Monuments and Dust
London Times: 14 Mar 1851
We have but little time left to set our house in order before the arrival of our expected visitors from the continent of Europe. Great activity is shown on certain points, and great neglect upon others. Now, we much doubt if any very great discretion is exercised in the selection of improvements. For example, almost preternatural activity has been displayed in hitching the marble arch into position at Cumberland-gate. It is a question if eyes which have been accustomed to rest upon the Arc de l'Etoile, or the Brandenburg Gate, will derive much gratification from the spectacle. Again, as we have been informed, considerable exertions have been made to get the armed warriors of the Tower, and the apartment appropriated to their use, into presentable trim. HENRY VIII, has been for some weeks past enveloped in a richly-sprigged dressing-gown; a railway rug has been wrapped around the shoulders of the gallant BRANDON; and the heads of the buff-coated soldiers of the commonwealth have ben comfortably swathed in linsey-woolsey nightcaps, lest their armour should contract soil or stain while the beautifying is in progress. This is all well enough in its way, but our foreign visitors could very well have dispensed with this excess of steel-dandyism. It would have given us more satisfaction to hear that the shabby Dean and Chapter of the Metropolitan Cathedral had finally suppressed the paltry fee exacted at their gates. Far be it from us, however, to sneer at the exertions of those who, within their particular departments, are doing their utmost to polish up "the sights of London." We would only suggest that there are other points of more immediate importance to the comfort of our visitors which should not be lost sight of in the midst of all this scrubbing and varnishing. The principal object which a Frenchman, or a German, or an Italian will have in view during his stay in London will of course be the "Great Exhibition" itself. The practical problem for his solution will be how, in the most economical and comfortable manner, he can be lodged, fed, and conveyed about the town during the period of his stay.
The question of supplying bed and board to our expected guests must, of course, be left in the hands of private speculators. Some misgivings we may secretly entertain upon the amount of comfort they may manage to extract from our featherbeds and underdone beefsteaks; but in such a matter administrative interference is a mere impossibility. The few who can afford to pay largely will fare well. The many who must look somewhat closely to the cost of their entertainment will no doubt experience various degrees of discomfort and suffering. But, if we can do nothing for them on this point, at least we can insist that every facility shall be given them for traversing the streets of London without being subjected to any very grievous extortion or annoyance. The distances of London, even to the inhabitants of the largest continental capital, appear, enormous. In addition to this evil, which is irremediable, it must be remembered that the uniformity in the appearance of our streets renders it a task of very great difficulty for any but a well-seasoned Londoner to find his way from one corner of the town to another. Foreigners are under the absolute necessity of relying upon public conveyances -- omnibuses, cabs, and the like. As far as the omnibuses are concerned, we are not aware that much can be done, beyond enforcing it as a peremptory rule that notice shall be given in some unmistakable manner of the points at which half-fares end and whole fares begin. Even if a certain degree of imposition is inevitable under this head, at least we have the comfortable reflection that it cannot exceed 3d. in amount.
Omnibuses besides will always contain a certain sprinkling of London passengers, who, it is to be hoped, will stand between our visitors and any very outrageous act of rascality. With cabs and cab-drivers it is otherwise. It is to this point we would especially call attention, for much may be done to simplify the regulations by which the drivers of these vehicles are at present bound. As matters stand at present it is almost impossible even for a Londoner to avoid imposition. Who but Mr. MOGG, or his chief employs, is in a condition accurately to determine, at a moment's warning, the exact distance from Finsbury-circus to Ebury-street, Pimlico? Or from Old Cavendish-street to St. Clement's, in the Strand? A Londoner, even, is at his wits' end, and is well content to pay one-third above the legitimate fare in order to escape present importunity and future vexation. Some people have the knack of arriving at an approximation to the correct fare by timing the driver by their watches. These nervous travellers never fail to strike a preliminary bargain, and thus by acquiescing in a certain amount of imposition at least secure themselves against exorbitant extortion. It must, however, be evident that all expedients of this kind are out of the question for foreigners. Their ignorance of the language -- the impossibility of ascertaining whether or no the cab-driver has taken the shortest road from point to point -- entirely preclude, as far as they are concerned, any such precautions for their security. We should add that their natural reluctance to have recourse to the police tribunals of the country crowns their difficulties, and places them entirely at the mercy of the cab-driver.
It would be impossible to devise any complete remedy for this grievance. One or two suggestions, however, are evident enough, which would go far to bring it within more tolerable measure. In the first place, milestones and half mile-stones might readily be erected along the course of the principal thoroughfares, which would serve to regulate the judgement of the passenger, and to moderate the extortion of the driver. The arrangement of course labours under two obvious defects. In the first place, the distance posts must of necessity be confined to the chief thoroughfare; and it is not always that a man's business lies on the great parallels of the town. Still, foreigners would derive a certain degree of assistance from such an arrangement; for they, more probably than Londoners, would travel mainly on the principal thoroughfares. It might too be a cab-driver's good pleasure to gratify his "fare" with a more extensive circuit of the town than would be absolutely necessary in accomplishing the distance from point to point. In this case the distance-posts would only serve to establish the exact amount of rascality. Again, the legitimate fare of 8d. per mile is not only exorbitant in itself, but it is a handle for additional imposition. Does that man live who ever yet paid eightpence to a cab-driver in satisfaction for all demands? The 8d. becomes 1s.; and the 1s. an inevitable 18d. Sixpence a-mile, and no more, should be the limit of the tariff. As far as the cab-drivers and cab proprietors themselves are concerned, the change would be most beneficial to their interests. Half-a-dozen persons would willingly avail themselves of their vehicles in such a case, where only one person does so, and that reluctantly, under the present regulations. Let us say, in conclusion, that something like a system of inspection should be introduced to improve the condition of our public carriages in point of cleanliness and arrangement. With the honourable exception of the HANSOM cabs, they are incomparably the filthiest and worst appointed public vehicles to be found in any European capital.