Letter from London

Daily Alta California/July 22, 1872

Our Correspondent Calls Upon a Friend of His Ilk—A Reminiscence of Artemus Ward— Shocking Disrespect of the British Mind to the British Throne—Our Correspondent’s Remarkable Discoveries of Facts, and his no less Remarkable Inferences from Them—A Pestilence on the Stocks— The Farm Laborer Takes a Look Round.

London, June 25th

EDITORS ALTA: I went yesterday to call upon a journalist, who is nevertheless a friend. You have no idea how difficult it is in London to see an editor, and how easy it is to be presented to the Queen. I was confronted at the door by a single-headed Cerberus (his one head was white enough for three, however) whom I asked, with an air of lofty dignity, if Mr. Quill were good enough to be in. Mr. Quill was good enough but Mr. Q. did not see any one except by previous appointment. Would I leave my card? I wouldn’t; I would stay by it; would Cerberus be so kind as to take it up? Cerberus looked pained; such a proposition was an innovation, and therefore a distress. He growled out something about “the regular thing,” and shoving toward me a “full deck” of printed forms, sought to escape. I transfixed him with a frown, seized his hand, put my card in the palm of it, closed his dirty fingers upon it, and thundered “Be off!”

There was a weary half-hour of waiting; then Cerberus sneaked in and whined:

“You’ll find these ’ere is best hadapted to callin’ purposes, sir. Ve keeps ’em for that.”

I saw that the minion had not dared to deliver my card, and my contempt for him gave way to pity; I took up the printed forms. They were like this:

Name of Visitor


Whom to See

Nature of Business


And this in a country where journalistic personalities are unknown, and people do not carry arms! Cerberus must have observed that I was beginning to weaken, for he assumed by degrees a frosty demeanor, and looked as pitiless as Fate. This disconcerted me, and I threw overboard another part of my ballast of dignity, hoping to regain my lost ascendency by an appeal to his heart. I regret to say that as I waned Cerberus waxed—he towered as I cowered; and in three minutes I would have blacked his boots if he had graciously permitted me. Thrusting one of the printed forms under my nose, he presented a loaded pen, saying with the most disrespectful familiarity:

“’Ere, you! you hadn’t orter call on the heditor uv a public horgan ’ithout knowin’ heverythink as is due to the hetiquette o’ the perfession. But as you, may be, ’aint ’ad no hopportunity to learn ’ow we does in Hingland, I don’t mind parsin’’ it over. If you caint write, I’ll just fill hup the card, and perhaps we’ll see you, if we’re gone to press.”

I declined the proffered aid, and meekly possessed myself of the card and pen. But no sooner did my fingers touch the familiar instrument than my courage, which had ebbed entirely, flowed back like a tidal wave. I glared at Cerberus, and then filled up the thing as follows:

Name of Visitor                        Jonathan Grimes.

Address                                       Settin’ Sun.

Whom to See                             The lot of you.

Nature of Business

To curse your bloated monarchy, and hurl defiance at the British Lion! To trample upon the Crown! To exalt the Banner o’ Freedom!

Signature                  [I wish you could have seen that ferocious autograph!]

This missive the unsuspecting minion (who I now discovered could not read) conveyed to the editorial sanctum, and after the lapse of another half hour piloted me into an anteroom with the encouraging remark that “we wus just agoin’ to press, and I would soon he hin.” In another hour there was a combined movement of the entire editorial force upon that room. What passed therein will never transpire. But late that afternoon five dejected looking British journalists crawled wearily away up the Strand, in urgent need of attendance; while your correspondent, hatless but unsubdued, stepped over a dozen empty champagne bottles, grinding beneath his iron heel a score of weltering cigar stumps, stroke to the portcullis and pitched head foremost into a Hansom cab, whilst Cerberus crowded his legs in after him.

MORAL—It is awful difficult to see a British journalist, but he is worth seeing.

“A. Ward.”

I hope if the Bohemian Club have the advantage of the ALTA’s good will you labor with them to the end that all English writers shall be treated with the most lavish hospitality. “This do in remembrance of me.” I have received nothing but kindness at their hands. I can easily understand how Fleet Street and the clubs killed poor Artemus Ward. It is pleasing, by the way, to remark the real affection and tenderness in which the memory of “the genial showman” is held over here. Every one seems to have known and loved him for his manly nature and his unselfish heart. “Poor Browne” is the tender name they give him, and I think their regret for his death is not unmingled with remorse. There is, however, at least one man in London whose grief, however acute it may be, is certainly unique. I refer to a certain publisher, who has “done more for American humor,” etc., etc. In the course of an amusing quarrel, the other day, between this publisher and a well-known author—a quarrel at which I had the happiness to assist in the role of innocent cause—the publisher severely taxed his antagonist as being the prime actor in poor Ward’s undoing; in other words the author was one of those who led him into the fatal temptation which was too strong for him. I was inexpressibly touched at this exhibition of heart in a publisher—the only instance within the scope of my experience—but upon learning that he had made a good profit by pirating “poor Ward’s” books, and had never given the latter a penny. I partially dried my “tear of sensibility” It is only just to say that the publisher in question denies the soft impeachment.

Some Politics.

I think that in my last letter I wrote something about the ballot bill, which is just now, and has been for some time, next to the Alabama Claims the popular political topic. Well, the Lords have, as might have been expected, done what they could to kill the measure, by adopting an amendment making secrecy in voting optional instead of compulsory. Thus emasculated, the bill goes back to the Commons, who will make short work of their Lordships’ amendment, and send it them back. It remains to be seen if the latter will adhere to their pig-headed obstructive policy in the face of the expressed will of the people’s representatives. Commonly they back squarely down in such cases; for, after all, it is the House of Commons which is the Sovereign power. Of course it is understood that if the bill shall pass, it becomes a law; for notwithstanding the courteous fiction of craving Her Majesty’s approval, it would be a piece of insanity for Her Majesty to withhold it. Not for a good many reigns has the Sovereign committed such an act of presumption as to veto a measure of Parliament. Perhaps our friend Guy McClellan, and others of the throne-upsetting school of American politics, may love to crack that nut.

The Queen-ridden, down-trodden people of suffering England, I am sorry to state, seem to enjoy an independence of the throne which is little less than shocking to the average American mind—my mind. I am pained to observe among all educated people here a tendency to “chaff” the throne and all its appurtenances, excepting only its present occupant. For her they have unbounded respect, and she deserves it all, bless her! What I mean to say is this: that the educated classes of England, with the exception of a few wooden-headed conservatives of the past generation, are accustomed to speak and write of the monarchy as a harmless and diverting show, and of the aristocracy as a substantial and respectable reality. Most of them readily admit that the monarchy is a mere sham, the function of which is to conceal from the lower orders the fact that they are tending toward a republic, lest the knowledge should turn their excellent heads. It is not that the better public sentiment of England is favorable to a Democracy—there never was a grosser mistake—but that it is seen to be inevitable by all the clearer eyes in the united kingdom is most certainly true. Meantime, the heads to which these eyes belong think Democracy a very bad thing at present and are anxious to postpone what they have not the power to avert.

Do not permit your readers to delude themselves: the Liberal party is not a democratic element in any sense of the expression, and the real democratic movement does not as yet possess a single element of respectability nor exhibit a single promise of power. The democratic leaven has yet to be introduced into the meal of English politics—taking that word in its larger sense. If the gentlemen who create the cable dispatches at this end of the line and devise the “London correspondence” at the other, were a little les prejudiced and a trifle more honest, American readers would have the advantage of seeing matters English as they are, instead of as they would wish to have them. A man who can live for a single month in England, keeping his eyes open and his mouth shut, and then expect ever to see a British republic, may boast himself impregnable to merely human reason.

A country in which it takes a century of debate to repeal a law of open and palpable iniquity, and another century to supply its place with a better, in which lawyers of hardest sense and a keen consciousness of the ridiculous, thatch their pates with white horse-hair rather than make an innovation by pleading in their own; in which an iron knocker is still religiously appended to every street door, alongside the bell-knob; in which the Government puts the boot-blacks into uniform—this is not a country in which democracy is to be the growth of a single night. Nevertheless, it will grow when it has once been planted. Meanwhile there is no harm in Sir Charles Bilke, who is nearly a goose, and Mr. Odger, who is entirely a shoemaker, cultivating the csickly little weed they have been good enough to exhibit as the real vegetable.

A Drought

That low-lying portion of London called Bermondsey is suffering severely from a water famine. So great is the distress that the inhabitants, who are mostly artisans and their families, and laborers, have been driven to the Thames and the ditches to quench their thirst, which the present hot weather has rendered intolerable. Swarms of them go about the streets begging water from door to door, and some of the locks placed upon pestilential cisterns by the authorities to keep the people from poisoning themselves have been broken by crowds of half-crazed women and children. The distress is scarcely less pointedly indicated by the statement that “three hundred people drank from a gentleman’s well” for a London well, belonging to either gentle or simple, is hardly a fountain of sweets. There has been, of course, no end of hearty denunciation of the water company whose duty it is to supply the district; but as yet no one has been able to point out how a water company can give out what it hasn’t got. The press and the people are quite agreed in the determination that this condition of things shall not occur again, and they are equally united in their inability to suggest a remedy for the present calamity. One things is certain: if some remedy be not speedily found, a frightful pestilence will poke up its head in Bermondsey one of these hot days.


London is not growing any just now; all the carpenters, bricklayers and gentlemen of cognate industries are on the strike. They are rather more modest than the raging mechanic on your side of the water when he goes on the war path. They ask nine hours a day and nine pence an hour and as the master builders met the demand by a general lockout, there is very lively idleness going on and no buildings going up. It remains to be seen which side will win, but it is certain that in any event the public will lose.

Your regular English workman, confound him! is always on the strike, and now the agricultural laborer has caught the infection, too. This poor creature, who gets meat once a week, and never quite enough of anything else but hard work and hungry babies, has suddenly opened his eyes to the fact that his condition is not the normal state of man; and his poor dazed intellect can find no better remedy than a strike There is a pathetic absurdity in the pitiful spectacle of men without a penny in their pockets and not a bite of bread in their hovels, gravely knocking off work to force a concession from the men upon whose land these hovels are situated. The thing would be ludicrous to a degree, were it not sad in the extreme. I know of no more wretched class than the English farm laborers; and their existence in their present degraded state would be lasting reproach to the Government, if only that had ever aided and abetted their existence in any state. When a man can ride all day in a direct line across his estates, and in so doing pass a thousand doors behind which Want crouches with hollow eyes, there is something radically wrong in the system under which that man lives. It is easy to explain in ten newspaper columns why this state of things is unavoidable; I defy any one to do it in a sentence. B.

(Source: Archive.org, https://archive.org/stream/waspjanjune188616unse#page/n342/mode/1up)