THE GOOD OLD TIMES
TENDING TO SHOW
THAT IN SOME RESPECTS THE PRESENT DAYS MAY BE
DISTINGUISHED AS THE BETTER NEW TIMES.
BY J. O. HALLIWELL.
PRINTED BY THE CALEDONIAN PRESS,
"The Scottish National Institution for Promoting the Employment of Women in the
Art of Printing,
4 SOUTH SAINT DAVID STREET.
/ p.3 /
MY two youngest children are playing, where children love to play, in a corner of their parents' sitting-room. In a corner -- in the corner wherein they are playing -- blue-eyed Ellen is assiduously attending to the toilet of my grand-children, two dolls through whom I am honoured by their receiving that designation. Katey the Little, of a somewhat less domestic turn of mind, is tossing a ball to the perpetual tune of an enquiry how the poor robin will take care of himself when the north wind blows and the snow makes its appearance. All goes joyously as marriage bells for nearly an hour, when, as I am concluding the reading of those brilliant leaders in the newspapers, "my custom always of the afternoon," and thinking that in the "the good old times" the composition of a single one of them would have made a man's reputation for life, -- a cry of wailing, piercing through our ears, arises from Ellen, who is not even to be pacified with the largest lump of sugar, aided by the additional attraction of a French plum. While still in her sobs, Katey follows suit. Our room becomes a kind of minor bedlam. The causes are of a formidable nature. Ellen has contrived to break her daughter's arm, and the bran is pouring forth in lamentable profusion; while Katey's ball has received some untoward blow, and there is no use in concealing the obvious fact that it has collapsed.
In after life, the probability is that the only game of childhood in which they will indulge will be the almost universal one of dancing about Tom Tidler's ground, searching for gold and silver. It will be then -- when there come the inevitable troubles of the world, as come they must and will in one shape or other -- it may be that their thoughts will revert to their early home, where all was kindness and sympathy and affection and peace. Their imagination will picture those days as bright passages of unalloyed happiness and joy. Their dolls, their balls and games, their whoops and their calls, and their favourite nooks, will all be remembered; but not one thought will be given to the episodes of infantine adversity. Katey will think of her ball, without remembering the sad event of the collapse. Ellen will recall her happiness in her miniature nursery, but not once will her memory pass back to the miserable effects of the broken arm.
As it is in our own lives, so is it with the collective life of a nation. In looking back to the past, those heavy troubles that have made dark and enduring landmarks in our path being excepted, our thoughts are but too apt to strew it in imagination with all the flowers, in forgetfulness of the thorns and obstacles. The good old times! The ball that so joyously / p. 4 / ascended in an Elizabethan May fell listlessly, like Katey's, before the evening had closed. It was a pleasing sight to see the May-pole raised, and it was exhilarating to join in the procession to the wood, escorted by the musicians, and to witness the adorning of the branches with nosegays and coronets of flowers. But the sequel! The miseries of the future entailed by the unrestrained frolics of that day too heavily paid for the merriment. Lift up the veil, and you will see that "merry England" in that era was disporting amidst flowers that concealed many a lurking adder more than those of our own times, deeply capable of improvement even as are these latter.
Yes, in our people's history, we too often think only of the brightened side of the picture. The good old times -- merry England -- honest England -- plain-spoken England, as if there were no good new times, no merriment now; as if honesty were exiled, and candour no more. The good old times! I think that I hear a reader, while pausing at the title of this paper, to consider whether he will condescend to glance over it -- for readers of most sorts, now-a-days, anxiously estimate the trouble they may encounter by endeavouring to pick up a little information -- observing, "The good old times! this really will not do; we have heard enough, and more than enough, of May-poles in the Strand, and dances on the village green." My good friend, do not put yourself into a state of unnecessary excitement. If you will only have the kindness to read a page or two, you will find that, however tired orsleepy you may get, there is no intention of favouring you with a dissertation on matters respecting which your knowledge apparently is already so ample. It is not in contemplation to preach up the good old times, as those in which our ancestors did nothing but dance and enjoy themselves. Alas! they too often were compelled to dance to very sad tunes indeed.
I am an old man, not quite as aged as the Wandering Jew, but still very old. If I am to tell you anything worth hearing about those old times, -- I have already said enough to suggest that they should not be indiscriminately called "good," -- I must brush up my memory, and see if I can recollect at all how people lived and went on two or three centuries ago. My age, for present purposes, is a somewhat extended one; but even, for people of ordinary longevity, three centuries do not constitute such an enormous lapse of time as one without reflection might imagine. Three hundred years ago, Queen Elizabeth was on the throne. A person born late in that century, might, at an age sufficient for remembrance, have seen her before her death in 1603. A son born to that individual in the year 1660, might have another born to him in 1720, and that one another in 1780; the last now living, and only about eighty years of age. Thus, there may be now in existence persons whose great-grandfathers saw Queen Elizabeth. If family diaries and pedigrees were preserved more frequently, such an one might be discovered. A curious reader may perhaps follow out the suggestion, and put an advertisement in The Times. The possible, if not probable fact, is only mentioned here for the purpose / p.5 / of showing how an apparently immense space of time includes a very few long-lived generations. Those referring to a series of family records, will soon note with surprise how often a father and son live through the best part of a century and a half. Our imaginary pedigree will run something as follows:--
When Mr. Owen Smith saw Queen Elizabeth, our Sovereign lady was residing at Greenwich. I have by me his friend's note of the manner of her receptions at that period, and of her personal appearance. "We were admitted," he says, "by an order Master Rogers had procured from the Lord Chamberlain, into the presence chamber, hung with rich tapestry, and the floor strewed with rushes, through which the Queen usually passes in her way to chapel. At the door stood a gentleman dressed in velvet, with a gold chain, whose office was to introduce to the Queen any person of distinction that came to wait on her. It was Sunday, when there is usually the greatest attendance of nobility. In the same hall were the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, a great number of counsellors of state, officers of the crown, and gentlemen, who waited the Queen's coming out, which she did from her own apartment, when it was time to go to prayers, in the following manner:-- First, went gentlemen, barons, earls, knights of the garter, all richly dressed and bare-headed; next came the Chancellor, bearing the seals in a red silk purse, between two, one of which carried the royal sceptre, the other the sword of state in a red scabbard, studded with golden fleur de lis, the point upwards. Next came the Queen herself, very majestic; her face oblong, fair, but wrinkled; her eyes small, yet black and pleasant; her nose a little hooked, her lips narrow, and her teeth black, perhaps from eating too much sugar. She had in her ears two pearls, with very rich drops; she wore false hair, and that red; upon her head she had a small crown of gold, and on her neck was a necklace of exceeding fine jewels. Her hands were small, her fingers long, and her stature neither tall nor low; her air was stately, her manner of speaking mild and obliging. She was dressed in white silk, bordered with pearls of the size of beans, and over it a mantle of black silk, shot with silver threads; her train was very long, the end of it borne by a marchioness; and, instead of a chain, she had an oblong collar of gold and jewels. As she went along in all this state and / p.6 / magnificence, she spoke very graciously, first to one, then to another, whether foreign ministers or those who attended for different reasons, in English, French, and Italian; for, besides being well skilled in Greek, Latin, and the languages I have mentioned, she is mistress of Spanish, Scotch, and Dutch. Whoever speaks to her, it is kneeling. Now and then she raises some with her hand. While we were there, Slawata, a Bohemian baron, had letters to present to her, and she, after pulling off her glove, gave him her right hand to kiss, a mark of particular favour; and wherever she turned her face, as she was going along, everybody fell down on their knees. The ladies of the Court followed next to her, very handsome and well-shaped, and for the most part dressed in white. She was guarded on each side by the gentlemen-pensioners, fifty in number, with gilt battle-axes. In the ante-chapel, next the hall where we were, petitions were presented to her, and she received them most graciously, which occasioned the acclamation of 'Long live Queen Elizabeth.' She answered it with, 'I thank you, my good people.' In the chapel was excellent music. As soon as the service was over, the Queen prepared to go to dinner; but, while she was still at prayers, we saw her table set out with the following solemnity:-- A gentleman entered the room bearing a rod, and along with him another who had a table-cloth, which, after they had both kneeled three times with the utmost veneration, he spread upon the table, and, after kneeling again, they both retired. Then came two others, one with the rod again, the other with a salt-cellar, a plate, and bread. When they had kneeled as the others had done, and placed what was brought upon the table, they too retired with the same ceremonies performed by the first. At last came an unmarried lady -- we were told she was a countess -- and along with her a married one, bearing a tasting-knife; the former was dressed in white silk, who, when she had prostrated herself three times in the most graceful manner, approached the table and rubbed the plates with bread and salt with as much awe as if the Queen had been present. When they had waited there a little while, the yeoman of the guard entered bare-headed, clothed in scarlet, with golden roses upon their backs, bringing in at each turn a course of twenty-four dishes served in gilt plate. These dishes were received by a gentleman, in the same order they were brought, and placed upon the table, while the ladytaster gave to each of the guard a mouthful to eat of the particular dish he had brought, for fear of any poison. During the time that this guard, which consists of the finest men to be found in all England, were bringing dinner, twelve trumpets and two kettle-drums made the hall ring for half an hour together. At the end of this ceremonial, a number of unmarried ladies appeared, who, with particular solemnity, lifted the meat off the table and conveyed it into the Queen's inner and more private chamber; where, after she had chosen for herself, the rest goes to the ladies of the Court." In the foregoing, the modern reader has the best and most graphic account of the Court of Queen Elizabeth, as conducted in the latter years of her reign, that is now preserved.
/ p.7 / The process of civilisation is so gradual, and generally so imperceptible in fragments, that few things are more difficult than to become its historian. The transactions of red-tape remain, as well as do many that relate to matters of private business; but if we want to trace the history of the domestic progress of a people, we are compelled to have recourse to that class of the lower literature that is now the most difficult of access; for my memory is deadened by age, and although I can tell you, with pretty fair exactness, some of the leading features of the manners of each period, it will hardly be safe to trust to it for the recovery of minute information. What sort of books were put into the hands of children in the reign of the celebrated Queen whose Court we have been just describing? The reader may imagine (but erroneously) that I am attempting a wretched joke when I mention that of all the popular juvenile books of that period, Tom Thumb, with the story of the dumpling, was, as now, one of the most popular. Our children go to see it this very day in the shape of a pantomime. They delight in it as a story-book. It was the same with Jack the Giant-killer, which was so popular that "fee, fo, fum," and the perfume of the blood of an Englishman, is positively cited by Shakespeare in the tragedy of Lear. In Queen Elizabeth's time, I saw these penny books daily destroyed. People would have laughed me to scorn if I had preserved any for binding. Now-a-days, twenty guineas could be got for a Tom Thumb of Shakespeare's time. As for a black-letter copy of Jack the Giant-killer, I don't know what it would fetch -- probably as much as was the worth of the entire trading establishment of the printer from whose establishment it originally issued. They had horn-books too, in which their children learned their alphabets. These were large printed letters, with their primitive combinations, pasted on a small piece of wood, the letterpress protected by transparent horn nailed over it. The children held these in their hands by a narrow piece of wood attached to the lower portion, and so rehearsed their letters. These horn-books were in daily use, and were issued in annual thousands until within the last fifty years; yet they are now so rare, that not even a modern specimen of one is to be seen at the Kensignton Museum.
Is is astonishing to note how soon the common things of one year become the antiquities of the next. Not so very long ago, a person, not being the master of a private carriage, who wanted to go from Sloane Street to Mile End, would either have had to have engaged a lumbering hackney carriage, or to wait for a chance of a place in the Richmond coach. Then, after a while, came omnibusses and cabs; but none of the young folks of the present day have the least notion of the real nature either of a hackney carriage, an original omnibus, or even of a primitive cab. The other day, I remarked to an omnibus conductor my surprise at the facility with which he balanced himself on the steps, without other support, reading the newspaper, while the omnibus was being rapidly driven along, but so near to its destination that his calling for passengers was over. "I ought to know something about it," he said; "I have been a 'bus conductor for fourteen / p.8 / years. Ah, sir, them was rum things when they first came up, not the elegant wehicles [lit.] we 'ave now." And so they were, but who notes the difference? As for an original cab, if a specimen be still in existence, it fully deserves to be put under a glass-case in the British Museum, for I will venture to say that it is rare than an Egyptian mummy. When Sam Weller talks of a "mile o'danger at eightpence," the allusion is as unintelligible as that to Wade's boat in Chaucer. The nearest approach to it, now-a-days, is a sixpenny ride in a Hansom on a very slippery frosty morning; but refer to an engraving in the first portion of the first edition of Pickwick, and there will be seen what the mile of danger really was. There was no mistake about the propriety of the title. One day, in Holborn, I saw a gentleman thrown out of one of these vehicles. He fortunately escaped unhurt, which consoled him for the somewhat ludicrous appearance he presented, when, by some accidental combination of twistings, he discovered himself seated astride on the horse's back without either hat or wig. I think I see him now, the intelligent and open face of an elderly English gentleman hardly counterbalancing the effects of an entirely shaven head.
The same with tinder-boxes. No one now-a-days, excepting an old fellow like myself, knows what a tinder-box is, or can appreciate the agony of the frantic endeavours of the housemaid to strike a light by the aid of the flint and the iron. Now, one rubbing of a lucifer, and all is done. You don't know what we had to put up with in "the good old times," before lucifers were thought of. Again, with snuffers; unless we had wax candles at a ruinous expense, our "company" lights were molds, with a paraphernalia of snuffy and nastiness. Now, with composites at tenpence a pound, tallows will soon become obsolete. The former are safer, handier, and I firmly believe cheaper. If I found a tallow-candle in my house, I should throw it out of the window. The very idea of one conveys the impression of dirt and nastiness; and so long as there was one within reach, I should be ever fancying a drop of it had fallen on the bread, or got mixed with the composition sold in London under the name of fresh butter, and which tastes quite sufficiently of tallow without any further deviation in the same direction. But when we lived in the country, only two generations ago, we were often glad in a winter's evening to put up with two or three long greased rushes, pinned in fantastic nippers, that, when in operation, looked for all the world like capital letters, K K, turned up on one end with the tips alight. I only wish that some of those who imagine that our ancestors were so vastly more comfortable and happy than ourselves, could but have a taste of what housekeeping was a century ago merely in the matters of lights and candles.
How delightful it is, now-a-days, to witness a fine theatrical representation assisted by all the appliances of the instantaneous changes of light effected by the management of gas. When I saw Garrick at Goodman's Fields a century ago, the pleasure of seeing his Macbeth was marred by the dirt of the pit, and the unwholesome smell of the half-lighted rancid / p.9 / oil, that transfused a gloomy and unwholesome twilight over the theatre. A century before this, scenery in the ordinary theatres was only beginning to be introduced. Go back another hundred years, and Tarlton was disporting in comedy in the yard of the Belle-Savage on Ludgate Hill. In these last-mentioned times, the chief home of the drama was in the provinces. Companies of players visited the different country towns at intervals, each company being generally under the special patronage of a nobleman. In the first instance, on visiting a town, they waited on the mayor, and informed him in whose service they were, in order to obtain a license for playing. If the mayor was either of a theatrical turn of mind, or desired to show respect to their patron, their first play was exhibited at his expense before the corporation, the public being allowed to enter free of cost. This was called "the Mayor's play." I have before me a particular account of the performance of the Mayor's play at Gloucester in the year 1572, written by a spectator many years afterwards. He was then a boy. Here is his impression of the performance when he had become an old man:--
At such a play, my father took me with him, and made me stand between his legs, as he sate upon one of the benches, where we saw and heard very well. The play was called The Cradle of Security, wherein was personated a king or some great prince, with his courtiers of several kinds, among which three ladies were in special grace with him; and they, keeping him in delights and pleasures, drew him from his graver counsellors, hearing of sermons, and listening to good councell and admonitions, that in the end they got him to lye down in a cradle upon the stage, where these three ladies, joyning in a sweet song, rocked him asleepe, that he snorted againe; and in the mean time closely conveyed under the cloaths wherewithall he was covered, a vizard, like a swines snout, upon his face, with three wire chains fastened thereunto, the other end whereof being holden severally by those three ladies; who fall to singing againe, and then discovered his face that the spectators might see how they had transformed him, going on with their singing. Whilst all this was acting, there came forth of another doore at the farthest end of the stage, two old men; the one in blew, with a serjeant at armes, his mace on his shoulder; the other in red, with a drawn sword in his hand, and leaning with the other hand upon the others shoulder; and so they went along with a soft pace round about by the skirt of the stage, till at last they came to the cradle, when all the court was in the greatest jollity; and then the foremost old man with his mace stroke a fearfull blow upon the cradle; wherewith all the courtiers, with the three ladies, and the vizard, all vanished; and the desolate prince starting up bare-faced, and finding himself thus sent for to judgement, made a lamentable complaint of his miserable case, and so was carried away by wicked spirits. This prince did personate in the moral, the wicked of the world; the three ladies, pride, covetousness, and luxury; the two old men, the end of the world and the last judgement. This sight made such an impression in me, that when I came towards man's estate, it was as fresh in my memory as if I had seen it newly acted.
This account is curious, and deserves a careful perusal as the most graphic description in existence of the performance of an English play at the time when Shakespeare was a boy, and no doubt witnessed similar representations in his native town. There was clearly no scenery; the exigencies of that were supplied by the name of the locality of the scene / p.10 / written in a conspicuous manner in the background of the stage: all the rest was left to imagination. "Now," observes Sir Philip Sydney, writing about the year 1583, "you shall have three ladies walk to gather flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a garden. By and by we hear news of shipwreck in the same place; then we are to blame if we accept it not for a rock. Upon the back of that comes out a hideous monster with fire and smoke, and then the miserable beholders are bound to take it for a cave; while, in the meantime, two armies fly in, represented with four swords and bucklers, and then what hard heart will not receive it for a pitched field?" Great progress, however, had been made in the invention of the diversity of characters and incidents. Two or three years ago, people roared at a pantomime at the Princess's, in which the actors were introduced as birds. They thought it a striking and a modern novelty; but a similar performance had taken place in the reign of Queen Bess. I had forgotten all about it, until the other day, looking into a rare little work, called Beware the Cat, printed in 1584, I read of the publisher of it having a controversy with one Mr. Stremer, "whether birds and beasts had reason; the occasion thereof was this. I had heard that the King's players were learning a play of Ęsop's Crow, wherein the most part of the actors were birds, the device whereof I discommended." We are certainly better off now in the matters of composites, lucifers, and gas; but you see that they had plenty of invention at that early period. And as for comic actors, you should only have seen Tarlton, when he came on the primitive stage in the back-yard of the Red Bull. Liston was not fit to hold a candle to him, although the mere sight of the countenance of either sufficed to convulse an audience. But Tarlton was the man for my money; and, like the late Mr. Wright of the Adelphi, he used to put in jokes of his own, and at times talk to the audience. His jokes are very unlike those in Punch at the present day, and still more dissimilar to the word-playing of the new-born extravaganza. Tarlton would never have acted in one of the latter. He would never have understood why the spectators were set in a roar when Jack, having told the Giant he might "go to Bath," the latter exclaimed that his impudence "did make his hair to Bristol." Tarlton's audience would not have appreciated such a sorry jest as that. His witticisms were of a more solid kind; but I can tell you that we, in the balcony, used to laugh at them until the tears came into our eyes.
I have a note of only one of them, and that not uttered in London, but in the country. Here it is from a book of the time, there called Tarlton's jest of a gridiron. "While the Queen's players lay in Worcester city to get money, it was his custom for to sing extempore of themes given him. Now, one fellow of the city, amongst the rest, that seemed quaint of conceit to lead other youths with his fine wit, gave out that the next day he would give him a theme to put him to a non-plus. Divers of his friends, acquainted with the same, expected some rare conceit. / p.11 / Well, the next day came, and my gallant gave him his invention in two lines, which was this --
Methinks it is a thing unfit,
To see a gridiron turn the spit.
Methinks it is a thing unfit,
To see an ass have any wit.