MoboReader> Literature > Highways and Byways in London


Highways and Byways in London By Emily Constance Baird Cook Characters: 42064

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

"Behold how far the East is from the West!"

"A forest of houses, between which ebbs and flows a stream of human faces, with all their varied passions-an awful rush of love, hunger, and hate-for such is London."-Heine.

"To Newton and to Newton's Dog Diamond," says Carlyle, "what a different pair of Universes; while the painting on the optical retina of both was, most likely, the same." "A distinct Universe," adds Thackeray in the same spirit, "walks about under your Hat, and under mine." This latter reflection occurs to me often as I walk about London, and note all its many "sorts and conditions" of men. There is here, especially, everything in the "point of view." From the West to the East is a wide difference; yet, between the two, how many minor differences?

London, indeed, is hardly like a single city; it is rather like many cities rolled into one. Here, more than anywhere else, you realize that "it takes all sorts to make a world"; for the inhabitants vary quite as widely as do those of foreign countries. It was Disraeli who said, with much cynical truth:

"The courts of two cities do not so differ from one another as the court and the city in their peculiar ways of life and conversation. In short, the inhabitants of St. James's, notwithstanding they live under the same laws, and speak the same language, are a distinct people from those of Cheapside."

A Railway Bookstall.

Between the people of the East, and those of the West, it is not merely a question of distance; for, as a matter of fact, the two types are often closely interwoven. Thus, there is an "East in the West," where, not infrequently, slums and mean streets lie in near juxtaposition to squares of lordly pleasure-houses, and where recently erected "model dwellings" for workmen flourish in the very hearts of the Grosvenor and Cadogan Estates; and there is a "West in the East," as testified by the pleasant wide streets of comfortable roomy houses that abound in the near suburbs of East and South London. Yet, it may be broadly stated that every part of London has manners peculiar to itself, as unvarying, in their way, as were the laws of the Medes and Persians; with, also, one principal dividing-line,-that intangible line separating the East End from the West End. Here are a few of the differences between the two:

The West End has all the money and all the leisure; the East End monopolizes most of the labour, and nearly all of the dirt. The West End numbers a few thousands of floating population; the East End, a million or so of pretty constant inhabitants. Yet, by some strange association of ideas, it is to this small "West End" that we allude when we speak of "all London," and to which the daily papers refer when in August and September they assure us that "there is absolutely no one left in town." The manners and customs of each are dissimilar; both indulge in slang of a kind; but, while the East End usually cuts off the initial letter of its words, the West-End drops the final one. The West End is shocked by the East, but then, the East End is just as much shocked, for its part, by the West. If the "lady" is full of righteous scorn for the "factory hand" who spends her hard-won earnings on a feathered hat and a plush cape, the slum-dweller is, on the other hand, quite equally scandalized at the "lady's" brazen boldness in wearing a décolleté dress: "To think of 'er 'avin' the fice ter go hout with them nyked showlders, 'ow 'orrid!" the factory girl will say, from out the street-door crowd at an evening "crush." Even a veiled Turkish lady, from the secluded harem, could hardly show more genuine feeling at the unpleasant spectacle. No, our ways are not as their ways. Their conventionalities are quite as strict, even stricter, than ours. Possibly to them, even our speech sounds just as faulty as theirs to us; probably they think us very ill-bred because we do not constantly reiterate the words "Mrs. Smith," or "Mrs. Jones," when addressing the said ladies; or cry immediately, "Granted, Miss, or Sir," in reply to "I beg your pardon!" At any rate, we must, to them, seem chilly and unresponsive. Then, the books we read, if they understood them, would often greatly shock the slum-dwellers; the pictures we hang in our parlours would horrify them. Servants do not come from the slums or even from the lowest class; yet I have myself, out of regard for their feelings, had to "sky" the most beautiful chefs-d'?uvre of Titian, and turn the photograph of a masterpiece by Praxiteles with its face ignominiously to the wall. And it's "'ow you can go to that there National Gallery, 'm, and look at them pictures of folkses without a rag on 'em, well, it beats me, it do indeed!" After all, and once more, the difference is all in "the point of view!"

The City Train.

But, if the East and the West have their wide and radical differences, between the two there are, as I said, many recurring types. And the constant Londoner, were he suddenly to be brought, blindfolded, to some hitherto unknown spot in the city or near suburbs, would soon know his whereabouts by the look of the people he encountered. Thus, you may know Bloomsbury by its Jews, as well as by a population remarkable for general frowsiness, a look of "ingrained" dirt, and an indescribable air of having seen better days; Chelsea, by a certain art-serged female, and long-haired male community with an artistic,-and, yes,-perhaps a well-pleased and self-satisfied air; the "City," by its black-coated business men; Whitechapel, by its coster girls with fringes; Somers Town and Lisson Grove, by their odoriferous cats and cabbages; Mayfair, by its sleek carriage-horses, and also by the very superior maids and butlers you meet in its silent streets. Or, perhaps, by the straw that occasionally fills the quiet square corners, sounding the sad note of Death. I have seen a slum child dying of cancer in a crowded garret,-baked by the August sun,-covered with flies,-in a noisy alley; but only rich people's nerves require soothing at the last!

Miss Amy Levy has written a haunting little poem on this subject:

"Straw in the street, where I pass to-day,

Dulls the sound of the wheels and feet.

'Tis for a failing life they lay

Straw in the street.

"Here, where the pulses of London beat,

Someone strives with the Presence Grey-

Ah, is it victory or defeat?

"The hurrying people go their way,

Pause and jostle and pass and greet;

For life, for death, are they treading, say,

Straw in the street?"

"London," says a French writer, "resembles, in its size and luxury, Ancient Rome." But, if Ancient Rome, he adds, weighed heavily upon its toiling slaves, "how heavily does not our modern Rome weigh, also, upon the labouring class!" The hanging gardens of Park Lane are in as great, and greater contrast to the Somers Town, Drury Lane, and Deptford slums, as were ever the Palaces of the Palatine to the slaves' quarters. London is the best city in the world to be rich in, the worst to be very poor in; as it is the best city for happiness, the worst for misery. It is the Temple of Midas, where everything,-from a coffin to a hired guest,-from the entrée to an "exclusive" mansion to a peer's status,-can be bought with money. Here, more than anywhere else, money is imperatively needed. Even the poor hawkers who live in unspeakable slums, lined with cats and cabbages, in Lisson Grove, might, if they lived in the country, at least have clean cottages, gardens, and pure air. With the same income on which you are poor in town, you will be well-to-do, nay, rich in the country. House-rent,-indirect taxation,-the vicinity of tempting shops,-and amusements take the surplus. The attractions of town must indeed be great to the poor; for, if their wages be higher, their life is infinitely lower. But it is the same in all classes. It is often said that the rich, who own so many large and luxurious country estates, houses, and gardens, are ill-advised to come up to town and spend hot Mays and Junes in baking Belgravia or Mayfair; but, after all, they only share the tastes of the majority. Man is a gregarious animal, and loves his kind. Similarly, if you were to make a "house-to-house visitation" in some wretched Lisson Grove or East End slum, and inquire diligently of every inhabitant, whether they would prefer to "go back and live in the lovely country," their answer, I am convinced, would be firmly in the negative. East and West are alike in this.

But the key-note of the East End of London, apart from its big thoroughfares, is not so much squalor or poverty, as desperate, commonplace monotony, such as is described by Mrs. Humphry Ward in Sir George Tressady, "long lines of low houses,-two storeys always, or two storeys and a basement,-all of the same yellowish brick, all begrimed by the same smoke, every door-knocker of the same pattern, every window-blind hung in the same way, and the same corner 'public' on either side, flaming in the hazy distance." The East End is very conservative, and in its better houses there is a conservatism even in the blinds, which are, almost invariably, of cheap red rep or cloth, alternated by dirty "lace." With the poorest tenants, of course, blinds are at a discount; and grimy paper fills the frequent holes in the panes.

Yet, it is a mistake to suppose, as is more or less the popular theory, that the average East Ender's life is all unmitigated gloom. Take, for instance, the life of the honest, hard-working artisan and his family. He may live in "mean streets"; but use is everything; and they are not "mean" to him. Possibly, from his point of view, the two-pair back, the frowsy street, are "a sight more homely and cosy" than rich people's area gates and chilly grandeur. If the West End takes its pleasure by driving in the Park, the East, on the other hand, finds its relaxation on the tops of 'buses and trams, in walking about the flaring, gas-jetted street, in looking into shop windows, or in driving about in all the pride of a private, special coster's cart. If the rich do not know how the poor live, the poor, on the other hand, have but a hazy idea of how the rich live. If you asked the average slum-dweller how the rich spend their day, they would most likely say, "in drinking champagne and driving in motor cars." Thus the classes mutually do each other injustice. If the poor, for a while, could live the life of the rich, they would vote it terribly slow; Calverley was not so far out when he suggested slyly that

"Unless they've souls that grovel,

Folks prefer in fact a hovel to your dreary marble halls."

The poor of the East End have their special plays, their theatres, their "halls," their cheap popular amusements. And they have other minor compensations. They "eat hearty" when they do eat; they do not fall ill from dyspepsia or have to go to Carlsbad; or if they do suffer from M. Taine's favourite complaint, "the spleen" (which is unusual in a working man), they remedy it by a little harmless correction of their wives. Or if a poor woman's child is ill, she does not suffer for want of medical advice; she bundles it up quickly in a shawl, and runs with it to the nearest hospital, where, if the authorities are somewhat curt, she at any rate gets plenty of sympathy from all the other mothers in the big hospital waiting-room. Even that large, shabby crowd that, on visiting-days, await the opening of the hospital doors, so unutterably pathetic to the looker-on, is not, perhaps, without its alleviations. It is a mercy that we do not all like the same thing; and that, while the rich are exclusive, the poor will enjoy society of almost any kind: "We shall 'ave to leave our lodgin's, 'm, over them nice mews," a poor woman said to me lately, in a mournful tone. "The landlord, he's takin' the place down; an' I shall miss the 'orses' feet at night, somethin' shockin'; they was sech comp'ny like." Here, surely, is a case where one man's poison may be another man's meat!

As for the children of the working classes, they, unless their parents are lazy or given to drink, really have, often, a far better time of it, so far as their own actual enjoyment is concerned, than the more repressed children of the rich. The pavement is their property, the streets are their world; the beautiful, dazzling, magical, ever-changing streets, with their myriad attractions, their boundless possibilities. Then, the children of the poor are not brought up as useless luxuries, but, from tender years, are required to contribute their share of help to the household; and what the average child loves above all things is to feel itself of use. Dirt and grime are of no account whatever to the child; and old clothes are always far more comfortable than new to play about in. The "shades of the prison house" may close in, later, about the children of the poor, when they must go to service, to the factory, to the shop; but, in their early years, their life has its attractions.

Of course, however, with the families of the drunkard, the shiftless, the lazy, the case becomes altogether different. Drifting hopelessly from one slum to another, these soon help to swell the sad ranks of the "submerged tenth": poor creatures whose misery shivers in fireless garrets and damp cellars, whose empty stomachs call in vain for food; and whose only outlook is the workhouse, the "big villa" as they call it; an institution, however, that they will only enter from dire necessity, regarding it, as a rule, with wholesome dislike and disfavour.

There are many churches and chapels all over London, yet the very poor rarely attend any of them. Indeed, very few London working men's wives attend any religious service, unless, that is, they happen to boast of a new hat or bonnet.... They will, however, receive the "visitor" or "tract-lady" with a sort of chilly grandeur; and, though their acquaintance with Holy Writ is generally slight, through all life's troubles their favourite text is ever this: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven." Thus, they are always, so to speak, comforting themselves for the enforced payment of the insurance of hard work and poor fare in this life by the assurance of paid-up capital with interest, in the next! Poor, hard-worked mothers of the slums! who would grudge you that harmless and unfailing consolation?

Bank Holiday.

Nor is the "country,"-except in strictly limited quantities,-such an unfailing consolation to the children of the poor, as some would have us imagine. (That it is such a priceless advantage to their health is, no doubt, partly owing to the fact that it is generally associated with good and wholesome food.) The children like the "real country" for a day or two;-afterwards, they are too often conscious of slight boredom. At first, they delight in the fact that "it's so green all rarnd,-right to the sky,-with no roads, and no walls,-and no trespsin boards,-and no pleecemen;" but these joys have their limitations,-and, after a fortnight's holiday,-even poor slum children are generally glad to get back home. Even in tender youth,-the country is a cult that requires some learning. "The country is dreadful slow,"-a little girl of the great city once remarked with painful frankness,-"no swings, no rahnd-abarts, no penny-ice men, no orgins, no shops, no nothink;-jest a great bare field only." Here, again, is the difference of "the point of view!"

Go into that glittering Armida-Palace, the busy Whitechapel Road, and watch the scene at nightfall. The weather may be cold or mirk; the weather matters little; the skies may be glum and starless, but a galaxy of light, from innumerable gas jets and shop fronts, floods the busy street. Here is, certainly, no lack of life and amusement; the crowd laughs, jostles, and chatters, as if no such thing as care or struggle existed. It is a motley crowd. Handsome dark-eyed Jewesses with floppy hair and long gold earrings; coster girls "on the spree," dressed in their gaudy best; staid couples doing their weekly marketing; here and there a happy family round a stall, eating "winkles" composedly with the help of pins, or demolishing saucerfuls of the savoury cockle; vendors of penny toys; all these, combined with the voluble "patter" of the lively shop-boys, make a veritable pandemonium. Shops are full; barrows of all kinds drive a brisk trade; velvet-cushioned trams ply up and down the big highway, which extends, apparently almost into infinity, up the long Mile End Road. (Tram-lines, in London, seem more or less confined to the uninspiring North and East and their suburbs.) Ugly and uninvigorating enough by day, the streets, by night, invest themselves with mysterious glamour and brightness. Like some murky theatre when the deceiving footlights are lit, this, too, is a "stage illusion," and it is a wise one. For all the East End does its shopping by gaslight; now only it begins to enjoy its day. Seen in such kaleidoscopic glare of light, even the Whitechapel Road has its attractions. Yet through it all one sometimes sees sad sights. Many public-houses dot these thoroughfares, shining like meteors through the nocturnal mists; and here and there, truth to tell, a bevy of red-faced women may be seen through the plate-glass, whose unhappy infants are stationed in shabby perambulators outside; their eyes, by dint of vain straining towards their natural guardians, painfully acquiring that squint that would seem to be the birthright of so many of the London poor.

In strange contrast with the din and bustle of Aldgate and its network of wide streets, are the collegiate buildings of Toynbee Hall, in Commercial Street, close by. This is a curious little oasis in the wilderness, a most unexpected by-way in busy, glaring Whitechapel. To Canon and Mrs. Barnett, who have devoted their lives towards making Toynbee Hall what it is, is due the chief honour for the successful working of this Institution, primarily intended to bring "sweetness and light" into the darkened, unlovely lives of the London poor. The name of Arnold Toynbee, the young and enthusiastic Oxford man and reformer, has been immortalised in this place, the first of the University Settlements in London. Toynbee died young, of overwork and overpressure; in a sense a martyr to his cause; yet the work of this latter-day apostle has already had large results, and his creed has had many followers. To him, dying in his youthful zeal, Tennyson's lines seem specially appropriate:

"So many worlds, so much to do,

So little done, such things to be,

How know I what had need of thee,

For thou wert strong as thou wert true?


"O hollow wraith of dying fame,

Fade wholly, while the soul exults,

And self-infolds the large results

Of force that would have forged a name."

In some ways, Toynbee Hall, and its successive, and kindred institutions, seem like late revivals of the monastic system of the middle ages. Toynbee Hall is a hall in the academic sense,-and shelters successive batches of some twenty residents,-young university men of strong convictions,-who come here both to learn and to teach;-to teach their less fortunate brothers,-to learn how the poor live. At its hospitable door the sick and suffering apply for help and succour; here charity,-charity, too, of the kind that "blesseth him that gives and him that takes,"-is freely given,-without narrow restrictions of sectarianism or dogma-and it does more than this.

For,-unlike the monastic system,-Toynbee Hall is specially devised to help the individual soul of the poor worker in busy London to rise above its often base and mean surroundings. The late Matthew Arnold, in his well-remembered lecture at Toynbee Hall,-taught the possibility of "following the gleam" even in the "gloom" of the East-End,-and of helping Nature, by the aid of books and of art, from sinking under "long-lived pressure of obscure distress." Books and art are great tonics. The ancient monasteries dissuaded,-if anything,-knowledge, and aspiration generally, in the "masses": Toynbee Hall encourages and promotes it; it is thus a physician to the mind even more than to the body. It raises the aims, improves the tastes, and widens the horizons of its disciples; it satisfies the cravings of the poor for better things; but it must first inculcate such cravings. Within its walls the poor and struggling artisan may enjoy concerts, lectures, pictures;-may learn, too, from the best teachers,-and profit by many of the advantages of university life. There are not only lecture-rooms, but reception-rooms,-dining-rooms,-a library;-the latter a much-valued institution in the neighbourhood. Many pleasant social gatherings are held here;-not only of working men,-but also of factory girls,-shop-hands,-pupil-teachers,-who come here,-these latter,-to cast off the "codes" and dry bones of lea

rning, and acquire a little of its warmer, fuller humanity.

Toynbee Hall is not the only place in East London where such works are carried on. Oxford House, Bethnal Green,-and Mansfield House, Canning Town,-are, among others,-institutions more or less of the kind; and the Passmore Edwards Institute, in Tavistock Place, has similar aims. But to Toynbee Hall is due the introduction of yearly loan Exhibitions of good pictures for the East End,-originated by Canon Barnett, and still successfully carried on by his unwearying exertions.

The charms of poetic contrast are always great in London. While standing in a dingy byway of some city church-St. Olave's, Hart Street, or St. Jude's, Whitechapel,-does not the deep music of the organ,-resounding from inside the building,-fill the listener with a strange feeling almost akin to tears? Not even outside a country church is one so affected. Here it seems to bring the calm of Eternity into the fitful fever of the moment. The picturesqueness, alone, of religion, is so great, that, to the determined agnostic London would surely lose half its charm. And who could work among the London poor without, at least, something of the feeling so beautifully expressed in Matthew Arnold's well-known lines?

"'Twas August, and the fierce sun overhead

Smote on the squalid streets of Bethnal Green,

And the pale weaver, through his windows seen

In Spitalfields, look'd thrice dispirited.

"I met a preacher there I knew, and said:

'Ill and o'erwork'd, how fare you in this scene?'-

'Bravely!' said he; 'for I of late have been

Much cheer'd with thoughts of Christ, the living bread.'

"O human soul! as long as thou canst so

Set up a mark of everlasting light,

Above the howling senses' ebb and flow,

To cheer thee, and to right thee if thou roam-

Not with lost toil thou labourest through the night!

Thou mak'st the heaven thou hop'st indeed thy home."

Toynbee Hall, of course, is of modern design; but there are still many good old-time houses in the East-end,-now deserted and left stranded by the tide of fashion. Of these is Essex House, in the Mile-End-Road, (opposite Burdett-Road), now no longer residential, but used by Mr. Ashbee as the convenient location for his well-known "Guild and School of Handicraft." Built partly by a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren, with panelled rooms, oak staircase, and large garden, its solid dignity is well suited to its new and living purpose. Mr. Ashbee,-the founder and moving spirit of the Guild-was himself a worker at Toynbee Hall, where, indeed, in a small "Ruskin class" held in 1886-7, the school had its beginning. So one thing grows out of another, and a sturdy plant sends out its offshoots.

Thus Toynbee Hall, and kindred institutions, show the West-end in the East; now let us turn to the East-end in the West. This is not so difficult to find; "the poor," indeed, "we have always with us," and in some of London's most fashionable streets the saddest sights of all may be seen. Slums of a sort are to be found near most of the fashionable West-end squares; and, even within the precincts of aristocratic Mayfair, the expensive fish-shop in Bond-Street,-where, during long summer days, enormous blocks of ice, tempting to the eye, glitter like some Rajah's diamond,-entertains a motley crew of poor folk on Saturday nights, when it makes a practice of giving away its remaining stock. Bond Street is, in a manner, the "Aldgate High Street" of the fashionable world: here, at four o'clock or so in the afternoon, are to be seen the "gilded youth,"-the dandies of the day;-here the smart world flock for afternoon tea; and here fine ladies walk even unattended, and satisfy, as eagerly as their Whitechapel sisters, their feminine cravings for shop-windows. Who was it who first said that no real woman could ever pass a hat-shop? The truth of this remark may here be attested. The very smartest of motor-cars,-of horses,-of "turn-outs" generally,-may be seen blocking the narrow Piccadilly entrance of this thoroughfare from which deviates as many mysterious byways as from Cheapside itself. Very much sought after are all these tiny streets; indeed, the tide of fashion has been ever faithful to this special part of the metropolis. Did not Swift once write to "Stella," of the neighbouring Bury Street; "I have a first floor, a dining-room and bedroom, at eight shillings a week,-and plaguey dear!"? But,-even considering the vast difference in money value since Swift's day,-we have to pay a good deal more than that now for similar accommodation in this quarter.

But, yet further West, between Bond Street and Hyde Park, are Grosvenor and Berkeley Squares, the very focus of fashion, in whose neighbourhood rents rise proportionately. Here, too, are many unexpected and charming byways. Behind the vestry in Mount Street, for instance, in the passage that leads into the church in Farm Street, you might think yourself thousands of miles away from Mayfair. This church in Farm Street,-the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception,-is famous as a Jesuit centre; here it was that Henry Manning, afterwards Cardinal, was "received" on Passion Sunday, 1851.

Other byways there are, too, of a less attractive kind; the byways where dwell the "poor relations," so to speak, of the Aristocracy and the "Smart Set"; the impoverished ladies whose sense of propriety would lead them to dwell even in a wheelbarrow, could that wheelbarrow only be drawn up on the fashionable side of the street! They are "backmewsy" little streets of saddening aspect, such as Dickens's typical "Mews Street, Grosvenor Square," that contained the residence of Mr. Tite Barnacle, with "squeezed houses," each with "a ramshackle bowed front, little dingy windows, and a little dark area like a damp waistcoat pocket" ... the house a sort of bottle filled with a strong distillation of mews, so that when the footman opened the door, he "seemed to take the stopper out." Dickens's picture is still a portrait that many will recognise:

"Mews Street, Grosvenor Square, was not absolutely Grosvenor Square itself, but it was very near it. It was a hideous little street of dead wall, stables, and dunghills, with lofts over coach-houses inhabited by coachmen's families, who had a passion for drying clothes, and decorating their window-sills with miniature turnpike-gates. The principal chimney-sweep of that fashionable quarter lived at the blind end of Mews Street; and the same corner contained an establishment much frequented about early morning and twilight, for the purchase of wine-bottles and kitchen-stuff. Punch's shows used to lean against the dead wall in Mews Street, while their proprietors were dining elsewhere; and the dogs of the neighbourhood made appointments to meet in the same locality. Yet there were two or three small airless houses at the entrance end of Mews Street, which went at enormous rents on account of their being abject hangers-on to a fashionable situation; and whenever one of these fearful little coops was to be let (which seldom happened, for they were in great request), the house agent advertised it as a gentlemanly residence in the most aristocratic part of town, inhabited solely by the élite of the beau monde."

But to the millionaire's dwelling, located at that period in Harley Street, Cavendish-Square, the novelist is hardly more polite:

"Like unexceptionable society" (he says), "the opposing rows of houses in Harley Street were very grim with one another. Indeed, the mansions and their inhabitants were so much alike in that respect, that the people were often to be found drawn up on opposite sides of dinner-tables, in the shade of their own loftiness, staring at the other side of the way with the dullness of the houses. Everybody knows how like the street the two dinner-rows of people who take their stand by the street will be. The expressionless uniform twenty houses, all to be knocked and rung at in the same form, all approachable by the same dull steps, all fended off by the same pattern of railing, all with the same impracticable fire-escapes, the same inconvenient fixtures in their heads, and everything without exception to be taken at a high valuation-who has not dined with these? The house so drearily out of repair, the occasional bow-window, the stuccoed house, the newly-fronted house, the corner house with nothing but angular rooms, the house with the blinds always down, the house with the hatchment always up, the house where the collector has called for one quarter of an Idea, and found nobody at home-who has not dined with these?"

Dickens, on the whole, is kinder to his thieves' kitchens and debtors' prisons, even to Fagin and his crew; for he allows them, at any rate, to boast occasionally of an "Idea." But the "Smart Set," with the plutocrats and the Merdles, has moved westward since the days of the Early-Victorian novelists; and "Harley Street, Cavendish Square," is now mainly medical.

The smart ladies often seen shopping in Bond Street from neat broughams and landaus, drawn by high-stepping horses, are mainly people whose names figure largely in the so-called "society" papers; their goings and comings, be they aristocratic or theatrical, are all, therefore, carefully noted by the ubiquitous "lady reporter;" terrible fate of the well-known or well-born! But it is an age of advertisement; and who shall say entirely on which side the fault lies? Where these leaders of society shop now, other generations of fair dead ladies, gone "with the snows of yesteryear," have in their turn enjoyed the dear delights of lace, millinery, and jewels. Here the "ladies of St. James's," in the eighteenth century, revelled in their "lutestrings," "dimitys," "paduasoys"; and, to flaunt it over their less fortunate sisters, bought the very newest new thing in turbans. Piccadilly, doubtless, looked a trifle brighter and smarter in those days of less smoke, as befitted the "court end of the town;" and the young "swells" of the day presented a braver array in their laces, ruffles, and knee-breeches. Then, as now, the Holbein-like Gate of St. James's Palace, dignified in sober red-brick, stood sentinel at the bottom of St. James's Street,-the street thus alluded to by Sheridan:

"The Campus Martius of St. James's Street,

Where the beaux' cavalry pace to and fro,

Before they take the field in Rotten Row."

In Regent Street.

St. James's Street, with all its byways and purlieus, has always been greatly in request for exclusive and smart clubs, as well as for bachelors' lodgings of the luxurious kind. It has also literary associations. St. James's Place, where Addison lived, was also noted for the residence of the old banker-poet Samuel Rogers; this was his home for fifty-five years, and here, at No. 22, he gave his famous "literary breakfasts." Of old the most exclusive gathering in this region was "Almack's," ruled by the famous Lady Jersey, "the seventh heaven of the fashionable world." It is situated in King Street, and is now "Willis's Rooms." St. James's, as a rule, is "exclusive" enough still; but the neighbourhood has in other ways gone through many changes. The great house built by Nash for the Regent,-Carlton House, beyond Pall Mall,-has vanished like Aladdin's Palace, and has left in its place only one big column, a flight of noble steps, and a stately terrace of palatial mansions,-Carlton-House-Terrace, overlooking the Mall. This Ph?nix-like spirit of London, ever rising anew on its own ashes, was always dear to Thackeray. Here is one of his inimitable passages on the subject, thrown off at random:

"... I remember peeping through the colonnade at Carlton House, and seeing the abode of the great Prince Regent. I can see yet the Guards pacing before the gates of the place. The place? What place? The palace exists no more than the palace of Nebuchadnezzar. It is but a name now. Where be the sentries who used to salute as the Royal chariots drove in and out? "The chariots, with the kings inside, have driven to the realms of Pluto; the tall Guards have marched into darkness, and the echoes of their drums are rolling in Hades." Where the palace once stood, a hundred little children are paddling up and down the steps to St. James's Park. A score of grave gentlemen are taking their tea at the Athen?um Club; as many grisly warriors are garrisoning the United Service Club opposite. Pall Mall is the great social Exchange of London now-the mart of news, of politics, of scandal, of rumour-the English forum, so to speak, where men discuss the last despatch from the Crimea, the last speech of Lord Derby, the next move of Lord John. And, now and then, to a few antiquarians, whose thoughts are with the past rather than with the present, it is a memorial of old times and old people, and Pall Mall is our Palmyra. Look! About this spot, Tom of Ten Thousand was killed by K?nigsmarck's gang. In that red house Gainsborough lived, and Culloden Cumberland, George III.'s uncle. Yonder is Sarah Marlborough's palace, just as it stood when that termagant occupied it. At 25, Walter Scott used to live; at the house, now No. 79, and occupied by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, resided Mrs. Eleanor Gwynn, comedian. How often has Queen Caroline's chair issued from under yonder arch! All the men of the Georges have passed up and down the street. It has seen Walpole's chariot and Chatham's sedan; and Fox, Gibbon, Sheridan, on their way to Brookes's; and stately William Pitt stalking on the arm of Dundas; and Hanger and Tom Sheridan reeling out of Raggett's; and Byron limping into Wattier's; and Swift striding out of Bury Street; and Mr. Addison and Dick Steele, both perhaps a little the better for liquor; and the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York clattering over the pavement; and Johnson counting the posts along the streets, after dawdling before Dodsley's window; and Horry Walpole hobbling into his carriage, with a gimcrack just bought out at Christie's; and George Selwyn sauntering into White's."-Thackeray: The Four Georges, p. 72.


Pall Mall, the street of palaces and palatial clubs par excellence, is one of London's handsomest highways. It has for three centuries been the Fleet Street of the well-to-do poets, of the leisured literary world; for what, indeed, could poverty ever have in common with Pall Mall? Defoe, in his day, wrote thus of it:

"I am lodged in the street called Pall Mall, the ordinary residence of all strangers, because of its vicinity to the Queen's Palace, the Park, the Parliament House, the theatres, and the chocolate and coffee houses, where the best company frequent. If you would know our manner of living, 'tis thus:-We rise by nine, and those that frequent great men's levées find entertainment at them till eleven, or, as at Holland, go to tea tables. About twelve, the beau-monde assembles in several coffee or chocolate houses; the best of which are the Cocoa Tree and White's chocolate houses, St. James's, the Smyrna, Mr. Rochford's, and the British coffee houses; and all these so near one another that in less than one hour you see the company of them all."

This sounds, truly, a pleasant enough life;-and its counterpart of the present day is,-allowing for altered customs,-no doubt equally pleasant. The taverns mentioned have given place to spacious club-houses, all more or less modern; and the day has, in the last two centuries, come to begin earlier and end later. Coffee-houses, in Defoe's time, were the necessary ladders to rising fame talent; thus, the boy Chatterton, starving and unknown in cruel London, sought to allay his mother's anxiety by writing to her: "I am quite familiar at the Chapter coffee-house (St. Paul's), and know all the geniuses there."

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Pall Mall was a pretty suburban promenade, and its "sweet shady side," sung by the poets, was really no misnomer, as a row of elms fringed it, both north and south. And it is still an aristocratic region, despite the "business" air that has of late invaded it. Of the people you meet here,-elderly gentlemen with nothing, perhaps, very remarkable about them, to outward view;-or smart young men, with well-polished boots and hats, and faultless dress-coats,-it is safe to say that a fair number will have distinguished themselves in one way or another; either in the working of their country's government, or in the fighting of their country's battles. But, here as elsewhere, England is uncommunicative, and you may pass angels unawares.

Just behind Pall Mall is the aristocratic St. James's Square-already, alas! invaded by the modern builder:

"She shall have all that's fine and fair,

And ride in a coach to take the air,

And have a house in St. James's Square,"-

-runs the old ballad. Though St. James's Square now contains a fair sprinkling of Government and other offices,-yet its clientèle is still somewhat ducal. Nevertheless, this Square, too, recalls something of the seamy side of life. "What," says Lord Rosebery, referring to London's many associations, "can be less imposing, or less interesting in themselves,-than the railings of St. James's Square? Yet, you cannot touch those railings-hideous as they are and dull as are the houses that surround them-without thinking that Johnson and Savage, hungry boys, starved by their kind mother, London, who attracted men of letters to her, walked round that square one summer night and swore they would die for their country."

Yes,-this, in some way, seems "the best of all possible worlds,"-and London, in such surroundings, the best of all possible cities to live in. Yet, here, too, the East is still present in the West. Round the corner, as I gaze, comes a pitiful group,-a tawdry woman, her voice raucous and suggestive of gin, holding by the hand two children, a boy and a girl,-all singing, or making believe to sing, in chorus:

"'Ark! ar ark, my sowl! Angelic songs are swellin',

From Hearth's green fields-and Hoceant's way-be shore-

'Ark, ar-ark,-"

Alas! the notes are hardly suggestive of angelic visitants. The chubby little boy is crying, the tears making streaky marks down his dirty little face. "I'm so cowld, so cowld, mammy," "'Owld yer row!"-admonishes his sister, in the intervals of her husky accompaniment.... The sodden voice of the mother is so terrible that I am moved to give her a shilling to go away and remove her poor suffering babies.... But,-at the angle of Waterloo Place,-another phantom is stationed; a wretchedly-clothed creature, evidently on the look-out for a job. He might himself be an incarnation of Famine. His cheeks are hollow and cadaverous; his eyes are dulled and hopeless; he shivers in the bleak raw December air;-in the "best of all possible worlds,-the richest of all possible cities".... The mere "cab-horse's charter" is not for such as he! Ungrateful country, that deals so ill with her children, giving them too often "stones for bread!"

"If suddenly," says Mr. Ruskin, "in the midst of the enjoyments of the palate and lightnesses of heart of a London dinner-party, the walls of the chamber were parted, and through their gap the nearest human beings who were famishing and in misery were borne into the midst of the company-feasting and fancy-free-if, pale with sickness, horrible in destitution, broken by despair, body by body, they were laid upon the soft carpet, one beside the chair of every guest, would only the crumbs of the dainties be cast to them-would only a passing glance, a passing thought be vouchsafed to them? Yet the actual facts, the real relations of each Dives and Lazarus, are not altered by the intervention of the house wall between the table and the sick-bed-by the few feet of ground (how few!) which are indeed all that separate the merriment from the misery."

It is an effective contrast. But, perhaps the most vivid and pathetic sketch of the Submerged of the Great City is that of John Davidson's weird and haunting ballad: "The Loafer":

"I hang about the streets all day,

At night I hang about;

I sleep a little when I may,

But rise betimes the morning's scout;

For through the year I always hear

Afar, aloft, a ghostly shout.

"My clothes are worn to threads and loops;

My skin shows here and there;

About my face like seaweed droops

My tangled beard, my tangled hair;

From cavernous and shaggy brows

My stony eyes untroubled stare.

"I move from eastern wretchedness

Through Fleet Street and the Strand;

And as the pleasant people press

I touch them softly with my hand,

Perhaps to know that still I go

Alive about a living land.

"I know no handicraft, no art,

But I have conquered fate;

For I have chosen the better part,

And neither hope, nor fear, nor hate.

With placid breath on pain and death,

My certain alms, alone I wait."


Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top