John McDonnell has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web his 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.]
man's first residence in London is a revolution in his life and feelings. He loses at once no small part of his individuality. He was a man before, now he is a "party." No longer known as Mr. Brown, but as (say) No. XXI., he feels as one of many cogs in one of the many wheels of an incessantly wearing, tearing, grinding, system of machinery. His country notions must be modified, and all his life-long ways and takings-for-granted prove crude and questionable. He is hourly reminded "This is not the way in London; that this won't work here ," or, "people always expect," and "you'll soon find the difference." Custom rules everything, and custom never before seemed to him half as strange, strong, or inexorable. The butcher always cuts one way and the greengrocer serves him with equal rigour. His orders never before seemed of so little importance. The independence and the take-it-or-leave-it indifference of the tradesmen contrast strongly with the obsequiousness of the country shop. However great a customer before he feels a small customer now. The tradesman is shorter and more saving of his words. He serves, takes your money, and turns away to some one else, whereas in the country they indulge you with a little talk into the bargain.
Competition in London is very rife. The cheap five-shilling hatter was soon surprised by a four-and-nine-penny shop opposite. Few London men could live but by a degree of energy which the country dealer little knows. The wear and tear of nerve-power and the discharge of brain-power in London are enormous. The London man lives fast. In London, man rubs out, elsewhere he rusts out. No doubt the mental stimulus of London staves off much disease, for idle men eat themselves to death and worry themselves to death; but in city life neither gluttony nor worry has a chance, but men give bail for their good behavior from ten o'clock to five, and are kept out of much mischief's way by force of circimstances.
Many other things contribute to make our new Londoner feel smaller in his own eyes. The living stream flows by him in the streets; he never saw so many utter strangers to him and to each other before; their very pace and destination are different; there is a walk and business determination distinctly London. In other towns men saunter they know not whither, but nearly every passer-by in London has his point, and is making so resolutely towards it that it seems not more his way than his destination as he is carried on with the current; and of street currents there are two, to the City and from the City, so distinct and persistent, that our friend can't get out of one without being jostled by the other. This street stream he may analyze, and, according to the hour of the day or the season of the year, the number, trades, and characters obey an average. In the country Dr. Jones drives in one day, Mr. and Mrs. Robinson and family walk in the next. Sometimes fifty people may be counted, sometimes ten, but in London there is an ebb and flow in the Strand as regular and uniform as in the Thames. The City noise begins gradually about six with the sweeps and the milk-pails amongst the earliest calls, though ponderous market-carts and night cabs are late and early both. This fitful rumble deepens to a steady roar about nine, and there is no approach to silence till night, and after a very short night of repose the same roar awakens again; so City people live as in a mill, till constant wearing sound becomes to them the normal state of nature.
There is a good deal of education in all this. The mind is ever on the stretch with rapid succession of new images, new people, and new sensations. All business is done with an increased pace. The buying and the selling, the counting and the weighing, and even the talk over the counter, is all done with a degree of rapidity and sharp practice which brightens up the wits of this country cousin more than any books or schooling he ever enjoyed. All this tends greatly to habits of abstraction and to the bump of concentrativeness. The slow and prosy soon find they have not a chance; but after a while, like a dull horse in a fast coach, they develop a pace unknown before.
Self-dependence is another habit peculiarly of London growth. Men soon discover they have no longer the friend, the relative or the neighbour of their own small town to fall back on. To sink or swim is their own affair, and they had better make up their minds to depend wholly upon themselves; for London is like a wilderness, not as elsewhere because there are no people at all, but because there are so many people, that one is equally far from helping another save on rare occasions. This inexorable self-dependence, which is essential to the life of a colonist in Australia, stamps to a great extent the character of the Londoner. Thousands of young doctors, lawyers, and apprentices find themselves there for the first time without a home or family fireside, not only with no one to check them, but none to interfere. They begin to wish they had; for it is quite a new sensation to feel for the first time that nobody knows and nobody cares; only there is the dread of destitution as a master, and whether they shall be penniless the next month, the next week, or perhaps even the very next day, depends on their own self-denial and self-control alone. Yes, necessity is the one great master that ties for twelve or fourteen hours a day the driver to his lofty box and the cad to his narrow footboard. Indeed the thousands of young men, and young women too, who, far from the parental home, find the way to take care of themselves better than fond fathers and mothers ever dreamed of, says much for the sense and conscience of the present generation.
Family people find London life as peculiar as single people. An omnibus man said no one trod this earth so little; in bed by night, high in air all day, and with only a few steps from one to the other. The wife of a clerk said that from November to February she never saw her husband by daylight but on Sundays. It was barely light when he left and it was quite dark when he came home; and the husband replied he as rarely saw his children except they were in bed. The same man complained that after exhaustion for six days in a close office a service of two hours in a close church was ill suited to his day of rest. "My wife finds," he continued, "there is no ill-nature in London life. From envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, so rife in a small neighborhood, she finds herself delightfully free, and I enjoy liberty and independence unknown before, simply because people know too little of each other to interfere; but, on the other side, old friendship and neighbourly interests are wanting to." No doubt there are warm friendships and intimacies in London as well as in the country, but few and far between. People associate more at arm's length, and give their hand more readily than their heart, and hug themselves within their own domestic circles. You know too little of people to be deeply interested either in them or their fortunes, so you expect nothing and are surprised at nothing. An acquaintance may depart London life, and even this life, or be sold up and disappear, without the same surprise or making the same gap as in a village circle.
The natural incidents of London life render changes far more frequent; very different from places where the same family is born, bred, and dies in the same house. No one calls on new-comers, and not only is society slowly formed, but after two or three years the old set have disappeared, and you find yourself alone in your own street; and as to other acquaintances, the distances are too great to keep them up.
Year after year, men who have planted themselves out of town find that town follows them. The old people of Hammersmith are wellnigh overtaken and made one with London, and so are those of Hampstead; and the Swiss Cottage, like the Thatched Tavern, are simple records of holiday retreats, now so lost in the mazes of new streets that another generation will be at a loss to guess the origin of so rural a sign. To command the City from parts so distant, the railway, like the omnibus, has now become quite a part of a man's rent, reckoned thus: 'rent, rail, and taxes, [?] 60 a year;" and builders and tenants both must calculate alike, while a town as big as Bath is added every fourteen months.
The rapid extension of London suburbs affects the rich and pleasure-seeking too. The carriage-people cannot now even drive into the country. Seven miles in every direction the road-side is cut up; half-finished rows spoil the view, and "To let for building," or "No admittance but on business," "Goding's Entire," and omnibuses, all tend to mar the rural vision and to disenchant the lover of the picturesque. The carriage-people are therefore reduced to the Parks; the streets are so crowded in the season that many ladies find them too great a trial of the nerves; and, when in the Park, to see and to be seen, and the interest we take in our fellow-creatures, gradually draws even the most philosophical to join the throng in the fashionable Row.
This makes London life more peculiar still. We live and move in masses; retirement is nowhere; life is all public; the streets are in winter so wet, in summer so hot, and always so noisy, so crowded, and so dirty, that the wear and tear of nerves and clothes are indeed a serious consideration. New residents find they must live better or at least more expensively. Wine to many becomes no longer a luxury but a necessity. They miss the fresh air and quiet of the country and crave a stimulus to make amends. The non-carriage people therefore seek houses near the Parks, and rents run up enormously. Still, do what you will, the roar of London is ever in your ears, and the fret and irritation for ever tries your system; so much so that the [summer] season, that is, the only part of London life supposed enjoyable, no sooner begins than people begin to lay their plans for its end and out-of-towning. In August you go because others go, because all the world seems breaking up and off for the holidays, and you feel in disgrace and punishment if you don't go too. To say the truth, the houses get hotter and hotter, till the very walls feel warmed through; the blaze of sunshine makes the walls look more dingy, the chimneys smell, the papered grates and tinselled shavings look shabby, and everybody feels tired of everybody else and everything about them. If any one stays behind it is so well known to be no matter of preference when all London is painting, white-washing, and doing up, that it seems positively against your respectability; so much so, that some who find it convenient to go rather late or to return rather early are weak enough to keep their front blinds down or shutters shut, and live and look out on the mews' [stable-yards'] side! In short, out-of-towning is a point in which you are hardly a free agent. Your servants look for your going out of town, and some bargain for it at hiring, part because Tea-kettle Thomas and Susan want the change, and others for the range and riot of your house when you are gone. A friend in ------ Gardens, where there is a fine common garden behind the house, says that all August and September there is a perfect saturnalia of cooks and charwomen and their friends aping their mistresses---rather a loud imitation---playing croquet, giving tea and gin parties, dancing, screaming, shouting, laughing, and making summer life hideous. Very hard! Harder lines than ever, because you pay so much for this garden, boast of this garden as an oasis in the London desert, and after all your leafy retreat proves (and oftentimes and that not at this season alone) a beargarden [scene of tumult] and a nuisance.
This imperative out-of-towning at one and the same prescribed season is a heavy tax on London life. Taking your year's holiday perhaps when you don't want one, you cannot afford the time or money when you do want one. Worse still, you must take your year's holiday all at once. Though seven or eight weeks or more, away from your friends, your books, pursuits, and all the little pivots on which the morning turns, is too long for one change---your establishment is disorganized and your home affairs want a stitch-in-time---still, London life is London life---once in the groove you had better conform, or you will find the exception on the balance more troublesome than the rule; and so much a year for this enforced ruralising, like railway fares to the suburbans, is a regular charge on London life.
London visiting is as little a matter of free choice as our ruralising. The season for parties is most unseasonable. We have melted at dinner-parties when all the efforts of Gunter or of Bridgeman were well exchanged for a little cool air, and when the wines and even the peaches were at summer heat; and we have seen ladies leave at eleven for balls at twelve, with more stewing and suffocation to follow---some, perhaps, having left cool groves, and flowers and fruits to scent and blush unseen in the country, for indoor and (what should be) wintry hospitalities in town.
Such hospitalities are much more expensive than in the country---partly because London attracts chiefly the richer families. London business is more lucrative, at least to those who stand their ground. It is also well understood that the social advantages of London life are for those only who can live at a certain rate. Entertainments are in proportion to income; and since you have none of the garden fetes and tea and fruit on the lawn---nothing, in short, to offer your guests but the dinner or the ball alone, and since there is no little cost of dress and time in meeting, the meal is, all in all, quite a serious and formidable matter; and the rivalry in dishes and courses enough to sicken us, as also in plate and table decorations, is rife indeed.
No doubt with young people these things pass disregarded. The young can breathe any atmosphere, and, till a certain age, "confort" is a term but little known. No. The very adventure and roughing it has its charm---provided the craving for excitement, so easily excited and so hard to allay, is only gratified; and to the young the London season is exciting enough. The style and equipages of the Parks amidst more beautiful garden scenery than you can elsewhere behold, with all the gorgeous pageantry that meets the eye and the giddy whirl that turns the brain---this, while all is fresh and new and the spirits equal to the zest for so intense a strain---this is hallucinating indeed, almost like the first pantomime to a child. So we freely sympathise with the young, and say, "My dears, be happy while you can. This will serve for once or twice; have your turn and then make way for others as fresh and keen as you were when you first began." 'Tis well all this is called "the season." For a few weeks the delusion may last, and just before the charm is wholly broken, before the tinsel drops off, and the broad day-light of common life brings down the kings and queens of society more nearly to the level of their admiring fellow-creatures, the morning stream, with cabs and drags and loaded carriages heaped up with boxes, baths, and luggage various, sets in steadily to the railway stations, and little but the dust upon the faded flowers by Rotten Row, and piles of chairs, remain to show where the ebbing tide of fashion has so freely flowed.
So much for the society fashionable for the season visitors; but as to the society of residents in London it is indeed peculiar. London is for the most part a city of business; at least, nearly all the houses occupied all the year round are those of busy men. Such men pass the day in City offices and live in the suburbs; so much so that on Sundays the City churches are found so out of place that some are pulled down and their sites and materials sold to build others; so, the City churches seem to follow the worshippers out of town, where the worshippers alone are found. The consequence is, that scarcely any man worth visiting is found at home save on Sundays. Sunday is the day not only for devotion but for friendship and home affections. The poulterer and the fishmonger say they send out more on Sunday than on other mornings. Would that this always represented only friendly hospitalities! for business dinners are another thing, and virtually carry on the money-making into the Sunday. Men eat and drink in the West to make things pleasant in the East. Such hospitalities to oil the wheels of business are supposed to pay themselves by your "connection;" but good men grieve over such a profanation of the rites of hospitality. But as regards friendly society, the City man has the Sunday alone. Let us hope it is thankfully and healthily employed. As to the intellectual society, the possible advantages of London are somewhat qualified in practice. Men of talent are too busy; you can rarely meet one till he is half tired by his day's work, at a seven o'clock dinner, and rather the animal than the intellectual predominates then. We heard a country doctor complain that when he came to London his witty friend the Coroner was always sitting upon bodies, and other men of mark he found so engrossed with the affairs of the nation in general, that on himself in particular they had not a minute to bestow.
In the country much contributes to draw forth the more genial qualities. The hospital or infirmary committee, the board of guardians or other society for the good of the neighbourhood, as well as local charities and the claims of the many John Hobsons and Susan Smalls that have grown with our growth, and formed part of the little world and common family around us---all these objects of kindly interest tend to keep our feelings in exercise and remind us of the wants and duties of our common nature.
But in London we soon learn not to give in the streets, and do not so soon learn to follow the needy to his garret. The result is that the rich and charitable feel positively the want of objects; and what heart-exercise is there in dropping shillings into a Sunday plate or in entering your name in cold blood for one pound one? No doubt the lady in Belgrave Square duly caudles her coachman's wife, in the Mews behind her mansion; but what is that compared to the daily bounties with the country lady's own hand, when she goes her round to relieve the sick, to school the children, and to comfort the aged about her own estate?
Nowhere as in large cities like London, as in Jerusalem of old, do we find Dives and Lazarus, profusion and poverty, luxury and starvation so near together, and yet with so deep a gulf between. Who would imagine, said a traveller in Madrid, that some gay street was simply the fair front and disguise of an unsuspected gaol-wall, with groans inaudible and misery untold at a few yards' distance on the other side? Who would imagine that Hyde Park Gardens at six hundred a year reared high its imposing and columned front to conceal the worn-out sempstress' garret at half-a-crown a week, a stone's throw behind? So true is it that a man may be lost in a crowd as in a desert, and starve near Leadenhall-market as well as in the wilds of Arabia, unless he can pay his way, or some one happens to see the poor impotent folk and lend a helping hand.
To revert to the intellectual opportunities of London, let not our clever country cousins be envious without a cause. We doubt if London life favours the greater efforts of genius. There is too much excitement and too little repose, and the mind is perplexed, as Southey felt in the Reading Room of the British Museum, by the very affluence of its resources and the distraction of its supplies. Sydney Smith's friends complained that he should be doomed to waste his talents in the wilds of Yorkshire, with only an occasional visit to London. Why, this was the very making of such a mind as Sydney Smith's. Its powers would else have been frittered away in dinner-table talk, fruitless of his shrewd suggestions and of that hard common-sense which, circulating through the "Edinburgh Review," in due time found expression in the amended laws of the land.
It is remarked that London society is less aristocratic than in the days of the Regency. Without insisting that the friends of the Regent might not look very aristocratic now, we would observe that the aristocracy, though not inferior in refinement and bearing, are no longer distinguished from cotton lords in wealth. That is true of society which is true of the bar---we have few leaders because we have so many leaders---so many who would well have compared with those whom it is traditional to admire. Add to this, the aristocracy proper, now quite small in number, keep very much to themselves. You cannot mob and stare at dukes and duchesses by a five-shilling admittance to the Horticultural or the Botanical Gardens. For the aristocracy know the snobocracy too well, and receive a private view of fruits and flowers, and as to the company, them they leave to look at each other.
But man, after all, seems rural by nature, and city only perforce: so, even in London, we see the rural element break forth in sundry forms. True the old Duke of Queensberry, at his club through August, argued that, after all, town was a deal fuller than the country; and Shakspearian Collier, at his pretty cottage at Maidenhead, said how he longed for a cabstand to add interest to his view---yet both these men loved Nature still, though they were too active-minded to "babble of green fields" alone. All Londoners feel the same. Who has not seen flower culture under difficulties, and geraniums planted even in crockery the most ridiculous as the train passes level with the garrets of Limehouse or Blackfriars? Happily our squares are planted with fine trees, ay, and where shall we see such gardens? Country people would be surprised to hear that, in London, foliage is seen almost everywhere. It has been remarked that there is hardly a street in the City that cannot refresh the eye with green leaves in the summer. Even in St. Paul's churchyard, and from the back windows of the Cheapside offices, it is hard to find a house which cannot afford a sight of green leaves. Who knows not, that what with Hyde Park and Regent's Park, Battersea, Victoria, and Alexandra Parks, with the Gardens, Botanical, Horticultural, Kew, Richmond, and Hampton Court, Windsor and Virginia Water, you must actually come from the country to London and its vicinity to see flowers, parks, and gardens in perfection! How pleasant to see---not the fops ogling the women in Rotten Row, that is not rural, but---the thousands who rent the penny chairs by the Serpentine or Kensington Gardens, and the mechanics with their wives and children, who perhaps pay a twopenny omnibus to enjoy their share of those groves and lawns to which all alike contribute!
The river and its boats are another rural outlet, whether up to Kew, Richmond, and Hampton Court, or down to Greenwich, Gravesend, and "Rosherville, the place to spend a happy day." Happy shall we be when the Thames is pure enough to suit the finny tribes. The cockney is a fishing animal. How refreshing to the eyes---like an oasis in the desert---is Farlow's tackle, baits, and pictured trout and salmon in the Strand, and other fishing-tackle shops in the busiest courts from Fetter Lane to London Bridge, even a glance at which transports us in imagination to the trolling or punt-fishing of the Thames, to the sea-fishing of the South Coast, or sets us wading in the salmon rivers of Scotland.
A friend who lodged by Holborn Turnstile said, no one could believe the numbers of men with fishing-rods, bottles, and baskets (insuring bites at least) that passed every fine Sunday morning, whether for the sticklebacks at Highgate, or the gudgeons of the New River---lovers of the country all. The success of the Volunteering depends partly on the same country-loving instinct. Messrs. Shoolbred alone could turn out a small corps, regimental band and all complete, to defend their silks and calicoes; and these, and many another firm, have their days for a rural outing, for Hampton vans are now quite a Cockney institution. There are, every year, treats for Ragged and other schools, for deaf mutes from asylums, and aged paupers from the unions; besides van clubs, which, like goose clubs and plum-pudding clubs at Christmas, take sixpence all the year for a jollification and a spree occasional. You may count forty vans in one stream on a fine May morning.
Who has not read, "Nine hours by the sea for two and sixpence," advertised as freely as "nine mackerel for a shilling?" and as to the Crystal Palace, it enters into the very customs if not the contracts of all London service. Even the maid-of-all-work toils for so much a-year expressed, and sundry days to the Crystal Palace understood. The famous Easter Hunt is, perhaps, a thing of the past -- Epping now being known less for dogs than for dairies, though some thirty years ago, in Old Matthew's "At Home," every one entered into the joke of the Cockney, in the hackney-coach, calling out for a one-and-six-penny fare after the stag. The Derby, and of late the Oxford and Cambridge boat-race, are great London days; and, as to Lord's and the Oval, with the Middlesex Cricket Grounds, they serve as out-of-door summer clubs, and many a man would hardly endure the heat and dust of a London season without those providential retreats for fresh air and country sports.
All this testifies to that yearning for green fields and rural sports which a life amidst bricks, pavements and pitching-stones, with difficulty holds under high pressure, and which is ever yearning to find expression in its own congenial sphere.
Created 20 October 2001; last modified 2 January 2024