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TWENTY-FOUR HOURS OF LONDON STREETS.
IT does not much signify where we commence our brief survey of the
aspect of London at Work. The daily labour of this monster city is so prodigious
and multifarious an exploit, that to catch the merest glimpse of some few of its
outward and visible energies and tokens, is the utmost that we can safely
promise ourselves or our readers within the limits of a single article. Even to
do thus much, we must take the liberty of flitting from one scene to another,
rather faster than even the most improved means of locomotion would carry us,
and of gathering here one feature, and there another, lest we he hindered in the
purpose we have in view of presenting to the stranger a general sketch,
approximating, if possible, in some degree to the reality.
By way of commencement, let us make our exit from the omnibus, somewhere in the centre of the Strand, say at twelve o'clock at noon. The first rather startling phenomenon that greets the ear of a stranger who drops thus suddenly into the arms of the metropolis, is the uninterrupted crashing of deafening sounds, which tell of the rush and of the current of London's life-blood through its thousand channels - a phenomenon, however, of which the born Londoner is no more unpleasantly conscious, than is the Indian savage, cradled at the foot of a cataract, of its everlasting voice. The sound of ever-rumbling wheels is to the one what the ever-dashing water is to the other; both are neutralised by long habit, which makes things which are as [-361-] though they were not. But the eye of the stranger is assailed no less forcibly by the rushing tide of population along the footways, and he is apt to imagine, as hundreds have done before him, that he has arrived at the precise moment when some monster meeting has just broken up, and perchance he may instinctively turn aside to let the crowd disperse before he pursues his way. But we shall not show him to pause under any such delusion.
Passing on eastwards, and leaving Waterloo Bridge, and Somerset House, with its college, public offices, and Royal Society, at our right ; and leaving various musty old streets on our left ; leaving, too, a clergyman, in a. white surplice, reading amid the crash and racket of the Strand, the burial-service to a bald-headed sexton and one mourner in a rusty brown-black cloak, who, we fear, can hear very little of its impressive truths - and wondering why, in the middle of the nineteenth century, people are buried in the middle of the street because it happens to be a churchyard ; we pass on towards Temple-bar. We catch a glimpse now and then, through the quiet down-hill streets to the right, of the silver Thames, on the breast of which the boats are passing and re-passing ; and at every step we take, a world of new faces flit in rapid succession before our eyes, all vivid with an eager purpose, and vital with some definite and present object. The shops are thronged with customers, and the windows are crowded with their best display. There is not an instant's ebb in the flow of population - not a moment's pause in the roar of traffic. A glimpse or two up the malodorous courts leading away to Clare-market, and beyond that to Clement's-inn and Lincoln's-inn, and we are at Temple-bar - an ornament, if on will, and time-honoured in treasonable and barbarous associations, but an unquestionable obstruction to the public thoroughfare. Now from Bell Yard and Chancery Lane visions of blue bags and red tape, and black gowns and horsehair wigs, mingle with the human [-362-] torrent that posits incessantly along. The Temple - with its quiet retreats, and restored Norman chinch, where, stretched and stiff amidst the clamour of modern London, the old Knights Templars lie cross-legged on the cold stones, and where a hundred or two of briefless barristers vegetate in upper stories, and labour hard with ink and goose-quill to earn by literature that necessary competence which the law denies them ; where the fresh and sparkling fountain play ; and where, in the gardens fronting the river, the children gambol and the pale student wanders - the Temple., endeared and abhorred in the memory of multitudes, lies on our right, Fleet Street is before us, with all its host of reminiscences, with its numerous courts, in one of which Johnson loved to dwell, and where the coffee-house wits, and his friends and cronies the literary men of his time, had their meetings and their pleasures. The genius of Business has long ago driven the Muses from these their old-fashioned abodes, and in all of them now, money-making, and that alone, is the order of the day. Whitefriars, the ancient asylum of rogues and assassins, now the abode of industry and enterprise, but at which we cannot tarry to glance, lies down at our right.
As we enter on Ludgate Hill, the crowd thickens and the hurry increases we may scarcely pause an instant to gaze at the splendid shops that line the way ; idling is impracticable, and standing still out of the question. On we go with the current, through St. Paul's Churchyard, and, leaving "the Row," with all its responsibilities, behind us, debouch into Cheapside. In the middle of a fine summer's day, this, the oldest of the London marts, and still at all times the most frequented, is so overcrowded with human life, that - in spite of the admirable and accommodating system of walking instinct among Londoners, by which every one, by a tacit agreement, keeps the right side of the pavement - it is yet impossible to get on but at a slow and fitful pace. Here, as we slowly advance, we are flanked on either [-363-] side by such accumulations of the worlds material wealth as perhaps can scarcely be witnessed at any other spot on its surface. Dazzling stores of costly gems and the precious metals, displayed in glittering profusion, look out upon us from the shop-windows and all that industry, ingenuity, and the rarest talent can furnish to the demands of luxury, is here offered to its acceptance. All the ends of the earth have sent in their choicest contributions and whatever the treasures of the natural world, controlled and combined by the skill of man, can supply for the satisfaction of his most urgent wants or his slightest caprice, is here gathered together and submitted for his approval.
From Cheapside, past the Guildhall, where Gog and Magog, those abstinent witnesses of so many banquets, keep faithful watch and ward, and through the Poultry, long ago plucked of its feathers, we emerge into the grand central area matched in commercial importance by no other spot of less or greater extent upon the surface of the globe. Oh, for the glance of an Argus, clearly to see, and for a paragon pen faithfully to record, all that is now going on upon the scene around us Then should the mysteries of the Stock Exchange, the recondite wisdom of the Mansion-House, the craft of Capel Court, and the hidden resources of the Bank of England, all figure in our page in their true aspect, and the world be made wiser than it is ever likely to be on these matters. But we must be content to look on with common eyes, and make the best of them. The Mansion-House as usual, looks heavy and glum, and is clustered round with omnibuses, and crowds on foot, and plastered with proclamations, and the magistrate within has enough to do to get through the business of the hour. The Exchange is populous with burly forms and anxious and stolid faces ; and stock-brokers and their slim clerks are flitting to and fro, and, with little oblong square papers in their hands are bursting through doors made to open noiselessly either way, [-364-] and appealing with outstretched necks again in a minute, and disappearing as fast. Cabs ale rushing up. and dropping their fares, who fly out with a leap and bury themselves instanter in the jaws of a share-office. Omnibuses are rolling off, and more are rolling in, and each one comes laden with the sons of commerce bound for this central shrine. The Bank of England to-day is a general house of call. Thousands are flocking into its inky precincts ; some going straight to their mark and transacting their business at once, and others wandering about and losing themselves, and finding themselves at last in the wrong department, where they are angrily boring the wrong person to do what he is not justified in doing, and could not do if he would. Notes by the ream and sovereigns by the shovelful are flying and rustling and jingling about corpulent pocket-books suddenly collapse into flatness, and lean ones grow stout with a moment's feeding. In all these localities Commerce has very much the aspect of a gentleman : his garb is refused and unexceptionable, his manners bland and polite, his voice subdued and persuasive and if at times he is a little hasty, and at others a little abstracted, it may be said in apology for him that the old gentleman has got upon his shoulders matters far more weighty and of more importance to the interests of the world (whatever statesmen may think to tile contrary) than ever perplexed a prime -minister or puzzled a cabinet council. His diplomacy, if it centre more exclusively in Number One than that of the statesman, has a wider range and more extensive ramifications than that of governments can boast of. Far-off nations, whom our laws cannot influence, he can rally round his banner with a word he feeds and clothes the naked and hungry savage, marshals his untaught hordes in the ranks of industry, and despatches them into the bowels of the earth, or the depths of the sea, or over the barren sands of the desert, or across the pathless snows of the arctic regions, to do his bidding. As we [-365-] thoughtfully among these grand and noble edifices, his messages, winged by lightning, are flashing beneath our feet with the speed of thought to distant cities and foreign lands. He has but to lay his hand on the magic wires of the electric telegraph, and he can feel the pulse of the three kingdoms which regulate half the business of the world.. Around him is the aggregate of half that world's wealth, and more than half its influence there, just round the corner, in silent Lombard Street, where the poor stall-woman sells her fruit, and messengers in neat white aprons, worn solely for distinction, wait for employ - there, in dim and spacious halls, he stores his vast resources ; and day by clay, and hour by hour, sends them forth on errands of usefulness and increase, and adds to their undiminished hoards fresh products of his prophetic foresight and unwearied effort.
Away now at one bound from one extreme of the
commercial scale to another - from the men of unlimited capital, who turn over
thousands in a morning, to those who toil in "sun and sweat" the
livelong day for pence. Here we are, then, three miles at least from where we
stood a moment ago - in one of the outlying suburbs, far from the crash and din
of the city, which now comes upon the ear like the swell of the sea-surge
beating upon a pebbly shore when it is heard far inland. That distant boom
rises, however, but at intervals, when there is a pause in the shrill, loud,
deep, and half musical cries vibrating almost incessantly in the air around us ;
- some clear and sonorous, ringing over an area of half a mile, others short,
gruff, and shot forth fitfully from dry and husky throats.
It is now that the main substance of the vast daily importations into the morning markets of London, chiefly into Billingsgate and Covent Garden, are, in the charge of thirty thousand costermongers, traversing, it may be, a hundred thousand miles of streets, to supply the daily consumption of [-366-] the inhabitants. The coster's equipage comprehends every varietv of turn-out, from the substantial cart and well-fed and neatly-harnessed horse, down to the half-starved and miserable "moke,'' whose raw and bleeding sides are galled with the knots of an old rope, by which it is clumsily made fast to a few rotten planks mounted upon a couple of rickety wheels of different size and colour - and down still lower than that, to the rotten basket borne on the head of its ragged proprietor. But whatever his equipage, the coster is abroad with his voice and his wares, and some quarter of a million of attentive ears are listening for his well-known accents, and as many hands are busy in the kitchen preparing for his arrival:- "Gooseberries, three-pence a quar-ar-art! - Fine cauliflowers! - Rhubarb!" - "Soles, oh! - Live haddick, live haddick! - Ee-ee-eels alive, oh!" - " Green peas, young peas, sixpence a peck!" - "Mackareel! mack-mak-makareel!" Such are a few of the cries, in every possible variety of voice and tone, which reverberate along the quiet ways. The costers may be said almost to monopolise the public ear till dinner is over and done : and we may remark that they know perfectly well the hour at which any particular street on their beat goes to dinner, and you seldom find them crying green-peas or green anything, when the time for cooking the article is past.
Among these dealers, though not in the road, but on the pavement, walks the peripatetic tradesman, calling quietly upon his "connection," if he has any, and now and then lifting up his voice with the view of creating or extending it. There is the chair-mender, swaddled in split-canes, followed by his weary wife carrying an old bottomless chair, which she has picked up somewhere during the morning-calls, and on the edge of which she will rest herself for a moment or two, while her bigger half knocks at a door and a solicits custom. There is the knife-grinder, who startles the neighbourhood with a noise like the springing of fifty watch-[-367-]men's rattles, and which stills for a moment all other noises, and which be produces by applying the rusty blade of an old butcher's cleaver to the rough side of his rotating grindstone. Thus he spares his lungs, which are not generally in the best possible order, seeing that from his grinding many things dry, he gets the particles of steel into them. There is the umbrella-mender, with his fagot of crippled umbrellas, of questionable parasols, and apochryphal whalebones at his back, and his leathern bag of tools and knicknacks round his waist, to say nothing of his fishing-rods and walking-sticks, both of which it is odds but you will find in the involutions of his fat fagot, if you should happen to want them. There is the basket-maker, who this morning measures exactly eighteen feet in circumference, and consequently occupies the whole of the pathway, so that you are obliged to step into the road to pass him. He moves with a slow and dignified step in his framework of many-coloured wicker, but he splits it in two and lets himself out in an instant, at the call of a customer, through whose garden-gate he must enter before he can get at him. There is the band-box maker shouldering a huge palanquin of purple-splashed receptacles of all sizes, but of that precise shape and pattern which lies in your garret among the fluff under Betty's bed, and in which her best Sunday's bonnet, with its plain neat ribbons, lies eclipsed all the week. There is the bird-cage-maker, with his bright brass-wired cages domed at the top, just the thing for your tame canary ; and a big one, with a Great Exhibition transept, large enough to accommodate your talking parrot, with a perch as thick as a mop-stick, exactly fitting the grasp of Polly's claws. There is the garden-fitter, with his stock of bright-green splints and contrivances for sticking your sweet-peas and supporting your plants ; and there is the gardener himself, with his geraniums, and balsams, and ice-plants, and cactuses, and musks, and flowers of all colours and odours, and "all a-growin' and [-368-] a-blowin'!" as he says loud enough for anybody to hear, while he peers about upstairs and down, and makes a dead stop wherever he discovers the signs and tokens of a fondness for his merchandise. Then there is a cry of "Oranges, oranges!" as the market-girl lounges by, with her heavy basket on her arm. There is the little Jew-boy with his lemons, which he holds up between his fingers as he passes the parlour windows, content with that silent appeal, nor caring to let his voice be heard ; and there is the older Jew, with his patriarchal beard, his triple tiara of castaway beavers, and corpulent bag - ejaculating solemnly at regular intervals, "Clo', clo', clo'!" and glancing round ever and anon, with flashing eye, for the slightest visible movement in the regions of the kitchen. And then there is his rival, the china-man, who, having no license, cannot lawfully hawk his goods, but professing to give a new tea-service for an old coat, effects an exchange very different from that, if you let him catch you attempting a bargain.
At the heels of the travelling tradesmen come the wandering street-minstrels, who give you sweet sounds for the chance of your sympathies and coppers. First comes a band of stunted Germans in green surtouts, puffing as if for their lives (and it is really for' nothing less) into enormous brazen tubes. One empties himself into an ophicleide, clawing it the while convulsively, as though it were some savage beast; another is feeling for the right note in a curly French horn ; a third is showing fight to the chimney tops with a battered trombone ; a fourth is talking through his nose by means of a bandaged clarionet ; and the rest are making faces at the sky. All, however, make admirable music of the good old harmonies of the fatherland, and find that honest John Bull us not ungrateful for it. Then comes a grinder with a barrel organ, who vacillates between a grave tune and a jig ; then another grinder with a barrel piano, who adds to it the charm of his voice, and groans rather than sings an Italian [-369-] song to an English tune. He is followed by a whole family on pilgrimage, preceded by a cracked violoncello on one leg, the rear being brought up by a couple of infants in white pinafores, who are but just big enough to go alone. What next ? A travelling tinker swinging his pot of live coal, and growling, "Pots to mend, kittles to mend!" A wandering voice rising from the rear of a hand-cart, and ejaculating with the earnestness of an orator, "Perriwinkles, perriwinkles, wink, wink, WINK! Ladies, now's your time!" A sorrowful, heartbroken wail from a decrepit old man bearing a few boxes of lucifers clutched in his long bony fingers, who tries to intonate the word "Lucifers,'' but breaks down at the first syllable, and looks around piteously for that compassion which he is too feeble even to demand by a word - and then suddenly the burst of trumpets, the bang of big drums, and the clamorous bray of brass, as the advertising van prances up, to let the wondering world know where pantaloons are to be had. Thus wags the world by day in the London suburbs. We must again change the scene.
We start this time from Tower Hill, and leaving
the Tower at our right, without a thought just now of its grim secrets and
murderous injustice - and leaving the Mint at our left, never heeding either
aught that is there done in connection with those interesting initials, ?. s.
d. - we push on our way through a wilderness of oddly-mixed merchandise which
obtrusively blocks our path - through groups of seamen's chests daubed with tar
and smelling of new paint, emigrants' tents pitched in the open air, canvas
trousers, tarpaulin cloaks, bear-skin overcoats, bruised telescopes, disabled
quadrants, second-hand sou-westers - past dirty shops crammed with cobwebs and
dilapidated marine wares - past yawning beer-cellars and reeking spirit-shops -
past the sloppy cab-stand and a furlong or two of dead-wall, and all the way
through a swarm of hurrying passengers, the crush [-370-] of
heavy waggons, the rattle of dingy cabs, the bawling of drivers, and the
clatter of horses feet - and turning short to the right, of a sudden make a
descent upon St. Katherine's Docks. Here is another strange phase of London's
daily life. We seem at first in a land of barrels, all new and clean, the very
elysium of coopers. On we go through an acre of port-wine, every cask brimming
full with its mouth open, down which inquisitive fellows are poking long sticks,
to measure the capacity of their stomachs. On again through a couple of acres of
brandy, in bran-new barrels, undergoing the same ceremony - then another acre of
wine, port and sherry, mingled with madeira in its taper, vase-like casks - and
then on to the wine-vaults, where, in a cavern of some ten acres in extent, and
piled upon iron tram-like supports, of which about thirty miles in length is
laid down, is stored in bond the produce of the grape.
At this spot we present an order for admission, and, arming ourselves each with a portable lamp, with a handle half a yard in length, plunge, with the cooper for our guide, down one of the long dark avenues of this treasury of the vintage. Dim red lights, suspended from the roof and glimmering at long distances at the ends and turnings of the various passages, reveal in some degree the enormous extent of these national wine-cellars. Walls of barrels, heaped one upon another, line the way, and the odour of their contents impregnates the air and ascends into the brain. Here and there we happen unexpectedly upon a party of tasters, furnished with capacious bell-shaped glasses, and testing the flavour of the wines, with the accompaniments of biscuits and cheese. The guide elevates his lamp and points to the myriad festoons of cobwebs which, black with age and dust, droop in dense clustering tassels from the ceiling, and wave even with the impulse of our breath. We are at first sceptical about the existence of cobwebs, seeing no menus of support for the spiders who must spin them ; but he talks of [-371-] a species of fly which engenders here in millions, and, lowering has lamp, shows where, amidst the moist exudations around the bong of a cask of old sherry, swarms of reddish-looking maggots are wriggling about, who must have had flies for their progenitors, and will be flies themselves an their turn. We are now at the limits of the vault : a ray of cool daylight shoots down the ventilating cavity through the long thickness of the wall, and, peeping out, we discern the ships lying in the docks. Declining an invitation to taste of last years vintage, we return by another route, and, surrendering our lamps, are again in the open air.
On again to the left, through another meadow of brandy-casks - through wildernesses of warehouses stored with sugar, and timber, and hides, and bales, and boxes, and packages, and every description of taxable goods - on, over stone quays and swinging bridges, overshadowed by a forest of masts and, amid the of creaking of cordage, the hoarse song of the mariner, the cry of the sailor-boy aloft, and a host of other undefinable sounds, and up a flight of steps which hangs invitingly adown the hull of a tall ship of twelve hundred tons burden, and on to the deck of an emigrant vessel bound for Australia, and which is destined to warp out into tile river at twelve o'clock to-night, and drop down to Gravesend, whence she takes her departure twenty-four hours later. The deck is alive with a various and motley population, all busily engaged in preparation for the impending voyage - young and old, the well-to-do and the very poor, children in arms and the fathers and mothers of families - some crying bitterly, more with woe-begone and bewildered looks, and many in unnaturally good spirits, artificially excited. Even at this last hour, carpenters are at work erecting additional berths, chiefly round the captains cabin, and seriously encroaching on that forbidden ground. A young gentleman, who has paid seventy pounds for his passage, is administering a scold to the agent for breach of contract, and [-372-] loudly demanding an exchange of cabins. Tomkins is jumping about like one distracted for the loss of his luggage, all packed away in the entrails of a stage cart, which ought to have come on board yesterday. His wife has padlocked the three children in his berth, and there they are all three, with their dirty little faces at the grill, blubbering to be let out of the dark hole. Sailors are rigging up the long-boat to serve as a pig-stye, as the pigs will arrive on board to-morrow? the fowls, a good many of them, are already in durance vile, but, despairing of being heard in such a clamour, are quietly reserving their voices for a fitter opportunity. A knot of country girls, seated in a circle round the mainmast, are discussing some home topic which brings tears into the eyes of most of them. Lascars, brown, lean, thin, undersized, and hungry-looking, loll lazily about, as though there was nothing for them to do, which is most likely the case. Jack-tar swings himself up over the heads of the country girls and bids them cheer up, and promises them all a husband a-piece in the golden land. The black cook is boiling his kettles over a blazing fire in the fore part of the vessel, and, surrounded by a part of the crew, is dishing out their dinner. Looking over the side, we are greeted by the apparition of a painter slung by ropes, with his pots on a plank, and stolidly daubing away at the ships hull, as oblivious as the timbers he is at work upon of the world of cares, and aspirations, and hopes, and uncertainties around him.
Descending through the open hatchway into the steerage, we step into just such a scene as might be realised were twenty houses, with all their inhabitants and furniture, pitched out of windows pell-mell through the roof of an unlighted barn - only the poor humans seem to take it very patiently, being for the most part asleep, stretched on bundles of bedding on the floor, or on the shelves at the sides of the long chamber which is to be their home for the next four or five months. A good proportion of them are [-373-] children ; and of these, those not asleep are eating bread-and-butter with the evident expression of persons enjoying a luxury. Close under the hatchway are two olden people, who are dictating to a young girl a joint epistle, which she, sitting on the ground, and using a deal box for a writing-table, is blotting down on a crumpled sheet of black-bordered vellum. Some are busy in storing away in their narrow berths the articles and provisions which they will want during the voyage ; and two or three of the crew are lowering through a trap-door in the floor bales and packing-cases, and iron and wooden implements, for which there can be no demand until the good ship has arrived at her destination. A blinking lantern, suspended from a cross-beam, lights them at their work, and in the gloomy cavity below burns another. While we are watching the process of stowage, down rushes Tomkins through the hatchway, dives into the dark hold, and, after a search of about three minutes, rises again, his face beaming with satisfaction, by which we are led to suppose that his luggage is all right, after all. The vision of the three little Tomkinses, with right merry faces, released from prison and playing with the fowls in the hen-coop, which is the first sight we see on regaining the clock, assures us that that is the fact. As we leave the vessel, we observe with satisfaction that she is not likely to be starved on her passage, inasmuch as a couple of waggon-loads of cured hams are flying through one of the lower ports, being checked off by the provision-broker as fast as the men pitch them in. May she escape the perils of the deep, and reach in peace her distant haven! She will be gone to-morrow, with all her living freight; and though her departure will make a void in a hunched families, here she will not be missed, and in a day or two will be forgotten. A fleet of gallant vessels, tall and goodly as she, are resting on their shadows around her one of them will glide into her place before the morning dawns, and on the same spot, ere the [-374-] world is a week older, the same scene in the drama of London life shall be again rehearsed.
Once more the scene is changed. The docks and
shipping are miles away, and now the air we inhale is poisonous with miasma and
nauseous with dank and dismal stenches. We stand in a close court, into which
the midsummer sun only penetrates for a few minutes at high noon, and which
debouches in a filthy lane in one of the poverty-stricken districts, the
locality of which we do not care to specify. The houses on either side stand
hardly more than six feet apart, and one might imagine they had just been
fighting together, they show such battered and mutilated faces to the day. Rags
and brown paper substitute half the glass of the windows, and what is left is so
crusted with dirt that it shuts out the light it was intended to admit. Slattern
women, with folded arms, project their uncombed heads and rail at one another in
language not to be written ; gaunt, sallow-looking men, old with vicious excess
before they are mature in years, stand smoking and gambling in the open doorways
; pale and rickety children pine and whine fretfully in their mothers' arms, or
crawl and roll about on the dirty flags in a melancholy attempt at play. Every
house stands with its door perpetually open, and offers hospitality at the rate
of twopeuce a night to the whole world of vagrants, and the whole world of
vagrants accordingly comes and goes at its own will, and seethes and soddens,
and riots and rots, and dies in its own filth, none daring to make it clean and
wholesome. Here typhus walked in twenty years ago, and has never walked out
since, but lurks unseen in the squalor and darkness, and fangs his starved and
weary and drunken victims, and shoulders them into the grave. Here, too, his
bosom friend and coadjutor cholera dwells, and from this, his primary
head-quarters, sallies forth to the work of slaughter. Here consumption [-375-]
tracks his unconscious prey, and beguiles and fools them to the last breath ;
and here racking rheumatism and foul cancer, and a whole battalion of loathsome
diseases, hold their high court and execute summary sentence upon poor heedless
and miserable humanity, that laughs and quaffs the inebriating cup, and revels
and riots here in the reeking vestibule of the charnel-house.
Out of the court, and into the lane - into a congregation of accumulations of all that comfort and respectability have banished from their dwellings, cast off from their backs, and dismissed for ever from their acquaintance and acknowledgment - among stores of crazed and rickety furniture, crumbling with the dry-rot and populous with multiplied tribes not to be named - of beds bursting with matted millpuffs, and bedsteads warranted effectually to "murder sleep" - tables minus a leg or two, and with flaps that will do nothing but flap, available for tipping without the trouble of a magnetic circle - of chairs without a seat, and carpets with the pattern trodden out long ago - of linen of no particular colour, but of a very particular smell - of piles of old iron and brass, and shreds of copper and rusty nails, and monster bunches of keys, of sooty pots and pans and spoutless tea-kettles and coffee-biggins - of regiments of phials and bottles, and stacks of conserve jars and gallipots, and shreds of cloth, and bundles of rags, and barrels of kitchen-stuff, and gibbeted black dolls - of flat-irons and sixpenny clothes-horses - of hampered locks, and cashiered bolts, and severed door-handles, and screwed-off knockers, and ripped-up scrapers, and of brass-plates for Mr. Smith's private-door, and of second-foot mats, and fractured fenders and isolated fire-irons, and the numberless other articles or fragments of articles which go to make up the museum whither poverty and wretchedness resort, with a few hard-saved pence, or perhaps a shilling snatched painfully from the savage grasp of want, to supplement the scanty conveniences of their joyless [-376-] abodes. Hither the Irish hodman "about to marry," whose custom the regular broker would rather be without, comes in search of his matrimonial couch, his deal table, couple of chairs, and iron pot. Here it is that the travelling trades-man, who knocks at your door for a job, has his home, and you may see him, after the wanderings of the morning, cobbling his broken goods or haggling with a customer who has ventured to bid for them. Here, in the gloom of the back-room, comes the juvenile thief with his ill-gotten plunder to his patron the receiver, who robs him in his turn while supplying him with the means of midnight debauch. Here come the poor widow and the sick workman, with their last trifling remnants of property which the pawn-broker will not receive, but. which must be parted with for bread. And here, too, and not very seldom, come the policemen and the owner of lost valuables, armed with a warrant from the magistrate, to search for stolen goods. To the eye of the spectator this place appears the paradise of refuse and rubbish fit only for the fire and the melting-pot; but, repulsive as is its aspect, it may yet be looked upon, in the present state of society at least, as an indispensable adjunct to the commerce of a great overgrown city, where abject poverty is always the lot of multitudes, whose wants, moderate and even mean as they are, are yet as imperative as those of their betters, and thus present a merchantable field to the class which is but one remove above them.
We are warned by the length to which we have
already run, that we must not further indulge our inclination in thus shifting
the scenes on the great stage of London's activities. We might wing our flight
in a moment from the stifling abodes of struggling want to the pleasant resorts
of luxury and fashion, and, taking our stand in Hyde Park, watch the nobility of
England, with their sons and daughters, careering before us on noble steeds, or
drawn in cushioned [-377-] chariots. Or we might
penetrate the swarming workshops, where the half-million least of London's
toiling sons, waging the industrial war, are adding, hour by hour, by every
motion of their labouring muscles, to the increase of the world's positive
wealth. We might, had we time, wander among thee palatial and princely
residences of Belgravia, and enter the portals of those magnificent abodes where
magnates and millionaires repose in the lap of luxury ; and we might, in
imagination at least, attend her Majesty at the levee which is held to-day at
St. James's Palace, and watch the gorgeous crowds of noble sires and dames, and
their offspring, who come to yield that honour so justly due to her. Or we might
follow the city missionary in exploring the homes and haunts of the vicious and
predatory races, and carrying the gospel of peace to social outcasts,
self-abandoned and at war with God and neon.
Again, if we had leisure at command, we might look in upon London at dinner - and a curious sight we might chance to find it if we made good use of our opportunity. Or we might enter the gloomy prison-gates, and see how London deals with that minor section of her rogues, who, transgressing the law, become amenable to its punishments, and, shut up in silent cells, or climbing revolving mill-wheels, or working in oakum-yards, or grinding at heavy cranks with no other result than their own weariness, are compelled to appease its offended majesty. Then we might mark how, in the chamber of the sybarite, on downy couches, or in the unventilated hovel, on mouldy straw, stretched in disease's shapes abhorred, London languishes and writhes in sickness and in pain, and turns its weary face to the wall, and moans In anguish. We might track the flight of the Angel of Death, who, with shadowy sombre wing, ever outspread over the dwellings of man, dispatches to their solemn account a thousand souls a week of our fellow-citizens alone. And we might track, too, the paths [-378-] of the Angel of Life, who fills the void his brother angel makes, by ushering into the world a race of new immortals, born to fight on the same battle-field, in the same momentous strife. But the day would not suffice, nor the morrow either, nor the month, nor the year, to complete our survey of the living panorama that London presents to the view of observation between the rising and setting of the sun. We have traced but a few outlines of the multitudinous picture - touched on a few spots only of its ample canvas. The imagination of the reader may fill up many of its details but it would demand the study of a life to accord them all even a moderate measure of justice. Good day, ladies and gentlemen!
source: Charles Manby Smith, The Little World of London, 1857