Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782, described in Letters to a Friend/Chapter V
London, 13th June.
Often as I had heard Ranelagh spoken of, I had yet formed only an imperfect idea of it. I supposed it to be a garden somewhat different from that of Vauxhall; but, in fact, I hardly knew what I thought of it. Yesterday evening I took a walk in order to visit this famous place of amusement; but I missed my way and got to Chelsea; where I met a man with a wheel-barrow, who not only very civilly showed me the right road, but also conversed with me the whole of the distance which we walked together. And finding, upon enquiry, that I was a subject of the King of Prussia, he desired me, with much eagerness, to relate to him some anecdotes concerning that mighty monarch. At length I arrived at Ranelagh; and having paid my half-crown on entrance, I soon enquired for the garden door, and it was readily shown to me; when, to my infinite astonishment, I found myself in a poor, mean-looking, and ill-lighted garden, where I met but few people. I had not been here long before I was accosted by a young lady, who also was walking there, and who, without ceremony, offered me her arm, asking me why I walked thus solitarily? I now concluded, this could not possibly be the splendid, much-boasted Ranelagh; and so, seeing not far from me a number of people entering a door, I followed them, in hopes either to get out again, or to vary the scene.
But it is impossible to describe, or indeed to conceive, the effect it had on me, when, coming out of the gloom of the garden, I suddenly entered a round building, illuminated by many hundred lamps; the splendour and beauty of which surpassed everything of the kind I had ever seen before. Everything seemed here to be round; above, there was a gallery divided into boxes; and in one part of it an organ with a beautiful choir, from which issued both instrumental and vocal music. All around, under this gallery, are handsome painted boxes for those who wish to take refreshments: the floor was covered with mats, in the middle of which are four high black pillars; within which there are neat fire-places for preparing tea, coffee and punch; and all around, also, there are placed tables, set out with all kinds of refreshments. Within these four pillars, in a kind of magic rotundo, all the beau-monde of London move perpetually round and round.
I at first mixed with this immense concourse of people, of all sexes, ages, countries, and characters; and I must confess, that the incessant change of faces, the far greater number of which were strikingly beautiful, together with the illumination, the extent and majestic splendour of the place, with the continued sound of the music, makes an inconceivably delightful impression on the imagination; and I take the liberty to add, that, on seeing it now for the first time, I felt pretty nearly the same sensations that I remember to have felt when, in early youth, I first read the Fairy Tales.
Being, however, at length tired of the crowd, and being tired also with always moving round and round in a circle, I sat myself down in one of the boxes, in order to take some refreshment, and was now contemplating at my ease this prodigious collection and crowd of a happy, cheerful world, who were here enjoying themselves devoid of care, when a waiter very civilly asked me what refreshments I wished to have, and in a few moments returned with what I asked for. To my astonishment he would accept no money for these refreshments; which I could not comprehend, till he told me that everything was included in the half-crown I had paid at the door; and that I had only to command if I wished for anything more; but that if I pleased, I might give him as a present a trifling douceur. This I gave him with pleasure, as I could not help fancying I was hardly entitled to so much civility and good attention for one single half-crown.
I now went up into the gallery, and seated myself in one of the boxes there; and from thence becoming all at once a grave and moralising spectator, I looked down on the concourse of people who were still moving round and round in the fairy circle; and then I could easily distinguish several stars and other orders of knighthood; French queues and bags contrasted with plain English heads of hair, or professional wigs; old age and youth, nobility and commonalty, all passing each other in the motley swarm. An Englishman who joined me during this my reverie, pointed out to me on my enquiring, princes and lords with their dazzling stars; with which they eclipsed the less brilliant part of the company.
Here some moved round in an eternal circle to see and be seen; there a group of eager connoisseurs had placed themselves before the orchestra and were feasting their ears, while others at the well- supplied tables were regaling the parched roofs of their mouths in a more substantial manner, and again others, like myself, were sitting alone, in the corner of a box in the gallery, making their remarks and reflections on so interesting a scene.
I now and then indulged myself in the pleasure of exchanging, for some minutes, all this magnificence and splendour for the gloom of the garden, in order to renew the pleasing surprise I experienced on my first entering the building. Thus I spent here some hours in the night in a continual variation of entertainment; when the crowd now all at once began to lessen, and I also took a coach and drove home.
At Ranelagh the company appeared to me much better, and more select than at Vauxhall; for those of the lower class who go there, always dress themselves in their best, and thus endeavour to copy the great. Here I saw no one who had not silk stockings on. Even the poorest families are at the expense of a coach to go to Ranelagh, as my landlady assured me. She always fixed on some one day in the year, on which, without fail, she drove to Ranelagh. On the whole the expense at Ranelagh is nothing near so great as it is at Vauxhall, if you consider the refreshments; for any one who sups at Vauxhall, which most people do, is likely, for a very moderate supper, to pay at least half-a-guinea.
I had almost forgotten to tell you that I have already been to the Parliament House; and yet this is of most importance. For, had I seen nothing else in England but this, I should have thought my journey thither amply rewarded.
As little as I have hitherto troubled myself with politics, because indeed with us it is but little worth our while, I was however desirous of being present at a meeting of parliament--a wish that was soon amply gratified.
One afternoon, about three o'clock, at which hour, or thereabouts, the house most commonly meets, I enquired for Westminster Hall, and was very politely directed by an Englishman. These directions are always given with the utmost kindness. You may ask whom you please, if you can only make yourself tolerably well understood; and by thus asking every now and then, you may with the greatest ease find your way throughout all London.
Westminster Hall is an enormous Gothic building, whose vaulted roof is supported, not by pillars, but instead of these there are, on each side, large unnatural heads of angels, carved in wood, which seem to support the roof.
When you have passed through this long hall, you ascend a few steps at the end, and are led through a dark passage into the House of Commons, which, below, has a large double-door; and above, there is a small staircase, by which you go to the gallery, the place allotted for strangers.
The first time I went up this small staircase, and had reached the rails, I saw a very genteel man in black standing there. I accosted him without any introduction, and I asked him whether I might be allowed to go into the gallery. He told me that I must be introduced by a member, or else I could not get admission there. Now, as I had not the honour to be acquainted with a member, I was under the mortifying necessity of retreating, and again going down- stairs, as I did much chagrined. And now, as I was sullenly marching back, I heard something said about a bottle of wine, which seemed to be addressed to me.
I could not conceive what it could mean, till I got home, when my obliging landlady told me I should have given the well-dressed man half-a-crown, or a couple of shillings for a bottle of wine. Happy in this information, I went again the next day; when the same man who before had sent me away, after I had given him only two shillings, very politely opened the door for me, and himself recommended me to a good seat in the gallery.
And thus I now, for the first time, saw the whole of the British nation assembled in its representatives, in rather a mean-looking building, that not a little resembles a chapel. The Speaker, an elderly man, with an enormous wig, with two knotted kind of tresses, or curls, behind, in a black cloak, his hat on his head, sat opposite to me on a lofty chair; which was not unlike a small pulpit, save only that in the front of there was no reading-desk. Before the Speaker's chair stands a table, which looks like an altar; and at this there sit two men, called clerks, dressed in black, with black cloaks. On the table, by the side of the great parchment acts, lies a huge gilt sceptre, which is always taken away, and placed in a conservatory under the table, as soon as ever the Speaker quits the chair; which he does as often as the House resolves itself into a committee. A committee means nothing more than that the House puts itself into a situation freely to discuss and debate any point of difficulty and moment, and, while it lasts, the Speaker partly lays aside his power as a legislator. As soon as this is over, some one tells the Speaker that he may now again be seated; and immediately on the Speaker being again in the chair, the sceptre is also replaced on the table before him.
All round on the sides of the house, under the gallery, are benches for the members, covered with green cloth, always one above the other, like our choirs in churches, in order that he who is speaking may see over those who sit before him. The seats in the gallery are on the same plan. The members of parliament keep their hats on, but the spectators in the gallery are uncovered.
The members of the House of Commons have nothing particular in their dress. They even come into the House in their great coats, and with boots and spurs. It is not at all uncommon to see a member lying stretched out on one of the benches while others are debating. Some crack nuts, others eat oranges, or whatever else is in season. There is no end to their going in and out; and as often as any one wishes to go out, he places himself before the Speaker, and makes him his bow, as if, like a schoolboy, he asked tutor's permission.
Those who speak seem to deliver themselves with but little, perhaps not always with even a decorous, gravity. All that is necessary is to stand up in your place, take off your hat, turn to the Speaker (to whom all the speeches are addressed), to hold your hat and stick in one hand, and with the other to make any such motions as you fancy necessary to accompany your speech.
If it happens that a member rises who is but a bad speaker, or if what he says is generally deemed not sufficiently interesting, so much noise is made, and such bursts of laughter are raised, that the member who is speaking can scarcely distinguish his own words. This must needs be a distressing situation; and it seems then to be particularly laughable, when the Speaker in his chair, like a tutor in a school, again and again endeavours to restore order, which he does by calling out "To order, to order," apparently often without much attention being paid to it.
On the contrary, when a favourite member, and one who speaks well and to the purpose, rises, the most perfect silence reigns, and his friends and admirers, one after another, make their approbation known by calling out, "Hear him," which is often repeated by the whole House at once; and in this way so much noise is often made that the speaker is frequently interrupted by this same emphatic "Hear him." Notwithstanding which, this calling out is always regarded as a great encouragement; and I have often observed that one who began with some diffidence, and even somewhat inauspiciously, has in the end been so animated that he has spoken with a torrent of eloquence.
As all speeches are directed to the Speaker, all the members always preface their speeches with "Sir" and he, on being thus addressed, generally moves his hat a little, but immediately puts it on again. This "Sir" is often introduced in the course of their speeches, and serves to connect what is said. It seems also to stand the orator in some stead when any one's memory fails him, or he is otherwise at a loss for matter. For while he is saying "Sir," and has thus obtained a little pause, he recollects what is to follow. Yet I have sometimes seen some members draw a kind of memorandum-book out of their pockets, like a candidate who is at a loss in his sermon. This is the only instance in which a member of the British parliament seems to read his speeches.
The first day that I was at the House of Commons an English gentleman who sat next to me in the gallery very obligingly pointed out to me the principal members, such as Fox, Burke, Rigby, etc., all of whom I heard speak. The debate happened to be whether, besides being made a peer, any other specific reward should be bestowed by the nation on their gallant admiral Rodney. In the course of the debate, I remember, Mr. Fox was very sharply reprimanded by young Lord Fielding for having, when minister, opposed the election of Admiral Hood as a member for Westminster.
Fox was sitting to the right of the Speaker, not far from the table on which the gilt sceptre lay. He now took his place so near it that he could reach it with his hand, and, thus placed, he gave it many a violent and hearty thump, either to aid, or to show the energy with which he spoke. If the charge was vehement, his defence was no less so. He justified himself against Lord Fielding by maintaining that he had not opposed this election in the character of a minister, but as an individual, or private person; and that, as such, he had freely and honestly given his vote for another--namely, for Sir Cecil Wray, adding that the King, when he appointed him Secretary of State, had entered into no agreement with him by which he lost his vote as an individual; to such a requisition he never would have submitted. It is impossible for me to describe with what fire and persuasive eloquence he spoke, and how the Speaker in the chair incessantly nodded approbation from beneath his solemn wig, and innumerable voices incessantly called out, "Hear him! hear him!" and when there was the least sign that he intended to leave off speaking they no less vociferously exclaimed, "Go on;" and so he continued to speak in this manner for nearly two hours. Mr. Rigby, in reply, made a short but humorous speech, in which he mentioned of how little consequence the title of "lord" and "lady" was without money to support it, and finished with the Latin proverb, "infelix paupertas--quia ridiculos miseros facit." After having first very judiciously observed that previous inquiry should be made whether Admiral Rodney had made any rich prizes or captures; because, if that should be the case, he would not stand in need of further reward in money. I have since been almost every day at the parliament house, and prefer the entertainment I there meet with to most other amusements.
Fox is still much beloved by the people, notwithstanding that they are (and certainly with good reason) displeased at his being the cause of Admiral Rodney's recall, though even I have heard him again and again almost extravagant in his encomiums on this noble admiral. The same celebrated Charles Fox is a short, fat, and gross man, with a swarthy complexion, and dark; and in general he is badly dressed. There certainly is something Jewish in his looks. But upon the whole, he is not an ill-made nor an ill-looking man, and there are many strong marks of sagacity and fire in his eyes. I have frequently heard the people here say that this same Mr. Fox is as cunning as a fox. Burke is a well-made, tall, upright man, but looks elderly and broken. Rigby is excessively corpulent, and has a jolly rubicund face.
The little less than downright open abuse, and the many really rude things which the members said to each other, struck me much. For example, when one has finished, another rises, and immediately taxes with absurdity all that the right honourable gentleman (for with this title the members of the House of Commons always honour each other) had just advanced. It would, indeed, be contrary to the rules of the House flatly to tell each other that what they have spoken is FALSE, or even FOOLISH. Instead of this, they turn themselves, as usual, to the Speaker, and so, whilst their address is directed to him, they fancy they violate neither the rules of parliament nor those of good breeding and decorum, whilst they utter the most cutting personal sarcasms against the member or the measure they oppose.
It is quite laughable to see, as one sometimes does, one member speaking, and another accompanying the speech with his action. This I remarked more than once in a worthy old citizen, who was fearful of speaking himself, but when his neighbour spoke he accompanied every energetic sentence with a suitable gesticulation, by which means his whole body was sometimes in motion.
It often happens that the jett, or principal point in the debate is lost in these personal contests and bickerings between each other. When they last so long as to become quite tedious and tiresome, and likely to do harm rather than good, the House takes upon itself to express its disapprobation; and then there arises a general cry of, "The question! the question!" This must sometimes be frequently repeated, as the contending members are both anxious to have the last word. At length, however, the question is put, and the votes taken, when the Speaker says, "Those who are for the question are to say AYE, and those who are against it NO." You then hear a confused cry of "AYE" and "NO" but at length the Speaker says, "I think there are more AYES than NOES, or more NOES than AYES. The AYES have it; or the NOES have it," as the case may be. But all the spectators must then retire from the gallery; for then, and not till then, the voting really commences. And now the members call aloud to the gallery, "Withdraw! withdraw!" On this the strangers withdraw, and are shut up in a small room at the foot of the stairs till the voting is over, when they are again permitted to take their places in the gallery. Here I could not help wondering at the impatience even of polished Englishmen. It is astonishing with what violence, and even rudeness, they push and jostle one another as soon as the room door is again opened, eager to gain the first and best seats in the gallery. In this manner we (the strangers) have sometimes been sent away two or three times in the course of one day, or rather evening, afterwards again permitted to return. Among these spectators are people of all ranks, and even, not unfrequently, ladies. Two shorthand writers have sat sometimes not far distant from me, who (though it is rather by stealth) endeavour to take down the words of the speaker; and thus all that is very remarkable in what is said in parliament may generally be read in print the next day. The shorthand writers, whom I noticed, are supposed to be employed and paid by the editors of the different newspapers. There are, it seems, some few persons who are constant attendants on the parliament; and so they pay the door-keeper beforehand a guinea for a whole session. I have now and then seen some of the members bring their sons, whilst quite little boys, and carry them to their seats along with themselves.
A proposal was once made to erect a gallery in the House of Peers also for the accommodation of spectators. But this never was carried into effect. There appears to be much more politeness and more courteous behaviour in the members of the upper House. But he who wishes to observe mankind, and to contemplate the leading traits of the different characters most strongly marked, will do well to attend frequently the lower, rather than the other, House.
Last Tuesday was (what is here called) hanging-day. There was also a parliamentary election. I could only see one of the two sights, and therefore naturally preferred the latter, while I only heard tolling at a distance the death-bell of the sacrifice to justice. I now, therefore, am going to describe to you, as well as can, an
Election for a Member of Parliament.
The cities of London and Westminster send, the one four, and the other two, members to parliament. Mr. Fox is one of the two members for Westminster. One seat was vacant, and that vacancy was now to be filled. And the same Sir Cecil Wray, whom Fox had before opposed to Lord Hood, was now publicly chosen. They tell me that at these elections, when there is a strong opposition party, there is often bloody work; but this election was, in the electioneering phrase, a "hollow thing"--i.e. quite sure, as those who had voted for Admiral Hood now withdrew, without standing a poll, as being convinced beforehand their chance to succeed was desperate.
The election was held in Covent Garden, a large market-place in the open air. There was a scaffold erected just before the door of a very handsome church, which is also called St. Paul's, but which, however, is not to be compared to the cathedral.
A temporary edifice, formed only of boards and wood nailed together, was erected on the occasion. It was called the hustings, and filled with benches; and at one end of it, where the benches ended, mats were laid, on which those who spoke to the people stood. In the area before the hustings immense multitudes of people were assembled, of whom the greatest part seemed to be of the lowest order. To this tumultuous crowd, however, the speakers often bowed very low, and always addressed them by the title of "gentlemen." Sir Cecil Wray was obliged to step forward and promise these same gentlemen, with hand and heart, that he would faithfully fulfil his duties as their representative. He also made an apology because, on account of his long journey and ill-health, he had not been able to wait on them, as became him, at their respective houses. The moment that he began to speak, even this rude rabble became all as quiet as the raging sea after a storm, only every now and then rending the air with the parliamentary cry of "Hear him! hear him!" and as soon as he had done speaking, they again vociferated aloud an universal "huzza," every one at the same time waving his hat.
And now, being formally declared to have been legally chosen, he again bowed most profoundly, and returned thanks for the great honour done him, when a well-dressed man, whose name I could not learn, stepped forward, and in a well-indited speech congratulated both the chosen and the choosers. "Upon my word," said a gruff carter who stood near me, "that man speaks well."
Even little boys clambered up and hung on the rails and on the lamp- posts; and as if the speeches had also been addressed to them, they too listened with the utmost attention, and they too testified their approbation of it by joining lustily in the three cheers and waving their hats.
All the enthusiasm of my earliest years kindled by the patriotism of the illustrious heroes of Rome. Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony were now revived in my mind; and though all I had just seen and heard be, in fact, but the semblance of liberty, and that, too, tribunitial liberty, yet at that moment I thought it charming, and it warmed my heart. Yes, depend on it, my friend, when you here see how, in the happy country, the lowest and meanest member of society thus unequivocally testifies the interest which he takes in everything of a public nature; when you see how even women and children bear a part in the great concerns of their country; in short, how high and low, rich and poor, all concur in declaring their feelings and their convictions that a carter, a common tar, or a scavenger, is still a man--nay, an Englishman, and as such has his rights and privileges defined and known as exactly and as well as his king, or as his king's minister--take my word for it, you will feel yourself very differently affected from what you are when staring at our soldiers in their exercises at Berlin.
When Fox, who was among the voters, arrived at the beginning of the election, he too was received with an universal shout of joy. At length, when it was nearly over, the people took it into their heads to hear him speak, and every one called out, "Fox! Fox!" I know not why, but I seemed to catch some of the spirit of the place and time, and so I also bawled "Fox! Fox!" and he was obliged to come forward and speak, for no other reason that I could find but that the people wished to hear him speak. In this speech he again confirmed, in the presence of the people, his former declaration in parliament, that he by no means had any influence as minister of State in this election, but only and merely as a private person.
When the whole was over, the rampant spirit of liberty and the wild impatience of a genuine English mob were exhibited in perfection. In a very few minutes the whole scaffolding, benches, and chairs, and everything else, was completely destroyed. and the mat with which it had been covered torn into ten thousand long strips, or pieces, or strings, with which they encircled or enclosed multitudes of people of all ranks. These they hurried along with them, and everything else that came in their way, as trophies of joy; and thus, in the midst of exultation and triumph, they paraded through many of the most populous streets of London.
Whilst in Prussia poets only speak of the love of country as one of the dearest of all human affections, here there is no man who does not feel, and describe with rapture, how much he loves his country. "Yes, for my country I'll shed the last drop of my blood!" often exclaims little Jacky, the fine boy here in the house where I live, who is yet only about twelve years old. The love of their country, and its unparalleled feats in war are, in general, the subject of their ballads and popular songs, which are sung about the streets by women, who sell them for a few farthings. It was only the other day our Jacky brought one home, in which the history of an admiral was celebrated who bravely continued to command, even after his two legs were shot off and he was obliged to be supported. I know not well by what means it has happened that the King of England, who is certainly one of the best the nation ever had, is become unpopular. I know not how many times I have heard people of all sorts object to their king at the same time that they praised the King of Prussia to the skies. Indeed, with some the veneration for our monarch went so far that they seriously wished he was their king. All that seems to shock and dishearten them is the prodigious armies he keeps up, and the immense number of soldiers quartered in Berlin alone. Whereas in London, at least in the city, not a single troop of soldiers of the King's guard dare make their appearance.
A few days ago I saw what is here deemed a great sight--viz., a lord mayor's procession. The lord mayor was in an enormous large gilt coach, which was followed by an astonishing number of most showy carriages, in which the rest of the city magistrates, more properly called aldermen of London, were seated. But enough for the present.