An almost unrecognisable picture of the capital city from the 1891 book “Picturesque England: Its Landmarks and Historic Haunts”. Much has changed since Victorian times when London was probably the most important city in the world and the centre of Empire.
The wonderful city that is the heart of the world’s thought and trade, and from which issue the power and the might of England, has less claim to be called picturesque than many another far less important capital. It is perhaps of too great extent to easily convey the idea of beauty; yet few who gaze upon London from its own imperial river will refuse to acknowledge that it possesses a certain charm and majesty peculiar to itself.
It was certainly more picturesque, in the ordinary sense of the word, in the old days when London Bridge had a street on it, and the town was full of quaint gabled houses such as Hollar has drawn for us. But it still possesses its ancient and picturesque Tower, its grand old Abbey, its fine Houses of Parliament; and from many parts of the river it will still afford subjects for the artist.
Stand for a few moments in early morning on Charing Cross Bridge, and look eastward, and you will see a noble river decked in the “many twinkling” smiles of summer sunshine; the pathway of busy men still, though no longer, as it once was, the bearer of royal or civic pageants. Before you is the finest of the London bridges, through the arches of which is caught a glimpse of the Temple and of the frontage of the City of London School, while in the distance is Blackfriars Bridge.
Above the centre of the bridge rises the majestic dome of St. Paul’s, and nearer to us the grey walls of Somerset House appear through the foliage of the Embankment gardens.
Perhaps a greater idea of the grandeur and wealth of the city may be gained by steaming up the Thames to Charing Cross, past the great docks that receive the shipping of the world.
They are of vast extent. St. Katharine’s, the first built, or rather constructed, occupy the site of the old St. Katharine’s Hospital, that was transferred to the Regent’s Park. These docks cost 2,000,000 to build. They cover 24 acres, nearly half of which are water. The London Docks, united to the St. Katharine in 1863, contain 90 acres, a third being water, and cost 4,000,000 of money to construct. Here are great warehouses of tobacco, rented by the Crown, immense wine vaults, covering acres of ground; the mixing house, which has a vat in it that will hold over 23,000 gallons; the wool, spices, tea, drugs, sugar, and other warehouses, innumerable and worthy of the great city that is the centre of the world’s trade.
From the docks we reach the Tower, which from the Thames is very picturesque, for we have here a view of the Traitor’s Gate, the Bloody Tower, where the little princes were murdered, and of a rather confused assemblage of walls and towers encircling the great keep, or White Tower, which rises proudly above them. We proceed up the river, and reach the Custom House Facade, facing the river. Immense sums are levied here yearly. Both this building and the docks are evidences of the enormous wealth of London. After passing Billingsgate Fish Market, we reach London Bridge.
Old London Bridge was picturesque in Elizabeth’s reign, and previously, with a gate-house at each end, a beautiful Gothic chapel in the middle, and stately houses on each side, with flat roofs having gardens and bowers on them. The Nonsuch House, richly carved and gilt, and prepared in Holland, stood near the drawbridge. In 1666 these houses were burnt down in the Great Fire, but they were rebuilt a few years after. In 1757 they were altogether removed; and in 1832 a new bridge replaced this memorable old one. Formerly, passing under the arches was called “Shooting London Bridge,” and was not a little dangerous, as the arches were very narrow, and the stream, thus impeded, rushed strongly through them. Now the passage is easy under the fine bridge of five semi-elliptical arches, two of 130 feet, two of 140 feet, and the centre arch 152 feet 6 inches span. The roadway is 52 feet wide.
Old London Bridge was associated with many events in the history of England. Here De Montfort repulsed the royal troops during the Barons’ War; here our great Henry V. crossed in triumph after Agincourt; and here, all too soon afterwards, his dead body was borne across in solemn pomp. In 1450 Jack Cade seized London Bridge; in 1554 it was the scene of Wyat’s rebellion.
Not many years ago the dynamitards endeavoured to blow up the present bridge; but in this instance, we believe, the engineer “was hoist with his own petard,” and the unhappy man perished in the act of committing a crime that might have destroyed hundreds.
The next picturesque scene is that presented by the Temple and Temple Gardens, the Water-gate of York House, on the Embankment Cleopatra’s Needle, the gardens open to the people, and Charing Cross station itself, of the view from which we have already spoken; while during the whole passage up the stream we have seen the glorious dome of St. Paul’s towering over the city.
Joanna Baillie has left us a very graphic description of London as seen inland from the heights of Hampstead Heath, and we think our readers will be glad to read her picture of London seen from a height slightly above it. It is thus she describes it:
“It is a goodly sight through the clear air,
From Hampstead’s heathy height to see at once
England’s vast capitol in fair expanse
Towers, belfries, lengthened streets, and structures fair.
St. Paul’s high dome, amidst the vassal bands
Of neighboring spires a regal chieftain stands,
And over fields of ridgy roofs appear,
With distance softly tinted, side by side,
In kindred grace, like twain of sisters dear,
The towers of Westminster, her abbey’s pride;
While far beyond the hills of Surrey shine
Through thin soft haze, and show their wavy line,
Viewed thus a goodly sight! but when surveyed
Through denser air, when moistened winds prevail,
In her grand panoply of smoke arrayed,
While clouds aloft in heavy volumes sail,
She is sublime. She seems a curtained gloom,
Connecting heaven and earth – a threatening sign of doom.
With more than natural height, reared to the sky
‘Tis then St. Paul’s arrests the wandering eye;
The lower parts in swathing mist concealed,
The higher through some half-spent shower revealed,
So far from earth removed, that well, I trow,
Did not its form man’s artful structure show,
It might some lofty Alpine height be deemed.
The eagle’s haunt, with cave and crevice seamed.
Stretched wide on either hand, a rugged screen
In lurid darkness, nearer streets are seen
Like shoreward billows of a troubled main
Arrested in their rage. Through drizzly rain
Cataracts of tawny sheen pour from the skies,
Of furnace smoke black curling columns rise,
And many-tinted vapours slowly pass
O’er the wide draping of that pictured mass,
So shows by day this grand imperial town,
And when o’er a I the night’s black stole is thrown,
The distant traveller doth with wonder mark
Her luminous canopy athwart the dark,
Cast up, from myriads of lamps that shine
Along her streets in many a starry line;
He wondering looks from his yet distant road,
And thinks the northern streamers are abroad.
‘What hollow sound is that? Approaching near,
The roar of many wheels breaks on his ear;
It is the flood of human life in motion!
It is the voice of a tempestuous ocean.
With sad but pleasing awe his soul is filled,
Scarce heaves his breast and all within is stilled,
As many thoughts and feelings cross his mind,-
Thoughts mingled, melancholy, undefined, –
Of restless, reckless man; and years gone by,
And time fast wending to eternity.”
Wordsworth has admirably described another phase of London, that all will recognize. He writes,-
“Before me flow,
Thou endless stream of men and moving things;
Thy everyday appearance, as it strikes-
With wonder heightened, or sublimed by awe-
On strangers of all ages; the quick dance
Of colours, lights, and forms; the deafening din;
The comers and the goers, face to face,
Face after face; the string of dazzling wares,
Shop after shop, with symbols, blazoned names,
And all the tradesman’s honours overhead.”
But in describing London we must not omit her Houses of Parliament. They are not of any great antiquity, dating from about 1840 to 1857; the previous building having been burnt down. But the assembling of the members of both if Houses dates from the reign of Henry III, and was owing to De Montfort, Earl of Leicester, and the Barons’ struggle for the people’s freedom. But when first elected, these citizens and burgesses were of an unimportant character, scarcely daring to raise their eyes to the nobles and prelates. “To grant money,” says Mr. Hallam, “was the main object of their meeting; and if the exigencies of the administration could have been relieved without subsidies, the citizens and burgesses might still have sat at home and obeyed the laws which a council of nobles and prelates enacted for their government. But it is a difficult question whether the king and the peers designed to make room for them, as it were, in legislation, and whether the purse drew after it immediately, or only by degrees, those indispensable rights of consenting to laws which they now possess.”
Their business, however, appears to have been to petition for redress of grievances, as well as provide money for the government.
There were not at first two houses; the Commons probably sat at one end of the hall at Westminster, and the Lords at the other, but they never intermingled their votes. The usual reason for calling a parliament was to raise money by taxation. But they soon had separate houses.
In the eleventh year of Edward I the Commons sat at Acton Burnell, and the Upper House at Shrewsbury.
The laws made by the early Parliaments are remarkable, especially those of Edward I. He has, in fact, with good reason been called the English Justinian.
But it is not of these laws, or of the struggles of the members at different times, that we are to speak now, but rather of the Houses themselves.
Westminster Hall was the first locality of parliament when held in London, and until separate houses were built for it.
In James the First’s time the famous Gunpowder Plot had nearly reduced the House to ashes, with those who were in it. Happily the nation was spared this crime, by the betrayal of the plot to Lord Monteagle.
But more than two centuries after, a fire broke out in the House of Commons, and both the Houses of Parliament were destroyed. We were shown once a pretty sketch of Guy Faux’s cellar, made at the time when access was easy through the ruins. The present noble building was commenced in 1840, and completed 1852.
There has been a Parliament that sat only one day; its business was the deposition of Richard II., for the power of Parliaments had then grown very great: they deposed one king, they went to war with another – it was not the Parliament that murdered him; they restored the monarchy; they elected William and Mary to fill the throne vacant by the flight of James Il.; they altered the succession and re-arranged it again for Henry VIII.; and twice they have changed the religion of the land. Much indeed was done in the old Houses; much has been done in the new.
The splendid building now in London, the work of Sir Charles Barry, has been threatened with destruction within the last six years by the dynamitards; in fact, the interior of the House of Commons received much injury from an explosion.
The House of Commons is 70 feet long and 45 broad. It is 45 feet in height, and is a noble chamber, though barely large enough to accommodate the present number of members The Speaker’s chair takes the place in this chamber that the throne does in the House of Lords. Over this is the visitors’ gallery. There are also galleries for reporters and for the public, and a ladies’ gallery, which holds only 38 or 39 persons. The Star Chamber Court occupies the site of the old Star Chamber. The upper waiting hall contains a number of frescoes from British poets: Griselda, from Chaucer; Lear and his daughters, from Shakspeare, etc. etc. A statue of Richard Coeur de Lion, by Marochetti, stands in Palace Yard; and in Parliament Square are statues of Canning, Peel, Palmerston, Derby, and Beaconsfield. On the 19th of April, the date of the great Tory leader’s death, his statue is richly decked with primroses, his favourite flower; frequently the pedestal is nearly buried under the sweet heaps of the woodland blossom.
The House of Lords is a very fine chamber, rich in carved work, colour, and gilding; it is 97 feet long, 45 feet broad, and 45 feet high. Here is the throne on a dais, and on a less elevated one a chair for the Prince of Wales, and the personage next in honour. In front of the throne is the Woolsack, covered with crimson cloth, on which the Lord Chancellor sits. The peers’ seats are also covered with crimson. Frescoes decorate the walls, and the twelve painted glass windows are at night lighted from the outside.
The exterior of the Houses is very fine They cover eight acres of ground, and have four fronts: the one facing the river is 940 feet long. The building contains eleven open courts, five hundred rooms, the official residences, the state apartments, and the Houses of Lords and Commons.
The style of building is Gothic, and the stone is very finely carved; the Houses are very picturesque, the work on them somewhat resembling that on the fine Town Halls of the Netherlands. The clock tower, or campanile, is 320 feet high and 40 feet square. It contains a great bell called Big Ben. There was a bell called Great Tom of Westminster, in the old Houses, till it was removed to St. Paul’s in 1699. A strange story is told of this bell. A soldier named John Hatfield, in the reign of William and Mary, was tried by courtmartial for being asleep on his post upon the Terrace of Windsor Castle. He pleaded “not guilty,” declaring that he was awake, and had heard Great Tom strike thirteen instead of twelve at midnight. His statement was thought absurd; it was said that he could not have heard the bell at that distance, and that it could not have struck thirteen. However, several persons living in the neighbourhood of Great Tom, came forward and swore that they had heard it strike thirteen at twelve o’clock that night; so the sentinel was acquitted. The present clock is not subject to such vagaries, but keeps time admirably.
The Victoria Tower is 75 feet square and 340 high, and it has a very fine entrance to the House of Lords, an archway 65 feet high. The royal entrance is by this tower, and leads to the Norman porch, where are the statues of the Norman sovereigns, then to the Robing Room. The Victoria gallery is decorated with frescoes, and has a gilded ceiling and stained glass windows, and paintings by Maclise, etc., etc. The Queen passes through this gallery to the House of Lords when she opens Parliament.
Westminster Hall is the vestibule of the House of Commons. It was built by William Rufus, was raised in height by Richard II., whose cognizance, a White Hart, is to be seen on the stone mouldings. The Hall is a very fine building 290 feet long, 68 feet wide, and 92 feet high. It is full of historical memories. In it the coronnation feasts were always given; and the High Courts of Justice were held in it for seven centuries and a hall Here Sir William Wallace, the champion of Scotland (basely betrayed to the English), was tried and most unjustly condemned to death. Here were tried and condemned the Protector Somerset, Sir Thomas More, Lord Stratford, and Charles I.; and as the whirligig of time brings its revenges, upon the south gable were afterwards set the heads of Cromwell, Ireton, and Bradshaw.
The Hall is now being repaired and restored.
The Courts of Law were transferred, in 1883, to the Royal Courts of Justice, erected by Mr. Street on the north side of the Strand.
London is a town of great antiquity. It was a British city, and was then named Caer-Ludd, or the City of Lud; we still retain the name in Ludgate.
The Romans called it Londinium, from which London is derived. Tacitus spoke of it as frequented by a great many merchants, and having many ships entering its port. The Romans built the old city walls, and fixed the gates, and made Watling Street, a great highway running from London to the north.
London’s instincts of civilization appear to have been always strong, so that it became very early friendly to the Romans, who had many zealous partisans both in London and in St. Albans; or, as the towns were then called, in Londinium and Verulamium. In consequence, when the more savage Britons revolted, under Boadicea London and Verulamium were attacked with fury by her followers as strongholds of Roman power, and 70,000 of their inhabitants were slain or massacred. But it was not till the Norman times that London gained great importance; since that period, however, every passing century has added to its riches and extent.
Our great city is full of historical memories, and much of it is “haunted ground,” bearing names that are associated with some of the chief events in our history and in our literature.
In the Tower nearly all the greatest and best of England’s nobles suffered during the ages of tyranny, when the Plantagenets and Tudors ruled the land.
In the Temple were gathered the fatal White and Red roses that deluged England with blood.
In Whitehall and St James’s Palace kings and queens suffered: a king died on the block at the former, the unhappy Queen Anne lived at the latter with a tyrannical favourite. From St. James’ also issued and still issue all the declarations of war or peace that have chiefly made our history.
In the Strand dwelt several of Elizabeth’s nobles; and in London Shakspeare wrote and acted, Milton lived, Addison and Steele wrote, and Dr. Johnson and Lamb. perambulated Fleet Street, and preferred it to the lovely spots that make picturesque England.
In all ages of our history London has taken a foremost place in wealth, literature and patriotism.