Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/A good shilling's worth


It has been said—and I am inclined to believe it—that if any one were to take an empty room and invite a pleasure-seeking public to the contemplation of its bare walls, the speculation would be a paying one, provided only that the price of admission was fixed at One Shilling. It would be a problem not without some interest to the metaphysician to determine the causes which have led to the adoption of this particular sum as the almost universal equivalent for modern amusement of every kind. Why should a poor, half-starved, half-stupefied, barking seal command exactly the same price, for instance, as the incalculable treasures of the World’s Fancy Fair? On what mercantile principles does an enterprise, whose cost is reckoned by hundreds of thousands, rely for its success upon the identical sum as that which is calculated to pay for the weekly hire of a small back room? Why, in short, should neither the quality nor the cost of the entertainment offered affect in the slightest degree the price demanded or the readiness with which it is paid! It is not so in other matters. If I wish to buy my wife a gown, I am painfully sensible of the difference in cost between cotton and silk. If, after a hard day’s work, I indulge myself in the brief Elysium of nicotine, I at once realise the pecuniary distinction between the aristocratic regalia and the “shag” or “bird’s-eye” of humble life. But if for once in a way we sally forth together for a day or a night of “popular” amusement, I find that quality is no longer an element for consideration. From comic songs to science; from Leotard to light literature; from Cornhill to Cremorne; from the high art of South Kensington or Trafalgar Square to the high rope of the Crystal Palace or Highbury Barn, the price is still the same, and when once we have made up our mind to expend each our shilling, the world. seems all before us where to choose.

I am probably by no means the first to whom some such reflection has occurred, on looking through the first three or four advertisement columns of the “Times.” Others, too, have probably ere now arrived at the conclusion that, of many shillings so spent, some at least have met with a decidedly good return. Of one of the best of these I purpose now to give some brief account.

I confess to a weakness for some slight blending of instruction with amusement. I like to think that I have carried away something for my money; and though many will doubtless discern in this evidence of a sordid and mercantile spirit, still others will, I trust, admit in the nature of the object sought some excuse for any undue eagerness in its acquisition. Deeply, then, was I grieved when the untoward accident of 1857 brought to an untimely close that favoured haunt of my boyish days—the Polytechnic; and great was my rejoicing when, on my return from a long absence abroad, I found my old friend risen like a phœnix from its ashes in far higher feather than before. Here, at least, was a safe investment for a shilling.

And, indeed, hardly had I passed up the well-known steps into the gallery of the Great Hall, ere I found myself repaid. In the course of what is poetically termed “a somewhat chequered career,” it has been my lot to travel at one time or another over a considerable portion of the habitable globe. With the outer surface of no small portion of what our geography books jocosely term five quarters of the world, I am tolerably familiar; but—too like, I fear, to most other travellers—it was to the surface alone that my knowledge had been hitherto confined. A glance at these walls and my heart expands at a bound. Here is the dear old Norwegian Ffjord, with its deep dark forests and broad still mountain ranges stretching away on either hand, just as I remember it years ago. But with it is something I do not remember at all. Here is the solid earth open right down under my feet, and stratum after stratum revealed through lingula flags, and Ffestiniog slates, and “Cambrian” and “metamorphic,” and gneiss, right down to the primeval granite.

Here, again, is my own native land,—the very spot in “famous London town,” on which I now sit to write these lines, and down under my feet I can see in this wonderful picture the London clay and the Woolwich beds, and under them the gault, and the greensands, and the mammalian beds, and the Purbeck and carboniferous strata, and through them all the dark shiny streaks of trap and veined granite. Then Vesuvius and the tremulous Solfatara, with their red veins of glowing lava and their huge black pillars of basalt; and then again we are out in the wild Atlantic, and the rocky peaks of the Azores, that loomed mistily upon our horizon as we rolled homeward before the wild westerly gale only a few short weeks ago, dive downward mile after mile through the clear green sea, over which we have so often sped, down to the old granite again, and the flat bed of the Atlantic telegraph cable plateau.

So on from point to point of well-remembered journeyings, and at each we learn something of the mysteries over which we have passed without a thought, and our wanderings assume an interest altogether new.

Then, as I turn from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, I find my wife, who has for some moments been tugging at my sleeve, rapt in reverent admiration of a great crown of dark-coloured sugar-candy, standing proudly under its glass case. Is it the form of the crown that moves her loyal heart, or is it the sweetness of the seeming candy that gently agitates her sympathetic palate? A moment’s inspection shows that it is neither of these, and I hurry her away with all convenient speed. That crown is made, not of sugar-candy, but of aniline, and it is from those dark crystals, extracted by cunning hands from the coal-scuttle of common domestic life, that the soft beauties of mauve and the brilliant glories of magenta are drawn forth for the distraction of mankind. No wonder if ladies’ dress has become an expensive item in the yearly account. Here is a little matter of colouring only; a little crystal crown, barely half a foot high, but worth a matter of some 200l. or so, and representing just 250 tons of coal. My dear, I think we had better move on.

Here is something much more to the purpose. This round, tub-looking affair must have some domestic bearing, despite its hard name. A “Hydro-Extractor.” The title is not entirely explanatory; but while I am puzzling between the rival claims of Latin and Greek, up steps one of the civil brown-coated servants of the Institution, and explains that in English this means a wringing machine. “You put a wet blanket in here, sir, and just turn this handle.” Wh-r-r-r-r! and the blanket is taken out again as dry as though it had been manipulated by M. Robert Houdin. If this admirable machine could but be adapted to the “wet blankets” of society, how many poor hearts and “withers” would escape unwrung!

What is this? An instrument of torture, with its cruel-looking knives twisting and turning in their hollow trough? On the contrary, it is a machine by the use of which much torture might be saved, especially that worst of tortures, dyspepsia. It is Stevens’s bread-making machine, and those cruel-looking knives have no more fatal object than the harmless making of dough.

Here, again, we change our direction, and dive into the realms of practical science. This black-looking thing in a dark corner, with which Mrs. A——’s crinoline has just become entangled, proves to be a locomotive engine. Not a full-grown one, certainly, but a very good-sized model, some five feet in length and three in height, with furnace, boilers, tender, &c., all complete, and furnished with a mile of rails on which to perform its miniature journeys. Above it, on a sort of raised counter round the compact little engine which drives all the moving machinery of the Institution, is a large collection of similar models on a considerably smaller scale. Locomotives and stationary engines, patent sewage locks and machinery for desiccation and deodorisation, and one little pair of oscillating steamboat engines that work within the very moderate compass of a walnut shell. Close beside them is another collection of telegraphic apparatus,—Morse’s, and Halske’s—and various other forms. Here, stretching across the canal which runs round three parts of the lower hall, is a model of a most ingenious wooden bridge, which, after the exercise of almost equal ingenuity in spelling out the inscription placed unapproachably in the centre of the structure, we find to be a model of one erected by Captain Moorsom, R.E., upon the Waterford and Kilkenny Railroad. And here, just beyond it, is a cardboard model of a very wonderful machine for navigating the air. Estimated weight, 1½ tons; estimated pressure on pistons, 200 lb. per square inch, and 4-horse power; estimated speed per hour, 150 miles! On the top of it stands for purposes of comparison a great locust, with its heavy body and four small wings. Let us hope that its big imitator underneath may be equally successful in the application of its own.

And now, ranged in the glass cases on our left, we have a sort of miniature “process court.” First, an illustration of the construction of a wine-glass in all its various stages, from the little round “blob” of glass to the fully developed goblet. Next, a case of iron from Taranaki, or New Plymouth, as our unimaginative Colonial Office calls it. Here is a mine of riches for our brothers at the far antipodes a thousand-fold more valuable than any wealth of gold. The iron seems to lie like sand upon the shore. Here is a cupful of it just as it is gathered; pure iron dust which clings to the magnet we thrust into it as closely and readily as any filings from the forge. Then come various specimens of the uses to which it may be put. Knives and keen razors and tools of every kind.

A little further on and another large case shows us samples of the various stages through which is passed the kamptulicon, a sort of substitute for floor-cloth or matting, made of cork and gutta percha. Beside it stands a yet more interesting case, illustrating the various processes of wood engraving, and filled with specimens of various kinds. In the little room on the left hand, passing out at the further end of the hall, is displayed the whole art and mystery of pipe-making, and the votary of the Indian weed can superintend in person the manufacture of his meerschaum or his clay from the first lump to the final glories of amber mouthpiece and silver mounting. The little niche opposite—where of old the glass-blower used to elaborate his skeleton ships—is now taken possession of by the representatives of two more useful trades, and one man will weave a handsome scarf for your neck, while the other is mending, “stronger than new,” the pet piece of old china for whose breakage poor Ponto and his master got into such trouble months ago.

Beyond these two “process” rooms, we come to a large room full of pictures, but of these, with one exception perhaps, the less said the better. This is a Rubens, but not by any means one of the best productions of that too prolific master. Beneath it hangs a very good print of the same picture, inverted as though in a looking-glass. The others are all specimens more or less mediocre of the English school, not perhaps much below, but certainly not above, the average of the Academy Exhibition. In the centre of this room, however, is a very interesting case filled partly with beautiful specimens of glass and china, partly with relics and “curios” of all kinds from Delhi and Cawnpore. Of these latter, some are perhaps of a questionable description. “A branch of the tree under which the massacre occurred” is a relic of rather a “sensation” character, as is also, though in a less degree, the “leaf from a Bible picked up beside the Cawnpore well,” while the tulwar “which has killed women and children” is, I would venture to suggest, a mistake from every point of view. But passing these, we have here plenty of objects both curious and interesting. What a glorious, though perhaps not over-comfortable smoking-cap is that of the late King of Delhi, with its precious setting of 450 pearls and precious stones! What garments, too, gorgeous with rich jewels and cloth of gold; and chiefest of all, the integumenta virilia of the Queen, looking as though they could stand by themselves without further support than their own gorgeous embroidery. Close by them is a very singular instrument, of which I should have liked a more minute inspection had I not been promptly hurried away for fear, I suppose, of the contagion of evil example. It is a “gold whip set with 300 turquoises, very beautiful, used in the Zenana for flogging the ladies of the court!”

A brief tour through a long series of glowing cosmoramic views, Alma and Sebastopol, and the Vatican, and Switzerland, and Aladdin’s Palace, et hoc genus omne, and we are again in the great hall, where the bell is just proclaiming the approaching descent of the diving bell. For those who are in want of a headache, and do not mind paying a shilling for the accommodation, this is such an opportunity as does not often occur. We have different tastes: so, after having sufficiently admired the unfortunate diver, who, enveloped in waterproof, and with his head mysteriously encased in a huge tin pot, seems to spend the greater part of his life in groping for halfpence at the bottom of a pond, we leave the diving bell to make its daily journey, and push on past wax flowers and portions of the Blondin rope, and Dr. Eddy’s steam shield-ships of 1300 tons and 500 horse-power, with masts which in action lie down snugly along the deck, blocking up apparently all possible retreat through the cabin doors, and little iron mounds like beaver huts to protect the guns; and now our attention is arrested by another seeming instrument of torture, in which is actually a wooden representative of the unhappy being who is the subject of its pangs. This, however, proves upon examination to be a galvanic bath; and by and by, in one of the galleries upstairs, we come upon a still more awful-looking chair, in which the same agent is again employed for the restoration of the invalid.

And then we come to those two innocent-looking little brass rods which played so fatal a part in the following sad tale.

Poor Edwin was a clerk in the ——, well, in a Government office. But clerks, even Government clerks, are mortal, and to him, as to others, had come the piercing shafts of love. Was it from a three-cornered note of tender pink, or from a whispered intimation on the crowded staircase of Lady P——, or was it by the intuition of his own beating heart, that he divined the presence of his loved Angelina and her schoolmates from the adjacent Regent’s Park at this excellent institution one frosty day in January, 185—? No matter. There she was; and we need not waste much time in guessing the destination of a day’s leave obtained by young Edwin from his superiors in Pall Mall. The eventful moment came; and as Angelina faintly strove to fix her wondering attention upon the explanations of the talented lecturer in the centre of the hall, young Edwin stood suddenly by her side. Oral communication was difficult, for, wedged closely in the crowd, but two paces off, was Mrs. Dragonnette, the inexorable duenna of Minerva House; but soon a little ungloved hand slid gently into his, while the other clasped tightly, and perhaps a little ostentatiously, the nearest of the two fatal knobs of brass. Five seconds of Elysium, and then came a hurried movement of the throng, and Edwin, in imminent peril of separation from his fair queen, grasped vigorously at the companion rod. P—r—r—r—t. Ah!!! A thrill shot through the unfortunate pair; a shriek burst from Angelina’s lips, as, for the moment, she fancied that wrist, elbow, and shoulder must all be out of joint. In an instant the eyes of Madame Dragonnette were upon her, and in another she was on her way back to the Regent’s Park. The blow was fatal. The ill-starred couple never met again. It was but last week that Angelina was married to an eminent dealer in Russian hides and tallow, while Edwin still sits, a disconsolate bachelor, in his cocoa-matted office in Pall Mall. Should he ever recover, as of course he probably never will, so far as to again indulge in the tender passion, he will probably be very careful not to venture on its experience in too close proximity to an electrical machine.

But what a magnificent machine it is, with its seven-feet plate and all its gigantic appliances! It was constructed, we are told, for the Emperor Napoleon, and cost no less than 250l. For half an hour and more, if only a moderately dry atmosphere allows of the exhibition, are we delighted with the brilliant marvels of this beautiful instrument. Single sparks, more than six feet in length; chains of glowing light, reaching to the very roof of the great hall; and huge spiral flames, and brilliant colours, and wonderful experiments upon a small boy in an iron box.

And when this is over, we again continue our tour of observation, and now our attention is attracted by some of the most ingenious absurdities that perhaps ever entered the mind of man. Here is a wonderful engine, like an elaborate rack, for teaching to swim. Here a “burglary detector,” a wonderful arrangement, by which, when a thief opens by night either door or window, the fact is at once notified by sound of bell to the master of the house, for whose subsequent guidance a notice board sets forth with business-like accuracy the particular door or window at which the entry has been made. Here is an eight-fold cannon, with its various muzzles radiating, wheel-like, from a centre, and admirably calculated for the simultaneous destruction of friend and foe. Here a “reversible devotional stool,” with a kneeling-place, intended to turn bottom upwards during the sermon for the accommodation of your feet, but better adapted to enforce involuntary prostration at some too neglected shrine. Here is a “thought-writer,” a heart-shaped, palette-like piece of wood, furnished with two wheels and a pencil, by resting the tips of your fingers on which your thoughts are to be unconsciously recorded on the sheet beneath. And last, not least, here is a most ingenious machine, full of cranks and wheels and screws, and fine-cutting chisels,—a sort of adaptation on a small scale of the celebrated brass gun turning machinery at Woolwich, and its end is—to peel apples.

And now we are in the little room above the great theatre, and are wandering with ever-increasing admiration from one to another of McPherson’s glorious photographs of Rome. There stands the Coliseum, with its myriad arches bright and clear as in the broad Italian sun, or, better still, the soft rich moonlight of the southern clime. There are the graceful columns of Minerva’s temple, the massive proportions of the Rotunda, the historic grandeur of Capitol and Forum and triumphal arch. There, too, are the sculptured beauties of the Vatican, and a dozen other galleries; the frescoes of innumerable palaces, and all the endless gems of Rome. Four hundred photographs, the catalogue tells us, and any one of them cheap at the entrance fee we have paid.

But it is not for our eyes only that the indefatigable Professor Pepper caters at the Polytechnic Institution. Here is excellent entertainment also for the ears. Lectures on Cotton and Chemistry, Ventilation, Railway Accidents, the Art of Balancing (with a view to a scientific exposition of the feats of Blondin and Leotard), the Whitworth and Armstrong Guns, the Iron-plated Ships, Accidents in Coal Mines, the New Terrestrial and Stellar Chemistry, the New Tar Colours (Mauve and Magenta), and the Chief Scientific Specialities of the late International Exhibition. After these, concerts by the Brousil Family and the St. George’s Choir, Magical Illusions, and Experiments in Recreative Philosophy; and last, not least, the delightful Herr Susman, with his marriage peals on the quaint old cithern, his exquisite imitations of nightingale and thrush, and “ze tocks in ze vater,” and the duet between the shrill robin and the deep-voiced blackbird, and the numerous family of pigs, and the infant neighings of “ze yong collt vat ronns aftare ze olld mare, ze modder horse.”

And then come the magnificent Dissolving Views, the great feature of the entertainment. These consist, by day, of an interesting series by Messrs. Childe and Hill, illustrative of London at various dates, from the Roman to the Hanoverian epoch, illustrated by one of the most amusing of demonstrators.

So, too, must the lovely illuminated fountain, with its glittering spray, now of brilliant crimson, now of palest or deepest blue, now of purple, violet, orange, green, and all these colours interchanging and intermixed, and forming altogether such a treat for the lovers of light and colour as in our dingy clime is rarely to be obtained.

And then we all wander into the dingy streets again, and leave behind us scores of things as exhilarating and as beautiful as any we have seen; the uranograph, illustrating the relation between earth and sun; the models of merchant ships and men of war; the charcoal biscuits for brightening the teeth and assisting the digestion; the water-pipes and other wondrous works of cardboard; the interesting process of Messrs. Bartlett and Co., for preserving stone, and, if possible, inducing our costly Houses of Parliament to hold together a few years more; the beautiful collection of engravings and chromo-lithographs; the anatomical horrors of eyes and ears;—all these, and dozens more, we must leave for another visit, for it is 10 p.m., and the Polytechnic hours are respectable and early. Perhaps, after all, we have seen and heard already somewhat too much. Possibly, had we been less diffuse in our researches, we might have taken away more. But we think, at all events, we carry with us home the conviction that we have certainly had an uncommonly good shillingsworth.

C. W. A.