John McDonnell has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web his website with the electronic text, including scanned images, of the anonymous London Characters and the Humourous Side of London Life. With Upwards of 70 Illustrations apparently by a "Mr. Jones," which the London firm Stanley Rivers & Co. published in 1871. Brackets indicate explanatory material, such as interpretations of contemporary slang, by Mr. McDonnell. — George P. Landow.]
henever I looked up from my newspaper I met the eye of a middle-aged gentleman who was sitting in the same box---a box, I should mention, in the coffee-room of an old-fashioned hotel in London, which is partitioned off in primitive style. I say gentleman advisedly, for the stranger had every apparent claim to be so called. For the rest there was little to distinguish him from the crowd of well-dressed and well-mannered persons whom one meets about in public places. He might be a clergyman, or a lawyer, or a doctor, though I should doubt his being an active member of either profession. He gave you the idea of a man retired from any pursuit in which he might have been engaged, and to be occupied rather in killing time than in inviting time to kill him. He had a healthy, happy-looking face, bearing no traces of hard work or deep thought, and his hair was only partially grey. He had a mild eye, and a mild voice, and a mild manner---I noticed the two latter qualities through his intercourse with the waiter---and was so suave in his ways as to be polite even to the port that he was drinking after an early dinner. He handled his decanter in a caressing manner such as he might adopt towards a favourite niece, and took up his wine-glass as gently as if it were a child.
Whenever I met his eye, I noticed that it gave me a kind of recognising look, which, however, was not sustained; for, before he had thoroughly attracted my attention he always returned to the illustrated journal before him, as if suddenly determined to master some abstruse subject with a great deal of solution in the way of woodcuts. His communicative appearance made me think that I had met him before, but it did not occur to me where, so I took no further notice. Presently he spoke, but he only said---
"I beg your pardon, sir."
There was nothing to beg my pardon about, so I begged his, not to be outdone in gratuitous courtesy. Then he begged mine again, adding---
"I thought you made a remark---I did not quite hear."
No, I said, I had not made any remark. Then we both bowed and smiled, and resumed our reading---the stranger with some little confusion, I thought.
After a time he made a remark himself.
"I should not have intruded," said he, "but I thought I had met you before."
I am not one of those persons who think that every stranger who addresses them in a public room means to pick their pockets, but I have a proper prejudice against being bored, and in any case I had no resource but to answer as I did, to the effect that I could not recall the when and the where.
"Were you ever in Vancouver's Island?" the stranger asked.
In the cause of truth, I was obliged to declare a negative.
"Then it could not have been there," said he, musingly; "but," he added, "you might have known Colonel Jacko---a relation of mine---who was governor of the Island. You remind me of him---that is why I ask."
I did not quite see the connection between knowing a man and bearing a personal resemblance to him, but in disavowing any acquaintance with Colonel Jacko, I did so with all courtesy.
"You have been probably in New Zealand?" pursued the stranger, warming apparently into considerable interest in the question involved; "if so, you must have known Major-General Mango, who commanded there in 18--."
I was obliged to confess my ignorance of the unfortunate colony in question, and of the distinguished officer alluded to.
"I merely asked," continued the stranger with a desponding air, "as he was a relation of mine."
I had nothing to do with his relatives any more than himself, but his manner was so gentle that I could not think it intentionally obtrusive, so I acknowledged the receipt of the information as pleasantly as possible.
"If you had been in India," he pursued, taking it for granted apparently that I was no traveller, "you would probably have met one of my sons. One is in the civil, the other in the military, service. Both fine fellows. The elder was political agent at Tulwarpatam at the time when the Rajah was so aggressive, and it was through his influence that his highness was induced to remit the Abkaree duties, and give up his claim to the contested Jaghires. The other was through the mutinies, and was wounded both at Delhi and Lucknow---curious coincidence, was it not?"
I admitted that his sons seemed to have done the State some service, and remarked upon the coincidence as one of those mysterious dispensations of Providence for which it is impossible to account. And that was all I could do towards the conversation, which dropped at this point.
Presently the stranger took his hat, with an undecided ultimately effectual movement. Then he called the waiter, and had a little conversation with that functionary about the port, which he said was not quite the same that he used to have in the year 1835. (I strongly suspect, by the way, that he was right in this supposition; as the wine he had been drinking belonged probably to the celebrated vintage of 1869.) At last he made a movement to depart, and ultimately did depart, but only after a great deal of delay; and even when in actual motion across the room, he looked back more than once, as if expecting somebody to ask him to remain.
When the waiter came to clear away the abandoned decanter and glass, I asked him if he knew the gentleman who had just gone out.
"Yes, sir," was the reply; "we have known the gentleman for some years, though he does not come very often. He lives by himself somewhere in town, and has no relations except some who are abroad. He says he has no friends, too, as he has lost a great deal of money, and cannot keep the society he did. He doesn't seem to know anybody who comes here, though he talks to some now and then, as he has to you."
I was sorry not to have heard this before, that I might have treated the stranger with a little more attention. For this glimpse I had of him, and the few hints given me by the waiter, were sufficient to assure me that he belonged to a class who are more perhaps to be pitied than the merely poor; that he is in the world but is not of it, and has a residence but is without a home; that he is, in fact---an Outsider of Society.
People engaged in active pursuits---whether in spending or making money---are not likely to be troubled by deprivations of the kind referred to. They live among their peers, with whom they have interests in common. They are as important to others as others are important to them. They are in the stream of pleasure or business as the case may be. There is no danger that they will be forgotten. Their doors are besieged by visitors, drawn by diverse attractions; so that it is necessary to make a vigorous classification of the latter, not only of the usual social character, but distinguishing those who come to oblige the master of the house from those who come to oblige themselves. Their tables are covered with cards and letters, prospectuses, tradesmen's circulars, begging petitions, newspapers they have never ordered, and books that it is thought they may possibly want. Their vote and interest is always being requested for deserving individuals, and their subscriptions for equally deserving institutions. Chance of being forgotten indeed! So long as they can be made useful there is as much chance of the Bank of England being forgotten. Such men may be alone, sometimes, in one sense of the term. That is to say, their relations may be scattered or dead. But that is of very little practical moment in their case. They can always find people prepared to be second fathers or brothers to them, and even mothers and sisters, it may be. They can always marry, too, and then a home establishes itself as a matter of course.
But there are---who shall say how many?---people living in London who live almost alone; who have no society except of a casual, and what may be called an anonymous kind; and whose homes are merely places where they may obtain shelter and rest. I am not here alluding to the class who are social and domestic outlaws because they are positively poor. There is no anomaly in this condition of life; it is a natural consequence of having no money. The people I mean have mostly money enough for themselves, but not sufficient to make them important to others, and obtain for them consideration in the world. Sometimes their positions have changed; sometimes things have changed around them and left their positions as they were, the result being much the same. It may be that they are seeking to make a little more money by such employments as agencies, secretaryships, and so forth---employments the most difficult of all to get, as any man of moderate education and abilities can do the duties---but most frequently they are content to vegetate upon what they have, and to concentrate themselves upon the attainment of companionship and home. When one of the active men whom I have mentioned goes away from home, the Post Office establishment is ruthlessly disturbed by mandates for the re-addressing and forwarding of letters. The migration of one of our passive friends makes no difference to anybody. Except it be an occasional communication from a relation in a distant colony, sent to the care of an agent, he has no letters to trouble him, and if he did not occasionally make a show of existence by asserting himself in pen and ink, he might perish out of the memory of man. To such people the advertising columns of the newspapers must possess peculiar interest; for a large number of the announcements seem expressly intended to meet their requirements, while, on the other hand, an equal number of the specified "Wants" seem to come from their class.
Homes for special purposes appear to be plentiful enough. You cannot take up a newspaper without having your attention called to a dozen or two. Apart from the "Home for Lost and Starving Dogs,"---which is an establishment not applying, except by sympathy, to any class of my readers---we have such charities as the "Convalescent Home," established by the wife of the Premier. In the next column we are sure to be reminded of the "Home for Little Boys," in addition to which has just been appropriately projected a "Home for Little Girls,"---not the least desirable object of the two. An individual speculator has also established what he rather invidiously calls an "Epileptic Home for the Sons of Gentlemen,"---there being, it is to be presumed, genteel as well as vulgar forms of the malady in question. "Educational Homes" for youth of both sexes abound in newspaper announcements. They may afford very good opportunities for the intended purpose, but I should prefer placing my trust in establishments which are candidly called schools. Not long since I saw an advertisement in a morning paper which ran, as nearly as I can remember, in these terms:---
"A clergyman in a popular parish by the sea-side, offers an Educational Home to a few little boys of good principles, the sons of gentlemen. Apply," &c.
Now, without desiring to be harsh to the advertiser, I must take leave to say that the above contains several important errors in taste. It would have been just as well, and a great deal better perhaps, had the clergyman refrained from mentioning the popularity of his parish, however much the description might be deserved. His specification of little boys "of good principles" suggests a slur upon little boys in general which does not come well from an educator of youth; and one would think that he would be more usefully engaged in taking in hand little boys of bad principles, if any such exist. But the inference next suggested is even less creditable to the reverend advertiser. It is of no use, it seems, for little boys to have good principles, as far as he is concerned, unless they be the sons of gentlemen. This is sad.
But the mention of homes of a special character---of which there are many more in London than have been enumerated---is only incidental to my present purpose. I especially allude to lonely people who seek society, and to which society, in a certain limited degree, seems continually offering to sell itself. And among lonely people, as far as homes are concerned, must be included "persons engaged in the City," or "engaged during the day," who are frequently appealed to by advertisers. The number of persons---idle or occupied---who want homes seem to be equalled only by the number of persons who are prepared to offer them, with very small pecuniary temptation. I have always thought that a great deal of self-sacrifice must be necessary in the case of the family of a dancing-master who for years past has been advertising his lessons with the addition that "the Misses X------- will officiate as partners." The Misses X------- must surely be tired by this time of dancing with people who drop them directly thay are able to dance. But it must be still more sad to take into your family any chance stranger who may be sufficiently respectable, board him, and lodge him, and promise to be "cheerful" and "musical" for his amusement. But offers of this kind are plentiful enough, and they would not be made were there not a fair supply of people to embrace them.
Looking back at only one daily paper for only a week or ten days may be found a host of advertisements of both classes; and I will first allude to a few of these among the "Wants."
Here is a specimen:---"Home wanted by a respectable elderly lady---rather invalid, not helpless---in a sociable family; meals with it understood. Children objectionable. Large bedroom (not top) facing east or south indispensible. Aspect important. Forty guineas [42 pounds]. Must be west of Holborn: other localities useless. Letters," &c.
It would be difficult to determine the exact state of this respectable elderly lady's health from the above description, there being a rather long range between the affirmative and the suggestions offered by the negative statement; but even though she be in a high state of agility the conditions are surely rather complex: and there must be families in which forty guineas a year go a great way if she has any chance of gratifying her wishes.
Another elderly lady is more explicit, if not quite grammatical. She describes herself as "an invalid from rheumatism," and her desire is "to board with a genteel, cheerful family." Here again there must be "no children." She prefers "the neighbourhood of St. John's Wood, near the Park, or an equal distance from the West-End." Letters must be prepaid.
The following looks like a case in which society is an object:---"Board and residence wanted, by a widow lady and a young lady, and partial board for a young gentleman, within three miles north of London, near a station. Children objected to. (Poor children!) Three bedrooms indispensible. Preference given to a musical family, where there is a daughter who would be companionable." Terms, it is added, "must be moderate."
The following has not a pleasant sound:---"Wanted, a comfortable home for a female aged seventy years, where there are no children (children again!). She must be treated with great firmness. Twelve shillings will be paid weekly for board, lodging, and washing. Surrey side preferred," &c.
It is evident that the above offer has not been made by the person for whom the accommodation is sought. But such requirements, including even the "great firmness," doubtless get supplied. One of the numerous advertisers who provide homes for invalid ladies offers, I observe, to give "reference to the relatives of a lady lately deceased," who lived in the house for seven years.
Here is a "home" of remarkable character; it is described as situated in a favourite suburb on the Metropolitan Railway, replete with every beauty and convenience, the details being specially enumerated; and besides the railway, omnibuses pass the door to all parts of town. "The advertiser," it is added, "would prefer one or two City gentlemen of convivial disposition, and to such, liberal terms would be offered."
The advertiser has evidently an abstract love for City gentlemen of convivial disposition, since he is prepared to share his home with any one or two of them. And if a City gentleman of convivial disposition could make a vast wilderness dear---which it is very possible he could do---one can fancy what a paradise he would make of this Cashmere at Shepherd's Bush. It is not quite clear, indeed, that the advertiser is not prepared to pay instead of being paid by the charming society he seeks, since he says that "to such liberal terms will be offered." It must be a very delightful thing to be a City gentleman of convivial disposition, with the feeling of having unknown friends, which has been said to resemble our ideas of the existence of angels.
Another proffered "home" is described as having, in addition to all domestic comforts, "two pianos, with young and musical society." This may be very pleasant; but I should feel some misgivings at the prospect of making one of a "young and musical society" let loose upon two pianos at the same time. There are different opinions, too, even about the best music, under different conditions. The Irish soldier who was singing the "Last Rose of Summer," perhaps from the bottom of his heart, but certainly at the top of his voice, was told by his English comrade to hold his noise. "And he calls Moore's Melodies a noise," said the musical enthusiast, disgusted at the want of taste exhibited by the cold-blooded Saxon.
A cheerful state of existence is suggested by another advertisement of a "home":---"Partial board is offered to a gentleman by a cheerful, musical, private family. Early breakfast; meat tea. Dinner on Sundays. Gas, piano, croquet. Terms L1 1s. per week. Write," &c.
The board must be partial indeed if that melancholy meal known as "meat tea" enters into the arrangement. A "meat tea" would in any case mean that you were expected to go without your dinner, since, if you had dined you would not want meat with your bohea [black tea of lowest quality]. But there is no disguise about the matter here, for you are frankly told that there will be dinner, as distinguished from a meat tea, on Sundays. It is a monstrous, unnatural idea, and the family must be very cheerful, very musical, and very private, I should think, to reconcile most men to such a state of things. Perhaps the piano and the croquet are intended as a set-off, by suggesting female society of an accomplished kind; and of course there are some girls for whom some men will submit to meat teas; but I have my own opinion as to the chances of either one or the other.
Here is an advertisement of a "home" couched in popular terms. It would be a pity to interefere with the writer's style, so I give it in full, with the omission, of course, of the address:---"A lady having a larger house than she requires, is desirous of increasing her daily circle by receiving a few gentlemen (who are engaged during the day) as boarders. The society is cheerful and musical. To foreigners anxious to acquire elegant English, this is a good opportunity."
As for the lady having a larger house than she requires, one can fancy that to be the case if she has room for several gentlemen, but how is it that so many persons get into larger houses than they require, and are thereby impelled to offer similar accommodation? It must be confessed, too, that the opportunity for foreigners to acquire elegant English is not very apparent. Are the candidates for residence examined in elegant English before they are admitted into the family? As for the cheerfulness and the music, those are of course matters of taste.
Among other "homes" which we find offered in the same paper is one with a curious recommendation attached. It has "just been vacated," we are told, "by a young gentleman who has successfully passed his examination." If the same advantage can be secured to the incoming tenant the accommodation would be decidedly cheap, for the modest sum of thirteen shillings a-week, which is all that is asked. But we are not told what is the nature of the examination---for the army, the Civil Service, a degree, or what? Perhaps it is only in the "elegant Engish" intended to qualify the tenant for the higher social sphere of the lady with the partially superfluous house.
Invalid or "mentally afflicted" persons are always in great request among advertisers. Several applications are before me now. One of these comes from "A medical man, residing in a large and well-furnished house in one of the healthiest and most convenient out-districts of London," who "wishes to receive any patient mentally or otherwise afflicted, as a resident; boarding or separate arrangement as desired; a married couple, or two sisters, or friends, not objected to." The contingency of companions in misfortune is a good idea; our medical friend is evidently a far-sighted man. Then we find the wife of a medical man, who is willing to take charge of "an afflicted (not insane) lady, gentleman, or child, to whom she offers a comfortable home with experienced care." A similar offer is made by the occupants of a farmhouse, but these do not draw the line at insanity, but declare that they have had the care of an insane patient for many years, and can be highly recommended in consequence. Some people, indeed, are so fond of taking care of insane patients that they would not have a sane one if you made them a present of him. An illustration of this curious taste came under my notice not long since. A very deserving man called to see a patron of his who had procured him a post of the kind, which he had held for several months. "I am very glad to see you, John," was the greeting, "and hope you are getting on in your employment." "Ah, that indeed I am, sir," was the answer: "thanks to you, I am most comfortably provided for---in fact, I was never so happy in my life. How did I get these two black eyes, sir? Oh, he gave them to me yesterday morning. Oh, yes, I shall always be grateful---I never was so happy in my life."
It must be admitted that the majority of the "homes" which people offer to one another throught the medium of the papers are not exposed to contingencies of this kind; but the said people must surely run the risk of finding themselves ill-assorted in no ordinary degree.
Last modified 24 November 2012