Journals 14.2. This is a continuation of my article about Travels on the Continent and in England, by August Hermann Niemeyer, which details the German writer’s 1819 visit to the country he had always wanted to experience: England.
I have written about several other 19th Century travel journals, some of which have included opinions about Britain from the point of view of a foreign visitor. For an American visitor, as per most of the journals I have looked at previously, the first impressions of the country were created in Liverpool, but for a visitor from Europe the experience of arriving in the country was very different. On 15th June 1819, Niemeyer’s ship landed in Harwich in Essex. He was overwhelmed by what he saw on his arrival:
The joy at landing, the comfortable prospect before me of clean inns, and convenient stage coaches, the latter so great a novelty to all strangers unacquainted with the mechanical elegance and even refinement to which they have arrived in England, perfectly enraptured me, and I could not avoid giving rent to the grateful feelings excited, by praises as flattering as they were just. How grateful was the impression produced by contemplating this rich country teeming with the highest cultivation, and now in all the pride of magnificent bloom! Every where traces of agricultural industry meet the eye. I imagined I was arriving in beautiful and wealthy cities, while I was only in a village. I thought I was beholding the most magnificent country seats, and still they were only the habitations of the farmers or merchants. The houses in the cities or market towns are indeed usually small and narrow – but how friendly an appearance do they not afford by their windows as bright as looking glass, by the pretty hedges, and the small flower gardens through which a clean path conducts you to the house door. And how the mercantile life begins even in the country! I drove by from one shop to another. Behind the high windows of beautiful crown glass, which form the lower story, all kinds of wares are artfully laid out to view. And what cleanliness and neatness in the dress of most people we met with, who, full of curiosity, advanced to the door or window, when the coach passed by, expecting friends or relations, and helping them down from the roof of the carriage.
Arriving in London was a very different prospect indeed, but no less exciting for Niemeyer:
It was already dark, but the illumination, which begins very early, displayed every object to my view. The impression which the grandeur and extent of the town cannot fail to make upon every beholder is truly astonishing. The sumptuous buildings, the constantly moving scene, are striking peculiarities and features which far surpass those of Amsterdam, Paris, Copenhagen, Vienna, and Venice, and impress every person who for the first time steps into this little world, at present inhabited by at least 1,200,000 souls. It is indeed a mixture of astonishment and anxiety.
After a long stay in London, Niemeyer considered himself to be suitably qualified to “give a more exact description”, once the initial wonderment had worn off. He found himself unimpressed with the architecture in general:
All travellers have very properly observed that, whilst other capital cities create an impression by the magnificence of the style of architecture in which their houses and palaces are built, even when the towns are as quiet and depopulated as Potsdam, or even Berlin is in some quarters, this impression is far from being produced in London, Of palaces, properly so called, there is no trace, as in the above cities, in Prague, Vienna, Paris, or in the sumptuous, although smaller Italian capitals. Even the dwellings of royalty bear the name only of Houses, (the insignificant St. James’s Palace excepted) for example, Buckingham House, where George the Third and his Queen used to reside, Carlton House, where the present King resided when he was still Prince Regent, Somerset House, &c. &c. &c.
The point Niemeyer is making about “houses” rather than “palaces” is an interesting one, and represents a snapshot of the era during which he visited London. For example, Buckingham Palace was originally a townhouse built for the Duke of Buckingham. The three additional wings to the townhouse were not added until 1837, so the impression the building made to Niemeyer in 1819 would have been very different to the palace today. Similarly, Somerset House was not extended with its east and west wings until 1831 and 1856. Niemeyer also managed to see Carlton House just in time. It was demolished in 1826 and replaced by terraces of houses, which were leased to help fund the extension to Buckingham Palace. So his experience of London “houses” rather than “palaces” was one that had ceased to exist within a couple of decades of his visit. Niemeyer also had to suffer a severely polluted city:
The whole of London is built of a reddish and white grey bricks, and these are very rarely covered over with stucco. Stone is met with only in a very few modern buildings. From the smoke of the sea coal, which, particularly at the end of autumn and winter, envelopes the whole of London, all the houses soon receive a black appearance, which is only somewhat compensated for by the shining looking glass of which the windows are composed. Most of the houses are perfectly like each other, generally very narrow.
If Neimeyer wasn’t impressed by the architecture, the “moving stream of people” was another matter, with their “immovable piles of goods” and bustling work “directed to a thousand employments”. He was even more struck by the picture London presented by night:
The illumination of the streets of London has always been celebrated. It is at present greatly augmented by the use of Gas-lights. This pure light, which burns in the lanterns of the streets as well as in the shops, as soon as it becomes dusk, throws such a magic splendour over every thing, that we may imagine ourselves wandering amongst enchanted castles. As looking glasses are made use of in many extensive shops, every thing is reflected in a double and threefold degree. The costly silk stuffs of the most burning colours, laid in picturesque order by the side of and over each other; the East India shawls, the works in glass, the rarest fruits of all countries piled up pyramidically, the natural and artificial flowers appear as beautiful again as at day time. Between them the large round flasks and vases of the Chymists, as the Apothecaries are called, make a brilliant display. They are filled with clear red, blue, green, and yellow waters, and appear as if rubies, sapphires, topazes, and emeralds were shining in them. At a distance they raise an idea of a festive illumination, but these appearances are those of every day. It cannot be denied that the streets of London, in this respect, offer to the passenger every evening an extraordinary and singular sight.
Gas lighting in London was a very new phenomenon when Neimeyer visited. Although there had been experiments with gas lighting in London as early as 1807, the first gas company in the world did not come into existence until 1812. Just five years before Neimeyer’s visit to London, Westminster Bridge was lit by gas for the first time. The sight of most London streets being lit by gas lighting that Neimeyer saw in 1819 was a picture that had only existed for a couple of years. It would be many more years before gas lighting in private homes became widespread. The installation of the gas lighting had already allowed London to become a city that never sleeps.
A similar throng and mass of people is to be seen, indeed, at certain hours, in all large cities, and every where, where there is something to be gazed upon. The peculiarity of London, however, is, that it never leaves off. A foreigner, who arrived at night, and towards noon came out of his lodging, which was situated in a principal street, stood still at the street-door, when he saw this stream of people flowing in every direction around him, in order, as he himself afterwards related, to let the people first pass by! Hour passed after hour, till finally a friend met with him, and assured him, he might wait till the evening, and that it would only cease towards night-time. He had, in fact, seriously thought that some sight, or execution, had been the occasion of this immense throng and the motion of so vast a crowd. Certainly, when hanging-day arrives, which is frequent enough, the pressure is, indeed, indescribable.
Neimeyer noticed that the main streets without exception were thronged with people who gave the appearance of being “in easy circumstances”, with poverty confined to the smaller streets. London was therefore something of a segregated city, but next time we will find out more about Neimeyer’s opinions of the different classes, and the “manners” of the British people.
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