Dear Visitor to London,
You do not know me, but I am your candid friend. You cannot arrive in London in 1819 without one; and, let’s face it, you don’t have any other friends and you are a long way from home. Whether you have arrived in London by road or by water, you will arrive at a London coaching Inn, and you will witness at first hand the moral turpitude of the vast majority of our London population.
Firstly, your luggage. Where is it? You haven’t seen it since your last hurried meal at that seedy coaching house, horrible because of its guaranteed custom. Did you notice that you were only given time to eat half of it, and the guard wouldn’t let you take it with you? You can be rest assured that the second half has been resold and eaten by something else, with a little tip for the guard. Has your suitcase been thrown out of the basket and an urchin has run after it? You will know in a minute.
Here comes the coaching inn. Mind your head if you are on top. Here comes a swarm of helpful people around your coach. You see your luggage. Good. They offer to take your luggage on to the next stage of your journey, because you are not staying here. It’s the type of place where the owner has to embroider their name and address on his sheets and put secret marks on his silver to identify it.
Don’t give your luggage to these people. You do not know who they are. Anybody can hang around a coaching house, claiming to be waiting for a long lost relative. Don’t rely on the guard’s recommendation-they may be part of the cheat. They may not rob luggage themselves, but they have their own tricks, and each relies on the silence of the other. Notice those two extras passengers picked up on the road outside London? They were picked up by the driver and he ‘shouldered’ the money.
You have left your silk scarf on the coach. Don’t go back for it. It’s gone. Did you see that man going into the coach and taking off his hat as he went in? Your scarf is under his hat. But you will never prove it. Accost him, and he will soon have lots of angry friends around him.
You luggage is safe, but you are tired and need to wait before you can meet your friend. There is a convivial atmosphere here, people playing cards in the tap room, people who chat and will stand you a large rum and water, which they will insist on drinking standing up and quickly. You might get a bit ‘opaque’ as you sit down for your game of cards. This card game only started as your coach arrived in the inn; each coach horn is different and you have been identified as coming from the naïve provinces. The very sight of a countryman sharpens their appetites. If you have brought your wife they will rejoice further- you will want to show what a man of the world you are, won’t you?
Lots of bad things can happen. You will always win the first game; perhaps the second. Your new friends will admit to being not very good. You debts may mount up and they might get nasty. Or you might continue to win, and suddenly your new friends might run away and you will discover that all drinks had been bought on your tab. Or you relax with your new friends and put a £20 banknote on the table. They grab it and run. You would not be able to follow them- it s busy, crowded and chaotic and you do not know where you are going. London is much bigger than your home.
Don’t rely on the constable to help you. They are paid a pound a week but most of their money comes from rewards. These minor thieves bring no reward. They will be ignored until they become profitable-until they weigh forty pound, at that’s a price, not a weight. Don’t even bother.
Time to get a local hackney carriage. Best not to try to walk, even if the distance is short. If you do have to walk, keep up a brisk pace, do not peer at road signs and do not ask for directions from anybody, no matter how well dressed the person is. A real gentleman would not deign the answer you, a poor traveller dishevelled from public transport. They would certainly not know how to get to your modest destination. Under no circumstances take up an offer to take you there. There may only be one person, but you do not know what alley you will be lead there. Dressing up in ‘toggery’ to gain trust via a well known trick- to Londoners.
If you find a diamond ring on the floor at the same time as somebody else; don’t offer them cash so you can keep it. If you find money, it will be fake and within a minute somebody will have seen your banknote and be ready to call the police, unless you pay up. If somebody feints in the street, do not come to their aid.
So, get a cab. If you hear the inn porter call the name ‘Johnny Newcome’ or ‘Johnny Raw’, or if people are excessively referred to as ‘maaaaaam’, then the message to the cab driver is that you are new in town, and the porter will pick up his tip later. Do not be convinced by the cab driver holding his hat at his side or holding the door open. He is hiding the number of his cab so you cannot complain. Later, it’s time to pay for the journey. You established the price before you left, and you feel good your caution. The cab pulls up somewhere dark, and you pay with a pound. The change comes quickly, but there is a false half crown in the change. You are unlikely to notice; if you do notice, then he will claim it was yours after all. If your coachmen leaves you at excessive speed, you have been ‘smashed’
Welcome to London!
If you liked this blog, you may wish to consider my two books on Georgian and Early Victorian Britain. Passengers is a social history history of Britain 1780 to 1840; this blog is an early draft of one chapter.
The Dark Days of Georgian Britain is about the period 1815-1819 with an emphasis on the poor
All my books, including Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War here