Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - The Fortunate Shop

[... back to menu for this book]

[-19-]

THE FORTUNATE SHOP

MANY years ago - it must be more than forty by this time - there stood, at the corner of a lane in the heart of the city of London, a dim, dusty-looking house of some thirty feet frontage, upon which the sun rarely shone save for a few hours in the afternoon, and which you might pass a hundred times, so unpretentious was its aspect, without noticing its existence. It had two windows, with a broad space of brown brick wall between them, on the ground-floor ; and when the scaled and blistered shutters, which were once green, were thrown open, as they were every morning about eight o'clock, you might have seen an elderly maiden personage sitting at the smaller one behind a white muslin blind, hemming the frill of a cap, stitching the wristband of a shirt, or darning woollen hose. At the other and larger window the blind was of green gauze, very faded and worn and did not half conceal the figure of a lean invalid-looking man, of about fifty, who stood behind a sort of counter covered with padded felt, polishing now a silver salver now a soup-tureen of the same metal, by the friction of his bare palm. Sometimes two or three pale lads wrought with him at the same silent labour ; and if you had entered at the private door - whose knocker was half confined with a staple driven into the panel to prevent your alarming the nerves of the proprietor by indulging in a thundering rap - and had ascended to the floor above, you might have found a party of young girls, preparing with their soft hands more work of the same kind for the finishing-touches of the master. The [-20-] lane in which the house of the plate-polisher stood had been once a solitary cul-de-sac, leading to nowhere, and compelling all explorers after a north-west passage to retrace their steps; but a few years before the time of which we speak, the pulling down of some old houses at the end of it had converted the cul-de-sac into a "short cut'' and much-used thoroughfare between two or more of the most busy and populous haunts of commerce. In consequence, the lane began to assume an appearance of more liveliness and importance ; there was scrubbing and washing, and painting of fronts, pointing of bricks, enlarging of front-windows, and the conversion of dingy front-parlours and neglected warehouses into sprightly-looking shops. But the plate-polisher made no alteration - did not even renew the old green blind, pumice-stone his blistered shutters, or bestow a little of his craft on the rusty knocker of his door. Rusty as it was, however, Death did not disdain to lift it with his skeleton fingers ; he sounded his summons in the middle of the night, and the next morning the shutters were not thrown open, but the blinds of the upper windows were drawn down, and there was no more "plate-polishing done here" from that day forth. For a few weeks the old maiden-lady, shrouded in bombazine and crape, might be seen occasionally flitting about the premises, and then she vanished from the neighbourhood.
    She was no sooner gone, than up rose a hoarding of lofty planks in front of the old house, begirt with a planked foot-way for passengers, and, in less time than you could imagine, stuck all over with posters of lottery-bills in all the colours of the rainbow, and with announcements of a hundred different kinds, laid on so thick, that you might as well think of bolting through a millstone as of obtaining by a furtive peep any hint of what was going on within. However, the lane didn't care much about it, and manifested no remarkable curiosity. Old gentlemen, who dropped into the little tavern three [-21-] doors off, in the morning, to discuss the current-prices and the gooseberry-brandy, tiffed at the hoarding, as it brought them up suddenly; and hasty messengers, availing themselves of the short-cut, found it all the longer for the temporary obstruction. But the hoarding flew off one Saturday night, and displayed to the Sunday gazers a handsome set of new shutters, surmounted by a Corinthian cornice, and a new private door, splendid in imitative walnut and shining varnish. When the shutters came down on Monday morning, they disclosed a handsome mahogany sash, the two lower rows of panes guarded by a stout trellis-work of brass-wire, resting upon a single plate of brass, inscribed in the centre with the name of the new proprietor, John Cambit.  Behind the wire-work and the glass, lay scattered in careless profusion, as though Cambit didn't value it a straw, an absolute mine of wealth. There were big-bodied wooden bowls, positively split at the sides with the weight of old English guineas, every one of which was worth seven-and-twenty shillings apiece - there were louis-d'ors, just as plentiful, from France - bulging piles of yellow ducats from Spain - bursting bags of rupees from India - and huge bars and solid ingots of the precious gold heaped in pyramids, ready for the Mint. As for silver, it lay in masses, like so much rubbish, beneath the golden store, and seemed to invite the shovel of the scavenger to clear it away. Then, scattered like scraps of waste-paper over all, were the notes of all nations, promises to pay, scrip, coupons, bonds and securities, and everything in the shape of a marketable pledge for untold sums and fabulous amounts of wealth. Cambit meant business - that was plain ; and he did business too ; for the new shop became a sort of shrine for the luckier tribes of Israel, who were continually going in and out, and for travellers, besides, from all parts of Europe. How long Cambit dwelt in the lane, we don't exactly recollect but we found him unexpectedly one morning promoted to Lombard Street: [-22-] and on passing the old shop in the afternoon, beheld the identical boards upon which his masses of bullion had reposed occupied by a dozen or so of wig blocks, all in a row.
    These were days, be it remembered, when wigs were wigs, and no trifles ; and when Finnigan bought Cambit's lease and went into the lane in the wig line, he knew what he was about. If gentlemen of substance in those days succumbed to Time, they had too much pluck to allow the bald-pated old mower to be conscious of his triumph. As for parading his victory and their own defeat in the shape of a bunch of grey whiskers on each side of the face, the generality of them would as soon have thought of suicide. As yet, whiskers were not - and the trade of the barber was anything but the mere pretence it is now. The whole face was shaven clean as wax-work every morning, and the unborn beard cropped out of existence before it could betray its colour, whether red, white, or blue. Heads scant of hair mounted a scalp cunningly devised to match the natural hue ;  heads totally bald went into wigs and not a few of the heads, maturely and prematurely grizzled or grey, did the same.  Full-bottoms were out, except for official purposes but Brutuses were in, and a decent Brutus cost five guineas, and considered cheap at that and if you were extravagant enough, you might go as high as ten or fifteen guineas- Finnigan often had fifteen guineas. His chefrs-d'oeuvre were real masterpieces, and, as he was wont to declare, far more natural than the real hair. To look at them, you would rather have thought that the wearer's head did not belong to his shoulders than that the wig did not belong to the head. Finnigan was a scientific man, auth not only had his wigs woven under his own eye, but grew his own hair. He had a talpa-farm in Brittany, where a whole district of Celtic damsels were under his sway, and bound down not to part with a single lock or ringlet to any one but him. Every autumn he crossed the Channel in person, gathered his crop, [-23-] and brought it home in readiness for winter orders. He never troubled himself with the operative tonsorial department, or the supplementary trade of combs, brushes, perfumery, and cutlery. All that he left to his foreman and assistants, concentrating tile whole force of his superior mind upon the wigs and their welfare. Of course he made a fortune. It was not in the nature of things that, with his genius, he should do otherwise. He retired rather suddenly, disgusted with the too coarse innovation of horse-tails upon the magisterial head, and built himself a neat villa at Wighampton, where he spent the remainder of his days peacefully.
    The world is full of contrasts. The next tenant of the Fortunate Shop was the very antithesis of Finnigan, and was no other than little Pounce, the notary and law-stationer, who had an utter contempt for wigs, and wore his own head as bald as one of Finnigan's own blocks. Polished and shining, his little round pate was seen, on a gloomy day, glimmering in the darkness of the shop like the red round moon in the fog of a November night. He filled his window with bodkins, spikes, and circular prickers ; with bundles of red-tape and sealing-wax, and round and flat rulers ; with ink stands, and pencils, and Indian-rubber, and bundles of cut quill-pens, with their noses baptised in ink ; with bottles of Walkdens best Japan and Scot's blue ; with reams of copy-paper and rolls of vellum ; and huge sheets of parchiment, with This Indenture and a blue stamp at the upper left-hand corner. Instead of a blind, he hung whole fathoms of engrossed vellum across a brass rod, and there he sat at a desk behind them, ploughing away with his pen, and spelling every word, as he wrote it, with his lips, so plainly that one might almost read from his grimaces as easy as from his writing when he did write, that is to say, which was not oftener than he could help, and only when all his clerks were fully engaged. Pounce came into the world to rub his hands, and he never [-24-]  seemed to do anything else with such thorough goodwill and energy. He must have used whole tons of Hood's "invisible soap,'' and oceans of "imperceptible water;" for he rubbed from morning to night the moment his fingers quitted their grasp of anything. He rubbed when he was taking an order, or giving directions for its execution ; he rubbed while waiting for his dinner at the chop-house, and laid down his knife and fork to rub a dozen times during its consumption ; he rubbed half the time he was serving a customer, and all the time that there were no customers to serve, and nothing else to occupy his hands. Of course he rubbed on, and got on, as his predecessors had done in the Fortunate Shop. When he went away, it was into larger premises, fitted to accommodate a larger staff, and situated somewhat nearer 'Change.
    After Pounce came Pungent, the pickle-dealer, who blocked up the window with bottles and jars, and preserve-pots and neats' tongues and thick salmon, and a shoal of other savoury and relishing etceteras ; and covered the floor with tubs and barrels and kegs, and amphorae and did a wonderful trade among the diners and givers of dinners, and lovers of good eating, with which the city abounds. Then he made the grand discovery of a new fish-sauce, and blazoned it abroad, even to the ends of the earth and had to enlarge his premises by buying out the newsman  next door, and throwing both houses into one, to make room for his increasing trade. Over all the wide world flew the renowned Pungent Sauce - to India, to China, to Valparaiso, to the furthest skirts of civilisation, and beyond ; and brought gold in heaps to Pungent's pocket. And ever the demand increased as the hunger of the nations grew with that it fed on; till Pungent, out of sheer compassion to the human race in general, and to aristocratic eaters in particular, had to turn out of the narrow lane into a grand establishment further west, and consummate his destiny by devoting himself solely  [-25-] to the satisfaction of the universal clamour for the immortal sauce.
    Who it was that first occupied the shop after Pungent had departed, we cannot state with certainty. We think it was a jeweller, who, to the usual traffic in the emblems of modern vanity, added a commerce in old coins, old cameos, intaglios, statuettes in precious metal, and everything curious and diminutive in the world of ancient art. Besides him, we recollect a fruiterer, who made a magnificent display of melons and pine-apples, and hot-house grapes at a crown a pound, and all the horticultural delicacies of the season, collected from the home or foreign nurseries. He was a bold speculative fellow, who didn't care what price he paid for the best articles he knew his market, and kept such an astounding show of luxuries ever on hand as put Covent Garden to the blush. He found the lane a short-cut to the Mansion House, and soon had to furnish the desserts at all the civic feasts - sending in bills of three figures after a single banquet. He was Alderman Somebody when he retired to his seat in Surrey ; and very likely was Lord Mayor Somebody as well, when his turn came.
    We need not charge ourselves with the narrative of the career of every man who had the good-luck to get into the Fortunate Shop, and find it a short-cut, as they all did, to prosperity and competence ; but must hasten on to the climax of its history, which is not far off.
    At the end of the lane, where he had lived ever since it had been converted from a cul-de-sac to a thoroughfare, dwelt Mr. Christopher Cinnamon, who got his living, and brought up a family of five respectably, by exercising the trade of a grocer. Kit, who was a sleek, quiet, observant fellow, had long had his eye on the Fortunate Shop, and more than once had made an unsuccessful bid for the lease, whose expiry was yet far off, and which was renewable, at the option of the tenant, for twenty-one years. About nine [-26-] years ago, however, having compassed a little money by a prudent speculation in nutmegs, he astonished the whole lane by outbidding all competitors, and purchasing the lease at a price which set them a speculating on the man's sanity. Kit said nothing in reply to the innuendoes thrown out in his bearing, but smiled quietly, and moved into the house, without making any fuss about it. The result justified his conduct ; his business and his profits doubled within six months, and quadrupled within the year. He removed his family to a country-house, and came every morning early to town to look after his shop, which promised to maintain its old character, and realise a fortune for them all, with due care in its management, by the time the lease had expired.
    But Kit was not destined to wait for that. One morning, as he was sitting in his counting-house scanning the Price-current for the day, he received a visit from one of the corporation solicitors. That gentleman opened his business at once by demanding, in the name of the corporation, what amount Mr. Cinnamon would be disposed to accept for the surrender of his lease. One might have supposed that Kit would have been taken aback by such a demand ; on the contrary, he received it with remarkable equanimity - merely smiled his customary smile, bowed his customary bow, and replied that he had no intention of parting with his lease on any terms. The lawyer returned to the charge, but with no effect; and finally, after a little jocular skirmishing, withdrew. A day or two after, he came again, and renewed the discussion. Kit was immovable as ever - nothing should induce him to turn out, "But it must be done,'' said the lawyer. " We are going to pull down the opposite row of houses, rebuild your side in grand style, and run the street half a mile westward.'' "So I hear,'' said Kit; "but I do not give up my lease for all that. I shall not stand in the way of improvement. Pull down, and rebuild in any style you like ; but provide me a place to carry on my [-27-] business the while, and give me the occupancy of the new house when it is finished until my term - which, of course, I shall renew according to the covenants - is expired.'' There was no help for it. Kit would admit of no other conclusion and as the improvements had to be carried out at once, the authorities were obliged to arrange affairs according to his wishes.
    So Kit moved out into capital premises an an adjoining street, while the old buildings vanished in a cloud of dust that hung over the neighbourhood for a twelvemonth, and the new ones rose in lofty magnificence upon their site. When Kit saw his old corner-shop - lately buried in a lane not a dozen feet wide - standing seventy feet high, with a huge semicircular fa?ade, superb in pillars, pilasters, and carved cornices, fronting one of the most imposing approaches to the very centre of the city, he hardly knew what to make of it. The house, he saw, would be roomy enough to domicile a small colony, and thought it would make a stupendous grocer's shop ; and he longed, with a natural instinct, to be fitting it out in a style to eclipse the whole trade; yet he began to ponder on the propriety of so doing, taking all circumstances into consideration. It was not long before some aids to reflection came to him in the shape of overtures from a house-agent with whom he had a gossipping acquaintance, who offered him an annuity of ?500 a year during the term of his lease, relieving him at the same time of the old rent-charge. Kit was in no hurry. It would be some months yet before the new house was habitable, and he would take time to make up his mind. The house-agent came again, and increased his bid - came a third time, and doubled it: all to no purpose. Other competitors now stepped in ; among the rest, a banking-firm offered at first ?1000, then ?2000 a year for the house, paying, besides, the old rent. Kit, who had been wide awake all the time, became wider awake than ever. He was determined to give the com-[-28-]petitors as much line as they would run out - and they ran out a pretty considerable length. The upshot of it was, after a furious and protracted struggle between various associated bodies and private speculators, that Mr. Cinnamon retained the lease of the house in his own hands, letting the several floors to tenants of his own choice : the ground-floor  for ?1500 a year to an assurance company; the first-floor to another public company, for the same sum ; and the rest of the house in smaller holdings, for a variable but considerable sums besides.
    Christopher Cinnamon, Esquire, is no longer a grocer. The Fortunate Shop has landed him also on a propitious shore. He has disposed of his business to a man of capital for a swinging sum, and has retired to the groves of Norwood, where he cultivates his own cabbages for his amusement, and the society of a select circle of genteel people for his edification.
    Whether the Fortunate Shop will continue to maintain its character, and indemnify the assurance company who have had the assurance to pay so high a price for its countenance - and that other company who have been equally liberal - is more than we can say. For the sake of consistency, it ought to do so ; and for the sake of share-holders and assurers, who are on the look-out for dividends, bonuses, and that sort of thing, we most cordially hope it will.

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