The Scenery of London

Mitton, G. E.
1905

CHAPTER XI: Commonplace Scenes

CHAPTER XI: Commonplace Scenes

 

THE street life of London can only be illustrated by the slightest of vignettes; it would be easy, perhaps, to invent scenes full of excitement, but they would not show the streets as they are day by day, and these are what one wants.

Take Bow Street about mid-day. What a curious medley it is! Along the pavement comes marching a solid file of sturdy, clean policemen, wholesome and healthy, and good to look upon, going to report themselves at the Bow Street Station. Round the corner, with that peculiar fussiness assumed by the workingclass woman when she is on an errand of importance, come two women dressed in their very best clothes. The elder is stout, and has a hat laden with crape, but in style suitable for a much younger woman ; her dress also is black, with crape sewn on vertically in lines; the younger is not quite so stout, and though evidently in mourning too, has not been able to resist wearing a bit of rabbit fur round her neck; by her side is a small boy, obviously uncomfortable in his stiff Sunday grey suit,

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and half awed by the solemnity of the occasion, half self-assertive. He makes a run for the entrance to the police court, but is dragged back and steered round to another entrance at the back. Evidently it is not the first time the stout woman in crape has been there, for she knows her way about. On either side of the street shops full of theatrical properties, such as wigs of various colours, glittering false jewellery and other requisites, alternate oddly with the open shops or stalls, where fruit is sold wholesale, and where consequently the vendor puts on an air of leisurely unconcern altogether different from the active energy of the retail man. A group of theatrical young ladies outside the stage door blocks the pavement; they are altogether rather highpitched in colouring, tone, and style, and they chatter freely with several men of the same calibre. A highly respectable newspaper office belonging to one of the great dailies ends the street, and beside it a newsvendor sells his wares, making a free display of them on the pavement.

At the same hour the eating-shops in the Strand and elsewhere are crowded, "A.B.C.s" and "Lyons" being highly in favour. They are largely patronised by the clerks from the offices near, for here wholesome food may be purchased at a marvellously cheap rate. Every one chooses to suit his pocket, from the officeboy who has a steaming large cup of coffee and a " milk scone," though it is not in the least what a Scot would understand by a scone, to the young man who spends a lordly shilling on pie and potatoes, with prunes and

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cream to follow. Day by day the place is ever full, always the same class of people, the same smell, the same food. It may be noted as a curious trait that the Londoner likes his food well seasoned, and of course as he likes it he gets it. Popular taste approves steak and kidney pie radiating essence of dried herbs, apple pies thick with cloves, and milk puddings with nutmeg; even the veal and ham pie is not without its flavouring, and in addition to these condiments mustard is largely used.

The young ladies who serve are trim and neat and self-possessed, though not without a demure smile for a favoured customer. The average of marriages in this class is very high, so that though the pay is not, there are always any number of applicants for a vacancy. It is strange how the use or rather misuse of the word " lady " has grown with strides of late years; every shop-girl is now a young lady, and the American joke about the "washer-lady" will soon cease to have any significance. There is some peculiar saving clause about the qualifying adjective "young," be it noted; whatever the age of a shop-assistant, she is a " young lady," and, further than this, shopmen are beginning to be spoken of by one another as "young gentlemen," a term formerly used exclusively by servants and hall porters to denote public-school boys. Whether the qualifying adjective will remain as a saving grace or be altogether discarded, so that all classes save real gentlewomen and gentlemen will become "ladies" and "gentlemen," remains to be seen.

In the matter of shops I have often wondered how they can all exist. The prosperity of the large ones, of course, and the well-known ones can be understood There is much money in London; witness the extraordinary celerity with which any fund mounts that has touched the public sympathy. An anonymous donor gives, it may be £100, on condition that twenty others do the same, and very shortly the sum is made up; others give enormous sums to charity, £20,000 and £50,000 as easily as an ordinary man gives half-a-crown. Yes, there is much money in London, and those who have it like to have the best of everything, and care not what they pay, so that the large shops and the fashionable shops are well supported. The most fashionable are oftentimes the least ostentatious; none of the Bond Street shops has a large window space, and in some of the streets leading off Bond Street it seems to be considered aristocratic to make as little display as possible. Madame, who orders a " little thing" at fifty guineas, does not need to see similar garments displayed in the window in order to ensure her custom; in fact, she prefers her own to be unique. It is not the smart shops, nor yet the large modern store-shops where everything can be obtained under one roof, that have difficulty in keeping themselves financially afloat, but rather the small shops with a fairly large window space, shops that pay comparatively high rents, have a large staff of assistants, and yet sell cheap goods. In these everything is cheap, from the tea-gown at 19s. 11 ¾ d. to the "pearl" pins at 1¾d. the dozen, and everything, lace,

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fur, and jewellery, is all sham. These shops are getting more and more behindhand, as the people from the outlying streets and the suburbs come up to London to the well-known ones, and their takings must sometimes be very meagre. It is pitiful to see the row of expectant girls and the obsequious shopwalker with his "What is your pleasure, madam ?" and to hear the order, it may be a reel of black cotton and a hair net ! Such shops are soon " competed " out of existence, and the business tends more and more to the store-shops.

Let us take another scene where the characteristics of Londoners come out strongly. It is a damp, foggy November afternoon, not a real fog, but enough to distil depression and paralysis of energy as the thin solution of dirt and moisture is distilled in a meagre rain. From a seat near the door of an omnibus a long vista of flickering street lamps can be seen shining on the wet roadway. Inside Waterloo Station things are not much better. There is a certain amount of bustle, but also a good deal of dejection. We come suddenly upon a group of persons, numbering quite a hundred and fifty, standing on the grey cold stone pavement of the station, all staring in one direction, and seemingly afraid to move their eyes for an i stant. Such an eagerness has one seen in a crowd facing a cinematograph, or even, in unsophisticated districts, a magic lantern, but here what all are staring at is a large indicator with the names of the places from which expected trains are coming, and blank spaces for the numbers of the platform at which such trains will arrive. It is now 4.20,

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and you may note that the 2.30 has not yet arrived. These people have been waiting here nearly two hours, it is impossible to doubt it, waiting patiently and without exasperation; the fog has delayed the train, the railway officials can give no idea when "she " will be in, and they have friends to meet, possibly friends from the country who would be lost if they arrived alone in the whirlpool of London, and therefore wait they must. They cannot move, fascination holds them there; when the magic number appears they have only time to race across bridge or roadway and be in at the arrival of the train. While we watch a number is put up, not that of the 2.30 for which the whole crowd seems to be waiting, but of a less important one ; some straggling members of the group detach themselves and hurry away; the rest close up their ranks, and their eyes are still fastened on the indicator. There is not a single seat within sight of the indicator, which stands in the draughtiest, least interesting part of the station. Were there seats to sit on, or a large bookstall to amuse the weary, matters would be improved; but no, there are none of these things, and yet the stolid Londoner complains not; he is used to "putting up" with things, and has long learnt that he cannot make the world go round to suit his own convenience. While we watch the crowd a tired woman with a heavy sleeping child in her arms, who has been shifting from one foot to another, makes her way to a seat at some distance, but, finding she cannot possibly see the indicator, returns almost immediately. A train comes in at this platform, and a detachment of privates

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alight ; they are eagerly awaited by their sweethearts, and for a few minutes there is babel of chatter, then the men form up and march out, leaving the wistful girls, who have spent two hours in expectation of a glimpse of them, to go home through the wet streets. A Sister of Mercy passes with white flapping cap; she paces up and down, up and down austerely, with her eyes on the ground. Two small lads, having a penny to put in a slot machine, spend a happy ten minutes debating whether chocolate, dates, or figs will yield the most for the money. At last, at last, up goes the number, the crowd disperses hastily, there is a rush for the stairs, over the bridge, and patience is rewarded.

Such a scene suggests many things to a student of human nature, but chiefly those qualities for which the Londoner is famous, his tolerance and good-humour. It is the first lesson he learns. Coming perhaps from a home where he has been of some importance, and where his wishes are at least considered, he is plunged into a mass of men like himself, and becomes one among hundreds. His wishes, his convenience affect no one; he may get angry, he may, if he be of the educated class, write letters to the papers complaining of his woes, but if he be of malleable mould he soon gets this knocked out of him, and he learns to put up with things. The marvellous patience of the streets we have seen exhibited by the omnibus men, but the average Londoner has his share of the quality too.

Take another street scene. It is a week-day evening; the pavement is sticky and the street greasy ; the garish

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light of a public-house at the corner struggles with and overcomes that of a wan moon. Groups of workmen in soiled clothes are standing at the street corner, and more of them are in the public-house. A knot of Salvationists are holding a meeting in an entry, with a lamp propped up on a tripod to give them light, and their harsh voices ring out above the thunder of the passing omnibuses. On the Nonconformist Chapel hard by is a huge placard, a couple of yards deep, announcing that next Sunday the Rev. Mr. Hardapple will discourse on " Hell and what We may expect There." A woman comes along dressed in black, with a certain worn neatness in her apparel; she looks timidly in at the glass door of the public-house, then swings it open with a defiant push that would be bold were it not so nervous. A tiny red-haired, left-handed boy is playing a joyful game all to himself, kicking his much too large slippers off against the wall of the house, and trying to catch them as they rebound. Two larger lads, with heads close together, are eating fried fish out of a piece of newspaper; presently they throw the empty paper into the kerb and go away; the small left-handed boy pounces upon it with glee, and licks it with great enjoyment. Presently a weary-looking youth wheels up a coster barrow on which is a small baby; he lifts the child off, and sets it down on the wet pavement, tips up the barrow in a dark passage, and picking up the child as if it were a parcel, strides into the passage, obviously a widower, or worse. Another young man of the same type, with a worn face and a half-silly expression,

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as if he were " not quite all there," comes round the corner with a bundle in his hand. He goes into the public-house, and, unrolling his parcel, discloses a much soiled and worn pair of boots; finding no satisfaction within, he returns to the street and offers the boots to the working men, who examine them critically; one even measures them against his own foot, others tap the soles, but no one buys, and the young man goes wearily on his way. A blind man taps the kerb impatiently to attract attention, but none of the working men stir; presently the small boy runs across and leads him over the dangerous crossing. Two smart, dapper artillerymen stop for a moment in passing, and cheekily mimic two girls of the loosely bloused, dishevelled type, who pass on grinning at the witticisms. An old grizzled cabman pulls up at the kerb before the public-house and gives his mare her nose-bag, speaking to her meantime more affectionately than maybe he has ever spoken to his wife. Then he counts his gains, a good big fistful of silver, and goes in to " have a glass."

A knuckle-kneed horse wearily tugging at a laundry cart stops with a jerk, and the man driving it descends; he has his wife and baby with him, seated among the great bags of linen, and he fetches her out a glass of porter, "with a head on it," before they go on again. The barman saunters about outside for a moment, the picture of good-natured vulgarity, the very man for the place, big, and not too squeamish, ready for anything, from a passing joke to the "chucking out " of an obstreperous customer.

By this time the Salvationists have departed, and a barrel-organ comes upon the scene and begins an excruciating tune. Two girls spring up from somewhere, and begin twirling each other round and round on the wooden pavement. Then the tune changes to a schottische, and half a dozen young fellows and other girls join in, but all dance strictly with their own sex, men with men, and girls with girls, a kind of deliberate, rather slow toe-and-heel movement ; as the music grows faster the crowd gathers, and people come out of the public-house to watch the performance. The bus-drivers drive benevolently on the far side of the street not to interrupt the fun, but the carts and cabs are not so considerate, and the dance is frequently broken into. Suddenly the weary grinder stops, and out come handkerchiefs, and there is much mopping of faces; the street ball is over. Thus run out the lives of the poor in mean streets after working hours are over.

Take another view. It is a glorious August afternoon at the Oval. Abel is in, having nearly one hundred runs to his credit, and the score stands at over two hundred for two wickets. To any but an enthusiast the game might seem a little bit monotonous, but not so to the Surrey crowd ; they are real cricket-lovers; it is the game, the strokes, they care to see; they know to a nicety how many the popular little hero wants to complete his thousand in first-class cricket, and when he gets it a cheer will break out simultaneously with as great a verve as ever it would for the winning stroke in a match. In the sixpenny seats there is no sitting

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room; every available inch of hard backless bench is packed, and at the back many men stand for hours on the grilling asphalte. Pocket-handkerchiefs are slung from bowlers and caps to shield the necks from the sun, but the faces are hot and red and perspiring all the same. It is a good-humoured crowd too; there is no grumbling, no selfishness displayed; the men edge up just that extra half-inch that makes all the difference between fair comfort and real discomfort, with all the pleasure in life, if thereby some one else can sit on an unoccupied fraction of seat at the end. The chaff goes on all the time, and also remarks on the game, showing that every one is intent on the cricket, and nothing else. A limping little man who comes round with refreshments in the shape of packets of lemon drops tied up in white paper, and carried in a shiny black leather bag, does a roaring trade; every one seems to have an odd copper to spend. Every one also has already paid sixpence for entry to the ground, and yet it is a working day, no half-holiday, and these men one and all are of the working class. Here is a Guardsman admitted free by right of his uniform; his being here is understandable enough, but next to him is a clerk; what does he do here in the middle of the afternoon ? He is too well dressed to be out of work. Next to him is a man who is a plumber, if ever plumber was written on a man's outward appearance; a row of nondescript youths, evidently in some trade, follow; they may be men who have night work, compositors or the like, but the whole of the thousands that surround the

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ground cannot have night work, and the fact of their having sixpence to spend on pleasure speaks eloquently of the fact they are not out of work. Go any day, every day, all through the summer, and you would swear it was the same identical crowd, though it may be made up of different units. The problem is insoluble. A vast sea of men and lads, well fed and comfortably dressed, with money in their packets, and the great majority wearing that strip of stiff white linen which in London is the outward and visible sign of respectability. Allow for the soldiers, the shopkeepers, the compositors, the railwaymen, and you have yet hardly touched the fringe of thousands who assemble day by day just to watch cricket.

The fogs of London are too characteristic of the great city to be omitted without comment. There are many varieties of fog, by no means to be confounded with one another by the real Londoner; there is, for instance, the white fog, the yellow fog, the black fog, and the fog that hangs overhead but does not descend. The last named is very curious; suddenly, without warning, the darkness of night falls upon a part of London, maybe only a small part, for this kind of fog is apt to be local; electric lights spring out on all sides, and working London continues its task without intermission. The streets are clear, there is no difficulty in transit, but overhead like a black pall hangs the fog until the wind wafts it away.

The white fog is very often the most opaque, though the air is quite light, and there is no need of

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artificial lights. This fog hangs in thick folds, as if layers of linen were before one's face. One involuntarily tries to brush it away; it is provoking not to be able to see in a good light; it seems to muffle sound too, more than the others, and crossings are dangerous.

The yellow fog happily is not common; it is choking, stifling, and creeps into rooms and houses in spite of all efforts to keep it out. The atmosphere can only be compared to the Underground at its worst, that is to say, at Blackfriars or Gower Street. The ordinary black fog is the most common; this may or may not be opaque, according to its density ; at its worst it is very dangerous indeed. One is isolated, an atom certain only of the foot-space on which one stands; cabs crawl by the kerb, omnibus conductors lead the horses, holding the lamp in their hands and going slowly foot by foot. The lamps are seen as round or oval discs emitting no rays, and at a few yards' distance they vanish altogether; the roadway is greasy with precipitated moisture, and the footpaths disgusting. Here and there, where the Underground Railway runs in a cutting, is heard the hoarse bark of the fog signals. There is a feeling of weirdness, of menace, over all, as if something terrible were about to happen.

Yet, considering the situation of London, it is hardly to be wondered at that all devices for minimising the fogs have failed entirely. London is built on marshes. So much have artificial buildings and roads of man's making swept away natural outlines that it is seldom realised that we are on the marshy banks of a river.

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The land slopes very gradually up from the bed of the Thames to the heights on the north, and the slopes were aforetimes traversed by numberless rills, and by at least four streams of some magnitude, namely the Westbourne, Tybourne, Fleet, and Wallbrook. Picture this locality many years ago when man had not planted his city, that was to be, on the river-side. The Thames then flowed over a far wider channel than at present; it made its way to the sea in a vast shallow stream, here and there breaking into lagoons and swamps, or completely cutting off the part of the land by surrounding it, as at the island of Thorney, where is now . Here is Sir Walter Besant's account: " There was as yet (after the Roman period) no , but in its place a broad and marshy heath spread over the whole area now covered by the City of , Millbank, St. James's Park, , and as far west as Fulham. Beyond the wall on the north lay dreary uncultivated plains, covered with fens and swamps, stretching to the lower slopes of the northern hills. All through this period, therefore, and for long after, the City of London had a broad marsh lying on the south, another on the west, a third on the east, while on the north there stretched a barren swampy moorland."

Picture it, this broad bed of the river extending over many acres, and lined by low marshy ground liable to inundations. From this valley there rose continually a winding-sheet of thick white mist, extending far to north and south, and it is this mist which,

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now mingling with the smoke of man's making, becomes fog.

The fog is ofttimes very local. It may be quite clear in the City and dense in Kensington, or dense in Soho and clear at ; but some spots are peculiarly liable to be enshrouded, and of these one is that part of from Devonshire House to the Circus. If the fog is at all general it is always to be found here at its worst.

Turning for a while from the fog, which is a peculiar London characteristic, and world-wide in its notoriety, we may consider London under another aspect, that of snow. We do not often have heavy snowfalls in London. When we do, armies of men with spade and shovel set to work to clear it off the pavements; it is carried away in carts and cast into the river, but not before the passing traffic has churned what lay on the roadways into a peculiar rich-brown paste, which spurts up from the flying wheels. Snow exercises a deadening effect on the atmosphere; it seems to muffle the sound rays as the fog does the light rays. The vehicles are ghostly silent, making no noise, the air is still, even the shrill whistle of the street boy seems a tone lower than usual, and the city shows itself under a new aspect.

Let us finish with a few notable points in the demeanour of the "man in the street." His manners are as a rule good; it is much easier to pass down a busy London street than even a quiet provincial one; every one is quick to perceive the intention of those he meets, and gives a little for his own part; there is no

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bucolic slowness. Where there is mind there is always to some extent manner, for mind supposes imagination and the power of realising another's position; hence in crowded tram or in the Twopenny Tube there is seldom need for a woman to stand long before a seat is courteously offered.

The policeman must be mentioned. In the eyes of a Frenchman he occupies a place second only to the Lord Mayor in any conception of London. For this his dignity is largely responsible, and dignity, whether natural or acquired, is a valuable asset in these days of easy familiarity.

 

With this we may end this general and discursive survey of the London we have tried to depict, the London of the streets and of the people; the work-a-day London of mud and fog, but of glowing golden-red sunsets; the London that holds an unrivalled heritage in its historical records and names of its noble sons; the London that has won the hearts of the people as no great city has ever done before.