Journals 13.2 – Reminiscences of an Idler (Part 2)

This is the continuation of my article on Henry Wikoff’s journal. For the previous part, please see the entry posted on 7th March 2016.

Derby Day

Derby Day, as painted by William Powell Frith in 1858.

Wikoff’s first exploration of London was an eye-opener for him, with everything on such a grand scale. He described the city as ‘Broobdignagian’, an adjective referring to the land of giants in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.

More bewildering still was the steady oceanic flow of its vast population — the pavements covered with pedestrians, and the roadways filled with ceaseless traffic the livelong day. In this prodigious conflux, this swarming mass of humanity, I dwindled down to the merest pigmy. Let no local magnate, with an immense sense of his self-importance, come to London. The discovery of his insignificance might be fatal…

Comfort, not show — repugnant to English taste — was a leading characteristic. For comfort, the pavements were level as floors, the streets macadamised, the sewage perfect, the gas-lamps thick as stars, penetrating every nook, the police vigilant and civil. For comfort, parks of hundreds of acres, for driving and riding, were enclosed, besides spacious squares with trees and flowers — bright fragrant oases in the wilderness of houses.

Gas lighting was a relatively new technology, with London leading the way. Parliament granted a charter to the world’s first gas company in 1812, but nowhere outside of London had any gas lighting until 1816. Macadamised streets were an even newer technology. Wikoff’s praise of the sewerage system is surprising, as at this stage it was still carried in open drains, until the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858 inspired the creation of the modern-day underground sewers. The ‘vigilant and civil’ Metropolitan Police were the newest innovation of all, founded by Robert Peel in 1829 (hence the nicknames ‘bobbies’ and ‘peelers’).

Although the thriving and busy city interested Wikoff, what he really wanted was to infiltrate the society of the rich and powerful, and a good place to start was by observing them at play, at the theatre. He was initially shocked by what he saw. Taking a keen interest in the society ladies, he was able to see a bit more of them than he was expecting!

In spite of the opera, the ballet, and all the grand people, my attention was concentrated on a feature of the occasion that was new, and affected my nerves terribly. I refer to the décolletée condition of the female part of the audience. All of them, and of all ranks, who had anything to boast of, made a revelation, not merely of arms and shoulders, but of their busts, that was quite appalling to one ‘not a native here, and to the manner born.’ I had seen nothing like it in my travels, for French and Italian women, though considered lax by the English, recoiled from any similar parade of their charms. What a strange inconsistency!

The Britons, men and women, are unquestionably a moral people, and decorous in all things to a nice degree; but in society the ladies make an exposé of their persons absolutely thrilling to a stranger. They are, it is true, magnificent creatures — a roundness and fulness of form, commanding height, and beauty of complexion quite unmatched. Their fair white skin was dazzling after the sallow cuticle of the French. Yet, for all that, I could not comprehend the startling usage of unmasking their loveliness to the extent I witnessed on my advent at the Opera and a thousand times after. Instead of sober England, I almost doubted if I was in a Christian land, but wandering rather in the Oriental clime of the voluptuous infidel. I looked around, perplexed at the impassibility of the men, who seemed unconscious of the formidable batteries their eyes must have encountered every moment, whilst I was in a state of perturbation hard to conceal.

Accustomed to the prudery of my native town, where a nude statue flushed the cheek of innocence, and where the unadorned nymphs of a Rubens or a Titian would have been stigmatised as indecent, I considered the spectacle not only novel, but indelicate. Truly nations have their anomalies, as individuals, that confound philosophy and defy solution.

Another opportunity to see society in action was the Derby Day at Epsom. As Wikoff observed, “Englishmen are by nature business animals”, but special occasions such as this drew them away from their workplaces.

I thought the chance of seeing John Bull in a moment of abandon was too good to lose; so Williams and I with no small difficulty obtained a carriage, and joined the huge current flowing steadily to Epsom the morning of the Derby-day. In proof of the estimation in which the sport was held, Parliament annually adjourned, and most of the members of both Houses wended their way to the famous downs.

“John Bull” was a popular nickname for the English, akin to “Uncle Sam” for Americans. Although it has fallen out of usage nowadays, it was an extremely common expression during the 19th Century, something that I have seen used in many journals.

After making a circuit of the shows, Punch and Judy included, my attention was attracted to a game that I observed was going on all over the ground, which consisted simply of several thimbles, on a small table, concealing a pea, which the operator moved about from one thimble to another with great dexterity, and invited the spectators to bet on its hiding-place. Some indicated it and won, while others lost. This was new to Williams and myself, and, after inspecting it closely, we began to bet. To our surprise, neither of us could ever trace the vagrant pea; and, after I had lost two or three pounds, I desisted in despair. Williams, however, got so excited over it that, after losing all the money about him, he proposed to stake his watch, which happily I prevented. In relating our adventure to some friends we met, they told us, laughing, we had been the dupes of ‘thimbleriggers,’ who adroitly extracted the pea from the thimble bet upon with some adhesive matter on their fingers.

‘But how was it,’ we asked, ‘ that many persons won almost invariably?’

‘They were simply confederates, acting as decoy ducks,’ was the reply, ‘and were skilful enough to entrap you.’

This sort of gambling con-trick was illegal but the existing laws were ineffectual and rarely inforced. A Select Commitee in 1844 looked at this kind of gambling problem and attempted to address the problem, with legislation following a year later (which remained in effect until 2007).

The third part of this article will follow soon. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.

About Roger Pocock

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

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