Are you thinking about time traveling to Victorian London for the Season? Have you considered where you will stay, where you will go, and, most importantly, where you will dine? Luckily, there’sLondon Of To-day: An Illustrated Handbook For The Season to be your time-traveling tourist guidebook. The author, Charles Eyre Pascoe, recommends many dining establishments–from taverns to tearooms. Let’s start with excerpts from the 1885 edition of his book.
Of all the dining-places in London, small or spacious, ancient or modern, highly ornate or very dingy, few supply “the joint” in greater perfection than the Albion, in Russell Street, Covent Garden. It is an unpretentious tavern, “all of the olden time,” the dining-room partitioned off into stiff-backed “boxes,” so that a party of half a dozen may dine and chat in reasonable privacy without being disturbed by casual comers. At one time it enjoyed a considerable reputation as a place of resort for literary men and actors. Its smoking-room was once the pleasantest place of the kind in London, outside the clubs, and harboured such genial spirits as the late Charles Dickens, Douglas Jerrold, Albert Smith, Shirley Brooks, Robert Brough, E. A. Sothern, J. L. Toole, Charles Lamb Kenney, and the rest. The punch concocted in that smoking-room was good; the water sent up boiling hot in an old-fashioned pewter jug, the glass with an old-fashioned silver toddy-ladle, and the spirit in an equally old-fashioned fat little pewter measure. Those were the days when the Albion had the privilege of keeping open till three o’clock in the morning, and its smoking-room was the rendezvous of journalists, authors, actors, and other good men and true, after the closing of the theatres. After five o’clock a fresh joint is served in the dining-room of this tavern every half-hour—saddle or haunch of mutton, ribs or sirloin of beef, roast fowls, boiled round of beef, rumpsteak-puddings, and so on. Fish is served in the same order—salmon, turbot, brill, haddock, &c. The dish you elect to dine from is wheeled up to your table, and the carver serves you with as much and as often as you please. The Albion provides its customers with a thoroughly home-like English dinner, which costs, with a moderate quantity of light wine or ale, from three shillings to five shillings. It is to be noted that this dining-room is never honoured with the presence of ladies.
The chief rivals of the Albion (not to be confounded with its namesake in Aldersgate Street) in the West and Central districts are “Blanchard’s,” in Beak Street, Regent Street; “Simpson’s,” in the Strand; the Rainbow, near the Middle Temple Gate; the St. James’s Restaurant, in Piccadilly. The dinners supplied at these places are to be commended. A better roasted saddle or haunch of mutton than “Simpson’s” serves, or used to serve daily, is not to be had in London. The Rainbow is largely patronized by the lawyers. “Blanchard’s” is largely frequented by civil service officials, and the wealthier west-end tradesmen. The St. James’s is a good place for luncheon, particularly during the season.
Half-a-dozen years ago the best French restaurant to be found in all London was a little place in Church Street, Soho, quite away from the beaten track, kept by one M. Kettner. The rooms were small and ill-ventilated, and the place and its surroundings were stuffy and uninviting; but the dinners sent up from M. Kettner’s kitchen were delicious.
Among the French restaurants of greater note in London, Verrey’s is entitled to the front place. It stands on the west side of Regent Street, at the corner of Hanover Street. We advise anyone who during the season has a very special luncheon, or dinner, in contemplation, to seek out Verrey’s… It does not make much show (all the better for that, perhaps), and its cookery and wines are excellent. Verrey’s was, we believe, the first French restaurant opened in London. The original Verrey was a Swiss, who, long ago, gained a reputation for sweetmeats… He was in a flourishing condition forty or fifty years ago; and in the Great Exhibition year, Verrey’s restaurant became the rendezvous of the more aristocratic foreign visitors to London, who flocked thither to eat pistachio ices, and other delicate morsels.
At Verrey’s, as in Paris, one can call for any of the well-known dishes in la haute cuisine; the “carte” is simply a guide to the uninitiated. The portions served are usually sufficient for two covers. The wine-card shows that the cellar contains the famous vintages, ’69 Lafites (tirage du chateau), for example, Romanée Conti, ’74 Pommery, &c. The list of vintage champagnes, indeed, is unequalled.
American and continental visitors chiefly patronize this restaurant about noon for the déjeuners à la fourchette; afterwards, from 12.30 to 3 p.m., many ladies “drop in” to lunch after shopping. The chef’s best efforts, however, are reserved for the evening.
In the neighbourhood of the Strand are one or two good dining places, chiefly, however, patronized by gentlemen, notably the Tivoli, Romano’s, and Gatti’s recently renovated Adelaide Cafe. At the first, German cookery, and, for a London restaurant, good German wines and beer are to be had. The prices, too, are moderate. Romano, whose charges are high, has a reputation for Italian and French cookery, and on the whole is not undeserving of it. Gatti’s appeals rather to the popular support; and a man (or woman) of slender resources and fair appetite may find a good dinner here for something less than 2s. There is more than one French cafe in the neighbourhood of Leicester Square, which may be recommended for a French twelve o’clock breakfast
As a rule, ladies will find themselves restricted to a choice of half-a-dozen London restaurants or confectioner’s shops, in which they may lunch or dine with comfort. The chief of these are Verrey’s Cafe Restaurant, the Bristol, the Burlington in Regent Street, St. James’s, before mentioned, the Grosvenor Gallery Restaurant, the Grand, and the establishments of Spiers and Pond at the railway stations and elsewhere. The principal confectioners patronized by ladies are Charbonnel and Walker’s, 173, New Bond Street, who stand supreme; Marshall’s, opposite Charing Cross Railway Station; Thompson’s, 188, Regent Street; Simpson’s, 247, Oxford Street; Duclos’, near the Princess’s Theatre (178, Oxford Street); Buszard’s, 197, in the same street (south side).
Ladies, with proper escort, going to the theatres, will find both the Criterion and the Grand pleasant trysting-places for dinner between six and seven. So, also, St. James’s restaurant in Piccadilly.
On Sunday, if one should be compelled to dine away from his hotel or lodging, he must arrange to take his principal daily meal either between 1 and 3, or after 6 afternoon. The London restaurants are closed till 1, and between 3 and 6. Dining-places like Verrey’s, the Bristol, the Continental, and cafes of lesser degree are usually full on Sunday nights. The former are largely patronized by gentlemen who treat their wives and daughters to a mild dissipation to break the monotony of Sunday, or by more conscientious folk who dine out to give their servants a rest.
With respect to the railway terminal restaurants, it may be interesting to note, for sake of comparison, that the London and North-Western, London and South-Western, Great Northern, Great Western, and Midland Companies, manage their own refreshment bars, or rather have them managed by contractors. A traveller may secure a meal of hot roast meat and vegetables, the wing of a fowl, or a savoury pie, together with wine, beer, coffee, tea, or milk, at a reasonable price. Several of them are quite popular dining-rooms, notably the Mansion House Metropolitan Station refreshment room…The Holborn- viaduct establishment has of late become popular, and deservedly so.
Of chop-houses there are still a few remaining: the Cock Tavern, in Fleet Street, lives on its reputation acquired before the Griffin and the Law Courts stood where they now stand: The Cheshire Cheese, in the same thoroughfare, is of equal distinction among chop-houses, though, as it seems to us, not quite the Cheshire Cheese of twenty years ago; Stone’s, in Panton Street, in the Haymarket, is entitled to special notice as one of the oldest of this class of houses in London.
The following excerpts can be found in the 1890 edition of London Of To-day.
Try the Dorothy Restaurant in Oxford Street (near Orchard Street) if you are among the number of those who “detest to have men about the place.” Dorothy Restaurants admit no men. Such as cannot abear the smell of baked meats might try Bonthron’s and one or two confectioners in Regent Street, or the Aerated Bread Company’s dépôts (to be noticed in almost every leading thoroughfare) and find them to their liking. These last are good places, clean, and well-managed, supplying very fair coffee and tea, milk, and wholesome bread and butter, eggs, etc., at moderate prices —5d. for a cup of coffee and bread and butter.
Than Gunter’s, in Berkeley Square, there is no better place in London for ices.
Vegetarianism may be practised at a restaurant near Duke Street, Oxford Street; at the Arcadian in Queen Street, Cheapside; or at the Apple Tree in London Wall, within the City, and rather out of the track of ladies. Those, however, most curious in the matter of vegetarian diet might take a peep into the Central Vegetarian Dining and Tea Rooms (a rough-and-ready sort of place in St. Bride Street, near Ludgate Circus), and read the prices and items therein exhibited of “Diners a la carte” “the sixpenny tea-tray,” and “the ninepenny tea-tray”—a marvellous assortment of homely and wholesome dishes of vegetables and of meal served at a very cheap rate.
Of banquets not specially prepared for the few, but daily organized for the many, we know of none more likely to meet the requirements of the diner-about in London, and those to whom he proffers hospitality, than the table d’hote dinners of the Grand and Metropole hotels. Apart from the essential materials of the meal, which few, we think, will find cause to grumble at, the whole business of these daily banquets is well contrived and well carried out.
The dining-halls are well ventilated and spacious; the assembled company in the Season comprises not a few people of the first fashion staying in London; the tables are effectively arranged and decorated; a plenty of lights shows up the dresses of the ladies; and all is done in good taste, and with a view to the gratification of the eye, no less than the personal ease and contentment of the guests.
One has but to take his place at the appointed table, glance at the menu laid before him, and proceed to the business of the evening, without care for the service or thought for the kitchen: the fair recompense demanded by the management for a seat at table being the sum of five shillings: not an extravagant charge, as charges elsewhere in London rule, having regard to the many conveniences that such hotels as these provide, and especially where ladies are of the company. No restaurant in London that we know is so desirable in respect of accommodation. The reception-rooms are open to you for receiving your friends before dinner, and the drawing-rooms lor chatting with them after dinner.
The table d’hote dinner is daily served in each case from 6 to 8.30 p.m. For those later going to the opera or theatres, there are few better places in London, for the preliminary dinner. It is well in the busy season of summer, however, to order a table to be reserved beforehand.
The conveniences, we repeat, are many; the price fixed, and moderate; the dining-salons are spacious; everything is done in good taste; and the dinner is generally superior to that to be had in a restaurant for the same money, and is altogether better served.
It is of no little advantage to ladies coming to London, for the evening, from the suburbs or outlying districts to know of a place where they may dine in evening dress without seeming conspicuous, or intermingling with those whom they might be indisposed to meet. Either at the Grand Hotel or the Hotel Metropole they may be sure of the proprieties being very carefully observed.
The tables, for the most part, are reserved to family parties, and visitors staying in the hotel; and the service of the dinner is so arranged as to allow of a very fair margin of time for partaking of it without hurry and discomfort. “Our representative” of the Grand Hotel, hereinbefore referred to, has directed our attention to the following, as an example of the ordinary five-shilling table d’hote dinner there served:
My last post was all sappy messages of love with pictures of pretty flowers and adorable children and adorable children holding pretty flowers. So, in the words of Monty Python, “And now for something completely different.” This time I’m taking a journey into the dark, smelly, watery underbelly of Victorian London: the sewer.
On applying to the proper
authorities, I was obligingly told that they had not the slightest objection to
gratify what they evidently thought a very singular taste. I was even asked to
name my sewer. They could favour me with
an extensive choice. I might choose
from about one hundred and seventy miles of legally constituted
“main” sewers, running through some hundred and eighty outlets into
the Thames; or, if I liked to trespass upon “district” and
“private” sewers, they could put me through
about sixteen hundred miles of such underground tunnels. They had
blood-sewers—a delicate article—running
underneath meat markets, like Newport-market, where you could wade in the vital
fluid of sheep and oxen; they had boiling sewers, fed by sugar-bakeries, where
the steam forced its way through the gratings in the roadway like the vapour from the hot springs in Iceland, and where the sewer-cleansers get Turkish baths
at the expense of the rate pavers. They
had sewers of various orders of construction—egg-shaped, barrel-shaped, arched,
and almost square; and they had sewers of
different degrees of rcpulsiveness, such as those where
manufacturing chemists and soap and candlemakers most do congregate. They had
open rural sewers that were fruitful in watercresses; and closed town sewers whose roofs are
thickly clustered with what our scientific friends call “edible
fungi.” The choice was so varied that it was a long time before I could
make up my mind, and I decided, at last, upon exploring the King’s Scholars’ Pond
Sewer, which commences in the Finchley New Road,
and ends in the Thames a little above Vauxhall-bridge.
If the literary executors
of the late Mr. Leigh Hunt had not cut the ground from under me in the title of
a book just published, I might possibly have called this chapter A saunter through
the West-End. We have all our different ways of looking at London. The late Mr.
Crofton Croker had his way, as he has shown in his Walk from London to Fulham; and I have mine.
Sewer-cleansers are a
class of workmen who seldom come prominently before the public. They have never
made any particular noise in the world, although they receive in London every
year about five and twenty thousand pounds sterling of public money. Their
wages, individually, may average a pound a week. They have never distinguished
themselves by producing any remarkable “self-made men;” any Lord
Chancellors, or even Lord Mayors; and have never attempted, as a class, to
raise themselves in the social scale.” They are good, honest, hard-working
underground labourers, who often meet
extreme danger in the shape of foul gases, and sometimes die at their posts—as
we saw the other day in the Fleet-lane sewer.
Some half-dozen of these
men, with a foreman of flushers, attended me on the day I selected for my
underground survey. They were not lean yellow men, with backs bent by much
stooping, and hollow coughs produced by breathing much foul air. Their
appearance was robust; and, as I measured bulk with one or two of them, I had
no reason to be proud of any superior training.
There seems to be only
one costume for underground or underwater work, and the armour necessary for
sewer-inspecting will do for lobster catching on the coast, or for descending
in a sea diving-bell. The thick worsted stockings coming up to the waist, the
heavy long greased boots of the seven league character, the loose blue shirt,
and the fan-tailed hat, may be very hot and stifling to wear, but no sewer inspector
is considered properly fortified without them.
There is a fatal
fascination about sewers; and, whenever a trap-door side entrance is opened, a
crowd is sure to gather about the spot. The entrance to the King’s Scholars’
Pond Main Sewer, that I decided to go down by, is close to the cab-stand at St.
John’s-wood Chapel, and twenty cabmen were so much interested in seeing me
descend with my guides, that the offer of a fare would have been resented as an
“Rather him than me;
eh, Bill ?” said one.
cab-drivin’,” said another.
The side entrance is a
square brick-built shaft, having a few iron rings driven into two of its sides.
These rings form the steps by which you ascend and descend, putting your foot on
one as you seize another. I felt like a bear in the pit at the Zoological
Gardens, as I descended in this fashion; and I dare say many respectable
members of parochial-sewer-eommittees have gone through the same labour, and
have experienced the same feeling. Before the iron trap-door over us was closed
by the two men left to follow our course above ground, I caught a glimpse of a
butcher’s boy looking down the shaft, with his mouth wide open. When the
daylight was shut out, a closed lantern was put in my hand. I was led stooping
along a short yellow-bricked passage, and down a few steps, as if going into a
wine-cellar, until I found myself standing knee-deep in the flowing sewer.
The tunnel here is about
four feet high, and six feet broad; being smaller higher up towards the Finchley
New Road,and growing gradually larger as it descends in a winding course
towards the Thames. All main sewers may be described roughly, as funnel-shaped;
the narrow end being at the source in the hills; the broad end being in the
valley, where it discharges into the river. The velocity of their currents
varies from one to three miles an hour. The most important of them discharge,
at periods of the day, in dry weather, from one thousand to two thousand cubic
feet of sewage per minute, the greatest height being generally maintained
during the hours between nine in the morning and five in the afternoon. At
other periods of the day the same sewers rarely discharge more than one-fourth
of this quantity. The sizes of these underground tunnels, at different points
of their course, are constructed so that they may convey the waters flowing
through them with no prospect of floods and consequent bursting, and yet with
no unnecessary waste of tunnelling. Here it is that the science of hydraulic
engineering is required.
Turning our face towards
the Thames, we waded for some time, in a stooping posture, through the sewer;
three of my guides going on first with lanterns, and two following me. We
passed through an iron tube, which conveys the sewage over the Regent’s Canal;
and it was not until we got into some lower levels, towards Baker-street, that
the sewer became sufficiently large to allow us to stand upright.
Before we arrived at this
point, I had experienced a new sensation. I had had an opportunity of
inspecting the earthenware pipe drain—I am bound to say, the very defective
pipe drainage—of a house that once owned me as a landlord. I felt as if the
power had been granted me of opening a trap-door in my chest, to look upon the
long-hidden machinery of my mysterious body.
When we got into a
loftier and broader part of the tunnel, my chief guide offered me his arm: an
assistance I was glad to accept, because the downward flood pressed rather
heavily against the back of my legs, and the bottom was ragged and uncertain. I
could not deny myself the pleasure of calling this chief guide, Agrippa,
because Agrippa is a Roman name, and the Romans have earned an immortality in
connexion with sewers. Whatever doubts the sceptical school of historians may
throw upon the legends of Roman history, they cannot shake the foundations of
the Roman sewers. Roman London means a small town, bounded on the East by
Walbrook, and on the West by the Fleet. You cannot touch upon sewers without
coming upon traces of the Romans; you cannot touch upon the Romans without
meeting with traces of sewers. The most devoted disciple of Niebuhr must be
dumb before such facts as these, and must admit that these ancient people were
great scavengers, as well as great heroes.
Agrippa took a real
pleasure in pointing out to me the different drains, private sewers, and
district sewers, which at intervals of a few yards opened into our channel
through the walls on either side.
“We’ve nothin’ to do
with the gover’ment of any of these,” he said; “they are looked
after, or had ought to be looked after, by the paroch’al boards.”
“You look after
branches?” I replied.
“Only when they’re
branches of prop’ly construed main sewers. We,” he continued, and he spoke
like a chairman, “are the Metropolitan Board of Works, and we should have
enough to do if we looked after every drain-pipe in London.”
“What’s the length
of those drain-pipes all over London,” I asked, “leaving out the
“No one knows,”
he said. “They do tell me somewhere about four thousand miles, and I
should say they were all that.”
We went tottering on a
little further, with the carriages rumbling on the roadway over our heads. The
splashing of the water before and behind us, as it was washed from side to side
by the heavy boots of all our party, added to the noise; and when our above
around followers let the trap-door of some side entrance fall, a loud booming
sound went through the tunnel, as if a cannon had been fired. The yellow lights
of the lanterns danced before us, and when we caught a glimpse of the water we
were wading in above our knees, we saw that it was as black as ink. The smell
was not at all offensive, and Agrippa told me that no man, during his
experience in the London sewers, had ever complained of feeling faint while he
moved about or worked in the flood; the danger was found to consist in standing
still. For all this assurance of perfect comfort and safety, however, my guides
kept pretty close to me; and I found out afterwards that they were thus
numerous and attentive because the “amateur” sewer inspector was
considered likely to drop.
Agrippa, pointing to a hole at the side, down which a quantity of road sand had
been washed, “ that’s a gully-trap. People get a notion that heavy rains pour
down the gutters and flush the sewers; for my part, I think they bring quite as
much rubbish as they clear away.”
At different parts of our
course we passed through the blue rays of light, like moonlight, that came down
from the ventilator gratings in the highway above. While under one of these we
heard a boy whistling in the road, and I felt like Baron Trenck escaping from
prison. Some of these gratings over our heads were stopped up with road
rubbish; and Agrippa, who carried a steel gauging-rod, like a sword, in his
hand, pierced the earth above us, and let in the outer light and air.
things,” he said, alluding to the ventilating gratings, generally set in
the top of a shaft-hole cut in the crown of the arch.
“I remember the time
when we’d none of those improvements; no side entrances, no nothing When we
wanted to get down to cleanse or look at a sewer, we had to dig a hole in the
roadway, and sometimes the men used to get down and up the gully-holes to save
“You must have had
many accidents in those days?”
“Hundreds, sir, were
suffocated or killed by the gas; but since Mr. Roe* (*The late Mr. Rose, for
many years surveyor to the Holborn and Finsbury Commissioners of Sewers.)
brought about these improvements, and made the sewers curve instead of running
zigzag, we’ve been pretty safe.”
alluded to by Agrippa includes carburetted hydrogen, sulphuretted hydrogen, and
carbonic acid gas. The first is highly inflammable, easily explodes, and has
frequently caused serious accidents. The second is the gaseous product of
putrid decomposition; it is slightly inflammable, and its inhalation, when it
is strong, will cause sudden death. The third is the choke damp of mines and
sewers, and its inhalation will cause a man to drop as if shot dead. These are
the unseen enemies which Agrippa and his fellows have constantly to contend
against, more or less.
As we staggered further
down the stream, it was evident that Agrippa had his favourites among the
district sewers. Some he considered to be “pretty” sewers; others he
looked upon as choked winding channels, not fit to send a rat up to cleanse,
much less a Christian man. Looking up some of these narrow openings with their
abrupt turns, low roofs, and pitch-black darkness, it certainly did seem as if
sewer-cleansing must be a fearful trade. The sewer rats, much talked of
aboveground, were not to be seen; and their existence in most of the main
sewers is a tradition handed down from the last century. Since the improved
supply of water, which is said to give to every dweller in London, man, woman,
and child, a daily allowance of forty gallons per head, the rats have been
washed away by the increased flood.
Although underground, we
passed over the metropolitan railway in the New-road, and then along the line
of Baker-street, under Oxford-street, and through Berkeley-square. This
aristocratic neighbourhood was loudly announced to us by our aboveground
followers, down an open “man-hole ;” but there was nothing in the
construction of our main sewer, or in the quality of our black flood, to tell
us that we were so near the abodes of the blest. Looking up the “man-hole,”
an opening in the road, not unlike the inside of a tile-kiln chimney, down
which some workmen had brought a flushing-gate, I saw another butcher’s boy
gazing down upon his mouth wide open.
The flushing-gate was an
iron structure, the exact width of the sewer, and about half its height. These
gates are fixed on hinges at at the sides of the all the main sewers at certain
distances from each other; and when they are closed by machinery, they dam up
the stream, producing an artificial fall of water, and so scouring the bed of
As we got lower down our
great underground channel, the roof became higher and higher, and the sides
broader and broader; but the flooring, I am sorry to say, became more jagged
and uneven. The lower bricks had been washed out, leaving great holes, down
which one or other of my legs kept slipping at the hazard of my balance and my
bones. We peeped up an old red-bricked long-disused branch sewer, under some
part of Mayfair, that was almost blocked up to the roof with mountains of black
dry earthy deposit. Not even here did we see any traces of rats, although the
sewer was above the level of the water in our main channel. The King’s
Scholars’ Pond (so Agrippa told me) has had five feet of water in it, at this
point, during storms; but this was not its condition then, or we should hardly
have been found wading there. The bricks in this old Mayfair sewer were as
rotten as gingerbread; you could have scooped them out with a teaspoon.
In Piccadilly wo went up
the side entrance, to get a mouthful of fresh air and a glimpse of the Green
Park, and then went down again to finish our journey. I scarcely expect to be
believed, but I must remark that another butcher’s boy was waiting with open
mouth, watching every movement we made, with intense interest.
We had not proceeded much
further in our downward course, when Agrippa and the rest of the guides
suddenly stopped short, and asked me where I supposed I was now?
“I give it up,” I replied.
Buckingham Palace,” was the answer.
Of course my loyalty was
at once excited, and taking off my fan-tailed cap, I led the way with the
National Anthem, insisting that my guides should join in chorus. Who knows but
what, through some untrapped drain, that rude underground melody found its way
into some inner wainscoting of the palace, disturbing some dozing maid of
honour with its mysterious sounds, and making her dream of Guy Fawkes and many
other subterranean villains?
Before I leave this
deeply-interesting part of the King’s Scholars’ Pond Sewer, I may as well say
that I am fully alive to its importance as the theatre of a thrilling romance.
That no writer of fiction may poach, upon preserves which I have made my own, I
will state exactly what kind of story I intend to write, as soon as I have got
rid of a row of statistics that are beckoning to me in the distance. My hero
will run away with one of the Royal Princesses, down this sewer, having first
hewn a passage up into the palace through its walls. The German Prince, who is
always going to marry the Royal Princess, whether she likes him or not, will be
murdered in mistake by a jealous sewer-flusher, the villain of the story; and
the hero having married the Princess at some bankside church, will live happily
with her ever afterwards, as a superintendent of one of the outfall sewers. If
this story should meet with the success I anticipate, I promise to raise some
memorial tablet in the sewer under the palace, to mark my gratitude and the
royalty of the channel. If any reader think the mechanical part of this story
impossible, let me tell him that two friends of mine once got into the vaults
of the House of Commons through the sewers.
Soon after we left this
spot, we came upon a punt that had been poled thus far up the stream to meet
us, and carry us down to the Thames. I took my seat with Agrippa, while the
other guides pushed at the sides and stern of the boat, and I thought this was
a good time to put a few
questions to the men
about the treasures usually found in the sewers. The journey was wanting in
that calmness, light, and freshness, which generally characterise boat voyages;
and while there was a good deal of Styx and Charon about it in imagination,
there was a close unpleasant steam about it in reality. Still, for all this, it
furnished an opportunity not to be thrown away, and I at once addressed
said, “the most awful things we ever find in the sewers is dead children.
We’ve found at least four of ’em at different times; one, somewhere under
Notting-hill; another, somewhere under Mary’bone; another, at Paddington; and
another at the Broadway, Westminster.”
“We once found a
dead seal,” struck in one of the men pushing the boat.
Agrippa, “so we did. That was in one of the Westminster sewers—the
Horseferry-road outlet, I think, and they said it had been shot at Barnes or
Mortlake, and had drifted down with the tide. We find mushrooms in great
quantities on the roof, and icicles as well growing amongst ’em.”
Isaid; “why, the sewers are warm in winter. How do you account for
“I don’t mean
what you call icicles,” he replied. “I mean those
white greasy-looking things, like spikes of tallow.”
answered, “that’s the word. We sometimes find live cats and dogs that have
got down untrapped drains after house-rats; but these animals, when we pick ’em
up, are more often dead ones.”
“They once found a
live hedgehog in Westminster,” said another of the men. “I’ve heard
tell on it, but I didn’t see it myself.”
continued Agrippa, confidentially, “a good deal may be found that we never
hear of, but there’s lots of little things picked up, and taken to the office. We’ve
found lots of German silver and metal spoons; iron tobacco-boxes; nails, and
pins; bones of various animals; bits of lead; boys’ marbles, buttons, bits of
silk, scrubbing-brushes, empty-purses; penny-pieces, and bad half-crowns, very
likely thrown down the gullies on purpose.”
“We’ve found false
teeth—whole sets at a time,” said one of the men, “‘specially in some of the West-end shores.”
Agrippa, ” and corks; how about corks? I never see such a flood of corks,
of all kinds and sizes, as sometimes pours out of this sewer into the Thames.
Of course we find bits of soap,
candle-ends, rags, seeds, dead rats and mice, and a lot of other rubbish. We
enter these things in our books, now and then, but we’re never asked to bring’ em
afore the Board.”
“Do any thieves, or
wanderers, get into the sewers,” 1 asked, “and try to deprive yon of these treasures?”
“Very few, now-a-days,” he replied. “Some of ’em
creep down the side entrances where the
doors are unlocked, or get up some of the sewers on this side when the tide is
low, under the idea that they’re going to pick up no end of silver spoons. They
soon find out their mistake; and then
they take to stealing the iron traps off the drains.”
By this time our bark had
floated out of the broad archway of the sewer—an arch as wide as any
bridge-arch on the Regent’s Canal, and we were anchored in that
pea-soup-looking open creek that runs for some distance along the side of the
Equitable Gas Works at Pimlico. The end of this creek, where it enters the
Thames, is closed with tidal gates which are
watched by a kind of sewer lock-keeper who lives in a cottage immediately over
the sewer. He cultivates flowers and vegetables at the side of the channel, and
his little dwelling is a model of cleanliness and tasteful arrangement. His
health is good, and he seems satisfied with his peculiar position; for, instead
of reading pamphlets on sewers and sewage-poison in the intervals of business,
he cultivates game-cocks, and stuffs dead
animals in a very creditable manner:
He dwells amongst the untrodden ways
Beside the spring of Dove—
A spring that very few can praise,
And not a soul can love!
Let us hope that the sewer-doctors and their theories will never reach him, or they might painfully disturb his mind.
Still I asked for more. I wished to see one of
lie oldest working hands on the sewer establishment; a hoary mudlark who had
been seasoned by nearly half a century’s training, and who might fairly be
regarded as a hermit of the sewers.
With some little difficulty, an old workman was
found, who was not, surprised to hear that I had been down various sewers, and
took a deep interest in them. Nothing appeared to him more natural than that
people should like to go down sewers, and to talk about them for hours
My companion, encouraged from time to time by
my questions, began to unfold his fifty years’ experiences. He was a stout,
healthy-looking old man, with a face not unlike a large red potato. He was
good-tempered, and proud of his special knowledge; but not presuming. In this
be differed from one or two other workmen whom I had met, who seemed to wish me
to understand that they, and they alone, knew all about the London sewerage
system. His language was frequently rather misty; but a very little grammar
will go a long way in the sewers, and working men have something else to think
of beyond aspirating the letter H.
“They was like warrens,” he said,
alluding to the old south-side sewers ; ” you never see such shores
(sewers). Some on ’em was open; some was shut; an’ some was covered over with
wooden platforms, so’s to make the gardings all the larger. Some o’ the shores
was made o’ wood, spesh’ly about Roderide; an’ at S’uth’ark the people used to
dip their pails in ’em for water. They made boles in ’em, so’s to get at the
water when the tide was up, an’ I’ve
seen ’em dippin’ often nigh Backley and Puckins’s.”
“Did you ever meet with any accident,”
I asked, “during the long time you have worked in the sewers?”
“Oh yes,” he said; “I’ve bin
knocked down a dozen times by the gas; spesh’ly nigh the dead ends o’ shores,
an’ I’ve bin burnt over an’ over agen. When your light goes out, you may know
summat is wrong, but the less you stirs about the muck the better. I’ve carried
a man as ‘as bin knocked down, nigh a mile on my lines [loins] in the old days
afore we could get to the man-hole. It’s pretty stuff, too, the gas, if you can
only lay on your back when it goes ‘whish,’ an’ see it runnin’ all a-fire along
the crown o’ the arch.”
“I dare say,” I said; “but
sewers are quite bad enough to walk in, without such illuminations.”
“Shores is all right,” lie returned,
rather pettishly ; “it’s the people as uses ’em that don’t know how to
treat ’em. There’s the naptchamakers, an’ those picklin’ yards where they soaks
iron in some stuff to make it tough; they’re nice places, they ar, an’ nice
messes they makes the shores in, at t imes. Then there’s can’le an’ soap-manyfact’rers,
which sends out a licker, that strong, that it will even decay i’on an’
brickwork, Then there’s gas-tar-manyl’act’rers agen. We’re ‘bliged to go to all
o’ these people afore we goes down the shore, an’ ask ’em to ‘old ‘ard. If we
didn’t do that, there’d be more on us killed than is.”
“I suppose,” I said—of course with a
view of getting information—” the sewers you go up are often very
“Some is two foot shores,” he
replied, “an’ they’re tighteners; others is three foot barrels; an’ others
“Did you ever hear of any murder being
committed in the sewers?” I asked, not being willing to give up the chance
of a romantic story without a struggle.
“There was one open shore,” he said,
“that some o’ the foremen used to call ‘old Grinacre,’ in the S’uth’ark
districk, but that’s bin covered over many years.”
“What about that ?” I asked, eagerly.
“Well,” he said, “it used to
bother us a good deal. One mornin’, when the tide was all right, we goes down
to work, an’ picks up a leg !”
“A human leg?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “all that,
an’not a wooden one neither. Another night, when the tide was all right agen,
we goes down, an’ we finds another leg!”
“Another human leg?” I asked, in
“Ev’ry inch on it,” he returned,
“an’ that ain’t all. Another time we goes into the same shore, an’ we
finds a arm, an’ another time we goes down, an’ we finds another arm.”
It seemed very annoying to me that my companion
was compelled to sneeze and cough at this point of his story for about five
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said, “the foreman put
‘cm down in his book, an’ they went afore the Board, an’ it was a long time
afore the Board could make anythin’ of ’em. They
sent a hinspector down, an’ we found a few more legs,—ah, an’ even ‘eads, to
“What was the solution of
the mystery?” I said, getting impatient.
“Well,” he replied, “the cat
came out o’ the bag, at last. It was body-snatchers an’ med’cal studen’s. When
the gen’elmcn at the hospital ‘ad clone cutting up the bodies, they gets rid o’
the limbs by pitchin’ ’em into the open shore.”
In my inquiries among that curious body of men, the “Sewer Hunters,” I found them make light of any danger, their principal fear being from the attacks of rats in case they became isolated from the gang with whom they searched in common, while they represented the odour as a mere nothing in the way of unpleasantness. But these men pursued only known and (by them) beaten tracks at low water, avoiding any deviation, and so becoming but partially acquainted with the character and direction of the sewers. And had it been otherwise, they are not a class competent to describe what they saw, however keen-eyed after silver spoons.
The following account is derived chiefly from official sources.
I may premise that where the deposit is found the greatest, the sewer is in the
worst state. This deposit, I find it repeatedly stated, is of a most
miscellaneous character. Some of the sewers, indeed, are represented as the
dust-bins and dung-hills of the immediate neighbourhood. The deposit has been
found to comprise all the ingredients from the breweries, the gas-works, and
the several chemical and mineral manufactories; dead dogs, cats, kittens, and
rats; offal from slaughter-houses, sometimes even including the entrails of the
animals; street-pavement dirt of every variety; vegetable refuse; stable-dung;
the refuse of pig-styes; night-soil; ashes; tin kettles and pans (pansherds);
broken stoneware, as jars, pitchers, flower-pots, &c.; bricks; pieces of
wood; rotten mortar and rubbish of different kinds; and even rags. Our criminal
annals of the previous century show that often enough the bodies of murdered
men were thrown into the Fleet and other ditches, then the open sewers of the
metropolis, and if found washed into the Thames, they were so stained and
disfigured by the foulness of the contents of these ditches, that recognition was
often impossible, so that there could be but one verdict returned—” Found
drowned.” Clothes stripped from a murdered person have been, it was
authenticated on several occasions in Old Bailey evidence, thrown into the open
sewer ditches, when torn and defaced, so that they might not supply evidence of
identity. So close is the connection between physical filthiness in public
matters and moral wickedness.
The following particulars show the characteristics of the
underground London of the sewers. The subterranean surveys were made after the
commissions were consolidated.
“An old sewer, running
between Great Smithstreet and St. Ann-street (Westminster), is a curiosity
among sewers, although it is probably only one instance out of many similar
constructions that will be discovered in the course of the subterranean survey.
The bottom is formed of planks laid upon transverse timbers, 6 inches by 6
inches, about 3 feet apart. The size of the sewer varies in width from 2 to 6
feet, and from 4 to 5 feet in height. The inclination to the bottom is very
irregular: there are jumps up at two or three places, and it contains a deposit
of filth averaging 9 inches in depth, the sickening smell from which escapes
into the houses and yards that drain into it. In many places the side walls
have given way for lengths of 10 and 15 feet. Across this sewer timbers have
been laid, upon which the external wall of a workshop has been built; the
timbers are in a decaying state, and should they give way, the wall will fall
into the sewer.”
Susanna’s note: You can find out more about sewer thieves in this Smithsonian article including additional excerpts from Mayhew.