The Scenery of London

Mitton, G. E.
1905

CHAPTER V: Westminster

CHAPTER V: Westminster

 

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A VISITOR from the United States of America woke up in his hotel in Northumberland Avenue, on his first morning in the old country, and hardly waited to do justice to his breakfast before sallying forth to inspect all the historical marvels of London, which exercise such a potent fascination over the minds of those who live in a new country. He was in a position to inspect these marvels with greater ease than any man before his date, for he had brought over with him the first working time-machine ever constructed, and by its aid he intended to see for himself how cities are made, and to be present at every detail of the growth. He attracted but little attention in the street; his secret had been well kept, or the mob would have made a fair trial impossible; and the machine was eyed by the passers with only a slight glance of wonder as if it had been some new-fangled sort of motor tricycle. Quivering with anticipation the visitor made his way to the north side of .

 

He saw before him the sight so familiar to us all, the

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dun pavement and the splashing fountains, the little green trees against a background of drab stucco, and beyond them the vista of Whitehall, where rise the towers of the Houses of Parliament. At the north end of Trafalgar Square were the high columns and the dome of the National Gallery, and close at hand was the arcade of St. Martin's Church. Early as it was, the seats in the open space held their complement of loafers, those men "who do nothing, and have nothing," and yet contrive to live apparently with no small degree of comfort. Children going to school dressed in woollen mufflers and red caps looked furtively at each other in passing; a cab laden with boxes made its way up toward one of the great stations; at the corner of the Square a couple of well-set-up stout sergeants talked ingratiatingly with two weedy, nondescript youths; omnibus horses struggled past them up the incline; errand boys on small cycle carts went spinning along. It was a students' day at the National Gallery, and several students of both varieties, distinguishable rather by the carelessness of their costumes than for any special artistic taste in their arrangement, mounted the steps; they seemed to know one another, and exchanged greetings freely. A girls' school, leaving in its wake an impression of peculiar giggling insipidity, passed at a uniform march; and all these objects toned in with the drabs and the greys and the greens of the Square. How changed it would all be, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye! The visitor's hand was on the spring. He whizzed backward through space; in the

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middle of the eighteenth century he stopped the machine with a thump, and behold-before him stretched a walled-in space. He was well versed in local history, this visitor, and he needed not to be told this was the Royal Mews; in the centre was a curious and ancient building called Queen 's Bath, though with what justice it is difficult to say. The facade of the Mews was very new and elegant, having been rebuilt but about twenty years, and it was surmounted by three stone cupolas. In ancient times it had housed the king's falcons, and here were now stabled the King's horses, the breed of cream-coloured Hanoverians lately introduced, and the wonder of England. The neighbourhood of the Mews was not unfashionable. Houses had been built for the gentry and nobility on the north side, and bowling greens there established; but to the north-east the district was very squalid; a perfect rookery of narrow lanes and malodorous alleys stood there, popularly known as the Caribbean Islands. The Church of St. Martin's was the only object that remained the same in spite of the visitor's incursion into time, but it was difficult to see because of the intervening houses. It had only been rebuilt some five-and-twenty years. Close before it ran a narrow lane stretching down to , and this the visitor must needs follow. Here the scene was utterly changed and was quite strange and unfamiliar. Instead of Northumberland Avenue there was a splendid house with a frieze of large capital letters across the facade. The house was built round about a square

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courtyard, and the gardens, covering several acres, reached down to the river.

As he sat there surveying it, the hand of the visitor touched the spring of the machine almost unconsciously, and slowly he went back through the ages. In the earlier part of the sixteenth century the house had disappeared, and there in place of it was a small religious house, St. Mary Rounceval. It had escaped so far the reforming tendencies of Henry VIII., but was to be suppressed in the reign of his son. Behind it was a large plot of ground enclosed with brick, where the Kings of Scotland were wont to lodge in ancient days when they came to the Parliament of England; this was later known as Scotland Yard. The visitor, glancing at his time register saw that he was now in the year , a date that enabled him to appreciate what happened a little later.

 

To his right, on the spot where now stands the statue of Charles I., arose a stately cross of white Caen stone, pure as the day it was erected in , and the model of which we may see in station yard to this day. The condition of the pure cross drew the stranger's attention to the difference of the atmospheric conditions from those of the time when he had started; behind and all around him stretched fields, and the air was as clear as that of the country on a May morning. To the northward there was no church, but fields only, in the which Henry VIII. was to found, six years later, the first Church of St. Martin's in the Fields. At the beginning of the long, muddy country road called

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the Strand was another small religious house, where a few tumble-down cottages and quaint gabled houses made up the village of Charing. Yet even then it was a busy place. A man jogged past on a solid, broad-backed mare ; a lad in charge of a flock of sheep exchanged a greeting with him; an itinerant vendor, a comely woman, singing a song of indistinguishable words in a loud, cheery voice, made the air resound; these and several other passers dressed in clothes of bright colours, but in a quaint, unfamiliar style, stopped and gazed open-mouthed at a gay cavalcade that swept suddenly into view and turned down Whitehall. Satisfied that he was himself totally invisible, the visitor turned to gape also. There must have been at least seven or eight hundred people, some on horseback, some running on foot, and all alike dressed in shining armour, in scarlet and in blue. They parted just abreast of the visitor, who saw with astonishment, riding in the midst of them an ecclesiastic, with a strong, heavy masculine face, magnificently mounted on a black horse covered with trappings of crimson and gold. The very saddle was of crimson velvet, and the man himself so shone and glittered with precious stones that he seemed like the sun in his rising. But Wolsey's sun was nearly set.

The cavalcade turned into a gateway of the palace on the east side of Whitehall below Scotland Yard. The palace was a congeries of red-brick buildings, not unlike St. James's, but more rambling and confused; glimpses of courts filled with eager, restless servitors

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and men-at-arms could be descried from the rough roadway.

A sudden desire to see the end of this palace, to see it melt and fall, seized upon the visitor, he pressed his finger on the spring marked "forward" and came slowly upwards toward our own time, but after a short time he stopped and remained spell-bound. The palace was still there though much altered and enlarged. Recent attempts had evidently been made at renovation, for there now stood facing the roadway a majestic building of Portland stone in a very different style from the old ruinous red-brick walls around it. It had a row of windows across the frontage, and altogether it seemed strangely familiar. Where had he seen it that very morning ? Why, in the guide-book of course, as a representation of the Banqueting Hall, still standing, the only fragment that was ever executed of Inigo Jones's great design for a new palace of Whitehall. But as he gazed on it he noted how it was half hidden by a great platform that rose to the lower sills of the upper-storey windows; and on the platform there was a man, slight and small and timid-looking, and in the group round him were soldiers in uniform, a bishop in full robes, and men in state dress, yet none was so conspicuous or so dignified as that slight, small figure partially disrobed. The waiting multitudes beneath, hemmed in by horsemen, so that they could not reach the scaffold, looked on with upturned faces in which awe, anxiety, and deep dread were mingled. Presto ! The scene had changed, the machine had slipped on, but

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stopped, it seemed, almost immediately, though so fast it went that in reality ten or eleven years had intervened. The crowd was now gathered about the upper part of Whitehall, where the cross had stood, and there on a gallows erected for the purpose four of the regicides, who had taken part in the murder of their king, were hanged and then quartered. Faugh! with a sensation of disgust the visitor turned away; men had coarser stomachs in those days. He resumed his way down toward , but stopped short at the sight of the magnificent Holbein gateway standing right across the roadway south of the palace, a gateway built by Henry VIII. shortly after the date when the visitor had witnessed Wolsey in his glory. It had two high side towers, hexagonal and crowned with battlements. Windows gemmed its sides in profusion. Every niche was filled with carving, and the variegated brick made a rich background. Passing through this the visitor perceived on the left the wide spaces of the neatly-laidout Privy Gardens, and on the right a tilting ground. He was now confronted by a second gate with domecapped towers, rich enough, but lacking the profuse ornament of the first one.

Passing through this he found himself in , that narrow street through which all the pageantry of royalty had to pass for many generations. Funerals and marriages, christenings and state ceremonials had been crowded in between those overhanging houses, three and four storeys high, with carved work and escutcheons and blazoned arms on their frontage. No

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attempt at any sort of pavement was there on this royal road; large mudholes were traps for the unwary and the depression in the centre of the roadway was filled by a stream, into which, as he watched, women from the adjacent houses emptied their pails; one deluge of water, shot from an upper storey, narrowly missed his head, and quickening his pace he was glad to find himself in the peace of the Abbey precincts. A space of green stretched before him and behind it rose the Abbey, very much as we know it now, though without Wren's two noble western towers, venerable and dignified, with St. Margaret's Church close under its shelter. But except for Hall the whole aspect in the direction of the river was strange. On the north side was New Palace Yard with a handsome clock tower; from this ran houses of wealthy and substantial merchants. On the east of it was the Star Chamber. It stood close to a pier running out into the river, for here there was no bridge until nearly a hundred years later. The congeries of irregular buildings grouped around were mean and undignified, and numbered among them many private houses of the same gabled overhanging style as those in King Street.

 

The visitor knew that here had stood the great palace occupied by our kings up to the time of the transference to Whitehall, and he gazed in wonder, speculating which of the buildings he now saw were the remnants of this palace. The Chapel of St. Stephen was apparent enough, rising high on the south; here sat

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the House of Commons, but of the others which he knew must still be there, the Painted Chamber and the Court of Requests, once livingrooms, he could divine nothing, nor of the Prince's Chamber and the Council Room, all of which vanished later in the fatal fire of .

Turning away westward somewhat sadly, the visitor found his attention attracted by a massive and sombre square keep of blackened stone, standing on the site of the present Guildhall; he approached it wondering at its windowless condition, and surmising on the darkness within, when he realised that this must be the famous Sanctuary, the refuge of hunted criminals, and his attention redoubled. The little narrow, irregular, pointed windows strongly barred, the old bastion projecting from the straight undecorated wall, and the low doorway riveted his attention. Here noble and subject, prince and pauper, the innocent and the guilty had fled in days when retribution was swift and inquiries none too certain. It had served its purpose, this grim citadel, sheltering all alike until means could be found of proving innocence or providing for escape. Twice did Queen , wife of ., fly here; and while within this rough, dark dwelling the first time gave birth to her elder boy, to be a king in name but never in fact. Looking away from this place of dark memories the visitor saw almost immediately another tower, like and yet unlike the Sanctuary; like in its lack of ornament and its plain severity of outline, but differing in that it was a double gateway and not a solid building. The

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two gates were at right angles, one leading from Dean's Yard, and the other being the entrance into the Abbey precinct from the direction of Tothill. This gateway formed a prison in two parts, on one side for the Bishop of London's "clerks convict," and on the other for prisoners of the City of . Many notable men have languished within the walls, noblest of all Sir Walter Ralegh the night before his execution. Hampden, Lilly, and Lovelace, the Cavalier poet, were here also, and some thirty years after the date at which the visitor surveyed it even the garrulous Pepys was to spend a short time within the walls, in consequence of having been accused of too tender a regard for the absent James II.

 

The man of the time-machine had seen nearly enough; his brain could no longer contain all the mystery and the wonder of this ever-changing City. Merely for the sake of contrast he pressed the button " forward," and found himself once more brought up sharply in the present century on the day on which he had started. Before him stretched Victoria Street, grim and grey, with the asphalt shining between the precipitous houses like a river of ice in a deep cañon. Offices on every floor and part of a floor were to be found in those tall buildings. A motor car whizzed past, slackening speed behind a string of omnibuses, a telegraph lad on a red bicycle caught on to the back for a moment to balance himself. The cabmen exchanged jokes at the cabstand in the middle of the street. Farther on a vast modern emporium attracted crowds of buyers, who followed

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each other in a continuous string in at one door and out at another.

Turning down a side street, the stranger came suddenly upon a huge cathedral in red brick, the very latest of the ecclesiastical buildings in the Metropolis, and then he let his machine go backward once more. Vanished in a flying haze were the houses, the buildings, and the streets; except for a line of picturesque almshouses a little to the east, there was nothing but a wide open space of green, with two large marshy ponds enclosed in its low-lying ground.

The machine ran backwards, slowly and more slowly, and stopped suddenly at the date . The fields were alive with people. Booths, and tents, and pavilions, decorated with streamers and flags, occupied all the available space. Men-at-arms hastened from one tent to another. Pages, bearing dishes, got inextricably mixed up with them in their hurry. The horses, a goodly number in brilliant trappings, champed and stamped a space apart ; all was bustle, confusion, and haste. Then in a moment the bustle ceased, every man stood erect and steady in his place. Two glistening lines of men-at-arms formed a lane down which rode a gay cavalcade of men and women on horseback, rainbow-hued, with garments and trappings of cloth of gold, of crimson, and azure, and as they passed not a head but was bared before them, while a mighty shout drowned even the fanfaronade of trumpets, and all at once there rushed upon the visitor's mind the words of that ancient chronicler Stow, whose writings he knew by heart.

the King's Councillor and Priest, did invite to a stately dinner the kings and queens of Scotland and England, the king's son, and earls, barons, and knights, the Bishop of London and several citizens, whereby his guests did grow to such a number that his house at Totehill could not receive them, but that he was forced to set up tents and pavilions to receive his guests, whereof there was such a multitude that seven hundred messes of meat did not serve for the first dinner.

With renewed interest at the thought of the goodly company he was keeping, the visitor watched the arrival of the royal party at a gorgeous tent set at one end of the field. He noted the ladies as they alighted, and marked the high pointed head-dresses and the flowing wimples; he saw their gowns, blue and green, red and gold, sweeping the ground in folds; he saw the unrivalled embroidery of their cloaks, and the inlaid armour of the men; when in his eagerness leaning forward he accidentally touched the spring of his machine, and flick! the show had disappeared, but in its place was another of the year .

 

There was a great space cleared, about the length of a cricket pitch either way, and around it, raised on platforms, as on a grand stand, were a number of people whose high degree was evidenced by the beauty and costliness of their costumes. Behind them, crowding every vantage-point where a view of the cleared space could be obtained, was a vast crowd of men and women, soldiers and lads, jostling each other in their

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excitement. The pushing increased tenfold when, from a tent of gaily striped awnings, there stepped forth a man dressed in crimson satin breeches, a cloak, and a black velvet hat with a red feather in it. He was led into the square, where he bowed with great ceremony, east, west, north, and south, and then proceeded to strip himself of his finery until he stood forth bare-legged and bare-headed before all that great assemblage. In front of this champion was borne a gauntlet upon a sword's point, and after him a long staff tipped with horn and a leather shield. It was evidently an ordeal by battle. And Stow's account of the "combat appointed to have been fought for a certaine manour and demaine lands in the Ile of Hartie adjoining the `le of Sheppie in Kent" came into the visitor's mind. He was to be the privileged beholder of one of the last cases of ordeal by battle. However, there seemed to be some hitch, for though the other combatant presently entered the lists with much the same ceremony as the former one, the battle did not begin, and this, to one so versed in the history of Stow, needed no interpretation; was it not stated that after some time when the principal or employer of the second man, he on whose behalf the combat was to take place, made no appearance, the trial went by default to the first ? It was all clear enough: the Lord Chief Justice, who was conducting the case, Willed that the foremost man should "render againe" the gauntlet to his adversary, whereupon the former man objected and wished to have fought all the same, so as to have given the onlookers a show, but the second

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man not being of so pugnacious a disposition, the matter hung fire.

Somewhat tired of waiting while so much arguing went on and such long speeches were made, which by reason of the distance he could not hear, the visitor set his machine forward once more.

 

Once again flick ! and behold a fair with booths, and shows, and punchinellos, stalls for merchandise, and a goodly gathering of purchasers and sightseers. The visitor watched with interest the aspects of the fair, and concluded that it was much the same as in our own day, much scampering about and talking, much haggling over prices and advertising of wares, and in all a great running to and fro and but little done. Wearily he turned on his machine once more, when behold! an awful spectacle. Numbers of rough, strongly built carts laden with dead bodies; a solemn and awful procession; a great pit, shallow enough in all conscience, wherein the bodies were laid in rows and rows, dressed as they were. Even afar off, and in spite of the rags and soil stains of their clothes, it could be seen that they were in some sort of uniform, and this the visitor understood. He hardly needed to glance at his dial to see the date 652, for well he knew that these hundreds of dead men were the prisoners who had been taken at the battle of Worcester, and were Scotsmen, who had been brought to London and had died in sorrow and sickness far from their native land. So badly buried were they that loads of extra soil had afterwards to be laid upon the shallow graves.

With a quick movement of the hand the visitor was back in the present day. He had seen enough; and, a wiser man than when he started, he made his way back to Northumberland Avenue, with a gallery of mental pictures in his brain.