Monday, 30 July 2018

18th Century London - Earthquakes; 'Zig-Zag' Justice; Railroad invasion.

My apologies for the delay in writing this post  Lack of inspiration and shortage of time come into the equation - must try harder!

My wife has a book entitled 'London is London', edited by D.M.Low, being a selection of 'Prose and Verse' by various authors living during the period from the 14th to the 20th century.  All the prose and verse concern London in one way or another.

I have lived and worked in London for much of my working life, and all but one of our children were born in Greater London. I have a soft spot for this great city, and have selected three items from the above anthology, all of which describe particular aspects of London life in the mid-18th and early/mid 19th century.


Nervous  Exodus  -  London earthquake of 1750
 Arlington Street,
 April 2,  1750
'You will not wonder so much at our earthquakes as at the effects they have had.  All the women in town have taken them up upon the foot of Judgments; and the clergy, who have had no windfalls of a long season, have driven horse and foot into this opinion.  There has been a shower of sermons and exhortations; Secker, the Jesuitical Bishop of Oxford, began the mode.  He heard that women were all going out of town to avoid the next shock; and so, for fear of losing his Easter offerings, he set himself to advise them to await God’s good pleasure in fear and trembling.  But what is more astonishing, Sherlock, who has much better sense, and much less of the Popish confessor,  has been running a race with him for the old ladies, and has written a pastoral letter, of which ten thousand were sold in two days; and fifty thousand have been subscribed for, since the two first editions.
          I told the women talked of going out of town: several families are literally gone, and many more going today and tomorrow; for what adds to the absurdity, is, that the second shock having happened exactly a month after the former, it prevails that there will be a third on Thursday next, another month, which is to swallow up London.  I am almost ready to burn my letter now I have begun it, lest you should think I am laughing at you:  but it is so true that Arthur of White’s told me last night, that he should put off the last 'ridotto', which was to be on Thursday, because he hears nobody would come to it.  I have advised several who are going to keep their next earthquake in the country, to take the bark for it, as it is so periodic.  Dick Leveson and Mr Rigby, who had supped and stayed late at Bedford House the other night, knocked at several doors, and in a watchman’s voice cried, ‘Past four o’clock, and a dreadful earthquake!’
              This frantic terror prevails so much, that within these three days seven hundred and thirty coaches have been counted passing Hyde Park corner, with whole parties removing into the country……..'
                                                                                          Horace Walpole

n.b.  'ridotto' - an entertainment with music and dancing, often in masquerade: popular in 18th century England.

             Horace Walpole (c.1755), by John Charles Eccardt

Horatio Walpole, (1717-1797) 4th Earl of Orford, also known as Horace Walpole, was an English art historian, man of letters, antiquarian and Whig politician.  He was a classical liberal on issues like imperialism, slavery, and the Americans' fight for independence.  The French Revolution horrified him, as testified by the following letter written to Lady Ossory on 29 January 1793, concerning the execution of King Louis XVI:-
'Indeed, Madam, I write unwillingly; there is not a word left in my Dictionary that can express what I feel. Savages, barbarians, &c., were terms for poor ignorant Indians and Blacks and Hyaenas, or, with some superlative epithets, for Spaniards in Peru and Mexico, for Inquisitors, or for Enthusiasts of every breed in religious wars. It remained for the enlightened eighteenth century to baffle language and invent horrors that can be found in no vocabulary. What tongue could be prepared to paint a Nation that should avow Atheism, profess Assassination, and practice Massacres on Massacres for four years together: and who, as if they had destroyed God as well as their King, and established Incredulity by law, give no symptoms of repentance! These Monsters talk of settling a Constitution—it may be a brief one, and couched in one Law, "Thou shalt reverse every Precept of Morality and Justice, and do all the Wrong thou canst to all Mankind".     Horace Walpole  (Wikipedia)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Walpole was clearly a man of principle, but does not seem to think very highly of  the ecclesiastics of the established State religion, as shown by his somewhat cynical comments regarding the Bishop's motives in addressing their respective flocks after the second London earthquake. To me it does not seem unreasonable for the Bishops to speak out after such a  disaster, and Walpole's comments may do them an injustice. Indeed the Catholic Bishop Challoner also issued a pastoral letter to his flock, see extract below. Reading 'Nervous Exodus' is rather like reading a report in one of today's national newspapers, where the writer projects his own view of the event in question, especially as regards cause and effect, with personal feelings rather intruding on the impartiality of the report. It may be of course, that Walpole's comment on the two Bishops, was said in jest and not meant to be taken seriously at all.

            'Instructions and Advice to Catholicks upon occasion of the late Earthquakes' - a pastoral letter issued by Bishop Challoner  (1750) in Bishop Petre's name, in which he quotes Scripture and the Fathers to show that earthquakes may justly be regarded as tokens that God is angry with us, and continues: 'We have then, too much reason to apprehend that these late earthquakes are tokens that God is at present angry with us: and that the sword of His justice is actually hanging over our heads; and threatening us with the worst of His judgments. And what else indeed, can anyone expect, who seriously reflects on the multitude and enormity of the blasphemies, perjuries and other crying sins that are so common among all sorts of people …. besides that general lewdness, injustice, profane swearing and other vices which everywhere reign, together with an utter contempt of all religion, and profanation of all that is sacred.'  Ack. 'Bishop Challoner' by Michael Trappes-Lomax.(Longman's Green & Co. London. 1947)


            'Despite the minor damage, Londoners were worried. One earthquake was remarkable, but two earthquakes in a month was unprecedented. Were they a warning from God? The second tremor had been more violent. Was it another warning, delivered with more force? Thomas Sherlock, the Bishop of London, was sure of it. In a letter to the clergy and inhabitants of London, he called on them to “give attention to all the warnings which God in his mercy affords to a sinful two great shocks of an Earthquake”. He pointed out that the shocks were confined to London and its environs, and were therefore 'immediately directed' at that city, and sneered at the 'little philosophers', who saw earthquakes only as natural phenomena. The bishop indicated some of the modern manifestations that must have aroused divine displeasure: vast numbers of books which either disputed or ridiculed “the great truths of religion”, the swearing and blasphemy constantly heard on the streets of London, and 'the unnatural lewdness', for which God had destroyed Sodom, which could 'hardly be mentioned without offending chaste ears'.  

"It was the warning of the bishop of London, Thomas Sherlock, that attracted the most attention. Sherlock’s 'A Letter to the Clergy and Inhabitants of London and Westminster… on Occasion of the Late Earthquakes',  apparently sold 10,000 copies in two days, was reprinted several times, and is said to have sold more than 100,000 copies in less than six months. Sherlock urged his readers to repent, and to ignore “little philosophers, who see a little, and but very little into natural causes… not considering that God who made all things, never put anything out of his own power”.


  Charles Wesley, a founder of the growing Methodist movement, bluntly sermonised: “God is himself the Author, and sin is the moral cause.”

“Incredible numbers of people, being under strong apprehensions that London and Westminster would be visited with another and more fatal earthquake… left their houses, and walked in the fields, or lay in boats all night; many people of fashion in the neighbouring villages sat in their coaches till daybreak; others went to a greater distance, so that the roads were never more thronged, and lodgings were hardly to be procured at Windsor; so far, and even to their wits’ end, had their superstitious fears, or their guilty conscience, driven them.”


Mechanical Justice  -  the ziz-zag system;    by   Theodore Hook

‘Evidence, Mr Gurney!’ said the sheriff, ‘how little do you know of the Old Bailey! --- why if these London juries were to wait to consider evidence, we never should get through the business --- the way we do here is to make a zig-zag of it.’
          I did not exactly comprehend the term as it was now applied, although Daly had often used it in my society with reference to a pin and a card universally employed at the interesting game of rouge et noir;  and I therefore made no scruple of expressing my ignorance.
          ‘Don’t you understand, sir?’ said the sheriff ---‘why the next prisoner will be found guilty --- the last was acquitted --- the one after the next will be acquitted too --- it comes alternate like --- save half, convict half, that’s what we call a zig-zag; and taking the haggregate, it comes to the same pint, and I think justice is done as fair here as in any court in Christendom.’
          This explanation rendered the next prisoner who made his appearance, an object of considerable interest to me. He was a little dirty boy, who stood charged with having stolen a pound of bacon and a peg-top from a boy somewhat his junior. The young prosecutor produced a witness, who, as far as appearances went, might, without any great injustice, have taken the place of the prisoner, and who gave his evidence with considerable fluency and flippancy.  His manner attracted the notice of one of the leading barristers of the court, Mr Flappertrap, who, in cross-examining him, inquired whether he knew the nature of an oath.
          ‘Yes, I does,’ said the boy.
            ‘Explain it,’ said Flappertrap. 
          ‘You may be d..d,’ replied the lad, ‘that’s a hoath, aren’t it?’
          ‘What does he say? said the judge ---- who, as I about this period discovered, was as deaf as a post.
          ‘He says, “you may be d..d” my lord, ‘said Flappertrap, who appeared particularly glad of an opportunity to borrow a phrase, which he might use for the occasion.
          ‘What does he mean by that?’ said the judge.
          ‘That is the way, my lord, he exhibits his knowledge of the nature of an oath.’
          ‘Pah! Pah! said the judge   ---- ‘Boy, d’ye hear me?’
          ‘Yes,’ said the boy, ‘I hears.’
          ‘Have you ever been to school?’
          ‘Yes,’ said the boy, ‘in St Gile’s parish for three years.’
          ‘Do you know your catechism?’
          The boy muttered something which was not audible to the court generally, and was utterly lost upon the judge personally.
          ‘What does he say?’ said his lordship.
          ‘Speak up, sir,’ said Mr Flappertrap.
          The boy muttered again, looking down and seeming embarrassed.   
          ‘Speak louder, sir,’ said another barrister, whose name I did not know, but who was remarkable for a most unequivocal obliquity of vision --- ‘speak to his lordship --- look at him--- look as I do, sir.’
          ‘I can’t,’ said the boy, ‘you squints!’
          A laugh followed this bit of naivete, which greatly abashed the counsellor, and somewhat puzzled the judge.
          ‘What does he say?’ said his lordship.
          ‘He says he knows his catechism, my lord.’
          ‘Oh --- does not know his catechism --- why then what----‘
          ‘Does know, my lord,’ whispered the lord mayor, who was in the chair.
          ‘Oh---ah---Does know ---I know---here boy,’ said his lordship, ‘you know your catechism, do you?’
          'Yes,’ replied he sullenly.
          ‘We’ll see, then---what is your name?’ said his lordship.
          ‘My name,’ said the intelligent lad --- ‘ what, in the catechism?’
          ‘Yes, what is your name?’
          ‘M. or N. as the case may be,’ said the boy.
          ‘Go down, go down,’ said the judge, angrily, and down he went.
          ‘Gentlemen of the jury,’ said his lordship, ‘this case will require very little of your attention --- the only evidence against the prisoner at the bar which goes to fasten the crime against him, is that which has been offered by the last witness, who evidently is ignorant of the nature and obligation of an oath. With respect to the pig’s toes, which the prisoner stands charged with stealing –‘
‘A peg-top, my lord!’ said Flappertrap, standing up, turning round, and speaking over the bench into the judge’s ears.
‘Peg-top,’ said his lordship ---‘oh –ah—I see—very bad pen—it looks in my notes like pig’s toes. Well—peg-top---of the peg-top which it is alleged he took from the prosecutor, there has not been one syllable mentioned by the prosecutor himself; nor do I see that the charge of taking the bacon is by any means proved.  There is no point for me to direct your attention to, and you will say whether the prisoner is guilty or not; and a very trumpery case it is altogether, that I must admit.’
His lordship ceased, and the jury again laid their heads together; again the foreman gave the little ‘hem’ of conscious readiness for decisions; again did the clerk of  the arraigns ask the important question, ‘How say ye, gentlemen, is the prisoner at the bar guilty or not guilty?’ ‘Guilty’, said the foreman to the clerk of the arraigns; and ‘I told you so’, said the sheriff to me.

                                                                                    Theodore E Hook (1788-1841)

                                                                                          Theodore Hook c 1810


 Theodore Hook, a composer and prolific writer, is best known for his practical jokes, particularly the Berners Street hoax in 1810 in which he arranged for dozens of tradesmen, and notables such as the Lord Mayor of London, the Governor of the Bank of England, the Chairman of the East India Company and the Duke of Gloucester to visit Mrs Tottenham at 54 Berners Street, to win a bet that he could transform any house in London into the most talked-about address within a week. (Wikipedia). 

 'Mechanical Justice' is probably taken from his autobiographical novel,  'Gilbert Gurney' , which he wrote in 1835. There is a very interesting account of the history of the Old Bailey on Wikipedia, and the experience of the 'wheels of justice'  as related by Gilbert Gurney in 'Mechanical Justice', may be uncomfortably nearer the reality than we would like to think.

I strongly recommend the following links for further information on Theodore Hook; the history of the Old Bailey; and the Berners Street hoax of 1810 :-




The Sprawling Town   -    'Dombey and Son' (1848) by Charles Dickens.

'This euphonious locality was situated in a suburb, known by the inhabitants of Stagg’s Gardens by the name of Camberling Town; a designation which the ‘Stranger’s Map of London’, as printed (with a view to pleasant and commodious residence) on pocket handkerchiefs, condenses, with some show of reason, into Camden Town. Hither the two nurses bent their steps, accompanied by their charges; Richards carrying Paul, of course, and Susan leading little Florence by the hand, and giving her such jerks and pokes from time to time, as she considered it wholesome to administer.

          The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidently become a pond.
           Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations; carcases of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing. 
          There were a hundred thousand shapers and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream. 
          Hot springs and fiery eruptions, the usual attendants upon earthquakes, lent their contributions of confusion to the scene. Boiling water hissed and heaved within dilapidated walls; whence, also, the glare and roar of flames came issuing forth; and mounds of ashes blocked up rights of way, and wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood.

 In short, the yet unfinished and unopened railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilization and improvement.

           But as yet, the neighbourhood was shy to own the Railroad. One or two bold speculators had projected streets; and one had built a little, but had stopped among the mud and ashes to consider farther of it. 
           A brand- new tavern, redolent of fresh mortar and size, and fronting nothing at all, had taken for its sign ‘The Railway Arms’; but that might be rash enterprise --- and then it hoped to sell drinks to the workmen. So, the ‘Excavators’ House of Call’ had sprung up from a beer shop; and the old established ‘Ham and Beef Shop’ had become the ‘Railway Eating House’, with a roast leg of pork daily, through interested motives of a similar immediate and popular description. Lodging-house keepers were favourable in like manner; and for the like reason were not to be trusted.  The general belief was very slow.          
 Here were frowzy fields, and cow-houses, and dunghills, and dust-heaps, and ditches, and gardens, and summer-houses, and carpet-beating grounds, at the very door of the railway.  Little tumuli of oyster shells in the oyster season, and of lobster shells in the lobster season, and of broken crockery and faded cabbage leaves in all seasons, encroached upon its high places. 
          Posts, and rails, and old ‘cautions to trespassers’, and backs of mean houses, and patches of wretched vegetation, stared it out of countenance.  Nothing was the better for it, or thought of being so. If the miserable waste ground lying near it could have laughed, it would have laughed it to scorn, like many of the miserable neighbours.' 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                               ‘Dombey and Son’ (1848)
                                                                               (Charles Dickens)

                 Charles Dickens c.1867/8 - J.Gurney, Heritage Auction Gallery (Wikimedia Commons)

N.B. One of several themes in this book, is the degradation and destruction  of people and places, caused by increasing industrialisation; illustrated in particular by the building of the new railway through Camden Town (assumed to represent the London and Birmingham Railway constructed between 1833 and 1837). The novel reflects to some extent Dickens' concern with railway travel and the 'railway mania', a fascination which had a strong ingredient of fear in it, and reflects ambivalence towards the effects of the railways –  generating prosperity and employment, but undermining older ways of living and encouraging speculation.  (Wikipedia)