“Mr Weller’s knowledge of London was extensive and peculiar” Pickwick
I was invited to a meeting of the Social History Group to be a ‘fly on the wall’ so I sat at the back of the hall and tried to be inconspicuous. This proved to be impossible, as group leader Terry Cook likes to involve everyone in his meetings. At this meeting he had chosen to read excerpts from an interesting book entitled “Charles Dickens London Guide 1879 – A Fascinating Guide to Victorian London”, written by Charles Dickens, the younger. As stated in the book it is a Dictionary of London: An Unconventional Handbook”. It was a book for the capital’s well-heeled inhabitants and visitors. It was first published in 1879 and was updated and reprinted every year until the author’s death, from 1880 (the second year) to the final 1896–1897 edition (the eighteenth year).
The book entries were in alphabetical order, so Terry started in the ‘A’s with Archery closely followed in the ‘B’s with Beggars and how to deal with them – ‘to get rid of your beggar when wearisome, if he be English, take no notice of him at all. If your tormentor be an Italian, lift your forefinger, knuckle upwards, to the level of your wrist, as it hangs by your side, and wag it twice or thrice from side to side. Your Italian, who will take no other negative, accepts that instantly’ – try it at home!! But first the question is ‘how do you know he is Italian?’
Then there was advice about Dress – ‘if you wish to go into the park during parade hours in the season, to the ‘Zoo’ on Sunday afternoons, the Horticultural Gardens, or any other fashionable resort, gloves, chimney-pot hat, orthodox morning coat are still essential. As to evening dress don’t wear a scarlet opera coat, if you can help it’. These caused much hilarity amongst the group and banter and ideas went to and fro across the room. The question of cost arose, as most people in those times didn’t have the money to buy the dress requirements for the above. Well the book covered that eventuality and at the back were adverts for hiring such garments – also pretty costly everyone agreed. It must be stressed that Charles Dickens the younger had written in the introduction that all adverts were non-paying – I don’t know why he thought it important to make that point.
Many topics were discussed: railways, cures for black eyes, music halls and many more and it was noticeable how knowledgeable the members of the group were as they batted questions and answers to one another. The latter pages of the book listed distances from locations such as Abbey Road to other roads, hospitals, railway stations etc. and were precisely recorded in miles and yards. The group wondered how Dickens managed to achieve so much information and concluded that there was a myriad of small boys out on the streets of London pacing out the miles and yards.
At the next meeting member Jimmy Cromar gave an informative and at times humorous talk on rural social life in Rhodesia in the 1950’s, and as he lived there his knowledge comes from his own experience. He covered topics including the early telephone system, superstition, medicine men, some of the uses of mealie (maize – a staple food that could also be used to make homebrew beer) and family life and the role of women. He also brought along some African embroidery and wood carvings – one in particular with a complicated and intricate design.
It was a lovely way to spend a couple of hours. Terry says there is room for more people in the group and all U3A members are welcome: I think you will find it very rewarding. The group meets on the 3rd Friday monthly at the museum at 2.30pm and costs £1 per meeting.
Terry announced that May’s ‘teasing’ topic is ‘Have a Fab time with Paddy in your 1950’s Home’.