Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Walking Down Piccadilly, 1870

A saunter down Piccadilly in 1870, courtesy of Fun.

There are few streets whose appearances at different times in the day vary more than that of Piccadilly. At early dawn groaning market-carts, cabbage-laden, and creaky-axled, toil slowly along it, the drivers. with a strange semi-rustic look, trudging beside  them. These carts are more pleasant to look at and smell just now than they will be later on their return journey from Covent Garden, lorded with manure for the market gardens.
    Presently, as it grows lighter, the early coffee-stall at Hyde Park corner vanishes like a goblin at the approach of day. The early work folk have passed to their labours, and partaken of the delicacies it offers, so its task is completed. Have any of our readers ever tasted the spirit, of mysterious manufacture, which is at times procurable at such stalls? If not, let us recommend them to abstain—it is needless to warn them against a second haste if they have once tasted and survived. It is said to be made out of old rope. and its choking capabilities are more painful in this form, we should think, than as an outward application to the throat.
    And now come the shop-girls tripping along, sprinkled with a few clerks whose business at the other end of the town calls them forth betimes. Later comes the luckier clerks of the West End, the Civil servants—fortunate fellows, who have the pleasure of surveying the aforesaid shop-girls, busily engaged in dressing the windows.
    By eleven or twelve the ordinary stream of life flowing eastward and westward occupies this broad channel, and it has little of special character until the afternoon. Then come the swells, the faultless swells, to saunter in the Park or take a turn in the Burlington. And where they are the Soiled Doves will gather, like the vultures about a carcass. They perceptibly leaven the Park, but they have the Arcade almost entirely to themselves. By some occult instinct, after a certain hour close on noon, ladies shun the covered promenade; even the girl of the period dares not carry her imitation of Lais so far as that!
    Meanwhile Piccadilly is densely crowded with carriages and horses of every description, from the aristocratic chariot to the plebeian 'bus. For there is a republicanism about Piccadilly which is not shared by other streets lying close upon it. It is more democratic than Bond Street and St. James's-street, while Pall Mall has nothing in common with it, and is so grand and so dull that one quite pities the War office clerks for not having a more lively view from their windows!
    The roadway of Piccadilly is crowded with fine equipages and shabby growlers, with the barouche of Rank, and the brougham of Beauty (not always unadorned) ; with the mail-phaeton of the guard's-man, and the hansom of the private not in the Guards; with the curricle, and the cab, and the cart.
    This is the time to see Piccadilly, for as its roadway is choked with vehicles so its pathway is crammed with pedestrians, of as many different classes as the vehicles. That is a peer of long creation— that is a bankrupt of yesterday's making. Here is a pure sweet woman, going mayhap on an errand of mercy—yonder trips painted Vice, going to spread its snares for gilded youth.
    Mind you, the street itself is a wonderful study, without a word about the people in it. Beginning from SWAN AND EDGAR'S, you pass that strange fossil the Geological Museum, and that recent formation the St. Jame's hall, which is a conglomerate of dinners, Christy Minstrels and other entertainments. St. James's Church, with its ugly modern sham-antique gate, and Burlington House with its present frontage, unpretentious in everything save ugliness, balance each other; and then comes the Egyptian hall, with the multifarious WOODIN, and the two huge Egyptian figures trying to pretend they don't notice what goes on in the Arcade over the way.
    Then you skirt the Wellington, and pause to weep over the departure of the good old coaching days outside the White Horse Cellar —then away, past FRANCATELLI'S by many a noble residence looking over the Green Park. More than one noted residence has of late changed hands„ and its noble owners have been succeeded by clubs. One has been kept closed and uninhabited for years! So you come to Apsley House, and the WELLINGTON statue, and the Park, and St. George's Hospital. That is the climax of Piccadilly—after that it dwindles, to lose all its individuality near Tattersall's.
    And as the street dwindles after Hyde Park Corner, so its glory dwindles as the evening closes in. The swells have gone home to dinner, the humble folk have gone home to tea. Later and later, the traffic diminishes in quantity, without improving in quality. Toward the small hours noisy cabfuls from the haunts in the Haymarket, which innocent people believe to have been quite extirpated by this time, awake the echoes of Piccadilly. They become fewer and farther between, until the clump of the policeman's boots is almost the only sound; and another day has completed its round in the existence of Piccadilly.
Fun, 1870

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