This is the second part of my article on Grant Thorburn’s journal. For the first part please see the earlier entry from 1st July 2015.
On 9th October 1833, Grant Thorburn departed from New York in the ship George Washington. One of the other passengers on the ship was a dying man who wanted to end his days on his native soil of Ireland. Sadly, he never made it home, and died after six days at sea. A reverend on board conducted a funeral ceremony and the body was committed to the deep. This was a moment that troubled Thorburn, who felt that a burial on land ‘seems like cancelling a debt of nature,’ but a burial at sea ‘is something revolting to the feelings’. The ship docked in Liverpool at the beginning of November, and Thorburn’s first impressions were not good.
In the streets of Liverpool to-day I saw two well-dressed women, having an organ fastened on a small four-wheeled waggon. They were dragging it through one of the principal streets – at every corner they would stop, and one would sing while the other played the organ – passengers would throw them a few cents. I wondered that the magistrates, who had mothers, wives, and daughters, would allow so public a degradation of the sex.
Buskers and beggars troubled Thorburn throughout his tour, but he also found the culture of tipping every bit as annoying. Tipping had been commonplace in Britain since the Middle Ages, with probable origins in a sort of protection racket system to stop beggars from attacking, before evolving in a display of wealth – basically showing off. However, the practice of giving tips really did not exist in America in Thorburn’s times. Ironically, it was travellers such as Thorburn, but more sympathetic to the practice, who brought tipping back home to America, where it gradually took hold as part of American culture later in the 19th Century.
In the hotels, besides paying your bill at the bar, you are called on by – sir, remember the waiter, -sir, remember the chambermaid; and also by a slovenly looking fellow whom they call boots. In the stage, perhaps you are drove from London to Coventry, or any other direction, to a distance of fifty miles. There you change the driver and guard, when you are again subjected to the same beggarly impositions – sir, I have drove from London – sir, I have guarded you from London. You may give as much as you please, but not less than one shilling to each. In fifty miles more the same beggarly farce is acted over again. Between London and Liverpool, 200 miles, I paid twelve shillings sterling to guards and drivers, besides three sovereigns stage fare. Indeed I could travel 200 miles in America, just for the money I paid to guards and coach drivers in going from London to Liverpool; and you can’t get clear of this imposition. To be sure you are not compelled by civil law, but if you don’t submit to this law of the road, ten to one but your trunk would disappear before you where half through your journey. They will swell, puff, and blow about their English pride, their independent spirits, and all such blustering stuff, but in all and every thing connected with travelling concerns, it is a complete system of organized beggary, from the contractor down to the lowest boot cleaner.
Thorburn was not just annoyed by the cost of tipping, but also the inconvenience of carrying around a pocket full of change.
Arriving in London, his appreciation of the wonders of the city was marred by the poverty on display, a common sentiment expressed by visitors to Britain in the 19th Century. He was particularly troubled by the working women who, although ‘dressed neat and clean’, could be seen ‘trundelling wheelbarrows in the middle of the streets, seemingly carrying home or taking clothes to be washed.’
I also saw a woman on the highway breaking stones to Macadamize the road. On another occasion I saw a woman having a young child buckled on her back. She was driving a one horse cart laden with coals, going up a steep part of the road, and the load being rather heavy for the horse, she took hold of the wheel and helped it.
Thorburn considered America ‘at least half a century ahead of these London folks’. Perhaps with a keen eye for things to disapprove of, Thorburn complained of the unchivalrous nature of men in London. During a church service he noticed a ‘black whiskered dandy’ occupying a pew by the door.
A genteel young lady came to the pew; but, instead of opening the door and giving her the place which common decency and common sense assigned as her’s, he shoved his own ugly carcass ahead, and let her sit next to the door.
Women fared little better, according to Thorburn, in the world of theatre. He enjoyed a performance of Richard III at Covent Garden, but after the play ‘a company of young women came out to dance.’
I was perfectly satisfied that the theatre is no school for morality. I expressed my astonishment to a friend beside me; he said that was modesty itself, compared to what he had seen on some occasions.
There were also performances to be enjoyed on the streets of London, such as a juggler Thorburn saw one evening in Regent Street, ‘throwing balls high in the air, and receiving them on the point of a stick as they came down’. Thorburn did not approve: ‘I wondered how their police tolerated such a breach of decorum in so public a place.’ Another target of Thorburn’s criticism were those who exhibited their wealth too ostentatiously and lived an intemperate and gluttonous life.
Every where there is the greatest appearance of plenty. I met in company, the other day, a real John Bull; he sat puffing and blowing with corpulence. His very eyes stood out with fatness, as if ready to start from their sockets; in short, he was a real Falstaff. There he sat grumbling about taxes, tithes, poor rates, etc. We had picked an acquaintance and could make free. Says I, my friend, you look, at any rate, as if you got your allowance. He and his friends had a hearty laugh, which ended the political lecture.
One might assume at this point that Thorburn’s book consists of little other than criticism from beginning to end, but that is very far from the truth. In fact, he saw much that compared favourably with America, and was genuinely delighted by the extent of charitable work in the country. In London he was impressed with education funded by charities and churches. He was informed that 16,000 children per year were progressing from free schools to universities, with an additional 40,000 ‘picked from the streets and their feet led into the house of prayer.’
Here then is 56,000 children, who otherwise might be prowling about the streets and learning the road to the gallows, snatched, as it were, from destruction by these friends of Christianity, and their feet directed into the ways of peace.
Later in his journal he singled out the town of Sterling for similar praise, where he reported that ‘every twelfth person in Sterling receives charity’, and compared the town to ‘a vast alms-house’.
Thorburn also praised the ability of the police in London to keep order, especially as he observed that the city was every bit as busy at midnight as in the middle of the day. Policing at the time in the city was divided into day and night watches, each under the responsibility of a different sheriff, but just five years after Thorburn’s visit this would all change with the passing of the City of London Police Act 1839. The wider area of London as a whole was the responsibility of the Metropolitan Police, established five years before Thorburn’s visit, in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel (hence the nicknames ‘peelers’ and ‘bobbies’). Thorburn found that the police were happy to go out of their way to help a tourist.
The policemen, who are stationed in every street by night and by day, are a most useful body of men. They are dressed in blue uniform; each man is marked on the collar of his coat with the letter of his division – they are furnished with a rattle, a cutlass and a short staff. I found them, and indeed every person of whom I made inquiries, to be very polite and obliging. I frequently have been accompanied by one of them for nearly a quarter of a mile to show me the street I wanted.
Thorburn enjoyed wandering around the city at night and felt quite safe due to the presence of the police in the city. He found the city atmospheric in the dark, when the smog and the gaslights lent the city a different sort of character.
I was in London a good part of the winter, when the lamps were lit at 3pm, and frequently kept burning till 8 o’clock next morning, so thick and so smoky is the atmosphere, and so long and so dark are the nights; (by-the-by, I thought the town looked to more advantage at night than it did by day, the shops and lamps sent forth such a profusion of gas-light, that the people seemed animated with new life, and the shops showed off to more advantage.)
The shops impressed Thorburn, particularly in Regent Street, although in his characteristically practical way he was more interested in the construction of the shop windows themselves than the merchandise displayed behind them.
Here many of the bow windows are glazed with panes 24 by 36 inches, 30 by 45, etc. There is a fur shop having a window on each side of the door, the centre pane in each window measuring nine feet by five. I passed this shop frequently in daylight, but it was filled with customers. Passing one evening, when it was brilliantly lighted, and seeing only the master and his clerks within, I entered. Says I, “sir, you will please excuse me; but, if you have no objection, I would be glad to know the size, quality and price of those large panes in your windows.” As he had placed them there to draw attention, he seemed not displeased with my freedom, handed me a chair, and politely answered my questions. “The size, 9 feet by 5, cost 50 guineas each pane, made of the best double flint glass, nearly half an inch thick, and has stood there nine years.” The glass is so pure of itself, and kept so clean, that at night I laid my hand on it to ascertain if it had not been removed.
Although they are something we take for granted today, it is actually not surprising that Thorburn thought large panes of glass worthy of investigation and comment, as Britain was ahead of America in that respect. Louis Lucas de Nehou’s invention of producing sheet glass had not been adopted in Britain until the late 18th Century, and was not industrialised until the early 19th, so it was very much a new phenomenon outside of France. Less than 20 years after Thorburn’s visit, the building of the Crystal Palace showed just what wonders could be achieved with glass.
Next on the agenda for Thorburn was an investigation into the world of politics, but we will take a look at that in the third part of this article, in a few days. Don’t forget to follow the blog if you would like to receive email notifications when a new entry is posted. There is a new article at least every other day on Windows into History!