Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853


    I have been for the last dozen years in the habit of walking daily to office in one direction, through a line of route reaching from a northerly suburb to the heart of the city, and back again in the evening, or late at night, as it might happen, by the self-same track. During that period, without asking a single question, or receiving a tittle of verbal information, I have learned the personal and domestic histories of many individuals and families, as well as the rise and management, and the consequent results and issues of a host of speculations, commercial and other, which have had their progress and consummation within the sphere of my continued remark. I may chronicle some of these histories when the humour seizes me - not now. One dilapidated figure, familiar to my morning vision, which he greeted two or three times a week for the last ten years, has disappeared for ever, and I dedicate this brief page to his remembrance. For the last twelve weary months he has figured periodically in the vicinity of --- Square, as a butt - a walking target for the stray shafts of the vagabond wit of a gaping and jibing crowd; and, indeed, a stranger to his history might well have been excused for joining in the laugh of the multitude. There is, however, too often food for melancholy in the forms which excite our mirth. Smiles and sadness not unfrequently live together; and some of the vicissitudes incidental to humanity at times present themselves to view under such strange and anomalous aspects, that whether we ought to laugh or to weep, to banter or to sympathise, it is next to impossible to tell.
    The defunct subject of this short memorial wandered for the last year of his life as a solo player on the trombone. Such a performance was unique in the history of street minstrelsy, and though anything but vivacious in itself, was the cause of infinite vivacity in others. The very first intonations from his dreary tube were a signal for a general gathering of the idling youngsters of the neighbourhood, amongst whom, in ragged but majestic altitude, stood the forlorn performer, filling the air with the sepulchral tones of his instrument. His dismal, dolorous, and almost denunciatory strain, drew forth ironical cheers and bravos from his grinning audience; and their persecuting demands for "Paddy Carey," or "Rory O'Moore," were answered by a deep-toned wail from the sonorous brass, giving mournful utterance to emotions far different from theirs. To me, and perhaps to others to whom the poor fellow's history was known, there was little cause for mirth in the spectacle he presented. Let the reader judge. 
    It is now full ten years ago that, as I drew near -- Square, one fine spring morning on my way to business, I heard, for the first time, the exhilarating strains of a brass band; the instruments were delicately voiced, and harmonised to a degree of perfection not too common among out-of-door practitioners. My ear, not unused to the pleasing intricacies of harmony, apprised me that a quintett was going forward, composed of two cornets-a-piston, a piccola flute, a French horn, and a trombone. The strain was new, at least to me, and of a somewhat wild and eccentric character. Upon coming up with the band, I beheld five tall, erect, and soldier-looking figures, "bearded like the pard," and with some remaining indications of military costume yet visible in their garb. I set them down for Poles, and learned afterwards that my conjecture was the true one. They were all men of middle age; and from the admirable unity and precision of their performance, it was plain that they had even then been long associated together. For two years I enjoyed at regular intervals, in my morning walks, the delightful solace of their harmonious utterances - and have been conscious more than once, of marching a pas de soldat, under the influence of the spirit-stirring sounds, to the drudgery of labour, as though there were a heroism (who says there is not ?) in facing it manfully. At the commencement of the third year, I missed one of the cornets-a-piston; and knew within a month after, by the appearance of a ligature of black crape, displayed not upon the heads, but upon the left arms of the survivors, that he had blown his last blast, and finally dissolved partnership with his brethren.
    Still quartetts are delightful; and though that peculiar and piquant undercurrent of accompaniment which makes a well-played quintett such a bonne-bouche to the amateur was ever afterwards wanting, yet was their performance perfect of its kind, and left no cause for cavil, however much there might have been for regret. But the grim tyrant seldom contents himself with a single victim; and in something more than a year after there was another void in the harmony - the French horn had gently breathed his own requiem, and reduced the band to a trio. This was a far worse loss than the first, and one that completely altered the character of their minstrelsy. They had fallen from their high estate, and were compelled to take new ground and less pretentious standing. They abandoned almost entirely - one may conceive with what regret - their own cherished national harmonies, and took up with the popular music of the metropolis - the current and ephemeral airs of the day. To these, however, they added a new charm by the exquisite precision of their execution, and an agreeable spice of foreign accentuation, which they naturally imparted to our matter-of-fact musical phraseology. They became popular favourites, and for several years went their accustomed rounds, everywhere rewarded with the commendations and coins of the crowd. Their imperturbable gravity and dignity of demeanour was a pleasant set-off to their rollicking version of some of the pet melodies of the mob, and contributed not a little to procure them a degree of favour and prosperity perhaps greater than they had ever previously enjoyed. They never forsook their old haunts, and I heard them regularly on the usual days, not, certainly, with the same delight as at first, yet often with a feeling of gratified surprise that so much grace could be imparted to airs which the "Aminadabs" that grind the music-boxes in the streets of London had so mercilessly and so successfully conspired, first to murder and then to mutilate.
    Time wore on; year after year the gray and grizzled triumvirate trod their daily rounds in all weathers, arousing the liberality of their patrons with the merry music of the hour. Three, four, five years passed away-five harmonious years; and then death snatched the second cornet in the midst of his strain, and dashed him to the earth with a semibreve on his lips-lips condemned to be mute for evermore. The poor fellow was seized with the cholera while in the very heart of a melody, and had departed to the silent land almost before its echoes had died away. Whatever was the grief of the remaining pair, like true veterans as they were, they gave no evidence of it to the world. As they would have done on the battle-field, they did now-closed up their little rank, and confronted the enemy with the force that was yet remaining. But it was a sad spectacle, and, what was worse for them, it was but sorry music they made. With piccola and trombone, the two extremes of harmony, what indeed could be done? Orpheus and Apollo themselves would have made a failure of it. It was the harmonic tree with only root and foliage - the trunk and branches all swept away; or a dinner of soap and pudding, the intermediate dishes being wanting; or the play of "Hamlet," with none but the prating Polonius and the Ghost for dramatis personae. In short, it wouldn't do; and the poor fellows soon found it out. They fell into neglect and poverty, and save among those who dwelt in the line of their regular beat, who now gave from sympathy what they had once bestowed from gratification, they met with but spare encouragement. It could not last long. Whether the piccola had too much to do, and sunk overborne by the responsibility of the various parts he represented, or whether he blew himself out in a fit of sheer mortification, I cannot pretend to say. True it is, however, that he also, in a few short months, disappeared from the scene, and the bereaved trombone was left to wander alone among the haunts of his old companions.
    For twelve months, as I have already said, had he thus wandered, growling from his dismal instrument a monotonous requiem to the manes of his departed brethren. I have reason for believing, that at the decease of his last friend he forsook the light and frivolous music which circumstances had compelled them to administer to the mob, and returned to the wilder and grander themes of his country and his youth; but as it requires an experienced ear to tell the business a man is after who plays a solo on a trombone, I cannot pretend to certainty on that point. He never condescended to take the least notice of the crowd of scapegrace idlers who stood around, mimicking his motions, and raising discordant groans in rivalry of his tones. He played on with an air of abstracted dignity; and one might have thought that, instead of the jibes and jeers of the blackguard mob, he heard nothing but the rich instrumental accompaniments of his buried companions, and that memory reproduced in full force to his inner sense the complete and magnificent harmonies in all their thrilling and soul-stirring eloquence, as they rung through the same echoes in the years past and gone. He persevered to the last in treading the same ground that was trod by his brethren: it was all that was left to him of them and of their past lives. He had indeed experienced the hardest fate of the whole five. He was the flitting ghost of the buried band - a melancholy memorial of extinct harmonies. There was a painful discrepancy between his history and his action: the sudden and fierce elongation of his brazen tube, as he shot it violently forth to double the octave at the penultimate note of his wailing stave, but ill accorded with the mournful recollections of which he was the solitary monument. There was a visible discord between his griefs and his gestures, his woes and his utterances of them, which transformed the very fount of melancholy into an argument for mirth. From a position so painfully equivocal, I, for one, can rejoice that he has at length been beckoned away. There is none to mourn his departure, and, beyond this brief testimony, no record that he ever was. Requiescat!

Charles Manby Smith Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, 1853