SATURDAY NIGHT IN VICTORIAN LONDON

Victorian London was the largest, most spectacular city in the world. While Britain was experiencing the Industrial Revolution, London was both reaping the benefits and suffering the consequences. In 1800, the population of London was around a million. That number would swell to 4.5 million by 1880. While fashionable areas like Regent and Oxford streets were growing in the west, new docks supporting the city’s place as the world’s trade centre were being built in the east. Perhaps the biggest impact on the growth of London was the coming of the railroad in the 1830s, which displaced thousands and sped up the expansion of the city.

Saturday night was an evening where Victorian Londoners could relax, drink, or enjoy themselves by visiting the market, the theatre, or their local ale house. On Saturday nights, London was filled with many fascinating people. Because Saturday nights were so popular, night watchmen stood in circular timber or stone structures (called watch houses) to observe the local happenings, or they patrolled the streets between 9pm until sunrise. During that time, the night watchman called out the hour, kept a lookout for fires or crime, and ensured the safety of pedestrians, vagrants, and drunks. (The night watchmen would not be replaced by officers known affectionately as ‘bobbies’ years later.)

At night the major London streets were lit with gloomy gas lamps. Side streets may not be lit at all and link bearers were hired to guide travellers to their destinations. Inside, a candle or oil lamp struggled against the darkness. It didn’t matter which way you turned. London in Victorian times was awash with noise. Noisy traffic, industry, street musicians, cries of street-sellers echoed through London. From morning till night, the costermongers could be heard crying their wares and music, whether just the organ-grinder, or the full brass band seemed to surround one night and day.

Street Organs seem to have been the bane of the Victorians’ existence. In part this was because of the noise they created; by the 1860s there were estimated to be over one-thousand organ-grinders in London. But there may be more to it than just noise. From the constant harping upon the ethnic characteristics of the Organ-Grinders, one gains the impression that much of the objection was xenophobic.

Then, there were the bands and musicians; the violinist who imitated barnyard animal, the bell ringers, cellists, street bands (according to one of Mayhew’s informants there were around 250 street bands, not including black minstrel bands). There were English bands, German bands an, bagpipers. There were hurdy-gurdy players and harpists and clarinet players. Assisting the organ-grinder one might see a trained monkey or dancing dog and one could go on almost indefinitely. If it was an instrument that could be played, it was likely to be found on the streets of Victorian London on a Saturday night.

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