Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - A Calm in the City

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A CALM IN THE CITY.

WHEN, far away from the banks of the Thames, the recollection of London comes across the mind, it comes like the vision of a whirling vortex - a confused maelstrom of heady life and activity, to plunge into which is to be borne along in an irresistible current, to be dinned with noise and tumult and to be chafed with excitement and anxiety, until cast up again upon some quiet shore. And this vision is no exaggeration, but just the simple fact. London is a vortex, into which everybody and everything that comes near is drawn, and kept whirling round a common centre, from one weeks end to another. But when the week is over, and the Sabbath-morning bells ring in the Day of Rest, then comes a remarkable change - a contrast so marked as probably no other spot on earth exhibits. Whatever may be the case in some parts of the vast area of the metropolis, in the old city district, which is under the immediate jurisdiction of the corporation, Commerce, folding herself to sleep with the last breath of Saturday, moves not a limb till Monday morning dawns, and for four-and-twenty hours upon this usually turbid sea of conflict there is a dead calm.
    It is drawing towards eleven, on a summer Sunday morning, as we find ourselves crossing the area in front of the Exchange, bound for a lonely ramble among the solitudes. As we traverse Cornhill, there is but a single figure in view, and that is the policeman, whose footfall, echoed from the opposite side of the way, is the only sound, until it is broken by the rattle of the wheels of a distant omnibus, which [-30-] reverberates with unwonted distinctness from the lofty walls around us, and then dies away. We turn clown a court in which the clear song of a blackbird, perched somewhere above in his lone cage, echoes among the chimney-tops. No sign of life greets us in the court, which opens into another, where also silence and sunshine reign together. The court debouches into Lombard Street - "a shore where all is dumb.'' We read on signs aloft of "coupons" and "rates of exchange;" but there is not a chink of coin, not a blink from a single half-opened shutter among all the banks, whose wealth might purchase a kingdom. Alone and thoughtful, we proceed along the street - the spectacle of carved stone-cherubs and deaths-heads - of battered foliage and mingled cross-bones, upon the lintels of a narrow entrance, beguiles us into exploring it; and we find ourselves, after a few steps, standing in front of Allhallows Church - a church literally jammed against the walls of surrounding houses, and all but hermetically closed from the air of heaven. While we are speculating on the probability of finding a congregation in a neighbourhood apparently deserted, we hear the voice of the minister reading the lesson of the day, and, softly opening the door wide enough for a scrutiny, perceive that the congregation consists of four figures in bonnets, who alone occupy the body of the church. We decline figuring as the fifth part of a congregation, and retreat softly. As we regain the street, distant St. Paul's peals out the hour, and in the echo of each note we can distinguish, so unbroken is the calm, the octave, fifth anti twelfth, which incites the perfect tone. Looking into the church of St. Edmond's, in the same street, we find a congregation of full twenty people at their devotions ; and again peeping into St. Mary Woolnoth, at the corner of the street, there almost as many as thirty more.  Three national churches standing all within a stone's-cast, and containing on a fine morning in summer not threescore individuals of the nation among them, strikes us as an [-31-] exceedingly liberal allowance of church-accommodation to the privileged Londoners ; and we cannot help contrasting it for a moment with the alleged wants on that score in distant parts of the realm.
    And now we dive among the narrow ways that abut upon the river's brink below the bridges. Here, somnolent in dust and sunshine, stand the tall warehouses crammed with the cargoes of that countless fleet of vessels which sleeps this morning in the Pool. They are all fast locked in a noonday slumber - the only sounds are the incessant twittering of sparrows, and the stilly surge of the river, that runs lazily by at the high tide begins to flag in its landward course. Now and then a lean cat stalks across the road, and disappears through some shivered pane or fractured panel. The chain-cables from the cranes and windlasses in the upper stories hang down motionless - the half-loaded wain stands motionless below, and beneath its cool shadow a brood of aldermanic ducks have settled themselves for a comfortable sleep after a mornings forage in the mud of the river.
    Back to Cheapside, where a few listless loungers are taking the air in shirt-sleeves, shaven chins, and slippers, which constitute the Sunday toilet of an unmistakeable class who all the week long are toiling in the service of eating and drinking and conviviality-loving man. They do not come boldly forth to promenade. Here a waiter, swinging his body from heel to toe, while his hands are clasped behind him, puffs a surreptitious cigar - then retires for a moment, and comes forth again, looking now up at the sky, now down at his neat slippers - and then dives again into the darkness of his peculiar den. There a chambermaid, in neat muslin gown, with lace sleeves of her own working, with bare head half hidden in shining ringlets, with neat ancle and on tripping foot, darts out and in from the clean-swept, court, and flirts coyly with the sunshine or with her own [-32-] shadow, for want of better entertainment. Then there is the old stager, portly and bald-headed, plush-waistcoated, with an enormous allowance of shirt-front brilliant with sparkling studs, divested, for one day of the week, of his everlasting white apron, and of that atmosphere of steaming-hot joints, which he respires from Monday morning to Saturday night, and cool, comfortable, and convalescent after the six days fever of his avocation. He blinks peacefully at the sun, and listens to the unwonted music of the green leaves he hears rustling in the solitary tree opposite, which was once a thriving rookery, with a populous colony of feathered Cockneys, and where yet the last rook's eyrie lingers in the topmost branches, and sheds from time to time its decaying fragments, as they are scattered by the breeze upon the heads of the passers-by.
    A booming hum comes stealing along from St. Paul's Cathedral as we cross over the end of Cheapside. It is the deep-toned organ pealing a chant, which dies into silence as we enter Paternoster Row. There the posts which guard the narrow footpath from the intrusion of wheels on the week-day are now enjoying a quiet holiday, and have it all to themselves. There is no sign of life or motion - so still is the hush, that the flutter of a torn placard taps audibly upon the shutter as it flaps in the wind. We read on the lintels, signboards, and panels around, the names that have figured, some for many generations, on the title-pages of millions of volumes and we think of the myriads of books upon the weary miles of shelves piled up in this narrow repository, now silent as the grave - and perhaps we speculate for a moment on their fate, and ask how many of them has the past week, or the past year, consigned to an oblivion of which the present moment is so suggestive a type. But we feel instinctively that such a question is too personal for the sole scribbler at this crisis in the Row, and we defer its consideration to another opportunity - running away from it, and from [-33-] a nauseous smell of tallow - and crossing over into Doctors' Commons.
    There is nothing in Doctors' Commons, save and except a convocation of sparrows, which have met to decide some important case, whether of bigamy or divorce, of brawling in church, or a disputed will, we do not pretend to say ; but they are extremely earnest and vociferous in argument, and make, for such small fry, a prodigious noise - all the noise, in fact, that is audible just now in this famous district. As to the courts they are as silent and dumb as their worst enemies could wish them to be - not so much as the ghost of a proctor or doctor, or dean or judge-advocate, or a single clerk of one of them, or even a touter in white apron, or anything legal or ecclesiastical, or vagabond, save the sparrows aforesaid, which may be all three, for aught we know, is either to be seen or heard. The place looks exceedingly dingy and bewitched in spite of the pleasant sunshine and we move away from it involuntarily - past Carter Lane, where there are no carters - past Shoemaker Row, where shoes are never made - past Printing-house Square, where the thunder of the Times is hushed into temporary repose - and so down into Bridge Street, where we cross over into watery Whitefriars, meeting but few stragglers by the way, and on into the Temple.
    The Temple this morning is a temple of repose. There is a whispering of leaves from the tall trees, and a soothing murmur from the river but we hear nothing beyond that, except now and then the cello of a lonely footfall in one or other of the shady penetralia of the place. The gardens bounding the river show a gleaming sward, which invites us by its softness but the gates are closed, and entrance forbidden. We are attracted towards the fountain, playing its never-ending tune to which the small birds in the trees above respond in a fitful, twittering, quiet kind of chorus, which harmonises well with the pattering fall of water. By the side of the fountain, watching in contemplative mood the [-34-] sparkling, glittering, flying drops of spray, and the busy bubbles beneath, stands - not a Niobe, or a nymph, or a naiad - but a rather brawny-looking man in top-boots, and wearing a hat and coat, both of them a couple of sizes at least too big for hin. He has his back towards us at first but the echo of our footstep wakes him from his reverie, and he turns round - and we see that it is Mr. Figg, of Birchin Lane. We know Figg, who is a very fair type of a peculiar class ; and it may serve to give a little life to this dreamy sketch, if we introduce him to the reader.
    Figg is a humble client - one of a very considerable number - of the corporation of London. He was born beneath the shadow of the old Exchange ; and if he has ever been, in his whole life, out of the sound of Bow Bells, we may be sure that it was but for a few hours, and then on some municipal excursion up or down the river. Among his ancestors, whom he can trace further back than, judging from the cut of his second-hand coat, you would expect, there flourished one who was a common-councilman in his day - a fact which has an influence even yet upon the destiny of his remote descendant. But Figg was born poor ; he saw the light in a garret in Little Bell Alley, and he saw there little besides, the garret having been stripped bare by the necessities of his parents before he opened his eyes upon its emptiness. As soon as he was able to run, the City helped him into a charity-school, where he got what little education he was capable of receiving. Because he was a Figg, the corporation regarded him kindly, and put bread into his mouth by putting occupation into his hands when he grew up. In process of time, Figg became a licensed porter, authorised to ply in Billingsgate Market, and master of an average income of five shilling's a day. Then he found out that it would be a matter of economy in him to marry, and of course he rnarried ; and from the first hour of his wedded life, up to the present moment, he will tell you, if you get into his con-[-35-]fidence, that he has not paid a halfpenny of rent. For why? - the descendant of the common-councilman, as soon as he possessed a wife, found no difficulty in getting the charge of a set of chambers - in other words, of getting the basement floor of a noble house to live in, on the condition of his wife's sweeping and dusting the several apartments, and carrying up coal from the cellar in the winter and receiving from the tenants of each floor five shillings a week for her trouble. With a blissful ignorance of taxes, and poor-rates, and quarter-day, and all such abominations, Mr. Figg has led a tolerably comfortable life for a labouring-man. He has brought up his boy to tread in his steps and the youngster will become a licensed porter in his turn before many months are over his head. Figg has grown exceedingly broad in the shoulders, and heavy and square about those facial muscles, which his Billingsgate friends denominate "the gills;" and, it is thought that he will retire from active life, and repose for the rest of his days in the ground-floor of the banking-house, which has been so long under his protection.
    "Good-morning, Mr. Figg; who would have thought of meeting you here? We imagined you would be keeping guard on Sunday ever the gold in your charge."
    "The same to you, sir. No, sir - never of a Sunday, sir - leastways, not till the evening. sir.''
    "Then you have no fear of robberies by daytime - is that it?"
    "No, sir, by your leave, that's not it neither. The bank is never left, sir, day nor night. But the clerks takes it turn about, and keeps guard on Sundays. My wife, sir, cooks their dinner for 'em. 'Tis Mr. Bailey's turn to-day, sir, and she'll cook his dinner. He'll go house at six o'clock, or maybe seven. and by that time, and afore, I shall be back. No, sir, the bank is never left. If you was to go into a any bank in all Lombard Street, at this moment, you'd find one [-36-] or other of the clerks there - they does it everywhere by turns, sir - turn and turn about.''
    Figg is as positive as he is explicit and oracular upon this point, and no doubt his assertion is true. As he finishes speaking, he looks complacently at his top-boots, and flaps a little dust from them with a snuff-coloured handkerchief.
    We bid him good-day, and saunter on into Pump Court, wondering in our own mind what upon earth can induce Figg, who in no way differs from his brethren of the knot on other days, to array his nether extremities in breeches and top-boots on Sunday, as he has done every Sunday for these twenty years past. Pump Court offers no solution to the mystery - it is a particularly dull, old-world, and shabby area, silent just now as a crypt - paved with cracked and crumbling flags, each one of which looks as though it were the monumental stone over some buried life. How many hungry litigants have worn hollows in these irresponsive witnesses of their fears and their despairs and how many more shall pace them in distracted thought tender the anguish of hope deferred ? "Tong!" goes the bell from the old church, where the grim templars lie cross-legged on the cold stones ; and at the same moment comes the boom of the organ, telling us that in another minute the congregation will be upon us, and the sleeping echoes awake once more. We are startled out of our reverie, and into Fleet Street where already the publicans are opening their doors and windows, and the dead calm of Sunday morning in the City wakes up into the current of common life.

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