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Fifty Years Ago

Fifty Years Ago
Title: Fifty Years Ago
Release Date: 2019-03-06
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
Count views: 201
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Transcriber’s Note:

Text on cover added by Transcriber and placed in the Public Domain.


(From the Picture by Richard Westall, R.A., at Windsor Castle.)



Windsor Castle





It has been my desire in the following pages to presenta picture of society in this country as it was when theQueen ascended the throne. The book is an enlargementof a paper originally contributed to ‘The Graphic.’I have written several additional chapters, and haverevised all the rest. The chapter on Law and Justicehas been written for this volume by my friend Mr. W.Morris Colles, of the Inner Temple. I beg to recordmy best thanks to that gentleman for his importantcontribution.

I have not seen in any of the literature called forthby the happy event of last year any books or paperswhich cover the exact ground of this compilation.There are histories of progress and advancement;there are contrasts; but there has not been offered anywhere,to my knowledge, a picture of life, manners, andsociety as they were fifty years ago.

When the editor of ‘The Graphic’ proposed that Ishould write a paper on this subject, I readily consented,thinking it would be a light and easy task, andone which could be accomplished in two or threeweeks. Light and easy it certainly was in a sense,vibecause it was very pleasant work, and the books to beconsulted are easily accessible; but then there are somany: the investigation of a single point sometimescarried one through half-a-dozen volumes. The two orthree weeks became two or three months.

At the very outset of the work I was startled tofind how great a revolution has taken place in ouropinions and ways of thinking, how much greater thanis at first understood. For instance, America was, fiftyyears ago, practically unknown to the bulk of ourpeople; American ideas had little or no influence uponus; our people had no touch with the United States;if they spoke of a Republic, they still meant the firstFrench Republic, the only Republic they knew, withdeath to kings and tyrants; while the recollection of theguillotine still preserved cautious and orderly peoplefrom Republican ideas.

Who now, however, connects a Republic with aReign of Terror and the guillotine? The AmericanRepublic, in fact, has taken the place of the French.Again, though the Reform Bill had been, in 1837,passed already five years, its effects were as yet onlybeginning to be felt; we were still, politically, in theeighteenth century. So in the Church, in the Law, inthe Services, in Society, we were governed by the ideasof the eighteenth century.

viiThe nineteenth century actually began with steamcommunication by sea; with steam machinery; withrailways; with telegraphs; with the development ofthe colonies; with the admission of the people to thegovernment of the country; with the opening of theUniversities; with the spread of science; with therevival of the democratic spirit. It did not reallybegin, in fact, till about fifty years ago. When andhow will it end? By what order, by what ideas, willit be followed?

In compiling even such a modest work as the present,one is constantly attended by a haunting dread ofhaving forgotten something necessary to complete thepicture. I have been adding little things ever since Ibegan to put these scenes together. At this, the verylast moment, the Spirit of Memory whispers in my ear,‘Did you remember to speak of the high fireplaces, theopen chimneys—up which half the heat mounted—thebroad hobs, and the high fenders, with the frontspierced, in front of which people’s feet were always cold?Did you remember to note that the pin of the periodhad its head composed of a separate piece of wire rolledround; that steel pens were either as yet unknown, orwere precious and costly things; that the quill wasalways wanting a fresh nib; that the wax-match didnot exist; that in the country they still used the old-fashionedviiibrimstone match; that the night-light of theperiod was a rush candle stuck in a round tin cylinderfull of holes; and that all the ladies’ dress had hooksand eyes behind?’

I do not think that I have mentioned any of thesepoints; and yet, how much food for reflection isafforded by every one! Reader, you may perhaps findmy pictures imperfect, but you can fill in any onesketch from your own superior knowledge. Meantime,remember this. As nearly as possible, fifty years ago,the eighteenth century passed away. It died slowly;its end was hardly marked.

King William the Fourth is dead. Alas! how manythings were dying with that good old king! The steam-whistlewas already heard across the fields: already inmid-ocean the great steamers were crossing against windand tide: already the nations were slowly beginningto know each other: Privilege, Patronage, and thePower of Rank were beginning already to tremble, andwere afraid: already the working man was heard demandinghis vote: the nineteenth century had begun.We who have lived in it; we who are full of its ideas;we who are all swept along upon the full stream of it—weknow not, we cannot see, whither it is carrying us.

W. B.



I. Great Britain, Ireland, and the Colonies 1
II. The Year 1837 18
III. London in 1837 30
IV. In the Street 45
V. With the People 67
VI. With the Middle-Class 85
VII. In Society 110
VIII. At the Play and the Show 125
IX. In the House 137
X. At School and University 154
XI. The Tavern 160
XII. In Club- and Card-land 175
XIII. With the Wits 183
XIV. Journals and Journalists 209
XV. The Sportsman 214
XVI. In Factory and Mine 224
XVII. With the Men of Science 233
XVIII. Law and Justice 237
XIX. Conclusion 258



The Princess Victoria in 1830. From the Picture by Richard Westall, R.A., at Windsor Castle Frontispiece
Windsor Castle Vignette
Queen Victoria in 1839. From a Drawing by R. J. Lane, A.R.A. 1
Thomas Carlyle. From the Fraser Gallery 16
The Queen’s First Council—Kensington Palace, June 20, 1837. From the Picture by Sir David Wilkie, R.A., at Windsor Castle 18
A Show of Twelfth-Cakes. From Cruikshank’s ‘Comic Almanack’ 20
Greenwich Park. From Cruikshank’s ‘Comic Almanack’ 22
The Chimney-Sweeps’ Annual Holiday. From Cruikshank’s ‘Comic Almanack’ 24
Beating the Bounds. From Cruikshank’s ‘Comic Almanack’ 26
Bartholomew Fair. From Cruikshank’s ‘Comic Almanack’ 28
Vauxhall Gardens. From Cruikshank’s ‘Comic Almanack’ 30
In Fleet Street. Proclaiming the Queen. From Cruikshank’s ‘Comic Almanack’ 56
Leigh Hunt. From the Fraser Gallery 64
John Galt. From the Fraser Gallery 86
The Queen receiving the Sacrament after her Coronation. Westminster Abbey, June 28, 1838. From the Picture by C. R. Leslie, R.A., at Windsor Castle 94
Theodore Hook. From the Fraser Gallery 100
The Countess of Blessington. From the Fraser Gallery 110xii
Count d’Orsay. From the Fraser Gallery 112
Sydney Smith. From the Fraser Gallery 116
John Baldwin Buckstone. From the Fraser Gallery 126
Thomas Noon
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