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. [Decorated initial "T" by Laurence Housman for one of his own books. — George P. Landow.]
he Thumbnail Sketcher will often find an amusing if not a profitable occupation in attentively noticing the peculiarities of almost any one person who happens to be walking in his direction. It is astonishing how much of a total stranger's tastes and habits may be learnt by simply following him through half a mile of crowded thoroughfare. You will find, perhaps, that he stops at all print-shops; if so, he has a taste, good or bad, for art in certain of its branches, and you can form an idea as to the quality of that taste by taking note of the pictures that principally arrest his attention. Is that the "Phryne De'couverte" that he is admiring? Ah! I fear his taste for art is not so immaculate as it should be. He is stopping now at a fashionable perfumer's, and he is reading an account of the marvellous deceptive powers of the "Indistinguishable scalp,"---a fact that directs my attention to so much of his hair as I can see below his hat-brim, and I notice that it stands out unnaturally from the nape of the neck. His next pause is at the shop of an eminent Italian warehouseman, and as his eyes glisten over pots of caviare, Lyons sausages, and pates de foie gras, I conclude that he is a bon vivant. A pretty woman passes him, and he makes a half-turn in her direction---a sad dog, I'm afraid. Another and a prettier woman overtakes him, and he hurries his pace that he may keep up with her---a very sad dog, I'm sure. He passes the shop of a flashy tailor, and gazes admiringly at a pair of trousers that seem to scream aloud---so he must be a bit of a "cad." Opticians' shops have no charms for him, so his tastes do not take a scientific form; and as he passes a window full of Aldines and Elzevirs, I suppose he is not a ripe scholar. A glass case of grinning teeth pulls him up, so I conclude that his powers of mastication are giving way, and as he takes off his hat to a gentleman who only touches his own in reply, I see that his social position is not eminent. Playbills seem to possess an extraordinary fascination for him, and he dawdles for half an hour at a time over photographic Menkens and Abingdons---he is evidently a patron of the drama in its more objectionable forms. He crosses crowded thoroughfares without hesitation, so he is a Londoner, and I see from the fact that he stops to buy a "Bradshaw," that he is going out of town. Another provision shop arrests his attention, and I feel confirmed in the conclusion I have arrived at that he is an epicure, practical or theoretical; and as I eventually lose him in a cheap eating-house, I render the latter alternative the more probable of the two. Altogether I have seen enough of him to justify me in determining that a personal acquaintance with him is not an advantage which I would go through fire and water to obtain.
It frequently happens, however, that a pretty accurate notion of a man's habits and character may be arrived at without taking all this trouble. A glance is often sufficient to enable an observant Thumbnail Sketcher to satisfy himself, at all events, on these points; and so that he himself is satisfied, it matters little whether he is right or wrong in his deductions. Here is a gentleman about whom their can be no mistake. He is a Promoter of Public Companies. He will, at ten days' notice, get you up an association for any legitimate purpose you may think fit, and a good many illegitimate ones into the bargain. He is a specious, showy, flashily-dressed knowing-looking gentleman, with a general knowledge of most things, and an especial and particular acquaintance with the manners and customs of fools in general. He has served an apprenticeship in a good many excellent schools. He was an attorney once, but he was young then, and blundered, so they struck him off the rolls. He afterwards jobbed on the Stock Exchange, but (being still young) he misappropriated funds, and although he was not prosecuted, he found it convenient to steer clear of that commercial Tattersall's for the future. He then became clerk to a general agent, and afterwards touted for a respectable discounter. He made a little money at this, and determined to give legitimate commerce a turn. so he opened a mock auction, and sold massive silver tea-services and chronometers of extraordinary value, all day long, to two faded females and three dissipated Jewish lads of seedy aspect but unlimited resources. The district magistrates, however, took it upon themselves to post policemen at his door to warn would-be customers away, so he turned his hand to betting, and succeeded so well that he soon found himself in a position to take a higher stand. He got up a Company, with six other influential Betters, for the supply of street-lamps to Central Africa, showing in his prospectus, that where street lamps were to be found, houses would soon be gathered together, and houses, if gathered together in sufficient numbers, formed important cities, a large proportion of the revenues of which would, of course, flow into the pockets of the public-spirited shareholders. The "Central Africa Street Lamp Company (Limited)" flourished for a short time only, but it enabled him to form a connection by which he lives and flourishes. He is very disinterested in all his undertakings: he never cares to share in the profits of his Promotions---he is good enough to leave them all to his shareholders. All he wants is a sum down or a good bill at three months, and the Company, once set a-going, will never be troubled with him again. His varied experience has taught him many useful lessons---and this among others, that only fools take to illegitimate swindling.
Who is this dull and bilious man? He is a high-class journalist and essayist, whose pride and boast it is that he has never written for a penny paper. Being a heavy and a lifeless writer, he entertains a withering contempt for amusing literature of every description. He takes the historical plays of Shakespeare under his wing, and extends his pompous patronage to Sheridan Knowles and all other deceased dramatists who wrote in five acts, only he never goes to see their productions played. Upon modern dramas of all kinds he is extremely severe, and he lashes burlesque writers (when he condescends to notice them) without mercy. He has never been known to amuse anybody in the whole course of his literary career, and would no more make a joke than he would throw a summersault. In the early stages of his career he made a comfortable income by writing sermons for idle clergymen, and his facility for arguing in circles, combined with a natural aptitude for grouping his remarks under three heads and a "Lastly," made him popular with his more orthodox customers, so he always had plenty to do. He used to sell his sermons to London clergymen as modern dramatic authors sell their plays to London managers---reserving the "country right" and farming them through the provinces, with important pecuniary results. He is generally to be found in the bar-parlours of solemn taverns, where he presides as Sir Oracle over a group of heavy-headed but believing tradesmen. He is a contributor to all religious magazines of every denomination, and is usually regarded by his intimate friends as a ripe, but wholly incomprehensible scholar.
Our next is an artist's model. He is a shocking old scamp with a virtuous beard, and a general air of the patriarch Moses gone to the bad. He was once a trooper in a regiment of Life Guards, but he drank to such an extent that he was requested to resign. In the course of a period of enforced leisure he grew his beard, and as it happened to grow Mosaically, he became popular with artists of the high art school, and he found it worth his while to let himself out for hire at per hour. Artists are men of liberal souls, who don't care how much their models may drink so that they don't come drunk into the studio; but they are extremely particular upon this latter point, and the patriarch does not always respect their prejudices. So it often happens that his time is at his disposal, and when this happens he engages himself as a theatre supernumerary. He has been convicted of dishonesty on two or three occasions, and was once sent for trial and sentenced to penal servitude for three years. He has a way of advertising himself by taking off his hat and showing his forehead and hair (which are really good) whenever he sees a gentleman in a velvet coat and eccentric beard.
Then comes a gentleman whose source of income is a standing wonder to all his friends. Nobody can tell how he gets his living. Sometimes he is very flush of ready money and sometimes he is hard up for half-a-crown. His mode of life is altogether contradictory and inconsistent. He lives in a small house in a fifth-rate square, and his household consists of himself, a depressed wife, five untidy children, and two maidservants. But, on the other hand, he drives magnificent horses in irreproachable phaetons, gives elaborate dinners, with all sorts of out-of-season delicacies, has his stall at the Opera, and drives to all races in a four-in-hand of his own hiring. Times have been when the showy phaeton was returned to the livery-stable keeper, and when Mr. Charles had orders to send him no more salmon---when he and his family have been known to feed on chops and rice pudding---when his hall has entertained a succession of dunning [demanding payment] tradesmen from nine in the morning till nine at night---and when he himself had been seen outside omnibuses. But these occasional periods of monetary depression have passed away, and he has come out of them with renewed splendour. A phaeton and pair (only not the same) await his orders as before, and salmon at a guinea a pound forms the least extravagant feature of his daily meal. Now and then he disappears from his neighbourhood for six months at a time, and his tradesmen are left to tell the stories of their wrongs to the maidservant over the area railings. But he turns up again, in course of time, pays them off, and so gets fresh credit. Altogether he is a social mystery. The only hypothesis that appears to account for these phenomena is that he keeps a gaming house.
Here is poor young Aldershot. He is very young and very foolish, but he will grow older and wiser, and his faults may be pardoned. On the strength of his [military] commission, and a singularly slender allowance, he is able to get credit for almost any amount, and what wonder that he avails himself of the opportunity? The great mistake of his life is that he does harmless things to excess. He over eats, he over drinks, he over rides, he over dances, he over smokes, and he over dresses. He has no distinctive points beyond these---his other qualifications are mostly negative. He is at present simply a smoky donkey with a developed taste for mild vice, a devoted faith in his autocratic tailor, and a confirmed objection to the wedding tie. He will grow out of all this, if he has the good luck to spend ten or fifteen years in India, and he will return a big, burly, bronzed captain with hair on his hands, and a breast like a watch-maker's shop. The nonsense will have been knocked out of him by that time, and his views on the subject of matrimony will change.
The following gentleman has seen better days. He was once a prizefighter and kept a public house upon which he promised to thrive, but the police and the licensing magistrates interfered, and one fine morning he found his occupation gone. In point of fact his public house (which was in Lant Street, Borough) became known as a rendezvous for thieves of the worst class, and his license was consequently suspended. His figure developed too rapidly to allow of his following his other calling with credit, so he had nothing for it but to turn his hand to card-sharping and patter-business on race-courses and at street corners. He is gifted with a loud voice, an ad captandum manner, and a fluent delivery, and in the assumed character of a gentleman who has undertaken to dispose of a certain number of purses with sovereigns in them for one shilling, in accordance with the terms of a bet of ten thousand guineas made between two sporting noblemen of acknowledged celebrity, he manages to net a very decent livelihood.
The Thumbnail Sketcher's partiality for the London streets may be attributed, in a great measure, to the fact that, being a person of no consideration whatever elsewhere, he becomes, as soon as he places his foot upon the pavement, an autocrat invested with powers and privileges of the most despotic description. It is then in his power to inconvenience his fellow-man to an extent unknown in any other sphere of action, excepting perhaps a theatre. A man who goes forth in the morning with the determination of annoying as many people as possible during the day, without bringing himself within the pale of the law, has an exciting, and at the same time perfectly safe, career before him. It is then open to him to annoy hurried people by asking them the way to obscure or impossible addresses. He can call at and inspect all the apartments to be let upon his road; he may buy oranges (if that luscious fruit is in season) and scatter the peel broadcast on the pavement; he may, by quietly munching a strong onion, drive a crowd from a print-seller's window; and he can, at any time, reassemble one by disputing with a cabman on the matter of his fare. He may delay a street-full of busy people by stopping his Hansom in (say) Threadneedle Street; and he may, in half a dozen words, carefully selected, put the whole mechanism of the London police into operation. He may delay an omnibus-full of people by pretending to have dropped a sovereign in the straw, and if it is a wet day, he can spoil any lady's dress with his muddy boots or his wet umbrella. He can at any time, on a narrow pavement, drive well-dressed ladies into the roadway, a pastime popular enough with the politest nation in the world, but which has hardly yet acquired a recognized footing among coarse and brutal Englishmen. In short, he has it in his power to make himself an unmitigated nuisance with perfect impunity; and it is a creditable feature in his character that he does not often take advantage of his privilege. He is satisfied with the power vested in him, without caring to set its machinery in motion without due provocation.
The prerogative which I have here claimed for the Thumbnail Sketcher is not his alone; it is shared in a greater or less degree by all. Indeed the humbler and more filthy the passenger, the more marked are his privileges. The organ-grinder has it in his power to poison the atmosphere with his hideous and distracting music whenever he pleases; the costermonger and dustman may make morn hideous with their professional yells; German bands may bray wherever they choose, and Punch-and-Judy-men crow and chuckle in every street; while the wealthy and comparatively inoffensive bone-crusher, soap-boiler, knacker, or tanner is liable at any moment to be indicted as a nuisance if he happens to be in evil odour with his neighbors. The state of things is altogether an anomaly, but the humbler classes in whose favour it operates might surely be disposed to take the many benefits they derive from it as a set-off to the manhood suffrage which is not yet accorded to them. It may be taken indeed as a moral certainty that hardly a man walks into a London street without causing an inconvenience of greater or less magnitude to some of his fellow-passengers. But it is not the fashion to estimate moral certainties as physical certainties are estimated, and therefore people are allowed to walk abroad whenever they please without regard to the fearful annoyance that may be caused to a refined and sensitive organization by an outrageous hat, a taste for bad cigars, or a passion for peppermint drops. It is instructive, by the way, to contrast the utter irresponsibilty of a moral certainty with the absolute responsibility of a physical certainty. A certainty is a certainty, whether it be moral or physical; it is a moral certainty that in the course of the erection of (say) the new Law Courts at least a dozen people will be accidentally killed, yet nobody would dream of stopping the works on that account. But if it were possible to enter into an exceptional arrangement with Fate, by which the deliberate slaughter of one man before the first stone was laid would secure absolute immunity for the hundreds of others whose lives would otherwise be in daily peril during the eight or ten years which must elapse before the works are completed, society would protest with one voice against the inhuman compact, and the contractor who entered into it would be branded as a cold-blooded murderer. But from a politico-economical point of view he would be a conspicuous benefactor to his species.
The Thumbnail Sketcher, having now let off his superfluous steam, proposes once more to take the reader by the arm and direct his attention to half a dozen more of the involuntary models who unwittingly provided him with amusement and instruction whenever he takes his walks abroad.
Here is an amusing example of that bland, gentlemanly, useful humbug the fourth-rate family doctor. Although undoubtedly a humbug, he is not a quack. His professional acquirements are quite up to the average mark, although they seldom go beyond it. He has satisfied the College of Surgeons and he has passed the Hall with decency; he has even, perhaps, graduated an M.B. at London, and is consequently styled Doctor by courtesy. But he is a humbug for all that. He is not satisfied with the average professional status to which his average professional acquirements and average professional brain would, if honestly worked, confine him; he soars high above this, on the strength of a bland, impressive manner, an imposing presence, and a certain quiet audacity in prescribing eccentric but harmless remedies for fanciful complaints. He is much too sensible a fellow to go beyond his depth, but his depth is a tolerably deep one, and his plan of elevating himself on moral tiptoes makes it appear considerably deeper than it really is. As I said before, with all his humbug and pretence he can, if he likes, be really useful, and his waiting-room is daily thronged with real or fanciful sufferers, who are quite justified in placing a modest belief in him. Their mistake consists in believing in him absolutely, on the mere strength of a bland, impressive presence.
Who is this red-faced, white-haired, pompous old gentleman who is holding forth in a window of the "Senior?" He is an old officer who retired on half-pay forty years ago, a humble, blundering captain, and who, by dint of long standing, has worked his way up into the dignified list of generals. When in active service he knew absolutely nothing of his duty; he was the stock regimental by-word whenever the subject of military incompetence was broached. He was the scapegoat upon whose shoulders the responsibility of all regimental blunders was laid, and subalterns, six weeks old, would pose him with impossible questions and record his oracular replies. Now, however, that he has been cut off for forty years or so from anything in the shape of practical experience in military matters, and so has attained the rank of major-general, he is looked upon as an important authority on the organization of armies, and advanced strategy. He is a county magistrate and a member of an important borough, and his orations on Horse-Guards mismanagement and military innovations, though little regarded in the House, are looked upon by the outside public with a respect which is born rather of his military rank than of his military knowledge.
On next page stands an anomalous gentleman, one of a group of four seedy but flashy individuals who are loafing about the doors of a theatrical public-house in Bow Street. He is an ex-equestrian, and the proprietor of a traveling circus. A few years ago he was known as that daring and graceful rider Annibale Corinski, whose "Courier of the Dardanelles" on fourteen horses was justly celebrated as the most thrilling performance ever witnessed in this or any other country. But Annibale grew too fat for the business, so he married the widow of his late employer and set up as a circus proprietor on his own account. His present position, as master of the ring, is one of qualified dignity. It is true that, by virtue of his office, he is entitled to appear in a braided military frock, jack-boots, and a gold-lace cap; but he has, on the other hand, to submit to nightly affronts from ill-conditioned jesters, whose mildest insults take the form of riddles with offensive answers, calculated to cover him publicly with confusion.
Here comes a tall, soldierly man in civilian clothes. He is soldierly in his carriage, only he has no moustache, and his little black eyes are quick and restless. He is awake to most things, and his only delusion is that, being a policeman in plain clothes, he looks like a prosperous shopkeeper, a confidential clerk, a nobleman of easy manners, or a country yokel in town for a "spree," according to the characters which the peculiarities of his several cases require him to assume. But the disguises are a failure. The more he disguises himself the more he looks like a policeman in plain clothes, and as long as he continues in the force his official identity will assert itself.
Now appears a curious old bachelor of eccentric habits. Nobody knows much about him, except a confidential man-servant who effectually defeats any attempt to pump him on the subject of his master's eccentricities. All that is known of him is that he lives in a lodging-house in Duke-street, St. James's. His valet is the only person who is ever allowed to enter his room; his meals, carefully but not expensively organised, are served with extraodinary punctuality; he has a horror of children and tobacco, and a nervous dread of Hansom cabs; he takes a walk, between two and three every afternoon, round St. James's Square, along Pall Mall, up St. James's Street, and so home, stopping regularly at Sam's to look at the profile pictures of distingished sporting and other noblemen, and finishing up with a Bath bun and a glass of cherry-brandy at the corner of Bond-street. He is supposed by some to be a fraudulent banker, by others a disgraced clergyman, by others an escaped convict of desperate character, and by the more rational portion of his observers as a harmless monomaniac. He never gives his name, and his lodgings are taken for him by his valet. There is a rumour afloat that he is a royal descendant of Hannah Lightfoot, and that he is only waiting for an opportunity to declare his rights and step at once into the throne of England; but I believe that this theory is confined to an imaginative and romantic few.
Here is one of those miserable ghosts that start up from time to time in the London streets, to sicken the rich man of his wealth and to disgust the happy man with his happiness. If the wretched object before us could put his thoughts into intelligible English, what a story of misery, want, filth, sickness, and crime he could unfold! He is of course a thief; who in his situation would not be? He is a liar; but his lies are told for bread. He is a blasphemer; God help him, what has he to be thankful for? He is filthy in his person; but filth means warmth in his vocabulary. He pushes his way insolently among well-dressed women, who shrink from his infected rags; why should he respect those whose only regard for him is a feeling of undisguised aversion? He can tell you of open-air places where there is snug lying; places where you can sleep with tolerable comfort for nothing; he can tell you all about the different houses of detection, criminal gaols, police-cells, and tramp-wards in the neighbourhood of the metropolis; and he can compare their various merits and demerits, and strike a balance in favour of this or that. He has been a thief since he could walk, and he will be a thief till he dies---it is the only trade that has ever been opened to him, and in his case it has proved a poor one. Truly he is one of the saddest sights in the London streets.
Last modified 24 November 2012