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 wonder whether the world needs to be told that there is a great battle fought in London every day. Such is the case, whether they know it or not-a real battle, and no paltry raid or affair of outposts, but a contest big with great results, greater than most men have the wit to calculate. It is fought at considerable cost, too, and remorseless shedding of-ink, not blood. The forces engaged are tried and trusty men, and nearly one and all may be reckoned as troops of the line (and ruler). They are under marching order every day of their lives, and have to break up their bivouacs at an early hour in the morning, some almost as early as the dawn; these are the light infantry, and they march for the most part in Indian file to their several positions on the field of strife; they may be considered generally as occupying the outposts, and not a few of them commence skirmishing as early as seven or eight o'clock in the day. The grand attack of the combined forces does not, however, take place till ten - and up to that hour, and perhaps for a few minutes later, (for the best soldiers miscalculate their distance sometimes) the troops are mustering in thousands and tens of thousands from all points of the compass. From the north and the south, from the east and the west, up to the time that Bow Bells ring out TEN, "the cry is still, they come!" They come rushing on the iron-road at the heels of the fire-steed from quarters, half a dozen or a dozen, or a score of miles away; and they come in crowded chariots crammed within and crowded without, with their militant forces; and they come in myriads of marching foot, through high-ways and by-ways, through straight ways and crooked ways, through wet ways and dry ways, and through long ways and short ways- all flocking to take their stand around the Hougomont of commerce, the centre of which may be supposed to be the Bank of England.
    It may be remarked, that among this order of fighting men there are no cavalry; they mount no horses; their chargers (and they are famous to a man for charging) are chiefly high stools of black leather stuffed with horse-hair. They wield weapons proverbially thirsty, and dripping all day long with gore, both black and red; yet they never go to loggerheads, though not unfrequently, when the battle goes hard with. them, they are forced to go to logarithms, and then they are cheered on by Napier, not him of the peninsula, but him of the pen and the rods and the bones. They sometimes do fearful deeds in self-defence with a dash of their weapon; with one scratch of its sharp point a single trooper shall shake down a proud house which has stood haughtily for generations, and crumble it to ruin more hopeless by far than though it had been a target for all Napoleon's cannon. Another has but to point his weapon to the east or the west, and off at the signal go a hundred men and a thousand tons of goods under a cloud of swelling canvas, on a twelve months' voyage to circumnavigate the globe. A third wags for a moment his goose-quill spear, and incontinently a thousand iron machines, which had stood idle for months, start into activity with a roar and a clatter that never pause or relax for, it may be, half a year together. A fourth, with point of polished steel, makes a few cabalistic signs, and, lo and behold! no sooner does Foh Chin Long, the millionaire of the celestial empire, get an inkling of it, which he does very soon, than he and his are in such a state of excitement and bustle that their long tails are seen streaming hither and thither in the wind, and the pressure of business is such that all possibility of a miserable debauch with Opium is imperatively postponed till that barbarian Bull has got his tea. Such are a few of the common doings of the great army of clerks who fight the fight of commerce every day in London-with the exception of Sundays, and some few other welcome days set apart for rest-the whole year through.
    He who would witness the matutinal gathering of this great army- and it is not an uninteresting sight - should rise betimes, and, having fortified himself with an early breakfast, direct his steps leisurely towards the Royal Exchange as the hour of gathering approaches. If, as he had better do, he starts from the suburbs, he will notice the early "buses" diverging from their customary routes, that is, the routes they travel during the rest of the day - and rousing with the sound of horn Johnson and Jackson, and Thomson and Dickson, and Richardson and Robinson, and Davidson and Jamieson, and Jenkinson and every mother's son of mighty Father Commerce, from their hot toast and cool watercresses and cosy fire-side breakfasts - drawing them out as with a magnet from their open street-doors, and receiving them in their capacious stomachs or on top of their broad backs, and bowling off with them towards the city. He will see others, a few minutes later, crossing now to this side of the road, now over again to that "cutting" with a rough warning blast "tantara-ra-ra" up this turning to the right, and down the other to the left-pulling up at Smith's with a sharp sudden jerk to a dead stop, to enable him safely to deposit his seventeen stone with precautionary gravity, or barely slackening speed at the vision of Jones, who with the agility of a harlequin shoots himself into the farthest corner, carelessly ejaculating "All right!" as he takes his headlong flight, lie will notice the conclusive "bang" with which the conductor jams to the door as he delivers himself of the satisfactory verdict, "Full inside!" and will hardly fail to remark the aristocratic air with which both driver and conductor of the "bus" ignore altogether the eager gesticulations of the unfortunate Brown, who, already behind his time, frantically hails the unheeding driver, who with unbroken persistency rolls on regardless.
    Besides the charioteers, he will notice the crowds of travellers on foot, and the accommodation provided for them by the morning crossing-sweepers, whose especial harvest has to be reaped at these morning hours, and who know full well their regular patrons, and acknowledge each one as he appears, accordingly, with a fraction of a salaam and a scratch of the ground with their broom-stumps. If he be a person of observation, he may discriminate unerringly between the man who has seized time by the forelock and him whom time is impatiently goading with the sharp point of his scythe. He may tell, too, the status, almost the actual salary, of every hired soldier in this numerous army, from the mere youth, just escaped from school, who with a solatium of a few pounds a year is feeling his way to promotion and a permanent stool, to him of three or four hundred a year, or perhaps more, who has got the world under his foot. He may note the undeniable gentility, the leisurely, half lordly promenading step of the confidential manager, the conscience-keeper, as it were, of the thriving merchant, whose word or whose signature is as good as that of his principal; and he may contrast him with the hard-working drudge who, with a sickly wife and seven small children, in that mildewy cottage down in Bermondsey, is obliged to squeeze a genteel appearance out of very vulgar pay, and with the very best principles is yet obliged to play the turncoat because lie cannot afford to patronize the tailor. He may see a great deal more if he look sharp, but he must not be long about it, because the scene changes as the clock strikes ten; in a few minutes the clerks are housed, the empty omnibuses roll off; and the grand army mounted on their stools are doing bloodless battle with all nations of the earth - a friendly strife in which all are to be victors and gainers, save the idle and unprincipled, who shrink from the contest altogether, or, accepting it, fight with unlawful weapons.
    So large an army of course needs a corresponding commissariat. Of the immense host that flock around the standard of commerce in the morning, some four-fifths, it has been calculated, heroically dine upon the field. Hence, wherever there is plenty of commerce in London, there also is plenty of cookery The prices current in the city quote hot joints, pigeon pies, roast goose, cold sirloin and pickles, etc. etc., for this day's consumption, as well as corn, flour, bere, bigg, gutta percha, caoutchouc and indigo, and all the etceteras of the home and foreign markets. In the quiet back streets, roosting in the rear of the main thoroughfares of traffic, a thousand hospitable boards are spread with viands inviting to the casual passer-by, and of known and well-appreciated savour to the regular customer, here, for a consideration, the unbearded youth from the boarding - school may speculate in unknown dishes, and the pampered gastronome discharge his critical verdict as to the culinary talent of the landlord's chef-de-cuisine. Enter any one of these resorts at a hungry moment - say any time between two and five o'clock in the afternoon - and if the love of order, of good cheer, and of well-bred company reside in your breast, and your olfactories be susceptible of persuasion by unimpeachable odours, you may chance to find yourself in an atmosphere of complacent comfortableness highly favourable to the important process of digestion. You will see, if you have not been unhappy in your choice of a dining-house, that the march of modern improvement has entered the cook. shop and transformed it into the salon-a-manger of our lively and luxurious neighbours across the Channel. It is literally a cook-shop no longer; the kitchen, with its compound of steaming and heterogeneous flavours, so disappetizing to the nervous sedentary employee, is banished in toto from the place. Perhaps near a hundred members of the grand army are seated quietly round the snow-white table-cloths discussing at leisure the savoury meats or the delicate pastry, while the stilly hum of subdued voices in conversation, mingled with the clatter of knives and forks, and the occasional clink of glasses, are the only sounds that are heard. There is no scrambling of waiters, nor rushing of unctuous cook-maids either this way or that: a few polite young fellows with ever- watchful eyes, and feet noiselessly alert, present the bills of fare to the new corners as fast as they take their seats, receive their orders and transmit them, in accents which seldom reach your ear, through an. acoustic tube to the regions below. In a few minutes, almost before you have time to bespeak the Daily News after that gentleman in green spectacles has done with it, the magical performances of Aladdin's wonderful lamp are repeated before your eyes: the genii below have obeyed the talismanic charm, and the desiderated dishes rise out of the ground "hot and hot" and anxious to be eaten. You may repeat the conjuration as often as you like, and if an experiment in roast beef should fail in convincing you that the thing was fairly done, why you can make another in. plum-pudding; and should any lingering scepticism yet overshadow your perceptivities, (as the author of the "History of the Anglo-Saxons" has it,) you may possibly come to a sound and definite conclusion by a third experiment in custard. Having finished your dinner, and diluted the gastric juice with a crystal draught from St. Antholin's pump -for water is here in much repute as a beverage-you can cast your eye over the newspaper, and digest the leading article along with the sirloin, and when finally recruited both in body and mind, you take your departure. As you go out you pay; the landlord or his deputy meets you with a polite bow in the ante-room, and receives your money; he presents you with no account; he keeps none against you; he has perfect faith that the whole grand army of clerks could hardly furnish a personage so mean who would rise from his hospitable board with a lie upon his lips, in order to defraud him of his dues. So you tell him what you have eaten, and he tells you what you have to pay; and the probability is, if you be a reasonable man and a stranger to this sort of accommodation, that you are very much surprised that for such a thing, say, as sixteen-pence, you have dined so comfortably and so well.
    Houses of this description - and they are more numerous than a stranger to the city would be apt to imagine - owe their existence to the grand army. Without it they might extinguish their fires and discharge their staffs; when it disbands, which it does for the most part at six o'clock in the evening, and partly an hour earlier, the landlords may count their gains and prepare measures for the exigencies of the next day. The disbanding, by the way, of the commercial host is not nearly so noticeable an event as its gathering. The clerks do not affect a monopoly of the omnibuses in the evening; thousands of them, it is true, return home by that never-failing convenience, but thousands more devote their long evenings to pursuits and pleasures the appliances to which abound more in the city than in the suburbs. If some, lovers of home and home comforts, seek their own firesides in winter, in preference to all other allurements-and their own garden patches in summer, where the one rose-tree bears a blighted rose, the one gooseberry-bush bears no gooseberries, and the one vine never does anything more than promise grapes-an equal number at least seek a recompense for the toils of the day in recreations of a less healthful character.
    The working-man who labours unremittingly from early morning till eight or nine at night is apt to imagine that the commercial clerk leads a very easy life, inasmuch as for the greater part of the year he has his long evenings at his own disposal. The supposition is not entirely a correct one, because there is no comparison between the labours of a clerk in a responsible office, and those of a merely mechanical description. In matters of this sort things are very apt to find their own level; the faculties of the mind cannot be taxed for the same length of time as those of the body. A sedentary thinker who works seven or eight hours a day, in all likelihood makes a greater demand upon his vital energies than the handicraftsman who toils from rise to set of sun. Had the case been far otherwise, the fact would have been discovered long ere this, - and a different balance struck. The object of most commercial regulations is not (we sometimes wish it were) to provide leisure for the workman, but to secure effective work · from him; and we may take it for granted that that end has been kept in view as much in the clerk's case as in the day-labourer's. At the same time there is no denying that the clerk is favourably situated for the development of any peculiar talent with which he may have been endowed. The history of literature and the arts would supply abundant proof of this. We could point to eminent painters whose works are the admiration of the world - to musicians whose delightful strains bewitch the air, and charm the ear of millions - to poets and to literary men whose productions are read with avidity-all of whom once sat doggedly on the high leather stool, and manfully shed their ink like water in the cause of commerce. We shall content ourselves with adverting to one, the prince of literary clerks, poor Charles Lamb, for whom there will be a smile and a tear so long as English literature endures. Of his clerkly career there is a characteristic story I told. He was in the habit too often of making his appearance fl late in the morning - too late for office hours. On one occasion his superior remonstrated with him candidly on the subject. Poor Charles, taken by surprise, replied with much naivete: "True, my dear sir, true, I do sometimes come in late, but then you know I always go away early." We must close our article here. Anything we can say will sound but flat and tame after this.

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