Travels in England in 1782, by Karl Philipp Moritz

CHAPTER III.

London, 5th June.

At length, dearest Gedike, I am again settled, as I have now got my trunk and all my things from the ship, which arrived only yesterday. Not wishing to have it taken to the Custom House, which occasions a great deal of trouble, I was obliged to give a douceur to the officers, and those who came on board the ship to search it. Having pacified, as I thought, one of them with a couple of shillings, another came forward and protested against the delivery of the trunk upon trust till I had given him as much. To him succeeded a third, so that it cost me six shillings, which I willingly paid, because it would have cost me still more at the Custom House.

By the side of the Thames were several porters, one of whom took my huge heavy trunk on his shoulders with astonishing ease, and carried it till I met a hackney coach. This I hired for two shillings, immediately put the trunk into it, accompanying it myself without paying anything extra for my own seat. This is a great advantage in the English hackney coaches, that you are allowed to take with you whatever you please, for you thus save at least one half of what you must pay to a porter, and besides go with it yourself, and are better accommodated. The observations and the expressions of the common people here have often struck me as peculiar. They are generally laconic, but always much in earnest and significant. When I came home, my landlady kindly recommended it to the coachman not to ask more than was just, as I was a foreigner; to which he answered, “Nay, if he were not a foreigner I should not overcharge him.”

My letters of recommendation to a merchant here, which I could not bring with me on account of my hasty departure from Hamburgh, are also arrived. These have saved me a great deal of trouble in the changing of my money. I can now take my German money back to Germany, and when I return thither myself, refund to the correspondent of the merchant here the sum which he here pays me in English money. I should otherwise have been obliged to sell my Prussian Fredericks-d’or for what they weighed; for some few Dutch dollars which I was obliged to part with before I got this credit they only gave me eight shillings.

A foreigner has here nothing to fear from being pressed as a sailor, unless, indeed, he should be found at any suspicious place. A singular invention for this purpose of pressing is a ship, which is placed on land not far from the Tower, on Tower Hill, furnished with masts and all the appurtenances of a ship. The persons attending this ship promise simple country people, who happen to be standing and staring at it, to show it to them for a trifle, and as soon as they are in, they are secured as in a trap, and according to circumstances made sailors of or let go again.

The footway, paved with large stones on both sides of the street, appears to a foreigner exceedingly convenient and pleasant, as one may there walk in perfect safety, in no more danger from the prodigious crowd of carts and coaches, than if one was in one’s own room, for no wheel dares come a finger’s breadth upon the curb stone. However, politeness requires you to let a lady, or any one to whom you wish to show respect, pass, not, as we do, always to the right, but on the side next the houses or the wall, whether that happens to be on the right or on the left, being deemed the safest and most convenient. You seldom see a person of any understanding or common sense walk in the middle of the streets in London, excepting when they cross over, which at Charing Cross and other places, where several streets meet, is sometimes really dangerous.

It has a strange appearance — especially in the Strand, where there is a constant succession of shop after shop, and where, not unfrequently, people of different trades inhabit the same house — to see their doors or the tops of their windows, or boards expressly for the purpose, all written over from top to bottom with large painted letters. Every person, of every trade or occupation, who owns ever so small a portion of a house, makes a parade with a sign at his door; and there is hardly a cobbler whose name and profession may not be read in large golden characters by every one that passes. It is here not at all uncommon to see on doors in one continued succession, “Children educated here,” “Shoes mended here,” “Foreign spirituous liquors sold here,” and “Funerals furnished here;” of all these inscriptions. I am sorry to observe that “Dealer in foreign spirituous liquors” is by far the most frequent. And indeed it is allowed by the English themselves, that the propensity of the common people to the drinking of brandy or gin is carried to a great excess; and I own it struck me as a peculiar phraseology, when, to tell you that a person is intoxicated or drunk, you hear them say, as they generally do, that he is in liquor. In the late riots, which even yet are hardly quite subsided, and which are still the general topic of conversation, more people have been found dead near empty brandy-casks in the streets, than were killed by the musket-balls of regiments that were called in. As much as I have seen of London within these two days, there are on the whole I think not very many fine streets and very fine houses, but I met everywhere a far greater number and handsomer people than one commonly meets in Berlin. It gives me much real pleasure when I walk from Charing Cross up the Strand, past St. Paul’s to the Royal Exchange, to meet in the thickest crowd persons from the highest to the lowest ranks, almost all well-looking people, and cleanly and neatly dressed. I rarely see even a fellow with a wheel-barrow who has not a shirt on, and that, too, such a one as shows it has been washed; nor even a beggar without both a shirt and shoes and stockings. The English are certainly distinguished for cleanliness.

It has a very uncommon appearance in this tumult of people, where every one, with hasty and eager step, seems to be pursuing either his business or his pleasure, and everywhere making his way through the crowd, to observe, as you often may, people pushing one against another, only perhaps to see a funeral pass. The English coffins are made very economically, according to the exact form of the body; they are flat, and broad at top; tapering gradually from the middle, and drawing to a point at the feet, not very unlike the case of a violin.

A few dirty-looking men, who bear the coffin, endeavour to make their way through the crowd as well as they can; and some mourners follow. The people seem to pay as little attention to such a procession, as if a hay-cart were driving past. The funerals of people of distinction, and of the great, are, however, differently regarded.

These funerals always appear to me the more indecent in a populous city, from the total indifference of the beholders, and the perfect unconcern with which they are beheld. The body of a fellow-creature is carried to his long home as though it had been utterly unconnected with the rest of mankind. And yet, in a small town or village, everyone knows everyone; and no one can be so insignificant as not to be missed when he is taken away.

That same influenza which I left at Berlin, I have had the hard fortune again to find here; and many people die of it. It is as yet very cold for the time of the year, and I am obliged every day to have a fire. I must own that the heat or warmth given by sea-coal, burnt in the chimney, appears to me softer and milder than that given by our stoves. The sight of the fire has also a cheerful and pleasing effect. Only you must take care not to look at it steadily, and for a continuance, for this is probably the reason that there are so many young old men in England, who walk and ride in the public streets with their spectacles on; thus anticipating, in the bloom of youth, those conveniences and comforts which were intended for old age.

I now constantly dine in my own lodgings; and I cannot but flatter myself that my meals are regulated with frugality. My usual dish at supper is some pickled salmon, which you eat in the liquor in which it is pickled, along with some oil and vinegar; and he must be prejudiced or fastidious who does not relish it as singularly well tasted and grateful food.

I would always advise those who wish to drink coffee in England, to mention beforehand how many cups are to be made with half an ounce; or else the people will probably bring them a prodigious quantity of brown water; which (notwithstanding all my admonitions) I have not yet been able wholly to avoid. The fine wheaten bread which I find here, besides excellent butter and Cheshire-cheese, makes up for my scanty dinners. For an English dinner, to such lodgers as I am, generally consists of a piece of half-boiled, or half-roasted meat; and a few cabbage leaves boiled in plain water; on which they pour a sauce made of flour and butter. This, I assure you, is the usual method of dressing vegetables in England.

The slices of bread and butter, which they give you with your tea, are as thin as poppy leaves. But there is another kind of bread and butter usually eaten with tea, which is toasted by the fire, and is incomparably good. You take one slice after the other and hold it to the fire on a fork till the butter is melted, so that it penetrates a number of slices at once: this is called toast.

The custom of sleeping without a feather-bed for a covering particularly pleased me. You here lie between two sheets: underneath the bottom sheet is a fine blanket, which, without oppressing you, keeps you sufficiently warm. My shoes are not cleaned in the house, but by a person in the neighbourhood, whose trade it is; who fetches them every morning, and brings them back cleaned; for which she receives weekly so much. When the maid is displeased with me, I hear her sometimes at the door call me “the German”; otherwise in the family I go by the name of “the Gentleman.”

I have almost entirely laid aside riding in a coach, although it does not cost near so much as it does at Berlin; as I can go and return any distance not exceeding an English mile for a shilling, for which I should there at least pay a florin. But, moderate as English fares are, still you save a great deal, if you walk or go on foot, and know only how to ask your way. From my lodging to the Royal Exchange is about as far as from one end of Berlin to the other, and from the Tower and St. Catharine’s, where the ships arrive in the Thames, as far again; and I have already walked this distance twice, when I went to look after my trunk before I got it out of the ship. As it was quite dark when I came back the first evening, I was astonished at the admirable manner in which the streets are lighted up; compared to which our streets in Berlin make a most miserable show. The lamps are lighted whilst it is still daylight, and are so near each other, that even on the most ordinary and common nights, the city has the appearance of a festive illumination, for which some German prince, who came to London for the first time, once, they say, actually took it, and seriously believed it to have been particularly ordered on account of his arrival.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09