The Novelty of Naples

In the summer of 1844, Charles Dickens moved with his family to Italy where he used Genoa as a base while he explored the country. A book about his experiences, Pictures From Italy, was published in 1846. He explained in his introduction that….

The greater part of the descriptions were written on the spot, and sent home, from time to time, in private letters …… a guarantee to the Reader that they were at least penned in the fulness of the subject, and with the liveliest impressions of novelty and freshness.

One of his excursions took him south to Rome and from there down the Via Appia through Fondi (which did not impress him), Itri, Capua, and finally, travelling along….

….. a flat road among vines festooned and looped from tree to tree; and Mount Vesuvius close at hand at last! – its cone and summit whitened with snow; and its smoke hanging over it, in the heavy atmosphere of the day, like a dense cloud. So we go, rattling down hill, into Naples.

Vintage postcard of the Bay of Naples.

A funeral is coming up the street, towards us. The body, on an open bier, borne on a kind of palanquin, covered with a gay cloth of crimson and gold. The mourners, in white gowns and masks. If there be death abroad, life is well represented too, for all Naples would seem to be out of doors, and tearing to and fro in carriages. Some of these, the common Vetturino vehicles, are drawn by three horses abreast, decked with smart trappings and great abundance of brazen ornament, and always going very fast. Not that their loads are light; for the smallest of them has at least six people inside, four in front, four or five more hanging on behind, and two or three more, in a net or bag below the axle-tree, where they lie half-suffocated with mud and dust. …..

Why do the beggars rap their chins constantly, with their right hands, when you look at them? Everything is done in pantomime in Naples, and that is the conventional sign for hunger. A man who is quarreling with another, yonder, lays the palm of his right hand on the back of his left, and shakes the two thumbs – expressive of a donkey’s ears – whereat his adversary is goaded to desperation. Two people bargaining for fish, the buyer empties an imaginary waistcoat pocket when he is told the price, and walks away without a word: having thoroughly conveyed to the seller that he considers it too dear. Two people in carriages, meeting, one touches his lips, twice or thrice, holding up the five fingers of his right hand, and gives a horizontal cut in the air with the palm. The other nods briskly, and goes his way. He has been invited to a friendly dinner at half-past five o’clock, and will certainly come.

All over Italy, a peculiar shake of the right hand from the wrist, with the forefinger stretched out, expresses a negative – the only negative beggars will ever understand. But, in Naples, those five fingers are a copious language.

All this, and every other kind of out-door life and stir, and macaroni-eating at sunset, and flower-selling all day long, and begging and stealing everywhere and at all hours, you see upon the bright seashore, where the waves of the bay sparkle merrily. But, lovers and hunters of the picturesque, let us not keep too studiously out of view the miserable depravity, degradation, and wretchedness, with which this gay Neopolitan life is inseparably associated!

Vintage monochrome RP postcard of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples, Italy.

Landseer Part 2 – Last Days


Self portrait

Towards the end of his life Landseer became hopelessly insane and, during his periods of violence, a dangerous homicidal maniac. Such an affection, however, had my father and mother for the friend of their young days, that they still had him to stay with us in Kent for long periods. He had necessarily to bring a large retinue with him: his own trained mental attendant; Dr. Tuke, a very celebrated Alienist [psychiatrist] in his day; and, above all, Mrs. Pritchard. The case of Mrs. Pritchard is such an instance of devoted friendship as to be worth recording. She was an elderly widow of small means, Landseer’s neighbour in St. John’s Wood; a little shrivelled, dried-up old woman. The two became firm allies, and when Landseer’s reason became hopelessly deranged, Mrs. Pritchard devoted her whole life to looking after her afflicted friend. In spite of her scanty means, she refused to accept any salary, and Landseer was like wax in her hands. In his most violent moods when the keeper and Dr. Tuke both failed to quiet him, Mrs. Pritchard had only to hold up her finger and he became calm at once. …….


Landseer in 1873, the year of his death.

My mother happened to be confined to her bed with an attack of bronchitis when Landseer’s visit came to an end, but she felt no hesitation about receiving her life-long friend in her bedroom, insane though he was, so he was shown in, Mrs. Pritchard, the faithful watch-dog, remaining on guard outside the door. Landseer thanked my mother profusely for the pleasure his visit had given him, and then added “now, will you allow an old friend of over fifty years’ standing to take a very great liberty?”
“Certainly, Lanny,” answered my mother, thinking that he was asking permission to kiss her.
“Thank you,” said Landseer, and at once sat down on her chest and remained there. He was a very heavy man, and my mother in her weak state had not sufficient strength to move him from his position. His weight was crushing her; she was quite unable to breath, and, suffering as she was from bronchitis, she began to lose consciousness, and might have been suffocated, had not the watchful Mrs. Pritchard (who, I suspect, had kept her eye constantly glued to the key-hole of the door) darted into the room and raised Landseer to his feet, soundly upbraiding him at the same time for his outrageous conduct. That was the last visit he ever paid us.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton. Hodder and Stoughton. 1920.

The need for speed

Excerpts from an essay, ‘The Countryside’, by Lord Ernle (1851-1937)

My own recollections date back to 1855 – a Golden Age of agriculture for squires and farmers, when the land not only supplied bread to 17,000,000, and meat to the whole, of the existing population, but employed nearly 1,100,000 rural workers. Men ploughed, sowed, reaped, and threshed almost as they had done in Biblical days….

Vintage postcard of haymaking in the English countryside.

Preparations for the coming annihilation of time and distance had hardly begun. Few railways had been built; the mercantile fleet mainly consisted of sailing ships, small in number and carrying capacity; except for short distances no submarine cables had been laid; roads were still barred by turnpike gates, and, off the railways, horses or “hiking” were the only means of land locomotion or conveyance….

Life travels faster than it did. Its pace is no longer set by ploughmen behind their horses in the furrows. But rich in advantages though the change is, those who live by the land – tenant-farmers, landlords, workers, parsons, or tradesmen who depend on their custom – have not found speed an unmixed blessing. With one hand it brings the farmer help, with the other disaster. Speed saves his time, cheapens his production, checks the caprice of climate; but it is also speed that ruins his market by bringing perishable products from the ends of the earth. By innumerable means it has made life easier in the countryside; for all who live by the land it has made it harder to live. But speed clashes with the dominant force of the countryside. Nature refuses to be hustled by mechanics.

However much the handling of her products may be accelerated, her own processes of production remain unhurried. It is from her deliberate methods that rural life derives the air of repose, or, if you will, stagnation, which gives it dignity and independence. If its special needs are wholly sacrificed to urban interests, the country becomes only a poor relation of the town. Road authorities might save expenditure if they more often remembered that cattle can shift their quarters without a Rolls-Royce, and that horses cannot keep their feet on skating rinks.
‘Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts’. Thornton Butterworth Limited, London. 1932.

The terrors of the nursery

From ‘The Days before Yesterday’ by Lord Frederic Hamilton (1856 – 1928).

In the early “sixties” [1860s] the barbarous practice of sending wretched little “climbinglord-frederic-hamilton boys” up chimneys to sweep them still prevailed. In common with most other children of that day, I was perfectly terrified when the chimney-sweep arrived with his attendant coal-black imps, for the usual threat of foolish nurses to their charges when they proved refractory was, “If you are not good I shall give you to the sweep, and then you will have to climb up the chimney.” When the dust-sheets laid on the floors announced the advent of the sweeps, I used, if possible, to hide until they had left the house.

I cannot understand how public opinion tolerated for so long the abominable cruelty of forcing little boys to clamber up flues. These unhappy brats were made to creep into the chimneys from the grates, and then to wriggle their way up by digging their bare toes into the interstices of the bricks, and by working their elbows and knees alternately; stifled in the pitch-darkness of the narrow flue by foul air, suffocated by the showers of soot that fell on them, perhaps losing their way in the black maze of chimneys, and liable at any moment, should they lose their footing, to come crashing down twenty feet, either to be killed outright in the dark or to lie with a broken limb until they were extricated – should, indeed, it be possible to rescue them at all.

These unfortunate children, too, were certain to get abrasions on their bare feet and on their elbows and knees from the rough edges of the bricks. The soot working into these abrasions gave them a peculiar form of sore. Think of the terrible brutality to which a nervous child must have been subjected before he could be induced to undertake so hateful a journey for the first time. Should the boy hesitate to ascend, many of the master-sweeps had no compunction in giving him what was termed a “tickler” – that is, in lighting some straw in the grate below him. The poor little urchin had perforce to scramble up his chimney then, to avoid being roasted alive.

All honour to the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, the philanthropist, who as Lord Ashley neveranthony_ashley_cooper_7th_earl_of_shaftesbury rested in the House of Commons until he got a measure placed on the Statute Book making the employment of climbing-boys illegal.

s.s. Great Britain

The historic s.s. Great Britain in dry dock at Bristol, England.

There are two main reasons why so much effort has been put into the salvage and restoration of the SS Great Britain. One is that she was the very first propeller-driven ocean-going vessel ever built. The other is that her salvage in 1970 when she was 127 years old became an epic of the sea. That she should have survived for so long in the circumstances that she did was very remarkable. But what added a whole new dimension was the timing and method of the operation itself. To be brought home on a huge pontoon, she was raised from her lonely beach in the Falkland Islands at very nearly the last possible moment, in view of her accelerating rate of disintegration. Thus, the fact that we have the Great Britain in Bristol today is something of a miracle.

The Great Britain was designed by the great Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and built in Bristol between 1839 and 1843 in the very same dock in which she now lies. She was launched by the Prince Consort on 19 July 1843, and she completed her fitting out late in 1844. ………

The 'tween decks promenade on the s.s. Great Britain, Bristol, England.

‘tween decks promenade

When Brunel had turned from his railways and bridges to ships, trade on the Atlantic was dominated by the Americans with faster and better sailing ships than the world had ever seen before. So the second ship to be built by him* and his associates in the Great Western Steamship Company, the future Great Britain, was intended to be a big leap forward which would set a new standard for Atlantic travel. And it was conceived metaphorically as another extension from Bristol of the new Great Western Railway line from London. …….

As first planned, when her keel plates were laid down in her present dry dock on 19th July 1839, the big new ship was to be of 2936 gross registered tons, and a paddle steamer. She was expected to be called the City of New York. And it was only during her actual building that Brunel gained enough knowledge about the revolutionary new technique of screw propulsion to make the tremendous decision to adopt it for his great ship. Plans were switched, the existing engines were to be swung round at right angles to drive a propeller shaft – another piece of pioneering machinery – and the name was changed to that of the country itself: Great Britain.


Other features to make history included the first watertight bulkheads, first virtual double bottom, and first balanced rudder. This was in fact to be among the dozen most significant ships ever built by man, even to this day.

The Return of the Great Britain. Richard Goold-Adams** (1916-1995). Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 1976.

The dining room on the s.s. Great Britain, Bristol, England.

The dining saloon

*Brunel’s first ship was the wooden paddle steamer Great Western.

** Goold-Adams was the founder chairman of the s.s. Great Britain recovery project.

If your travels take you within 100 miles of Bristol, this is an attraction that should not be missed. Find a used copy of Goold-Adams’ book before you go and you’ll appreciate it that much more. It’s an incredible story of salvage and restoration.

Victorian India

Walter Roper Lawrence “went out to India” at the age of twenty-two to be a civil-servant in the British administration. Contrary to the modern impression of the English in India, he grew to respect the country and its people, and learned from both. In these excerpts from an essay originally published in the Times, he remembers his time there, comments on changing bureaucratic attitudes in the early 20th century and considers their consequences.


Slow! It was slow in the Victorian time, for three to four months riding through the villages; and as we rode, others would join our cavalcade, yeomen of the country, and never an official save Shahji, a genial, burly Mughal, mounted on a horse befitting his stature. He taught me my work, covering my blunders with blunt courtesy. He capped every anecdote, and, free spender as he was, gave many a feast of a sheep, with ample rice and sugar. The cavalcade grew in size – we were the best of district committees. For these men knew the country and knew what the people wanted – just to be left alone. They would tell me of some local bandit, usually a Robin Hood, out for a better disposition of other people’s wealth. But they always disapproved and said he was dangerous and had become be-khauf (without fear), an evil portent in India. These men riding with me, whose families stock the regiments of the Indian Army, knew the danger to their homes when a young man became be-khauf.

So we rode on, in single file when the crops were tumbling over the track, or in open line when the country was waste; and one day as we rode, happily talking, suddenly we came on the railway and reined up as the train rattled by. The English passengers waved their hands, and I raised my battered sun hemet; the train passed, and we crossed the line. But the talk ceased, the charm was snapped, and old Shahji edged up on his horse, pointed to the dust of the train and said, “There goes your caste.” For we were a caste. We married and we ate in our own caste. What else? The other 60,000,000 untouchables live on the skirt of the towns, or the fringe of the villages, but we lived farther away in the Dudder Station, or in the Cantonment, if we were of the Army. It was inevitable that we, a few thousands, should come under the compelling influence, the mass osmosis of the many millions always within our sight and hearing. It was natural that we should absorb something of the spirit of the East…….

I used to hear of India being “Anglicized”; but in my experience it was rather the other way. It was we who were being Indianized. I never met an Anglicized Indian. I saw and knew many who spoke and dressed like Englishmen; but they will never be English. They have too much to lose and to leave, and the ancestral mortmain grips them. It would be far easier for the detached Englishman to become Indian. For we went to India at a most plastic and impressionable age, and for our first years we were in the hands of the most charming and courteous of teachers. I went through the hands of more than one Shahji. I am certain that, while I did nothing to Anglicize them, they did much to Indianize me. And it was caste, that great conserving force of India, the caste that went by in that train, that kept me English. The rules of our caste were three – and I had them burnt into my young mind in 1879 – Work hard, Keep English, Keep faith with the Indians…..

And above us was the Barra Sahib, the Head of the District, omniscient, untiring, and self-sacrificing. He knew that the whole machine would crash if weaklings touched it. So we had to work and fit ourselves for the great endeavour. If he ever had time to think, he must have known that his task was becoming too heavy. But in those days he had the Government behind him. I have been a small cog in the machine; have stood in the engine room; and in the last days of Queen Victoria I was a fly on the driving-wheel when it drove its fastest. But even I could see that the business was becoming too complex and too exacting for the District Officer, and that the craze of the Government for centralization, uniformity, and statistics would shackle the man on whom all depends. If he lost personal touch with the people of the district, then all was lost…….

In India it is all a question of pace. The pace of the villagers was the pace of the plough oxen, and in the Victorian days we kept in step with them. Is the day coming when we shall speed along the alien highroad in a cloud of dust, while our old friends and their buffaloes ruminate from afar, and the delegate from the city mutters, “There goes your gram-fed sahib, what does he care for you?” The pace was slow but sure. The pace has quickened now. Are we sure and are the villagers sure? For they are the deep, true sea of India, the cities the foam on its shores.

The Indian Civil Service. Sir Walter R. Lawrence. Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts. Thornton Butterworth Ltd. 1932.

The Maharajah of Cooch Behar

India, 1891. Lord Frederic Hamilton, while on the staff of his brother-in-law, the Viceroy, was invited to take part in a five-week big game hunt organized by the Maharajah of Cooch Behar. It gave him the chance to escape the heat and humidity of Calcutta which, he thought, “could never be a really healthy place”.

A vintage postcard of the wharves on the Hooghly river at Calcutta, India.

The late Maharajah of Cooch Behar had had a long minority, the soil of his principality was very fertile and well-cultivated, and so efficiently was the little state administered by the British Resident that the Maharajah found himself at his majority the fortunate possessor of vast sums of ready money. The Government of India had erected him out of his surplus revenues a gigantic palace of red-brick, a singularly infelicitous building material for that burning climate. Nor can it be said that the English architect had been very successful in his elevation. He had apparently anticipated the design of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and had managed to produce a building even less satisfactory to the eye than that vast pile at the corner of Cromwell Road. He had also crowned his edifice with a great dome. The one practical feature of the building was that it was only one room thick, and that every room was protected by a broad double verandah on both sides. The direct rays of the sun were, therefore, powerless to penetrate to the interior, and with the double verandahs the faintest breath of air sent a draught through every room in the house.

We reached Cooch Behar after dark, and it was somewhat of a surprise to find the Maharajah and his entire family roller-skating in the great central domed hall of the palace, to the strains of a really excellent string band. The Maharajah having a great liking for European music, had a private orchestra of thirty-five natives who, under the skilled tuition of a Viennese conductor, had learned to play with all the fire and vim of one of those unapproachable Austrian bands, which were formerly (I emphasize the were) the delight of every foreigner in Vienna…… The whole scene was rather unexpected in the home of a native prince in the wilds of East Bengal.

The Maharajah had fixed on a great tract of jungle in Assam, over the frontier of India proper, as the field of operations for his big-game shoot of 1891, on account of the rhinoceros and buffaloes that frequented the swamps there. As he did not do things by halves, he had had a rough road made connecting Cooch Behar with his great camp, and had caused temporary bridges to be built over all the streams on the way. Owing to the convenient bamboo, this is fairly easy of achievement, for the bamboo is at the same time tough and pliable, and bamboo bridges, in spite of their flimsy appearance, can carry great weights, and can be run up in no time, and kindly nature furnishes in Bengal an endless supply of this adaptable building material……

It so happened that the Census of 1891 was taken whilst we were in camp, so I can give the exact number of retainers whom the Maharajah brought with him. It totalled 473, including mahouts and elephant-tenders, grooms, armourers, taxidermists, tailors, shoemakers, a native doctor and a dispenser, and boatmen, not to mention the Viennese conductor and the thirty-five members of the orchestra, cooks, bakers, and table-waiters. The Maharajah certainly did things on a grand scale.

Here, There and Everywhere, Lord Frederic Hamilton, Hodder and Stoughton, 1921.

Hamilton is such an entertaining writer on aspects of 19th century life that you can expect to see him back here from time to time.