Walks to Office


Leo to Capricornus

Notwithstanding the noise, dirt, and discomforts of London, there are thousands of its population who prefer it to all other places. We have known some of these town-worshippers: when, after much deliberation, they visit a country friend, they are always miserable until they get back again. Charles Lamb, who

—’Ranged the crowded streets
With a keen eye,’

affords a memorable instance of love of urban life, amounting almost to a devout feeling. We have another example in Dr Johnson: his attachment to London breaks out in many parts of his writings. In one place he says: ‘The happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it. I will venture to say there is more learning and science within the circumference of ten miles from where we now sit, than in all the rest of the kingdom.’

And Davy, speaking of the Metropolis, observes: ‘It was to me as the grand theatre of intellectual activity, the field of every species of enterprise and exertion, the metropolis of the world of business, thought, and action. . .. There society of the most refined kind offered daily its banquets to the mind, with such variety, that satiety had no place in them, and new objects of interest and ambition were constantly exciting attention, either in politics, literature, or science.’

To multitudes, however, London is a place to be inhabited only from necessity, which compels them to a weary and monotonous course of task-work. How many of those you meet during a walk to office are mere machines, who have outlived all desire to go and look upon a green field! Their holidays are spent in lounging at the corners of streets, or in the dingy parlours of out-of-the-way taverns.

Stand for a few minutes on any one of the bridges, and watch the human tide as it goes by. You shall see objects of misery such as can be seen nowhere but in London. Not mere penury or destitution, but hopeless misery, that stamps a wolfish expression on the victim’s features, and kindles a fiery madness in the eye. They move with the throng, but are not of it.

Notice, too, how some men’s trade tells upon their physical constitution: the one now approaching, with one shoulder higher than the other, head inclining a little to the right, the left hand always carried in advance, while the right, with bent fingers, is held back—he is a filer in some engine factory. The next, in threadbare coat, with a slight stoop, curved legs, slouching gait, and right arm swinging in uneasy jerks—is a tailor: you cannot mistake him. Here is another with a dirty canvas apron twisted round his waist; he takes long, slow steps, and turns in his left foot—he is a cabinetmaker: and in the same way might we go on reading off each one’s calling or character for a whole day.

The peculiar expression, however, varies in different quarters of the town. ‘Let any one,’ says the Tatler, ‘even below the skill of an astrologer, behold the turn of faces he meets as soon as he passes Cheapside Conduit, and you see a deep attention and a certain unthinking sharpness in every countenance. They look attentive, but their thoughts are engaged on mean purposes. To me it is apparent, when I see a citizen pass by, whether his head is upon woollens, silks, iron, sugar, indigo, or stocks. Now this trace of thought appears to lie hid in the race for two or three generations.’

In the daily walks to office much may be seen of the petty trades of London—the under-current of its commercial activity. Things are turned to account here. In front of patten and clog makers’ shops, stand small baskets filled with the little lumps of beech sawn off the ends of the sole pieces—’only a penny.’

A little farther on, at a place half shop, half shed, a man and two or three boys are busy sawing and splitting firewood. One saws the blocks to the required length, a second splits them, and a third, with the aid of a small lever and a strong loop, ties them up into bundles with marvellous accuracy and celerity. This, though classed among petty trades, requires the employment of large capital. We have seen a wood yard, half an acre in extent, by the side of the Surrey Canal, completely filled, and piled to the height of thirty or forty feet with the ‘chunks’ of pine brought from Canada, to be split up and sold four bundles a penny, to kindle fires in London.

A few of the old cobblers’ stalls, little dens, half in the cellar, and half in the street, are still to be seen. Pass when you will, their occupants are always busy; it does not appear, however, that any of them ever remove into a shop or more roomy premises. A parallel class of out-of-door workers, are the men who go from one butcher’s shop to another to sharpen and set the saws. Half-a-dozen files, a hammer, and ‘sawset,’ a wooden stand with screw-clamps, constitute their stock in trade. The stand is generally painted the professional blue; and the filers appear to be merry fellows, for they whistle blithely while at their work, generally performed at the edge of the pavement.

Another form of petty trade is presented by butchers’ and provision shops: the latter with pennyworths of bacon and scraps of cheese; and the former with fragments—cuttings and trimmings of mutton and beef—of most repulsive appearance. Yet nothing is lost: however indifferent the article offered for sale, there is always a purchaser for it. The New Cut, in Lambeth, the upper extremity of White Cross Street and Clare Market offer a spectacle fraught with profound instruction about the animal food supplied to the humbler classes of London.

‘Garret masters,’ as they are called, represent a considerable amount of petty trade. They are turners, carvers, cabinet and chair makers, and almost every other business that can be mentioned. How often, on a Monday or Tuesday morning, you meet the wife or boys of one of these small traders, with a plank and cane for chairs, or veneer for workboxes—material for another week’s struggle!

On Saturdays you will see the man with tea-caddies, a table, or half-a-dozen chairs upon his shoulder, panting along with hungry and anxious look to find a purchaser. Poor creatures! many of them are to be pitied; for very often the price they obtain does not exceed the cost of the materials on which they have expended six days’ labour. Several of the large advertising houses derive their supplies of goods from these sources.

Boys, looking keen and experienced as grown-up men, are seen both morning and evening delivering and vending newspapers—how they collect round the doors of newspaper offices on the announcement of a ‘second edition,’ waiting for news as jackals for carrion! A singular fact connected with these boys is, that they go “on ‘Change.” Turn up Catherine Street any afternoon about four, and there, within hearing of the Strand, you will find them congregated, and with a perfect Babel of cries exchanging papers. ‘Times’ for ‘Herald’—’Standard’ for ‘Chronicle’—who wants ‘Globe ?’—who wants ‘Daily News?’ are calls kept up for the better part of an hour with vociferous iteration. Watch the group for a few minutes, and you will see that the newsboy is as great an adept in turning a penny as the stockbroker farther east.

Our present purpose is to describe only the more obvious of what presents itself to the eye in a walk to or from office; much more might be written, were we inquiring into the multiplied resources for gaining a livelihood to be found only in great cities.

One more instance, and we must leave this part of our subject. Every day, ‘except Sundays and holidays,’ two rather grim-faced, weather-beaten men may be seen walking up and down under the portico of Somerset House. For years have they taken up their position in this place, from ten to four, and will probably continue to do so until incapacitated by age or infirmities.

They look like man-of-war’s men ‘in shore-going toggery;’ and their business is to stop the sailors, great numbers of whom are continually calling at the Admiralty Office, within the quadrangle of the building, and advise them how to proceed in making their inquiries. With the proverbial generosity of seamen, the applicants, on leaving the office, hand over a fee to their two informants, or invite them to drink at a neighbouring tavern. It is only in such a place as London that it would be worth any one’s while to come out in all weathers, with clean polished shoes, and well-brushed though threadbare coat, to watch for the chances of a living from such an apparently uncertain source.

It sometimes happens that the routine of official duty is disturbed by some unexpected stroke of business; on such occasions, a brief interval is allowed for refreshment at a coffee-house—a half hour, in which some of the peculiarities of London life may be studied. How the disposition to avoid all unnecessary expenditure of words appears in the short, technical orders issued to the attendants! With some customers it borders on slang: ‘Coffee and a thin un!’ or, ‘Dab o’ grease and ball o’ pipeclay!’ may be heard from some remote corner; the speakers’ requirements being a cup of coffee and a thin slice of bread and butter, or a pat of butter with an egg.

You may observe, too, how the demand for bread serves as an index to the season. In cold weather, brown and cottage loaves are most in request; but in warm weather, nothing will go down but light French rolls and tea-cakes. London coffee-houses would be nearly all that could be wished, if their arrangements included ventilation, and real coffee for the fluid supplied to customers.

Should it happen to be a Saturday on which the unexpected detention occurs, the walk home late in the evening reveals many new features of life in the great city. The people who now crowd the streets are quite of a different class to those seen during the day: labourers, operatives, and artisans with their wives and children, are making their purchases for the week or the next day. This is the time to see the infinitesimal system of dealing carried out at butchers ‘and grocers,’ or any place where food is sold.

Petty dealers, never seen at any other time, now station themselves at the entrance of alleys and corners of streets, offering skewers, meat-hooks, penny roasting-jacks, cabbage-nets; in short, a complete batterie de cuisine. They invite purchasers in most vociferous tones, and it is hard to say whether they or the beggars are the more importunate: the latter have to provide for a blank day on the morrow, and make most moving appeals to the charity of bystanders.

Presently you come to a ready-made clothes warehouse, flaring and flashy, in front of which half-a-dozen musicians, engaged by the proprietor, have been blowing away most lustily ever since noon, and will keep on till midnight. This is a frequent mode of advertising in the transpontine regions, and is often adopted by enterprising bakers, when the usual ‘glass of gin,’ or ‘penny returned with every loaf purchased,’ fail to attract. So bewildering are the noise and confusion, that you feel a sensible relief as the walk home-wards carries you into a quieter neighbourhood.

It is pleasant to note the succession of flowers, from the crocuses and violets of early spring to the roses and carnations of summer, offered for sale in the streets. The taste for flowers has increased of late years; some persons you will see never walk to town without a flower in their button-hole during the fine season. From the markets, as centres, they are carried in handcarts, barrows, or baskets, into every quarter of the town: even back streets and dismal alleys are visited by hawkers of flowers: and is it too much to expect that the sweet-scented things may have a humanising influence?

Another pleasure of the summer season, is the opportunity for varying the daily walk by a trip in one of the cheap steamboats. You make for the nearest bridge, walk on board, and for a halfpenny, are set down close to your place of business. These river omnibuses are admirable places for observation; here you may detect many peculiar characteristics of the Londoner.

Rather than wait two minutes and a half for the next boat, they overcrowd the deck until the little vessel is top heavy, and stand wedged together, half suffocated, without the possibility of changing their position. They will land at all sorts of inconvenient wharfs, with imminent risk of life and limb, week after week, and month after month, or until it may please the proprietors to provide better accommodation.

Extremes meet: and London is at once the fastest and slowest of cities. The man who cannot stay to answer your salute in the street, will live with exemplary patience close to some horrid nuisance for ten or twenty years. He wonders what people can possibly find to do with themselves in the country, and goes night after night to the same parlour, in the same tavern, to hear the same vapid talk that he already knows by heart.

You walk home leisurely on summer afternoons, resting a while to contemplate the animated view from the bridge you may choose to cross, or halting at some of the frequent book-stalls. All the world is thirsty: the benches in front of public-houses are crowded with porter drinkers, who imbibe the contents of pewter pots with infinite relish; and venders of ginger beer offer their cooling draught at every hundred yards.

Frequent parties of strangers are now met on the shady side of the street, gazing with wondering delight on all they see. Among these some have evidently come to settle in London: you may see them cheapening furniture at the brokers’ shops; perhaps a widow with two or three children, eking out a scanty income to the utmost.

According to Johnson, whom we have before quoted, ‘there is no place where economy can be so well practised as in London: more can be had here for the money, even by ladies, than everywhere else. You cannot play tricks with your fortune in a small place; you must make a uniform appearance. Here a lady may have well-furnished apartments, and elegant dress, without any meat in her kitchen.’

If the weather be at all rainy, the approaches to the bridges are beset by retailers of second-hand umbrellas: ‘Only one shilling each!’—’Save a shower for a shilling!’ It is a better business than would at first sight appear; for, apart from those who can afford only a shilling for an umbrella, there is many a well-to-do citizen who would rather lay out that sum than get wet to the skin.

Day after day, as your, eye glances along the line of clerks and men in office walking homewards, you are sure to see one carrying a blue bag. A blue bag is considered respectable; it has an official look about it; it suggests ideas of papers and parchments tied up with red tape. But appearances are often deceptive: if that young clerk there, who has not yet reached his first promotion, would show you the contents of his bag, you would see a leg of mutton, a bargain from Leadenhall or Newgate market. We have known oysters, ox-tails for soup, onions, crockery, to be carried home in a blue bag. The bag enables many to economise, who otherwise would be ashamed to do so.

But the days begin to draw in: by and by both sides of the street are shady; and those who look for sunshine as they walk home, see it only on the gilded weathercocks of church steeples, or slanting through the opening of some side street in long sickly-looking rays. And then, before you are aware of it, the return walk is all by lamplight; and the long suburban roads, with their lines of flame on either side, remind you, as you look down them, of the avenues described in the ‘Arabian Nights,’ brilliant with lights, but ending at last in a gloomy void. Butchers and grocers are decorating their shops again with holly, which reminds us that our Walks to Office have made the round of the seasons.

Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal – Saturday, February 5, 1848

—Jeff Burks

This entry was posted in Historical Images. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Walks to Office

  1. mctoons555 says:

    I guess the smart phone must be the great equalizer. Today everyone seems to walk with head down and phone in hand, intently scrutinizing something or other on their screen, oblivious to everything and everyone around them.

  2. Reblogged this on Paleotool's Weblog and commented:
    Wow. A great observational essay. This could apply to just about any city on earth but I’m sure it was even more true at the heart of the Empire.

  3. Eric R says:

    Observation at its pinnacle.
    Well written as well.

  4. paul6000000 says:

    Great to read about life before the unions and other social agitators ruined society.

Comments are closed.