Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Twice Round the Clock, or The Hours of the Day and Night in London, by George Augustus Sala, 1859

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   “There she is—the great engine—she never sleeps. She has her ambassadors in every quarter of the world—her couriers upon every road. Her officers march along with armies, and her envoys walk into statesmen’s cabinets. They are ubiquitous. Yonder Journal has an agent at this minute giving bribes at Madrid; and another inspecting the price of potatoes at Covent Garden.”

   IF you have no objection to the statement of the fact, I would beg to observe that our present station on the clock face, twice round which we have to go, is now five in the morning; and that at five a.m. the publication of the “Times” newspaper is, to use a north-country mining expression, in “full blast.” You abhor the politics of the journal in question, you say: you consider the “Times” and “Evening Mail” to be the organ of a company, with limited liability composed of the Emperor Alexander, Cardinal Wiseman, Baron Rothschild, Prince Aali Pacha, Metternich, Doctor Cumming, Baring Brothers, Lord Palmerston, Mr. Disraeli, Mr. W. J. Fox, and Miss Martineau. You are offended with the “Times” because the editor declined to insert that last six-paged letter from you against organ grinding. Never mind, you must come all the same to see the paper published. For the publication of the “Times” is a great, an enormous, a marvellous fact: none the less wonderful for being repeated three hundred and thirteen times a-year. It is a pulsation of London’s mighty heart, that should not be neglected. It is the daily booming of a tocsin, which, year after year, proclaims progress, and still progress to the nations; which is the joy bell to the good, the passing bell to the bad, the world is blessed or cursed with; which rings out ignorance and prejudice and superstition, and rings in know ledge and enlightenment and truth. The “Times” is not alone in the possession of a peal of bells of this kind; and many daily, more weekly, papers ring out, loud and clear, to eager listeners; were you vassal not one of the modestest of men, he would hint that for the last dozen years he has been agitating daily and weekly a little tintin-nabulum with what lustiness his nerveless arm will let him. But hard by St. Paul’s, the cathedral of Anglicanism, is Printing House Square, the cathedral of Journalism, and in it hangs a bell to which Great [-26-] Tom of Lincoln, Peter of York, the Kolokol of Moscow, and our own defunct “Big Ben,” are but as tinkling muffineers. For though the sides of the bell are only paper, the clapper is the great public tongue; the booming sound that fills the city every morning, and, to use the words of Mr. Walter Whitman, “utters its barbaric youp over the house-tops of creation,” is the great Public Voice. Bottle up your animosities, then, stifle your prejudices, and come and hear the voice’s first faint murmur at five o’clock in the morning.
   The office of the ‘‘ Times ‘‘ and “ Evening Mail “ is, as all civilised men should know, situated in Printing House Square and Playhouse Yard, in the parish of St. Ann’s, Blackfriars, in the city of London. Now this is very pleasant and comfortable information, and is fit matter for a studious man to lay to heart; and there exists but one little drawback to mar the felicity which one must naturally feel at having the style and title of the press’s great champions’ habitat so patly at one’s fingers’ ends. The drawback—the kink in the cable, the hyssop in the wine-cup, the thorn to the rose—is that, with the exception of Honey Lane market and Little Chester Street, Pimlico, Printing House Square is the most difficult locality to find in all London. It is not much use asking your way to it; a map of London, however elaborate, would not be of the slightest assistance to you in discovering it: it will avail you little even to be told that it is close to Apothecaries’ Hall, for where, I should like to know, is that huge musty caravanserai of drugs, and who is to find it at a short notice And the intimation that Printing House Square is not far from Puddle Dock, would not, I opine, render you great service, intimate as might be your acquaintance with the shores of the river, both above and below bridge, and would be scarcely more lucid a direction than the intimation that the London terminus of the South-Western Railway was close to Pedlars’ Acre. The “Times” newspaper is somewhere near all these places ; and it is likewise within a stone’s throw from Ludgate Hill, and not far from St. Paul’s, and within a minute’s walk of Fleet Street, and contiguous to Blackfriars Bridge, close handy to Earl Street, and no great distance from Chatham Place. Yet, for all this, the “Times” office might be, to the uninitiated, just as well placed in the centre of the Cretan labyrinth, or the maze at Hampton Court, or the budget of a Chancellor of the Exchequer. The best way to reach the office is to take any turning to the south side of London Bridge, or the east of Bridge Street, Blackfriars, and then trust to chance. The probabilities are varied. Very likely you will find yourself [-27-] entangled in a seemingly hopeless net-work of narrow streets; you will be jostled into chandlers’ shops, vilified by boys unctuous, black, and reeking from the printing-machine; pursued by costermongers importuning you to purchase small parcels of vegetables; and, particularly after sundown, your life will be placed in jeopardy by a Hansom cab bouncing up or down the narrow thoroughfare, of course on its way to the “Times” office, and on an errand of life and death; the excited politician inside, frantically offering the cabman (he, even, doesn’t know the way to the “Times,” and has just asked it of a grimy cynic, smoking a pipe in front of a coal and potato shed) extra shillings for speed. The grimy cynic, perhaps from sheer malevolence of disposition, perhaps from the ruffling of his temper naturally incidental to his being asked the same question about five hundred times every day, answers morosely that he believes the Hoffice is in Bummondsey, but he’s blest if he knows hanything more about it. He will have bad times of it, that grimy cynic, I perpend, for telling such fibs. Still struggle on manfully, always like the nautical gentleman in the blue pilot jacket who had had so many domestic afflictions, and exhorted the passenger to “go down, go down.” Never mind the regiments of gallinacea that board in the gutter and lodge in the adjacent coal-cellars, and peck at your feet as though they could relish your corns. Never mind the infants of tender years who come tumbling between your legs, sprawl, howling, at your feet, and cast around appealing glances, which draw cries of “shame!” from vengeful family-men who have never set eyes on you before, but who evidently regard you as a peripatetic ogre, going about, of malice prepense, to trip up children. Never mind the suffocating odour of second-hand fish, vegetables, fruit, coal-dust, potato sacks, the adjacent gasworks, gum-benzoin, hartshorn, opium, and other medicaments from Apothecaries’ Hall. Never mind the noises of dogs barking, of children that are smacked by their parents or guardians for crying, and then, of course, roar louder; of boys yelling the insufferable “Old Dog Tray,” the abominable “Keemo Kimo,” the hideous “Hoomtoomdoodendoo,” and rattling those abhorrent instruments of discord, the “bones”; of women scolding, quarrelling, or shrieking domestic calumnies of Mrs. Armstrong in connection with Bill Boosker, nicknamed the “Lively Flea,” from garret-windows across the street; of men growling, and wagon-wheels rumbling, and from distant forges the yell of the indignant anvil as the ruthless hammer smites it, and the great bar of iron is beaten flat, the sparks flying up, rejoicing in [-28-] a red “ha-ha !“ at the ferruginous defeat. Never mind the dangers of hoop, “hopscotch,” “fly-the-garter,” “thread-the-needle,” “trip-the-baker,” “tipcat,” and “shove-halfpenny,” for the carrying out of which exciting and amusing games the juvenile population entirely monopolise what spare strips of pavement there are. Trust on, be not afraid, keep struggling; and it is five hundred to one that you will eventually turn up Printing House Square, over against the “Times” office. How ever the leviathan of the press manages to breathe in this close, stifling, elbow-hampering neighbourhood, has always puzzled me, and has puzzled, I daresay, a great many wiser than I. How do the archbishops in their coaches and six (it is well known that those gorgeous prelates write the leading articles, carrying the necessary stationery in their mitres, and wiping their pens on their black silk aprons—the B—p of O—x—d, however, always writes with a pastoral crozier, dipped in milk and honey, or a lamb’s fleece—and come down to the office at a quarter past nine every evening to correct their proofs) contrive to squeeze their broad-shouldered equipages through these bye-lanes? How can the sub-editor’s four-in-hand pass, the city correspondent’s comfortable yellow chariot, nay, even the modest broughams of the compositors? Why does not the “Times” burst forth from the shell it has grown too large for, and plant its standard on the hill of Ludgate, or by the side of Cheap,— if it must needs be in the city? The area of Lincoln’s Inn Fields would be perhaps the most suitable locality for a new office; but it is indubitable that unless the “leading journal” retrogress and contract its operation, they will have, some day, to pull down the choking little nests of back-streets which surround and hem it in, even as they had to pull down the wall of the dock, bodily, in order to let the Great Britain steam-ship out.
   What a contrast sequestered Printing House Square, with its old-fashioned aspect, its quiet, dingy-looking houses, its clump of green trees within a railing to the left, presents to the gurgling, gasping neighbourhood which stands in such close propinquity to it! Here is the great brainpan of journalism; the centre of newspaper activity, the prefecture of police of the public press. Absolutely necessary is it that it should be entirely a secret police, the “awful, shadowy, irresponsible, and yet puissant we” should dominate over the columns of the daily journal. Will a time ever come, I wonder, when a man will sign his own articles in a newspaper; receive his reward for honesty, his censure for tergiversation, from the public? Will a [-29-] strange day of revolution ever arrive, when the mystic “we” shall be merged into the responsible, tax-paying, tangible, palpable, shootable, suicidable, and kickable “I”? Perhaps never; perhaps such a consummation would be disastrous. Old Cobbett, in one of his sereeds of passionate contempt in his “gridiron” paper the “Register,” once said that he should like to have all the newspaper editors and correspondents in London assembled in Hyde Park, in order that from their personal appearance the public might judge by what a disreputable-looking set of fellows they were hoodwinked and nose-led. There would be no need to hold such a gathering in this scene-painting age. Walk but into any fashionable photographic studio, and you shall find all the “sommités” of the press neatly collectionised, and stuck on pasteboard in the show-room portfolio; and if you entreat the photographer’s pretty wife civilly, she will point out to you Doctor Copperbolt of the “Thunderer,” and Bill Hornblower of the “Penny Trumpet,” in their habit as they live.
   Printing House Square is to me interesting at all times of the day and night. In the afternoon, the dullest period of its existence, when the compositors are gone away, the editors not come, the last number of the last edition of the day’s sheet printed, and the mighty steam-engine for a time hushed, I wander into its precincts often; make some small pretexts of taking out a sup of paper, and wending my way towards the advertising department; but soon retrace my steps, and, to tell the truth, moon about the square in such a suspicious and prowling manner, that if they kept any spoons on the premises, I should most probably be ordered off by the compositor on duty. This was Playhouse Yard too, once, was it—nay, is still; but where is the old playhouse—the Globe Theatre, Blackfriars, if I mistake not? Not a vestige, not a particle remains. The fourth estate has swallowed it all up. The Press Dragon of Wantley has devoured everything; and the “Times” seems omnipotent in its home by Puddle Dock. Look over the door of the advertisement office. Above that portal is a handsome marble slab, a votive tablet, in commemoration of a great victory the “Times” once gained, not a legal victory, but one of power and influence with the people, and especially with the commercial community, by its exposure, anent the trial of Bogle v. Lawson, of the most extensive and remarkable fraudulent conspiracy ever brought to light in the mercantile world. The “Times” refused to be reimbursed for the heavy costs with which its proprietors had been saddled in defending the action brought by Mr. Bogle, a banker at [-30-] Florence, against the publisher of the “Times,” Mr. Lawson. But a subscription, amounting to £2,700, had been raised, and this handsome sum, which the “Times” proprietors refused to accept, was at last laid out in the foundation of two scholarships at Christ’s Hospital and the City of London School, for the benefit of pupils of those institutions proceeding to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Do you remember—are you old enough to remember—the famous case of Bogle versus Lawson, reader? It would take me five times the space I can spare for this paper to give you even the outline of the history of the monstrous fraud from which that action grew. Suffice it now to say, that Mr. Bogle had been mixed up—it has been since established innocently—in the great continental letter of credit forging system, invented, carried out, and pursued with consummate success by an accomplished scoundrel, the Marquis dc Bourbel, who, when the felonious bubble at length burst, and the fraud was detected, was in nowise cast down or abashed by that discovery that had come, and the punishment that seemed imminent, but with admirable strategy called in his outlying pickets of countesses, actresses—demi-monde adventuresses—couriers, and sham English milords, who had been scouring the Continent changing his forged letters of credit, and, after the unutterable impudence of an appearance in court during the “Times” trial, gracefully retired into private life. I, the scribe, moi qui vous parle, have lived in the same house with this great man. It was at a hairdresser’s shop in the Regent’s Quadrant, and in an upper chamber of the house in question did the gallant marquis, assisted by a distinguished countess, who had formerly danced on stilts, and an English copper-plate engraver, work off the proofs of his wicked paper money from the counterfeited plates. I should like to know what became eventually of the Marquis de Bourbel: whether his lordship was, in the ripeness of his time, guillotined, garotted, hanged, or knouted. I go for Siberia and the knout, for, from the peculiar conformation of his lordship’s character, I don’t think it possible that he could have refrained for long from forgery. We should have heard of him, I think, had he come to grief in Western Europe; but Russian bank-notes are very easy to forge, and Russian prisons and prisoners are seldom brought before the public eye. They manage those little things better, and keep them nice and cozy and quiet; and so I go for Siberia and the knout.
   It is, however, as the shades of evening gather round the Cour des Miracles which encompasses the “Times” office, that the scene [-31-] which it and the Square present becomes more interesting. For early in the evening that giant steam-engine begins to throb, and, as the hour advances, the monster is fed with reams on reams of stout white paper, which he devours as though they were so many wafers* (* A post-prandial paper, called the “Evening Mail,” rarely seen in the metropolis, but extensively circulated in the provinces, and especially in the colonies, and in the United States, is published as a species of vesper thunderer at the “Times” office.). It gets late at Printing House Square; the sub-editors have been for some time in their rooms; the ineffable mysteries of the “Times —editors, proprietors, cabinet ministers, lord chancellors, generals of the Jesuits, for aught I know, have arrived from their clubs in broughams and in cabs. Who shall tell? That stout good-humoured looking gentleman with the umbrella and the ecclesiastical neckcloth, may be the writer of the comic leading articles, just arrived with his copy. No; he has vainly tried the door of the advertisement office, which is closed. Perhaps he is only X. Y. Z., who, in the second column, entreats P. Q. R. to return to his disconsolate parents; or the inventor of some new tooth-powder with a Greek name, or the discoverer of the “fourteen shilling trousers.” It is getting later, and the windows of the great office are all blazing with gas. The steam-engine not only throbs; it pants, it groans, it puffs, it snorts, it bursts into a wild, clanging paean of printing. Sub-editors are now hard at work cutting down “flimsy,” ramming sheets of “copy” on files, endlessly conferring with perspiring foremen. Ineffable mysteries (I presume) are writing terribly slaughtering articles in carpeted rooms, by the light of Argand lamps. Do they have cake and wine, I wonder, in those rooms? Sherry and sandwiches, perhaps, and on field-nights lobsters. It is getting later, but there is no sign of diminution yet in the stream of cabs that drive into the Square. Every one who is in debt, and every one who is in difficulties, and everybody who fancies that he, or any friend, relation, or connection of his, has a grievance, and can put pen to paper, four letters together in orthography and four words in syntax, must needs write a letter to the “Times;” and of the metropolitan correspondents of that journal, the immense majority themselves bring their letters down to the office, thinking, haply, that they might meet the editor standing “promiscuous” on the door-step, and after some five minutes’ button-holding, secure, irrevocably, the insertion of their communications. I don’t at all envy the gentleman whose duty it is to open and read (do they read them all?) the letters addressed to the editor of the “Times."[-32-]




    [-34-] What quires of insane complaints, on matters running from the mis-delivery of a letter to the misgovernment of India, from the iniquities of the income-tax to an overcharge for a sandwich in a country inn, that editor must have to wade through; what reams of silly compliments about “your influential journal,” and “your world-known paper,” he must have to read, and grin in his sleeve at! What a multitudinous army, what a Persian host, these correspondents must be! Who are they ?—the anonymous ones—what are they like? Who is “Verax?” who “Paterfamilias?” who “Indophilus?” who “The London Scoundrel?” who “A Thirsty Soul?” When will Mr. Herbert Watkins photograph me a collection of portraits of “Constant Readers,” “Englishmen,” and “Hertfordshire Incumbents ?“ Where is the incumbency of that brilliant writer? Who is “Habitans in Sicco,” and how came he first to date from the “Broad Phylactery ?“ and where does “Jacob Omnium” live when he is at home? I should like to study the physiognomy of these inveterate letter writers; to be acquainted with the circumstances which first led them to put pen to paper in correspondence with the “Times ;“ to know how they like to see themselves in print, and also how they feel, when, as happens with lamentable frequency, their lucubrations don’t get printed at all.
   It is getting later and later, oh! anxious waiters for to-morrow’s news. The “Times” has its secrets by this time. State secrets, literary secrets, secrets artistic and dramatic; secrets of robbery, and fire, and murder—it holds them all fast now, admitting none to its confidence but the Ineffables, the printers, and the ever-throbbing steam-engine; but it will divulge its secrets to millions at five o’clock to-morrow morning. Later and later still. The last report from the late debate in the Commons has come in; the last paragraph of interesting news, dropped into the box by a stealthy penny-a-liner, has been eliminated from a mass of flimsy on its probation, and for the most part rejected; the foreign telegrams are in type; the slaughtering leaders glare in their “chases,” presaging woe and disaster to ministers to-morrow; the last critic, in a white neckcloth, has hurried down with his column and a-half on the last new spectacle at the Princess’s; or has, which very frequently happens, despatched that manuscript from the box at the “Albion,” where he has been snugly supping, bidding the messenger hasten, and giving him to procure a cab the sum of one extra shilling, which that messenger never by any chance expends in vehicular conveyance, but runs instead with the [-35-] art-criticism, swift as the timid roe, so swift indeed, that policemen are only deterred through chronic laziness from pursuing and asking whether he hasn’t been stealing anything. By this time the “Times” has become tight and replete with matter, as one who has dined well and copiously. Nothing is wanting: city correspondence, sporting intelligence, markets, state of the weather, prices of stocks and railway shares, parliamentary summary, law and police reports, mysterious advertisements, and births, deaths, and marriages. Now let the nations wonder, and the conductors of the mangy little continental fly-sheets of newspapers hide their heads in shame, for the “Times “—the mighty “Times” —has “gone to bed.” The “forms,” or iron-framed and wedged-up masses of type, are, in other words, on the machine; and, at the rate of twelve thousand an hour, the damp broad sheets roll from the grim iron instrument of the dissemination of light throughout the world.
   At five o’clock a.m., the first phase of the publication of the “Times” newspaper commences. In a large bare room—something like the receiving ward of an hospital—with a pay counter at one end, and lined throughout with parallel rows of bare deal tables, the “leading journal” first sees the light of publicity. The tables are covered with huge piles of newspapers spread out the full size of the sheet. These are, with dazzling celerity, folded by legions of stout porters, and straightway carried to the door, where cabs, and carts, and light express phaeton-like vehicles, are in readiness to convey them to the railway stations. The quantity of papers borne to the carriages outside by the stout porters seems, and truly is, prodigious; but your astonishment will be increased when I tell you that this only forms the stock purchased every morning by those gigantic newsagents, Messrs. Smith and Son, of the Strand. As the largest consumers, the “Times” naturally allows them a priority of supply, and it is not for a considerable period after they have received their orders that the great body of newsagents and newsvenders—the “trade,” as they are generically termed—are admitted, grumbling intensely, to buy the number of quires or copies which they expect to sell or lend that day. The scene outside then becomes one of baffling noise amid confusion. There is a cobweb of wheeled vehicles of all sorts, from a cab to a hybrid construction something between a wheelbarrow and a costermonger’s shallow. There is much bawling and flinging, shoving, hoisting. pulling and dragging of parcels; all the horses’ heads seem to be turned the wrong way; everybody’s off-wheel seems locked in somebody else’s; but the proceedings on the whole are characterised by much good-[-36-]humour and some fun. The mob of boys—all engaged in the news-trade—is something wonderful: fat boys, lean boys, sandy-haired and red-haired boys, tall boys and short boys, boys with red comforters (though it is summer), and boys with sacks on their backs and money-bags in their hands; boys with turn-down collars; and boys whose extreme buttonedupness renders the fact of their having any . shirts to put collars to, turn-down or stuck-up, grievously problematical. Hard-working boys are these juvenile Bashi-Bazouks of the newspaper trade. And I am glad to observe, for the edification of social economists, with scarcely an exception, very honest boys. I don’t exactly say that they are trusted with untold gold, but of the gold that is told, to say nothing of the silver and copper, they give a generally entirely satisfactory account. At about half-past seven the cohorts of newsvenders, infantry and cavalry, gradually disperse, and the “Times” is left to the agonies of its second edition.
   As you walk away from Printing House Square in the cool of the morning, and reflect, I hope with salutary results, upon the busy scene you have witnessed, just bestow one thought, and mingle with it a large meed of admiration, for the man who, in his generation, truly made the “Times” what it is now—John Walter, of Bearwood, Member of Parliament. Foul-mouthed old Cobbett called him “Jack Walters,” and him and his newspaper many ungenteel names, predicting that he should live to see him “earthed,” and to “spit upon his grave;” but he survived the vituperative old man’s coarse epithets. He put flesh on the dry bones of an almost moribund newspaper. He, by untiring and indomitable energy and perseverance, raised the circulation of the “Times” twenty-fold, and put it in the way of attaining the gigantic publicity and popularity which it has now achieved. It is true that Mr. Walter realised a princely fortune by his connection with the “Times,” and left to his son, the present Mr. John Walter, —a lion’s share in the magnificent inheritance he had created. But he did much solid good to others besides himself. This brave old pressman, who, when an express came in from Paris—the French king’s speech to the Chambers in 1835—and when there were neither contributors nor compositors to be found at hand, bravely took off his coat, and in his shirt-sleeves first translated, and then, taking “a turn at case,” proceeded to set up in type his own manuscript. Mr. Walter was one of the pioneers of liberal knowledge; and men like him do more to clear the atmosphere of ignorance and prejudice, than whole colleges full of scholiasts and dialecticians.

[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.]