Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - Twenty-four Hours of London Streets : Morning

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TWENTY-FOUR HOURS OF LONDON STREETS.

MORNING.

WE are standing at the central point of one of the bridges which span the Thames, when the first indication of the coming dawn of a midsummer morning appears in the clear and starry arch above our heads. There is a long feathery ridge of light clouds in the north-eastern horizon ; beneath which a pale clear streak of reddish white shows where the day will break, while above them a cool white light shoots and flutters up towards the zenith. The stars grow pale and twinkle feebly in that spreading light, and at length die out and disappear. Now the light rises higher and higher, and its broad image is reflected in the river below ; the dusky bosom of Father Thames puts on a light grey mantle, and the red, glimmering pendants of reflected fire-light, which hung like jewels on his vest, die out in their turn as the stars died out above. The slow day-dawn creeps onwards and upwards in beautiful gradations ; and every pulse of morn, as she throbs into being, reveals to us afresh the old and well-known shapes, and transforms once more into familiar things the grotesque and shadowy images which the gloom of night invests with mystery and awe. First against that broad and quivering curtain, which seems to vibrate fitfully above the couch of the awakening day, rises, like a vision of supernatural strength and majesty, the magnificent outline of St. Paul's Cathedral, which now, in the absence of positive light, shows like a monster profile, black and flat, its [-348-] edges sharply defined upon the shimmering background. Then the towers and spires and projecting columns of a thousand churches and factories come gradually into view ; as though, in answer to some magical summons, they now for the first time stepped forth into being, charged with the mission to "stand and wait," in the dim chambers of obscurity, around that one lofty and shadowy potentate. But the day is rushing onwards, and now his herald, twilight, comes tripping over that low-lying line of clouds - the red, glittering lamps on the bridges fade into viewless sparks at his approach, and after a few ineffectual blinks are no more visible. He enwraps the whole scene in a wondrous shadowless semi-radiance, soft, soothing, and transparent, in which all things appear in startling clearness and nearness and in which the minutest features of objects which lie beyond our ken in the full glare of day are distinctly discerned. This marvellous effect of the morning twilight, which few take the trouble to witness, endures but for a few moments it is over already ; the rays of the risen sun now flash warmly upon the gilded cross of the cathedral, and, gradually stealing down upon the dome, crown the noble pile with a halo of glory.
    As we look around upon the river, we become aware, for the first time, that old Father Thames is uttering his voices, which, drowned all day long in the roar and din of the traffic carried on upon his waters, are now, in this still hour of sunrise, distinctly audible. We hear the floods, as the morning breeze blows freshly against the turning tide, clapping their hands ; we hear, too, the hoarse swirl of the surge against the piers of the bridge, the moored barges, and the floating gangways, and the rafts of timber alongside the wharves. There is no sign of life upon the broad bosom of the stream, save a navigator's cat stalking stealthily along the edge of a coal-barge ; and no voice of living thing breaks the solemn and touching silence, amid which the dawning [-349-] day looks down upon the metropolis of the world, fast bound in the bands of slumber.

       " Earth has not anything to show more fair
        Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
        A sight so touching in its majesty:
        The city now doth like a garment wear
        The beauty of the morning : silent, bare,
        Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
        Open unto the fields and to the sky;
        All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
        Never did sun more beautifully steep,
        In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
        Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
        The river glideth at his own sweet will:
        Dear God! the very houses seem asleep
        And all that mighty heart is lying still!"

Yes, the mighty heart of London is lying still ; the hearts of her mightiest and meanest partake of a common rest. With one half the London world, the day is far spent before the other half is awake to its duties and its pleasures. While the rich and prosperous court repose on beds of down, houseless poverty sleeps at ease, during the warm summer nights, in any sheltering nook, dry arch, or covered door-way, where, lapped in golden dreams, the penniless being may, for aught we know, be far happier in his sleep than the fat millionaire, who is too wide-awake to sleep soundly at all. If we had but a true knowledge of the theory of compensations, we might chance to find that the poor man's sleep is worth all my lords waking hours, and that the difference between the fortunes of the two, all things considered, is not so great as we imagine. This reflection comes in our way, and we can hardly escape recording it, because the very first human subject that presents himself for consideration on a summer's morning in London, to any early bird who happens to be astir in time to catch such an unfortunate worm, is that social phenomenon, the houseless, homeless vagrant. Sum-[-350-]mer is the time of carnival, during which these gentry pay no rent. We have passed two this morning on the bridge, curled up on the seat, on the leeward side of the parapet, and snoring audibly to the response of the river below ; and as we leave the bridge, and pursue our way northward to the City, we see one or two more fast locked in slumber, in here and there an out-of-the-way recess, whose infringement of the law the policeman, if he sees them at all, compassionately ignores, leaving them to recruit exhausted nature by a few brief hours of rest. But the time of awakening is close at hand ; the wretchedness that "snores upon the flint" must start from the comfortless lair at the first summons of authority, and forth again upon its weary pilgrimage.
    First pioneer of the daily traffic in the ever-trafficking world of London, on this fair summer morning, - as indeed, on every morning of the year, - is the "salopian," whom we encounter not far from the foot of the bridge. Lest any of our provincial readers, or lie-abed fellow-citizens should be ignorant of the physiology, or even of the existence, of this hospitable worthy, we will pause for a moment to recount his derivation and witness his deeds. Like many a knight who has never mounted war-steed or drawn a sword, he bears a name which no longer expresses his calling. In times comparatively ancient, when tea was ten shillings a pound, and coffee proportionately dear, the very poor were debarred from their use ; but knowing the virtues of a hot beverage, they sought and found a substitute in a decoction of sassafras wood, which, sweetened with sugar and softened with milk, was very largely consumed and much relished by those accustomed to its flavour. This liquid, for what reason we do not know, but probably from some whimsical allusion to the slopping sound emitted by those who imbibed it standing in the street, obtained the designation of "saloop," and the sellers of it became salopians, a title which they still retain, though they no longer dispense the beverage which originated [-351-] the term. The salopians of the last generation were the bosom friends and comforters of the by-gone race of Charlies, to each and all of whom they were well known, and who were perhaps their best customers. Many a time, in our boyish days, have we seen those venerable mountains of overcoats, armed with a rattle on one side and a lantern about the size of a two-gallon cask on the other, congregated in the dim light of a raw winter's morning around the banner of the salopian, and quaffing his invigorating draughts. The salopian of the present day sells tea and coffee instead of saloop, and, in addition to bread-and-butter, supplies his patrons with whelks, periwinkles, and pickled eels and shrimps of yesterday. He pitches his rude table at the corner of a street or the foot of a bridge, as the likeliest place to catch his customers, who consist of a class among whom breakfast is not always a meal honoured in the observance and who if they do not get it with him are very likely to go without it. He had need rise early enough from his bed, for even in summer his hospitable table is set before day-break, though that happen within three hours of midnight. In winter he manages to erect a sort of tent by means of a screen and an old umbrella, beneath which a low bench accommodates his uncomplaining guests.
    We find him this morning at the corner of a court branching off from the main approach to the bridge. His tea and coffee are simmering in portly tin cans steaming over char-coal fires ; he has mounted a clean apron, and turned his ragged, brown-spotted table-cloth, to show to the best advantage, and is cutting bread-and-butter in halfpenny slices of liberal thickness, and handing them to the expectant mouths grouped picturesquely around him. This matutinal levee consists at present but of four persons. One is a hearty, hungry fellow, in a buff jacket and blue cloth cap; his broad, horny palms, ample shoulders, grimy face, with half a week's beard on it, and stooping gait, suggest that he is stoker to [-352-]  some steam-vessel ; he seems to have an appetite like his own furnace - putting the provender out of sight more as if he were lodging it in some receptacle for future use than as though he were actually consuming it on the spot. He holds his cracked saucer in the hollow of his palm, and, never heeding that the liquid is almost at the boiling-point, drains it empty at a single inspiration, helping it on its way by a blow on his chest with his fist, enough to knock a west-end exquisite into a swoon. He will be off to get up his steam as soon as his hurried repast is ended. By his side is an unfortunate specimen of the one-pennied vagabond, who has just been roused up by the policeman from his forbidden bed, and who, gnawed by hunger, exchanges his one peniny, which the luxury of a lodging could not extort from him, for the scanty meal which, for that sum, the salopian alone will supply him. Our friend the stoker, muttering to himself, as he eyes the hungry lad from top to toe, such phrases as, "reg'lar poor crow" - "not a had sort"  - "hard up, no doubt,'' orders him an additional slice, and hands him his own unfinished third cup of coffee, with a recommendation to "walk into it.'' The third customer is a sweep, but whether a man or a boy it is not easy to say. He hugs a lump of sooty bread from his pocket, and moistens it with hot coffee, talking as he eats, and indulging in divers figures of speech too profound for our comprehension. We gather enough, however, to know that he is complaining of the conduct of Betty, at No.5 over the way, who ordered him to come as soon as it was light to sweep the kitchen "chimly,'' and who won't get up to let him in to do it. "Here've I a bin," says he, "hever since afore three o'clock, a pullin' an' a pullin' at that erc bell till I in sick o' the soun' of it - an' the more I pulls the more she won't git up I don't think she knows what time it's light of a mornin' ; after all, she likely meant six or seven o'clock, stead o' three.'' The fourth guest is a quiet fellow, with an old basket on his [-353-] arm, who is probably on his way to one of the early markets in search of a job, or perhaps off into the fields to cut a stock of turfs, for sale to the owners of pet thrushes and larks.
    The stoker now moves off towards the river, and his place is taken by an Irish labourer, and yonder come those two identical vagrants whom we passed asleep on the bridge. There will be no lack of customers the salopian supplies a recognised want ; he is a sort of general housekeeper to the houseless and to the struggling poor whom necessity sends early afield in search of employment. But being, like many of his customers, himself a squatter, and paying no rent, he must clear off so soon as his room is worth more to the public than his company. He is the monarch of the dead time of the dawn, when all other industries are asleep but he must fly from their jealous eyes before they awake, or he will have to answer for his trespass to the law.
    What a Sunday-morning aspect there is at this hour of sunrise upon all these haunts of commerce through which we pass! One might almost imagine that, instead of being fast asleep in their beds, the population was all attending church - an idea, however, which cannot. be long entertained for, as the morning draws on, and we approach the central channels of business, the sounds all unmistakeable of the work-a-day world rise gradually upon the ear. The creaking of wains heavily grinding along, and the distant rumble of more rapid wheels, invade the solemn stillness of thee morning but as yet there are quiet pauses between these audible indications of life : there is no confusion of sounds, but the distinct echoes of horses' hoofs and grinding wheels, with the sharp crack of the drivers whip, are separately heard ; and as the great bell of the cathedral rings out the hour of five, a score of surrounding steeples unanimously echo the verdict, which all who are awake may plainly hear, and which is the signal for many a deep sleeper to arouse from his slumber, and to be up and doing and driving his [-354-] business, unless he would be driven by it at a later hour. Anon, light threads of smoke are seen streaming forth from chimney tops here and there an attic window is thrown up to admit the morning breeze, and a night-capped head looks out for a moment or two upon the empty street. Then come the scavengers with their heavy carts and monster horses crowned with a tiara of jingling bells, pealing fitfully in clouds of dust gathered from the well-worn pavements. Men and boys, some girt around the waist with rolled-up aprons, and others carrying the implements of their trade, traverse the public ways, with no dilatory step, in all directions, bound for the scene of their daily toil. Here and there, too, the pale milliner, roused thus untimely from her bed, is seen, with noiseless foot, hastening to the mart of fashion, to commence a course of, it may be, sixteen hours labour or more, in the vain attempt to satisfy the impatience of female vanity. Now, in all the avenues leading to Billingsgate and to Covent Garden, the costers, with their grotesque and varied equipages, are to be seen converging from all points of the compass, and from distances frequently of many weary miles, towards these common fountains of perambulatory traffic. Now the early breakfast houses take down their shutters and open their doors and there, if you choose to enter one of them, and invest three-halfpence or so in the knowledge of human nature in London, you may read without much trouble a good deal of the history of the past night.  Here, in one corner, that grog -and-tobacco-reeking youth sleeps off his last night's debauch ; and by his side the cleaned-out gambler, his hands deep buried in his empty pockets, sits moodily, racking his bewildered brain for some new device by which to raise yet one more lucky stake that shall recover his heavy losses. Here, in cheerful contrast to these, sits the market gardener, the bloom of health on his sun-burnt face, a hearty meal before him, and a brown canvas bag of fairly-earned and honest cash safe buttoned in his nether [-355-]  corduroys. Here the poor basket-woman spends her hard-won penny, and the jobbing porter the price of his first job in the purchase of his first meal while the bricklayer's labourer, drawing a hunch of bread from a big blue-and-white bundle, washes it down with a pint of hot coffee, and then trudges off to the building at which he works, where he will cook the half-dozen leviathan potatoes which he has in the blue-and-white bundle for his dinner, by simply imbedding them in the lime which it is his business to slack for making tile mortar. Here a weary cabman, who has watched all night long upon the box, finishes, with his head on tile table, the nap begun in the street, dreaming doubtless of long fares and gentlemen "as don't want no change;" while a member of the fire-brigade, who has been handling the hose at a conflagration, doffs his iron helmet, and lays himself out for a similar luxury. It is a sort of liberty hall, where every man does as he likes so that he pays his way and commits no breach of the peace. It is stiflingly hot, however ; the steaming flavours of coffee mingle with the odours of fried rashers of bacon, and others not by any means so agreeable, and we are glad to emerge again into the fresh air and brilliant sunshine.
    Further signs of life, which in London are always signs of business, greet us as we step again into the street. The mail-carts from the out-lying suburbs rattle along towards St. Martin's-le-Grand ; the day-cabs, dusted and polished into some show of respectability, crawl up leisurely to their appointed stands ; and the night-cabs, some few of them, roll off for a change of horses and drivers. Then there is a sudden demand for Hansoms, the omnibuses not having yet begun to run, and a discharge of bagmen, with boots at their heels, from hotel doors, whence they rush to early railway trains, being bent on doing business a hundred miles off when business hours shall have arrived. Early risers now sally forth from their dwellings to pick up an [-356-] appetite for a breakfast by a constitutional walk in the parks, the gates of which are thrown open for their reception ; and economical housewives visit the markets in search of wholesale bargains, and for the pick and choose of the animal, the marine, and the vegetable kingdoms.
    We will suppose now, with the reader's permission, that it is seven o'clock, or thereabouts ; and if it is seven o'clock on a summer's morning, then we may be sure that the major part of London, by which we must he understood to mean the business part, is yawning and stretching and rubbing its eyes, and pulling off its night-cap, and sidling out of the horizontal into the perpendicular position, and plunging its head into the wash-hand-basin, and cleaning its teeth, and combing its hair, and brushing its whiskers, if it has got any, and pulling the string of its shower-bath, and having a scrub at its epidermis with the flesh-brush, and putting on its clothes, and thinking of coming down to breakfast. And now the milkman is abroad with his milk all the way from Islington, pulling at bells, knocking at doors, peeping down areas, and handing little brass-bound tin cans through the railings, and ever and anon crying in a loud clear voice, "Mi-eau!" which is tolerably good French for "half- water,'' and a declaration sometimes containing very considerable truth, and far more candour than we should expect from him, under the circumstances. And the watercress-girl is abroad, with her shrill voice, which can be heard in everybody's back kitchen, tying up her little pennyworths as she walks along, and marking her track upon the pavement by the drip, drip, drip of her moist and appetising salads. And that light little mannikin, the news-boy, is abroad with his damp sheets, rushing into shops where they are open, and pitching them down areas or through ventilating  fan-lights where they are not - now bolstering a brother Mercury with a quire of the Times, now culling the cream of last night's debate, from the leading article, thus [-357-] mingling business with pleasure, and the pursuit of knowledge with both. Now Betty, in tidy morning cap, brandishes her broom in sturdy aims bare to the elbows, or, couchant on banded knees before the street door, scours up the steps ; and that young Tom, the apprentice, is pulling down the shop-shutters and rattling them over the roller through the iron grating into the regions below or, with wash-leather and rottenstone, and a couple of sets of dirty fingers, he is polishing the brass-plate, or, with rag and whiting, is scouring the crystal panes of the show windows ; while the tall young man inside, assisted by a tidy maiden in a neat morning gown of small-printed cotton, is decorating them with whatever he imagines will prove most tempting to those who on this fine day will come a-shopping.
    By this time the railway stations are all in the thick of business, and to the signal of the shrill whistle the long mail trains are winding off towards the provinces, transmitting every throb of London's heating heart to the utmost limits of the land : and thousands are now taking their last look upon the metropolis of the world, which they will never see again and thousands more, on the wings of steam, are rushing into her ample bosom, some to fortune and fame, it may be, and to such happiness as these can bestow, but more to toil, and trial, and disappointment, and the misery of blighted hopes, and the sad and sorrowful history of a ruined life. And now on the river the steam is up, and flags are flying, and from a hunched busy decks the snorting engine and the belching funnel send forth their vapour and smoke and hoarse voices are roaring, and bells are clamorously ringing, and parties of pleasure in cabs and hackney-coaches, or hurrying on foot, are rushing posthaste to Thames crowded bank, whence they are off, with streamers flying, mariners bawling, hats and handkerchiefs waving, and musicians "tuning up," up the river and sown the river, in pursuit of health and recreation. There are the [-358-]  Greenwich boats and the Gravesend boats, and the boats for Ramsgate and Margate ; there is the Dover boat and the Boulogne boat, with the lynx-eyed detective on board, who, smoking a cigar with the abstracted air of a gentleman at ease, is all the while diligently observant, and on the look-out for a gentleman who is wanted for a matter of swindling, and who is meditating a trip to Paris this fine morning, which, without the slightest noticeable demonstration of anything unpleasant on the part of Mr. Nabscum, who always does business in a gentlemanly way, will be quietly converted into a trip to Horsemonger Lane. Then there is the Ostend boat and the Rhine boat, to say nothing of coasters to Ipswich, Yarmouth, Hull, and "Bonny Dundee'' in one direction, and to Southampton, Plymouth, and the Land's End in another. There are the boats for inland navigation between the green banks of the Thames, up to New, and Richmond, and Hampton Court - all with their bands of music and bands of pleasure-seekers, their shady awnings and comfortable cabins, their wholesome provisions and reasonable fares. The river is as wide awake now as it was fast asleep when we saw it first a few hours ago. Those veritable omnibuses of the deep, the halfpenny steamers, and penny steamers, and twopenny steamers, are shooting to and fro, transporting the multitudes of London along the "silent highway," from one extremity of the city to the other ; barges heavily loaded to the brim are sturdily steered up the returning title through the arches of the several bridges to their moorings off the wharves ; the waterman is feathering his oars as he skims rapidly over the sparkling water ; and Poor Jack, pulling a salute at his matted locks for want of a hat, looks sharply after the stray coppers upon which he depends for a dinner.
    Cheapside, Fleet Street, Holborn, and the Strand and a hundred miles besides of commercial thoroughfares of which they are the world-renowned representatives, are now [-359-] broad awake and responsive to the hum of active life. The causeway echoes to the tread of hurrying feet, and that indefinable boom of distant but ever-present sound which tells that London is up and doing, and which will swell into a deafening roar as the day grows older, now rises faintly but continuously upon the ear. Business, that respectable, comfortable, and responsible elderly gentleman, has opened both his eyes and put on his spectacles and with clean linen, clean hands, and, it is to be hoped, a clear conscience has addressed himself anew to the battle of life which has now fairly begun. His aides-de-camp are fast flocking round his standard, borne in by a thousand omnibuses which now rush like descending cataracts towards the centres of industry. Morning has merged into day - and our first sketch is finished.
    Finished, that is, as far as commercial London is concerned : but there is another world westward of the commercial mart, the world of Fashion, which turns day into night and night into day - which makes morning calls while the afternoon wanes - which dresses  for dinner after the birds have gone to roost, and eats its mid-day meal when the sun has sunk to rest. Of what may be supposed to constitute morning to this section of society, who, if they ever see the sun rise at all, must see him at the end of their day instead of the beginning, we do not profess to have any very accurate notions. Fashionable life is a mystery to us, which we have no wish to fathom, and which our readers will hardly expect us to describe. We are content with the order of nature as we find it; and having the agreeable task to perform of getting our own living by our own industry, are perhaps quite as well employed as we should be in attempting to reverse her decrees. Most of our friends are of the same opinion. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen!

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