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Thursday, 28 July 2011

“A London of Horse Trams with Halfpenny Fares, and of Hansom Cabs; of Crystalline Bells and Spattering Hoofs” Or: The Victiorian Era Remembered by Those Who Were There:

One of the most satisfying things about being a Victorianist, is that the era of which I am fond was blessed with so many fantastic writers, diarists and chroniclers that I, and others with an interest in the era, can obtain wonderful glimpses into the past by reading the work of these people.
In the nineteenth century, there was a boom in ‘investigative’ journalism, as we can observe with the previous post I wrote, which, although very probably glorified in some ways (the press has not changed that much over the years) investigative articles can give us a wonderful idea of the kind of things that were happening, and that people wanted to read about.

Non-investigative journalism, too, is very interesting to read, and can give us an accurate picture of the everyday news occurrences of the period, whether it be a royal, political, crime, war or weather story, the newspaper archives of the Victorian age are a fascinating resource to get a feel for a particular era.

The nineteenth century spawned many excellent writers, and a particularly interesting group are those who write about the Victorian age in retrospect. Authors such as M.V Hughes, William Pett Ridge and R.D Blumenfeld lived in the middle and latter years of the nineteenth century, and wrote about their memories of the period. M.V Hughes wrote about her childhood in the 1870’s, and also produced memoirs of her life right up to the war. R.D Blumenfeld, a journalist and diarist, wrote in both the Victorian period, and also after, particularly about his memories of nineteenth century journalism and the press, in his book, ‘The Press in My Time’, in 1932.
M.V Hughes

These retrospective writers – H.V Morton is another, who wrote this article on Victorian Lamplighters (which has been one of my most popular posts - read it here) - are particularly interesting, because they are able to look back and compare the Victorian age to what they know of the twentieth century (usually no later than the 1940’s) which makes them, in a sense, similar to today’s Victorianists, in that we too, can look around us, and read articles written by Victorians, and their newspapers, and compare our age with theirs.

Reading what these retrospective former Victorians wrote, is the closest we can now get to speaking to, or interviewing anyone who was there, and getting a faithful re-telling and recollection of what, to them, the nineteenth century was like.

I have chosen two snippets from such writers to demonstrate this, I could have chosen ten, twenty or thirty or more, but in the interest of keeping these posts as succinct as possible I have restricted myself to two.

First, an extract from Thomas Burke’s ‘London in My Time’ written in 1934, when he was 47. I enjoy Burke’s writing, he reminds me a little of James Greenwood, although with a little less perspicacity. In this part, he writes wonderfully about the character of the London he remembers:   

“Diamond Jubilee. . . . Sixty Years a Queen. . . . The Longest Reign. . . . The roofs and windows of London are rippling with red-white-and-blue; even the poorest dwelling shows its three-hap'ny flag. Every street-organ is playing and every boy whistling, Leslie Stuart's ‘Soldiers of the Queen’. Schoolboys are wearing in the lapels of their coats enamel portrait-buttons of the Queen and the Royal Family. One is taken round the main streets at dusk to see the "illuminations" – just fairy-lamps of candle, oil or gas, but lighting the London of that time with the superlative of carnival blaze. London is celebrating the Record Reign and sixty years of what it thought was Progress, never guessing that more progress was to be packed into the next thirty years than the whole previous hundred years could show.

That is the London I saw and felt when I first became consciously aware of London. I had been running about it for some years before that, but it is from the Diamond Jubilee that I date remembered detail. It was a London that still held many of the fixtures and much of the atmosphere of what has come to be known as the “Dickens' London”. 

Piccadilly Circus as Thomas Burke would have seen it, in 1896
A London of horse-trams with halfpenny fares, and of hansom cabs; of crystalline bells and spattering hoofs.
A London with winters of slush and fog of a richer sort than any known to-day, and summers of dust and clam; the slush and dust being its heritage from the horse-traffic. A London of silk hats, frock-coats, beards, curled moustaches, "choker" collars, leg-of-mutton sleeves, veils, bonnets, and, threading through these gigmanities, as herald of revolt, an execrated vixen in bloomers riding a bicycle.
A London of solid homes, which regarded the introduction of flat-life as something Not Quite Nice; in fact, Fast.
A London in which the head of the house still carved the joint at his Sunday table in the presence of his six or seven sons and daughters.
A London of low buildings against which Queen Anne's Mansions was a sky-scraper.
A London of lost corners; of queer nooks and rookeries; of curling lanes and derelict squares, unknown to the rest of London, and often, it seemed, forgotten by their local Councils.
A London which, away from the larger streets, held pools of utter darkness, and terraces of crumbling caverns, and infinitudes of mist which called one as surely as the ranges to penetrate their fastness.
A London whose roads were mainly granite setts, and therefore a London of turmoil and clatter.
A London in which the more prosperous business men drove to their offices in their broughams.
A London in which the first cars were appearing, to the puzzled scorn of the majority of the brougham-owners "Never make a do of those things. People never give up horses for those."
A London in which particular trades and callings still wore particular clothes, and which still nourished public "characters" and eccentrics.
A London in which strong language, of a strength that would blanch these outspoken times, was used by certain men of all social classes.
A London where entertaining in restaurants was just beginning to displace the more pleasant but (for the hostess) more troublesome custom of entertaining at one's own table.
A London in which paper money, save in the five-ten-twenty series, was unthought of. A London in which a golden sovereign would give you a quiet evening's entertainment of a kind which five pound-notes could not buy to-day.
A London which, as befitted a great metropolis, had nine evening papers against today's meagre three.
A London which was the centre of an Empire, and knew it.
And a London which, in a few of its nerves, was beginning to be aware of the end of an epoch and of the New this and the New that.”

Thomas Burke died in 1945 in Bloomsbury, aged 58.

Alfred Rosling Bennett, too wrote an excellent book of his remembrances of London from his childhood through to his twenties, entitled London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties’ in 1924. In this, he looks fondly back at the most notable events of each year in London between around 1854 and 1870. In his opening lines of the first chapter, he recollects:

“To one who has had the opportunity of comparing by personal experience the conditions which prevail today, in 1924, with those that ruled the lives of Londoners sixty and seventy years ago, it is very obvious that in many ways things are not what they were. Whether the changes are all for the public weal may be doubted; that they have occurred is beyond dispute.”

There were many chapters to choose from to take a sample of, but I have opted for a subject I am very fond of, the Thames (which I would give almost anything I own to go back to the 1850’s and 60’s and stand on London bridge just for ten minutes and watch the road and river traffic!)

In chapter 29, Alfred speaks of London’s ‘vanished industries’, one of which is ship building:

“About 1880 I saw in the Isle of Dogs rows of workmen's cottages, and good cottages too, standing unoccupied and desolate, their gardens and the paths and roadways in front obliterated by weeds. The erstwhile occupants had had to emigrate to the Clyde and elsewhere-to less genial climates and inferior accommodation - often to earn reduced wages. And now in 1924 it looks as if Old Father Time, bent on another of his usual revenges, and very effectively aided by the trade unions, is driving ship-building from the Clyde to the Tyne, the Wear and the Lagan.

The Building of the Great Eastern in 1858 at Millwall
It was in 1866 that I got my last views of Thames ship-building activity. With other members of my rowing club I made a down-river excursion one afternoon - it was the day on which the news of the battle of Sadowa was received - in a four-oared gig and passed close to the ironclad Northumberland just launched from, I think, the Thames Iron Works. She was a monster for that date. On a similar outing another day we passed a shipbuilding works near Blackwall just as a steamer for a South American Government was launched with steam up and stores and crew on board. Almost as soon as she was afloat the screw began to revolve and her nose turned down the river. After a very, brief interval she glided away amidst cheers and dipping of flags.”

People like me are (and should be) extremely grateful that Victorians spent so much time recording their daily lives, the evolution of their cities, and the events that they witnessed first hand which are now key events of our history. Earlier I mentioned that nobody will ever be able to speak to a Victorian again, as, sadly, time moves on unrelenting, but we should be grateful that they left their stories behind in their diaries, words, recollections, and most excitingly, photographs, as a kind of permanent footprint in time that we can follow and attempt to grasp what life was really like in the Victorian age with an accuracy that other periods in history are not blessed with.


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