John McDonnell has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web his website with the electronic text, including scanned images, of the anonymous London Characters and the Humourous Side of London Life. With Upwards of 70 Illustrations apparently by a "Mr. Jones," which the London firm Stanley Rivers & Co. published in 1871. Brackets indicate explanatory material, such as interpretations of contemporary slang, by Mr. McDonnell. [Decorated initial "A" by Thackeray from Vanity Fair — George P. Landow.]
ho are these people who pass to and fro? What lives are theirs? What are their stories? Who are their friends? What is their business? Each has a story of his own---each has a cluster of friends of his own---each is the centre of a domestic circle of greater or less extent---each is an object of paramount interest to somebody; there are few, very few, who are so unhappy, so isolated, as not to be the absolute centre around which some one's thoughts revolve. Of these men and women who pass and repass me in the crowded street, one is an only son, on whose progress in life his bereaved mother has staked her happiness; another is the ne'er-do-well husband of a spirit-broken, but still loving wife; a third is a husband that is to be; a fourth is the father of a big hungry family---every one, from peer to beggar, is the living centre of some social scheme. They are all so much alike, and yet so widely different; their stories are so wonderfully similar in their broad outlines, and yet so strangely unlike in their minute particulars. Just as one man's face is like another's, so is the story of his life: no two faces are exactly alike, yet all have many points in common.
A large crowd of people always presents many curious subjects of speculation. The bare fact of their being there is marvellous in itself, when we come to think of it, without thinking too deeply. As a rule, it is better to think, but not to think too deeply. If we don't think at all, our mind is but a blank; if we just glance below the surface, we may without difficulty conjure up a host of pleasant paradoxes, the contemplation of which is enough to keep the mind amused, and to give play to a healthy and fanciful reflection. But if we think too deeply, we come to the reason of things---we destroy our visionary castles---we brush away our quaint theories, and we reduce everything to the absolute dead-level from which we started. Apply these remarks to a large crowd of people---say a monster Reform gathering in Hyde Park. Here are thirty thousand people vindicating their claim to the franchise, some by talking windily to a mob who can't hear them, others by an interchange of gentle chaff, others by going to sleep on their backs on the grass. The man who don't trouble himself to think about them accepts their presence as a fact which is merely attributed to a popular demagogue and a few thousand handbills. He who dips below the surface, finds a train of thoughts of this nature prepared for him: "How utterly baseless is the doctrine of chances! Take any two of these people at random: one is (say) a bricklayer, born in Gloucestershire; another is a tailor, who hails from Canterbury: well, what would have been the betting, thirty years ago, that the Gloucestershire bricklayer would not be lolling on the grass at Hyde Park, listening to the inflated nonsense of the Kentish tailor, at eight o'clock on a given evening in August, eighteen hundred and sixty-seven? Why, the odds would have been incalculably great against such a concurrence. But here are not only the Gloucestershire bricklayer and the Kentish tailor, but also twenty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight others, the odds against any one of whom meeting any other in the same place, at the same time, and on the same day, would have been equally incalculable; and yet, here they all are!" Here is a vast field of speculation opened out for the consideration of him who only dips below the surface. It is enough, in itself, to keep his mind in a condition of pleasant easy-going activity for months at a time. But the miserable man who sees a fallacy in this chain of reasoning, and, so to speak, hauls up his intellectual cable to see where the fault lies, discovers that it exists in the fact that no one, thirty years ago, prophesied anything of the kind concerning either the Gloucester bricklayer or the Kentish tailor, or any other twain of the multitude before him---that the odds against any one having prophesied such a concurrence would be infinitely greater than the odds anybody would have staked against such a prophecy being verified; that he has been troubling himself about a mass of utter nonsense; and that, in the absense of any prophecy to that effect, there is nothing more remarkable in the fact of the Gloucestershire bricklayer meeting the Kentish tailor and the twenty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight other noodles who go to make up the crowd, than is to be found in the fact that thirty thousand people can be brought together, out of one city, who think that the cause of Reform is susceptible of any material advancement by such a means.
The London streets always afford pleasant fund of reflection to a superficial thinker. Hardly a man passes by who has not some more or less strongly marked characteristic which may serve to distinguish him from his fellows, and give a clue to his previous history. Of course the clue may be an erroneous one; but if it prove to be so, that is the fault of the sagacious soul who follows it up too closely. Here is an instance taken at random. The easy-going speculator who is content with such deductions as the light of nature may enable him to make, sets him down as a thriving bill-discounter. He is an old gentleman who has, at various epochs in his chequered career, been a wine-merchant, a cigar-dealer, a Boulogne billiard player, a trafficker in army commissions, a picture-dealer, a horse-dealer, a theatrical manager, and a bill discounter. Each of these occupations has left its mark, more or less emphasized, upon his personal appearance. He finds bill-discounting by far the most profitable of his employments, and he sticks to it. He has a large army connection, and can tell off the encumberances on most of the large landed estates of Great Britain and Ireland. He has a fine cellar of old wines, and several warehouses of cigars and old masters---commodities which enter largely into all his discounting transactions. He has a large house, and gives liberal parties, and it is astonishing (considering his antecedents) how many young men of family find it worth while to "show up" at them.
Here we have Mr. Sam Travers of the metropolitan theatres. Mr, Sam Travers is a stock low comedian at a favorite minor establishment, and Mr. Sam Travers's pre-occupied demeanour and unreasonable galvanic smiles suggest that his next new part is the most prominent subject matter of his reflections. Mr. Travers was a music-hall singer and country clown until his developing figure interfered with the latter line of business, and he has now subsided into the "comic countryman" of the establishment to which he is attached. His notions of "make up" are for the most part limited to a red wig and a nose to match; but he is a "safe" actor, and on his appearance on the stage the gallery hail him by name as one man. He can't pass a man with a red head and red nose without exclaiming, "By Jove! there's a bit of character, eh!" and he falls into the mistake, too common among his class, of supposing that a man who looks, in the streets, as if he had been "made up" for the stage, is on that account characteristic and to be carefully imitated.
A wicked old character is represented in the initial to this paper. He is a gay old bachelor, of disgraceful habits and pursuits---a course old villain without a trace of gentlemanly, or even manly, feeling about him. He stands at his club-window by day, leering at every respectable woman who passes him, in a manner that would insure him a hearty kicking were he not the enfeebled, palsied old thing he is. At dinner he drinks himself into a condition of drivelling imbecility, from which he arouses himself in time to stagger round to the nearest stage-door. His income is probably derived from the contributions of disgusted connections who pay him to keep out of their sight, and when he dies, he will die, unattended, in a Duke Street lodging-house, whose proprietor will resent the liberty as openly as he dares.
Here is an amusing fellow---an artistic charlatan. He is by profession an artist; his "get up" is astonishingly professional, and his talk is studio slang. He never paints anything, but haunts studios, and bothers hard-working craftsmen by the hour together. He has been all over the world, and knows every picture in every gallery in Europe. To hear him talk, you would think he was the acknowledged head of his profession. Certainly, as far as his exterior goes, there never was so artistic an artist (out of a comedy) as he.
Bound, I should say, for rehearsal. Much more quiet and ladylike than people who only know her from the stalls, as a popular burlesque prince, would expect her to be. A good quiet girl enough, with a bedridden mother and three or four clean but seedy little children dependent on her weekly salary (eked out, perhaps, by dancing and music lessons) for their daily bread. Very little does she know about Ascot drags and Richmond dinners: her life is a quiet round of regular unexciting duties, only relieved at distant intervals by the flash and flutter of a new part. She will marry, perhaps, the leader of the band, or the stage-manager, or the low comedian, grow fat, and eventually train pupils for the stage.
Ah! his story, past and to come, is easily told. Bank clerk by day---casino reveller by night, eventually a defaulter; three years' penal servitude, ticket of leave [license given to a convict under imprisonment to go at large and labor for himself], then a billiard marker and betting man, and if successful, perhaps a small cigar-shop keeper. Or, if he has relations, his passage may be paid out to Australia, where he will begin as an attorney's clerk and perhaps end as a judge. Most of us have some great original whom we set up as a type of what a man should be, and that selected by our friend is the "great Vance." He frames his costume from the outsides of comic songs, and his air and conversation are of the slap-bang order of architecture. His clothes and those of his friends are always new---offensively new---a phenomenon which is not easily accounted for when the limited nature of their finances is taken into consideration. I have a theory that they are clothed gratuitously by West-end tailors who want to get up a fashionable reaction in the matter of gentlemen's dress, and who think that this end may be most readily attained by clothing such men as these in exaggerations of existing fashions. But this is just one of those speculations to which I have alluded to at some length, and which on closer investigation I feel I should be tempted to reject. So I decline to pursue the subject.
A London crowd is an awful thing, when you reflect upon the number of infamous characters of which it is necessarily composed. I don't care what crowd it is---whether it is an assemblage of 'raff' at a suburban fair, a body of Volunteers, Rotten Row in the season, or an Exeter Hall May meeting. Some ingenious statistician has calculated that one in every forty adults in London is a professional thief; that is to say, a gentleman who adopts, almost publicly, the profession of burglar, pickpocket, or area sneak; who lives by dishonesty alone, and who, were dishonest courses to fail him, would have no means whatever of gaining a livelyhood. But of the really disreputable people in London, I suppose that acknowledged thieves do not form one twentieth portion. Think of the number of men now living and doing well, as respectable members of society, who are destined either to be hanged for murder or to be reprieved, according to the form which the humanitarianism of the Home Sectretary for the time being may take. Murderers are not recruited, as a rule, from the criminal classes. It is true that now and then a man or woman is murdered for his or her wealth by a professed thief, but it is the exception, and not the rule. Murder is often the crime of one who has never brought himself under the notice of the police before. It is the crime of the young girl with a illegitimate baby; of the jealous husband, lover, or wife; of a man exposed suddenly to a temptation which he cannot resist---the temptation of a good watch or well-filled purse, which, not being a professional thief, he does not know how to get at by any means short of murder. Well, all the scoundrels who are going to commit these crimes, and to be hung or reprieved for them accordingly, are now walking among us, and in every big crowd there must be at least one or two of them. Then the forgers; they are not ordinarily professional thieves; they are usually people holding situations of greater or less responsibility, from bank managers down to office boys; well, all these forgers who are to be tried at all the sessions and assizes for the next twenty years, are walking about among us as freely as you or I. Then the embezzlers---these are always people who stand well with their employers and their friends. I remember hearing a judge say, in the course of the trial of a savings-bank clerk for embezzlement, when the prisoner's counsel offered to call witnesses to character of the highest respectability, that he attached little or no value to the witnesses called to speak to their knowledge of the prisoner's character in an embezzlement case, as a man must necessarily be of good repute among his fellows before he could be placed in a position in which embezzlement was possible to him. Then the committers of assaults of all kinds. These are seldom drawn from the purely criminal classes, though, of course, there are cases in which professional thieves resort to violence when they cannot obtain their booty by other means. All these people---all the murderers, forgers, embezzlers, and assaulters, who are to be tried for their crimes during the next (say) twenty years, and moreover, all the murderers, forgers, embezzlers, and assaulters whose crimes escape detection altogether (here is a vast field for speculation open to the ingenious statisticians---of whom I am certainly one---who begin with conclusions, and 'try back' to find premisses!)---all are elbowing us about in the streets of this and other towns every day of our lives. How many of these go to make up a London crowd of, say, thirty thousand people? Add to this unsavoury category all the fraudulent bankrupts, past and to come, all the army of swindlers, all the betting thieves, all the unconscientious liars, all the men who ill-treat their wives, all the wives who ill-treat their husbands, all the profligates of both sexes, all the scoundrels of every shape and dye whose crimes do not come under the ken of the British policeman, but who, for all that, are infinitely more harmful to the structure of London society than the poor prig who gets six months for a 'wipe,' and then reflect upon the nature of your associates whenever you venture into a crowd of any magnitude!
Struck by these considerations (I am not a deep thinker, as I hinted in a former page---if I thought more deeply about them I might find reasons which would induce me to throw these considerations to the winds), I beg that it will be understood that all the remarks that I may make in favour of the people who form the subject of this chapter, are subject to many mental reservations as to their probable infamy and possible detection.
Here is a gentleman who, as far as I know, is a thoroughly good fellow. He is a soldier, and a sufficiently fortunate one, and stands well up among the captains and lieutenant-colonels of his regiment of Guards. He has seen service in Crimea, as his three undress medals testify. He is, I suppose, on his way to the orderly-room at the Horse Guards, for, at this morte saison, his seniors are away, and he is in command. Unlike most Guardsmen, he knows his work thoroughly, for he was the adjutant of his battalion for the six or seven years of his captaincy. He is a strict soldier; rather feared by his subalterns when he is in command, but very much liked notwithstanding. He has married a wealthy wife, has a good house in Berkeley Square, and a place in Inverness-shire, with grouse-moors, deer-forests, and salmon-streams of the right sort. He is thinking of standing for the county, at his wife's suggestion, but beyond a genial interest in conservative successes, he does not trouble himself much about politics. Everybody likes him, but he may---I say, he may---be an awful scoundrel at bottom.
Here are two young gentlemen (on your right), who appear to be annoying a quiet-looking and rather plain young milliner [one who designs, makes, trims, or sells women's hats]. I am sorry to say that this is a group which presents itself much too often to the Thumbnail Sketcher. I do not mean to say that the two young men are always disgraceful bullies of unprotected young women, or that the unprotected young women are always the timid, shrinking girls that they are commonly represented to be in dramas of domestic interest, and in indignant letters to the "Times" newspaper. I am afraid that it only too often happens that the shrinking milliner is quite as glad of the society of the young men who accost her as the young men are of hers, although I am bound to admit that in the present case the girl seems a decent girl, and her annoyers two "jolly dogs," of the most objectionable type. One of them is so obliging as to offer her his arm, while the other condescends to the extent of offering to carry her bandbox, an employment with which he is probably not altogether unfamiliar in the ordinary routine of his avocations. She will bear with them for a few minutes, in the hope that her continued silence will induce them to cease their annoyance, and when she finds that their admiration is rather increased than abated by her modest demeanour, she will stop still and request them to go on without her. As this is quite out of the question, she will cross the road and they will follow her. At length their behavior will perhaps be noticed by a plucky but injudicious passer-by, who will twist one of them on to his back by the collar, and be knocked down himself by the other. Upon this a fight will ensue, the young milliner will escape, and the whole thing will end unromantically enough in the station-house.
Here is an unfortunate soldier, a fit and proper contrast to the comfortable and contented Guardsman (page 13). He is one of the Indian army of martyrs, who has given up all hope of anything like promotion, and, after a life of battles, has subsided into that refuge for destitute officers, a volunteer adjutancy. He is a thoroughly disappointed man, but he is much too well bred to trouble you with his disappointments, unless you pump him on the subject, and then you will find that the amalgamation of the British and Indian forces has resulted in complications that you cannot understand, and that one of these complications is at the bottom of his retirement from active service. He has strong views upon, and a certain interest in, the Banda and Kirwee prize money, and he looks forward to buying an annuity for his mother (who lets lodgings) with his share, if he should get it. He is poor---that is to say, his income is small; but he always manages to dress well, and looks gentlemanly from a gentleman's---although, perhaps, not from a tailor's---point of view.
This rather heavy and very melancholy-looking gentleman with the thick black beard is a purveyor of touch-and-go farces to the principal metropolitan theatres. He also does amusing gossip for the provincial journals, light frothy magazine articles, dramatic criticisms for a weekly paper, and an occasional novel of an airy, not to say extremely trivial nature. His name is well known to the readers of light literature, and also to enthusiastic play-goers who go early and come away late. He is supposed by them to pass a butterfly existence, flitting gaily from screaming farce to rollicking "comic copy," and back again from rollicking comic copy to screaming farce. But this is not exactly true of his professional existence. He is a moody buffoon in private life, much addicted to the smoking of long clay pipes and the contemplation of bad boots. He is, at bottom, a good-natured fellow, and a sufficiently industrious one. He is much chaffed for his moody nature now, but he will die some day, and then many solemn bumpers will be emptied by his club fellows to the memory of the good heart that underlaid that thin veneer of cynicism.
Here is a sketch from the window at White's. He is also a member of the Senior and the Carlton, but he is seldom seen at either. He prefers the view from White's, and he prefers the men he meets there, and he likes the chattiness of that famous club. He knows everybody, does the old major, and has, in his time, been everywhere. He has served in a dozen different capacities, and in almost as many services; indeed, his range of military experience extends from a captaincy of Bashi Bazouks to a majority of Yeomanry Calvary. He has been rather a sad dog in his time, but he is much quieter now, and is extremely popular among dowagers at fasionable watering-places.
This young gentleman is a Foreign Office clerk, and he is just now on his way to discharge his arduous duties in that official paradise. He is a rather weak-headed young gentleman, of very good family and very poor fortune, and in course of time he will churn up into a very sound, serviceable ambassador. At present he does not "go out" with the Government, though that distinction may be in reserve for him if he perseveres in his present judicious course of gentlemanly sleepiness. He is, in common with most of his Foreign Office fraternity, a great deal too well dressed. It is really astonishing that young men of birth and breeding, as most of these Foreign Office clerks are, should be so blind to the fact that there is nothing in this world so utterly offensive to men of cultivated taste as a suit of brand new clothes. His views, at present, are limited to his office, the "Times," his club, and any shootings and fishings that may be offered to him by friendly proprietors.
The streets are strange levellers. They form a common ground upon which all ranks meet on equal terms---where no one, however lofty his station (so that it fall short of royalty), or however distinguished his career, has any right of precedence to the disadvantage of humbler members of the community. The First Lord of the Treasury, in whose presence small statesmen tremble, will, if he happens to run against a costermonger [hawker of fruit, fish, etc.], be asked, with no ceremony whatever, where is is shoving to; and the Lord High Chancellor of England when he walks abroad is nothing better than a "bloke" in the eyes of him who keeps a potato-can. It is in the streets that the private soldier stops the Commander-in-Chief to ask him for a light, and over-dressed shopmen sneer at seedy dukes. There the flunky ogles the lady into whose service he may be about to enter, and there the indiscriminating 'busman invites countesses into his conveyance. In the streets the penniless Fenian finds his "Fool's Paradise" half realized---rank is abolished, and an equal distribution of property is all that remains for him to accomplish.
Last modified 24 November 2012