Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - "Moving House"

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WE write upon the eve of quarter-day, and as it happens to be the Midsummer quarter that is impending, we are reminded by demonstrations at this season, always very numerous, and which meet us as we walk the streets, that a pretty large section of the London population are about changing their abodes, or are even now in the very act of so doing. First, there is the sudden apparition of "This house to let - enquire within," or somewhere else, stuck into parlour and drawing-room windows, or mounted on a board in the front garden. Then there is the spectacle of respectable fathers of families, or agitated young wives, flitting backwards and forwards like unquiet phantoms, and turning their heads constantly on this side and that, in search of a new domicile. Again, there are those long ominous-looking vans, upon whose fronts are inscribed the words "Goods removed," either standing open-mouthed at the green-grocers doors, with their shafts reared perpendicularly like rampant skeleton arms, or their cavernous throats filled with the household goods of a migrating family, creaking slowly along the highway on the route to a new domestic retreat. These outward signs, which we cannot escape if we would, forcibly recall to our recollection the events of that last flitting, when, leaving the southern banks of the Thames we took our flight northwards, to the suburban precints of merry Islington.
    First came the preparations for the event, which preparations consisted of no end of packing and bundling, sorting, arranging, and rejecting, all accompanied with so many [-156-] appeals to old memories and sympathies, so many mementoes of vanished pleasures, and, no less touching, of vanished pains too - so many dumb and dusty witnesses of the fateful and remorseless passage of that "time which is our life," that it required no little stock of moral courage to look them all in the face with an unmoved countenance. Think of unearthing thirteen gratuitous blue-papered hat-boxes, consigned one by one at forgotten dates to the gloom of an upstairs cupboard, but unscrupulously unkennelled at once by Betty to scare our astonished senses! Worse than that - think of her marshalling a battalion of physic-bottles a hundred strong, each with a label like a clerical band at its neck, and each one recalling the undelightful sensations - "ventral, subventral, internal and central," of which, in the course of that long illness, it had been the bitter occasion. Think of the awful dilemma into which we were east, as a host of forgotten and unmentionable articles were dragged forth from their hidden recesses, and the question was asked, "Will master take this to the new house?" and the impossibility of a sagacious decision upon numberless calls so suddenly made. Think of the dismay, the spasmodic squall, the resulting ill-humour and consequent ill-management, of Betty herself, who, having rushed heedlessly to work with the bed-key to take down her own four-poster, had smashed in the roof of her purple-splashed bonnet-box, and jammed her best puce silk bonnet into a colossal facsimile of a Norfolk biffin! Think of dining for the last time upon thee deal dresser in the kitchen, without chairs, only the brewer's unclaimed barrels to sit upon - with borrowed knives and forks to carve and eat with, and nothing but a battered pewter pot to drink out of! Think of the dust and the dirt, and the torn letters and papers, the rushing of porters and the hammering of packers, the cracking of crockery, the jingling of broken glass, and the splitting of furniture - and you will leave some idea of the preparations which inaugurate a removal.
    [-157-] But the vans are all loaded and, putting your family with Betty, who carries Pussy in a basket, into a hackney coach, you drive off to the new residence, and await the arrival of your indispensable appliances, without which a home for a civilised Englishman cannot exist. Fortunate may you consider yourself if our goods and chattels follow in reasonable time, without being backed into a shed until somebody else's turn has been first served, and horses are obtainable for your convenience. But Betty, whom you have restored to good humour by the promise of a new bonnet, is on the look-out, and, in the course of the evening, descries the waggons while there is yet light enough to superintend their unloading. The goods, as a matter of necessity, are pitched out as they come to hand, and all heaped together for the night in the parlours. Beds are pulled out from the mass and made up upon the floor: happily, the children, pleased with the confusion and the novelty, think it excellent fun, as good as gipsying, or picnicking in Epping Forest or Bushey Park, and lie down to sleep with the expectation of a pleasant morrow. But your better-half declares she is almost worn out, and you are well-nigh exhausted yourself. Betty gets you some tea, and while you are discussing it, lets Pussy out of the basket, and butters her paws in order that she may not run back in the night to the old dwelling. Then you retire to rest, surrounded with your goods all in a state of apparently inextricable confusion, or, as Betty terms it, "all higgledy-piggledy." As you lie among them on the boards, too weary to sleep, the gas-light which flickers in from the street-lamp over the window-shutters, converts them into shapes rugged and romantic ; and when at last you arrive at dreamland, it is a land of wild, unearthly forms, and grim and indefinable terrors.
    In the morning you awake in a new world. You have immediately to resolve yourself and your better-half into a hanging, arranging, and regulating committee. Now come a series of discoveries, each of which entails a demand upon [-158-] your patience or your purse, or both. It may be there is no water in the cistern, because the last tenant wouldn't pay the water-rates, and was cut off from the main, and you have to go a-begging for a breakfast, and then to hunt up the turncock. It may be that it has rained in the night, and the attics are swimming in water, not because the roof is out of repair, but because the plasterer has left a score of spare slates and a small mountain of mortar in the drain, and thereby occasioned an overflow, and of course you have to hunt him up. Then Betty brings the news that Pussy has killed a big rat in the night, and, holding the corpus delicti by the tail in proof of her own assertion and Pussy's prowess, declares her conviction that the place is overrun with them ; but having other things to think of, you are willing to leave that affair to the cat, as belonging to her department, and sending for a carpenter's man, begin to put things in order. You find out before the day is over that one-half of the fancied rubbish which you yesterday consigned to the rag-and-bottle merchant for the merest trifle, consisted of indispensable necessaries and etceteras for which you have now to disburse afresh, and that it would have been wiser to have brought them with you. It takes you a full week, and perhaps more, to get things, as sailors term it, "ship-shape,'' and to build up your new house to the customary comfortable status of the old one and you find, by the time it is over, that your purse has collapsed considerably under the operation. It is still longer before you are naturalised to the necessity of turning your face northward, after leaving your office in the city, instead of southward, and you often catch yourself walking involuntarily toward one of the bridges, which for the last ten years, it may be, it has been your lot to cross twice a-day at least.
    "Three removes," says the proverb, are "as bad as a fire;" and like most proverbs, it is fraught with considerable truth. There are, however, a class of persons in London, who, being not much encumbered with families, and in circumstances to [-159-] shift the turmoil and annoyance of removing upon the shoulders of others, make a point of moving regularly at short intervals. They have a fancy for new houses, built and decorated after the newest fashion. and make a practice of gratifying this propensity with as little consideration as they would any other which money will satisfy. It may be partly from this cause that all the new houses of any pretensions are let almost as soon as they are finished and fairly habitable, and not a few of them long before. The removing of goods, though a calling which is never, for obvious reasons, carried on alone, is yet one in which, in London, a large capital is invested. Thousands of covered vans, built for the express purpose, are hireable at any moment, at an established charge, payable according to the number of hours they are employed and these, as quarter-day approaches - and, though in far less profusion, at or about the termination of the half-quarter - may be encountered in numbers traversing the streets of the metropolis towards all points of the compass. The man who "moves you,'' as the phrase is, is generally a tradesman well-to-do in the world, and who has plenty of work for his horses besides the haulage of household goods his coadjutors are a set of handy lads, well skilled in the practice of packing and porterage, and who rarely do a serious mischief, if left to the management of their own business in their own way.
    For some years past London has been migrating from the centre towards and beyond the suburbs. The city proper originally set the example the omnibus and short railways have combined to extend the movement. The more it prevails, the better for all ranks ; the tendency outwards relieves the stifling pressure which prevails so fatally in the heart of the Great Babylon, and gives a better chance of health and comfort to those whom poverty and circumstance confine to the crowded arena of commerce.