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Violent Delights

As long as the city has existed there have been entertainers and entertainments, from the street ventriloquists who cast their voices into their hands to the “man with the telescope” who for twopence would allow you to look at the heavens on a summer’s night. Performers balanced on the weathercock of St. Paul’s steeple; there were midnight dog-shows and duels of rats; there were street jugglers and street conjurors, complete with pipes and drum; there were performing bears and performing monkeys dragged through the streets of London upon long ropes. In the late eighteenth century a pedlar exhibited a hare dancing upon a tambourine, while another entertainer displayed “a curious mask of bees on his head and face.” In the early nineteenth century a crowd gathered around a booth labelled “Fantasina,” while children examined a “Kelidascope.” On Tower Hill there was set up an “ingenious contrivance” of many mechanical figures, with the legend “Please To Encourage the Inventor,” while in Parliament Street a donkey pulled along a peep-show entitled “The Battle of Waterloo.” There are now amusement arcades where there were once the windows of print-shops, and instead of the London Zoo there was once a “Menagerie” in Exeter Change along the Strand where the roaring of the beasts reverberated down the thoroughfare and frightened the horses.

There have always been wonders and curiosities. John Stow recorded the minute skills of a blacksmith who exhibited a padlock, key and chain which could be fastened around the neck of a performing flea; John Evelyn reported seeing “the Hairy Woman” whose eyebrows covered her forehead, as well as a Dutch boy who displayed the words “Deus Meus” and “Elohim” on each iris. In the reign of George II, it was announced that “from eight in the morning till nine at night, at the end of the great booth on Blackheath, a West of England woman 38 years of age, alive, with two heads, one above the other … She has had the honour to be seen by Sir Hans Sloane, and several of the Royal Society. Gentlemen and ladies may see her at their own houses as they please.” The advertisement has been taken from a pamphlet entitled Merrie England in the Olden Time. So the unfortunate creature was taken to the London houses of the rich, to be inspected at closer hand. In the early nineteenth century “Siamese twins” were often exhibited, although such “monstrous couplings” had already been shown under other names in other centuries, and in the same period was displayed the “Anatomic Vivante” or “Living Skeleton” who at the height of five feet seven and a half inches weighed less than six stone. At another London exhibition, “the heaviest man that ever lived,” weighing eighty-seven stone, also entertained the curious public. As Trinculo says upon first confronting Caliban, on that enchanted island strangely recalling London, “when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.”

Fleet Street was once the home of London marvels other than those of newspaper “stories.” The playwright Ben Jonson noticed “a new motion of the city of Nineveh, with Jonah and the whale, at Fleet Bridge.” In 1611 “the Fleet Street mandrakes” were on show for a penny. A fourteen-year-old boy, only eighteen inches high, was to be seen in 1702 at a grocer’s shop called the Eagle and Child by Shoe Lane; a Lincolnshire ox, nineteen hands high and four yards long, could be viewed at the White Horse nearby. There was the usual diet of giants and dwarfs; anything out of its due size and proportion was welcome in “disproportion’d London.” There was also much interest excited by “automata” and other mechanical devices, as if they somehow imitated the motions of the city itself. It is curious to learn from the Daily Advertiser of 1742 that at the Mitre Tavern there was exhibited “a most curious Chaise that travels without Horses. This beautiful convenient Machine is so simply contriv’d, and easily manag’d as to travel upwards of forty Miles a Day.”

In Fleet Street, too, were the waxworks. They were first exhibited by Mrs. Salmon, the direct predecessor of Madame Tussaud, at the sign of the Golden Salmon near Aldersgate; as the Spectator pointed out on 2 April 1711, “it would have been ridiculous for the ingenious Mrs. Salmon to have lived at the sign of the Trout.” But she removed to Fleet Street, where her collection of 140 figures was the object of public admiration. On the ground floor of her establishment was a toyshop, selling Punch dolls and cricket bats and chessboards, while on the two upper floors stood replicas of John Wilkes, Samuel Johnson, Mrs. Siddons and other London notables; the sign emblazoned across the house-front read, simply enough, “The Wax Work.” Outside was the pale yellow wax image of Mother Shipton who, on the release of a lever, would kick the unsuspecting pedestrian.

These figures, mobile or immobile, also served an apparently more serious purpose. For many centuries the wax effigies of dead monarchs and statesmen, coloured and “made up,” were exhibited in Westminster Abbey. Where once the effigy of the dead Elizabeth I, carried in procession at her funeral, elicited “general sighing, groaning and weeping,” its decrepit condition in the mid-eighteenth century made her seem “half witch and half ghoul.” Yet the phrase “man of wax” was still in general circulation; it had no disagreeable connotations then but, rather, meant a personage who one day might be granted the honour of display in the Abbey.

Mrs. Salmon herself has long since sunk from view, but the waxworks of Madame Tussaud survive in glory. Curiously enough, wax-workers have always been women, and Madame Tussaud herself can be credited with the invention of what Punch dubbed “the Chamber of Horrors.” The present establishment lies by the equally spectacular Planetarium.

Mayfair is named after the annual fair which took place on the north side of Piccadilly; now only the prostitutes of Shepherd’s Market bring an echo of its past. But Haymarket has retained its old associations. Since the eighteenth century it has been a street of entertainment, from the Cats’ Opera of 1758 to The Phantom of the Opera of the last decade of the twentieth century. In 1747 Samuel Foote, a famous actor and mimic, gave a series of comic lectures at the Haymarket Theatre; in the theatre built upon the same site, in 1992, the comic actor John Sessions gave a very similar performance. The persistent energy of the city has its own momentum which defies rational explication.

It is a city always known for its vivacity and its restlessness. We learn from Thomas Burke’s The Streets of London that the citizens’ “progress through the streets is marked by impetuosity and a constant exertion of strength.” We learn further from Pierre Jean Grosley’s A Tour of London in 1772 that “the English walk very fast; their thoughts being entirely engrossed by business, they are very punctual to their appointments, and those, who happen to be in their way, are sure to be sufferers by it; constantly darting forward, they justle them with a force proportioned to the bulk and velocity of their motion.”

A century later a Parisian traveller noted that throughout London “there surges a bustling thrusting crowd such as our busiest boulevard gives no idea of … the cabs move twice as fast, watermen and ‘bus conductors run a whole sentence to a single word … the last atom of value is extracted from every action and every minute.” Even the entertainments were energetic, and at Greenwich “the rabble of London assemble on Easter Monday and roll down its green side, men and women promiscuously.” Sexual licence and commercial energy are all mixed, to send the citizens whirling forward. A twentieth-century French traveller believed that in London “English legs move with greater velocity than ours. And this whirl carries even the ancient with it.” The “whirl” is part flux and disorder, but it is also an aspect of the ceaseless movement of people, goods and vehicles. Tobias Smollett, in Humphry Clinker, noted only “rambling, riding, rolling, rushing, justling, mixing, bouncing, cracking, and crashing … All is tumult and hurry; one would imagine they were impelled by some disorder of the brain, that will not suffer them to be at rest.” It does indeed on occasions appear to be a kind of fever. Maurice Ash, the author of A Guide to the Structure of London in 1972, when confronted with the continuous “hurrying to and fro,” was tempted to conclude that there is no real business other “than the business of traffic itself”; the city, in other words, represents movement for its own sake. It is reminiscent of the scene of “shooting the bridge” out of George Borrow’s Lavengro when a London boatman fearlessly navigated the rush of water through the middle arch of London Bridge “elevating one of his sculls in triumph, the man hallooing and the woman … waving her shawl.” It is a picture of the intense vitality of London life.

When Southey asked a pastry-cook why she kept her shop open in harsh weather she replied that she would lose much custom, “so many were the persons who took up buns or biscuits as they passed by and threw their pence in, not allowing themselves time to enter.” That pace has hardly slowed in a century, and one of the latest social surveys of London, Focus on London 97, reveals that “the economic activity rates for London have consistently been between 1 and 2 percentage points higher than those for the United Kingdom as a whole.” This infinite motion has continued for more than a thousand years; fresh and ever renewed, it still partakes of antiquity. That is why the “whirl” and business of the streets comprise only an apparent disorder, and some observers have noticed a central rhythm or historical momentum which propels the city forward. This is the mystery—how can the endless rush itself be eternal? It is the riddle of London, which is perpetually new and always old.

There are days of rest, however, even in the turbulent city. It has often been remarked that Sunday is dreariest in London, of all cities, perhaps because restfulness and silence do not come easily or naturally to it. It was not always so. Londoners have characteristically used their holidays or holy days for “violent delights.” From the early medieval period there have been archery and jousting, bowls and football—as well as the “hurling of Stones and Wood and Iron”—but the taste of the London crowd could also be less healthful. There were cock-fights and boar-fights, bull-baiting, bear-baiting and dog-baiting. The bears were given affectionate names, such as “Harry Hunks” or “Sacherson,” but the treatment of them was vicious. One visitor to Bankside, in the early seventeenth century, watched the whipping of a blind bear “which is performed by five or six men, standing circularly with whips, which they exercise upon him without any mercy, as he cannot escape from them because of the chain: he defends himself with all his force and skill, throwing down all who come within his reach and are not active enough to get out of it, and tearing the whips out of their hands and breaking them.” In the late seventeenth century we read of horse-baiting at Bankside where several dogs were set upon a “great horse”; it defeated its persecutors but then “the Mobile [mob] in the house cryed out it was a cheat, and thereupon began to untyle the house, and threatened to pull it quite down, if the Horse were not brought again and baited to death.” This was the sport of the London crowd.

Bulls were baited with dogs, also, but they were sometimes maddened by having peas placed in their ears, or fireworks stuck on their backs. In the eighteenth century there was bullock-hunting in Bethnal Green, badger-baiting in Long Fields by the Tottenham Court Road, and ferocious wrestling matches at Hockley-in-the-Hole. This area, just across the Fleet from Clerkenwell, was one of the most dangerous and unruly in all London where “all sorts of rough games” were provided.

The more respectable seventeenth-century citizens were not necessarily amused by these diversions. Instead there were healthful “walks” in a number of carefully planned and plotted public areas. By the early seventeenth century Moorfields had been drained and laid out, creating “upper walks” and “lower walks,” and a few years later Lincoln’s Inn Fields were also designed for “common walks and disports.” “Grays Inn Walks” were highly favoured and Hyde Park, although still a royal park, was open to the public for horse-racing and boxing. St. James’s Park was designed a little later; here, in the words of Tom Brown, a contemporary journalist, “The green Walk afforded us varieties of discourses from persons of both sexes … disturbed with the noisy milk folks—crying—A Can of Milk, Ladies; A can of Red Cow’s Milk, Sir.”

But the true “nature” of London is not shrubbery or parkland, but human nature. At night beneath the shade of the trees, according to the Earl of Rochester, “Are buggeries, rapes and incests made” while Rosamond’s Pond on the south-west side of St. James’s Park became notorious for suicides.

In Spring Gardens were a bowling green and butts for target practice. In the New Spring Gardens, later Vauxhall Gardens, there were avenues and covered walks. Small green refreshment huts sold wine and punch, snuff and tobacco, sliced ham and quartered chicken, while ladies of doubtful morals sauntered among the trees with gold watches dangling from their necks as a token of their trade. The apprentices and their girls would visit Spa Fields in Clerkenwell or the Grotto Gardens in Rosoman Street, where they were encouraged to consume tea or ices or alcohol, to the accompaniment of song, music and generally “low” entertainment.

Much of that vigour has now vanished. The parks are now characteristically restful places within the noise and uproar of London. They attract those who are unhappy or ill at ease. The idle and the vagrant sleep more easily beneath the trees, together with those who are simply exhausted by the city. London parks have often been called the “lungs” of the city, but the sound is that of sleep. “It being mighty hot and I weary,” Pepys wrote on 15 July 1666, “lay down upon the grass by the canalle [in St. James’s Park], and slept awhile.” It is a world of weariness which Hogarth depicted in an engraving that shows a London dyer and his family return from Sadler’s Wells. The landscape behind them is one of sylvan charm but they are returning on the dusty road to the city. The plump and pregnant wife is dressed according to city fashion, and sports a fan with a classical motif upon it; but she is pregnant because she has cuckolded her husband, and the man himself looks tired and dejected as he carries an infant in his arms. Their two other children fight, and their dog looks at the canal which takes water from Islington into the conduits of London. Everything denotes heat and enervation, as an expedition out of London comes to its inevitable end. In more recent days, too, exhausted and fretful citizens still come back to London from their “outings” like prisoners returning to gaol.

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