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.

The Phoenix Works

I recently visited the refurbished York Art Gallery, with my cultured friend, to see the exhibition, “British Art of the First World War”. It’s a very impressive display, with many large-scale, and strikingly evocative paintings. The kind of images generally associated with the war on the Western Front feature strongly. We can all envision the muddy trenches, the shell-blasted landscapes, the branchless, shattered tree-trunks, and the dispirited, broken soldiery. But there are other, less familiar, depictions of the conflict on view in the exhibition.


We Are Making a New World, 1918, by Paul Nash, collection of the Imperial War Museum, London, IWM Art 1146

The above work, with its ironic title (“We are making a new world”) and its new-day sun rising over a scene of total desolation, epitomises how we have come to picture the war. But my attention was most powerfully drawn to a painting of women war-workers taking a canteen break at the Phoenix Dynamo Manufacturing Co factory at Thornbury in Bradford.


Women’s Canteen at Phoenix Works, Bradford, 1918, by Flora Lion, collection of the Imperial War Museum, London, IWM Art 4434

The women pictured are clearly tired, but a strong sense of purposefulness and solidarity shines through all the same. Painted by a female artist, the depiction points the way to a new world that was in the process of being created. The women represented would have been doing the sort of industrial jobs that, before the war, would have been an exclusively male preserve. In wartime, women filled men’s places in all sorts of home-front occupations they were not previously thought capable of, or were not thought suitable for them. As a result of this massive contribution they won (partially) the parliamentary vote in 1918. The prospect also dawned of their entrée into broader walks of life than housekeeping, and into higher occupations than the ones of drudgery and servitude that had hitherto been the norm. Even the most atrocious events are not always without beneficial consequences.

The People’s Cafe

I am not the first idler on his way into the Adelphi pub to notice that Leeds Bridge House bears a striking resemblance to the (rather more famous!) Flatiron Building in New York City, albeit on a more modest scale. Both are wedge-shaped and built in pleasingly Italianate styles on triangular corner sites between busy thoroughfares. The Leeds version is Grade II listed and was completed in 1881, preceding the arrival of its sky-scraping Manhattan counterpart by twenty years. Perhaps the latter’s American architect, Daniel Burnham, paid a covert visit to Yorkshire in search of some old-world inspiration? Perhaps not, but there is an interesting tale to tell about the early years of Leeds Bridge House as a landmark of Victorian moral paternalism.


 I am grateful to Jon Howe and Jeffrey Zeldman for this composite image

The site for the building, bounded by Hunslet Road, Hunslet Lane and Waterloo Street, was acquired from Leeds Corporation by local banker John James Cousins on 6th October 1879. It was one lot in a general sale by auction of development land south of Leeds Bridge, and it cost him £1,338. Cousins, who lived at Allerton Park, north of the city, was manager of the Exchange and Discount bank on Park Row, and he hired architects Messrs. Adams & Kelly, also of Park Row, to design a building to fit the unusual shape of the plot. The conveyance to Cousins stipulated that the construction was to be at least forty feet in height, and the site invited something out of the ordinary since it is in the centre of one’s eye-line at the south end of Leeds Bridge.

In his inaugural address to the Leeds Architectural Society in 1881, its president, Mr J.B. Fraser F.R.I.B.A., welcomed the result as “a noteworthy and handsome addition to our public buildings, and very creditable to the architects”. He mentioned it in the context of “the increasing demand for better provision for the bodily comfort and for the improvement of the mental and moral status of the poorer classes.” This is because Cousins conceived the building as a so-called “People’s Café”.

The People’s Café movement, now apparently forgotten, was formed in 1874 “to establish places of resort and recreation for working men, conducted on temperance principles, but sufficiently attractive to compete with the beershop and the gin-palace.” Its promoters included the great nineteenth century Tory social reformer, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, prominent church temperance campaigner Canon Ellison, and hard-line Victorian self-help moralist Sir Charles Trevelyan. The idea was that financial support would be given to suitable men to start such businesses, who would then be left to manage them on a commercial, but strictly temperance basis.

The Leeds “People’s Café” was announced open by an advertisement in the Yorkshire Post of 3rd September 1881, where it was stressed that its “Breakfasts, Diners, Teas and Suppers of the best quality are supplied at prices within the reach of everyone.” It also offered overnight accommodation in the shape of thirty “excellent bedrooms from 4s per week, or 1s per night,” and “Hot and Cold Private Baths, 3d”. The initial manager was a Mr C. Dilly, who had given way by 1886 to a Mr J. Walker.

An impression of their character and facilities comes from a description of a People’s Café newly opened in May 1875 at Whitechapel in London’s East End (this was the second such establishment, the first being in London’s Whitecross Street): “It is bright and cheerful within, and well ventilated. On the ground floor is a good-sized coffee-room, well supplied with little marble-top tables, and upstairs are a reading-room, where also is to be collected a small library, a room where chess, draughts, dominoes, and the like may be played; a room for billiards and also for bagatelle.” It was anticipated that the basement of the Whitechapel café would become an American bowling alley.

The scheme’s initial promoters were sure that people would flock “to make use of such places when the places are ready for them”, but the fortunes of the Leeds establishment suggest otherwise. The Leeds Mercury of 26th September 1888 reported that (after only seven years of trading) the business’s name had been altered to the “Cobden Temperance Hotel”. Taken over by the St James’s Hall Committee and “fitted up” on the same plan as the St James’s Hall (presumably the concert hall in the West End of London), it seems that the premises had, in modern parlance, been “rebranded”.

These new promoters were reported as expecting it to “prove an equally successful venture” as the St James’s Hall itself, and its reopening was graced with a recital of songs by the Temperance Choral Society performed to an assembly of worthies including the manager of St James’s Hall, Mr A. E. Brayshaw. But such high hopes were soon dashed. By June 1895, the ground floor had been converted into shops and the upper stories had fallen into disuse. Cousins died on 1st December 1897, when the main body of the building was still unoccupied. So it remained in November 1901, when his executors sold it to Nelson & Co Ltd (tea merchants of Louth in Lincolnshire). But the cycle of failure persisted, as that company was put into liquidation by creditors’ petition on 7th February 1905.

Thereafter the building was given over to commercial or office use, and eventually dereliction when it narrowly escaped demolition. It has never been returned to the hospitality trade, with or without an alcohol licence. Most likely it was simply built in the wrong place to serve a significant temperance market. Jackson’s city guide of 1889 describes what it quaintly calls “transpontine Leeds” (that is to say the working class suburbs of Hunslet and Holbeck stretching south from Leeds bridge) as “not famous for many of the charms which attract the eye of the beholder…now one vastness of toiling humanity”. Perhaps the citizenry south of the river did not care to be patronised by a dry venue aiming at their moral improvement, when there were any number of wet pubs close at hand.

And however cultured the later Cobden Temperance Hotel may have been, abstaining visitors would surely have preferred to stay at one of several more convenient temperance hotels in the city centre (over twenty are listed as trading there in the eighteen-nineties) rather than venturing into a noisy, dirty and probably rough part of town. Nowadays there is virtually no sign of its initial incarnation inside, apart from a dumb-waiter shaft which runs the full height of the building, presumably from what was originally a basement kitchen, with service hatches on each of its five floors. It is currently tenanted by charitable organisations, so in a way the place has returned to its philanthropic roots.  

Sources & Acknowledgments:

Revised Listed Buildings, City of Leeds, Vol. 2 (The entry for Leeds Bridge House wrongly gives its time of construction as c.1875); West Yorkshire Architects and Architecture, Derek Linstrum, 1978, pp. 370, 379; Leeds The Architectural Heritage, G. Sheeran & I. Beesley, 1993, pp. 40-1; Kelly’s, Post Office and Robinson’s Leeds Street Directories; The Builder, 1874 pp. 225-6, 1875 p. 472, 1881 pp. 676-7; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury for the dates appearing in the text; Jackson’s Guide to Leeds, 1889, p. 207.

I am grateful to the current owner of Leeds Bridge House for giving me sight of the title deeds and for showing me around the building; I am also grateful to the staff at Leeds Central Library Local and Family History Services for their willing help.

My Beloved Silvestra

I recently blogged about Herman Melville’s character “Bartleby the Scrivener” as being one of Gothic horror. Having re-read Thomas Mann’s short story, “Mario and the Magician”, I find his portrayal of Cipolla the Conjurer similarly unsettling, and I think it is a tale that carries as vital a message for today as it did in 1929 when it was written.


Harry Kellar was an American magician of the late 19th and 20th centuries, whose devices perhaps bore some resemblance to those of the fictional Cipolla. (Public domain via Wikimedia.)

In Mann’s story, the German narrator and his wife and children are taking a summer holiday at a seaside resort on the Tyrrhenian Sea in Southern Italy. The sun is shining and they should be having a swimmingly good time, but it is the era of Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy and a sense of intangible menace is abroad.

The story begins: “The atmosphere of Torre di Venere remains unpleasant in the memory. From the first moment the air of the place made us uneasy, we felt irritable, on edge; then at the end came the shocking business of Cipolla, that dreadful being who seemed to incorporate, in so fateful and so humanly impressive a way, all the peculiar evilness of the situation as a whole.”

From the start of their stay, small disagreeable incidents multiply so as to enhance their uneasiness. They are treated with such snobbish disregard at the Grand Hotel, in the face of an aristocratic lady’s unjust complaint against them, that they feel obliged to move elsewhere. Their eight-year-old daughter’s fleeting, but innocent, nudity on the beach earns them a public denunciation from a bowler-hatted busybody, who accuses them of insulting the honour of Italy, and they receive a fine from the town authorities for this apparently unconscionable offence.   

Then posters announce the forthcoming performance in town of a magician, “Cavaliere Cipolla”, and the narrator’s children pester him into making a family night-out of it. On the advertised evening the hall is packed, and the performer keeps his audience waiting for an inordinate time before taking to the stage.

When he does appear they see, “A man of age hard to determine, but by no means young; with a sharp, ravaged face, piercing eyes, compressed lips, small black waxed moustache, and a so-called imperial in the curve between mouth and chin.”  He is dressed “with a sort of complicated evening elegance,” and he turns back his cape to reveal “a riding-whip with a silver claw-handle” hanging by a leather thong from his left forearm. On removing his hat and outer garments he is revealed as ugly and deformed.

There is a taste of how matters will develop as Cipolla opens by humiliating a heckler, making him stick out his tongue against his will. When the young man challenges him again later, he forces him to double up as if in colic pain. But the first half of the performance largely consists of the familiar “magician’s” fare, such as tricks with cards, numbers and objects, whereby he correctly guesses things he apparently has no way of knowing. The conjuror’s elaborate patter, delivered in a “wheezing, metallic voice”, is taunting and suggestive throughout, and the way he works the audience is insidiously controlling. He makes jokes, but they are often designed to achieve a targeted individual’s humiliation, and he is careful to only treat lower class spectators in such a degrading way. He is personally boastful, and evinces a bombastic patriotism.

Yet despite the underlying reserve, and antipathy, towards the performer that the narrator senses, “the curiosity of the entire audience was unbounded and universal, everybody both enjoyed the amusing character of the entertainment and unanimously conceded the professional skill of the performer.”

As the evening lengthens the narrator and his wife realise belatedly that the spectacle is unsuitable for their children, but find themselves somehow unable to break away. They rationalise their inertia on the ground that leaving would spoil the children’s evident enjoyment. By the time the intermission comes it is already after eleven p.m. and the children are nodding off, but still they stay.

On his reappearance (after a further tantalising delay), the magician discards the surrounding artifice of trickery and nakedly reveals that his real business is bending others to his will thorough hypnotic suggestion: “An elderly lady in a cane-seated chair was lulled by Cipolla into the delusion that she was on a visit to India and gave a voluble account of her adventures by land and sea.” “A tall, well-built, soldierly man”, is unable to lift his arm, despite his strenuous efforts to do so, after being told by Cipolla that he cannot. A lady with an “ethereal lack of resistance to his power” is encouraged to join him on stage, and she follows his beckoning finger even while her distraught husband implores her to return to her place by calling her name. People are made to dance, “in a kind of complacent ecstasy, eyes closed, head nodding, lank limbs flying in all directions.” Each command is accompanied by a swish of Cipolla’s claw-handled riding-whip.

Events turn ever uglier, and it is well after midnight when they move to a ghastly climax. The children are awake to see a favourite waiter of theirs from a local restaurant, named Mario, be enticed alone up to the stage. The magician interrogates the simple-natured youth insinuatingly, seeking to extract titillating details of his personal life. He prizes out the fact that Mario loves a girl called Silvestra, but that he is unsure of her feelings for him. He plays on Mario’s uncertainties, suggesting that his beloved Silvestra might like to cavort with rougher types than himself. At last he persuades the hapless waiter that he himself is Silvestra. “It is time that you see me and recognise me, Mario, my beloved!” Cipolla entreats his victim, “Kiss me…Trust me, I love thee.” Mario leans down and kisses his tormentor, but then recoils horribly at the act.

I’ll leave you to find out how it ends, if you’re so-minded. The story is, of course, an allegory of the rise of fascism which Mann had witnessed in Italy and which was to be writ larger in his German homeland. But it’s a timeless tale in that there will always be proselytisers of wicked creeds who seek to hypnotise others into false beliefs. Mann emphasised the importance of the crowd-pressure that fascism relied upon in deconstructing individual will. But nowadays you don’t even need to leave your bedroom to be deceived by internet ideologues into believing that they are your beloved Silvestra.      

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 shattered 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.

Bartleby the Apparition

Certain figures from nineteenth century gothic horror fiction are still very much part of mainstream culture. One thinks of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula the vampire, and Doctor Jekyll’s murderous alter-ego Mr Hyde. Less well-known, but more unsettling in my opinion, is the figure of “Bartleby the Scrivener” from a short story of that name by Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick) first published in 1853. Bartleby is ostensibly a bland, passive character, who could not be further removed from the nightmarish creations I have mentioned. But, to me, he is scarier than any of them.

Melville’s story is narrated by a successful, elderly lawyer who has his business chambers on the second floor of a Wall Street office building in New York City. In the days before photocopying and digital technology, lawyers had to employ droves of law-copyists, known as “scriveners”, to laboriously transcribe duplicates of legal documents by hand. It is hard to imagine a more monotonous and soul-destroying occupation. At the beginning of his story the narrator already has two scriveners in his service, but needs a third to cope with an expected influx of new work:

“In answer to my advertisement,” the narrator relates, “a motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold…I can see that figure now – pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.” If Bartleby has a first name we never learn what it is, and, despite knowing nothing whatever of him beyond his having the appropriate qualifications, the narrator engages him straightway.

Book Seller2

Everything is fine at first, since Bartleby works quickly and efficiently by daylight and candlelight (“he seemed to gorge himself on my documents”), the only cause for unease being that he does so “silently, palely, mechanically”. But when the narrator asks him to help in examining copies against each other, a routine exercise for a scrivener, Bartleby simply says “I would prefer not to.” He does not refuse in any insolent or confrontational manner but “in a singularly mild, firm voice…”. “His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him.” Although disconcerted by this, Bartleby’s blank passivity somehow disarms the narrator.

The scrivener will not be shifted from his refusal and the narrator gradually notices that he never leaves the office, indeed when asked to go out on an errand he replies “I would prefer not to.” Needing to call in there one Sunday morning, the narrator finds that he cannot get his key into the lock because there is a one already lodged there from the inside. The door is at last opened from within “and thrusting his lean visage at me, and holding the door ajar, the apparition of Bartleby appeared, in his shirt sleeves, and otherwise in a strangely tattered dishabille, saying quietly that he was sorry, but that he was deeply engaged just then, and – preferred not admitting me at present.”

Bartleby is plainly living at the office, and the narrator finds himself deeply affected by his employee’s apparent loneliness and desolation: “For the first time in my life a feeling of over-powering stinging melancholy seized me.” “What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.”

An attempt by his employer to elicit some basic facts from Bartleby concerning his previous life and present circumstances receives the inevitable reply, “I would prefer not to”. Soon he stops copying (“I would prefer not to”) and declines to do any work at all. Increasingly, he does no more than stand looking out of a window which is faced by the blank wall of another building only ten feet distant, in a pose the narrator refers to as his “dead-wall revery”. The narrator tries to dismiss him but he will not go, even when offered monetary incentives. All efforts to persuade and reason with him, and tempt him, are met with his standard anodyne rebuff: “I would prefer not to”.

At length the narrator, his other employees, and his clients and business associates grow so unnerved by the baleful and inert presence that the situation becomes intolerable. But still the narrator cannot bring himself to have Bartleby coerced in any way. Instead, he actually moves office and leaves the scrivener in sole occupation of his now empty former premises.

Eventually Bartleby declines to go on living altogether, so he stops eating and passes away. But in a coda to the story, the narrator hears a rumour that the scrivener had previously been employed at the “dead letter” office in Washington. This was where letters that could not be delivered due to their being hopelessly addressed ended up. There, they were opened, and then burned if no return address could be located inside. Anything valuable within would be auctioned off. “Dead letters!” the narrator observes, “does it not sound like dead men?”


Having reread the story recently, I turned to the editor’s (Harold Beaver) introduction to my volume of Melville’s work to find out what it’s supposed to mean. Apparently it comes out of Melville’s own experience as a writer: “…it becomes a parable of all writers in a financial society who refuse to write on demand or to compromise…”. Alternatively, the editor says, it’s a religious parable, with the narrator eventually betraying the Christ-like purity of Bartleby by forsaking him.

But, echoing Bartleby, I prefer not to accept such convoluted abstractions. To me, it’s about a haunting. I read somewhere that all ghost stories are grief stories, and I fancy that Bartleby represents some elemental human grief being visited upon the complacent narrator. As the story ends: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

The illustrations are “The Book Auctioneer” from Mayhew’s “London Labour and the London Poor” (which looks like my idea of Bartleby) and “The dead letter office at Washington”. I read “Bartleby” in “Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, And Other Stories” ed. Harold Beaver

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.

We Come From Where?

Researching family history through the written record can only get you so far, and the results may contain hidden defects. In my family, we have long puzzled over the presence, on my father’s side, of persons with an unusually brown skin for a lineage rooted as far back as we can trace it in South-West Lancashire and Liverpool. Since I have this brown gene myself, I recently took a genetic test in the hope of pinpointing its origin.

I investigated the several genetic testing packages available, and settled upon one called “Ancestral Origins” which seemed the most scientific-sounding (don’t ask me to explain their methodology!) . I ordered their testing kit, followed its instructions for rolling swabs around in my mouth to collect cell samples, and duly returned the resultant material. A few weeks later I received their promised colour-coded map of the world showing my ancestral background, which they determined by comparing my genetic profile with databases of numerous populations throughout the world.

A yellow swathe across the British Isles, Scandinavia and Northern Europe generally showed my genes to be a “good match” for this region, as one would expect. But it was Mediterranean Southern Europe that was coloured green for the “best match”, with the strongest links being to South Italy, Greece and the Adriatic coast in the eastern Mediterranean. All the other continents were coloured red for “no match”, except for North America and Australia where Europeans took their genes by emigration.

So there, it seemed, we had our answer. My sister, whose colouring is similar to mine, said she always thought she was Southern European since she is so fond of an afternoon siesta. Perhaps some of our ancestors looked like this:


 Vraka Corfu Greek Costume

That seemed to be that, until my mother decided to take the Ancestral Origins test on her own account. Her immediate family background is in Liverpool and on the Wirral, though preceding generations hail from several different parts of England. She is not even slightly brown, and we assumed that the Southern European side of things could not apply to her. We were, therefore, much surprised when her ancestral background map arrived with the best matches again being concentrated in Mediterranean South-Eastern Europe.

It is hard to know what to make of this. Perhaps these genes go back much further, possibly introduced by legionnaires from the Mediterranean, garrisoned here at the time of the Roman Empire? In any event, the exercise maybe serves to underline the folly of racial stereotyping: our deep genetic heritages are obviously much more mixed than we suspect.