Monday, 16 January 2012

London Society Underground

First impressions of the London Underground, from 1863. The descriptions of railway food are priceless and still hold true today ...

LONDON SOCIETY UNDERGROUND.

     THERE is a class of prosy gentlemen whom the inexorable fates decree that we should meet sometimes at the corner of a street on a windy day, who come between us and the object of our affections at a botanical fete, and hold us metaphorically by the button on every inconvenient occasion, to tell us something which we have heard a hundred times before, or retail one of those remarkable adventures in which the chief characteristic is the constant recurrence of the first personal pronoun.
     It was my lot a short time ago to sit next an old party of this description at dinner. He wore that species of cravat the invention of which is due to the ingenuity (or, as some say, to the cervical disorders) of George IV., and which usually extends from the middle of the human chest to the tip of the chin; the only advantage apparently to be derived from its wear being that it sustains the head at an angle impossible to realize for five minutes together except by this means. Turning round to my side, as far as this eminently respectable impediment would permit, and when the fish (an excellent turbot) was removed, he addressed me very solemnly in the following strain:-
     'Ahem! We live in an age of progress. 'When we look around us and see the advancement - nay, the rapid strides which art and science have made - when we notice the gradual but steady development of those resources of nature which form at once the basis and incentive of human industry, we cannot fail to be struck with the superiority of English intellect in the nineteenth century over that which has appeared in any former age. It is to the present era we owe the application of that wondrous agent, steam. The manufacture and use of gas are also of recent date. It is only of late years that we have learnt to guide the electric fluid harmlessly from our public buildings and made it subservient to our will in transmitting messages from one end of Europe to another. Photography lends its valuable assistance to pictorial art. The talents of an Armstrong are brought to bear upon the science of modern warfare. Thanks to the genial influence of chloroform, our surgeons can now with ease pursue their interesting calling, and amputations - allow me to give you a leg of this chicken? - no? - welI, as I was saying, amputations are now fearlessly and skilfully performed. Then, again, look at the Metropolitan Railway. With what ease and rapidity can the denizens of this vast and thickly-populated city traverse its enormous area! Is it not a wonderful and awe-inspiring fact that man in the nineteenth century can be thus transported from - yes, from the Edgeware Road to Farringdon Street in twelve minutes for sixpence?'
     'Certainly,' said I; 'and I have heard that the first-class carriages are very comfortable, and the smell arising from the steam has been much exaggerated.'
     'You have heard!' exclaimed my neighbour, with some astonishment. 'Am I, then, to understalnd that my young friend has allowed so many weeks to elapse without examining this last achievement of engineering skill?'
     'Why, the fact is-' I began.
     'The apathy,' interrupted my friend in the obdurate cravat·- 'the apathy of the rising generation regarding scientific subjects is very remarkable. When I was a young man,' &c. &c. And here followed a long and somewhat severe comparison between the youth of 1863 und that of fifty years ago, in which I need scarcely say we of the present day came the worst off; and while the odious vice of smoking and the growing taste for bitter ale in our universities were severely censured, not a word was said about the now obsolete custom of taking snuff, nor of the peculiar habits of those 'three bottle men' who flourished so extensively in the Georgian era. Indeed I have often noticed that gentlemen who took quite kindly to the follies of their own day, are apt to be severest on the tastes of their descendants, and should any new narcotic be devised or alcoholic stimulant be introduced in the twentieth century, I make no doubt that such of us who survive to see that epoch will be equally forgetful of our own failings, and preach with great zeal against the vanities of 1900.
     However, on the subject of the Metropolitan Railway, I confess, my stiff-necked censor, to use a familiar expression, had touched me on the raw. I did feel somewhat ashamed that, whether owing to modern apathy or accident, I had not yet travelled by it, and determined to make my journey the next day.
     They are queer little buildings, those offices on the Metropolitan line; I mean, of course, that portion of them which crops up into the thoroughfare above. For the most part they resemble isolated police-stations, or half an establishment for baths and wash-houses come astray. There is something, too, of the telegraph-office air about them, and the casual passer-by would be divided in his opinion as to whether the little crowd of humanity which pours in and out of their portals had gone thither to obtain a summons, send a message to Timbuctoo, or wash itself. On entering the door, however, these doubts are dispelled. There are the traditional pigeonholes, labelled respectively '1st Class,' and '2nd and 3rd Class,' between which, on the occasion of my visit, a youthful railway official was dividing as much of his attention as could be spared from a round of bread and butter in his hand. A railway clerk must lead a strange, eventful, and yet monotonous sort of life. How many hundred different faces must peep in daily at those little windows! all momentarily and successively framed by the aperture into a vast collection of endless family portraits - I mean that great national family of which I suppose we are all brothers and sisters. I wonder, does our ticket-vendor smile more benignantly at the first-class casement than the third? Is he a physiognomist? He would have more experience than Lavater if he had the time to study all his models. Rich and poor, old and young, wise and ignorant, fair and ugly, bad-tempered and good, each address him in turn with various accents; but he has one answer for them all, and that is written on a bit of coloured cardboard. There is no time for colloquy, for interchange of sentiment, for forming friendships; sharp is essentially the word. 'What d'ye say? one second return to Gower Street? Sixpence.' Click, click, goes that awful machine; the change is banged on the counter; Viator seizes his ticket, and passes on to make room for the next man. Unhappy youth! perhaps that old plutocrat in blue coat and brass buttons may have no heir. Had you but the chance, you might cajole him into leaving you his investments in the Three per Cents, or that comfortable little property in South Devon. That smiling angel in the tulle bonnet, who nearly gave you a sovereign by mistake as she ungloved her pretty hand - who knows but her agitation at the moment was caused by seeing you, for the first, and probably for the last time? Ay! there's the rub.
     'Show his eyes, and grieve his heart.
      Come like shadows; so depart.'
cries the railway company, like the witches in Macbeth, and thus a score or so of fair visions appear and vanish daily before the distracted eyes of the employé. It must be a singular fate, I say, to stand empannelled in that ugly room, looking out upon mankind from a pigeonhole. Altogether, I think I should prefer being the hermit at Cremorne. When he has issued a certain number of acrostics, and collected a proportionate quantity of sixpences, he may shut up the Book of Fate, lay aside his beard and magic robes, and mingle freely in the mazy dance; but here, voe misero! one train succeeds another - every minute fresh passengers arrive - more tickets are wanted - the same demands are made all day - ' first class,' 'second class,' 'third class' - , 'sixpence,' 'fourpence ' 'twopence' - single fare, return fare - ordinary and express trains - click, click, click everlastingly. The gentleman who worked the Delphic oracle in the height of the season must have had an easy lot compared with this.
     I descend the broad stone staircase which leads some thirty feet below, and as I do so, leaving the genial morning air outside, become aware of a certain chill, which creeps upon me like the change one experiences in entering a cathedral on a summer's day. There is an unmistakeable smell, too, of railway steam, which increases as I proceed; and having at length reached the platform of the subterranean station, I am free to confess it is not a very cheerful place. I do not say that stations are so anywhere, as a rule. Adorn them as you will, they are but dreary tarrying-places at the best. A roof of corrugated iron and glass, columns and tie-rods of the same material, walls decorated with that species of light literature which sets forth the merits of cutlery, sixteen-shilling trousers, and restorative elixir, is not calculated to cheer the heart of man above ground, and, ici bas,  a few strata down below the level of every-day life you must make up your mind for the worst. The family vault on a large scale, with a series of hip-baths introduced diagonally into it for light and ventilation from above ground, is perhaps the nearest description I can give as to the general aspect of the place. The hip-baths are lined with glazed tiles, and, to keep up the resemblance to their prototype, we find the leakage drained off at the lower end into a vessel something like a soapdish. A dense fog filled the place when I was there, and as the people waiting for the trains were seen wandering up and down the platform, one might have imagined them ghosts of the great unwashed, condemned to linger here in sight of those very lavatories which they neglected in their mortal life.
     The fog clears off, and I find myself standing by a live Metropolitan Rail way policeman, one of that order of gentlemen who appear either to be very affable and obliging, or precisely the reverse. In the present instance I must say I had every reason to be satisfied. He responded to my questions with great readiness and civility, standing, at the commencement of every answer, alternately on the right and left leg, and bending the other (like a pair of Sydenham trousers), in the professional attitude adopted by 'the Force.' How long had the Metropol'tan been hopened? Why, the Metropol'tan had been hopened about a month. (Right leg.) Did he consider the trains filled well? Yes, he did, and very well - 'specially mornings and evenings, with City men, and sich like. Yis - power o' traffic fust week - people corned to see what 'twas like, same as they would to see what any think was like, and always would do - 'twas human natur. (Left leg.) Had there been an accident? Yis, there ad been a accident; but, law bliss you, nothink to speak of. 'Twas exaggerated awful. There was more crams told about that there accident than anyone would suppose, now; and he wondered the papers was not ashamed of it. How did it happen? Well, it happened all along of a young hand as didn't know his work - in fack, he'd never been on a line before - leastways, not what you might call reg'lar dooty anywheres - let alone a tunnel: consequinlty, what could you expeck but a accident? (Right leg.) Couldn't say how he come to be put on - s'poscd 'twas somebody's fault; but, you see, in them matters you couldn't blame it on to anyone in partic'lar - of course not. And that's where it was, you see. (Left leg.) Was there much complaint about the smell of the steam? Well, there were - a little. The fack was, some people must have some think to cry out about. If they hadn't, they wasn't happy, some people wasn't. 'Twas the way o' the world. (Right leg.) But, law bless you, about this here smell - there was a deal o' fancy in these things. There was a gent down here last week as fancied he knew all about it (which it was a way some folks had got as must have a say in every think, whereas they only showed their ignorance), and he says, says he, 'What a ammirable idea it was this Metropol'tan, and what a conwenience it was to Londoners to have such a deal o' heavy traffic took off the streets.' 'Which, d'ye think it makes much difference?' says I. 'Think?' says he; 'why, there aint no call to think about it. You wouldn t know Oxford Street again,' he says, 'sich a alteration.' 'Really, now - sure of that?' I says. 'See it with my own eyes,' says he. 'Well,' I says, 'that's sing'lar,' I says; 'I'll make a note of that,' I says. 'And why is it sing'lar?' says he. 'Well, sir,' I says, , it's sing'lar, because we ain't begun to run no luggage trains upon the Metropolitan line at all yet,' I says. And that'll show you how far fancy goes in these here mutters. Stand back, if you please, sir - this is your train."
     On it came - the long flat engine putting at its head with subdued snorts, and glaring out of the dark abyss behind with two great fiery eyes. 'Edgeware-road ! Edge ---- ware-road!' shout the guards, emphasizing the last syllable after the manner of railway tradition. The carriage doors are flung open, and I have no sooner popped in and seated myself than they are shut again, and the train is in motion. One last gleam of daylight enters at the window, and then we plunge into the tunnel. Not into darkness, though - there is a good steady light from the gas-burner above, which enables you to read, should you be so inclined, as easily as you could by your moderator lamp at home; or you may lean back in the well-cushioned, comfortable seat of the most roomy railway carriage in England, and, forgetting that you have twenty feet of earth above you, contemplate your opposite neighbours. Mine was a timid, pretty girl of sixteen, taking her first subterranean ride in London, under her father's care. I saw the little delicate and ungloved hand creep gradually towards his whenever the signal-whistle was louder than usual, or when the train swayed slightly to and fro at its highest speed. Papa was absorbed in the 'Times,' and I don't think paid that attention to his pretty daughter which - well, which somebody else might have bestowed in his place. Ah, fair unknown - sweet stranger, in the seal-skin jacket, mauve-ribboned bonnet, and infinitesimal boots! - who shut the carriage-window when you complained of a draught? and who opened it again the instant you hinted at a headache? Who picked up that delicate little mouchoir of yours from the carpet? Who jumped out before the train stopped (in direct opposition to the advice of the Company), in order to assist you in alighting? You will read HIS initials at the conclusion of this article; and if, perchance, you should regret that, during your transit from Paddington to Newgate, you (very properly) did not reward his attentions with a single glance, remember that the slightest acknowledgment, conveyed (with papa's permission) to C. L. E., through the Editor of 'London Society,' will be still received with the deepest gratitude.
* * * * *
     In railway travelling, your first-class carriage does not, as a rule, afford much material in the study of character to the philosophic mind. That 'reticence' so strictly observed in the upper crust of English humanity is particularly noticeable here. The old coaching days, with 'four insides' and a jovial party on the roof, are universally admitted to have been much more conducive to 'interchange of sentiment and flow of soul' than this age of express trains and time-tables will ever be. lt is just the difference between a cosy family dinner and a state banquet in the City. We have ortolans, and choice Madeira, and peas in February at the one, but lack the genial spirit which attends honest port and mutton at the other. Yes - 'Persicos odi' - I prefer the humbler feast, and the ancient mode of travelling. The vehicles are more splendid now, the speed has increased tenfold - but the journey itself - alack! it is a dismal affair upon the best of lines. A gentleman in a white beard, who ate ipecacuanha lozenges the whole way, was shut up with us, and dubiously entertained the rest of the company by describing to his neighbour, sotto voce, the peculiarities of a fellow-passenger whom he once met on the Flamborough-cum-Crammingham line, and who, it would appear, was in the habit of travelling first class wherever he went with a second-class ticket. The best of it was, that our venerable friend, instead of commenting severely on the moral obliquity of this transaction, seemed to look on the affair as a tremendous joke, and laughed so heartily at the bare recollection of the circumstance, that half a lozenge nearly lodged in his larynx, and set him coughing for the rest of the journey; a fact which attracted the attention of an old lady in a brown front and black mittens, who sat next me, and who was distinctly heard to murmur something about 'a judgment' while he continued in this state of bronchial irritation.
     When we arrived at the Farringdon Street terminus, I felt rather ashamed at seeing everyone hurrying off to his or her destination in the City, while I had really none in that nor, indeed, in any other direction. I had simply travelled over the ground to see what this new Metropolitan line was like; and, being equally undesirous of exploring the ancient pens of Smithfield and of encountering Mr. Tennyson's 'merry March air' on Blackfriars Bridge (where I had, unfortunately, been detained exactly one hour and three quarters in an open carriage on the illumination night, on which occasion it blew pretty strongly up from the river) - having, I say, no definite plan or prospect before me, I consulted my watch, and finding it past one o'clock, I turned my attention to - lunch.
     I cannot say that hunger induced me to concentrate my energies in this direction, having made a very hearty breakfast a few hours before; but the fact is, I felt it incumbent on me to do something. Here had I alighted from a train, the passengers by which had already all disappeared on their several errands, with one solitary exception, viz. myself, and I only wanted to loiter about on the platform for a half-hour or so, and then go back again. I am naturally rather a nervous man; and when, while affecting the deepest interest in the construction of the vault above me, I became aware that I was being studiously watched by B 66 (a most intelligent, but perhaps somewhat officious, policeman), I felt extremely uncomfortable. The line had been opened too long to allow the supposition that I was here out of mere curiosity; and all the various other motives which might induce certain people to linger here crowded upon my memory. I had read in the papers how swindlers ('of gentlemanlike exterior') adopted such means to appropriate stray umbrellas and deserted parcels, and the horrible suspicion rose that I might be mistaken for a member of that body. As my eyes met the steady glance of B 66, I was conscious of becoming very hot and uncomfortable. To retire at this juncture would have been injudicious. There was only one other course open to me, and that was to - lunch.
     It has always been a mystery to me to what class of passengers our railway refreshments are offered. By the first and second class they are instinctively associated with indigestion. The third is accustomed to look upon them as expensive luxuries. I am not now alluding to the Farringdon Street terminus establishment, where I only partook of a sandwich and a glass of ale, and which, when regularly organized, will, I hope, prove an exception to the rule. But it is an incontrovertible fact, that at railway stations generally, and at London termini in particular, the 'commissariat department' is disgracefully managed. For a period of some weeks last year I was compelled (as the phrase goes), by circumstances over which I had no control, to lunch at a well-known terminus in this metropolis. No less than six separate rooms are devoted by the proplietor as bars and salles a manger to the accommodation of the public. The rooms are large and commodious, the servants numerous, and the appointments, to all appearance, good; yet the viands exposed for sale on the counter, the quality of the meat supplied for an early dinner, and the attendance of the waiters are, one and all, execrable. If you are inclined to ' feed ' at the bar, you will find nothing but stale pastry, musty ham, and flyblown buns. If you resort to the dining-room, you will be regaled with coarse-grained beef and flavourless mutton, underdone potatoes, and bad butter. The waiter will not approach you until five or ten minutes after you have called him; and when he does come, ten to one he will be munching the fragments of his own repast. The wretched man is always nibbling in sly corners, tossing off remnants of ale surreptitiously when he thinks no one is looking, and, in fact, having no particular or stated time for his 'meals,' partakes of one long and diffused refreshment throughout the day. As for the ladies behind the bar, they appear to have entered into a solemn compact not to wash their hands more than once a week, and to eschew the use of the nailbrush altogether. One damsel is in the habit of using a toilet-pin in a manner for which it was certainly never intended; another appeared to me one morning in the act of mending an old boot; a third, resenting some remarks which were made on the other side of the counter, once dashed half a glass of porter which she was drinking in the offender's face. Add to these peculiarities a. general sulkiness of demeanour, and yon may form some idea what it is to be waited on by these terrestrial Hebes. To give them their due, however, I will say that they all zealously defend the reputation of the establishment. 'The buns was always considered excellent,' - 'We never had no complaints of the pastry before,' - 'These ham sandwiches musty and dear! Well, you was the fust as said so,' and so on. There is one traditional article of food that they persist in tendering, and the bare recollection of which is enough to induce dyspepsia. It is a huge oblong box of half-baked dough, containing dice-shaped nuggets of cold pale meat and pork-fat. This is cut up into slices, revealing a crust of some half an inch in thickness, and is dignified by the name of veal-pie. I regret that I cannot add the name of the maker; but I strongly advise him to submit it, in case of war, to the authorities at the Horse Guards. A few of these destructive agents left by our commissariat within reach of a hungry regiment, would be admirably adapted for disabling the enemy at an hour's notice.
     Joking apart, the managers of our railway refreshment rooms hare reason to be heartily ashamed of the manner in which they cater for the public. Everything they offer for sale is as bad as it is dear, and dear as it is bad. A man may dine comfortably in the City for less than a miserable lunch costs at these places. Let the Metropolitan Company look to it; and as their carriages are more commodious, and their fares cheaper than on most lines, let them see what improvement they can effect in their restaurants.
* * * *
     Having at length, by an open and straightforward deportment, removed any false impression which may have existed in the mind of B 66 regarding my motives at the Farringdon Street terminus, I determined to return by the next train; and in order that I might lose no opportunity of seeing 'London Society' in every aspect, underground, I took a second-class ticket half the way back, determining to complete my journey by the third. I found my fellow-passengers more garrulous in these carriages than they had been in the first which I entered. Whether a half-cushioned vehicle encourages conversation more than one which is completely padded, or whether our English notions of 'genteel' reticence are confined to the upper circles, I cannot say, but in the second class, everyone was talking. Half the 'fares' had come in breathless, and were congratulating each other all round on having 'jist' caught the train. After all that has been said in favour of punctuality, its being the 'soul of business' and so forth, I doubt whether those over-precise people who are always to be found everywhere half an hour before necessary, can know the pleasure derivable from just 'saving the post,' catching the Ostend boat only a minute before it starts, or entering a theatre exactly when the curtain rises. There is a sort of triumph in the fact that you have wasted no leisure in attaining your object, that there has been no wearying delay in its accomplishment. There you are, just in the nick of time. The clock hand trembles on to six; the 'departure' bell is ringing on the shore; the last few bars of the overture are being played. Pop in your letter - jump on board - rush to your vacant scat. You are breathless, perhaps, and rather warm; but what matters. You are in time, hurray! I know the feeling of satisfaction which in short, I confess I am an unpunctual man myself.
     The guard had no sooner shut our door than the train was off. At full speed there is a peculiar vibration noticeable on the underground rail. The carriages are too wide and heavy to sway much from side to side, but there is a sort of undulating motion which is due either to the unevenness of the ground or to springs on which they are hung. This did not fail to evoke certain comparisons with the Gravesend boat, &c., among my fellow-travellers, who were also very facetious on the subject of accidents, alluding very pleasantly to the little contretemps which happened shortly after the line was opened, and concerning the particulars of which all appeared to have been credibly informed by 'parties as were in the train at the time.' One gentleman observed that a friend of his - a very decent sort of chap-had received a blow upon one of his 'peepers', 'which, in course, constitooted him,' continued our wag, 'a reglar eye-witness as you may say; but as the Comp'ny had done the handsome thing, and giv him five pounds by way of compensation, he (very wisely) didn't make no fuss about it.'
     A lady on the opposite seat, with a highly horticultural bonnet and a muff which looked like an electrified cat, here remarked that a cousin of her brother-in-law had a friend that knew the medical man who volunteered his advice on the occasion; but either this statement was received with discredit or its connection with the subject was too remote to elicit any general interest, so she did not say anything further.
     A third 'party' then assured us that he had himself only missed catching that very train by half a minute; which fact he seemed to look upon rather in the light of a loss than an advantage, and proceeded to explain that he had acquired, by constant practice, a habit of being generally late for every train, in consequence of having travelled many years on the Slocum and Dragwell line, where no train ever came in until about an hour and a half after it was due, except on one occasion, when it ran down and killed two bullocks by way of asserting its independence.
     When I entered the third-class carriage, I found it occupied by a man in a very loose overcoat and very tight trousers - so tight, indeed, as to give the casual observer an impression that they must be unripped at the scam before he could divest himself of that portion of his dress. This idea almost arose to conviction when one looked at his boots, which were the largest, the most creaseless, and more indicative of bunions than any which I ever noticed on the human foot. After these details, I need scarcely add that he was an omnibus driver, and, indeed, one by whose side it had often been my lot to sit when he was professionally employed in Oxford Street.
     Whether it was in grateful recollection of my cigar case, or because there was no one else to talk to, I cannot say, but he touched his hat and wished me good morning. I immediately, and after the approved English fashion, commented on the state of the weather.
     'Well, it is a fine day, sir,' he answered; 'but law bless you, what's the use o' fine days down 'ere? One day's as good as another for the matter of that. I never see such a game in my life.'
     Presuming that this was a metaphorical way of expressing his contempt for the Metropolitan line, I ventured to ask him whether he found it interfered with his business.
     'Interferes! in course it interferes,' said the charioteer, somewhat testily; 'interferes with every think. 'Tisn't only the 'buses it hinjures: look at trade.'
     'What do you mean?' said I.
     'What do I mean?' cried Mr. 'Busman; 'why, I mean that the shopkeepers on our line won't stand it much longer. How the doose are they to get their goods off now, I should like to know. See what a deal of chance custom they got through the 'buses. Spose a cove wants to get to Lunnon Bridge; well, he goes into Oxford Street to look out for a "Lunnon Genera1."  Spose a "Lunnon General" don't come up exackly at the moment, he's not in a hurry, the cove isn't, but he waits a bit and valks on. Well, in course, by valking on he comes to look in at the shops. Say he sees a 'ankercher in a shop winder - I don't say a cove wants aankercher, but say he sees it - well, praps he likes it. Well, the 'bus ain't come up yet, and if he misses it there's plenty behind. Well, praps he says, "I should like that ankercher," he says, and in he goes and buys it. Well, you can't blame him, you see; it's human natur, and wot's more, it's trade. Now, I ask you, sir, as a gen'leman, can a cove act like that in this 'ere blessed tunnel? In course not; consequently trade suffers.'
     Here I made bold to suggest that the evil he complained of was one which would soon remedy itself, and that the population of London quite sufficient to support both modes of transit.
     'That's all vaa-ry well, sir,' retorted the malcontent; 'but trade is trade. Look here; if a cove--'
     How long he would have gone on I don't know, but at this juncture the train luckily stopped, and I heard the welcome shout of 'Pedding-ton, Pedding-ton,' which announced our arrival at the West End terminus.
     'Do we get out here, please?' asked a little old woman with a plethoric umbrella from a corner of the carriage where she had been dozing.
     'Well, my dear, that depends intirely on your own tastes and inclination,' said Mr. 'Busman, with infinite good-humour, as he opened the door; 'I  dessay the Company'l take you back to Farringdon Street if you wishes it werry particlar, and waits there long enough. All I know is, I've took my first and last ride on this 'ere line. Good morning, sir,' and off he went.
     Such was my experience of 'London Society' underground.

 

     C. L. E. London Society, May 1863

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