Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - What's O'Clock in Cheapside?

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THERE is no scarcity of clocks in Cheapside, with St. Paul's at one end, and Bow Church not far from the other - certainly not; but we mean to show that independent of these and all horological contrivances, that famous arena of traffic can boast of certain social phenomena indicative of the time of day. We shall glance at a few of them very briefly.
    No matter whether it be a day of hail, rain snow, sleet, or fog - of star-lighted winter or sun-lighted summer - here we are in Cheapside, which is submitting to its daily scrape; having been lathered with mud all day yesterday, it is undergoing a clean shave in order to a presentable appearance to-day. Scavengers are brushing and scraping up the filth and refuse of twenty-four hours, and loading their heavy carts with the gold of London streets - gold at least it will be to the farmer in the shape of manure to his exhausted land. In the midst of their labour comes the regular tramp of the police, in Indian file, to relieve guard, by which everybody who knows anything about it knows that it is six o'clock in the morning in Cheapside, even though St. Paul's should cease to wag his metallic tongue, and Bow bells be be-witched into dumb-bells.
    But the day has grown older, and Cheapside has put on a new face ; commerce has thrown aside her mask of wooden shutters, and the wealth of both worlds is peeping out at windows ; shops are sweeping and garnishing ; genteel young men and comely damsels exhibit themselves at full-length, framed in burnished brass and plate glass - they are [-191-] busy liming twigs for fluttering vanity. Here on the pavement comes a procession of standard-bearers, an army with timber banners, levied in the east to invade the west - a battalion of slop-shop militia, commissioned to fight the battle of cheap pantaloons under the very nose of fashion. Ragged recruits they ale, very much in want of the garniture which they are doomed to puff: they defile slowly round St. Paul's Churchyard, and vanish to their work. - Now sets in a current of omnibuses towards the Bank, all crammed within, and covered without, with business faces. At every turn they stop and discharge a part of their cargo of clerks, managers, time-keepers, book-keepers, and cash-keepers, and then, with a convulsive bang of the door, roll on again. Others having set down their passengers, exemplify the truth of the old adage, "Empty vessels make the greatest sound," and come sauntering westward, emitting lusty cries of "Charing Cross!" "Sloane Street!" "Westminster!" "Angel!" "Highbury!" &c., &c., to which places very few people just now want to go. Of course the London reader knows well enough what's o'clock how, and does not require to be informed that it is nearer TEN than nine in the morning.
    But the old edax rerum has bitten another mouthful out of the day, and we come again for a third look at Cheapside. And what a spectacle it is the whole broad thoroughfare is one mass of life, as full of activity as Thomas Carlyle's Egyptian pot of tame vipers, who had nothing else to do all their lives long, but each one to struggle to get his head above his fellows - which after all is very much what this city pot of human beings are about, if the truth were told. One wonders whence came all this marvellous concourse of eager energies. Carts, waggons, carriages, gigs, dog-carts, phaetons, drays, with a score or two of omnibuses, choke up the roadway, while the foot pavement is hidden almost every inch from view by the swarming pedestrians. Here and there a heavy team stands patiently waiting at one of the narrow turnings [-192-] from the main channel, for an opportunity to dash forward into the living stream. The rattle and rumble of wheels, which has been increasing momentarily since the dawn, has swollen into a deafening crash, continuous and unbroken as the roar of a cataract. Every face you meet is alive with interest; hand, heart, and head are working while day lasts. From some of the side streets and from narrow entrances of warehouses you see working-men and porters with paper caps and aprons rolled round the waist, making the best of their way to the cook-shop or the coffee-house, by which you learn that the big bell of St. Paul's, whose note could not pierce to your ear through the roar of traffic, has just struck ONE.
    Another interval.- The din of commerce continues without an instant's pause, but the symptoms of ebb-tide begin to be visible to the experienced eye. The busses which have been crawling at the picking-up pace for the last five or six hours as they passed towards the west, now drive smartly off, crammed, it is said with bulls and bears, whose feeding time is at hand. Here and there the smart "turn-out'' of the merchant or capitalist - phaeton, brougham, or close chaise, drawn by a spanking grey, darts off rapidly from the scene of action - a token to everybody that business is over for this day on the Stock Exchange, and that it is FOUR o'clock. Two hours later, and the stroke of six is heralded by signs which, standing at the junction of Cheapside with St. Martin's-le-Grand, it is amusing to witness. Then the steps of the Post Office are besieged by a motley class of the population. Enormous bags of damp paper and printer's ink run on very little feet, and plunge themselves head-foremost into yawning receptacles ; grave gentlemen forget their gravity, and hasten with long strides to deposit their epistolary contributions ; lanky runners dart forth from dark places and narrow short-cuts, and while the hour is yet striking save by a second the inevitable post. Mail carts [-193-] drive up from all quarters, and postmen with corpulent bags from the district offices flock rapidly and silently to the grand centre of a nations correspondence.
    Again - and Cheapside is illuminated with a thousand jets of gas; the throng of foot-passengers is reduced one half or more, and is visibly diminishing in numbers every minute. Those that yet remain are mostly of a different class from the eager crowds of the morning. The gorgeous display of the shop-windows under the vivid artificial glare, collects a nightly assemblage of admiring spectators and purchasers. Offices and counting-houses are closed, and the labourers of the desk and labourers of all ranks find, relaxation and refreshment in the enjoyment of an out-door stroll. The noise of the wheels, though unceasing, is no longer deafening ; yet to our thinking, is much more suggestive and impressive than at its greatest uproar, because the ear, no longer overwhelmed by the surrounding crash, is at liberty to catch the far-distant and portentous hum of sound which, from every quarter of the metropolis, surges heavily in the upper air. Now a sudden wall of darkness bars the breadth of the way ; the print-shop has dropped its portcullis of patent shutters and now you may see on either side long wooden ones rise out of the ground, and men come forth with iron bars not at all fit for toothpicks, so please, friend porter, to keep them out of our mouths - and now you know it is NINE o'clock in the evening.
    When we take our last glance, the moon is high in the sky, and the shops are all shut up save one or two, from the narrow doors of which - for even they have closed their shutters - a stream of red light flashes across the road. The last omnibus rattles noisily along, and the shouts of the conductor are audible at a distance of fifty yards. Heavy wains, loaded with goods for luggage-trains, grind their slow way to the several stations. Groups of individuals still pass hastily along, and the sound of their footsteps, heard at no [-194-] other time, gives token of the comparative solitude. Lights now gleam aloft in bedroom windows, disappearing one by one, and lulled by the continual rumble of wheels, the inhabitants retire to rest as a thousand iron tongues proclaim the midnight hour of TWELVE.
    If you ask a dweller in this locality how he knows when it is past two in the morning, he may tell you, as he has told us, that the silence of the City sometimes wakes him at that hour, and that then he does not sleep again until the melody of cart-wheels, which begins once more an hour or two after, soothes him to slumber.
    The dweller in Cheapside of a hundred and thirty years ago, when the place looked very different from what it does now, might have known what o'clock it was at a certain time by the coming of a small, plain carriage, drawn by one horse, and driven by a steady serving-man, and which stopped for half-an-hour or thereabouts, at the north-west corner of the street. A person of observation would have remarked, that though that small vehicle came regularly every day, yet the driver never descended from his seat, and no one ever alighted from the carriage, which, after standing on the spot for the allotted time, wheeled round and returned by the way it came. If, urged by curiosity, he had looked through the little glass window, he would have seen an old, old man of nearly fourscore years and ten, enveloped in the folds of a warm cloak, and gazing with moistened eyes upon the dome of St. Paul's church, so grandly defined against the clear morning sky. That was worthy old Sir Christopher Wren, who, now too feeble for action, came daily to snatch another, and yet another last look at the greatest and most glorious fact of his manly life. Ah, my friend! there was a man who always knew what it was o'clock.