ; the other night I had eleven young mothers, each with a baby in arms, and only one gentleman - twenty-three altogether, though we're only licensed to carry twelve. Summer afternoons and evenings are the children's holidays; not a week passes but I take out a dozen or two to the fields and bring them back again at sundown, loaded with butter-cups, cowslips, daisies, or Hay-blossom, which makes me feel like a nosegay all the way to the Strand. My 'bus is always pretty full as business-hours threw to a chose. There are people going out in the suburbs to spend the evening; there are mere going home to dinner, or it may be an early tea; there are people going into the City to theatre or concert - so that, travel which way I will, I mostly travel full of an evening. If I'm not full before I get so far as the railway station, I am sure to fill there, especially in excursion-times, when the train is just come in. If you was to look into my 'bus then, you wouldn't know it for the same - twelve people up to their chins in egg-baskets, boxes, carpet-bags, and packages, look so different from twelve city gentlemen, with nothing bigger than a snuff-box apiece. Poor Mr. Philpotts hailed me the other night when I was full of excursioners, and would have had to ride outside if a civil young fellow hadn't offered to turn on to the roof, to make room for him. It was odd, I thought, that after old P. had got out, and turned up the lane to his cottage. the young fellow got down and joined the younger Miss P. not a hundred yard further on - but, of course, that was no business of mine.
    [-17-] People talk, and write, too, sometimes, about the influence of the weather and the state of the atmosphere upon people's nervous systems. I don't profess to understand nervous systems myself, but I know, from pretty good experience, that wet weather is very trying to the temper, not to mention the rheumatism. It's mostly gentlemen that ride in rainy seasons ; and the few ladies that get into my 'bus, do so because they can't help themselves, and must go the distance. Politeness, I have observed, like many other things that are more for ornament than use, is very much damaged by moisture civility, which is all we conductors pretend to, is a much tougher article, and more waterproof; though it won't keep out the rain any more than the other. Pain is a wonderful damper to sociability as well as to broadcloth when the water is dropping from people's clothes, conversation drops too ; and as for a joke, it isn't always safe to venture upon one in the wet, because when folks are dripping they won't stanch roasting - which, of course, is natural enough. There's a prodigious rush sometimes of a splashy night to catch the last 'bus ; and then it is that your model-gentleman stands at one side, and lets others be accommodated before he takes thought for himself - though I've never had the pleasure of being introduced to that gentleman yet.
    It came down dismally this morning, more like a water-spout than a storm of rain. We pulled up as usual at Grinder Lane for Mr. Philpotts, but he never came. I thought it was the foul weather kept him at home. It wasn't though, as I found out before we'd gone a mile further. It's a fact that the young fellow that was so civil to him the other night, has bolted off with the younger Miss Philpotts, and married her clean out, he's a lawyer, they say, and in doing business for the father, has found out that the Misses P. have each fortunes in their own right, inherited from their mother's father, of which the old gentleman has the manage-[-18-]ment. Young Circuit has taken his choice of the two and now the thing has got wind, it is thought the other will go by hook or by crook, in spite of all the unwilling father can do to prevent it - and very proper too. I shall look out for the old gentleman when he has got over the surprise, and see how he bears it.