Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895 - Eight A.M. to Eight P.M. : A Railway Terminus and a Railway Bookstall

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TAKE care of your pockets; for light-fingered characters are to be found within the precincts of some of the grandest London railway stations. Take care of your toes; for railway porters swiftly wheeling luggage-laden barrows are careering hither and thither wildly. Take care not to tuck your umbrella or your walking-stick under your arm in such a manner as to endanger the integrity of the eyes of the people pressing on behind you. Take care, in short, of a good many things, for you are at the terminus of the great Domdaniel and South Pole Railway Company, and there are many things to be seen and heard in the booking-office and the vestibule and the platform well worth the attention of the studious observer of humanity.
    The great Domdaniel and South Pole Railway takes everybody everywhere at extremely moderate fares. Never mind whether this notable railway has its terminus north, east, south, or west, in the giant city; enough to know that it is neither at London Bridge nor at Liverpool Street; and that if you journeyed to Cannon Street, to Charing Cross, to Euston, to the [-346-] Waterloo Road, to St. Pancras, to King's Cross, or to Victoria, you would not be able to find a terminus resembling, in any important particular, the pile which I am now about imperfectly to limn. There is a big yard in front of the not very commanding premises which form the fašade of the station; and this yard, for full sixteen hours out of the twenty-four, is thronged with heavily-laden omnibuses, hansoms, and four-wheelers, private carriages, carts, and vans, all coming from and going, seemingly, in opposite directions, and productive of a distressing amount of noise, confusion, and unreportable language.
    One should be tolerant, however, of these trifling drawbacks if one is old enough to remember the starting of one of the old-mail coaches say, from the Bull-and-Mouth, or the Green-Man-and-Still, or the Saracen's Head, or the Bolt-in-Tun. There was no crowding, no confusion, and no noise in those patriarchal days. Four inside, eight outside, and a moderate amount of luggage in the basket. The heavier baggage went down to its destination by wagon.
    The coaches which conveyed His Majesty's mails and the very small proportion of His Majesty's subjects who ever thought of travelling more than fifty miles inland from the Metropolis were very quiet and subdued equipages in comparison with the mighty trains which, attached to armour-plated engines, at present bring to and take out of London every day and night thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children, bound for every nook and corner of the three kingdoms.
    [-347-] Compare the tranquil and, perhaps, slightly sleepy coaching system of the past with the continually shifting scenes which present themselves to your view at the terminus of the great Domdaniel line. Upon my word, while you are searching for the sum necessary to pay your second-class fare, say, to Bathsheba Junction, or East Balclutha, or Belgravia-on-Sea, or, for the matter of that, to Buda-Pesth, or Nishni-Novgorod, or Jeddo in Japan, there comes streaming through the ticket-office a pack of foxhounds! - pretty, pied creatures which, I know not why, in flesh and blood always look much smaller than they do when they make their appearance in pictures of the hunting field. Here, however, they all are, yapping and occasionally snarling, but always keeping the most observant eyes on the badge of office - and of correction too - borne by the whipper-in, a cleanly-shaven fellow with a tanned face and an unmistakably horsey look about the eyes and lips. How is it that close commerce with horses usually gives the people of the hunting-stable, the race-course, and the job-master's yard such an unmistakably equine mien?
    Good old Lavater, the physiognomist, in his most diverting, but now almost forgotten, work, has engraved two portraits of a married couple who had lived so long together in peace and harmony, that they had grown, facially, to be wonderfully like one another. So may it be with horsey human beings. From their boyhood upwards they have dwelt among horses; their trade, their talk, their thoughts, their sympathies, have all clustered around the noble animal, and they have [-348-]become, after a manner, not only mentally, but physically, centaurs. 
    If you will be kind enough, having the necessary authority, to draw up in a line in the Mall of St. James's Park, say, a hundred individuals, impartially selected from divers sorts and conditions of men, and clad in suits of dittoes, I venture to think that I am physiognomist enough to be able to pick out from the array, so many coachmen, so many grooms, so many jockeys, so many stablemen, and so many hunters and whippers-in.
    Whence the hounds have come and whither they are going, it is no business of mine to determine; and there is no time to ask. Do we know at all where we are going to? The mad fellow in Plutarch, when the night-watch stopped him and asked him whither he was proceeding, answered that he knew not; whereupon, the wrathful captain of the watch had him arrested as a night prowler of bad character. "Was I not right?" quoth the simpleton, as they put the gyves upon him. "Did I know that I was going to gaol?" I suppose that the huntsman and his subordinate know whence these hounds came, and the place to which they are to be taken; possibly they have come up from Leicestershire, and are going down into Sussex; may be the whole pack were sold only yesterday at the Auction Mart, and it is not beyond the domain of likelihood that the tall, bluff, elderly gentleman with white moustaches and a plaid ulster, who is giving instructions to his groom, may be a master of foxhounds.
    [-349-] Perhaps it is just as likely that he is the owner of those three slender quadrupeds, all stockinged and hooded and swaddled up in warm coverings, which are being carefully conducted to a horse-box attached to one of the trains. Inside those woollen envelopes may be the famous "crack" Skiddamalink which won the Derby, but failed to carry off the St. Leger; while the other two animals may be respectively Dancing Barber, the American horse which did such wonders at Ascot last year, or Brother to Cauliflower, which you backed yourself only last week for a place in the race for the Kafoozlum Stakes. If you sought any information on these points you might very soon be able to obtain it from the crowds of booking men, racing touts, and welshers who hang about the station and the yard thereof, and who besiege the telegraph office with feverish dispatches, all of them horsey, and sometimes of a very shady nature, from misty morn till foggy eve.
    Your attention, however, is speedily diverted by a little group of sable-clad nuns - some portly smiling old ladies, others wrinkled and parchment-faced parties, who look as though they slept on planks, wore undergarments plentifully besprinkled with cut-up hair-brushes, and supported nature chiefly on parsley roots, radishes, and charcoal biscuits. One or two of them, however, are really pretty rosy girls. Where are they going, you wonder? Perhaps to some dreary whitewashed grated-windowed old convent in Belgium or the north of France. Perchance to some nice clean, cosy, cheerful ivy and flower-embowered nunnery in rural [-350-] England or at some English watering-place. Not improbably to India, or Australia, or China. Modern nuns are often Wandering Christians, and there is no rest for the soles of their feet.
    Ah! here is a fresh arrival, and one of a most portentous kind. A party of at least twenty ladies and gentlemen and perhaps ten more individuals of both sexes more plainly clad, and in whose appearance a working-class expression is mingled with a somewhat artistic but Bohemian allure, hurry towards the barriers. They have a vast quantity of luggage with them; not merely trunks and portmanteaus and bags, but in addition huge packing-cases and mysterious bundles securely covered with canvas. What can these cases and canvases contain; and who are the ladies and gentlemen and the presumable working men and women, with somewhat of an artistic Bohemian look? To all appearance, they trouble themselves with very little either about their luggage or their tickets; the fact being that all these details are being very carefully looked after by a middle-aged gentleman attired in the height of fashion, with perhaps a few more diamond rings on his fingers and a larger diamond pin in his tie and a heavier gold watch-chain at his vest than you ordinarily notice among members of the "Johnnie," the "Chappie," or the "masher" type.
    You recognise him at once; he is Mr. Leopold Thespis Strollerby, an old acquaintance of yours. He was a walking gentleman once at the Royal Adversity Theatre, but failed to attain any great popularity on the [-351-] boards; then he tried old man, but was not very successful in that line of business; subsequently he went on the turf, then he started a dramatic, sporting, and society journal, and ultimately he became acting manager of travelling dramatic companies. Just now he is perambulating the three kingdoms in the interest of Signor Torquato Tasso, that well-known impresario, who was born, I think in the Judengrasse, at Frankfurt, and whose real name is, I fancy, a little less Tuscan and a little more Teutonic than Tasso. At all events, the Torquato Tasso Opera Troupe have been coining money in the provinces; and how could they fail to do so, seeing that their repertoire includes such deliriously fascinating productions as The Queen of the Pumpkins, The Princess Chicaleaury, The Dwarf Bride, and The Oyster Girls of Trouville.
Behold! there is the world-famous heroine of The Oysters of Trouville herself talking to Mr. Ferdinand Rumpelstiltsken, the primo tenore of the troupe. If you have not had the privilege to behold Miss Aglae Oglestalls of the Torquato Tasso Company in that ravishing opera-bouffe, to hear her sing, and to see her dance, you are at least familiar with her cabinet photograph, in which she is represented in the sweetest short pink skirt with eighteen black flounces, and the loveliest black silk hose with embroidered insteps, that ever you fixed you enraptured eyes upon. The name of her diamonds is legion, and the number of her admirers is similarly incalculable. By her professional exertions, Miss Aglae Oglestalls must be realising an income of at [-352-] least five thousand a year; and, unless I am mistaken, not so many years ago little Tabitha Chump, familiarly known as "Tabby," was the comfort of the humble home of her maternal parent - an estimable monthly nurse in Bassinet Street, Hampstead Road - and the cynosure of the admiration of the small boys and girls of the neighbourhood, for whose delectation, having a natural turn for the lyric and choregraphic arts, she would, with the kerbstone for a platform, gratuitously sing "Down among the Coals" and "Tommy, make room for your Uncle," accompanying those ditties by the sauciest of breakdowns and the nimblest of Highland flings. As you look upon her and admire her now, you observe that she wears a sealskjn mantle worth at least a hundred guineas, and that her little black poodle must be worth not less than twenty pounds.
    You have just managed to miss the train by which you intended to proceed say, to Smokely-on-Sewer, or Gruntley-in-the-Trough, or Pottedshrimpley-super-Mare; and it will be a full half hour before another train to your proposed destination will start. You have thus plenty of time to loiter about the bookstall, which is perhaps one of the most wonderful of the many marvels of up-to-date railway life. Five-and-thirty years ago, when I was writing "Twice Round the Clock," in the Welcome Guest, there was, as I thought, an ample sufficiency of newspapers and monthly and weekly magazines and periodicals published in London, and vended at the railway stations; but at the present time the prodigious quantity of publications poured out [-353-] every day, week, month, and quarter from a never- resting press simply astounds, bewilders, and overwhelms me.
    Why this tremendous accession to our stores of railway literature? There are two sufficing reasons, so it strikes me, in the colossal development of the reading public. Compulsory education is training the younger generation to read ten times more, a hundred times more perhaps, than their fathers did, but there is another and even a more powerful cause for this tremendous augmentation in the number of very cheap, and, on the whole, very amusing and harmless publications. In 1857, when that Welcome Guest, of which I just spoke, was enjoying a very fair, but not excessive, circulation, good old Charles Knight had not ceased to inveigh against what he justly termed the "Taxes on Knowledge." One of the most oppressive of those taxes was the paper duty, which was imposed late in the reign of William III., and produced latterly about one million four hundred thousand pounds annually.
    For long years the party of progress agitated for the repeal of this most irritating and unjust impost. I remember, myself, having been a member of two deputations which went up to one Prime Minister and one Chancellor of the Exchequer in Downing Street, who both listened politely enough to our representations, and then assured us that there was not the slightest chance of the duty being repealed just then, and so affably bowed us out of the room. The ex-[-354-]asperating old tax was, however, abolished in 1861. The two penny daily newspapers which had been painfully struggling for existence while the duty still pressed on them, became almost at once mines of wealth to their proprietors. Most of the high-class dailies followed suit in diminishing, their prices to a penny, and by their side grew up squadrons and platoons, battalions and whole armies, of penny periodicals of a literary and artistic, a scientific, a comic, and especially of a society and sporting character.
    All this while, science had been at work to discover new materials from which paper itself could be made. Before the tax was abolished, these materials were almost exclusively linen, hempen or cotton rags, and the sweepings of cotton mills. Paper made from straw was to some extent used, but rags held the supremacy. Gradually ingenious persons arrived at the conclusion that very serviceable paper could be made from the inner bark of trees, nettle-stalks, hop-tops, the tendrils of the vine, esparto grass, wood, clover, and, in fact, any fibrous vegetable substance; and there is a story told of a German professor who, sometime in the sixties, boasted that he would make very excellent printing paper from a dead donkey, if any one who had such an article to spare would favour him with it. The astounding multiplication of materials for paper making, and the cheapness with which it can now be produced, accounts in a very great measure for the enormous increase in the number of penny and halfpenny [-355-] periodicals, but as very much of the paper which we consume is imported from abroad, it is questionable whether the outbreak of a Continental war would not, by forcing the price of paper, lead to a collapse of very many of the periodicals which at present are so marvellously abundant on the bookstalls at all the stations of the great Domdaniel and South Pole line, and, indeed, at every terminus and every station in the labyrinthine network of railway England. The majority of these journals are of a highly amusing character, and some are distinctly philanthropic, seeing that their proprietors, out of their abounding love for their species, are very fond of instituting "Word Competitions," by means of which subscribers of a shilling apiece may, if they are fortunate enough to guess the missing word, win a substantial number of pounds sterling. A merry system. A fascinating system. Somewhat resembling the French Pari Mutuel, I take it. Not unlike the Australian "Totalisator," I imagine. Whether it be illegal, as coming within the provisions of the Lottery Acts, I do not know.* (*This "merry system" has since been pronounced to be illegal.)

[-nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.-]

source: George Augustus Sala, London Up to Date, 1895