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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LXIII. - London


THE first time I saw London was when I was sent on newspaper business to the opening of the Exhibition of 1862. As London was to be invaded by myriads of visitors from all countries of the world as well as from all parts of the United Kingdom, lodgings had been in good time secured for me in Aldersgate, which were very comfortable, and where my fellow lodgers were exhibitors from Manchester and Yorkshire. One day, however, when I continued my work in the Exhibition buildings so late that on coming out I saw the last of the conveyances driving off before I could reach it, I had to walk back on foot, and was saved from losing myself on the way by a strong sense of locality which made it pretty easy, either by night or by day, to find out places I had once seen without looking to street names or asking policemen.

As I represented two newspapers, I had two tickets of admission for the opening day, besides a season pass. One of the two tickets I gave to my landlord, who was so pleased with the little gift that he put himself in place of a guide, and went with me to see the Tower, the Guildhall, Covent Garden, the Docks, St Paul's, and various other places. My fellow lodgers and I, and our landlord got into the Exhibition buildings among the first, all in a batch, and had, therefore, a free choice of places. We stationed ourselves in what I may call a park of artillery, Armstrong guns, Krupp guns, and so on, near the platform. I perched myself on a field gun with our two exhibitors, and we had some trouble all day in so balancing ourselves as to keeput from playing tricks by swaying up and down. Its height gave us a wide view of the immense building, and we watched with interest how it filled up with people x as time went on. Our landlord sat below us on a big Krupp gun, which was solid and ugly enough for anything.

After a while came the splendid procession, and passed close to us to the platform, which also was very near at hand. Foreign Ambassadors, Ministers and ex-Ministers of State, men eminent in arts and sciences and literature, the Lord Mayor of London, and other chiefs of municipalities, in their robes and decorations, made that day a splendid muster. Then all eyes were concentrated on the royal personages who were to take the chief part in the formal opening ceremony. Owing to the recent death of Prince Albert neither the Queen nor any of her children could take part in the opening ceremony. The Duke of Cambridge was deputed to officiate, and he was supported right and left on the platform by the Prince of Prussia, afterwards the Emperor Frederick of Germany, the Queen's son-in-law, and by Prince Oscar of Sweden, who afterwards succeeded his elder brother and reigned long as Oscar II., but had the misfortune before his death to see, through no fault of his, Norway separated from Sweden.

Broad, burly, and of more than medium height as the Duke of Cambridge was, he was that day overtopped by the Prussian Crown Prince, a blonde giant and one of the handsomest of the sons of men, and by the dark and slimmer Prince Oscar of Sweden, who had inherited the French type of the Bernadottes. I gazed at him with peculiar interest on account of his name. His father, Oscar I. of Sweden and Norway, was the godson of Napoleon, who gave him the name of the finest hero of the Ossianic cycle of Gaelic poetry. But of all the Royal personages at the opening ceremony, the best known and best liked and most vigorously cheered by the huge crowd was the Princess Mary of Cambridge, who soon afterwards married the Duke of Teck.

I sat up all night writing my account of the opening ceremony, and when I went to bed at last in broad daylight the headache of exhaustion and excitement kept me for an hour or so awake. As the procession passed within a few yards of me, and afterwards when its members arranged themselves on the platform close at hand, I was astonished to find how easily I could identify many of the celebrities of the day, whom I had never seen before, by their pictorial representations, particularly "Punch" caricatures of them. The musical part of the ceremony was grand, and I was glad to observe that a place had been found for Highland bagpipe music also, which in such a vast building sounded as if coming down a glen in a May morning, raising stirring memories of a thousand years, and harmonising itself with the voices of the mountain streams, and of breezes which made heather slopes bend and curl like waves of the sea.

For the first few days I had long hours of constant work in the Exhibition. I dined in the well-ordered French refreshment place, and after losing the vehicles once, took care to be out in time to catch them ever afterwards. The well-guarded stand on which the Koh-i-noor diamond was exhibited had always a little crowd about it. With its glow of light within itself, it is no doubt a wonderful stone, but to me it had little more attractiveness than if it had been a piece of glass of the same size and humpy form. I admire emeralds and pearls, and some of the other gems in a moderate degree, but I have a curious dislike to diamonds, as if in a previous existence I had come to connect them with guile and crime. I have never been a fanciful person, and this unexplainable antipathy remains a puzzle to me to this day.

Sunday brought a welcome cessation from newspaper work, but I was too anxious to see as much as possible of London to rest in my comfortable lodgings. I went to the morning service in St Paul's. Dean Milman, whose writings I much admired, officiated. He was then a bent old man, but had such a clear voice that every word he spoke was distinctly heard by all the huge congregation. Several of us, with Exhibition tickets, banded together for going to Westminster in the afternoon. A. river steamer landed us on the terrace of the Palace of Westminster, and we had drinks of beer in the crypt by gaslight before going to the Abbey. Mr Forster, our Bradford M.P., had sent me a ticket for the Speaker's Gallery for the sitting of the House of Commons on the Monday, but the business happened to be of a humdrum kind on that evening. I gazed with unbounded admiration at the splendid exterior of St Paul's, by which London appeared to be wholly dominated and to be largely redeemed from architectural commonplace, but was disappointed with the interior, which was then in a far from finished state than it is now. At West- minister my sensations were quite different. The Palace of Westminster or Houses of Parliament outwardly dwarfed the Abbey, but the inside of the Abbey is without comparison.

There was a remarkable contrast between the quietness of London on Sunday and the crowded state of the streets and roaring traffic on week-days. In 1862 all the movements of the people and all the carrying of goods were above ground. Underground railways and tubes had yet to come. So had tramways, motor cars, and London County Council improvements. Temple Bar still stood in its old place, bearing on its tops the spikes on which the heads of traitors had been placed of old, and strangulating traffic in a main artery. It was not so ornamental a relic of the past as I had imagined it to be; but it was ornamental enough to be entitled to be kept in possession of the Corporation, and placed in some appropriate public place for perpetual preservation. Considering its connection with the history of the past, it should not have been sold as rubbish to a private buyer, but kept as an interesting ancient monument. Subsequent visits corrected some of my first impressions of London, but my first impression of its vastness only got magnified and, so to speak, more oppressive as my knowledge of the apoplectic head of the United Kingdom enlarged itself. In 1862 I neither saw a London mob disturbance nor inhaled an oily fog so thick that it might be cut with a knife. Whatever might be the tragedies of life in many of its homes, whatever the brutal vices and crimes in its festering slums, or the gilded profligacies and immoralities in its aristocratic quarters, to the happily lodged casual visitor the London of more than forty years ago, although in respect to population a nation within a nation, appeared to be a most orderly city, full of attractions of all sorts, and rich in beautiful as well as in historical places, and with far from a bad climate notwithstanding superabundant fog and rain at times, and the want of a romantic situation, like Edinburgh for instance. Since that time London sanitation has been vastly improved, and so have the London streets and their architecture.


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