An Elizabethan Ordinary
The Devil Tavern
At Locket’s Ordinary
Old Coffee-House Life
The Chapter and The Smyrna
Some Old London Swells
The Restoration Beau
The Pretty Fellows
The Bucks and Bloods
Old London Museums
The Tradescants’ Museum
Don Saltero’s Collection
James Petiver’s Collections
William Charleton’s Museum
James Cox’s Museum
Merlin’s Mechanical Museum
Old London Characters
The Night Bellman
The Link-Boy and London Fog
Sedan Chairs and Chairmen
Johnny Townsend and the Bow Street Runners
List of illustrations
Swift at the Christening Supper in the St. James’s Coffee-House
Swift at a Bookshop
Swift writing to Stella
“A Clean Pipe, a Dish of Coffee, and the Supplement”
The Caledonian Coffee-House
The Garricks at Breakfast in Southampton Street, Strand
Midnight: Homeward Bound
Addison leaving his House in St James’s Place
Addison’s Circle at Button’s: Steele’s Arrival
The “Lion’s Head”: Button’s Coffee-House
Dandies of a Century Ago
A Pretty Fellow
A Tavern Insult
A Tavern Brawl
Johnson at Breakfast
A Corner of Vauxhall
Don Saltero’s, Chelsea
“Past One of the Clock, and a Cold, Frosty Morning”
The Elizabethan Bellman
The Watch: Eighteenth Century
Footmen with Links
An Old London Watchman
Johnson in Fleet Street
A Georgian Shoeblack
Johnson and Boswell in Bolt Court
The tall-hatted, bell-carrying Postman
Old Coffee-House Life
Before the middle of the seventeenth century the only public centres for social intercourse in this country were the taverns. Francis Beaumont has celebrated the wit combats of the Mermaid, where Shakespeare and Ben Jonson held high revel, when the words flashed “so nimble and so full of subtle flame.” At the Devil Tavern in Fleet Street, as we have seen on a previous page, Jonson was acknowledged king, and the neophyte, when tried and found worthy, was there duly sealed of the tribe of Ben. The immortal Boar’s Head in Eastcheap – haunted by the memories of Falstaff and Dame Quickly – the Garter Inn at Windsor, and many other hostelries rendered famous by the old dramatists, all serve to remind us of the leading part played in social intercourse of the olden time by the taverns, and the wayfaring and other life that centred round and in them.
Burton, in “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” speaks of the coffee-houses of the Turks as resembling, in the uses they served, the English taverns. The introduction into this country of the coffee-berry, and the public sale of the fragrant drink obtained therefrom, brought about a change. The first coffee-house in London was established in 1652, and in a few years a large number of these social resorts were open to the public. Coffee and tea very rapidly became favourite beverages, but there were other causes for the great popularity of the coffee-houses. In the reaction from the dulness and repression and sullen domesticity of the Puritan times, people went to the other extreme, and lived in public to a much greater extent than had ever before been customary in England. The coffee-houses just hit the taste of the times. Within their walls men of all ranks in life assembled day by day to see and be seen, to talk and to listen, to discuss politics, the news, foreign and domestic, literature and the drama – everything, in short, that was of the slightest public interest. Quicquid agunt hominess might have been the motto of the coffee-houses during their palmy days – that is, from the Restoration to near the middle of the eighteenth century.
An outlay of a penny or twopence made the visitor free of the house, and for this small sum the poorest customer as well as the richest could enjoy all the advantages, such as they were, of what was then the only equivalent for the modern club. An anonymous poet of 1696 describes:
“Grave wits, who, spending farthings four,
Sit, smoke, and warm themselves an hour;
Or modish town-sparks, drinking chocolate,
With beaver cocked, and laughing loud,
To be thought wits among the crowd,
Or sipping tea, while they relate
Their evening’s frolic at the Rose.”
Men love talk just as much as women are supposed to do, and the coffee-houses were centres for gossip and tittle-tattle as well as for more rational conversation. The appetite for chatter grows by what it feeds upon, and a constant running about to see and to hear some new thing by those whose time, even in those days of leisure, meant money, naturally often led to neglect of business and consequent loss and misfortune. Moralists were not slow to point this out. In a pamphlet called “The Worth of a Penny,” printed in 1676, the writer warns his readers against idle society, where a great deal of time is squandered away at a cheap rate, and instances the coffee-houses, where, he says, “Little money is pretended to be spent, but a great deal of precious time is lost.”
He describes the daily habit of a tradesman who goes to the coffee-house in the morning and spends an hour in smoking and talking, and twopence for his morning’s draught, and in the evening spends at his club another twopence and three or four more hours, on which expenditure of fourpence, added to the money missed at his trade by the loss of time, the writer bases a calculation which shows the gossiping tradesman to be largely out of pocket in the course of a year by his patronage of the coffee-houses.
The interior of one of these old temples of gossip would not appear very attractive to the modern frequenter of clubs. Luxurious furniture and appointments were not dreamt of. In the days of Queen Anne the division of the room into boxes was unknown. The sanded floor was dotted with tables, and’ the more privileged and distinguished customers occupied the tables nearest to the fire or in the cosiest corners. To and fro ran the busy drawers, or waiters, whose costume bore little resemblance to that of their modern successors. The walls were hung with flaming advertisements of quack medicines, which were then almost as numerous and as profitable a source of income to their proprietors as they are to-day.
The puffing announcements of pills and tinctures, electuaries, salves, and waters, were in such variety that the remedies threatened to outnumber the diseases. On the wall, in an imposing gilt frame, might be seen the bill of “Squire’s Grand Elixir, or the Great Restorative of the World, so much on the Wings of Fame, for Consumption, Fresh Colds, Coughs,” etc. The cautious proprietor of this elixir added at the end of a long list of ailments to be cured thereby a note to purchasers and agents that “Ready Money is expected of all Strangers, especially for the first Parcel.” The once famous Daffy’s Elixir was prominent in the advertisements of this time. So early as 1685 Mrs Daffy was informing an attentive world, through the medium of the London Gazette, that since her husband’s death she had moved to the Two Blue Posts and Golden Ball in Salisbury Court, Fleet Street, where any person could be furnished with “Dr Daffy’s Elixir.”
The coffee-house proprietors, in addition to their regular trade in the ordinary beverages ordered by their customers, acted as agents for the sale of many of these quack medicines as well as of the Epsom and other mineral waters.
A certain “Royal Bitter Tincture,” described as “much experienced and highly approved” in the usual variety of troubles and diseases, and to be taken in doses of forty or sixty drops in wine, coffee, tea, brandy, or any other liquor, was on sale at such well-known houses as the St James’s, Sam’s, the Marine, and Tom’s, in Devereux Court. The mineral water from Epsom Old Well was sold at Sam’s and one or two other coffee-houses. A “Ticket of the seal of the Wells “was said to be affixed to water so sold in order that people “might not be cheated in their waters.”
At one end of the coffee-room was the bar, where messages were left and letters taken in for known customers, and where the female attendants chatted and flirted with young and handsome beaux, to the neglect of the older and plainer customers, in a manner that has become hereditary among barmaids. A correspondent of the Spectator – who was possibly either old or ugly – grumbles at the ways of these “idols,” as he calls them. Tom Brown describes the “idols” as “a charming Phillis or two, who invite you by their amorous glances into their smoaky territories.” The crusty Spectator complains that great difficulty in getting served was experienced by those who did not respond to the amorous glances, or who wished to I pass their time otherwise than in ogling and worshipping, the charming Phillises at the bar.
One great attraction of the coffee-house to many of its frequenters was the opportunity it afforded of reading the various news-sheets and periodical publications. The coffee-house was the public reading-room. There the quidnunc and the politician could study the London Gazette and, during the session, the Parliamentary Votes. The various periodicals essays as they appeared were eagerly welcomed and perused by a host of the regular customers, and the successive numbers of each publication were kept filed in the coffee-room for purposes of reference and for the continual delectation of the lovers of literature.
Swift, in his “Journal to Stella” in November 1711, says: “Do you read the Spectator? I never do; they never come in my way; I go to no coffee-houses.”
When the Tatler came to an abrupt end its disappearance was bewailed as a general calamity, and, says Gay, “the coffee-houses began to be sensible that the Esquire’s lucubrations alone had brought them more customers than all their other newspapers put together.” Joy was doubtless restored to the frequenters, and peace to the minds of the proprietors of the reading-rooms, by the speedy appearance of the Spectator in succession to the defunct Bickerstaff.
The coffee-houses were often also used for writing purposes. Several of Steele’s love-letters to Miss Scurlock, afterwards his wife, were written from the St James’s, and, after his marriage, many of the little notes which he was continually sending to his “dear Prue” were indited at the Tennis-Court, Button’s, and other popular coffee-houses. Stella’s letters to Swift were addressed at first under cover to Addison, and, after the breach in their friendship, to Swift direct, to be left at the St James’s, where they were stuck in the glass frame behind the bar until they were called for. It must have been rather a difficult task to write love-letters, or, indeed, letters of any kind, amidst the distractions and hum of a busy coffee-house. A poem of 1690 says that
“The murmuring buzz which through the room was sent,
Did bee-hives’ noise exactly represent,
And like a bee-hive, too, ’twas filled, and thick,
All tasting of the Honey Politick
Called ‘news,’ which they all greedily sucked in.”
“News” was a chief attraction at the St James’s: fashion and pleasure in the form of dice and cards drew crowds of scented and curled beaux to White’s. Literature and the drama were patronised at Will’s, and afterwards, in succession, at Button’s and the Bedford. Lloyd’s, in Lombard Street, was famous for auctions. In a poem on “The Wealthy Shopkeeper,” published in 1700, there is the allusion:
“Then to Lloyd’s coffee-house he never fails,
To read the letters, and attend the sales.”
Whist was the chief attraction about 1730 at the Crown, in Bedford Row. Jonathan’s Coffee-House, in Exchange Alley, was a great centre for speculators during the disastrous year of 1720. Squire’s, near Gray’s Inn Gate, is for ever associated with the memory of Sir Roger de Coverley. The picture drawn by Addison of the knight at this house gives a vivid presentment of coffee-house life. Sir Roger seated himself at the upper end of the high table and “called for a clean pipe, a paper of tobacco, a dish of coffee, a wax candle, and the Supplement, with such an air of cheerfulness and good-humour that all the boys in the coffee-room, who seemed to take pleasure in serving him, were at once employed on his several errands, insomuch that nobody else could come at a dish of tea until the knight had got all his conveniences about him.”
The Smyrna was beloved of Addison and Steele, of Prior and Swift, and here also the poet Thomson received subscriptions for his “Seasons.” The clergy resorted to Child’s, and later in the century to St Paul’s and the Chapter Coffee-Houses. The Caledonian was a Scottish resort at a still later date. Serle’s, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, was sacred to the legal professions, and the Grecian, in Devereux Court, Strand, was devoted to learning. At the latter house a fatal duel once resulted from an argument about a Greek accent. Such tragic incidents, however, are very rare in the annals of the coffee-houses. Any approach to violence or bullying language or impropriety of demeanour on the part of an individual was usually resented by the general body of customers, and the obnoxious person, if not silenced, was speedily ejected. Good humour, good manners, and cheerful conversation were the usual features of the gatherings which, under so many different roofs, gave a distinctive character to the social life of London for some seventy or eighty years after the restoration of Charles II.
Merlin's Mechanical Museum
John Joseph Merlin was born in September 1735 at St Peter’s, in the town of Huy, on the river Meuse, between Namur and Liege.* Little or nothing is known of his earlier years. From the age of nineteen to twenty-five he resided in Paris, whence he came to London in the suite of the Spanish Ambassador “Extraordinary, the Count de Fluenti, to his house in Soho Square in May 1760. Kirby, in the sketch of Merlin’s life in his “Wonderful Museum,” says that shortly after his arrival in London in 1760 he became first a principal mechanic at Cox’s Museum; but as the latter was not opened till 1773 the statement is clearly erroneous. Between 1773 and 1775 he served for a short time in Cox’s collection, and on leaving it, settled in Little Queen Anne Street, Marylebone.
[* Gentleman’s Magazine, May 1803, vol. lxxiii. part i. p. 4S5.]
Merlin soon became well known as a maker of engines, mathematical instruments, watches, clocks, and mechanical inventions of various kinds. He patented a new kind of roasting-screen and also an invention for combining the pianoforte and the harpsichord in one instrument. After some years in Little Queen Anne Street he moved to 11 Princes Street, Hanover Square, where, about 1783, he opened his museum. Merlin seems to have been a kindly and amiable as well as a very clever, if somewhat eccentric man. He is said to have been open-handed, especially to artists and workmen of ingenuity who applied to him for work or assistance.
His combined cleverness and eccentricity he showed in several curious ways. He was fond of going to the masquerades, which were so much the fashion towards the end of the eighteenth century, as the Goddess of Fortune, moving in a wheel of his own invention and construction. Sometimes he appeared as Cupid or as Vulcan, forging his own bolts. Merlin was one of the earliest inventors of roller-skates; but the public of his day did not care for the novelty. He went one evening to one of Mrs Cornelys’ notorious masquerades at Carlisle House, Soho Square, with a pair of his wheeled skates and a violin under his arm. Presently he fastened on the skates, and, with fiddle in hand began gliding, over the polished floor. Gradually he accelerated the pace, and became the cynosure of every eye. But pride soon had a fall, for, being unable to check his speed, he dashed into a very valuable mirror, with the result that the glass was smashed, the violin broken to pieces, and himself wounded rather severely. This did not make for the popularity of roller-skating. Merlin also went to masquerades as a quack-doctor, making the tour of the rooms in the self-wheeled chair which was named after him, and which will be described presently.
In Hyde Park he was often a conspicuous figure, driving himself in what he called his “unrivalled mechanical chariot” – a vehicle of which there is a plate in Kirby’s “Wonderful Museum.” It bore a dial which registered the distance travelled, and abounded in ingenious contrivances. Even the whip was mechanical. It was attached by a spring to a cord, which was worked at the will of the occupant of the chariot.
The ingenious Merlin died in May 1803, and was buried at Paddington. The obituary notice in the Gentleman’s Magazine describes him as “Rose’s engine-maker and mathematical instrument and watch and clockmaker in general.” Before he died he requested that as soon as he was dead his favourite horse, which he had been accustomed to drive in his “mechanical chariot,” should be immediately shot, the animal being thirty years old. This was done as he had wished. A year after Merlin’s death, in May 1804, his museum in Princes Street was advertised to be sold by auction in one lot; but it was kept open for some years longer, not closing finally until about midsummer 1808.
It is now time to speak of the contents of this museum. Our authority is a very little book – resembling in appearance and shape one of those tiny chap-books which were the delight of book-starved children a hundred years ago – which is probably very scarce. The copy in the library of the British Museum is bound up with sundry like-sized children’s books and pamphlets, and has the following title-page: – “Morning and Evening Amusements at Merlin’s Mechanical Museum, No. 11 Princes Street, Hanover Square. Admission, every Day during the whole Year (Sundays excepted) from Eleven till Three o’Clock, at Half-a-Crown; And in the Evening from Seven till Nine o’Clock, at Three Shillings. Ladies and Gentlemen who honour Mr Merlin with their Company may be accommodated with Tea and Coffee at One Shilling each.” Neither place of publication nor date is given. Considering that the catalogue which follows this announcement contains only thirty-two entries, the prices of admission may be considered fairly high.
People in those days were not so satiated with shows as their descendants now are, and an exhibition which would now attract little attention was then regarded as no small thing. The Rev. William MacRitchie, a Scottish minister, whose “Diary” was printed in the Antiquary some few years ago, went to see the museum on 1st August 1795, and made the following note of his visit: – “Go to see Merlin’s Museum, a most wonderful display of human ingenuity. A vast variety of most curious movements, depending upon electrical and magnetical principles. The mechanical powers exhibited here in the greatest perfection.”* Mr MacRitchie was fairly lavish with his superlatives over an exhibition of thirty-two more or less ingenious pieces of mechanism.
[* Antiquary, September 1896, vol. xxxii. p. 272.]
Every article shown was Merlin’s own work. The first three items in the list are a “perpetual motion representing a curious clock,” a mechanical garden, and the “Quartetto Music-cabinet.” Then comes the famous “Morpheus and Gouty Chair.” This was, perhaps, the first of the many invalid chairs which have since been invented for the comfort and relief of crippled sufferers, although one wonders whether the “wheele-chaire for ease and motion” which Lord Aubigny showed to Mr Evelyn on nth January 1662, was an earlier example of the same kind. Like similar chairs of later date, Merlin’s invention had double tyres to its two front wheels, and could be propelled by the occupant turning the outer tyre with the hand. It is described as “intended for the infirm to wheel themselves from room to room, with the greatest ease…. It has a cradle, on which the legs may be placed in different positions, and also a small table to read and write at, or take refreshments off. The back… is made to fall down at pleasure, so as to form a Bed or Couch.” This was probably the most useful and practical, and certainly became the most widely known of Merlin’s inventions. The name lasted long after the death of the original maker. A Merlin chair is mentioned by the Rev. Edward Smedley in a letter dated 4th May 1835, printed in his “Poems, with a Selection from his Correspondence,” 1837, p. 429. It had been sent to him as a present by a friend. He describes it as “A Merlin (or some improvement thereon) chair, with many appendages and fashions of transformation, of which I have still to learn the use. Mary, who has made an excursion with it already round the hall, speaks with delight of its facility of management.”
Sir David Brewster, speaking of a hand-worked car, said to have been constructed by Sir Isaac Newton while still a schoolboy, says:* “The mechanical carriage which Sir Isaac is said to have invented was a four-wheeled vehicle, and was moved with a handle or winch wrought by the person who sat in it. We can find no distinct information respecting its construction or use, but it must have resembled a Merlin’s chair, which is fitted only to move on the smooth surface of a floor, and not to overcome the inequalities of a common road.”
[* “Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton,” 1855, vol. i. p. 10.]
The articles in the museum numbered 5 to 8 are – “The Hydraulic Vase,” “The Review of Beauties,” “The Library Table,” and “The Hygeian Chair.” The last was a rocking-chair.
No. 9 is Sanctorius’s Balance, “which will give the weight and stature of any person who stands on it” – which reads like an anticipation of the automatic machines now to be found at every railway station. Sanctorius, it may be remembered, was a professor of medicine at the university of Padua at the beginning of the seventeenth century. His balance was made with a seat, in which he placed himself after his meals, for the purpose of making observations connected with a series of curious experiments on insensible perspiration. Next to the Balance comes “An Air-Gun,” followed by “The Tea-Table,” which is said to be an invention which “enables a lady to fill a dozen tea-cups without using her hands.” One would like to have had further particulars of this curious table, which many ladies nowadays would find an invaluable afternoon assistant.
Nos. 12, 13, and 14 are “The Circus of Cupid,” “A Cruising Frigate,” and “The Temple of Flora.” No. 15 is a “Model of Merlin’s Cave.” This was a long-cherished idea of the ingenious mechanician. He proposed to erect at Paddington a building of strange construction for the housing of his museum. It was to be 100 feet in length, 50 in width, and 48 in height. There were to be three circular ballrooms, 40 feet by 20, with “a grand Orchestra to imitate the Band at the Abbey; and two alcoves for the reception of a pair of Automaton figures as large as life; with a variety of other mechanical curiosities calculated to entertain the imagination and improve the mind.” This strange plan was never carried into effect.
To the “Model” succeed a juggler, a machine for the blind to play at cards; a gambling-machine – suggestive of a modern pari-mutuel – a mechanical organ, which seems to have been of the familiar barrel type; a “Stone-Eater”; a fire-screen; and a “Valetudinarian Bedstead.” The last was an adjustable couch suitable for an invalid – the forerunner of many of its kind. Next to the bedstead comes the “Hygeian Air-pump,” which “draws foul air out of Ships, Hospitals, Bedclothes, etc. and supplies them with that which is fresh, warm, or possesses a medicinal virtue.” This, again, was an anticipation of more modern sanitary appliances. Nos. 24 to 27 are an aerial cavalcade, an artificial bat, a vocal harp, and a patent “Pianoforte Harpsichord with Trumpets and Kettledrums” – a fearsome instrument, suggestive of the “musical” machine attached nowadays to steam roundabouts. No. 28 is a “Grand Band of Music.” This is followed by two “Escarpolettes,” which were simply mechanical swings, and the list ends with another instrument of torture – a barrel harpsichord.
The tiny guide-book, or catalogue, concludes with some rhymes sent by a grateful user of the famous chair, with a refrain in praise of Master Merlin and his invention. The first and the last verses are as follows:
“You who on Fortune’s rough highway,
Which all are doom’d to whirl in,
For gouty feet would take a seat,
Apply to Master Merlin.
· · · · ·
To facts so felt, toes, ancles, knees,
Their conscious suffrage hurl in;
And truth encores from thousand pores,
O bravo! Master Merlin!”
The Link-Boy and London Fog
The history of the multifarious life of London streets has yet to be written: there is no lack of materials. They are scattered through innumerable volumes and endless piles of old newspapers. The history of London as a city has been written. The story of its streets and squares, its churches, colleges, houses, and illustrious inhabitants, has been fully told and illustrated in many volumes; but the ever-varying, restless life that for centuries has crawled or poured along the veins and arteries of the great city has not been comprehensively dealt with in any one volume or series of volumes. Such a work would bring together much that has now to be searched for in many books. It would include the history of street “cries” – many of which are now quite forgotten – the history of the many classes of humble folk who have managed, generation after generation, to gain a bare livelihood by following the various trades and occupations of the streets; and also it would include the history of what may be called the humble officialdom of London thoroughfares. Among these officials – if so dignified a name may be accorded them – would be found the bellman and watchman, of whom we have spoken on a previous page, with their successors the modern police and other minor functionaries, such as lamplighters, scavengers, shoeblacks, and link-boys.
The link-boy flourished in the days of London’s darkness. We hear of him first soon after the Restoration, and he remained a nightly institution of the streets until first improved oil-lighting and afterwards the introduction of gas rendered his occupation unnecessary. On exceptionally foggy nights, however, the link-boy still comes to life again for an hour or two to comfort and cheer distressed pedestrians. In the old days, when the few oil lamps, dimly burning, served only to make darkness visible, the link-boy was to be found at the corner of every street. He carried either a torch or, more often, a small lantern, and would light any wayfarer home for the modest guerdon of two or three pence.
An Italian traveller who visited London about 1669 has left an excellent account of sundry details of the street and social life of the time. He describes the theatres and places of amusement, the ordinaries and coffee-houses, the boatmen on the river, and the porters, chairmen, and link-boys of the streets. With regard to the last, he says that at all the corners of the town were continually to be found boys with little lanterns to light people home, who were paid at discretion, there being no fixed price. He adds that for being accompanied a mile in the streets one would pay about fourpence. This does not seem a very extravagant fee, but it was rather more than was usually paid. A writer in the Spectator, who gives a very entertaining account of a day spent in the streets and shops and markets of London, describes how he wound up his explorations by an evening in Will’s famous coffee-house, where the conversation turned on such diverse topics as cards, dice, love, learning, and politics. He says that the absorbing theme of politics detained him until he heard the streets in the possession of the bellman, who was proclaiming to a somnolent world that it was “Past two of the clock.” “This roused me,” he says, “from my seat, and I went to my lodging, led by a light, whom I put into the discourse of his private economy, and made him give me an account of the charge, hazard, profit and loss of a family that depended upon a link, with a design to end my trivial day with the generosity of sixpence, instead of a third part of that sum.” If twopence was the ordinary fee for a “link” – whether man or boy – the occupation could hardly have been very profitable, whatever charge or hazard may have attended it.
The hazard, indeed, sometimes lay with the passenger who placed himself under the escort of a “link.” If the main thoroughfares were but scantily and feebly lighted, the by-streets and lanes of the town were simply dark and dangerous passages; and to trust oneself to a linkman was to run the risk of being misled and robbed. An old dictionary of the pre-Johnsonian era, compiled by a schoolmaster named Thomas Dyche, and first printed in 1735, has this curious and significant entry: “Moon-curser. – A cant name for a link-boy, or one that under colour of lighting strangers, leads them into dark and by-places to rob them.” Link-boy and rascal were evidently almost synonymous terms.
Gay, in his poem on “The Art of Walking the Streets of London,” counsels the passenger to decline the light-bearer’s offer:
“Let constant vigilance thy footsteps guide,
And wary circumspection guard thy side;
Then shalt thou walk unharm’d the dangerous night,
Nor need th’ officious link-boy’s smoky light.”
Absolute, or perhaps one should say comparative, safety was only to be found by keeping to the main streets and avoiding dark passages and blank walls. The same poet says:
“Though thou art tempted by the link-man’s call,
Yet trust him not along the lonely wall;
In the midway he’ll quench the flaming brand,
And share the booty with the pilfering band.
Still keep the public streets, where oily rays,
Shot from the crystal lamp, o’erspread the ways.”
The footmen who acted as escort to the “quality” when they went from one part of the town to another on business or pleasure, carried torches at night, and formed a very necessary bodyguard to “My lady’s chair.” Humbler folk had to be content with a hired “link.”
On winter nights the “officious link-boy” was greatly in request, and, of course, the danger of trusting to his guidance was not lessened by the prevalence of fog, which was as common a London plague two centuries ago as it is to-day, and which, while it increased the danger, made the light-bearer’s assistance much more necessary than on ordinary nights.
The London fog – the product of the immense consumption of coal – is a very hardy annual. So early as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the nobility and gentry complained that they could not go with comfort to London because of the disagreeable smell and thick air resulting from the use of sea-coal as fuel. In the time of Elizabeth the burning of coal was actually prohibited in London while Parliament was sitting, lest the health of the country members should suffer while their Parliamentary duties kept them in town.
Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador at whose instigation Sir Walter Raleigh was put to death, in reply to someone who, when returning to Spain, asked whether he had any commands, said, “Only my compliments to the sun, whom I have not seen since I came to England.” Shadwell, the Restoration dramatist, makes a character in one of his plays describe London as “that place of sin and sea-coal.” The fog of Restoration times seems, indeed, to have been quite as opaque and objectionable as the “London particular” with which we are still painfully familiar. Evelyn, the diarist, says with emphasis: “If there be a resemblance of hell upon earth, it is in this volcano on a foggy day.” The same writer, in one of his many works, speaks of the “pestilent smoke” leaving soot upon “all things that it lights upon,” and further says that he had been in a church where he could not discern the minister for the fog or hear him for the people’s barking.
Evelyn complains bitterly in his “Diary” on more than one occasion of the dreadful London fog. The winter of 1683-1684 seems to have been exceptionally foggy, and the diarist writes: “London, by reason of the excessive coldness of the aire hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so fill’d with the fuliginous steame of the sea-coale, that hardly could one see crosse the streetes, and this filling the lungs with its grosse particles exceedingly obstructed the breast, so as one could hardly breathe.” Evelyn was horrified at being almost unable so see across the street; what would he have said could he have beheld the pall of black darkness that sometimes settles on the City in these latter days or the thick, yellow-black abomination that sometimes fills the streets, so that the passenger, according to the common phrase, can hardly see his hand before him?
Even the link-boy’s torch or lantern was not of very much service as an illuminant when a fog that meant business settled down upon the City. On 25th November 1699 there was “so thick a mist and fog,” says Evelyn, “that people lost their way in the streets, it being so intense that no light of candles or torches yielded any (or but very little) direction. I was in it and in danger. Robberies were committed between the very lights which were fixed between London and Kensington on both sides, and while coaches and travellers were passing. It began about four in the afternoon, and was quite gone by eight, without any wind to disperse it. At the Thames they beat drums to direct the watermen to make the shore.”
The diarist had been so impressed by the objectionableness of London fog and the desirability of finding ways and means of dissipating it, that nearly forty years before the visitation just described he had published a little book of suggestions on the subject, which he entitled, “Fumifugium; or The inconvenience of the aer and smoak of London dissipated, together with some remedies humbly proposed by J. E., Esq., to his Sacred Majesty, and to the Parliament now assembled.” This was published “by His Majesty’s Command” in 1661. It was the first of a long series of attempts, not yet concluded, to find a cure for the evils of fog; but it has always been much easier to suggest remedies and preventive measures than to find means of enforcing the latter, or of carrying the former into practice.
The yellowness of London fog, which so emphatically distinguishes it from the mists of the countryside, is no new thing. Mrs Delany, writing in January 1772, says: “My eyes are wondrous dim, the thick yellow fog is no small detriment.” It was bad enough in those old times to have to endure the fog during the day, but it was far worse at night. It was only in the chief streets – the main arteries of the City – that there was any attempt at systematic illumination, and on clear nights the street lamps only served to make darkness visible; while many of the smaller streets and passages were left in such gloom that the prudent pedestrian took very good care not to pass through them after dark. Footpads abounded; and in open, deserted places, very badly lighted, such as Lincoln’s Inn Fields, as well as in narrower passages and by-streets, robberies with violence were matters of nightly occurrence. On foggy nights those dangers, to which may be added the absence of any properly organised or equipped police force, were greatly intensified, and the streets were unsafe to a degree which, in these well-policed times, we can hardly realise.
One of the worst fogs of the last century was that which preceded the great frost that rendered the winter of 1813-14 so memorable. For several days London was enveloped in a darkness which might be felt, and business was almost entirely at a standstill. The Prince Regent set out on a visit to the Marquis of Salisbury at Hatfield, but after an absence of several hours, during which the carriages had only got so far as Kentish Town, and one out-rider had been deposited in a ditch, the prince was obliged to abandon the attempt and return to Carlton House. In more recent times we have had fogs of equal or probably greater intensity and duration; but street and house illumination are now so greatly in advance of anything known or dreamt of eighty years ago that however bad a fog may be it does not so entirely interrupt trade and put an end to all business as it used to do in earlier days, when both public and private lighting were in a comparatively primitive state.