It was in the streets of London that these first newspapers were hawked; it was in the coffee-houses of London that these first broadsides were discussed, and it is worth our while to stroll in imagination through these streets and to linger awhile in the coffee-houses to look at the men and women who were the first readers of our periodical Press.
We can easily picture the London of the eighteenth century, so many of its citizens have described it in letters and journals. Instead of the metropolis we know to-day with its unbroken line of houses for thirty miles, we see a, town of four miles long and two wide, the open country within easy reach on every side. When a member of the Kit Kat Club left it at night to go to his home in the country village at Kensington, he provided himself with a pistol in case he was attacked by footpads, and at Twickenham Pope thought he was in the depth of the country.
But, small as was the London of Queen Anne's reign in our eyes, her subjects were very proud of it. Older men who could recall the London which had welcomed back Charles II at the Restoration were never weary of pointing out the improvements begun after the Great Fire of 1666, which had left three quarters of the city in ruins and 29,000 people homeless. They boasted of the feats of Sir Christopher Wren, who had raised a new St. Paul's and fifty Parish Churches from the ashes, built Kensington Palace and Marlborough House, restored Westminster Abbey and Hampton Court, and replaced the narrow streets by broader, and the congested houses by more spacious.
It was true that many of the houses were still tumbledown, and that the window tax led to the boarding up of windows and the darkening of rooms, that there were few schools, and that the uneven streets were roughly paved and full of holes. Noisily the coaches lumbered over the cobbles, but a line of posts now divided pavement from causeway, and at night dim oil lamps spluttered and flickered through the darkness.
As we walk through these streets we find so much to see that we hardly know where to turn. Yesterday there was a bull and bear baiting, to-morrow there is to be a public execution at Tyburn, but to-day we find enough to entertain us in the huge shop signs swinging above the doors, in the queer names of the taverns, and in the men and women we see around us.
Here is Lady Mary Coke arriving at Lord Blandford's house in her new sedan chair. It cost £32, but she can scarcely squeeze her hooped petticoat out at the door, and her gala wig is all awry as she steps on to the street. No matter, for just at the front door of her host's house is a little powder closet where she can put her head-dress straight, and see that her patches are at a becoming angle before she goes in to dinner. It is a varied feast, as her letter written next day to her sister tells us:
" A great round of boiled beef, little mutton pyes, beans and bacon, mackerel without fennel sauce. The second course a neck of lamb, a gooseberry pye, and two other little things not meat. Boiled beef is a good thing but a thing I seldom eat and little mutton pyes are too savoury for me, beans I hate and mackerel without fennel sauce I can't eat, judge then if I made a good dinner."
Poor Lady Mary!
We too must dine, and a host of taverns, the Four Swans, the Dragon, Elephant, Young Devil, Running Fountain, and Mother Madcap invite us to enter. When we have made our choice we find it full, for it is the weekly pay day for apprentices, and wages are paid in the taverns. It is easy to see that is a bad plan, and to understand why so many writers of the day lament the gin-drinking that goes on among old and young, and brings so much poverty in its train.
That fine old man with white hair and the air of a retired sailor who pas~s the window as we sit at dinner does more than merely bewail the destitution, he tries to remedy it. He is Captain Coram, who has lately founded the Foundling Hospital. For seventeen years he has pled the cause of the deserted waifs abandoned in the streets, and at last his eloquence, "the natural language of the heart", has brought him helpers. When the hospital was opened a large basket was hung at the gate, and on the first day no fewer than 117 babies were placed in it. The hospital has no kinder friend than the great musician Handel, who gives an annual performance of the Messiah at the Chapel in aid of the funds, and has presented an organ to it.
Dinner over, we turn our steps towards St. Paul's to see Wren's great new Church, and nearby we are attracted by a bookseller's shop with a sign over the door, "The Bible and the Sun". All sorts of curious books are there, and among them we notice a novelty for these days, a shelf of children's books with such attractive titles as The Renowned History of Giles Gingerbread, Mrs. Marjery Two-Shoes, Tommy Trip and his Dog Jowler. As we stand at the window, the proprietor, a little, red-faced, fussy man, bustles out escorting to his coach a fragile figure over whose hand Mr. Newbery bows with great respect. Just then, striding down the street in gown and bands, comes a tall man whose clear blue eyes flash under dark eyebrows.
Mr. Newbery's delicate customer hails him with pleasure, and summons him to enter the coach. Off they drive together, Mr. Pope, the famous poet, and Dr. Jonathan Swift, who is in London just now on business.
It has begun to rain and everyone hurries for shelter, for the clothes of the men; gay silk coats and embroidered waistcoats, knee-breeches and buckled shoes with red heels, are as little able to stand a shower as are those of the ladies. Only one is to be seen carrying an umbrella, and the sedan chairmen scowl at Jonas Hanway, the daring innovator, whose new invention threatens to spoil their trade.
It is time to enter one of the coffee-houses, so famous in eighteenth-century London, where men meet to do business, to talk politics, to gossip, and to play cards. There are coffee-houses to meet every taste, the Cocoa-tree for the Whigs, St. James' for the Tories, Robin's for the merchants, Robinson's for the stockbrokers, Child's for the clergy, the Chapter House for the booksellers, Old Slaughter's for the literary men, and Almack's for men of fashion.
Button's shall be our choice this afternoon, and when we sit down in a retired corner we see that all present are grouped round a handsome man with a serene expression, who seems to listen rather than to talk. He is Mr. Secretary Addison, and his new paper The Spectator is the talk of the town. Beside him, laughing and talking, sits a broad-shouldered man with good-humoured face, who rises now and then to throw the dice at an adjoining table. He is Addison's friend, and known to all the town as Dick Steele.
In the midst of the fun a messenger pushes his way in and hands Steele a letter. A look of vexation passes over his face and, with a muttered apology to the company, he leaves the room. "Poor Dick! his Prue has sent for him again," comes the laughing comment from his amused friends.
After his departure the fun grows quieter. There is talk of the victories in Belgium and of the intrigues at Court, but soon a move is proposed. Where should the evening be spent? At Drury Lane to see Gay's new opera Polly? At Ranelagh to hear Handel's new oratorio? At Vauxhall to see the waterworks?
Vauxhall is the choice, and we follow down the river and enter one of the many barges. The Thames is still the great highway of business and pleasure, and as we push across we jostle against many other boats and hear the watermen abusing each other with river-side jokes. Arrived at Vauxhall we climb the steps, and having paid one shilling entry money we pass into the brightly lighted enclosure.
Before us walk two men arm in arm, and we notice that the shorter of the two pays no entry money but shows a gold season ticket, the gift of the proprietor of Vauxhall to the painter who has done so much to adorn the Gardens. Once inside the gates the two stroll along, watching with keenly observant, amused eyes the procession of gaily dressed courtiers and their ladies, of citizens with their families, of carefree apprentices, and out-at-elbow hack writers who saunter under the trees by the light of many lanterns tied to the branches. Nothing escapes the two observers, for the taller of the two is Henry Fielding the novelist, and the other his friend William Hogarth the painter, and in the pages of the one and the story-pictures of the other the life of their time is made immortal.
As we stand listening to the glees from the music house, we notice a large and merry party in one of the pavilions. Among them is Horace Walpole, who in a letter written the next day tells us exactly how they fared.
"We minced seven chickens into a china dish which Lady Caroline stewed over a lamp, with three pats of butter and a flagon of water, stirring and rattling and laughing, and every minute expecting to have the dish fly about our ears. She had brought Betty Neale the fruit girl with hampers of strawberries and cherries from Roger's and made her wait upon us, and then made her sup by us at a little table. . . . It was three o'clock before we got home."
Home too we must go, hiring a link-boy to light us on our way, and not forgetting that at any moment, as John Gay has just warned us in his poem about London called Trivia, the boy may
"In the mid-way quench the flaming brand,
And share the booty with the pilfering band."
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