London Pilgrims

Although he was a Frenchman who never learned any English, the illustrator Gustave Doré drew some of the most evocative and enduring images we have of Victorian London. The ones that are most familiar today are those depicting the poverty, alienation and squalor of the emergent industrial metropolis, but there are other, lesser-known ones that celebrate its more opulent and exuberant aspects.


 “Over London by Rail” Gustave Doré c 1870.


 “Houndsditch” by Gustave Doré, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. (1872).

The above two portrayals epitomise the vision of a dismal and desperate (albeit picturesque) urban landscape that we most associate with Doré. But the marvellous volume in which they first appeared, “London: A Pilgrimage”, published in 1872, contains 180 Doré sketches which illuminate a tremendous variety of social groupings and settings.

For the book, Doré, in company with the journalist Blanchard Jerrold who wrote its text, set out to range over London as freely as they might and produce a record of what they found in words and pictures. Over several years they explored the capital’s high-life and low-life, both indoors and out, from the hard-grafting East-End dock landscape to the hushed sanctity of Westminster Abbey.

At one point they attended a garden party in the grounds of Holland House, which was then a sparkling rendezvous of aristocratic society, though it was substantially destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1940 and its ruin now stands in the public open-space of Holland Park.

Victorian web

 “Holland House, A Garden Party” by Gustave Doré, 1872

“We are Pilgrims,” Jerrold wrote in the book’s introduction, “wanderers, gipsy-loiterers in the great world of London…Under the magic influence of its vastness; its prodigious unwieldy life, and its extraordinary varieties of manners…”.

I would have loved to have been a “wanderer” and a “gypsy-loiterer” in the “great world” of Victorian London. But would I have seen what Doré drew? Well, in the first place I would not have had access to the high-society locations such as Holland House that  Jerrold & Doré’s connections opened up to them. But, more importantly, Doré reputedly worked from memory, and only when he was back in his Parisian studio at that. There is a correspondingly dreamlike, fantastical sheen to his visions that seems at one remove from reality. As with Dickens’ word-invocations of Victorian London, one has to remember that Doré’s output has been filtered through a highly individual artistic imagination.

An Unholy Street

When I lived in London I worked for some time in an office overlooking the Aldwych, off the Strand. I did not know then, as I watched the traffic thunder relentlessly by from an upper-floor window, that this had once been an out-of-the-way area of great charm and character. Around the turn of the nineteenth century twenty-eight acres of closely packed lanes, alleys and courtyards thereabouts were demolished in a grand redevelopment, to be replaced by Kingsway and the Aldwych and to facilitate the widening of the Strand. I was also unaware then that the area once housed the reputedly unholy Holywell Street, notorious in Victorian times for its bookshops where pornography could be found.


Holywell Street by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1793-1864) Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite its open appearance in the above illustration, old photographs show the street to have been so narrow as to exclude most wheeled traffic. Like nearby Wych Street, which was also rubbed out in the grand Edwardian redevelopment, Holywell Street contained a higgledy-piggledy array of quaint old buildings, some of great antiquity.

Though writing long after its demise Michael Sadleir, author of Fanny by Gaslight, penned a vivid portrait of Holywell Street in his novel of London low-life Forlorn Sunset (pp. 410-22, 1947). Sadleir (1888 to 1957) has his luckless antihero, Paul Gladwin, go there for nefarious purposes in November 1878. Gladwin’s “lean stooping figure, wearing a shabby black overcoat and a shapeless slouch hat”, shuffles into the “narrow chasm of Holywell Street”.

Sadleir writes: “A crazy jumble of houses rose on either side. A few of the old timbered buildings, whose upper stories so far overhung that two people could shake hands across the roadway, had survived the Great Fire; a few others, partially destroyed, had been patched and tinkered into some sort of stability…A rag-bag of a street, in fact, and one whose population was as squalid and promiscuous as its architecture…

“More than one huckster made a pitch of Holywell Street. A vendor of comic songs stood and walked and stood again, shouting the titles of his penny sheets, often with humorous gesture or lively comment. A knife-seller had set out his wares on a small square of dirty carpet. Others, with trays slung about their necks, offered studs or glass jewellery or secret nostrums for various and often alarming ailments.

“The ground-floors of the buildings…housed a succession of small shops. The majority were bookshops, print-shops or jumbles of old glass, china and second-hand furniture; but there was also a sprinkling of food and clothing shops, two small auction rooms open to the street, a jeweller (so-called), a barber, and quite half a dozen cigar-shops. At either end stood a flaunting public house.”

After this splendid evocation of a lost world, Sadleir lets himself down somewhat by casting a clichéd Jewish bookseller he calls Mr Jack Bernstein as an under-the-counter pornographer with whom Gladwin has business to transact. “He had the soft, rather pleading eyes of his race, but their quality of gentleness was violently belied by a rasping voice, a large cruel mouth full of very white teeth, and a curious roughness of gesture even when (as occasionally was the case) no roughness was meant. He always wore a billycock hat pulled so far down his head that it rested on his prominent ears, and when he spoke, the traditional lisp and adenoidal blockages were so marked that he was suspected of exaggerating them on purpose.”

The furtive nature of Bernstein’s establishment is conveyed as follows: “It was a single-windowed shop, and a sloping stall on trestles was so placed in front of the window that passers-by…could not approach closely to the window but were constrained to examine from a distance of some three feet whatsoever Mr Bernstein chose to display behind glass.” Appearing therein, hand-bills containing tantalising synopses of certain publications could dimly be made out. Sadleir reproduces several of these, who knows whether from real-life or his own imagination, such as:

“Just out, Price Sixpence, with Illustrations. The New Racy Volume, or the Private Companion of every person above the age of Seventeen”. Or “The Diary, Confessions, and Curious Attractions of a noted favourite and celebrated Quack Doctor, detailing his Amusing Adventures With his Pretty Patients, whose blushes illuminated the whole of the Examination Room.” Or “A Book For The Wicked, or Tit Bits For The Bed Room, Containing Ninety Pages of racy reading and Ten Coloured Cuts of a nature rather going it.”

I have no way of knowing how accurate Sadleir’s portrayal of Holywell Street was, especially since it is now entirely subsumed under the buildings, pavement and tarmac of the Strand. It ran parallel to that thoroughfare, just west of St Clement Danes Church (which is still standing, on its own little traffic island), as appears from the following map.


District Map (1888) Temple, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It’s difficult to be precise, but the office building I worked in, on what is now the eastern curve of the Aldwych crescent, is probably just about where the law-chambers of the New Inn used to be, as marked on the map. It was a law firm that I worked for there, and if I’d been around a century earlier perhaps I’d have worked at the New Inn. In those days, I would at least have had some fascinating local colour to observe whilst strolling melancholically about in my lunch break.

A Christmas Harlequinade

You may have been to a pantomime over the festive season and had your nerves battered by the children’s shouting (Oh yes it isoh no it isn’t…etc.). Then again, perhaps you got into the spirit of the occasion and shouted louder than the infants yourself. But such noisy audience participation is nothing compared to what was common at a Nineteenth-Century pantomime, which would have featured the now long-defunct “Harlequinade”.


“Warne Pantomime, 1890” (Public Domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

The diarist William Hardman had his literary friend George Meredith, and Meredith’s son Arthur, to stay with him over the Christmas of 1862. They were to attend a Harlequinade at Drury Lane Theatre, and the little boy Arthur was “ardent for jolly Clown; a Pantaloon of the most aged, the most hapless [kind]; a brilliant Columbine; and a Harlequin with a wand on everyone’s bottom.” (Don’t ask me what the wand was all about!).

These were the four stock characters of the Harlequinade, often joined in chase scenes by an extra player in the form of a Policeman. Such plot-line as existed consisted of Harlequin romantically pursuing the fair Columbine, while her miserable old Dad, Pantaloon, tries to sabotage his efforts with the help of the unscrupulous Clown. The performance Hardman and his friends attended was on “Boxing Night”, 1862, when Drury Lane re-opened after a break under the new management of Edmund Falconer, who had reputedly spent a fortune on renovations to the theatre.

The boy Arthur was “in raptures” over the show, but Hardman was not. He writes, “…such a pandemonium I have rarely witnessed.” “The fights in pit and gallery were frequent. The shower of orange peel from the gods into the pit was quite astounding. The occupants of the latter place made feeble efforts to throw it back again, but, of course, never got it any further than the first tier of boxes. I was glad to see the thing once, but you won’t catch me there again.”

Victorian times were not as polite and decorous as some imagine, in fact public occasions could be coarse, violent and disorderly in ways that would be quite unacceptable today. I wish everyone a calm and peaceful New Year, without dispiriting showers of orange peel descending upon their heads.

The Groundsel Man

Keeping singing and fancy-birds was very popular in mid-Victorian London. People of all classes shared their front-parlours with caged live birds, such as canaries or linnets or bullfinches. They may also have kept stuffed specimens, perched on idealised undergrowth beneath glass domes. The better-off might have invested in a colourful cockatoo or parrot, or some more exotic breed, to decorate their living quarters and enliven their lives with its song. Fabulous paintings of rare birds, in their natural environments, were also much prized. But, as is the case with much respectable Victorian social phenomena, the matter was not without a darker underside.


“Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds”, by M.J. Heade, 1871, (Public Domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

Live birds could be seen, and bought from what were described as the prettiest young girl shop-assistants, at places like the Portland Bazaar on Langham Place, or the Pantheon Bazaar, a rather grand former theatre on Oxford Street (on the site now occupied by Marks & Spencer). The latter sold a variety of fancy goods of an ornamental character, and its aviary adjoined fountains and floral displays. The prosperous West-End dweller could venture further afield in search of desirable avian acquisitions, perhaps to the Sunday morning bird-market off Brick Lane in the East End. And there were many street-sellers of birds, bird-seed, and turf for lining the cages.

Henry Mayhew, the Victorian journalist and social campaigner, was a great observer of the street-traders of mid-Victorian London. In his classic social survey, London Labour and the London Poor, he interviewed and described a multitude of pitifully poor people who tried to grub a marginal living from hawking diverse wares in the open. There were those established costermongers who, sometimes profitably enough, sold the conventional fare of fruit, vegetables, and fish, usually from a barrow pulled by a donkey. But hordes of others took their chance by offering such goods as needles, spoons, matches, fly-papers, walking-sticks, wash-leathers, laces, nutmeg-graters, combs, dog-collars, umbrellas, and many more esoteric items.

Whilst some of these supposed trades were simple covers for beggary, Mayhew stresses that most participants were genuinely striving to make an honest living in this manner. One striking example is “The Groundsel Man”.

Groundsel Man 

This near-destitute individual was one of the many who went door-to-door with groundsel (which he calls “grunsell”), a yellow weed containing bird-seed found on waste ground. He also sold bird-feed in the form of chickweed, turf for dressing the cages, and nettles for ladies’ tea. Mayhew interviewed him in the wretched courtyard room off Saffron Hill (near where Dickens sited Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist) that he shared with his wife and their son and daughter. Appropriately enough, they had a stuffed linnet on the mantelpiece.

Although paralysed down his right side the man estimates that he shuffles a full fifteen miles daily (except Sunday), out from seven in the morning to five p.m. in all weathers, without pausing to eat. First he goes to fields outside London to harvest his stock-in-trade, and then he returns to town to offer it around well-to-do streets in the West End. Charging a half-penny a bunch, he makes at most a few shillings a week. Even still, “the ladies are very hard with a body. They tries to beat me down…”.

After rent, the family have about three shillings a week to live on. They seldom have meat, can afford only a pittance in fuel to keep the room warm, and those articles of apparel they are not wearing are in pawn, as is all their bedding. Mayhew quotes the man’s wife as saying, “We strive and do the best we can, and may as well be contented over it. I think it’s God’s will we should be as we are. Providence is kind to me, even badly off as we are. I know it’s for the best.”

Such extreme poverty is virtually unknown these days, and probably so is the degree of stoicism the groundsel man’s wife displays. If people still kept house-birds in large numbers, groundsel cultivated in special beds would no doubt be touted as the latest word in avian-food technology. No doubt organic varieties would be on the market, available in sealed packages for delivery by little vans from special shops. Perplexing days for a time-travelling groundsel man.

The Tattered Chandelier

Some years ago, before its restoration, I visited the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras on one of those Heritage Open Days that offer the public special access to buildings normally closed to them. At the time of my visit the roof and exterior of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Victorian gothic masterpiece had been restored and made weatherproof, after decades of abandonment, but the interior was still in a pretty rough state. Remembering this visit leads me to acknowledge a vice of mine which is perhaps shared by other historians, that is to say a fascination with decay and dereliction.


Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras. My photo taken, I think, from the Ladies’ Smoking Room window.

From the open day tour, I particularly remember seeing the sealed-up doors of the long-disused lifts (or “hydraulic ascending chambers”), which represented the latest technology when the hotel was built in the 1870s. And I took this photo of the Grand Coffee Room, which follows the curvature of the building, empty of all furniture and sporting gaping holes in its ceiling:


Compare this with the picture below of the coffee room in its heyday:


The main staircase is the hotel’s most magnificent feature, cantilevered to spiral up to left and right between each floor and meet again at the next one, as appears from my photo below:


Near the top of the stairwell tower hung the tattered remains of a chandelier:


Here is an clearer view of it, which I took with the light from the window behind me:


The above photo also highlights the wonderfully whimsical medieval-inspired original decoration. When it was erected, St Pancras station and its hotel represented the very height of railway age self-confidence. On the day of my visit our guide told us that, despite innovative features such as the lifts and ladies’ smoking room, the hotel’s lack of modern plumbing had already rendered it potentially obsolete at the time of its opening. Many of the accommodations were large suites, rather than individual rooms, and these lacked their own bathrooms. I read that it was closed in the 1930s and used as railway offices for some time until its eventual abandonment. It is well-known (though still beyond belief) that it was only just saved from demolition in a bygone age of architectural barbarity.

Scrolling through internet photos of the now fully restored, and renamed, “St Pancras Renaissance Hotel”, it looks to have been sumptuously refurbished with a splendour befitting its earlier incarnation. The unavoidable modernity of the furnishings appears well-matched to the original décor, and to retained original features such as the fireplaces and pillars and arched window-cases.

I would not turn someone away if they offered to pay the (no-doubt astronomical) tariff for me to spend a night (or two) there. I don’t think, however, that I’d find staying there, as it is now, as interesting as I found visiting it before the building was restored. This is because I could get a better sense of how it had first been from its dilapidated state, and a better evocation of that vanished grandeur.

Sambourne House

My cultured friend and I recently visited Sambourne House, a West London terraced home preserved pretty much as it was in the 1890s, complete with its original contents and furnishings. We have all trailed around aristocratic country mansions, but what is so rare (perhaps unique) about the preservation of Sambourne House is that it was the comparatively modest home of a middle class family, albeit a prosperous one. This gives the visitor a real sense of how it might have been to live there in past times, which is often hard to capture amid the overwhelming scale and grandeur of a stately home.

18 Stafford Terrace exterior. Creditline - 18 Stafford Terrace; Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.-1

 The exterior of Sambourne House – Courtesy of: 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Glazed fern cases, like the one attached to the ground floor bay window, used to be standard fittings, as did the large gas lamp above the front door with the house number on it. From pavement level little details stand out, such as the separate bell-pulls for trade and social callers, or the sign on the door that can be alternated to show that the master of the house is “in” or “out”.

The house’s occupants were Linley and Marion Sambourne (with the later addition of their children Maud, born 1875, and Roy, born 1878) who moved in upon their marriage in 1874. Linley was a cartoonist, illustrator, and photographer, whilst Marion was the eldest daughter of a stockbroker. From 1882 both kept diaries, so that the pleasure of exploring their house can be enhanced by reading about their daily lives there.

Marion and Linley Sambourne on Honeymoon in Rome 1874 (RefNo.ST.

 Linley (1844-1910) and Marion (1851-1914) Sambourne – Courtesy of: 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

On entering the hallway, one is immediately struck by how richly the house is fitted out. The back of the terrace is south-facing, and bright sunshine can be seen washing into the landing at the head of the first flight of stairs (see below). My cultured friend said that she would like to sit by the fish-tank on the landing and read in the afternoons if the house was hers (some hope!). Parts of the interior are unavoidably gloomy, due to the browning of old fabrics and old wallpaper (some by William Morris!) but this just adds to the authenticity. Little details are again to the fore, such as the case containing umpteen walking sticks.


The Hallway – Courtesy of: 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

The first door from the hall on the right (above) leads into the dining room, and the second into the morning room (which was Marion’s own preserve). Up the stairs the drawing room takes up almost the whole of the first floor, from the bay to the back windows. Stepping inside this room, it is clear that the notion of the cluttered Victorian interior is no myth. Little of the floor space, shelf space or wall space is exempted from supporting some class of object. Linley Sambourne worked at home, initially at the south end of the drawing room. In later years the attic was modified to create a purpose-built, and better-lit studio for him to use.

StudioDrawing Room Creditline - 18 Stafford Terrace; Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.-1Drawing Room Creditline - 18 Stafford Terrace; Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.-1 

The Studio – Courtesy of: 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Like Henry Mayhew, Arthur Munby and Hugh Shimmin, of whom I’ve written elsewhere in these pages, Linley Sambourne was an observer of his times. He differed from them in being an artist rather than a writer, but also in not sharing their preoccupation with the lower elements of society. For the bulk of his professional life, Sambourne drew cartoons for the humorous weekly magazine Punch. This has been out of publication for a few years now, and it is hard to imagine just how widely circulated and influential such a periodical was amongst the middle and upper classes in its heyday. Sambourne’s intricate and detailed weekly cartoons were keenly awaited, and his was a household name. In 1901, he succeeded Sir John Tenniel (author of the brilliant “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” illustrations) as “First Cartoon” at Punch.

After he discovered photography, Sambourne dragooned anyone and everyone who appeared at the house (including himself, his groom and the local beat-policeman) into costumes and funny poses to be snapped as models for his drawings. Later, as the technology of photography became more mobile, he amassed an archive of studies taken out and about in the streets, mostly of young women in everyday clothing (it seems that there was also an archive, taken indoors, picturing young women in less, or no clothing.)

As his subjects were mainly the politics, personalities and current affairs of his day, the thrust of Sambourne’s cartoons can be obscure to the modern reader. He was a satiric commentator, not a campaigner, observing the privileged echelons of society (of which he was a member). This is perhaps encapsulated by an early cartoon of his, often referred to as “The Peacock Dress” (see below). The pictured gent is probably leaning against the rail of Rotten Row, in Hyde Park, where society’s glitterati paraded on horseback in the summertime London social “season”.

Miss Swellington Takes A Walk (Drawing), 1867,(RefNo.18ST.2013.0524.52)

Miss Swellington Takes a Walk, 1867 – Courtesy of: 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Sambourne was an incorrigible bon viveur, and he died in 1910 from the cumulative effects of excess food, drink and tobacco. Their daughter Maud was a joy to her parents in many respects, marrying well, producing a brood of children, and being careful of her parents’ well-being. However, the verdict on their son Roy is not so rosy. It seems he suffered from profound mood swings and an unstable temperament. He found it hard to settle into anything. As a young man Roy was much in company with pretty actresses, to his parents’ disapproval, admiring them rather like the gent was doing in the cartoon above, looking at the girl in her peacock dress. Roy did not marry and lived on alone in the house until 1946, dying thirty-two years and two world wars after his mother had passed on in 1914. He made no alterations to the house over that period, and the walls of his bedroom remained adorned with portraits of the actresses he had known in his youth, each affectionately signed to his dedication (one is signed by “the babe”). This must have been rather poignant for a solitary individual, as he aged.

Roy's Room

Roy’s Room– Courtesy of: 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

So, in a way we have Roy’s loneliness and inertia to thank for the survival of the house in its original form. It passed to his sister Maud on his death, and she in turn wanted it to stay as it had been in her parents’ time. Her daughter Anne, Countess of Rosse, used it as a London pied-à-terre, and in 1958 founded “The Victorian Society” in the drawing room there. The house is now administered by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, whose diligence in maintaining this priceless relic, and facilitating access to it, is to be thoroughly applauded. It is very well worth a visit.

I am grateful to “A Victorian Household” (1988) by Shirley Nicholson for much of the factual information about the Sambourne family and house included above. Also to the guide in period costume who showed us around, and to the RBKC website on the subject.

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