− British Isles 1800–49
Letters from London 1808
London, May 1.
MY DEAR BROTHER,
The Lynn coach brought us safely to town this morning. We had just day-light sufficient to observe, as we passed, a painting at the Basing-House, in Shoreditch, of a man going to water a horse, on which was written,
Stop, masters, stop! And quench your thirst;
If you don’t drink, your horses must.
As we had been sitting all night, my uncle proposed a walk into the city.
Passing through the High-street of Shoreditch, we saw several pieces of poetry at the doors of some little traders, but most frequently at those who followed the art of shaving; they were novel to me, and may entertain you, who have only seen specimens of country wit. One ran thus:
UP This ALley LIVES a Puff,
SHAVEs FOR A ENNY.
& THINKS it Enuff.
You see I give this literally. I should really have thought the people in London had known how to spell better.
A paper lantern, at another door, exhibited the following:
Walk in, kind Sirs, I’ll shave you well’
None in this part can me excel:
My lather’s good, my razor’s keen;
Depend upon’t I’ll shave you clean.
My uncle told me there were many specimens of low wit on sign-boards in London. Near Shoreditch-Church two barber’s blocks were placed on a post, and the reader was to make out the sign agreeably to this inscription:
In the windows of a public-house we saw two neat paintings, relative to the history of Jane Shore, one representing her when in prosperity, the other when in adversity*. [* The painter has adopted the fable of Rowe, the poet, describing her as being denied all sustenance: showing a baker, hanging, in the back-ground, for giving her a loaf of bread, contrary to the orders of Richard III.]
My uncle informed me, that some persons had thought this parish received its name from Shore and ditch, the place where she is supposed to have ended her days; but this was an error, as it was named after Sir John de Soredish, a skilful lawyer in the days of Edward III.
The chimney-sweeps make a great bawling here early in the morning. Many of them are very little boys*; [* See note A. at the end.] and my uncle laments that any chimneys are built so narrow, as to occasion such infants being employed. Some humane persons here will not suffer boys to climb their chimneys, but use a machine that in a great measure precludes the necessity of climbing. I have seen a print* [* Sold by Phillips, George Yard, Lombard Street.] and description of it; and at any rater it answers well for nearly upright or modern chimneys. I must now conclude: the postman rings his bell; though quite wear and sleepy,
I am yours, affectionately,
Tired by travelling the preceding night, I slept soundly, considering the constant noise of coaches and carriages, rattling on the paved stones nearly all night; and the watchmen, who call the time every half hour.
After breakfast we walked from the city to Southwark, and passed by the Monument, which was built to commemorate the dreadful fire of London, in 1666. This pillar is 202 feet high.
Going over London Bridge, the great number of ships and vessels in the river quite surprised me: the masts were so numerous, they appeared like a wood, whose trees had lost their leaves and branches.
We saw some boats pass through the bridge at nearly low water: to me it appeared very dangerous; and my uncle told me that many persons, annually, lose their lives here, by boats oversetting. London Bridge is now in a shattered condition, though great care is taken to repair it frequently; a young poetess thus mentions it:
When John usurp’d Old England’s throne,
’Cross here he built a bridge of stone,
With houses on it all a row;
Over you pass’d, and could not know
That under flow’d the foaming tide,
You’d think you walk’d along Cheapside:
But now no trace of that appears,
This bridge, though built but ninety years,
Is crack’d and crazy; though so new
Its building once was much ado.
An iron bridge, that won’t decay,
Will here be built, as people say,
From end to end without a stone,
The centre arch a lofty one.
We had the pleasure here of seeing one sailor, with a wooden leg, relieve another who had lost both his. This poor man has contrived a kind of cradle to sit on; and with the help of two crutches he conveys himself from place to place.
I was much pleased with the water-works, which are so constructed as to force that necessary article into the upper chambers of most houses in the city. There are also water-works at the south end, on the west side of the bridge, for the supply of Southwark, but not on so large a scale as those for the city.
We passed through the Borough without observing any thing particular, except the two noble structures of Guy’s and Thomas’s hospitals: we viewed their outsides; but my uncle declined going into any of their wards, observing that, in its best state, the air of an hospital was not very grateful.
Over the gateway of the Talbot Inn, in the Borough, we read, “This is the inn where Sir Jeffery Chaucer, and nine and twenty pilgrims, lodged on their journey to Canterbury, in 1383*.” [* Many religious persons, in those days, travelled to Canterbury, to visit the tomb of Thomas à Becket, who was assassinated in the cathedral there, in the reign of Henry II. The miracles said to have been wrought at his tomb are recorded in two large volumes, kept in the cathedral. Though canonized, he was, in truth, memorable only for pride, and ingratitude to his sovereign, to which he fell a sacrifice.]
The Butcher-Row being in a narrow part of the Borough, causes an obstruction to passengers; and women are suffered to drive barrows, with fruit, &c. on the pavement, to the danger of the passing crowd. I observed that walking cutlers were frequently to be seen, grinding knives and scissors. My ears were filled with the various cries of numerous traders, who walk the streets.
Women with fruits and flowers, harlequins and columbines; and some little Jew boys, were very busy in selling heart-cakes and shoe-strings: one man was very musical in crying the last article:
Shoe strings, a penny a pair! a penny a pair!
Come buy of the maker whilst he is here:
They’re long and strong, five inches long;
The measure will bear, I do declare:
Shoe-strings, a penny a pair! a penny a pair!
Water-cresses and ground-ivy were echoed repeatedly; while a man with rabbits, which he carried on a long pole over his shoulder, made more noise than any of the rest. A woman, with painted paper for flags and windmills, was followed by several children; and a disabled sailor cried,
Young lambs to sell! young lambs to sell!
If I’d as much as I could tell,
I never would cry, young lambs to sell!
Several Jews cried old cloths; while an ancient woman sung,
Here are your pretty toys,
For your little girls and boys.
Knives and forks, that won’t cut fingers.*
[* They were made of bone.]
Though now tired with writing, I assure you I am not yet weary of this grand city, or of this charming holiday, that I have been so long expecting. With kind remembrances to all my dear friends at N—, I remain,
As I have a great deal to tell you about, I shall, without any preface, proceed with my journal. A shower of rain coming on, we took a coach, (a convenience we know nothing of in the country,) which carried us from the Borough to St. George’s Fields, viewing the King’s Bench prison, for debtors, to the west, and the county gaol to the east of the road. They are both very large buildings, and my uncle laments that vice should so abound, as to give occasion for such extensive receptacles.
Not far from the King’s Bench, we visited a very large school*, established on the most liberal plan, for seven hundred boys; and room for making to enlarge it for a greater number. It is so systematically conducted, that they are taught, with great facility, the first rudiments of reading and arithmetic.
[* This school was established by Joseph Lancaster, who invites the children of those who cannot pay, to a gratuitous education. Under his direction, one child teaches another, and, to use his own words, “To be a monitor, is coveted by the whole school; it being an office which produces solid pudding as well as empty praise.”]
The system which has been adopted of rewarding the attentive learners, proves a great stimulus to them. The rewards are toys, of all descriptions, with which the walls of the school-room are covered.
My uncle describes it as a most useful institution, for educating the children of the industrious poor, in reading, writing, and arithmetic.
The rain continuing, the coachman was ordered to drive us to the School for the indigent Blind, which is also in St. George’s Fields. Here we were very agreeably entertained, by seeing with what ease the poor lads manufactured baskets, clothes-lines, and sash-cord; and the females spun threads, or made nets. There were nineteen boys and nine girls, comfortably supported by voluntary contributions.
My uncle bought a basket of their making; and several ladies who were visitors bought nets, lines or pincushions; and we stayed a short time to observe them, not only at work, but at play; and it was surprising to see how well they avoided running against any part of the building when at play. Being told that the greater part of the children here lost their sight by the small-pox, we remembered what out modern poet, Bloomfield, has lately written, in his poem of “News from the Farm.”
How came the blindness of your only son?
When was this work of bitterness begun?
* * * * * * * * *
My boy was healthy, and my rest was sound,
When last year’s corn was green upon the ground;
From yonder town infection found its way,
Around me putrid dead, and dying lay.
I trembled for his fate; but all my care
Avail’d not — for he breath’d the tainted air.
Sickness ensu’d: in terror and dismay
I nurs’d him in my arms, both night and day.
When his soft skin, from head to foot, became
One swelling purple sore, unfit to name,
Hour after hour, when all was still beside,
When the pale night-light in the socket died,
Alone I sat, (the thought still soothes my heart,
That surely I perform’d a mother’s part,)
Watching with such anxiety and pain,
Till he might smile and look on me again.
But that was not to be, — ask me no more.
God keep small-pox and blindness from your door.
The rain having ceased we walked past the Asylum for female Orphans, which benevolent institution affords a maintenance and education for a number of poor and distressed children, who are received at the age of nine years, and at fourteen are apprenticed out to trades, or become domestic servants. In our path-way from thence, by the Magdalen*, [* an hospital for distrest and imprudent females] we saw a poor blind woman, attempting to excite compassion by singing, and playing on a violin. The words she sung were,
By the small-pox I lost my sight,
I can’t discern the day from night.
She was relieved by a young gentleman, who said he had lost his sight by the same disorder, although he had been inoculated. This was an affecting incident; but my uncle said, that since Dr. Jenner had discovered the effects of the cow-pox, in preventing the patient from catching the small-pox, the deaths by that disorder had greatly decreased. Many thousands of persons, who had been inoculated for the cow-pox, and afterwards associating with those who had the small-pox, had escaped, the infection, and were thus preserved from the dangers attending that disorder.
Hoping you are as well, happy, and merry, as I am, I again bid you farewell.
P.S. Please send up my boots, for a little rain makes London streets very dirty. I must beg you to have the nails taken out of the toes and heels; for though they prevent my slipping in our lands in Norfolk, they might cause me to fall on London stones. I have heard that Bloomfield* [* see the account prefixed to the Farmers’s Boy] the poet had a sad fall, owing to the nails in his shoes.
I FIND, my dear brother, that even in London one cannot be always walking about and seeing sights; and I have now and then found my time hang a little heavily, for want of the books and studies which occupy it at home. Observing this, my uncle has borrowed a folio of very entertaining prints, of a friend of his, who has a large collection: perhaps it may amuse you to have a description of a few of them.
I was particularly interested by one, representing the whale fishery. As an ox is the largest animal we had ever seen in Norfolk, I was surprised at being told, by a person acquainted with the fishery, that a whale exceeds the size of one hundred oxen taken together: some have been found from one hundred to one hundred and forty feet in length. To catch so large an animal is a very bold attempt; and as they are found in either the North or South frozen seas, among rocks and shoals of ice, the danger is great. These animals being timid, the chief fear is of their overturning a boat; or when struck with the harpoon, of dragging the boat and the crew after it. If the wound is mortal, they strike him a second or a third time, and then kill him with spears. When dead, he floats belly uppermost, and his blood reddens the waters as far as the eye can see. The boats then approach him, and the men tie him with a rope to the vessel.
A shout of joy and victory is then heard from the crew, who, after a dose of brandy, begin to cut up the whale. Two men enter his mouth, and cut out the tongue and barbs: others attack his tail and fins; these are boiled for making glue. The Greenlanders eat the tail, and some parts of the flesh. A whale affords nearly one hundred tons of fat, and about five hundred barbs*, which are as valuable as the former; and the whole produces a good sum of money.
[* The barbs, or whalebone, are split into thin slices of different lengths, and are made into fishing rods, umbrellas, whips, stays, &c. The ribs and real bones of the whale serve for making chairs, tables, and benches. The beams and rafters of some buildings are supplied by whale-bones.]
If you have been interested with my account of the whale, I will proceed to describe, as well as I am able, another print, of a bird-catcher, who travels occasionally to London, to dispose of his live stock. For besides many singing birds, he had an owl to sell; also a pretty little bitch and her puppy. The whole group made a pleasing picture. The honest donkey, who bore the burden of all these living creatures, looked very patient, and trotted along to the music of barking dogs, and singing birds; gratified, perhaps, as much by the one as the other.
Another print represented Johnson, the celebrated smuggler, in the act of leaping the turnpike gate, after breaking out of prison at noon day. My uncle told me that this man had taken more pains, in a few years had run into more danger, to live by illicit means, than he need have experienced in a long life of honest industry*. One more, adieu!
[* This man fled to Holland, but some time after took the advantage of a general pardon for exiles, to return to England. He was employed by our government as a pilot, in the expedition against Holland, in 1799; but on the peace in 1801, he again followed smuggling, and other illegal practices, and being taken, was imprisoned in the Fleet prison: but the night before he was to have been removed to Newgate, he made a wonderful escape from the top of the prison, by descending a very high wall, that was guarded by spiked irons, &c. at the top.]
MY DEAR BROTHER,
I HAVE now been some time in London, and though much amused by the variety of curiosities which are every where to be met with in this prodigious city, I assure you I think with real pleasure of my return to the country, which is so pleasant, quiet, and delightful: for as to the fine churches and grand buildings which ornament the metropolis, though very interesting and wonderful, as works of art, to me they are not half so pleasing as the noble old oaks that overshadow our cottage; nor are the wide streets and grand squares of London half so pretty to my eye, as the winding lanes and green meadows of our little village. Besides, the idea of meeting my dear mother and you, seems worth all the fine things I have seen since I first came here. I have not been more pleased with any sight I have yet seen, than with the prospect from the top of St. Paul’s, which I ascended this morning.
You know what a while it takes to go up our steeple stairs at N—: well, but you can form no idea from that, of the height of this surprising building. I thought I should never have arrived at my journey’s end. In ascending, we first came to the stone gallery, which runs all round the bottom of the dome. From this place the prospect is beautiful; but from the iron gallery, which surrounds the dome, the effect is indeed curious and beautiful. The coaches in the streets looked extremely diminutive, and the people reminded me of the Liliputian nation. The great river Thames appeared but a narrow stream; and all the houses and churches were in miniature. We could scarcely distinguish the noise of the rumbling carriages, and the general din below; though the noise is really so great, that one might sometimes halloo loud enough to alarm all the neighbours in our parish, without being noticed in London streets.
Returning from this pleasing excursion, a little tired, I betook myself to the folio, and opened upon a print, representing Mr. Daniel’s Life Preserver, as exhibited passing through London Bridge. I have not time to describe the whole contrivance: but by means of a leather apparatus, which is put over the head, and buckled on, and which the wearer may fill full of air, a person may float, with ease and safety, for any length of time; and should the plan be generally adopted, it will doubtless be the means (as indeed it already has been) of saving many a valuable life*. [* See note B, at the end.]
My uncle proposed, for the afternoon’s entertainment, a visit to the Panorama, of which you have heard him speak. In our way thither, through the Strand, I was diverted by a travelling dromedary. The poor animal bowed to us respectfully, at the command of his master; and bore, very patiently, with two little monkeys, and several boys, who were mounted on his back, and who seemed to treat him with very little ceremony. I could not help wishing it were in my power to send the poor creature back again to its native deserts, where it might enjoy its liberty, instead of parading through the crowded streets of a city. But I quite forgot the dromedary, and all my benevolent wishes, when we arrived at the Panorama; where, having passed through some dark passages, and ascended a long flight of stairs, we suddenly found ourselves on a green platform, with the beautiful city of Paris stretched all round us. I could scarcely believe it was only a painting, every object appeared so natural. I heard a lady who had been at Paris say, it was a most exact representation of the place, and that she could even distinguish the very house she had occupied when there. I could not help smiling at the river Seine, upon which the city stands; for though there are three handsome bridges built across it, it is such a narrow stream, that one might almost jump over it. Compared with our noble river Thames, it is really quite contemptible.
We saw, distinctly, the palace of the Thuilleries, where Bonaparte now resides; also the Place de Grave, where all the dreadful executions took place in the reign of Robespierre, and where the unfortunate king and queen suffered; the recollection of which excited some painful reflections. My uncle dropped the tribute of a tear, as one of the company mentioned these enormities.
I have not time to describe, more particularly, this very interesting sight; to me it was highly gratifying, for had I actually been on an eminence in the city itself, I could scarcely have had a more correct idea of its general appearance. It was a short journey from the centre of Paris to the heart of London, where we soon found ourselves surrounded by noise and bustle. I am very glad Bonaparte has not such an easy access to us.
For my evening’s entertainment I had recourse to the folio, where the first object that attracted my attention was an elephant, travelling in China, with a company of nobles on his back. This must be a droll mode of conveyance, very different from our swift-footed horses, and the way in which one is whirled along in a stage coach. It is wonderful to see an animal which is strong enough to crush all its employers to death, patiently submitting to control, and as obedient to the word of command, as the weakest creature could be. I have heard, that when provoked by ill usage, they are fierce and revengeful.
Another picture represented a Chinese boy riding on a zebu; with an African boy on an ostrich, which reminded me of our cousins George and Harry attempting to ride the great hog belonging to Farmer Truman, of which I send a sketch. The account of other amusing prints, I must defer till we meet again, and at present remain your affectionate brother,