Journals 10.5 – Loiterings in Europe by John Corson (Part 5)

This is the final part of my article on Corson’s journal.  For the previous parts please see the entries posted on 4th, 11th, 18th and 25th January 2016.


The Thames Tunnel, pictured in 1835.

For the next leg of his journey, Corson travelled through Germany and across the channel to England. His description of London gives a valuable insight into what it was really like to be in the capital during the mid-19th Century.

Passing constantly over the bridge where we are standing are a motley throng; vehicles of every kind; coalmen, with broad canvass hats, blackened faces, and linen frocks dyed with soot, and driving heavily-laden wagons, with broad tires, drawn by elephant horses in single file; stout servant girls; spruce clerks; splendid coaches, with footmen outside; old-clothes-men; red-faced market-women; portly gentlemen, with large noses and whiskers; children of all sizes; tall, civil policemen — the best in the world — with glazed crowns to their hats, and blue coats ornamented with white numbers; stately women, with fine complexions; foreigners, with moustaches, staring at the crowd like ourselves; and omnibuses, with the figure for sixpence and a noisy man behind. We begin to form an idea of the currents and eddies of human beings ever rushing through the streets of this vast capital. Detachments of the multitude on foot wheel round at the ends of the bridge, and embark from the different stairs on board the little iron steamers, like toy boats, plying incessantly on the Thames, and crowded worse than the streets. What curious river-craft of all sorts and sizes, are floating constantly backward and forward beneath?

In Journals 2 (link here) we looked at Garrett Winants’s experience of walking through the Thames Tunnel in the year 1867. Corson also visited the tunnel, which had only been completed three years before his visit, and was a remarkable experience for any visitor to the city. It now forms part of the London railway network.

Traversing narrow, indifferent streets, we inquire for the Thames Tunnel. We enter a door at last, and find ourselves going down a flight of circular stairs, in a round place, like an immense well. On reaching the bottom, we see, running under the Thames, two arched passages, resembling as nearly as possible a couple of neatly finished railroad tunnels, with very strong supports, and small spaces between them, descending to the middle of the river, and rising slightly toward the other side, and brilliantly lighted with gas. There are carriage roads in the centre of each and foot paths at the sides. Our voices echo strangely along the arches. A ship of the line may be sailing over us. What if the Thames should burst in, and quench our curiosity with a cold bath?

In Journals 4, Grant Thorburn visited London in 1833 and commented on how the Duke of Wellington was now forced to shut himself away behind iron shutters, after demonstrators angry at the Tory rejection of the Reform Bill had smashed the windows of Apsley House twice during 1831. His political career had been far from over at that point, and he had since then served as Foreign Secretary, and more recently Leader of the House of Lords. Here we encounter him again, being described by Corson while he was attending an event in Hyde Park. This was the year of his retirement from political life, all bar a couple of largely ceremonial roles, including Keeper of Hyde Park and St James Park in 1850.

We hasten back to London, take an omnibus, and come to an immense pleasure-ground, planted with trees, laid out in drives and walks, and having a fine sheet of water, the Serpentine River, in the centre. It is Hyde Park. There is a review of the troops going on at the lower end. We walk rapidly to the edge of the crowd. There are benches, boards, barrels, and temporary stands of every description, and rapidly as George III, in Peter Pindar, men, boys, and women call out to us “nice place, gentlemen” — “sixpence, only sixpence” — “this way” — “fine view, gentlemen” — “only sixpence.” We get upon a high rickety bench, so as to overlook the people in front. The soldiers are marching, wheeling, and firing in admirable order, and the tall Coldstream Guards are there. Luckily, we are close to the staff. That personage, to whom they are paying so much attention there, is a foreign prince, in honor of whom the review is given. The cheerful, contented-looking lady in the carriage, slightly below the medium height, with pleasant, though not handsome features, and moderately full, rounded form, is the queen. Mounted at the head of the staff, is a tall, slightly-stooped veteran, with gray locks and aquiline features, and by his side is a well-formed general-officer of about thirty years of age, with an agreeable German face. The former is the Duke of Wellington, and the latter is Prince Albert.

Corson had a closer brush with politics when he visited the Houses of Parliament, which was still in the process of being rebuilt after the fire of 1834. It would take until 1870 for the work to be finally completed.

Entering the gallery, we get a first glimpse of the splendors of their new hall, altogether the finest apartment, in conception and decoration, we may probably see in Europe. That great cushion affair yonder is the wool-sack, as it is termed, on which is seated the president or lord chancellor. On the left from us we notice a number of old men sitting in white dresses. They are the bench of bishops. Altogether, in its debates and every thing else, it is rather a quiet place. The members are generally aged, gentlemanly-looking men, with little pretension in their dress. Unlike the French peers, they wear no uniform. Lord Brougham has just thundered and sat down. That tall, pleasant speaker, somewhat advanced, is the Marquis of Lansdowne, the ministerial leader, making explanations. The nervous, keen, old gentlemen, in the white robe, that follows him, is the Bishop of Exeter. Several succeed. But there is to be a set battle in the House of Commons, and we will make the best of our way there. They have not yet got into their new hall, and we are crowded into a rather uncomfortable gallery. That sedate-looking gentleman, in a huge gray wig, presiding, is the speaker, and the curious affair, like a colossal sceptre, lying on the table in front of him, is the mace — the thing that Cromwell called a “bauble.” They are more careless-looking and noisy here than in the House of Lords. The stout old gentleman, fidgetting over some papers yonder, is the unconquerable and ever-plodding Joseph Hume, the useful man of economy and figures, and the greatest tease in the House. He has called the ministry to account to-night, by a grand motion condemning their policy in interfering with Portugal. The wiry-looking personage, in a blue frock-coat, below medium height, bald, with projecting eyebrows and restless features, not prepossessing, is the premier, Lord John Russell. Calmly reposing on one of the opposition benches, is a middle-aged gentleman, rather tall, with a broad chest and forehead, an intelligent and not unpleasant face, that our neighbor tells us is Sir Robert Peel.

Peel had only recently resigned as Prime Minister, in June 1846, following the defeat of his Irish Coercion Bill. This was a retaliatory act by his own party, who were no longer willing to support him after he pushed through the repeal of the Corn Laws with the help of his political opposition.

Corson travelled north to Scotland and then crossed the Irish Sea to Ireland. Setting out from the town of Arklow for a tour of the region, he described the ‘enchanting’ countryside.

Here the rivers Aughrim and Ovoca blend, and form what is termed the “second meeting of the waters.” … Here, too, meet in a common centre four lovely glens. The reflection of the silvery waters, the rich meadows and spreading trees, the lofty hills, fringed with woods of freshest foliage to the very top, like walls to the paradise below, formed the most pleasing earthly combination.

We feasted our eyes a while, and then ordered an Irish jaunting-car. This is a national vehicle. It is a raised platform, extending over a couple of wheels, and descending outside, so as partially to conceal them. This is shaped something like three steps of a pair of stairs, running lengthwise on each side, upon the middle one of which the passenger sits sideways, while the bottom step receives the feet. Above the highest step, in the middle of the vehicle, there is, running lengthwise, a little platform, eighteen inches wide, upon which the arms and back may partly rest, and it is usually covered with what the drivers term a courting cushion. They are often elegantly made and mounted on springs, and they are really light and very convenient affairs…

Passing the copper mines, and the hill sides covered with huge wheels and machinery, we made our exit from the Vale of Ovoca, and came to the little town of Rathdrum.

A few miles beyond I stopped to visit a little temporary shed where government rations were being distributed to the starving poor. At another place we went to examine some of their little mud cottages.

Ireland was in the grip of the Great Famine, and the response of Lord John Russell’s new administration was proving relatively inadequate. It did not help that the man in charge of administering the relief was Charles Trevelyan, who set about limiting food aid in the belief that the famine was some kind of divine judgement and an effective way to reduce the “surplus population” (note: this was three years after the publication of A Christmas Carol, not before, for anyone thinking about any parallels there…)

Crossing back to Liverpool, Corson’s tour of Europe was finally at an end, as he embarked on a new iron steamer, making its first voyage to New York.

It was the first and last Sabbath of the voyage. The day was beautiful, and yet lonely. At length the coast of Ireland lay like a blue cloud in the distance. Save a faint ripple, now and then, the sea was calm as a woodland lake. An awning was stretched over the deck, under which mattresses were spread for the sick. All uncovered, and the captain effectively and earnestly read the Episcopal service.

I had listened to that sweetly solemn ritual in many a Gothic pile, raised by human hands, and varied by many a chanted strain, but it had never appealed so to the better feelings, as when its responses were breathed beneath the vaulted sky, and mingled with the murmur of the yielding waters; and with the emotions they inspired we caught a parting glimpse of land, and steered on the pathless sea toward the setting sun.

I will be looking at another old travel journal shortly.  You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the “follow” button on the right of the screen.  Thanks for reading, and I welcome comments and suggestions.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, Britain, England, History, Journals, Politics, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s