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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Uncommercial Traveller - Chapter XXV - THE BOILED BEEF OF NEW ENGLAND
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The Uncommercial Traveller - Chapter XXV - THE BOILED BEEF OF NEW ENGLAND Post by :elion Category :Essays Author :Charles Dickens Date :February 2011 Read :2162

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The Uncommercial Traveller - Chapter XXV - THE BOILED BEEF OF NEW ENGLAND

The shabbiness of our English capital, as compared with Paris,
Bordeaux, Frankfort, Milan, Geneva--almost any important town on
the continent of Europe--I find very striking after an absence of
any duration in foreign parts. London is shabby in contrast with
Edinburgh, with Aberdeen, with Exeter, with Liverpool, with a
bright little town like Bury St. Edmunds. London is shabby in
contrast with New York, with Boston, with Philadelphia. In detail,
one would say it can rarely fail to be a disappointing piece of
shabbiness, to a stranger from any of those places. There is
nothing shabbier than Drury-lane, in Rome itself. The meanness of
Regent-street, set against the great line of Boulevards in Paris,
is as striking as the abortive ugliness of Trafalgar-square, set
against the gallant beauty of the Place de la Concorde. London is
shabby by daylight, and shabbier by gaslight. No Englishman knows
what gaslight is, until he sees the Rue de Rivoli and the Palais
Royal after dark.

The mass of London people are shabby. The absence of distinctive
dress has, no doubt, something to do with it. The porters of the
Vintners' Company, the draymen, and the butchers, are about the
only people who wear distinctive dresses; and even these do not
wear them on holidays. We have nothing which for cheapness,
cleanliness, convenience, or picturesqueness, can compare with the
belted blouse. As to our women;--next Easter or Whitsuntide, look
at the bonnets at the British Museum or the National Gallery, and
think of the pretty white French cap, the Spanish mantilla, or the
Genoese mezzero.

Probably there are not more second-hand clothes sold in London than
in Paris, and yet the mass of the London population have a second-
hand look which is not to be detected on the mass of the Parisian
population. I think this is mainly because a Parisian workman does
not in the least trouble himself about what is worn by a Parisian
idler, but dresses in the way of his own class, and for his own
comfort. In London, on the contrary, the fashions descend; and you
never fully know how inconvenient or ridiculous a fashion is, until
you see it in its last descent. It was but the other day, on a
race-course, that I observed four people in a barouche deriving
great entertainment from the contemplation of four people on foot.
The four people on foot were two young men and two young women; the
four people in the barouche were two young men and two young women.
The four young women were dressed in exactly the same style; the
four young men were dressed in exactly the same style. Yet the two
couples on wheels were as much amused by the two couples on foot,
as if they were quite unconscious of having themselves set those
fashions, or of being at that very moment engaged in the display of
them.

Is it only in the matter of clothes that fashion descends here in
London--and consequently in England--and thence shabbiness arises?
Let us think a little, and be just. The 'Black Country' round
about Birmingham, is a very black country; but is it quite as black
as it has been lately painted? An appalling accident happened at
the People's Park near Birmingham, this last July, when it was
crowded with people from the Black Country--an appalling accident
consequent on a shamefully dangerous exhibition. Did the
shamefully dangerous exhibition originate in the moral blackness of
the Black Country, and in the Black People's peculiar love of the
excitement attendant on great personal hazard, which they looked on
at, but in which they did not participate? Light is much wanted in
the Black Country. O we are all agreed on that. But, we must not
quite forget the crowds of gentlefolks who set the shamefully
dangerous fashion, either. We must not quite forget the
enterprising Directors of an Institution vaunting mighty
educational pretences, who made the low sensation as strong as they
possibly could make it, by hanging the Blondin rope as high as they
possibly could hang it. All this must not be eclipsed in the
Blackness of the Black Country. The reserved seats high up by the
rope, the cleared space below it, so that no one should be smashed
but the performer, the pretence of slipping and falling off, the
baskets for the feet and the sack for the head, the photographs
everywhere, and the virtuous indignation nowhere--all this must not
be wholly swallowed up in the blackness of the jet-black country.

Whatsoever fashion is set in England, is certain to descend. This
is a text for a perpetual sermon on care in setting fashions. When
you find a fashion low down, look back for the time (it will never
be far off) when it was the fashion high up. This is the text for
a perpetual sermon on social justice. From imitations of Ethiopian
Serenaders, to imitations of Prince's coats and waistcoats, you
will find the original model in St. James's Parish. When the
Serenaders become tiresome, trace them beyond the Black Country;
when the coats and waistcoats become insupportable, refer them to
their source in the Upper Toady Regions.

Gentlemen's clubs were once maintained for purposes of savage party
warfare; working men's clubs of the same day assumed the same
character. Gentlemen's clubs became places of quiet inoffensive
recreation; working men's clubs began to follow suit. If working
men have seemed rather slow to appreciate advantages of combination
which have saved the pockets of gentlemen, and enhanced their
comforts, it is because working men could scarcely, for want of
capital, originate such combinations without help; and because help
has not been separable from that great impertinence, Patronage.
The instinctive revolt of his spirit against patronage, is a
quality much to be respected in the English working man. It is the
base of the base of his best qualities. Nor is it surprising that
he should be unduly suspicious of patronage, and sometimes
resentful of it even where it is not, seeing what a flood of washy
talk has been let loose on his devoted head, or with what
complacent condescension the same devoted head has been smoothed
and patted. It is a proof to me of his self-control that he never
strikes out pugilistically, right and left, when addressed as one
of 'My friends,' or 'My assembled friends;' that he does not become
inappeasable, and run amuck like a Malay, whenever he sees a biped
in broadcloth getting on a platform to talk to him; that any
pretence of improving his mind, does not instantly drive him out of
his mind, and cause him to toss his obliging patron like a mad
bull.

For, how often have I heard the unfortunate working man lectured,
as if he were a little charity-child, humid as to his nasal
development, strictly literal as to his Catechism, and called by
Providence to walk all his days in a station in life represented on
festive occasions by a mug of warm milk-and-water and a bun! What
popguns of jokes have these ears tingled to hear let off at him,
what asinine sentiments, what impotent conclusions, what spelling-
book moralities, what adaptations of the orator's insufferable
tediousness to the assumed level of his understanding! If his
sledge-hammers, his spades and pick-axes, his saws and chisels, his
paint-pots and brushes, his forges, furnaces, and engines, the
horses that he drove at his work, and the machines that drove him
at his work, were all toys in one little paper box, and he the baby
who played with them, he could not have been discoursed to, more
impertinently and absurdly than I have heard him discoursed to
times innumerable. Consequently, not being a fool or a fawner, he
has come to acknowledge his patronage by virtually saying: 'Let me
alone. If you understand me no better than THAT, sir and madam,
let me alone. You mean very well, I dare say, but I don't like it,
and I won't come here again to have any more of it.'

Whatever is done for the comfort and advancement of the working man
must be so far done by himself as that it is maintained by himself.
And there must be in it no touch of condescension, no shadow of
patronage. In the great working districts, this truth is studied
and understood. When the American civil war rendered it necessary,
first in Glasgow, and afterwards in Manchester, that the working
people should be shown how to avail themselves of the advantages
derivable from system, and from the combination of numbers, in the
purchase and the cooking of their food, this truth was above all
things borne in mind. The quick consequence was, that suspicion
and reluctance were vanquished, and that the effort resulted in an
astonishing and a complete success.

Such thoughts passed through my mind on a July morning of this
summer, as I walked towards Commercial Street (not Uncommercial
Street), Whitechapel. The Glasgow and Manchester system had been
lately set a-going there, by certain gentlemen who felt an interest
in its diffusion, and I had been attracted by the following hand-
bill printed on rose-coloured paper:


SELF-SUPPORTING
COOKING DEPOT
FOR THE WORKING CLASSES

Commercial-street, Whitechapel,
Where Accommodation is provided for Dining comfortably
300 Persons at a time.

Open from 7 A.M. till 7 P.M.

PRICES.

All Articles of the BEST QUALITY.

Cup of Tea or Coffee One Penny
Bread and Butter One Penny
Bread and Cheese One Penny
Slice of bread One half-penny or
One Penny
Boiled Egg One Penny
Ginger Beer One Penny

The above Articles always ready.

Besides the above may be had, from 12 to 3 o'clock,

Bowl of Scotch Broth One Penny
Bowl of Soup One Penny
Plate of Potatoes One Penny
Plate of Minced Beef Twopence
Plate of Cold Beef Twopence
Plate of Cold Ham Twopence
Plate of Plum Pudding or Rice One Penny

As the Economy of Cooking depends greatly upon the simplicity of
the arrangements with which a great number of persons can be served
at one time, the Upper Room of this Establishment will be
especially set apart for a

PUBLIC DINNER EVERY DAY

From 12 till 3 o'clock,

Consisting of the following Dishes:

Bowl of Broth, or Soup,
Plate of Cold Beef or Ham,
Plate of Potatoes,
Plum Pudding, or Rice.

FIXED CHARGE 4.5d.

THE DAILY PAPERS PROVIDED.

N.B.--This Establishment is conducted on the strictest business
principles, with the full intention of making it self-supporting,
so that every one may frequent it with a feeling of perfect
independence.

The assistance of all frequenting the Depot is confidently expected
in checking anything interfering with the comfort, quiet, and
regularity of the establishment.

Please do not destroy this Hand Bill, but hand it to some other
person whom it may interest.


The Self-Supporting Cooking Depot (not a very good name, and one
would rather give it an English one) had hired a newly-built
warehouse that it found to let; therefore it was not established in
premises specially designed for the purpose. But, at a small cost
they were exceedingly well adapted to the purpose: being light,
well ventilated, clean, and cheerful. They consisted of three
large rooms. That on the basement story was the kitchen; that on
the ground floor was the general dining-room; that on the floor
above was the Upper Room referred to in the hand-bill, where the
Public Dinner at fourpence-halfpenny a head was provided every day.
The cooking was done, with much economy of space and fuel, by
American cooking-stoves, and by young women not previously, brought
up as cooks; the walls and pillars of the two dining-rooms were
agreeably brightened with ornamental colours; the tables were
capable of accommodating six or eight persons each; the attendants
were all young women, becomingly and neatly dressed, and dressed
alike. I think the whole staff was female, with the exception of
the steward or manager.

My first inquiries were directed to the wages of this staff;
because, if any establishment claiming to be self-supporting, live
upon the spoliation of anybody or anything, or eke out a feeble
existence by poor mouths and beggarly resources (as too many so-
called Mechanics' Institutions do), I make bold to express my
Uncommercial opinion that it has no business to live, and had
better die. It was made clear to me by the account books, that
every person employed was properly paid. My next inquiries were
directed to the quality of the provisions purchased, and to the
terms on which they were bought. It was made equally clear to me
that the quality was the very best, and that all bills were paid
weekly. My next inquiries were directed to the balance-sheet for
the last two weeks--only the third and fourth of the
establishment's career. It was made equally clear to me, that
after everything bought was paid for, and after each week was
charged with its full share of wages, rent and taxes, depreciation
of plant in use, and interest on capital at the rate of four per
cent. per annum, the last week had yielded a profit of (in round
numbers) one pound ten; and the previous week a profit of six
pounds ten. By this time I felt that I had a healthy appetite for
the dinners.

It had just struck twelve, and a quick succession of faces had
already begun to appear at a little window in the wall of the
partitioned space where I sat looking over the books. Within this
little window, like a pay-box at a theatre, a neat and brisk young
woman presided to take money and issue tickets. Every one coming
in must take a ticket. Either the fourpence-halfpenny ticket for
the upper room (the most popular ticket, I think), or a penny
ticket for a bowl of soup, or as many penny tickets as he or she
choose to buy. For three penny tickets one had quite a wide range
of choice. A plate of cold boiled beef and potatoes; or a plate of
cold ham and potatoes; or a plate of hot minced beef and potatoes;
or a bowl of soup, bread and cheese, and a plate of plum-pudding.
Touching what they should have, some customers on taking their
seats fell into a reverie--became mildly distracted--postponed
decision, and said in bewilderment, they would think of it. One
old man I noticed when I sat among the tables in the lower room,
who was startled by the bill of fare, and sat contemplating it as
if it were something of a ghostly nature. The decision of the boys
was as rapid as their execution, and always included pudding.

There were several women among the diners, and several clerks and
shopmen. There were carpenters and painters from the neighbouring
buildings under repair, and there were nautical men, and there
were, as one diner observed to me, 'some of most sorts.' Some were
solitary, some came two together, some dined in parties of three or
four, or six. The latter talked together, but assuredly no one was
louder than at my club in Pall-Mall. One young fellow whistled in
rather a shrill manner while he waited for his dinner, but I was
gratified to observe that he did so in evident defiance of my
Uncommercial individuality. Quite agreeing with him, on
consideration, that I had no business to be there, unless I dined
like the rest, 'I went in,' as the phrase is, for fourpence-
halfpenny.

The room of the fourpence-halfpenny banquet had, like the lower
room, a counter in it, on which were ranged a great number of cold
portions ready for distribution. Behind this counter, the fragrant
soup was steaming in deep cans, and the best-cooked of potatoes
were fished out of similar receptacles. Nothing to eat was touched
with his hand. Every waitress had her own tables to attend to. As
soon as she saw a new customer seat himself at one of her tables,
she took from the counter all his dinner--his soup, potatoes, meat,
and pudding--piled it up dexterously in her two hands, set it
before him, and took his ticket. This serving of the whole dinner
at once, had been found greatly to simplify the business of
attendance, and was also popular with the customers: who were thus
enabled to vary the meal by varying the routine of dishes:
beginning with soup-to-day, putting soup in the middle to-morrow,
putting soup at the end the day after to-morrow, and ringing
similar changes on meat and pudding. The rapidity with which every
new-comer got served, was remarkable; and the dexterity with which
the waitresses (quite new to the art a month before) discharged
their duty, was as agreeable to see, as the neat smartness with
which they wore their dress and had dressed their hair.

If I seldom saw better waiting, so I certainly never ate better
meat, potatoes, or pudding. And the soup was an honest and stout
soup, with rice and barley in it, and 'little matters for the teeth
to touch,' as had been observed to me by my friend below stairs
already quoted. The dinner-service, too, was neither conspicuously
hideous for High Art nor for Low Art, but was of a pleasant and
pure appearance. Concerning the viands and their cookery, one last
remark. I dined at my club in Pall-Mall aforesaid, a few days
afterwards, for exactly twelve times the money, and not half as
well.

The company thickened after one o'clock struck, and changed pretty
quickly. Although experience of the place had been so recently
attainable, and although there was still considerable curiosity out
in the street and about the entrance, the general tone was as good
as could be, and the customers fell easily into the ways of the
place. It was clear to me, however, that they were there to have
what they paid for, and to be on an independent footing. To the
best of my judgment, they might be patronised out of the building
in a month. With judicious visiting, and by dint of being
questioned, read to, and talked at, they might even be got rid of
(for the next quarter of a century) in half the time.

This disinterested and wise movement is fraught with so many
wholesome changes in the lives of the working people, and with so
much good in the way of overcoming that suspicion which our own
unconscious impertinence has engendered, that it is scarcely
gracious to criticise details as yet; the rather, because it is
indisputable that the managers of the Whitechapel establishment
most thoroughly feel that they are upon their honour with the
customers, as to the minutest points of administration. But,
although the American stoves cannot roast, they can surely boil one
kind of meat as well as another, and need not always circumscribe
their boiling talents within the limits of ham and beef. The most
enthusiastic admirer of those substantials, would probably not
object to occasional inconstancy in respect of pork and mutton:
or, especially in cold weather, to a little innocent trifling with
Irish stews, meat pies, and toads in holes. Another drawback on
the Whitechapel establishment, is the absence of beer. Regarded
merely as a question of policy, it is very impolitic, as having a
tendency to send the working men to the public-house, where gin is
reported to be sold. But, there is a much higher ground on which
this absence of beer is objectionable. It expresses distrust of
the working man. It is a fragment of that old mantle of patronage
in which so many estimable Thugs, so darkly wandering up and down
the moral world, are sworn to muffle him. Good beer is a good
thing for him, he says, and he likes it; the Depot could give it
him good, and he now gets it bad. Why does the Depot not give it
him good? Because he would get drunk. Why does the Depot not let
him have a pint with his dinner, which would not make him drunk?
Because he might have had another pint, or another two pints,
before he came. Now, this distrust is an affront, is exceedingly
inconsistent with the confidence the managers express in their
hand-bills, and is a timid stopping-short upon the straight
highway. It is unjust and unreasonable, also. It is unjust,
because it punishes the sober man for the vice of the drunken man.
It is unreasonable, because any one at all experienced in such
things knows that the drunken workman does not get drunk where he
goes to eat and drink, but where he goes to drink--expressly to
drink. To suppose that the working man cannot state this question
to himself quite as plainly as I state it here, is to suppose that
he is a baby, and is again to tell him in the old wearisome,
condescending, patronising way that he must be goody-poody, and do
as he is toldy-poldy, and not be a manny-panny or a voter-poter,
but fold his handy-pandys, and be a childy-pildy.

I found from the accounts of the Whitechapel Self-Supporting
Cooking Depot, that every article sold in it, even at the prices I
have quoted, yields a certain small profit! Individual speculators
are of course already in the field, and are of course already
appropriating the name. The classes for whose benefit the real
depots are designed, will distinguish between the two kinds of
enterprise.

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