Picture of William Adams

William Adams

places mentioned

London in the Fifties

Previous Selection



AS nobody seemed to want my services in the provinces, I set out for London.  There I had friends, introductions, the promise of work.  It was not my first visit to the great city.  Four years before—to use a form of words which passed for wit in Gloucestershire—I had "shown London a fool."  It was the year of the Great Exhibition.  The memory of that marvellous creation—surpassed in size, but not eclipsed in grace or interest, by any effort that has succeeded it—remains as a dream of fairyland.  Nothing I have ever seen has impressed me as it did.  If I did not see all the wonders it contained, it was not so much my fault as my misfortune; for I spent the greater part of three days within its crystal walls—one day from ten in the morning till six at night.  The Exhibition of 1851 was the first of its kind, and the most enchanting.

The London of 1855 differed vastly from the London of to-day.  It had no Thames Embankment, no underground railways, no street trams, no magnificent avenues, no suburban theatres.  Hornsey was a rural village, so was Streatham, so were dozens of other pretty places now absorbed in what Cobbett called the Great Wen.  Kennington Park was a common; Smithfield Market was held in the City; and the Percy lion with its poker tail came down from Northumberland House every day it heard the clock strike twelve!  The first-class playhouses could almost be counted on a single hand, and music halls were few and far between.  I can remember only four halls of any note—the Canterbury, the Oxford, the Holborn, and the Eagle.  The Brill, the New Cut, and Petticoat Lane were favourite places for Sunday morning marketings.  The Polytechnic was in its prime; the Coliseum was still patronised; and Vauxhall and Cremorne Gardens were bringing together nightly strange mixtures of the decent and the dissolute.  J. M. Bellew, Thomas Binney, and Robert Montgomery were notable among preachers, while a young man of the name of Spurgeon was beginning to draw audience and attention.

Gye and Mapleson were rival caterers at Her Majesty's and Covent Garden.  Grisi and Mario, Alboni and Lablache, were still stars, albeit falling stars, of the operatic stage.  The three former appeared together in "Lucretia Borgia," during a series of popular representations at Drury Lane, when the house was full of fog as well as people, and we on the Olympian heights could only see the performers flitting like shadows across the stage.  English opera, with the help of Balfe and Wallace, and of Pyne and Harrison, was holding up its head too: the song of the Muleteer, as I heard Harrison render it, was, I thought, as fine as the song of the Toreador in "Carmen."  Webster reigned and played at the Adelphi, Buckstone at the Haymarket, Phelps at Sadler's Wells, Charles Kean at the Princess's.  It was in 1851 that I saw Phelps in "Timon of Athens," but it was not till years later that I saw what I thought was the greatest performance to be seen on any stage—Phelps's rendering of Sir Pertinax MacSycophant.  Charles Mathews retained his place for years as the prince of light comedy.  Wright and Paul Bedford were leading low comedians, so were Mr. and Mrs. Keeley, while people were beginning to talk about a clever little fellow at the Grecian—Frederick Robson, who, ascending to the major stage, made the burlesque of "Medea " as fearsome as a tragedy.  And then a few years later there came a sort of race for the first prize in the dramatic world between Henry Neville and Henry Irving.

Temple Bar was a picturesque obstruction; the Adelphi Arches gave shelter to homeless hundreds; and the River Thames was an open sewer.  Long stretches of filthy slime, the playground of mud-larks, were exposed at every falling tide, and gave off such evil odours in hot weather that people had to hold their noses when they crossed the bridges.  There was a threat of pestilence as a consequence.  And then the authorities, seeing that something must be done, conceived a great sewerage scheme, and replaced the foul shores with that pride and glory of London—the Thames Embankment.  Other improvements—the construction of Holborn Viaduct, the widening of many thoroughfares, but, above all, the sweeping away of pestilential rookeries, such as the Seven Dials—have made the metropolis a far sweeter and handsomer city in the twentieth century than it was in the middle of the nineteenth.

The order observed in the streets, the unwritten law of the people, was even then remarkable.  I may give an example.  The Morning Star was at that time the leading Radical daily in London—almost the only Radical daily, indeed.  It was my custom every morning (Sundays excepted, of course) to buy a copy at a news stall near the Horns Tavern at Kennington.  My business was in Fleet Street.  The route thither from the Horns was along Kennington Road, through Newington Butts, past the Elephant and Castle, along London Road, then along Blackfriars Road, and then over Blackfriars Bridge.  So orderly was the traffic throughout that route that I could, by keeping to the right, read my paper the whole way.  And I had nothing left to read in it—at least, nothing that I wanted to read—when I reached Fleet Street, nearly an hour's walk from Kennington.  The feat—if it was a feat—was only possible when people kept in line.  All I found it necessary to do, where the traffic was thickest, was to walk immediately behind somebody else.  Pedestrians at that period who did not observe the rule of the pavement had as bad a time of it as a dog in a fair.  Indeed, they were so buffeted about that they very soon discovered that it was really compulsory to "keep to the right."

A well-known rendezvous for Reformers in the middle years of the century was the John Street Institution, situated near Tottenham Court Road.  It had been a chapel, I think, but was then leased by the followers of Robert Owen.  Lectures were given there; meetings were held there; classes were conducted there.  A more useful centre of social and political activity did not exist in all London.  The platform was perfectly free.  Chartism, Republicanism, Freethought, Socialism—all sorts and conditions of thought could be expounded in John Street if capable exponents desired to expound them.  I had heard Mrs. C. H. Dexter lecture there in 1851 on the Bloomer costume, and in the Bloomer costume.  There also, five years later, I heard the venerable Robert Owen, then a patriarch of eighty-four.  The subjects discussed were of the widest and most varied character—social, political, religious, literary, scientific, economical, historical.  And the lecturers who discussed them were as varied as the subjects—Thomas Cooper, Robert Cooper, Samuel Kydd, Dr. Mill, Dr. Sexton, Iconoclast, Henry Tyrrell, Richard Hart, Joseph Barker, Brewin Grant, George Jacob Holyoake, and many another whose very name is now forgotten.  Of all the able men who endeavoured to enlighten the public from the John Street platform not one survives save George Jacob Holyoake.  When the lease of the institution expired, a source of real light and ventilation expired also.

There were other institutions which Reformers used to frequent when they saw a chance of expounding their ideas.  These were the debating rooms that were attached to certain taverns.  The leading three in my day were the Cogers, near St. Bride's Church; the Discussion Hall, in Shoe Lane; and the Temple Forum, in Fleet Street.  The Cogers was an ancient institution, dating from 1755, but was then fast dying, though it survived in a way till 1886, when its hall and all that belonged to it were put to the hammer.  Many who afterwards played a prominent part in the politics of the country, or attained high distinction at the bar or on the bench, had learnt to know the rules of debate and acquired an aptitude for public speaking at Cogers Hall.  Curran and Daniel O'Connell were both members, as also were John Wilkes, Orator Hunt, and many of the early English Radicals.  Among the legal Cogers who attained eminence were Lord Chief Justice Cockburn, Mr. Baron Maule, Mr. Justice Hannen, Serjeant Parry, Serjeant Ballantine, and Sir Edward Clarke.  Dickens, too, belonged to the ancient and honourable Society of Cogers; and George Augustus Sala has told how he made, or rather tried to make, his first speech to the Grand Coger in the chair.  The Temple Forum, I think, had no history.  It was held in a back room of the Green Dragon, small and ill-ventilated.  The only time I visited the place, the debaters, whom I could scarcely see for smoke, were discussing a celebrated case of the day—I think that of Constance Kent.  But the Discussion Hall had better quarters and a better set of speakers.

The landlord of the tavern in Shoe Lane was named Walters, and the hall in which the meetings were held was a really presentable apartment—long and lofty, comfortably furnished with seats and tables, with a canopied chair for the president, who generally smoked a long pipe, and drank brandy and water.  As the rest of the company smoked and drank too, the scene had a free and easy air about it.  Oil paintings of some of the celebrities who had shared in the debates decorated the walls of the room, including those of Thomas Hardy, Alderman Waithman, and William Carpenter, all famous Radicals in their day.  The subject for discussion, together with the name of the gentleman who was to open it, was announced beforehand in the window of the tavern.  It was a point of some importance to get a good opener.  And as a fee of five shillings, with free drinks for the evening, was attached to the performance, there was no difficulty in getting clever, broken-down men from Fleet Street to accept the engagement.  Poor old Bronterre O'Brien, a tribune of the people in the palmy period of Chartism, but then a social and almost intellectual wreck, was often in demand for this purpose.  The permanent chairman for some years was Andrew Middlemass, who was supposed to be a journalist, who had formerly been an accountant in Newcastle, and whose death was recorded in 1889.  After each speech, the chairman used to make an important announcement—"The waiter's in the room; give your orders, gentlemen."  Many admirable speeches were delivered in Discussion Hall, although, as the night wore on, the applause, which was accompanied by the jingling of glasses, became rather boisterous.  The speakers could speak too.  One talked so well about finance and taxation that he went by the name of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Others were great on questions of foreign policy; others, again, on legal and social subjects.  They were not all beery people either, for among the frequenters was Mr. Fleming, then a member of the staff of the Morning Advertiser , but better known for his connection with Robert Owen's movement, having been, like Lloyd Jones and George Jacob Holyoake, a social missionary appointed by the great philanthropist to expound his theories and doctrines to the people.  The discussions which took place in my hearing rose far above the curious surroundings—so much so that I brought away from Discussion Hall a much more favourable opinion of the intelligence than of the habits of the debaters.

The last visit I paid to the place was late at night.  It was in the company of Austin Holyoake, younger brother of George Jacob, and of John Watts, elder brother of Charles Watts.  We had been engaged in producing Mr. Bradlaugh's paper, the National Reformer .  When we had completed our work, it was proposed that we should go and see how the debaters finished up their proceedings.  Discussion by that time had degenerated into a noisy and general hubbub, in which everybody seemed to be talking at once.  All manner of strange characters, most of them more or less muzzy and muddled, were holding forth to each other.  Political orators, writers for the Standard , sub-editors of the Family Herald and the London Journal , contributors to other popular periodicals, waiters on Providence, hirelings of the press and of the platform, were among the men of light and leading who were enjoying a midnight revel in Shoe Lane.  Instead of reeling home when the tavern closed its doors, most of them adjourned to a "night house" in Farringdon Street, where, being joined by other sweepings from the streets and the newspaper offices, they continued their noisy drinkings and disputations till far into the morning.  One of the new revellers was notable at the time for his appearance on Chartist and Radical platforms.  John Henriette was a sort of Silas Wegg, a democratic orator with a wooden leg.  I was amazed, though the rest of the company seemed rather amused than amazed, when he openly boasted of having been employed by Lord Palmerston to assist in creating political diversions at electoral contests in the provinces.  It was the only time I ever had an opportunity of seeing how the lesser literary men of the day comported themselves at the close of the week's work, and I neither desired nor sought another.  The spectacle, so far from being impressive or elevating, was calculated to take the heart out of a young and ardent propagandist.

William Adams, Memoirs of a Social Atom (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1903) Copyright Ian Pettigrew. A transcription of the full text of the book is available on-line at http://www.gerald-massey.org.uk/adams/b_autobiog.htm

Placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall.

Previous Selection