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Tuesday, 22 March 2011

“Each Street Lamp is Crowned with a Nightcap of the Purest Fleece”: Or: A Snowy Day in 1850’s London:

I Tweeted a few days ago that I had just read the best description of Victorian London on a snowy day that I was ever likely to come across in the 1857 novel;
“Paved with Gold, Or, the Romance and Reality of the London Streets: An Unfashionable Novel” By Augustus Mayhew, older brother of the famous Henry Mayhew.

If you can get hold of a copy of this book then I recommend doing so if you like Victorian novels, I have not read the whole thing yet, but what I have read so far is excellent. If the only 19th century books you’ve read are by Dickens, then give this a try.

Anyway, I decided - although it is slightly un-seasonal - to put the beginning paragraphs of the second chapter (in which Mayhew describes snowy London) here. Hopefully, you enjoy it as much as I do:

Chapter II: Frozen out:

“It was a bitter winter's day we have said. The snow had fallen thickly during the night, whilst all London was asleep, and the early waker in the suburbs, as he lay in his bed wondering what made the road so still and the morning light so bright, heard the song of the market carter, that without the rumble of a wheel he had traced creeping from the distance, cease suddenly, and followed by a cry of
"Here, police! Come along, look sharp!" Then, as his curiosity sent him shivering to the window, he saw in the dawn the black, steaming horse stretched at full length upon the white roadway, kicking up the powdery snow like foam, with the carter leaning on its neck, and the piles of green cabbages in the cart all dabbed with flocks of snow.

On the other hand, the heavier sleeper in the town was roused out of his last nap by the sound of shovels scraping harshly on the pavement, as if a hundred knife-grinders were at work in the street; and others, who dozed still later, had their dreams abruptly cut in two by some dozen cadgers from the nearest low lodging-house, who, with a frost-tipped bit of green stuff raised on a pole, were all shouting together, at the top of their voices, "Poor froze-out gard'ners poor froze-out gard'ner!"

Truly there is hardly a more startling sight than to wake up and find the town, which yesterday was black with its winter's coat of soot and dirt, suddenly changed to a city of almost silver beauty, seeming as if it were some monster capital at the Polar regions, glittering with its glacial architecture, and bristling with its monuments, pinnacles, and towers, like so many palaces and temples hewn out of ice.
Every house-top seems to be newly thatched with the virgin flocks, and every cornice striped as if with a trimming of the fairest down. All the verandahs are white as a tent-top, and the railings look as if made out of pith rather than ironwork; every window-sill, and, indeed, the least ledge on which the foamy powder can lie, is thick and bulging with its layer of alabaster-like particles. On each doorstep is spread the whitest possible mat, and each street-lamp is crowned with a nightcap of the purest fleece, whilst the huge coloured lamps over the chemists' seem gaudier than ever, and their blue and red bulls'-eyes look like huge gems set massively amid lumps of frosted silver.

The various signs over the tradesmen's shops are nearly blotted out by the drift that has clung to them. The monster golden boot above the shoemaker's is silvered over on the side next the wind; the "little dustpans" are filled with a pile of white fluff; the golden fleece, hanging over the hosiers' shops, seems to have changed its metallic coat for one of the purest wool; the three balls at the pawnbroker's appear to have been converted into a triad of gelder-roses; and the great carved lions and unicorns between the first- floor windows of the royal tradesmen, have huge dabs of snow resting on their necks, like thick, white, matted manes.
The surface of the earth itself is white as a wedding-cake. In the roadway, in the early morning, you can count the traffic by the ruts the wheels have made, for every one leaves behind it a glistening trail as if some monster snail had crawled along the way. What a change, too, has token place in the tumult of the busiest thoroughfares! The streets that formerly deafened you with their noise are now hushed as night, and everything that moves past is silent as an apparition. Even the big clots of snow that keep on falling from the copings and the lamps and trees startle you, from the utter absence of all sound, as they strike the earth. The wheels of the heaviest carts seem to be muffled, and roll on as if they were passing over the softest moss. The horses go along with their hoofs spluttering where the trodden ground has been caked into slipperiness, and the drivers walk at their head, with their hand upon the rein, while the nervous, timid brutes steam with the unusual labour, and their breath gushes down from their nostrils in absolute rays of mist.

It is at this period, too, that the ice-cart makes its appearance in the streets. The costermonger who can no longer drive his trade at the green-markets, now looks to the ponds for a living, and comes to town with a load of transparent splintery fragments, that seem like jagged pieces of broken plate-glass windows. The omnibuses have an extra horse put on when they reach the metropolitan hills, for the snow in the roads has long before mid-day been rolled into ice, and the highways are like a long, broad slide. To accommodate the outsides, hay has been wound round the stepping-irons, and the gents on the "knife-board," along the roof of the first busses, appear with thick railway-rugs tucked round their knees, whilst, at the different halting-places, the conductor jumps down and stamps on the pavement, as lie does a double-shuffle to warm himself, flinging his arms across his chest, and striking the breast of Isis top-coat with the same energy as if he were beating a carpet.

Snow or sunshine, London work must be done; but now the mechanics and clerks that you meet in the streets go along with their heads down and their hands in their pockets, at a half-trotting pace. Their necks are bound round with thick wisps of comforters, and the tips of their noses, that overhang the worsted network, are red, as if tinselled, and all sniff and cough, as they carefully dodge by the round iron plates over the coal-holes of the metropolis. The pavement in front of the bakers' shops is the only place from which the snow has entirely disappeared, and where the pedestrian can tread with safety. The whole town seems to swarm with boy and men sweepers, who go about from house to house, knocking at the doors, and offering to clear the pavement before the dwelling, according to Act of Parliament, for twopence. Everybody you meet has the breast of his great-coat and hat-rim dredged with white; and the police-man's shiny cape is, with its fur of snow, more like a nobleman's ermine tippet than the ordinary hard-weather costume of the force.

How bright the air, too, seems with the light reflected from the snow. You can see to the end of the longest streets like on an early summer morning. There is a white, cold look about the scene; and everything seems so black from the contrast of the intense glare of the ground, that even at noonday you might fancy that a silver harvest moon was shining in the skies, and that the snow itself, lying on one side of each object, was but the reflexion of the pale brilliance of the white beams falling on them.
The sky looks almost like a dome of slate, and the parks and squares like large new plaster models of countries without a single path or bed to be traced, except where the few passengers have worn a narrow dirty streak across them. The trees, too, are all ashy grey, and the objects in the distance seem to be twice as near as usual, while the dark specks of the people moving over the great snowy waste appear like blots on a sheet of paper.
The statues throughout the metropolis have lost all artistic modelling in their form, and strike one as being as rudely fashioned as if they were so many figures moulded by schoolboys out of snow.

 Some, however, are merely speckled with the flakes, and have their Grecian draperies splashed over with white, like a plasterer's clothes. Sir Robert Peel, gazing down Cheapside, looks as if some miller had rubbed violently up against him. Old Major Cartwright, seated in his arm-chair in Burton-crescent, has at least a couple of pounds of snow resting on the top of his skull and dabbed over his face, and giving him the appearance of having been newly lathered previous to having his head and cheeks shaved. The periwig of George III., at Charing Cross, has turned white in a night, like the hair of Marie Antoinette. The mounted effigy of F. M. the Duke of Wellington, at Hyde Park-corner, continues, despite a spadeful of snow at the nape of his neck, to point with his baton-which is now white as a wax- candle-majestically in the direction of the White Horse Cellar, his patient steed having its hind-quarters covered with so heavy a deposit that his Grace seems to be sitting, like a life-guardsman, on a mat of bleached sheepskin.
Now the water-supply of the metropolis begins to be almost as scarce as in Paris; while the water-pipes of the more prudent of the householders are seen bandaged round with straw, like the wheel- spokes of a new carriage. The turn-cocks, with their shiny leathern epaulets, go along with their immense keys, like those of some monster beer-barrel, and erect tall wooden plugs for the temporary supply of the neighbours, who flock there with pails and pitchers, and wait in a crowd to take their turn at the tap, while the waste water gutters and hardens over the snow like so much grease.

 But if there be a scarcity of water, the public-houses, at least, have determined to make up for it, for in the windows are printed placards announcing that "HOT ELDER WINE" and "HOT SPICED ALE" may be had within. Taking advantage, too, of the "inclemency" of the weather, all kinds of warm comestibles suddenly appear on the street-stalls. The fish kettles, full of "hot eels" and "pea-soup," have a cloud of steam issuing from them, and the baked potato-cans are spurting out jets of a high-pressure vapour, like the escape-pipe to some miniature steam-factory. As you walk along the street, too, the nostrils are regaled by pleasant odours of baked apples and roasted chesnuts from the neighbouring stalls, at which sit old women in coachmen's many-caped coats, with their feet in an apple-basket, and a rushlight shade, full of red-hot charcoal, at their side-the fire shining in bright orange spots through the holes.

The pert London sparrows seem almost to have disappeared with the frost, and the few that remain have a wretched half-torpid look, and have gone all fluffy and turned to a mere brown ball of feathers. In the suburbs, the robins are seen for the first time leaving little trident impressions of their feet on the garden snow, and their scarlet bosoms looking red as Christmas berries against the white earth. Then as the dusk of evening sets in, and you see in the squares and crescents the crimson flickering of the flames from the cosy sea-coal fire in the parlours, lighting up the windows like flashes of sheet- lightning, the cold, cheerless aspect of the streets without sets you thinking of the exquisite comfort of our English homes.

 But if grateful thoughts of comfort are suggested by the contrast of the snow, the same cause leads the more imaginative to think of the sharp, biting misery gnawing into the very bones of the luckless portion of London society. To those who can put on warm flannel, and encase their bodies in a thick great-coat, a sharp frost means only "healthy, bracing weather," and to such people the long evenings are welcome, from a sense of the happy family circle gathered round the bright cherry-coloured fire. To the well-born young silver-spoonbills of the West-end, Christmas is a season of mirth and holiday games, of feasting, pantomimes, and parties. By the elder gentlefolks it is regarded as a time of good cheer, with its cattle-shows and "guinea-hampers," and presents of fat turkeys from the country; for such as these, the butchers' shops are piled with prize-meat, coated with thick fat, and decorated with huge cockades-for such as these, the grocers' windows are dressed out with dried fruits and spices, and studded with lumps of candied peel; and Covent-garden is littered with holly, laurel, and mistletoe, and fragrant with the odours of bright-coloured fruits.

 But how, think you, must the cold be welcomed by those whose means of living cease directly the earth becomes like cast-iron with the frost. How merry must Christmas appear to those whose tattered clothes afford no more protection than broken windows against the bleak, stinging breeze. How pleasant and cosy must the long evenings be to such as have to spend them crouching under the dry arches; and how delicious the sight of the teeming markets to poor wretches who, to stay their hunger, must devour the refuse orange-peel lying about the stones there.”

I can almost smell that hot spiced ale. Magic!


  1. That is so evocative. Augustus obviously had his brother's eloquence.

  2. It seems so. I've certainly never come across such a vivid description of snowy London.

    Novel's just don't seem to be written this way these days, with long lingering descriptions of scenes with little or no story involved.

    Or, perhaps I'm just not reading the right modern novels.

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