Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 9 - Pearls and Divers Matters - First Tremor of the World-Quake

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Grand Surrey Canal - Severe winter - Learning to row - Diving for pearls in London - Disastrous fishing expedition - Road-making - Tollbars - Road steamers-.Bricklayers' Arms Station - Crown Prince Frederick - Act I of Armageddon -Railways and taverns.

THE Grand Surrey Canal ran - if such a slow-going concern may be affronted with such an active verb - less than half a mile from our house and was an unfailing attraction for us boys. Grand it might once have been when first constructed about 1805, but some fifteen years before I made its acquaintance the London and Croydon Railway had turned its bed into an iron road all the way from New Cross to Croydon, and in the 1850s it simply consisted, as now, of a water-way from the Commercial Docks to Walworth Road, Camberwell, with a branch to High Street, Peckham, a matter of four and a half miles in all. At the point where the main canal to Croydon used to take off, a short dock-like spur some two hundred yards long was retained for the purpose of exchanging traffic with the railway. This, however, was of small account in the fifties, and the branch, which was known as the Coldblow, was used for little besides bathing.
    Barges traversing the canal were horse-towed. Carrying coal to the Gas Works in the Old Kent Road, and divers merchants at Camberwell and Peckham, and wood to one or two timber-yards constituted nearly all the business. There was, I remember, an occasional cargo of whiting - by way of contrast to the coal, perhaps - from a factory on the banks near the Wells Road bridge. An ice-well which stood on the canal side at the bottom of Coburg Road was likewise kept supplied with its frigid content by barge. It [-89-] was approached through gates painted canary colour, and the carts which fetched the ice away were of the same hue.
    The tavern, The Waterman's Arms, adjoining Hill Street bridge, kept some quite good row-boats, sculling and pair- and four-oared, which were let at a shilling or eighteen-pence per hour: and these boats constituted the canal's chief attraction, for in them, under the tuition of our eldest brother, we learned to row and navigate its waters from end to end. The amusement was not without excitement, as, on meeting or overtaking a barge, or several tied together, it was a matter requiring nerve, skill, and resource to negotiate a passage without getting crushed between vessel and bank. The grimy bargees were usually good-natured enough; chaffy and anxious to know whether our mother knew we were out - a popular wheeze in those days - but never attempting to launch the traditional brick. The knowledge of rowing and boat management which I acquired on the Grand Surrey Canal and afterwards matured on the Thames, stood me in good stead in many parts of the world in later life.
    There were freshwater mussels in the canal reputed to occasionally contain pearls of lustre and price, for which in summer vulgar boys dived; and the waters must have been passably stagnant, for weed grew and water-snails of at least two very diverse species flourished in the more- sheltered recesses.
    In the severe winter of 1855, in February, soon after our arrival in Camberwell, when the water in our bedroom ewers a few feet from our heads congealed hard for many nights, the canal was likewise frozen over and we walked along on the ice with great appreciation, shouting under the bridges to waken the echoes.
    The tow-path was closed off and a halfpenny toll charged from the St. George's Church bridge to the Old Kent Road and thence to the Brighton Railway bridge. Fishing was strictly forbidden on the closed lengths and we, my younger brother and I, once had our fishing tackle seized, with threats of a fine of forty shillings or, in default, imprisonment - I was nine or ten years old at the time - for this wicked vio-[-90-]lation of the By-laws, which our captor triumphantly invited us to inspect on the wall of his cabin. We lost our tackle-consisting of two muslin bags on sticks and a pickle jar-but gained the knowledge that there were such things as By-laws in the universe. Learning worth possessing has to be dearly bought.
    In Town management and road-making the possibilities of steam were yet hardly recognised. There may have been an embryonic steam road-roller or two about in the 1850s - I believe one of the earliest was used in Hyde Park - but highways were still made and mended by unadulterated man power. Newly laid macadam was compressed by huge iron or stone cylinders painfully hauled by ten or a dozen big navvies - reminding one of the pyramid-building Egyptians of the British Museum frescoes. Stone blocks or setts were driven home by files of men wielding great wooden rammers which they lifted and let fall in unison. There was still more brawn than brain about in some quarters.
    The Metropolis was at that time studded with some 178 tollbars. They were logical institutions enough, as they put the cost of maintaining roads on the parties who actually used and wore them out, and not, through the rates, on the community at large. But they often delayed traffic and always exacerbated tempers; besides which they were blamed for retaining within urban limits such undesirable institutions as stables, cow-sheds, and slaughterhouses.
    Tolls varied from  2d. to 4d. and 6d. In some parishes people could not drive into the next without being mulcted in two tolls. There were, however, no bars in the City and only one in Westminster.
    We had several in our neighbourhood: Camberwell Gate and Old Kent Road Gate being the chief. By-streets which might be used to avoid payment at the main tolls had subsidiary bars. It was in connection with one of these that I encountered the only stage Irishman I ever met in real life, and came to know that it was not a wholly imaginary type as I have since seen alleged in print.
    At the corner of the thoroughfares now called Rolls [-91-] Road and St. James's Road there was a bar for the purpose of preventing the flank of Old Kent Road Gate being turned, with a shelter for the toll-keeper not much larger than a sentry-box. In 1858 its denizen was a poor, miserable man, more than half-starved in appearance, who spoke with a tremendous brogue and was clad in a pot-hat without a rim, a bob-tailed coat with a brass button here and there, dilapidated knicker breeches, stockings, and deplorable shoes. I do not think he invariably wore a shirt. A shillelagh was all he wanted. He was the butt, poor fellow, of rude boys, who threw stones at his wooden cabin and mocked and jeered him when he came forth. Some funny lad had put it about that old Mike was out to buy May bugs in any quantity at a penny for two, and, acting on this information, boys and girls hunted the willow trees along the neighbouring ditches and pools for specimens, which when obtained they took to the poor Irishman. When he would neither accept the bugs nor pay the money they roundly abused him. Carters, too, would drive through his gates if they got the chance and threaten him with violence when he demanded toll. The popular name bestowed on Mike was opprobrious and unprintable. Manners were certainly rough in those days.
    A contrast in every way to his aide-de-camp was the chief toll-keeper at Old Kent Road Gate. He was a sturdy, stand-no-nonsense sort of man, with deep leathern pockets for silver and copper in front of his well-rounded corporation. He kept a firm hand over his two assistants as well as over equestrians and drivers of vehicles, whether they might happen to be lords, ladies, or larrikins. He had a substantial brick cottage, with comfortably smoking chimneys, standing on the broad pathway at the eastern corner of the Grange Road. The traffic was great and he must have collected a large sum every day. Pedestrians were untaxed but had to pass between posts set in the footways, spaced so as to drive nearly anything on wheels into the roadway where, of course, toll had to be paid. I think perambulators and wheel-harrows could pass free, but little else. The tollbar was flanked by two other bars, [-92-] for on one side stood the Dun Cow and on the other the Green Man, both taverns of mighty resort.
    The abolition of tolls made a great alteration in London. They persisted, however, on certain bridges - Waterloo Charing Cross, Lambeth, and Deptford Creek, for many years afterwards. And in at least one instance on a road, for about 1909, long after I had imagined tollbars had quite disappeared, driving to the Crystal Palace one afternoon, I was pulled up at a Gate at Dulwich and had to hand over fourpence in order to get through.
    It was not far from Old Kent Road toll that I saw my first road steamer or motor-car. Close to the Bricklayers' Arms Station there stood, and stands still, a tavern called The World Turned Upside Down, with a pictorial sign to that effect on the top of a post, and (in those days) a water-trough for horses in front. One afternoon in 1857, or perhaps 1858, I was in a shop opposite with our maternal parent when a commotion arose in the Street and I saw through a window a strange machine come along and stop alongside the water-trough. A crowd instantly surrounded it, but I made out that a man in a white jacket had got off and was putting a hose-pipe in the trough. The machine had a smoking chimney and a big wheel and I recognised it as a locomotive without rails. In some ten minutes the man got on the engine, the crowd made way and then, strongly puffing, the steamer started eastward. it immediately attained a good speed, for a tail of cheering boys who ran after it was at once left behind. I recollect that part of the performance very well indeed and also that the back of the bunker or screen behind the driver was painted green.
    The injudicious law which restricted the speed of road steamers to four miles an hour and prescribed that a man displaying a red flag should walk in front, was not yet enacted, and although such steamers were few in the 1850s they were not handicapped like that. That law proved an effective block to British invention and enterprise, and when the practicable motor-car did come along, it was France and not the real land of its origin that got both the credit and profit.
    [-93-] I mentioned Bricklayers' Arms Station just now. It was there that I witnessed what may be termed, in a sense, the initiation of the world's greatest tragedy. One afternoon, January 23rd, 1858, I was out for a walk with a younger brother and his nurse-maid when we came upon a crowd assembled about this station, which, I must explain, although it has been employed exclusively for goods and hop-pickers' trains for the last fifty years or so, was in the 1850s also used for the trains of royal and distinguished personages arriving in, or departing from, the metropolis. By a pleasant fiction of the South-Eastern Railway managers it was called the West End Station, the drive to Buckingham Palace and other realms of the mighty over Westminster Bridge being shorter and less encumbered than that from London Bridge. There was no Victoria Station then.
    Passing by the Swan tavern - still there with, to appearances, the same sign-post topped by the identical graven swan-immediately opposite the station gates, we heard that the Crown Prince of Prussia had arrived for the purpose of marrying the Princess Royal and would come out in a few minutes. A pot-hatted policeman noticed us (or, more probably, our neat fresh-coloured maid) and sternly ordering the crowd to let us through, gallantly placed the girl and her interesting charges right in front of the front rank, standing himself by her side, conversing pleasantly about Prooshians and Rooshians, remarking, amongst other things, that for his part he couldn't understand why Englishmen were not good enough for our Royal Princesses.
    Soon a commotion was heard in the station yard (then as now surrounded by a high brick wall); the gates were opened and several soldiers in helmets and breast-plates rode out; next a group of officers on horseback, followed by several carriages, which were allowed to pass in silence. Then a stir took place in the crowd and cheering began as another carriage, readily distinguished from the rest in some way which I do not remember-perhaps it had four horses instead of two-came forth. In it was a tall fair man in uniform who bowed to the right and left in acknowledgment of the burst of cheering which greeted his appear-[-94-]ance. We understood that the Prince Consort, the Prince of Wales and Prince Alfred were likewise in this chariot. Then more soldiers and a few mounted police; and after them tag, rag and bobtail, vociferating lustily. The crowd left us standing by the Swan and we heard volleys of cheering as the pageant proceeded towards the New Kent Road. Poor devils! Far were they from imagining that their grand-children were to be slaughtered in their beds by the scorpion at whose hatching they were abetting. As far indeed as I was from knowing that in the distant future I was destined to meet one of the royal princes I then gazed at with awe and timidity from the kerb.
    So, accidentally, we "assisted," as the French have it, at one of Dame History's afternoons out. Two days later the Crown Prince wedded the Princess Royal and some twelve months thence - January 27th, 1859 - the calamitous Kaiser Wilhelm II was born.
    Bricklayers' Arms was only one of many railway stations in England named after taverns. The fact that the old stage-coaches started from such places made travellers very familiar with them. So the railway companies, when they succeeded the coaches, saw nothing incongruous in calling their stations after inns, probably with the purpose of grafting their exact locality on the popular mind.

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924