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London at the end of the century : a book of gossip online

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greenroom is brighter and in better taste than it was
in the days of yore. Now that authors (following
the precedent set by Dion Boucicault and Tom
Robertson) have become their own stage managers,
there is less of the " My dearing " that used to shock
the susceptibilities of novices transferred to Bohemia
from Mayfair. The familiarity that breeds contempt
has all but disappeared, and the talk at a rehearsal is
not unlike the conversation of a drawing room in
common form.

THE PROFESSION AT THE CLOSE OF THE CENTURY.

In conclusion, the earnings have improved all round.
The author gets heavier fees, and the proprietor finds
no difficulty in working at a profit. Less than fifty
years ago theatrical property spelt want if not bank-
ruptcy. Webster, Buckstone and Vining died in poor
circumstances. Then Sir Squire Bancroft and his
clever wife, who will always be remembered by old
play-goers as Marie Wilton, seemed to break the
spell. The Bancrofts were succeeded by the
Kendals and John Hare. Then Sir Augustus
Harris did very well. Of late years nearly all
theatres have been open and thriving. Whether
the actor's calling is always to be desired is subject
to debate. Not long ago I met an old friend who



A PEEP INTO STAGELAND. 37

before adopting the stage as a profession had served
in the army. He had been a good-looking fellow
with the manners of a gentleman. With these recom-
mendations to back him he had been engaged over
and over again for " juvenile lead."

" What do you think of the stage as a profession ? "
I asked.

" It would be well enough if it were not for the
* resting.' Here have I been out of an engagement for
two years. I may go home to night and find an en-
gagement open to me, giving me ten or fifteen pounds
a week for a twelvemonth. But then I may not. I
may have to continue indefinitely resting."

" Then you don't consider the stage lucrative ? "
" On the whole, I think, from a financial point of
view, sweeping a crossing is safer. But then, of
course, play-acting is very often pleasanter."

And the speaker was a man who held a foremost
place in the ranks of the profession.



38



CHAPTER V.

PARLIAMENT UP TO DATE.

Because someone called the House of Commons, in
a moment of inspiration, " the best club in London,"
the idea has gone abroad that the life of the repre-
sentative of the people is one of luxurious ease. The
fact that a seat in Parliament never (or scarcely ever)
goes a-begging, has no doubt done much to confirm
the impression. There is a magic in the letters
" M.P." that is particularly attractive to a vast number
of men. To a barrister in good practice with an
ambition to change the wig of the advocate for the
tonsured coiffure of the judge, the position is
necessary. As no Lord Mayor of London can occupy
the Mansion House without having served the ofhce
of Sheriff, so a Q.C. must have worked for his party
before he can hope for the chief seat on the Bench.
Of course, he may not have succeeded in passing the
bar protected by the Serjeant-at-Arms, but at any



PARLIAMENT UP TO DATE. 39

rate, he must have made the attempt. In such a
case as this he will find promotion in India or the
Colonies, if there be no available appointment in the
Mother Country. Then, of course, a Member of
Parliament has special claims to the attention of the
company promoter. A board of directors can never
be considered perfect unless one or two of its members
can carry the glamour of the House into the homes
of the readers of prospectuses. But, after all, those
who materially benefit from their position in St.
Stephen's are comparatively few. The vast majority
of the chosen of the electors enter the House for
" the honour and glory of the thing." It may be
well to show the seamy side of the picture, and prove
(as an Irish member might observe) that even those
of the colleagues of Sir Wilfrid Lawson who do not
share that hon. baronet's objection to stimulants, are
presumably unable to obtain " cakes and ale " ; in
short, the " luxurious ease " of rumour may be trans-
lated into the " terribly hard work " of fact.

THE WORK OF THE HOUSE.

" Idle ! " exclaimed an hon. friend of mine who had
been a member in a couple of Parliaments ; " I only
wish I could be, but the whips and my constituents
keep me well to my work. Unless I gave satisfaction
to both I should not retain my seat at the next



40 LONDON AT END 01^ CENTURY,

election." I suggested that since the estabUshment of
the close at midnight rule, the labour of our legislators
was less than of old. ." Not at all," was his reply.
" We do not (except on occasions) keep such late
hours as we used to do, but then there is a great deal
more to be done outside the House, in the committee
rooms. No, take my word for it, there is no busier
man in the world than a Member of Parliament
desirous of retaining the confidence of his con-
stituents. Of course, if he does not intend standing
at the next election, he can take it easily, but in that
case he must be prepared to run the gauntlet. On
the whole, it would be better to secure the steward-
ship of the ' Chiltern Hundreds,' rather than challenge
the criticism of the party and his particular portion of
the electorate."

A member's morning.

Further conversation suggested to me the idea of
putting myself (in my mind's eye) in his place. I
assume that I am a Member of Parliament resident
in London at the end of the century.

It is eight in the morning, and I have to get
through my duties. I glance at the Orders in the
newspapers to see if there is anything in them of
particular interest to my constituents. If there is, I
must make it a point to be in my place ready to



PARLIAMENT UP TO DATE. 41

speak, if I can but " catch the Speaker's eye." And
here I may remark that the operation is not so simple
as it sounds. I have known it require hints to the
whips and chats with the first commoner himself.
If you desire to address the House you must let your
wish be known. The task of selection rests with the
occupant of the chair, but his decisions are greatly
influenced by the advice of the organizers of the
contending parties, and the personal qualifications of
the would-be orator. If the oration concerns
questions of a technical character, a specialist will
be considered to have special claims on the attention
of the House. The evidence of experts is always held
in reverence at St. Stephen's, but it may be days
before a private member can obtain his opportunity.
A friend of mine, although supported by the influence
of the whips and the good will of the Speaker, had
to wait on one occasion through four sittings before
his time arrived. He had to be continually in his
place on the chance of the chapter of accidents
giving him an earlier hearing. At the fourth sitting
it was intimated to him that Mr. Speaker considered
that he had deserved well of his constituents, and
earned his reward ; this confession was followed
shortly afterwards by the eagerly anticipated capture
of the eye. And then he was able to air his eloquence
in the presence of a house thinned by the dinner hour.



42 LONDON AT END OF CENTURY.

AN M.P.'S CORRESPONDENCE.

I will assume that I am fairly free for this day, at
least. I have no measure associated particularly
with my name " on the carpet," and have only my
ordinary correspondence. If my constituency is an
important one, I have some fifty or a hundred letters
to answer daily. If my division is obscure, I shall
still have about a dozen, and each of these epistles
must be read and studied and carefully answered.
If I had any claims to the title of a " public man,"
I must have a private secretary to assist me. But
in this event I must use discretion. My other self
must only reply to comparative outsiders. If I in-
struct him to answer the wrong people, I may get
myself into trouble. Constituents are usually
" touchy," and the reputation for the lack of courtesy
is frequently the precursor of a sad dearth of votes.
Then I must consider the advisabihty of using " House
paper," in lieu of my own. If my correspondent is in
any sense a personal friend, it is better to reply from
my private address. If he who writes is only a casual
acquaintance or one of the public, I should let my
note be headed with " House of Commons " in em-
bossed characters ; the latter superscription conveys
the impression that the writer is, so to speak, tied
chronically by the leg to Westminster.

I find that my " answers to correspondents " take,



PARLIAMENT UP TO DATE, 43

at the very least, a couple of hours, and now I have
to fix in my social engagements.

I assume that as a speaker in the House I have
been a failure, and am, therefore, not much in request
at public meetings. Under such circumstances, I
shall be free to attend committees, and I may be sure
that my availability (if I may be permitted to use
the word) will not be ignored by those in authority.

IN THE COMMITTEE ROOM.

The House opens for the reception of the
People's representatives at an early hour in the
morning, and many members take their break-
fast in the coffee-room. No doubt I shall have
discussed the matutinal meal at home, so that I have
only to drop into the library or the smoking-room.
In these two apartments I shall find any number of
my colleagues acting (with the assistance of the
stamped stationery) as the living encyclopaedias of
their constituents. Having got through my letter-
writing before leaving home, I shall only have to find
my way to that committee room in which it will be
my fate to breathe until I am released by the chairman
at four o'clock to give my services in another place.
Most of the committee chambers run on the upper
floor along the river front, but since the removal of
the Law Courts from Westminster Hall to the Strand,



44 LONDON AT END OF CENTURY.

there are also apartments devoted to the considera-
tion of Private Bills, besides the " big room of Rufus."
It is in the councils appointed by the House that
a member really works. Every M.P. is obliged to
belong to one or more committees. His only
escape is to be a Member of the Government, and
then he will not avoid being appointed to the chair-
manship of some special committee or other. The
ordinary member during the Session serves, on the
average, four days a week on these councils. If he
shirks his work, he is reported to the Speaker, and
then there are what the French call " Reclamations^
As important interests are at stake, five form a
quorum for a private committee, and if that number
is not maintained, the expense incurred by those
interested, of course, goes for nothing; so it stands
to reason that unless the appointed committee men
keep a house, there must be a good deal of outside
discontent, and outside discontent is the one thine
that representatives of the people regard with genuine
apprehension. Once in a committee room, the
member is bound to stay, as he acts for the day as
one of the judges whose duty it is to inquire into
the merits or demerits of the scheme undergoing
investigation. In some cases there is absolute hard-
ship, as refreshments are not allowed to be served
in the rooms during the holdings of certain com-
mittees. In cases such as these, the fate of the



PARLIAMENT UP TO DATE. 45

member is not unlike that of the jury locked in to
consider a difficult verdict. He must neither eat
nor drink till he has done his duty. Besides the
Private Bill Committees, there are the Grand
Committees of Law and Trade, to which nearly every-
one belongs. In these assembUes 40 form a quorum.
(The number required, too, for keeping a house).

In special committees every constituent is expected
to question the witnesses, and, therefore, has to be
up in its subjects. If by chance the member should
be chairman, then he has to be the chief inquisitor.
However, the secretary (one of the clerks of the
House) will do his best to get a proof from which
the witness can be examined. Sometimes, when a
committee is ordered which is expected to be popular
" outside," there is quite a rush for places, and then
those responsible for its selection have to use a great
deal of tact and discrimination. The proceedings of
such a committee are reported to the newspapers,
and the member consequently obtains the honour
and glory of unlimited publicity. But the vast
majority of councils do their work in silence and
neglect, and seldom are rendered famous by the
conductors of the Press.

" WHO GOES HOME ? "

I will take for granted that until three or four
o'clock I have nobly performed my duty in the



46 LONDON AT END OF CENTURY

committee rooms, and am now at liberty to occupy
my customary seat in the House. For hours I still
sit patiently waiting my opportunity to speak or to
vote. Very frequently I shall receive a summons
in the outer lobby. A card will have been sent to
me (it usually takes about three-quarters of an hour
to get from the hands of the sender to those of its
intended recipient) requesting my attendance without.
A police constable will assist me in the discovery of
my visitor. As a country member I shall be less
troubled than if I represented a London division. It
is on record that, during a single night's sitting, a
metropolitan M.P. was " called for " no less than
eighty times by the electors who had assisted at his
triumph. The hours will crawl on until the hands of
the clock point to midnight ; then, asked by the
attendants the question, " Who goes home ? " I shall
retire to my dwelling (humble or otherwise) and rest
until the new day brings with it fresh labours.

And having written thus far, I feel that I have
scarcely done full justice to my theme ; there are
scores of other duties that have escaped me that a
representative has to perform. To be popular, he
must have the strength of a giant, the intelligence of
a sage, and the patience and kind-heartedness of a
saint.



47



CHAPTER VI.

A NIGHT IN THE HOUSE.

A LITTLE before three o'clock a couple of attendants
stroll in to see that all is in order. Two large prayer
books are placed on the table, and a couple of foot-
stools appear before them. These aids to devotion
are for the use of the Speaker and the Chaplain.
Some dozen members — more or less — take up their
places on the comfortable green leathered lounges
that appear on either side of the canopied chair
reserved for the use of the first commoner in England.
The Reporters' Gallery is vacant, because strangers
are not admitted until prayers are over. It is pre-
sumed that M.P.'s prefer to pray for themselves, and
lesent assistance from without. The Ladies' Gallery
is filled with occupants, dimly seen through the bars
that were placed in position many years ago to keep
wives from threatening their titular lords and masters.
As Big Ben strikes three, Mr. Speaker and the



48 LONDON AT END 01^ CENTURY.

Chaplain enter in procession, and the former stands
in front of his chair, with the latter to the left of
him. The members present remove their hats, stand
up, and turn with their faces to the wall. Then, at
the invitation of Mr. Speaker, the Chaplain reads
three prayers— two of them (those for Her Majesty
and the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the rest
of the Royal family) are in the Book of Common
Prayer — and the third is special to the place and the
occasion. The legislators give up some five minutes
to their devotions, and then the members face about,
sit down, and resume their hats, while the Chaplain
retires gracefully, saluting the Speaker as he backs
into the lobby.

AFTER PRAYERS.

The clerks in their wigs and gowns take their places
at the table, from which the huge tomies have been
removed. The Speaker mounts his throne, and the
Serjeant-at-Arms places the mace in position, opposite
the clerks, and divided from them by works of
reference and a three-minutes' hour-glass. The clock
under the Strangers' Gallery marks a quarter past
three, and " private business " is disposed of. At
this moment the House seems to be, so to speak, in
its dressing-gown or morning slippers. Certainly,
Mr. Speaker is as dignified as ever, but the front bench



A NIGHT IN THE HOUSE. 49

on his right, reserved later on for Ministers, is occupied
by all sorts and conditions of non-official members.
The Government is not particularly interested in
" private business," as a rule, and courtesy takes the
place of opposition. About half an hour is devoted
to this kind of work, and then comes the formula of
presenting petitions. The representative of a con-
stituency briefly describes the purport of the appealing
document with which he has been entrusted, and then
walks to either side of the table and drops it into an
open carpet bag of truly pantomimic dimensions.
The petition is taken as read.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS.

Now arrives the moment for playing one of the
most amusing and sometimes instructive games of
the House — questioning and answering. On the
unbound, unstitched sheets of paper containing the
programme of the business of the sitting, that each
member has received on entering, appears a number
of queries that have to be set at rest by the heads
of the Government. One evening no less than eleven
pages out of sixteen were devoted to these interro-
gations. They numbered eighty-one in all, and
seventeen Ministers were required to be in their
places to answer them, as the following table will
demonstrate : —

4



\



50 LONDON AT END OF CENTURY.

Chief Secretary of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. . . 1 1

Secretary of the Admiralty 9

Secretary of State for the Home Department 8

Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer 8

Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs 7

President of the Local Government Board 6

Secretary for Scotland 6

Under Secretary of State for the Colonies 4

Secretary to the Treasury 4

Secretary of State for War 3

Civil Lord of the Admiralty 3

President of the Board of Agriculture 3

Vice-President of the Committee of the Council on

Education^ 2

Postmaster General 2

Secretary of State for India 2

Mr. Attorney General 2

President of the Board of Trade i



8i



The figures are instructive of the condition of the
House of Commons at the end of the century.
They show that the Irish members ask about
double as many questions as their Scotch colleagues,
and that the Admiralty just now is attracting three
times as much attention as the War Office. It is



A NIGHT IN THE HOUSE. 51

unnecessary to say that the interrogatories have,
during the hours of the morning, been worked
out in the various Government departments. The
private secretaries of the Ministers are responsible
for their masters' enHghtenment. On the very
next evening the questions amounted to only a
couple of dozen, and a strange thing happened ; only
one member appeared to act as interrogator of a
solitary demand, so twenty-three conundrums re-
mained without solutions. Mr. Speaker goes through
the list twice, calling upon the member who has to
put the question by name. This proceeding affords
strangers an opportunity of being acquainted with
the personal characteristics of the representatives
of the people. The questions (which are asked by
merely mentioning their numbers) relate to all
subjects, from the building of an ironclad to the salary
of an Irish Government doorkeeper ; from a lost
postage stamp to a matter of foreign policy of the
most vital importance. By about five o'clock the
question game is over, and then the House fills rapidly.

BEGINNING BUSINESS.

As each member enters, he uncovers and bows to
the Speaker before taking his place, and the obeisance
is performed not in a perfunctory manner, but as if
the representative really respected the recipient of

4*



52 LONDON AT END OF CENTURY.

his salutation. Silk hats are the rule, and wide-
awakes the exception. Frock coats, cut-aways, sacks
and gaiters are the sartorial characteristics of the
chosen of the people. The Serjeant-at-Arms (occa-
sionally relieved by his assistant) sits to the right of
and in the rear of the bar of the House, facing the
Speaker. He is garbed after the fashion of the
eighteenth century in sombre black cloth, with a
white scabbard, sword and steel hilt resting beside
him. Sometimes a member who is " a little late " in
entering the House converses with this imposing
official, and learns from him the latest parliamentary
news. And now, all being in readiness, the most
showy work of the sitting commences in real earnest.
The ex-Ministers, sitting on the first bench to the
left of the Speaker's chair, attack the right hon.
gentlemen opposite. The subjects of the caricaturists
spar and fence, using now the rapier and now the
bludgeon. A " palpable hit " is followed by a roar
of " Hear, hears " from the one side or the other.
The Speaker rests back in his chair, with works of
reference and stationery on either side of him,
and looks steadily at the clock. The first commoner
IS ready to interpose when necessary, but for the
moment has nothing better to do than to gaze at
the green baize board that shields him from the too
powerful glare flashing from the sunlight. The debate
is carried on with more or less vigour until about



A NIGHT IN THE HOUSE, 53

eight, when there is an adjournment for some half-
hour for refreshment. Before this moment arrives
the sunshine had faded from the stained glass
windows, with their mottoes and devices, and the
shaded light of electricity has poured down from the
ceiling.

AFTER DINNER IN THE HOUSE.

On the resumption of " business," members return,
some still in morning dress, and others in the regu-
lation tail coats and white neckties of privileged
West End society. Now and again there is a division.
When this occurs there is a, preliminary trial of
strength. The question is put from the chair, and the
" Ayes " shout out their approval. Then come the
"Noes." "The 'ayes,' I think, 'have it,'" politely
suggests Mr. Speaker. " No, no," shout those of the
contrary opinion. Then the hour-glass, which has
been resting between the mace and the clerks, is put
into requisition. The electric bells begin to ring all
over the House to summon back those who have
strayed away into the library, or the dining saloons
or the smoking rooms. Members flock in, and then
the door is closed by the Serjeant-at-Arms, who
guards it with his sheathed sword, more than ever in
evidence. Tellers are named by Mr. Speaker. The
members file out (" Ayes " to the right, " Noes " to the



54 LONDON AT END OF CENTURY.

left), to be counted. After a pause the doors are
thrown open by the Serjeant-at-Arms. The four
tellers advance in line, dressing from the right. They
halt as they reach the table and bow together, as they
hold in their hands two large sheets of paper. It
looks for a moment as if they purposed commencing
a glee for the special edification of Mr. Speaker.
But no ; all they have to record is the result of the
recent division. This done, they bow again and
scatter. The debate is resumed, and the flow of talk,
sometimes vehement, sometimes terribly monotonous,
continues. The silent members chat sotto voce
among themselves. Notabilities flit hither and thither.
Thus the proceedings continue hour by hour until
the hands of the clock approach midnight. At twelve
sharp comes the beginning of the end. No further
contentious business is allowed. The Speaker,
assisted by his clerk at the table, puts certain orders
of the day. If no one objects, such a Bill is taken as
read a second time, and so on and so on. The list
is soon exhausted, and then the Speaker announces
the adjournment of the House, and leaves his chair.
Stay, there is one more question. In the olden
days, when the people's representatives had to band
together to protect their lives and property from the
assaults of footpads and highwaymen, they used to
be called together by this last interrogatory. The
cry survives, although the occasion for its use has



A NIGHT IN THE HOUSE. 55

passed away with the invention of gas and the estab-
lishment of the modern pohce force. " Who goes
home ? " shout the attendants. The reply is practically
given by the disappearance of everyone.



56



CHAPTER VIL

THE PREMIER CLUB OF ENGLAND.

It may be well to consider whether the House of
Commons is " the best club in London." The Palace
of Westminster has many points of resemblance to
the successors of the old coffee houses. You will find
in it " the very best people," and some less eligible.
There is not a member who has not successfully


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Online LibraryArthur William À BeckettLondon at the end of the century : a book of gossip → online text (page 3 of 19)