Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/London changes

Illustrated by John Leech.


What changes have taken place in London during the last thirty years, over which considerable period of time, I grieve to say, my rational memory can operate with sufficient precision! In those delightful days when my serious troubles were confined to a stiff contest with the impersonal verbs, or physical discomfort in the early gooseberry season, I remember well that we children were permitted every now and then in the spring and summer time to go down a-Maying to Shepherd’s Bush. From the Marble Arch to the Green at Shepherd’s Bush—with the exception of a low row of houses near the chapel where the soldiers were buried, and the chapel itself, and another row of houses at Nottinghill, opposite Holland Park—it was all country. There were Nursery Gardens—there were Tea Gardens—there was a little row of cottages just over against the northern end of the Long Walk in Kensington Gardens, and a public-house called the Black or Red Bull; beyond that nothing but fields and rural sights. I do not remember the existence of Tyburn Turnpike—for it was removed in the year 1825, which date is happily beyond my powers of recollection—but thirty-five years ago there it stood. This gate stood originally at St. Giles’s Pound. When it was moved to the westward, the road between St. Giles’s Pound and Tyburn Gallows was called Tyburn Road—it is now Oxford Street.

The readers of the “Times” must have seen lately that there has been a somewhat animated discussion as to the exact spot on which the gallows stood. Having no precise knowledge of my own upon the matter, I turn to the excellent work of Mr. Timbs, entitled “The Curiosities of London,” and I find therein the following information upon what George Selwyn would have called this interesting point. The gallows, called “Tyburn Tree,” was originally a gallows upon three legs. The late Mr. George Robins, who never lost an opportunity of pointing out any remarkable association connected with property which it was his agreeable duty to recommend to the notice of the British public, when dealing with the house No. 49, Connaught Square, affirmed that the gallows stood upon that spot. Mr. Smith, in his History of St. Mary-le-bone (I am still giving the substance of Mr. Timbs’s statements), records that this interesting implement had been for years a standing fixture on a little eminence at the corner of the Edgware Road, near the turnpike. Thousands of Londoners still living must remember the turnpike well; but if I understand my author rightly, this was but the second Tyburnian location of the gallows. The subsequent and final arrangement was, that it should consist of two uprights and a cross-beam. It was set up on the morning of execution “opposite the house at the corners of Upper Bryanstone Street and the Edgware Road, wherein the gallows was deposited after having been used; and this house had curious iron balconies to the windows of the first and second floors, where the sheriffs attended the executions.” The place of execution was removed to Newgate in 1783. There must be many men still alive who remember the change. It is not so long since Rogers the Poet died, and he was a young man at the date of the opening of the States General, and he used to tell his friends that he was in Paris at the time, and, if I mistake not, went to Versailles to see the solemnities. Surely if this is so, there must be still amongst us some aged people who can recollect the Tyburn executions. John Austin was hung there in 1783, and that is but 77 years ago—a mere flea-bite, as one may say, on the back of Time. The controversy seems to have been the old story of the shield, black on one side and white on the other—only the Tyburn shield has three sides. These three sides are—I crave large latitude of expression—1st, 49, Connaught Square; 2ndly, the corner of Edgware Road by the old turnpike; and, 3rdly, the corner of Upper Bryanstone Street and the Edgware Road. It is possible there is confusion in the first and second suggestions. It was in the second of these localities that the bones of Cromwell, Bradshaw, and Ireton were found, having been conveyed there by the piety of the Second Charles and his advisers. On the 30th of January, 1660-1, being the first anniversary of the execution of Charles I. which it was possible to celebrate with any degree of éclat, the bodies of Oliver Cromwell, of Bradshaw, and of Ireton were disinterred, and actually conveyed in their shrouds and cere-cloths to Tyburn, and there suspended in the same cheerful costume on Tyburn Gallows, where they hung till sunset. These very dead worthies were then taken down, their heads were struck off, and the bodies buried under the gallows. The heads were set on Westminster Hall. Had I been a Cavalier in those days, how ashamed I should have been of my party! Could they have caught the living Cromwell indeed, and hung him up at Tyburn or elsewhere, there would not have been a word to say against them. One party might use the halter as well as the other the axe; but when the man who had driven them before him like chaff was lying in his quiet grave, to pull him up, and wreak their malice upon the poor remains of him before whom they used to tremble! Fie! Whatever may be said against Oliver Cromwell—at least he was never a resurrection-man. In 1615 Mrs. Turner tripped into the other world at this spot in a yellow starched ruff. One fine morning in the year 1760 Earl Ferrers drove up here in a fine landau drawn by six horses, in his fine wedding clothes, and glided off into eternity in a magnificent way at the tail of a silken rope. In 1724 Jack Sheppard escaped at the same place from this world to the next, and the following year Jonathan Wild the Great also concluded his career at Tyburn. A few more remarkable executions—they are all carefully noted up with particulars in “The Curiosities of London,” are—1388, Judge Trevilian for treason; 1449, Perkin Warbeck; 1534, the Holy Maid of Kent; 1628, John Felton, assassin of Villiers, Duke of Buckingham; 1726, Catharine Hayes, burned alive for the murder of her husband; 1767, Mrs. Brownrigg, for murder; 1777, Dr. Dodd, for forgery; 1779, Rev. James Hackman, for the murder of Miss Reay. Who talks of

—— wanting good company
Upon Tyburn Tree?

—but enough of this.

Where the magnificent squares, crescents, and places of the modern Tyburnia now stand, thirty years ago there were brick-fields, corn-fields, and what not. I can remember very well the time when a commencement of Tyburnia, or North Western London was made. A few rows of houses, isolated from the rest of the world, were run up in a dubious way; and it was supposed that no one would be mad enough to live there. A gentleman with whom we were acquainted was amongst the first to break the ice; and, of course, must have been allowed to enter upon the premises which would now let at a very high rental, for a mere song. He was to be the bait, or call-bird. It seems but yesterday that we drove, a family-party, to dine with the penitus toto divisum, and how the heaps of mortar and compo were lying about, to be sure, and what scaffoldings were erected in every direction, and how it seemed to be a problem whether we should seek for our dinner in this or that carcase of a house, for a finished “family residence” with oil-cloth in the hall, and blinds to the windows, seemed to be perfectly out of the question. It really appeared as though we had come upon an excursion in search of Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday. When we bumped up to the place at last what a magnificent house it was, and when the curtains were drawn how we congratulated our friend, and when we peeped out how we condoled with him! He had indeed chosen the desert for his dwelling-place, and the dog had also contrived to provide himself with one fair spirit for his minister. How would the theory answer in practice? I know how it has answered. The hermit of Tyburnia is surrounded by human habitations in the year of grace 1860; the fair spirit is now enormously stout, and takes her airings in a yellow carriage, with a fat poodle looking out of the window. Her third daughter, Georgiana, three years ago married a young fellow whose regiment was at the Cape; and either at Port Natal, or Cape Town, or in some such outlandish locality she may now be found, having in her turn assisted to replenish the earth, as we were informed by recent advices. By the way, it is a somewhat curious secret which a South Kensington builder imparted to me the other day. In a new neighbourhood, where as yet not a house is let, if you enter yourself on the list of intending tenants the agent will put a few questions to you in a cursory way, of which you may not be able to see the drift. His real object is to ascertain if you are a Paterfamilias, with a beautiful bevy of amiable daughters, in which case you will be allowed to have the house upon easy—almost upon any terms. The calculation is that in order to assist the many despairing young gentlemen who may be going about the world in a state of utter misery for the want of sympathy from gentlest womanhood, the P.F. and his amiable lady will give a series of evening entertainments in the course of which certain consolations may be suggested to the mournful band. “The street” will be well lit up, “the street” will resound with the sweet strains of the cornet-à-pistons, “the street” will be full of carriages, not impossibly a wedding will take place in “the street.” What think you of this by way of an advertisement for a young and rising neighbourhood? Nieces would not do as well, for even the fondest uncle and aunt would only make spasmodic efforts to help a niece in “getting off;” but in the case of daughters the evening parties assume a chronic form.

This Tyburnia is all new, it is the newest thing in Western London. By the side of it Belgravia is almost an antiquity. Tyburnia, however, has never fairly taken rank amongst the fashionable quarters of London. It is inhabited by enormously wealthy people, the magnates of trade and commerce; by contractors; by professional men who have succeeded in obtaining the golden prizes in their respective callings. But it never has been, and never I think will be, “fashionable,” in the same sense as Belgravia, or, of course, that wonderful Quadrilateral which stands between Oxford Street and Piccadilly, Park Lane, and Bond Street. There was a moment when Tyburnia had its chance, and I cannot say that it missed it through any fault of its own. Some evil spirit who wished ill to Tyburnia and the Tyburnians whispered it into the ears of the Prince Consort and his fellow Commissioners of the Great Exhibition of 1851 to make a great National Art Repository at South Kensington. Out of this suggestion South Kensington has grown. Although the distance from Central London is even greater, it is a curious fact that the “genteel” people, with incomes varying from 500l. to 2000l. a-year and upwards are flocking to South Kensington as fast as the houses can be run up. You can’t exactly say that this is the effect of tradition, for the old court end of the town about which Leigh Hunt used to tell us such pleasant stories, is by no means identical with this modern creation of South Kensington. It can scarcely be regarded as a question of healthier and better air, for there is no healthier quarter of London than Tyburnia; but somehow or other it has missed the perfume of gentility after the school of dowagerhood and my Lord’s Poor Cousins. Perhaps the millionnaires made too heavy a rush upon the quarter at once, and frightened away the timid kine whose natural pastures were not at the diggings. They could scarcely hope to run their graceful little tea-parties with success against the magnificent banquets of the more opulent parvenus, and so adhered for a time to little white genteel streets in Belgravia. From these they have timidly stolen forth, occasion offering, and the family banker being propitious, to little squares and streets Kensington way, where they take nice little houses, which they are not indisposed to let once and again when the season is at its height on one genteel pretext or another; and so they play their part. The end of it, however, is, that although Tyburnia may glisten with gold, it has very little to show in the way of purple, faded or otherwise.

I cannot remember the time when Belgrave Square was not; but those of my contemporaries who have preceded me but a short way on the path of life tell me that they recollect it well when the site was called the “Five Fields.” My boyish memory will not carry me back beyond the year 1829 or thereabouts; and I find by reference to the same instructive work of Mr. Timbs which I have before quoted, that Belgrave Square was built by Mr. George Basevi, the architect, and finished in the year 1829. The place before this was a miserable swamp, and I have been told by older men that in their boyhood they have shot snipe in the Five Fields; others have informed me that they used to go botanising there for curious plants. Mr. Thomas Cubitt, the great builder and contractor, may be said to have invented Belgravia. He dug into the swamp, and found that it consisted of a shallow stratum of clay, and that below this there was good gravel. “The clay he removed and burned into bricks; and by building upon the substratum of gravel, he converted this spot from one of the most unhealthy to one of the most healthy, to the immense advantage of the ground landlord and the whole metropolis.” I think Mr. Basevi and Mr. Cubitt must have understood the mystery of lord-and-lady catching better than their brethren of Tyburnia. They seem to have built a great square first, and to have filled it with grandees; and from this they built away other smaller squares, and streets of all dimensions, which were gradually taken up by people of the same class, and afterwards by their imitators and admirers, who loved to dwell in the odour of perfect gentility. The plan pursued by Mr. Cubitt was certainly an inspiration of genius, for before his time all builders who looked at the place gave a glance at the surface-water, and turned aside in despair. There was another consideration which might perhaps have prevented tenants from flocking to this quarter, and that is the extreme lowness of the situation. I do not pretend to give exact figures, but I can scarcely be wrong when I say that the Belgravian district is a hundred feet lower than the higher and more northerly districts of London. Healthy the district most certainly is, as I can testify myself from having resided many years within its limits. It was a very common thing on returning home at night by Piccadilly in the season of fogs to see the fog lying heavily on that famous thoroughfare; but when you turned down upon Belgravia all was clear. Chelsea, which lies even lower, has always been reputed a healthy suburb. In the last century it was the residence of Doctors Arbuthnot, Sloane, Mead, and Cadogan; and I suppose the physicians knew where to find the best air.

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Endless have been the changes in this Belgravian district. The Orange Garden in bygone days stood upon the site of the present St. Barnabas’ Church. Indeed in the old, old times, Pimlico was essentially the district of public gardens. It is notorious that the Queen’s Palace of Buckingham House stands on the site of the old Mulberry Gardens, so famous amongst our dramatic writers. Precisely one hundred years ago—that is, in the year 1760—there was nothing between Buckingham House and the river, looking either south or west, but a few sparse cottages and the Stag Brewery. What is there now? The name of Pimlico has often puzzled me, and if any one can throw any additional light upon the subject I shall be glad. All I can do for the information of others who may have taken this momentous point into consideration, is to copy for their benefit the following brief suggestions from “Notes and Queries.” “Pimlico is the name of a place near Clitheroe, in Lancashire. Lord Orrery (in his Letters) mentions Pemlicoe, Dublin; and Pimlico is the name of a bird of Barbadoes, ‘which presageth storms.” The district and its vicinage in some measure keep up the old reputation as the quarter for public gardens, inasmuch as just above Battersea Bridge are Cremorne Gardens. Cremorne House was formerly the residence of a Lord Cremorne; a title which still exists. The family name is Dawson of Dartrey, Rockcorry, Ireland. The river frontage of Chelsea seems to me less changed than most things in London since I was a boy. It seems to me that I remember Cheyne Walk as long as I remember anything, with Don Saltero’s Tavern, made so famous by Steele, and subsequently by Benjamin Franklin. If Kensington is called the Court end, Chelsea might fairly be called the literary end of the town, for here in former days lived Steele, Addison, John Locke, Lord Shaftesbury, Smollett, and Swift. Sir Robert Walpole, too, had a house here. As a question of age I ought easily to remember the Chelsea Bun House, but I do not. It was only pulled down in 1839 or 1840, an affair of yesterday, so that this famous bun factory ought to stand fresh in the recollection of all Londoners who are more than thirty years of age. I find it recorded, that the bun trade began to decline when there was an end of Ranelagh. Now Ranelagh came to an end contemporaneously with the pseudo Peace rejoicings at the beginning of this century. The Peace fête was the last of its glories—that was in 1803. It had a run of about sixty years, having been opened in the year 1742. As some persons may be curious to know its exact site, I may mention that it was situated just to the east of Chelsea Hospital, and part of the ground is now included in the old men’s garden of that institution. The old veterans of the Hospital are again amongst the few unchanged features in London life. Just what I remember them when I was a little boy, just the same were the gnarled old relics of the wars whom I saw lounging and sauntering about in front of the Hospital the other day. Whatever may be the subjects to which we are indifferent, most people—or they must be very miserable dogs indeed—care about the duration of human life. Now if the records of Chelsea Hospital are true, here the true temple of longevity is to be found. What think you of the following dates, which Mr. Timbs obtained from careful inspection of the Hospital burial-ground:—

Thomas Asbey died 1737 aged 112
Captain Laurence died 1765 aged 95
Robert Cumming died 1767 aged 116
Peter Dawling died 1768 aged 102
A Soldier who fought at the Battle of the Boyne died 1772 aged 111
Peter Brent, of Tinmouth died 1773 aged 107

The ages of the pensioners seem to vary from sixty to ninety, and in 1850 there were said to be two old fellows in the Hospital who had attained the age of 104. I wonder what kind of certificates of birth these aged pensioners could have produced, for from the ages which they claim, their reckonings must have run from periods when it was exceedingly difficult to arrive at satisfactory conclusions as to the date of birth. When we remember further that the claimants were for the most part taken from the very humblest classes of society, amongst whom you could scarcely derive assistance from family Bibles, and similar records, the difficulty becomes enormously increased. Be this, however, as it may, Chelsea Hospital and the old pensioners are amongst the unchanged things of London.

The suburb of Kensington Proper seems to have varied less than most of the others of which I have made passing mention. Some rows of modern houses have indeed grown up about Camden Hill; but the High Street, and the square, and the turning up by the old church are pretty much about what I remember them thirty years ago. To be sure, in the road from Hyde Park Corner to Kensington Church there is a notable change. That little low row of houses close to Saint George’s Hospital, and in one of which lived and died Liston the comedian, is indeed one of the monuments of London as it was thirty years ago; but we knew nothing of palatial residences and Gibraltar Houses, and Princes Gates. I cannot say I recall to mind the exact aspect of the place. There were nursery gardens, and a large mansion or two, Gore House being one of them of course, and there was a little row of houses just before you came to the turning known in these, our later days, as Hyde Park Gate South; but there was no approach to continuity as at present, even in the year 1830. It is said that within the memory of man a bell used to be rung at Kensington to call the people together who intended returning to town, so that they might travel together, and afford each other mutual aid and protection against the highwaymen. Only conceive Claude Duval, or Sixteen String Jack, operating in front of Sir C. Cresswell’s house, or Stratheden House, at the present day! The story of Gore House is one of the most melancholy memorabilia of this district, on account of poor Lady Blessington and her ruin. I had considerable respect for Alexis Soyer, but living, as I did, close to the spot at the time, I was not altogether displeased to see that the scheme for turning the place into a kind of Suburban Restaurant did not succeed, and that the more, as the speculation was said to be mainly the concern of some Liverpool Jews, of whom Soyer was only the paid agent. A good deal of old Kensington and Chelsea remain what they were, not much of Brompton; but if my life is extended to something like the length of the usual human tether, I shall have lived through the inception and growth of Tyburnia, Belgravia, and South Kensington. In point of fact London—the London in which people live—will almost have changed its site in my time. The districts in which the fewest changes have occurred are May Fair, Marylebone, and Bloomsbury. The City has been all pulled to pieces. A steady old merchant who had been in the habit of making his appearance on ’Change some forty years ago would be not a little surprised with new London Bridge, and King William Street, and the new Exchange, and the new Fish Market, and new Cannon Street, and the removal of the market from the middle of Farringdon Street opposite the Debtors’ Prison, and more recently of that abominable old nuisance, Smithfield Cattle Market. I remember old London Bridge very well, and the fall of the water at particular periods of the tide; but all that has been changed in a very effectual way. In Bloomsbury we have the new front of the British Museum, and a parcel of bran-new squares, such as Gordon Square, &c. As I could not call to mind what had stood in the place of University College, Upper Gower Street, I referred to the books, and find that the first stone was laid by the Duke of Sussex in the year 1827, and the building was opened in 1828—consequently I know not what were the antecedents of its site. The Regent’s Park, I think, remains much what it was—a few rows of terraces may have been added, but the recollection of most of my contemporaries will, I suppose, agree with my own, that even in those days the Regent’s Park was the place to which we were driven by our cruel parents before breakfast for the benefit of our constitutions, and to the grievous annoyance of our tempers. Even now at the distance of thirty years, and though I freely admit that certain visits to the Zoological Gardens, and certain interviews with the bears have not been altogether without a soothing and balsamic effect upon my spirits, I never can feel quite comfortable in the “outer circle.” How I used to rejoice when those houses surmounted by the plum-puddings with spikes came in sight, because then I felt secure that the weary matutinal pilgrimage was nearly at an end. The improvement of St. James’s Gardens and the most judicious closing-up of the unwholesome tank at the top of the Green Park are quite of modern date.

Many of the places of suburban resort round London are very little changed. It is wonderful, for example, how lightly Time has laid his finger upon Hampstead. Of course there have been great changes in the Hampstead Road, and that pleasant back way by Primrose Hill, and through the fields pied with daisies and buttercups, has been so be-bricked and be-mortared as to be scarcely recognisable. The other day, however,—it was on a Sunday—I wandered up to Hampstead; and really, except that the distant ground to the eastward is more thickly built over than of old, there is marvellously little of change about the old place. There is Jack Straw’s Castle, and that melancholy-looking house which forms the end of the wedge which separates the Highgate! from the Hendon Roads just looking as melancholy as ever. There, too, are the donkeys standing by the little pond, who must be the grand-donkeylings, or great-grand-donkeylings, of the very animals I used to bestride in my own school-boy days. Yes! here comes a party—by George, we must be in the year 1832!—two, sort of half-housemaid, half-young-milliner-looking girls are skurrying on, with a youngster, who may rise to be a costermonger, behind them, urging the poor brutes on by severe flagellation. Then there is a showily-dressed young “gent” who is with them, and who no doubt would be happy to charm their hearts by a display of noble donkeymanship. The donkey-boy, however, is so sedulously intent upon the animals on which the young ladies are seated that he does not notice that the young gent has fallen astern; and there he is in the swampy ground, with evident symptoms of intentions on the part of the poor outraged brute to put his head between his knees, and toss his inexperienced rider into the muck. I hope he may. Now the donkey-boy goes to the young man’s rescue; and as I pass the ladies on my way to the pine-tree group, I hear one of these fair beings say to the other, “Heliza Jane, can’t you lend us an ’air-pin?” the intention of the young lady obviously being to use the implement in question as vicarious of the spur. To be sure, it is aggravating when you are boiling with the fury of the race, to find the noble animal which should carry you on to victory, or at least to a noble struggle, standing stock-still, and positively declining to proceed one step further. I hope this little fellow in knickerbockers, and his bright little sister, who are dashing past the very spot where John Sadleir was found one foggy morning with the cream-jug in his hand, will have better luck. Her little hat falls off; but not for that will she stop. The donkey-boy no doubt will see to that; but she won’t be behind in the race for a hundred hats. They have evidently chosen, or rather there have been selected for them two prime donkeys—I dare say the best to be found amongst that kind of donkey-Tattersall’s, which is held under the trees by the pond where Irving used to preach when his wits were gone.

I wish I had space to talk of the humours of the tea-gardens, more especially at the Bull and Bush, which is about three-quarters of a mile beyond Hampstead in the hollow. What fun it is to sit out in the arbours and have tea amongst the spiders’ webs, and how much better the cream and butter are there than they are anywhere else. How Mary Jane and her young man make off to the pine-trees, and love to sit there in heathery dalliance. I wonder what they’re saying. It is something not altogether displeasing to the young lady, that is clear; but, I dare say, twenty years hence, if they thrive in business, and the young man is “steady,” and Mary Jane “makes him a good wife,” they will wander up to the pine-knoll, and enjoy the thought of this distant sunny afternoon, in the year 1860, very much indeed,—“Twenty years ago now, only think, Mary Jane!” That will be a great deal better than to be compelled by hard fate to give utterance to the same lofty sentiment in the year 1860,—the sentiment referring back to, or involving in its scope, A.D. 1840. That’s where the shoe pinches. It is well with you, Mary Jane!

I have talked a good deal about places, and the mere brick and mortar features of the town, but what a change there is in the London streets in other respects within the last thirty years. I fancy I remember the first omnibus—if it was not the first, it was amongst the first. My recollection is of a great blue-bottle Shillibeer, which, on one particular day—I forget in what year—made its appearance in the New Road, to the grievous astonishment of the lieges. Just about the same time there was a steam-carriage which tried its fortune for a short time—if I remember right—in the same locality, and set all the horses capering and prancing, No wonder; that was opposition with a vengeance. It was some time, I think, before the omnibus system was developed to any great extent. These long machines used to go pounding up and down the New Road, plying between Maida Hill and the Bank for the accommodation of the City people, long before they were tried upon the other thoroughfares. However, when the system was fairly adopted it grew with a witness, until now the principal streets of London are so crowded with them that you can scarcely get to a railway-station in time, save you allow yourself an hour to spare for stoppages caused by omnibuses on the road. I am sorry to say I can remember the old Hackney coaches, and Jarvey with his gin-sodden eyes, and his multitude of capes, and the mouldy straw, and the ever-clinking steps. The shape of the cabs, too, has undergone strange permutations. At one time the driver sat before you on a little seat upon the flap or wooden apron; then he was stuck on to the side; then he was perched on to the roof; then a vehicle was tried in which two passengers could sit face to face, but sideways as regarded the horse, as people sit in omnibuses. The Hansom cab is the last expression of civilisation.

It may be observed that I have said very little of London on the Surrey side, and the omission proceeds from the very simple reason that I know little or nothing about it. One cannot however drive to the Derby, or to Dulwich, or to the Crystal Palace, or down to Greenwich, without seeing that the town has increased in this direction quite as much as in others. The whole aspect, too, of the river is changed: where there used to be watermen and their wherries, we now have penny and half-penny steamers. Perhaps the greatest change of all has occurred in the numbers of the population. To put this fact in a more striking point of view let us go considerably further back than thirty years ago. Three hundred years ago, in 1560, London contained 145,000 inhabitants. In 1800, the population had reached the figure of 850,000. For the present century the results are as follows:—


What shall we find in 1861—next year—when the census is taken? Cæsar never thought it worth his while to make mention of so paltry a place as it was in his day, although he entered the Thames. Compare Rome and London in 1860. A few changes have occurred.