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Was It All Cricket?

Chapter 12 — First Days in London

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Chapter 12
First Days in London

I Was fortunate in not having to look for lodgings. My cousin, Walter Sneddon, for twenty-one years Chief Engineer of the Remuera, trading to New Zealand, had married a London girl, and I received an invitation to stay with her people. They lived in South Tottenham, which is due north out of London, the nearby railway station being Seven Sisters. It was down High Road, where they lived, that Dick Turpin galloped his gallant and faithful Black Bess, and Mrs. Sneddon's father, old Mr. Bullock, a man of over seventy, loved talking of old England and revelled in retelling the story of this epic ride.

The Bullocks were a fine family, typical of so many in a great maritime nation like Britain. The father was a town traveller for the firm of Samuel & Company of the Minories, in the centre of London. His son, Ralph, was a departmental manager of the same firm, and his youngest daughter, in her early twenties, was her brother's secretary. All the other members of the family were connected with the sea. William, the eldest son, was Master of one of the Leyland Company's passenger liners in the Atlantic trade. They were all very proud of William, especially his mother, and they had reason to be, for he was a R.N.R. Commander, and typical of the men who qualify to act as Reserves for the Navy. Charles was Second Engineer of a tramp steamer trading out East. He should have been a Chief years before, but he was the hard case of the family and had the habit of slipping on the second-to-top rung of the ladder. He could talk of Vladivostock and Nikolaievsk of the far north of the Far East, and of Japan, China, India, the Persian Gulf, the Black Sea and goodness knows where else. He had always been on tramp steamers and this accounted for his peregrinations. Harold was an officer in the Union Castle line trading to South Africa. With the eldest daughter married to my cousin, and the second girl the wife of an officer in the Union Castle line, it will be seen what an atmosphere of the life of the sea I was to become associated with. I refer to this in detail because it was to have an effect on my future career.

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My first day in London was to provide a unique experience. At Plymouth, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson and their daughter, of Auckland, passengers on the Rimutaka, were met by their son, who told them of a great concert that was to take place in the Albert Hall two days later. Before leaving the ship they invited me to join their party for this concert. Going into London, I was surprised how easily I found my way about. This was again due to my familiarity with maps and plans. On the Rimutaka, the barber's shop had on sale splendid maps of London which were exhibited as we neared England. They were so detailed and gave so clear a picture that I was soon able to find my way about in the centre of the city. Arriving at the Liverpool Street Station, it was at first just a case of following the crowd along Bishopsgate Street, but soon people were branching off in various directions until I had to choose my own route. Turning into Cornhill, I found myself gazing at the Bank of England, that great bulwark of the financial structure of the Empire. Opposite was the Royal Exchange, in front of which stood the imposing monument of the Duke of Wellington. Along Cheap-side, I turned in past St. Paul's and stopped to gaze upon Wren's masterpiece, the pride of the Empire and the admiration of the peoples of the world. Moving on, I went down Ludgate Hill to Ludgate Circus, there to see the big sign over the office of Thos. Cook & Son, of world-tours fame. As I went up Fleet Street I looked for signs of the activities of the newspaper world. I was soon in the Strand, and on reaching Trafalgar Square was over-awed with feelings of excitement, and stood watching the crowd. I felt I had done pretty well for my first day in London, but seemed unable to take it all in. The many outlets from this famous square made it less easy to decide which one to take. I knew that I had to keep on going west, but was undecided whether to go up through Haymarket or Regent Street, but soon found myself in Piccadilly. When leaving I had left myself plenty of time to reach the Albert Hall, but my many halts to take bearings and to gaze, stare and wonder at the marvels of this greatest of all cities had encroached upon my time. I therefore jumped into a hansom cab—it was always the horse cab in those days—and arrived just in time to join Mr. Jackson's party. It thus didn't take me long to learn of the London cabby's saying, “I leave it to you, sir,” when an American or colonial, on alighting, asked the fare!

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It was a matter for astonishment to colonials to find the huge Albert Hall packed to the doors for an afternoon concert. The attraction was comparable with Grace, Ranjitsinhji and Trumper playing at Lord's, for the artistes this day were Madam Patti, the prima donna who preceded Madam Melba, Charles Santley, the famous baritone, and Ada Crossley, the attractive Australian possessing a lovely contralto voice and charm of manner which made her so popular in England at the beginning of this century. One does not need to be a musician to be able to appreciate what a feast it was to have three such artistes singing at the same concert. That I was never a highbrow so far as music was concerned, may be gathered from the fact that the only item I am able to remember as having been sung that afternoon is “Comin' Thru the Rye” as an encore by Patti. Had it been a Sims-Reeves concert, I suppose all I would remember would be his famous rendering of “Come Into the Garden, Maud.” I do remember, however, how I enjoyed the wonderful singing, and have vivid recollections of the quality of the voices of those stars of other days.

Among the many letters of introduction I had was one from Mr. Richard J. Seddon, Premier of New Zealand, so it was natural that I should soon call on Mr. W. P. Reeves, the Dominion's High Commissioner in London. This meant another walk through the heart of the city, but this time, on reaching Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross, I turned down Whitehall, passing, in turn, the Admiralty, the Horse Guards and the Treasury, and soon found myself facing Westminster Abbey, a sight that brought me to a standstill. To the left were the Houses of Parliament. It was a repetition of the day before, when famous names and famous places thrilled me beyond description. I loitered through these parts, for my mind went racing back to my schooldays, when we crammed into our history lessons all the names and places now unfolding themselves before me. The architecture of St. Paul's, the Abbey, and Houses of Parliament took my breath away. I had been used to buildings in New Zealand and Australia—all modern in design and most of them built less than fifty years before. At the Abbey, I turned into Victoria Street where the New Zealand Offices were then situated, and soon my card was being taken in to the High Commissioner.

Mr. Reeves received me in the most friendly manner. It was page 163 cricket that he wanted first to talk about, for he had followed the doings of Lord Hawke's team in New Zealand. Turning to the part he could play in rendering assistance to me, he threw open all the usual privileges a High Commissioner is able to arrange for visitors from his own country. I wanted to see Parliament in session and the great men who ruled the destinies of Britain and the Empire, so he told me to come back the following day and he would arrange for a pass and have one of his senior officers escort me. Mr. Seddon's letter was, no doubt, the main reason for Mr. Reeves's kindness to me, but I had the feeling that cricket possibly played some part, especially as the High Commissioner had himself represented my own province of Canterbury. W. P. Reeves's little poem, “I Was Never a Judge of a Run,” is well worth cricketers' reading. It typifies his own greatest failing on the cricket field, which added humour to his clever verse and provoked mirth among his friends.

My escort and I arrived at Parliament Buildings about half an hour before the sitting was to begin, so that Members arriving could be pointed out. Most of them walked, but the old hansom cab played its part. It was a cold spring day, and all arrived in their heavy top-coats. I remember noting the fashion of the time of having an astrakhan collar on the overcoat. They were certainly well-groomed men, with the proverbial bell-topper much in evidence. It was from the Strangers' Gallery that I was to have pointed out to me the great statesmen of those days; Balfour, who was Prime Minister, Joseph Chamberlain and his son, Austen, Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith, Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Sir Edward Grey, and many others, including the Irish Members. Unfortunately, it was not an important matter that was being debated, so I did not have the privilege of hearing Cabinet Ministers or leaders of the Opposition, but the whole setting gave me a picture of the House of Commons at work. After taking in the whole scene, and listening to a rather desultory debate—during which I looked eagerly from bench to bench, studying the features of the various great men whose names were legends to me—we retired to see over the House of Lords. This House was not sitting, so we were able to walk around the famous Chamber. I sat on some of the beautifully upholstered seats and was keenly interested in this close inspection of the House where page 164 great men with great reputations made careful survey of the work of the Lower House, when Bills were sent forward for endorsement and final approval.

The day after this visit to the Houses of Parliament I was back again in the Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross area to spend a few hours in Westminster Abbey. One could go many times and never weary of studying the picture that unfolds itself. The magnificence of the building gave a first impression that could not be improved upon, even with more minute examination; but the history of the State, the Church, and the lives of the men who, through all the years, have made England so great, and so revered, could be found in every nook and corner.

In New Zealand we look back with pride upon the men who founded our Dominion and praise their foresight, judgment and enterprise in the work they carried out so well in a colony even now but a century old. But, in England, the Abbey takes one back hundreds of years, and presents lasting memorials of “The Intellect and Valour of Britain,” and of the courage and devotion of men whose lives light up the path of British history and leave reputations that extend far beyond the shores of England. I was certainly glad to be privileged to see these historic places and that I so closely examined them. It was always England and Scotland that I wanted to see, and I became as proud as any Londoner of the city upon which we all look as the centre of our Empire.

Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross became as familiar to me as our own Cathedral Square in Christchurch. Walking past Parliament Buildings to Westminster Bridge, I turned to pass Scotland Yard, and along the Thames Embankment. The traffic on the Thames fascinated me; barges, barges, barges … tugs, tugs, tugs … all plying up and down stream. Surely this must be the world's busiest waterway for this class of traffic. On under the bridge that carried the trains into Charing Cross Station, I was in sight of Waterloo Bridge; passing this, I was next in sight of Blackfriars Bridge, which marks the end of the Embankment.

On this particular trip I was making for “The Monument,” from the top of which I had been told I would get a good view. I was certainly not disappointed. It was some climb, as the Americans would say, but worth it. Right below was London page 165 Bridge, and towards the east was the famous Tower of London; beyond were the London Docks and Tower Bridge. I could name many other places that were pointed out by my guide, but the things that impressed me most were the view of the traffic on the Thames, the famous bridges over the river and the Dome of St. Paul's, towering so majestically above all other buildings. In this way I could ramble on with stories of trips here and trips there—“In Search of London.”

I should, perhaps, finish with my visit to St. Paul's. I went by myself and was shown everything from the Crypt to the Whispering Gallery. St. Paul's leaves the same impression upon one as does Westminster Abbey—one of solemn grandeur, sacred and magnificent—and it will ever remain one of the Empire's most priceless treasures.

My next experience in England was to see the English Derby run. In Melbourne, in 1900, I had attended my first race meeting when I saw the famous Melbourne Cup run, the most important race in the Southern Hemisphere. An attendance of 80,000 people on the great Flemington Racecourse was an inspiring sight to me who came from a city with little more than that for its total population, but at Epsom this figure was to be far exceeded. Naturally I wanted to go, and with a friend who also wished to do it as cheaply as possible, joined a coach leaving close to Lambeth, on the south side of the Thames. I had seen the traffic on the road to Riccarton, in Christchurch, where the New Zealand Cup is run, had had my recent experience in getting to Flemington, but the journey to Epsom Downs surpassed all previous ideas of what a crowd could be. All transport was by buses, coaches, carriages and buggies, with many pearl-buttoned costers in donkey-drawn carts.

The traffic was repeatedly jammed, and this made for slow progress, but we had been warned of this, and started with plenty of time to spare. To see London lads moving among the traffic brought many hair-raising moments. These little chaps would do hand-springs and cart-wheels in the hope of getting pennies thrown them by passengers on the vehicles that moved at little more than walking pace. At any moment one of these youngsters might have been run over or kicked by a horse, but they were too agile. The fun and humour created by these Cockney boys is something to remember. It certainly can never be repeated in these days of motor-cars. The high spirits of page 166 everyone impressed me. The voice of the Scot, the Yorkshire-man, the man from Lancashire, all with their delightful sense of humour, was highly amusing in this holiday setting. Two Americans were on top of our bus—in fact the whole world seemed to be on the way to the Derby. There was an outing in itself in this twelve to fifteen miles' drive to Epsom.

My friend and I were not making for the grandstands, but for the flat in the centre of the course. It was not the best place to get a view of the race, but we certainly obtained a close-up view of some sections of English life. It was more like a fair. All sorts of sideshows competed with the noise of the bookmakers, who called the odds incessantly. There were gipsy fortune-tellers, card-trick men, swings for the children, in fact everything that makes for a family holiday. It was only when the great race was about to be run that there was a cessation in this entertainment. A rush was then made to gain any vantage-point from which some part of the race could be seen. People climbed on the tops of the buses, coaches and other conveyances, and there were many parked out in the middle. The majority ran to the rails, getting just a glimpse of the horses as they flashed by. I did not have a good view, being in the second row on the rails, about half-way down the straight. After following the jockeys' colours down the back of the course and round the end, then losing them altogether as they turned into the straight at Tattenham Corner, I saw the flash-past I have referred to. A part I remember was the noise of the horses' hooves as they approached and galloped by: Rocksand won.

This was the first occasion on which I saw King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. The King, in his frock-coat and bell-topper, appeared to be in a jovial mood? surrounded by his friends in the Royal Box. He was, of course, smoking his usual cigar, for which he was famous, as is Mr. Churchill to-day. In the early 'nineties, King Edward gave one of his cigars to a member of an Australian XI. This was too good to smoke, thought the Australian, and many years afterwards it was still held as a souvenir!

How the East-ender revelled in the fun of the fair was an eye-opener to me. I have never seen people so supremely happy. It was laughter all the time; there was a joke in everything. The Cockney slang was highly diverting, and it would be impossible page 167 to estimate the number of times I heard the word “blimey” it—seemed to start every sentence. “Blimey, Bill, what abaht it?” I had heard slang on the waterfront in Melbourne and Sydney, but the Australian's is more profane than that of the Cockney's.

By this time I had begun to play some cricket, taking part in club matches, but continued to explore London, taking advantage of every opportunity. My elderly host had an intimate knowledge of old London, both East and West End, and used to tell me each evening what he thought would make a good trip for the following day. He had always been a traveller in the heart of the City, so was able to direct me to places off the beaten track of tourists. On Sundays he would come with me, and we had some happy jaunts together. The thrill of seeing the great places of the West was not more exciting than those of the East, when, with feelings of trepidation, I wended my way through Whitechapel, Houndsditch, Stepney, Shoreditch and Limehouse, and visited Paddy's Market. One time it was Mile End Road and Commercial Road; another, the London Docks and the waterfront on the Thames near by. It will thus be seen that my early sightseeing was not among the expensive restaurants and theatres of the great city, but I saw the London and her people depicted so wonderfully by the immortal Dickens. This experience brought back memories of our family circle round the fireside. My father was a great reader, with Dickens among his favourite authors. I can remember him saying, “Listen to this, mother,” and he would then read aloud some choice passages from Pickwick Papers, the greatest of all Dickens' works. Reading aloud was a feature of family life during last century.

I was also able to appreciate the noble work of Dr. Barnardo, who founded the Home that must rank as the greatest of all orphanages, and is subscribed to by all the peoples of the Empire. A thing that struck me was that in the midst of all this poverty and the poor dwellings the people seemed happy. One certainly saw wan faces and evidence of malnutrition, for these families all lived on the border of the bread-and-butter line. No open spaces were provided for the children, who played on the footpaths and streets. No wonder these little chaps could dodge the traffic and literally pick up pennies from among the horses' hoofs on the road to Epsom Downs on Derby Day. page 168 The Cockney tongue was fascinating. The “blimey” I have referred to at the Derby was worked overtime in this near East End.

The Cockney is a happy and humorous soul, and an integral part of old England. How important, and how brave, was amply demonstrated in the dreadful bombing that has so recently taken place over the very parts to which I have just referred. No other people in the world could have shown greater courage and fortitude in facing such desperate hazards than these brave men and women of the East End during the Battle of Britain.

I was later to see the London that most tourists see, but those first weeks in the great city remain with me as the most exciting and most illuminating of all my travels.