THE traveller who arrived upon our shores had often spent days or even weeks upon his journey. He had perhaps travelled long distances by coach or diligence to the port of embarkation. There he had often spent tedious hours waiting for the wind to rise, to change, or to abate. He had set sail in small miserable ships, having, as a rule, to bring his food with him: He had probably suffered the miseries of sea-sickness, he may have been bruised and battered by storms; often he arrived in a disgruntled frame of mind, ready to find fault with everything. It is surprising indeed that any foreign traveller saw, in these circumstances, anything to admire. Travellers could cross from Calais to Dover, Dieppe to Brighthelmstone, Rotterdam to London, Ritzbuttel to Yarmouth. Much of the conversation among them — if indeed they were in any condition to talk — would have been about the customs, and the chances of evading them. As the shores of England loomed in sight, little boats slipped furtively from the coast, and approaching the ship, their crews offered to transport anything that was dutiable and restore it safely and secretly when the owners were in England. Naval frigates and corvettes might, upon occasion, offer this service. The travellers would have been in a difficulty. Did they dare accept? The men in the boats looked a rascally crew and were almost certainly smugglers, the sailors of His Majesty's navy looked even worse. No man, Dr. Johnson had said, would go to sea in a King's ship who could contrive to get himself into a jail. It might be better to keep their dutiable articles and try what a little bribery would do, or if the worst came to the worst, to pay duty upon them.
Perils By Water
The most horrible journey comes miserably to an end and at last the weary traveller saw the white cliffs of Dover or Brighthelmstone, the Yarmouth lighthouses or the Thames at London docks. They were pitching and tossing, waiting for the boats which were rowing out and which would take them to the shore. It was not always a pleasant prospect which was spread before them. There were poor, mean houses, noisy, jostling crowds, sailors fighting in a ring with their backers egging them on, the stench which arose from ships in harbour, a crowd of bawds, pimps and pickpockets waiting to prey upon the foreigner. No wonder that the German colony in London kept a watch at the docks to guide any countrymen who arrived through cut-throats and custom houses. Bribery was universal. Pastor Moritz, that good, German clergyman, who, it might be thought, would have had a few scruples, paid six shillings to get his luggage unexamined through the Dartford customs. He only regretted that the transaction had cost him so much. Count Kielmansegg tells us that his pockets as well as his clothes were searched at Harwich, and as he arrived after nightfall he had to leave his luggage in the charge of his servants to be examined by daylight. "It is possible" he said "with the aid of a guinea or so to avoid too strict an examination, if the officers are assured that the things are for your own use." Mme de Bocage, after a most miserable crossing from Calais, was told by the pilot of the ship she was in that it was impossible, owing to the high seas, to enter Dover harbour. He suggested that she should get on board a small vessel which would take her and her husband to Deal. Poor Mme de Bocage, who had given up all hope of ever seeing her family and friends again, or even seeing England, accepted what she called
"that sad proposal. The captain" she continues "took me into his arms to help me into the boat, which the waves constantly drove from the vessel, so that a slip which he made upon the ladder obliged him to let go: by good luck instead of falling into the water, I found myself alone upon this skiff in the midst of the rowers, at the mercy of the waves and trembling with fear lest M. de Bocage should not be able to come to me."
Eventually she and her husband reached the shore, and the custom house. Hastily they declared everything, paid everything, cursed everyone and set out to find lodgings. Mme de Bocage describes these as wretched, but confesses that they were better than anything which could be found in France in a similar place.
Von Uffenbach got his luggage through the Harwich customs without any bribery. The officials "stared hard" he tells us "at twelve new shirts I had bought in Holland; however, as they had my name, and were purposely tumbled, they were allowed to pass." He set out hopefully on his journey to London; but when he had gone twelve miles and reached Manningtree, he was stopped and all his luggage was to be examined again. He found that this time it was only in order to extract a "trinkgeld" and, when this was disbursed, he was allowed to proceed without opening his boxes. In London they were searched again; but with what results he does not say. Ships arriving at a port were also examined. De Saussure tells us how five or six separate parties of officials boarded his vessel at Gravesend, to each of whom the captain made a Present:
"for ships " de Saussure says "are occasionally much damaged by these visits, the searchers being allowed to break down the wooden partitions so as to make sure nothing is concealed in them, and the more generous the captain shows himself the less harm is done to the ship. Some pounds of tea were found, hidden away between the stones of the kitchen stove of our vessel."
When they reached London there was another search. A French refugee captain excited suspicion as being "rather bulky in the seat" and a packet of Flanders lace was found concealed in his breeches. He was accompanied by his mother and sister and
"the customs men were impudent enough" de Saussure says "to search beneath the French lady's petticoats".
The hooped petticoat had been known to conceal a man, and was a capacious hiding place for contraband.
"They did not draw their hands out empty" de Saussure continues, "but produced several more packets of lace."
It seems strange that in an age when so much beautiful English lace was made, it should have been lucrative to smuggle in Flemish lace; but as far as dress was concerned, and perhaps only in that particular, English women were convinced that foreign goods were better than English.
Rude To Foreigners
Casanova, we are not surprised to learn, had difficulty with the custom house.
"English officials" he complains "cannot be compared to the French, who know how to combine politeness with the exercise of their rights."
Travellers have often complained of the attitude of these officials; but it was not only the customhouse men who were rude, to foreigners. England was, in those days, extremely parochial. Anyone outside his own town or village was considered by the native to be a foreigner, and the man who came from that out-landish place the continent of Europe was a strange being, who ate frogs and snails, disliked good English beer and had not the advantage of being an Englishman.
"I do not think" de Saussure says "there is a people more prejudiced in its own favour than the British people and they allow this to appear in their talk and manners."
There were instances of foreigners being insulted and even attacked by the London mob; but as a rule they were regarded with a hearty contempt, and most foreigners speak of being received with a rather frigid politeness, and even, on occasion, with great consideration.
"They are generally polite people" says Zetzner who came from Strasbourg in 1700 and stayed two years in this country, "with a developed political intelligence, clever and of a fine stature. They have a remarkably penetrating mind, learning and understanding every thing. They are also agile, muscular, good at all bodily exercises. They can be kind, and if they wish to do honour to someone, they spare no pains. But in the depth of their soul they are proud, haughty and they consider themselves superior to other nations."
The kindly Moritz, who suffered so much at the hands of innkeepers, says that
"the English were taxed, perhaps too hastily with being shy and distant to strangers. I do not think this was ever formerly their character."
Some travellers are extravagant in their praise. "Even the tax gatherers are honest!" a Frenchman exclaims.
"These people" declares Meister "are honourably distinguished by sentiments of decorum, magnanimity and uprightness, by private attachments and universal benevolence, by affections of every gentle, constant and generous kind, which the heart is capable of feeling."
It is pleasant, in this age when our country is being generally abused, to read such a tribute.
Impressions On Landing
The Englishman, however, was not easy to know, and the first impressions of our country were generally far from favourable.
"St. Catherine's (Dock) is one of the most execrable holes in all this great city" says Moritz. "He who lands here first sees this miserable narrow dirty street and this mass of ill-built, old, ruinous houses, and, of course, forms at first sight, no very favourable idea of this beautiful and renowned city."
"This beautiful and renowned city" had probably some of the worst slums in Europe. Its population had immensely increased during the century. At the beginning of our period, it was probably about half a million, and by the end had swollen to 750,000. Zetzner, who lived for some time with a London merchant and dealt with his foreign correspondence computed that there were 120,000 houses, 5,000 streets, 140 churches with bells and 960,000 inhabitants; but as there had never been a proper census it is impossible to assess the population correctly.
Suburbs and Slums
A great increase in building was noticeable. Archenhotz declared that 43,000 houses had been built in ten years; but the houses erected were chiefly for the upper and middle classes. The poor were herded together in a state of unimaginable squalor and gross over-crowding. Some of the worst slums were in the neighbourhood of the London docks, and they were peopled, for the most part, by thieves, cut-throats, prostitutes and pimps: Meister the Frenchman, who visited England in 1789 and again in 1792, says of this part of London. "Both banks of this delightful river are covered with the most filthy erections, old stables or the miserable huts of fishermen and watermen .... the inhabitants are shut out from the richest prospect which the happy situation of that capital is capable of affording them:" He was probably comparing it very unfavourably with Paris, whose river was not shut out of sight by wharves and slums.
If the traveller arrived in London by road, he would have been gratified by the sight of pleasant, suburban houses set in gardens. These were the residences of London citizens, their little boxes as they called them where they often lived or sometimes used as weekend resorts. Macky writes of the two hundred little country houses which had been built at Wanstead
"for the convenience of the citizens in the summer, where their wives and children generally keep, and their husbands come down Saturdays and return Mondays".
The slums, however, had begun to invade the country. Squalid houses were being built close to the citizens' pleasant dwellings. Even those "South Sea" seats which Macky speaks of, the abode of those fortunate men whom the Bubble had enriched, had some very unpleasant neighbours. Heaps of cinders, filth and ordure from the great city were collected outside it, some of which went to manure the market gardens, but much remained to pollute the atmosphere. London and other large towns could be smelt as the coach approached it on the country roads. Grosley tells us of houses, built one brick thick and that made
"of the first earth that comes to hand and only just warmed at the fire . . . the inside of these buildings" he adds "is as much neglected as the outside, small pieces of deal supply the place of beams, all the wainscoting is of deal, and the thinnest that can be found."
At last, however, the foreign traveller, whether he arrived by ship, by coach or posting in his own carriage, was set down at his inn or lodging, tired certainly, disgusted and disgruntled probably and seldom able to echo the panegyric of one enthusiast who exclaimed on arrival:
"The mere thought this is England made me leap for joy and bless the land of that noble friendship which had prepared such unspeakable pleasure for me."