Arthur William À Beckett.

The à Becketts of Punch; memories of father and sons online

. (page 6 of 21)
Online LibraryArthur William À BeckettThe à Becketts of Punch; memories of father and sons → online text (page 6 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

commended me to prepare for the necessary examin-
ations with the assistance of my father's Comic
Blackstone, and I had practical experience of the



value of such a text book. In like manner, when
a schoolboy I had " floored " my exams, in
English history with the assistance of my father's
Co7nic History. So I undertook the commission,
and with the help of Mr. Harry Furniss, who
supplied some excellent illustrations, turned out a
new edition that was not only passed by the
professional papers as " all right," but extorted
the admiration of my old uncle, Thomas Turner
a Beckett, in Australia. This relative of mine
had reached and passed his eightieth year, but
still was able to write. He told me that he
thought the work capital, and was sure that his
younger brother (my father) would have ap-
proved of it. Of course, after a pause of thirty
years, there was much to revise. But, strange to
say, there was one subject in which I noted little
change. The " Irish Question " was then almost
at its worst. All I had to do to bring my father's
volume thoroughly up to date was to substitute
" Home Rule " for " Repeal," and the name of
Charles Stuart Parnell for that of Daniel O'Con-
nell. The work was a labour of love. My father
delighted in puns — ^witticisms now entirely out of
fashion — but his puns were of superior quality.
I can't say that I am particularly fond of puns
myself. Thank goodness they are now out of
fashion, so it is unnecessary to summon a smile to
greet these ancient subjects for merriment. From
this it will be held I was not entirely out of
sympathy with Dr. Johnson when he discovered



the connexion between pun-making and larceny.
My recollections of the Punch staff, as in-
scribed on my memory by my father, are of the
pleasantest. In spite of the " hard knocks " that
occasionally were given at the table, there was a
loving camaraderie that existed far beyond the
walls of Bouverie Street. There were two
men at the Punch table when I was called to that
hospitable board who had sat there in the presence
of my father. One has since that date, nearly
thirty years ago, joined the great majority, but
the other still, thank God, lives, and is as cheery
and delightful as ever. The first was the late
Percival Leigh, author of the Comic Latin and
English Grammars^ whose tribute to my father's
kindly humour was grateful to his son's ears. The
second was Sir John Tenniel, who also testified
to my father's popularity. He quarrelled with
no one, but loved his confreres. He was on the
most intimate terms of friendship with the pro-
prietors, the Bradburys and the Evans of the past.
My dear friend, William Bradbury, about whom
I have told the anecdote of my unexpected rise
in salary, was the contemporary of my brother
Gilbert, and my father took the two boys with
him on one occasion to Paris. Under my father's
guidance I grew up with a love of Punch that to
this day I remember. The Punch of the mighty
dead, of Thackeray, and Jerrold, and Leech, and
Gilbert Abbott a Beckett. The echoes from the
room that contained the table used to reach my
ears when I was a small boy walking with my


father to his court, or talking at the breakfast
table before we started. And those echoes were
always of a pleasant character. I cannot help
thinking that the original staff were perhaps
pleasanter companions than those of a later
date, because they were personal friends ; they (to
use the old school phrase) " knew one another
when they were at home." And I was sufficiently
fortunate to join the staff at the invitation of Tom
Tajdor when some of the old staff, and all the old
esprit de corps, remained. Later on I shall show
how I came to join the board of the paper that my
father helped to found.

Looking through the pages of Punch, it is
interesting to note how the paper gradually
changed its character from the journal of Bo-
hemia to the mouthpiece of Mayfair. Taking the
original staff, we have Henry Mayhew, journalist
and dramatist ; Gilbert Abbott a Beckett, drama-
tist and journalist ; Stirling Coyne, ditto ; Douglas
Jerrold, ditto ; Leech, medical student ; Percival
Leigh, young surgeon ; and Mark Lemon, licensed
victualler, with a soul high above hotels. So the
fashion of the hour was " Bohemia." It was an
affectation like the affectation of a celebrated
literary club that, when I belonged to it forty
years ago, rejoiced in " shirt sleeves, pewters, and
churchwardens," and like the affectation of
another distinguished comic paper still flourish-
ing, which did its best, and still does its best, to
persuade the public that the very clever staff
were and are composed of earnest anti "blue



ribbandists." So when Punch started, the order
of the day was " the fun of Bohemia." My father,
whose hand was well in with his numberless
burlesques, wrote "Songs for the Sentimental"
and " Songs for the Seedy." They both went
well, and were very popular. I remember one
which was quoted to me when I was a schoolboy,
and the master who referred to it was trying to
get me to use my influence to get his own jokes
inserted in Punch. It was the story of a poor
fellow who had been thrown over by his lady love,
and who was anxious to return the presents that
she had given him in happier hours. He sends
back gifts of minor value, but when he comes to a
handsome scarfpin he explains that he cannot
return it, for he has it no longer in his possession —

But, base deceiver, here 's the ticket !

Then comes the history of Briefless, to
which I have referred, showing the struggling side
of a barrister's life. In the politics of the paper I
easily note the influence of Douglas Jerrold. The
brilliant satirist was a democrat of democrats,
and his ideal was the perfect working man. He
had a feeling of respect for the representative of
labour which I do not think my father shared.
Then there was the tradition of the past that
spared neither the highest nor the lowest. Seeing
Mr. Punch now in his courtly attire, one almost
shudders at the daring of some of his earlier
cartoons. Loyalty to the Throne has been the
guiding star of all those, without an exception,



who have ever sat at the Punch table, but for the
first quarter of a century of his existence the sage
of Fleet Street, as he used to call himself before
he surrendered the historical "85," reserved to
himself the right of criticizing the actions of even
the most exalted personages. But from the first
Punch was wholesome. In spite of his love
for the pipes, shirt sleeves, and pewters, he
appreciated talent and taste. The medical
students at the table, as they grew older (and
they matured quickly) had higher aspirations
than those suggested by the removal of a knocker
or a street row with the police. Then my father,
as a member of the Bar, was not too pleased to be
tied down to the level of the tavern. Freedom
from the thraldom of fads came with Thackeray's
appearance at the table. Thackeray was a strong
man, and had the courage of his opinions. Those
opinions were that Punch could be comic without
descending to the jokes of the pawnshop and the
public house. In these views he received the
support of my father, Leech, Percival Leigh, and
Mark Lemon. To put it concisely. Punch threw
off his street rags to don evening dress of the best
cut. Since the date to which I refer the London
representative of the Parisian Charivari has been
a consistent courtier and the most exemplary of
men. It is true, as has been recently pointed out,
he ventured to lecture her late Majesty for re-
tiring from public life after the death of the
lamented Prince Consort. Still, he was in good
company. He followed the lead of The Times,



and was in step with another comic pubUca-
tion of the period. But Thackeray gave the
tone to the paper which has lasted to the present
day. The old staff has completely passed away.
Even Sir John Tenniel, who sat beside my father
for five years, did not join Punch until the tenth
year of its existence. I have ventured to join
recollections of my father with my own. The
Punch creed, as it was taught me by Gilbert
Abbott a Beckett, was perfect loyalty to the
paper, which included proprietors and staff. It
was high treason to put anything before their
interests. But the Punch creed included some-
thing in the interest of the disciple. It was the
tradition of the Punch men — staff and pro-
prietors — to stand shoulder to shoulder together.
For my father's sake I revere the names of
Thackeray, Jerrold, and Leech ; and I also, for his
sake, honour the names of Evans and Bradbury.
As we live in an age of anecdotage, I might
follow the precedent of my friend, Mr. M. H.
Spielmann, and give stories of what happened at
the Punch dinner in the earlier days of its exist-
ence. The old tradition was to keep the vie
intime sacred, but with the appearance of The
History of Punch (written with the full ap-
probation of publishers and staff) the veil has
been drawn aside to display the sanctuary. Save
as regards my father's share in the founding of
Punch, I am quite satisfied to leave the History
with its picture of life at the table and other details
uncriticized. No doubt the dinners of the past



were as cheery and delightful as those of the
present. I see that in his book Mr. Spielmann
gives the description of a dinner in which Horace
Mayhew and Professor Leigh are the chief con-
versationalists. I knew Horace Mayhew, as I have
already written, very well. He was the god-
father of my younger brother, Walter Horace
Callender a Beckett, and the kindest of fellows.
On my brother's birthday he always sent him a
book of some kind. One was The Peasant Boy
Philosopher , written, I fancy, by his brother,
Henry Mayhew. I remember meeting him once
at Evans', when he was chatting with Sydney
Blanchard, who has been credited with the
thought of wanting to start a Comic 'Punch.'
" You know," said Sydney, who was proud of
being a militiaman (by the way, he belonged
with me to the same regiment, the King's Own
Light Infantry), " I had a good deal to do, when
I was in Calcutta, with the Indian Mutiny." " Of
course you had, my boy," replied '* Ponny."
"Why, you were the cause of it!" But in spite
of this repartee, I do not remember "Ponny"
as much of a conversationalist, and as to the Pro-
fessor he was certainly rather silent than other-
wise. By the way, here again I can give a story
that redounds to the credit of the proprietors of
the past. From the year 1881, when I acted as
remplacement to the present editor, it was my
duty to serve as locum tenens during his absence.
I performed the duties with a certain amount of
reluctance, as dear old Professor had done the



same service to Tom Taylor, the present editor's
predecessor. But, truth to tell, the Professor
was really not equal to the work, for his years
were threescore and ten. I have been told by
experts that a man, to be thoroughly efficient for
the task, should be not more than five-and-fifty,
and should be full of new ideas. Well, the first
time I undertook the task of editing Punch
tout seul my dear old friend, the Professor,
wrote me the kindest letter congratulating me on
my successful performance. Really and truly,
my father's old friend had written himself out.
He used to send in, week after week, the cus-
tomary amount of copy — short articles, two-
line paragraphs, nice little *' junks " of verses.
But his contributions were Dead Sea fruit, faded
flowers ; they could only be most sparingly used.
They were duly set up and added to the slips of
the " overset." But not five per cent, of the
matter was ever used. Still, in spite of the real
impossibility of his copy, the then proprietors
of Punch raised his salary a few years before his
death, on account of his long service. He was
the doctor of our staff, and gave Tom Taylor
warning of that serious illness which ended in
his death. Tom Taylor, who lived in Lavender
Sweep, complained of a pain in his foot. Hurrying
to catch the train to be in time for the Punch
dinner, he injured his leg. The Professor ex-
amined it, and ordered his editor to go home at
once and have the limb examined by his medical
attendant. Percival Leigh was so peremptory



in his command that Tom Taylor obeyed. My
first editor took to the couch which proved to be
his deathbed. He had a varicose vein, from
which had escaped, during the running to catch
the train, a clot of blood. It was hoped that Tom
Taylor, by keeping on his back, would give the
clot time to be absorbed in the system. But Tom
Taylor, who was a man of great vitality and
energy, insisted upon getting up to fetch a book.
The clot reached my poor friend's heart, and he
died instantly. On another occasion the Pro-
fessor was knocked down by a cab and carried to
a hospital. When he recovered consciousness, he
found himself in the hands of two young doctors.
They were treating him with contempt, for the
dear Professor was not what is technically known
as a " dressy man." He listened to their
diagnosis, and then suddenly observed : " Gentle-
men, you are wrong," and gave a most elaborate
description of the injury, mostly with professional
terms. The young doctors were astonished
beyond measure. But their amazement was
exchanged for admiration when they found their
patient was an alumnus of " Bart's." And here,
by the way, when I once had to see Sir James
Paget, I spoke to him of my old Professor. " Perci-
val Leigh," said Sir James, " was with me at
* Bart's.' as a brother student. He was the best
man of all of us. If he had stuck to surgery,
instead of writing for Punch, he would have
probably been far ahead of me." And the death
of Tom Taylor recalls to me an incident connected



with the death of another editor of Punchy his
immediate predecessor, Shirley Brooks. I met
Mr. Brooks many years before I had the honour
of being called to the Table — which my friend Mr.
Spielmann describes as the literary and artistic
peerage of Punch — at the house of the present
editor. Mr. Brooks was extremely kind, and had
much to say in praise of my father. But, full of
the traditions of the earlier days of the London
Charivari, I had respect for him, but not that
deepest respect that I reserved for original
members. Mr. Shirley Brooks was compara-
tively, with the older of his colleagues, a new
boy. Not very long after this meeting, Mr,
Brooks went to the sea coast, and, feeling out of
sorts, sent for his doctor, a well-known specialist.
It is said that at this stage there was not much
the matter with him. But the doctor drew a
long face, and thoroughly frightened my father's
friend. '* Do you think I should make my
will ? " asked Brooks. ** Every one should make
his will," was the significant reply. To make a
long story short, Shirley Brooks sickened and
died. Many years later I went to see the same
doctor on my own account. I was accompanied
by my wife. The doctor examined me. " My
poor fellow," said he, " you will have broken
health for the remainder of your life. You may
linger on, but you should be prepared for the
worst." '* Then I had better not undertake to
contest Kinsale ? " I was thinking of seeing if
I could not get into Parliament. ** Contest



Kinsale ! " the doctor exclaimed. " Why, if you
were returned, it would be in your coffin ! " I
saw that this sort of thing was not exactly cheer-
ful to my wife. " Look here, doctor," I said
firmly, " I believe I shall live longer than you. I
will stake five pounds that I shall be living when
you will be dead." I won the bet, but the
executor has never paid the five-pound note ; not
that I blame the executor — no doubt the doctor
had forgotten, or, at any rate, omitted to add the
sum to the list of legacies. In these days of
*' suggestion " it is well to be careful. " Never
say die " is a motto that should be particularly
addressed to a doctor.

As my father had very hard work to get
through, he used to avoid late hours at the Punch
dinner, which in his day commenced at six
o'clock. My friend. Sir John Tenniel, has told
me that very often the staff enjoyed the highest
spirits when the time for breaking up had been
reached. On one occasion the Kensington con-
tingent, which consisted of Leech and Thackeray
and my father, determined to see the latter
home to the house in which he resided, Portland
House, North End, Fulham, or as it now would
be called. West Kensington. On reaching their
destination, an impromptu dance took place in
the garden. " I will now tread a saraband," said
my father. At this moment a voice was heard :
" Gilbert ! " " Yes, dear," said my father, and
without greeting his two friends, quietly dis-
appeared. It is pleasant to me to hear that my



father would unbend on occasions, as he Hves in
my memory as the most genial, and yet the most
dignified of men. He was abstemious to a
degree, and cared nothing about wine, and never
smoked. On one occasion he was given a glass
of '24 port when that vintage had come to mag-
nificent maturity. " You are drinking, sir," said
the host, a rather pompous man, " some of my
best '24 port." " Indeed," returned my father;
" that works out at two shillings a bottle." The
story got about, and my father insisted that he
was absolutely unaware of the real value of the
wine, and had no intention to lessen the im-
portance of the boasting epicure. Filial piety
makes me accept the assurance without question,
the more especially as I know that my father's
favourite beverage was tea, undiluted water, or

Apropos of Portland House, the place of my
birth, I can tell a story which has its interest in
these days of metropolitan development. I have
said that the proposed saraband which was to
have been treaded was to have taken place in the
garden. Portland House, North End, Fulham,
half a century ago, had some very fine pleasure
grounds. To-day, if you look at it, you find it
the corner house of a terrace. In its front are a
number of railway lines, as it is not two hundred
yards distant from the Addison Road Station,
Kensington. It was proposed to start a local
line which, amongst other projects, was to annex
our garden. My father, to use a colloquial



expression, was " full against it," and did his
utmost to prevent its execution. Week after
week appeared attacks upon the objectionable
line, until it came to be known as " Punch's Rail-
way." My father described the erection of the
station and the establishment of the cabstand.
According to Punch, there was so little traffic that
the station-master was wont to grow cabbages
between the sleepers, and train vegetable marrows
along the rails. Then one cab turned up with a
horse and a driver. The next day the driver
disappeared, and the horse stood in his place for
twelve hours. The third day the horse had dis-
appeared with the driver. Then the horseless
cab stood on the cabstand deserted for a fortnight.
At the end of that time the coachman appeared
without a horse and dragged away the cab single-
handed. But the attacks were of no service to
their author. The railway ultimately became
what it now, I believe, still is, the most prosperous
line in the world. If I have not been misin-
formed, that mile of railway in front of Portland
House is leased by some of the leading English
hues, and pays a dividend of enormous propor-
tions on the original stock. My father made up
his mind to give up his house, and removed
further East, taking up his residence in the house
to which I have already referred. No. lo, Hyde
Park Gate, South.

Before turning from the memories of Punch left
me by my father, I cannot help referring to the
last scene of all , which was played in Boulogne-



sur-Mer in August, 1856. It had been an excep-
tionally hot summer. My father and mother had
left us children in the French watering-place
while they took their customary trip in Switzer-
land. We had heard that my father had felt the
heat, and it was determined that instead of going
towards the mountains he should return to the
seaside. My parents rejoined their younger
children, and took up their residence in a house
at the corner of the Rue Victor Hugo, which
stands forth recalling painful memories whenever
I visit Boulogne. In front of it is a water fountain
that still remains in the same condition in which
it existed half a century ago. I remember the
passing of the grand religious procession in front
of our house, and the decking of the windows with
white and blue draperies. At that time my
father was ailing, but well enough to see the pro-
cession, and afterwards to walk up to the haut-
ville and look at the fair. On the Sunday
before, we had met Douglas Jerrold, when the
reconciliation between the two old friends was
completed. In looking through the pages of Mr.
Spielmann's colossal work on Punch I see that he
suggests that Douglas Jerrold was not best
pleased with the success of my father's comic
histories. He had suggested that there might
next be "a Comic Sermon on the Mount." But
Mr Spielmann suggests that this proposal was made
in connexion with Mr. Thackeray's Miss Tickle-
loby's Comic History, and as Dickens agreed with
him, I think there may be something in the sug-

97 G


gestion. Wrote Jerrold to the rival of Michael
Angelo Titmarsh : " Punch, I believe, holds its
course. Nevertheless, I do not very cordially
agree with its new spirit. I am convinced that
the world will get tired (at least I hope so) of this
eternal guffaw at all things. After all, life has
something serious. It cannot all be a comic
history of humanity. Some men would, I believe,
write a comic Sermon on the Mount." And then
he ventured to paint a number of pictures from
English history that could be treated in the
spirit of burlesque. As a matter of fact, neither
of my father's comic histories appeared in Punch,
but were published in monthly numbers after
the fashion of the novels of Charles Dickens. It
is not impossible that Douglas Jerrold may have
not intended to attack my father, but wished
to strike a blow at his lifelong opponent, William
Makepeace Thackeray. But although I am glad
to concede this consideration, still I remember
that my father took to heart that suggestion
about a comic Sermon on the Mount. He was
one of the most reverent and truly religious of
men. Every Sunday in my life I used to march
to All Saints', Ennismore Gardens, where we had
a pew — my father, my sister, and my younger
brother. My mother, who had been brought up
in a convent at Avignon, was not always of the
party. The incumbent was Mr. Harness, who
was described as a friend of Byron. He had
served in the navy, and then entered the Anglican
Church. He was a charming old gentleman, but



a little indistinct in his utterance. \Vhen reading
the tenth commandment he used to refer to the
wickedness of coveting " his sox and his sass."
For years afterwards I used to be particularly
careful to avoid looking at any one's socks, for
fear of coveting them. Even to this day I think
it safer to covet boots. Well, my father was
terribly upset at the suggestion he could be
thought capable of writing a comic Sermon on the
Mount. Until I read Mr. Spielmann's book I
fancied that the proposal appeared in a paper —
in some review of my father's work. I have the
distinctest recollection of hearing my father
referring to it. In his preface, too, he was most
careful to protest against the charge of writing
irreverently. His idea was to test history with
ridicule, so as to distinguish the gold from the
tinsel. Be this as it may, whatever the cause of
quarrel that had existed between my father and
his dear old friend, it had disappeared at that
meeting on the sands of Boulogne — a few days
before my father's death. Douglas Jerrold re-
turned to London, and my parents, my sister,
my little brother, and myself were left at Bou-
logne. I recollect our visit to the fair. We
entered one of the booths, where there was a very
realistic representation, on a small scale, of " The

1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryArthur William À BeckettThe à Becketts of Punch; memories of father and sons → online text (page 6 of 21)