Tuesday 3 August 2010

The Christmas Face of London

An unseasonal look at London at Christmas time:-

OF all the coming events which mark the succession of the London season, there is none which is so generally and so agreeably foreshadowed as the advent of merry Christmas. To the common observer the earliest indication of the festive era are visible in the shopwindows; and he may remark that it is not the highest order of tradesmen who take the lead in the universal display made on all sides; but a rat.her humble class, who take time by the forelock, and hasten to produce a sensation if they can, before they are eclipsed, as they know they will be, by the men of capital. The first insinuating feelers are put forth in second-rate thoroughfares, in crowded courts and back streets, and  rather more obtrusively in the windows of public-houses. They are the written or printed announcements referring to clubs of various kinds, but all tending to a convivial consummation. The poulterer has his goose-club; the publican, on the plea that the Latin for goose is brandy has his goose-and-brandy club; the poor man's butcher has his roast-beef club; and the popular grocer has his plum-pudding club. All these clubs are on the simplest plan: You pay sixpence or a shilling a week for thirteen weeks before Christmas, and when Christmas comes you get your· poultry or plums, your beef or your pudding at a good bargain, and have the materials of a feast without feeling that it has cost you much. That, at least, is the popular appreciation of clubs of this kind; and on the whole they are good, so far as having  a tendency to teach people forethought. and to impress them, ·in a pleasant way, with the advantages of a little self-denial. Now, though these clubs all begin about Michaelmas day, they are mostly behind the scenes for the first month or so: people intending to be members being in no hurry to deposit their subscriptions; but about the half-quarter, these reminders appearing in the shop windows, bring the matter home to them, and they hasten to inroll themselves and pay up the arrears. It is never too late to join these clubs, and in practice, multitudes of working men do join them even in the last month.
     It is not until December is in his teens that those who cater for the material enjoyments of  Christmas time begin seriously to set about their seductive demonstrations. The grocer, for the reason that he deals in provisions which will suffer least by keeping. invariably leads off the game. His preparations are all on the grand scale; the raisins, the currants, the sultanas, the muscatels, are heaped in mountainous slopes, as though they had comedown by a landslip, and are scattered over with spices, as though it had hailed nutmegs and snowed cinnamon and mace. His conserves and sugared sweets flank the fruit in delicate envelopes; boulders of delicious candy, bursting trom the frosted sugar, have drifted on to the black mass of currants; jars and vases of jams and jellies,.marshalled in ranks, take up commanding positions, keeping ward over files of luxurious sweets, and bonbons, charged with the flavour of the pine, the peach, the apricot, and of every exquisite fruit that grows. Solid.walls are built up of sardines, and potted meats, and drummed figs, and bottled pickles, and preserved ginger "hot i' the mouth." There are dense strata of fancy biscuits, cases of dates and French plums, shelves of British wines, from cowslip to the ruddy elder, and, thanks to the new tariff, bottles of French claret and champagne; while the congou and the hyson, the bohea and the gunpowder teas, with the clayed, muscovado, aud.
refined sugars, form a general background. Arching over all is an artificial bower of glazed canvas leafage, from which hang thumping clusters of red, black and white grapes, from Hamburgh and the Rhine, and the shores of the Mediterranean. Thus the institutional pudding, with all its appetizing accessories, is cared for by the grocer, and all you have to do is to walk into the shop and give your orders liberally.
     As to that other institution, the roast-beef, if it is not so forward with its demonstrations, as indeed it never  can be, it is equally well looked after. Christmas beer, at least that which is so par excellence, it must be remembered, comes from the dismemberment of the prize cattle and exhibition cattle, which are all alive at the Agricultural Hall long after the grocer has received his consignments and displayed them to the public. The butcher's display must necessarily begin much later, and will depend much on the state of the weather; warm damp days tending to spoil the meat, which can be kept an indefinite time if the air is clear and frosty. Sometimes the butcher will exhibit his beef while it is yet alive, tethering the huge oxen to the kerb in front of his door, and decking them with flowers and -ribbons like a heathen sacrifice: at others he will have them stalled for a few days in the rear of his dwelling, and admit his customer to a private view, allowing them to choose their joints before they are killed. However this may be, he will kill as soon as he dares before Christmas day, and make as striking a show as he can. And indeed there are few more startling spectacles among London shops, than the shop of the butcher during the Christmas week. The ponderous carcases of oxen, the scientifically fatted calves, the huge broad-backed sheep - all appear like creatures of other races than we know them to be; their natural outlines are destroyed by their overgrown bulk, and at first sight one hardly knows what to make of them. They are spotlessly clean, and the masses of fat bear sprigs of holly and evergreen, while green boughs depend from the ceiling and overshadow the entrance. At night the whole is powerfully lighted up with gas; and it is now that the admiring crowds gather round to speculate upon their "breed and feed," and rejoice the heart of the enterprising tradesman with unsolicited applause. The quartering and cutting-up comes later, being deferred as long as it can be; and the several joints when severed are ticketed with the names and addresses of the purchasers, in pretty large characters, that the whole neighbourhood may see what a highly respectable connection Mr. Carnifex has the honour to serve. Unfortunately for the butcher, the honour and reputation derived from his sales at this season, are not unfrequently the only profit he makes upon his outlay: exhibition cattle have, unluckily for him, the habit of selling for much more alive than they will fetch when dead; alive they are prodigies of breeding and feeding - a credit to the country, and reflecting credit upon everybody who has to do with them; but when killed an alarming proportion of their bulk is but material for the tallow-chandler; and hence the loss to the butcher, who has to buy at the higher estimate.
    The consumption of poultry in London always reaches its climax at Christmas time; and if one can judge by appearances, there must be ten times as much devoured in the Christmas week as in any other week of the year, with the exception of Michaelmas week, so fatal to the geese. As the festive time draws near, the shop of the poulterer - and not only his shop. but his entire housefront - undergoes a striking transformation; by degrees it envelopes itself in plumage up to the fourth story, if it happen to be so high, as though it were preparing to fly away. The geese, turkeys, and barn-door fowls may be reckoned the staple of his store; but besides these, there is every species of British game, from grouse to larks, with no small collection of foreign birds from France, Belgium and Holland. More than this - the poulterer, in the pride of his profession, will exhibit anything rare or curious that has wings to fly, independent of its adaptation to English appetites; a plump seagull, a sprawling stork, a brilliant peacock, a heron, a bittern, a bustard, a huge jack raven - any or all of them he will hang out to view, and would only be too glad of an adjutant, or an ostrich, or a pelican, if he could get one. Some years back, a fortunate tradesman actually displayed an albatross, or rather the skin and plumage of one, measuring over ten feet between the tips of the extended wings. Such displays gratify the tradesman, who thus hints to the public that the whole domain of earth and air is his warren, and feels his own dignity dilate as that impression gets abroad.
    The poultry supply is a very complex and rather puzzling subject. Of the turkeys, an immense number come from Norfolk, which county has a high reputation for breeding them; but other counties send their quota. As a rule, they come ready plucked; and they may be compared to diamonds in one respect, inasmuch as their value increases in a geometrical ratio with their weight - a bird of nine pounds being purchaseable at about seven shillings, while three guineas will be asked for one of twenty-five pounds. The monster specimens are exhibited with much pride, and hang as it were in a kind of honoarable state for many days, while their repute gets abroad and people make expeditions to see them. The gooae, being a more savoury relish, is much more popular than the turkey, as is evidenced by the enormous numbers of them which find their way to London at this crisis. They are borne by steam and rail from France and Ireland; they come by truck-load from near and distant counties : one sees them unpacking from boxes and hampers, ready plucked; while at the same time and place they are pitching by hundreds, with their feathers on, out of wnggons and carts, into underground cellars, where fifty women aud girls are plucking away at them day and night; they hang, heads downwards, in dense battalions, on bulks and window-boards, not only in poulterers' shops, but at grocers', at milkshops, and dairies, at the pork-butcher's, at the greengrocer's, at the fishmonger's, and even occasionally at the publican's. In no inconsiderable proportion they flank the thronged thoroughfares, go where you will so that you cannot get rid of the idea of goose and. anticipatory stuffing. In the eastern approaches to London, we have before now met large flocks of them waddling in their own funeral procession, under the charge of the goose-herd - forlorn hopes, we may call them, coming up to meet the sage and onions which are to consummate their career. A wretched figure they cut, their sleek plumage matted and clotted with mire, and their hungry throats agape, after a march without rations from the neighbourhood of Epping Forest. If, however, they are not in the best condition on arrival, they can be fattened
before killing; and as they are killed only when wanted, they thus subserve the exigency of the market. In the bye-ways of Whitechapel we have occasionally seen groups of them in charge of a countryman, who drove a brisk trade by selling them to the lieges by a species of Dutch auction.
    While strolling the streets about this time, one is apt to be deliciously arrested by the exquisite odour of sweets, provokingly stimulating the salivary glands: it may be the mingled aroma of raapberry jelly and caviare, with the ghost of a flavour of mince-meat; by which we understand that we are under the influence of the confectioner. A busy man is the confectioner at this holiday period; for he has not only to provide for impending Christmas, but to meet the demands of Master Tom and Harry, and Miss Bell and Kate, who are home for their holidays, and have no intention of waiting for Christmas day before going in for the pies and tarts. There are numerous orders to be executed, in pastry for bachelors' banquets, in cakes, tartlets, and blanc-manges for bewildered housekeepers, who have more than they can do, and in preparing solid dinners for clubs and cliques, and social dining parties, who, taking their Christmas feast together, have no one else to prepare it for them. Then there will be a cart-load or two of bonbons  and minute paper-clad mysteries, wanted to stick on the Christmas trees, all of which will be expected to bear honied fruit, whatever else they may carry. It is true the confectioner does not make the mass of these, but gets them sent in from the wholesale manufacturer, along with the comfits and jujubes, and candies and sweeties, and fruity conserves, all which are made by machinery, and by the ton.
    An ally of the confectioner - though in a humble way - is the ice-raker, who may make his appearance about this time in the streets, or who may not, as the weather shall determine. In the case of a sharp frost or two coming before Christmas, he is sure to be seen. He knows that the first ice of the season is always readily bought up, since it may happen that it shall prove the only ice that is to be got, save from the importers. Consequently, when he gets up in the morning after a night of frost, instead of driving his cart to Covent Garden for vegetables, or to Billingsgate for fish, he runs off with it to the ponds and pools in the outlying suburbs, which his experience has taught him are the soonest frozen. Armed with a long rake, he skims the surface of the pool of its crystal coating, even though it be not half on inch thick, and conveys it to the confectioner's ice-cellar. So long as the frost continues, the raker will make a prey of the ice, and tum it to his profit. The business seems one of great hardship and doubtless is so; but to a certain class it has a double fascination - not only is it more profitable than casual costermongering, bt it incurs no risk of capital, and can entail no loss - an important consideration to a poor man. This industry always continues as long as the frost endures, as it would take a very long time to glut the London ice-market. As for the rakers and the rakeresses (for the women co-operate eagerly in this sloppy work), their appetite seems to grow with what it feeds on; they are more numerous and more active as the frost intensifies, and would skin the Serpentine or the Grand Junction itself if they were allowed to do so.
    Some one has remarked that London never looks so cheerful, so prosperous, and so satisfied as in the clear dry days before Christmas. This is perfectly true when the days are dry and clear; and there are few pleasanter ways of passing an hour than by walking abroad at such seasons to see what is to be seen. Shops of every description are now in their best trim, and are making their gaudiest show, while the streets are crowded with holiday people. The children are home for the vacation, and have lugged papa and mamma out with them for a shopping expedition. One recognises the girls by the rosy cheeks they ha.ve brought from the country, and the boys by their loud playground voices, and rollicking disregard of promenading etiquette. These young people make holiday with characteristic vigour and independence; they perform astonishing feats at the confectioner's; regiments of them storm the toy-shops in the Arcade. They are clamorous for the appearance of the ghost at the Polytechnic, hailing his apparition with shuddering delight, which dissolves by degrees into saucy familiarity; and are in ecstacies at the marvellous juvenile memoirs of Herr Whistler, and his imitations - not a whit less marvellous - of the singing-birds. They beseige the Cosmorama; they take the Zoological Gardens by storm; and they get lost and found a dozen times in the interminable galleries of the Museum. They clamber to the top of St. Paul's; they dive to the bottom of the Thames Tunnel; they "do" the Tower, and the Monument. One meets them at the nursery-man's choosing their Christmas trees; one jostles them in the crowd, staring at the prize capon or fat rabbit suspended as a spectacle in the dairyman's window and one meets them again at the photographer's, getting themselves done in groups, where some of them are apt to appear without their heads, because they are too excited to keep them still. At the fruiterer's - whose shop at this season is the "mellow shrine of Pomona" herself - you catch them cracking walnuts, or sucking oranges, or doing both at once, while their bright eyes are glancing round to see what shall come next; and, find them where you will, in whatever varied or motley scene, they are shedding the sunshine of our long-vanished days around them, and reviving the cherished associations of our childhood. Going into the bookseller's shop. one is sure to meet them there, and puzzled enough they are sometimes, in that storehouse of riches, by the difficulties of the choice which papa has allowed them to make; and not a few of them. we are naturally gratified to remark, are of opinion that libe bonniest bargain they can buy is the annual volume of "The Leisure Hour," with its coloured cartoons, its hundred and fifty choice wood engravings, and containing pleasant reading enough, as the schoolhoys word it, "for a whole half," and profitable reading too.
    Another addition to the ordinary London crowds which one sees in the streets at Christmas time, are the children of a larger growth - the groups, often whole families, of country people, who arrive here in time to spend the Christmas holiday with their city relaaives. Their visits have been long in prospect, and they are sure to arrive furnished with a rather long programme of the exploits they intend to perform. Country-people now-a-days don't come up to town, as their forefathers did, merely to get dazed with the din and mystery of the great Babylon, and go back again no wiser than they came. Farmer Glebe and his wife and daughters now know what's what; the cheap journals and the pictured newspapers have banished the old ignorance and wonderment: now, if the farmer brings his family to town, he takes care that they see its  lions, and reap a little knowledge as well as pleasurable excitement from the trip. And our country cousins are not only sight-seers - they are moreover persistent shoppers, and one might wonder how they can afford to spend so much cash, were we not aware that they boy on these occasions for friends at home, and spend other money than their own. They are always exceedingly welcome to the shopkeepers, who, knowing that they will not ask for credit, spare neither pains nor politeness in helping them to settle their choice. The omnibus is the country people's coach and pair, and they are ever ready to patronize it; and you may observe that one of them seldom gets in without attempting to get up a hearty conversation with his neighbours - in which attempt we need hardly say he does not succeed. On the whole, however, the provincial of the present day takes much better care of himself than his forefather could do; and though he is given to lose himself by confounding the points of thc compass, and going north when his way lies south, and so on, yet, thanks to the ever-present police, he is sure to be put right again. The police also befriend him in another way, by keeping at this season a sharp look-out after the light-fingered gentry, who are too apt to make free with the countryman's pockets. The visitors whom Christmas-tide bring to London from the provinces, are said to be at the present time fifty times as many, relatively to the population, as they were fifty years ago.
Leisure Hour, 1863


  1. Lee,

    Anyone would think you've been whiling away the time reading volumes of "Leisure Hour"...

    Great Blog,
    All the best

  2. I should really be writing a novel, as you know. But there are a lot of London-related articles buried in the likes of the Leisure Hour and not yet available to the general public ... so, yes, they will keep coming ...!