Friday 3 February 2012

A Wicked Luxury

We may complain about the current bout of cold weather, but it's nothing compared to what our ancestors put up with ... for a cold spell in Victorian London could freeze water pipes (most houses only had water supplied for a few set hours per week), burst gas mains and generally cause chaos. Here's James Payn - an overly florid but interesting journalist - on a cold spell in the 1860s:-

May this 10th of January, whereupon the Home Correspondent begins this paper - upon which, for the first time for a fortnight, his stony fingers have been able to hold a pen - be henceforth a festival among readers; and yet not a white day, for the frost is gone, and, by comparison, a very summer has succeeded it. Ever since last year (or December 31), the Londoner has been obliged to restrict his washing within continental limits, for the water has not "come in" at all. The turn cock, who, in ordinary weather, is considered a useless functionary, something like an aquatic beadle, whose duties nobody understands, has of late become a person of importance. His deputy - for it is not to be supposed that so great a man would do any work himself - has been the cynosure of all neighbouring householders. When would his Eminence please to come and turn on the water from the main at the top of the street ? has been literally the great question of the day. It is understood that he will ring a bell in the public thoroughfare, to give notice when that ceremony takes place; but this he declines to do, and therefore our households are kept in a state of indescribable anxiety, and perhaps miss the favourable hour after all. The street-boys surround the unaccustomed fountains, and enjoy the spectacle; but our unfortunate cook, who is momentarily expecting the kitchen-boiler to burst for want of its native element, is unconscious of the supply until it is too late. Under these circumstances, hot water for the hands has become a wicked luxury, and scarcely to be procured even for necessaries - such as toddy. If we have had no water, however, we have had plenty of gas, which has "escaped" in all directions, and with such alacrity, that there has been none left at the jets. Dirt and darkness have therefore been the position of most people during the late "glorious weather"; while in the case of those few persons who possess any scientific knowledge, there has been added to these disadvantages the well-grounded apprehension of being suddenly blown into the air. It has been said that the world may be divided into knaves, fools, and fox-hunters, in sly disparagement, as I conceive, of this last class of our fellow-creatures; but there is this to be asserted in their honour, that at least they never rejoice with the Thoughtless or Malignant upon the setting in of Frost.

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