The New York Times, May 2, 1897, p.24:|
LONDON'S TRANSIT SYSTEMCabs that Are Expensive, 'Busses that Are Cheap,
and Underground Roads that Are Nasty.
ALL ARE BEASTLY AND 'ORRID.
Shillings Go Fast if You Ride in Hansoms,
'Busses are Uncomfortable and Common,
and the Underground Roads Dark, Murky, and Puzzling.
LONDON, April 17--"Take the yellow 'bus down to Oxford Street, and there change to the blue 'bus. Be sure you don't take the green one, for that is three ha'pence, and the blue is only a penny. Then from Charing Cross take the pink 'bus down to Fenchurch Street and you'll not have more than half a mile to walk. Bear along to the left, and take the third turning."
That is a fair sample of London directions. Take the yellow 'bus, or the blue 'bus, is always the first thing; then change to some other 'bus, and walk a long distance, and there you are. It soon becomes tiresome when you have a great antipathy to the London 'buses.
There must be New Yorkers still living, octogenarians and such advanced persons, who remember the stages that once formed a considerable part of the "traffic" of Broadway. Those stages were models of comfort and convenience compared with the London 'bus. In my honest desire to say something pleasant about these London monstrosities, the only thing I can think of is that they are better than our Fifth Avenue stages. But that is merely because nothing could possibly be worse.
In this place, where, on account of the vast population and the great distances, the means of local transit should be the most expeditious and most comfortable in the world, they are far worse than in any other city I have seen. Any 10,000-inhabitant city in our far West has much better transit facilities. But the London 'bus is an Institution; and Institution is spelled here with a big I, and lasts through the ages. Never mind the crowding at the gates next time you take an elevated train, Mr. Manhattan; be thankful for the mercies that have been vouchsafed you.
There are only three methods of transit in London--for the few "trams," or street cars, are in such out-of-the-way places that they hardly need to be considered. The hansom cab is the first and most expensive, the 'bus comes next, and the underground railway is the third.
Ubiquitous Hansom Cabs.
The hansom is one of the greatest temptations that the American in London has to struggle against. It is ever present, ever ready to welcome one with open doors. But it soon bankrupts even an American.
You come out of an office and wish to go to another a mile away. The 'bus will carry you there for a penny, but then you must walk four or five blocks to catch the 'bus, and perhaps four or five more at the other end of the line. Most likely it is raining, and the streets are dangerous with buttery mud.
There stands Hansom No. 15,827, and the driver is looking at you. You feel the loose shilling in your vest pocket and hesitate a moment, and then you are lost. Up goes your finger.
"Hansom!" you say, with your finger still up. But not at all in the way you said it when you first arrived. You have heard the London way, and try to imitate it. The word comes out sharp and quick, as if you were speaking to your own coachman at so much a month; and instantly cabby's hand goes up to show that he understands, and he starts for you.
If there happen to be two hansoms close together, and both drivers catch the signal at once, there is a race, and pedestrians must look out for themselves.
Whistling for Cabby.
When you are in your house, which with an American usually means a lodging house or one of the "board and residence" places where they call you a paying guest, (as you are, at the price,) and want a hansom, you do not go out to look for it or send a servant. You simply go down to the hat rack and take down the whistle that hangs there by a little chain. Standing on the front steps, you blow the whistle, and within a few seconds you hear a horse's hoofs clattering over the asphalt street, and cabby holds up his hand in answer.
In the lodging districts it is no unusual thing to hear half a dozen whistles blowing at once. The whistlers are largely Americans, of course, so new to London that they do not know how soon the dreadful hansom habit can scatter a fortune.
But here, at any rate, is the hansom. While you have one foot on the step cabby leans down inquiringly, and you tell him where you wish to go. "Buckingham Palace; and drive fast; the Prince is waiting for me."
"Very good, Sir!" says cabby, and moves a lever by his side that closes the folding doors of the cab. Off he goes like the wind, his horse running sometimes, sometimes only trotting fast. The sooner he can earn your fare and be rid of you, the better chance of catching another customer.
In a moment you find that your coat is well wiped with mud, having scraped against the wheel. You also notice that with every step the horse splashes mud upon you over the little doors, which reach only half way up. Besides, it is raining, most likely. You raise the trap in the roof over your head.
"Let down the window, cabby," you tell him.
Cabby moves another lever, and down comes the window on a hinge, in one time and two movements. With the first movement the sash strikes your hat brim and knocks it off; with the second it just grazes the end of your nose and makes you jump. But it is down, and you are shut in, protected from the weather.
If there has been a slight rain, so that the asphalt streets are moist but not thoroughly wet, you may have a little excitement. A partial wetting makes the street very slippery, and the horse slides along, stumbles, recovers himself, slips, and down he goes; and away you go into the glass window, which breaks and cuts you. Or perhaps the doors and window are open, in which case you make a dive over the dashboard, find yourself on top of the prostrate horse, dodge the legs that he moves like a row of windmills, and maybe scramble away unhurt; maybe otherwise. Such accidents are not at all uncommon.
The horse is soon up again, at any rate, for he is used to such falls, and away you go, and in five minutes you are at your destination, if it is not too far. Nothing could be more convenient. A policeman has warned cabby against breaking out of the line, but that you have nothing to do with.
"I can't find Towington Square, sir!" one of them told me one night. He must have been very new at the business.
"I have nothing to do with that," I told him, like an old Londoner. "I can't direct you; it is your place to find it. Hunt up a Constable and ask him the way."
He found it at length, and seemed quite proud of the feat.
An Expensive Luxury.
Before you enter the house your shilling has changed hands. It is no longer yours, but cabby's, and you have no more change. When you have finished your business and come out you yield again to temptation and call another hansom. That half-sovereign in your purse must be changed then; and before night you put your hand in your pocket for money and find that there is none there; the change from your "half-sov.," as they call it, is gone.
Then you cudgel your brain, and by and by remember the hansom to Baker Street Station, the hansom to King's Cross, the hansom over Tower Bridge to Bermondsey, then back again, and two or three more hansoms later on.
The British silver coin becomes very soft in London; it melts away in the pocket, and oozes out, and no man may tell where it goes. But the jolt of the hansom liquifies it entirely, and it disappears like snow under a hot sun. For this reason, few Londoners of ordinary means make habitual use of the hansom. Their best customers are strangers, who have not yet learned better. The hansom is swift and convenient, but far too expensive for common use.
"I always took a hansom when I first came here," an American said to me yesterday--an American whose salary is something over £1,000 a year. "But I could not stand the expense. I travel in penny 'buses now. My firm at home has an idea that $5,000 a year here is equal to almost $10,000 a year in New York, but that is a great mistake. London is by no means a cheap city; it is a very expensive city. Don't tell me about the necessities being cheap! In a big city a thousand extras become necessary."
If your pocket is well-lined with sovereigns, there is still an objection to the hansoms. They are almost sure to give you cold. It does not take long to find that out, for everybody tells you so, and your own cold is sufficient proof. With the doors open, as they usually are, you ride into the wind, and the wind retaliates.
The Penny 'Busses.
When you have nearly ruined yourself with hansoms, and, instead of half sovereigns you have only pennies and ha'pennies in your pocket, you turn naturally to the 'buses. They are ungainly looking things, and uncomfortable, but you cannot help yourself.
There is hardly anything on the surface of the earth to compare them with for description. One of our old Broadway stages, made somewhat larger, but no higher, with a platform at the back, from which a narrow and winding stairway leads to the roof, and a row of low seats on each side of the top, four seats on each side, and each seat wide enough for two, will, perhaps, give some idea of it.
You must imagine the thing so low inside that a man of even ordinary height must stoop, and the rail on top, like the backs of the seats, is so low that the same man must bend well over before he can reach anything to hold on by. And just as he is about to crawl into a seat, the 'bus starts with a jerk, and he is spilled into somebody's lap. Many serious accidents happen every year on the tops of London 'buses.
Put sixteen persons, besides the driver, on top of a 'bus, and you have a something that looks topheavy enough to turn over at any moment. But they never do turn over. The outside seats are the favorites, and people wait for the next 'bus rather than go inside.
The male Londoner climbs up, gets his seat, and loads his pipe, and goes to smoking. He may be seated beside a lady or a little girl, but that is no matter; the British Constitution guarantees the right to smoke ad. lib. on top of a 'bus, and the Briton must have his rights. The lady in the next seat can climb down if she doesn't like second-hand smoke from cheap "shag."
The ride on top of a 'bus is often very pleasant, I must admit, when once you are comfortably seated, if you do not worry about the chances of breaking your neck in getting down. You have a fine view of the streets and the people, and of whatever you pass. The fact that you make part of an advertising pageant need make no difference. Every 'bus is plastered all over with signs of infant foods, patent milks, plays, soaps, and patent medicines.
But what, when it rines, as the Cockneys say? Is not the top of a 'bus uncomfortable on a riny day? Bless your 'art; that is hall provided for. On most 'buses there is a rubber apron attached to each outer seat, and you have only to draw it around you when the shower comes.
And that is not all. So wonderful is the march of improvement that we now have what we call the umbrella 'bus. There is an umbrella attached to each seat, and when it rains you have only to hoist your umbrella. Who would have thought of such luxuries fifty years ago?
The messenger boy, or the errand boy, is happy as a King when he gets a front seat, lights his cigarette, and takes out his penny novel or his pink newspaper. He is to have a ride of two or three miles for a penny or a penny-ha'penny, which his boss furnishes. Susie, the working girl, with her rosy cheeks and her heavy English shoes, evidently enjoys it. "Arry, the clerk, in his silk hat, and conscious of his seventeen shillings and sixpence a week, considers it a luxury. But to an American who, in the dim and shadowy past, once took a ride in a cable car or an elevated train, the London 'bus seems a fit companion for the Tower or the ruins of Melrose Abbey.
Beastly Underground Trains.
So, nothing is left but that unspeakable thing, the underground railway--or the main sewer, as Londoners call it. I suppose there is not as outrageous a means of transit in any other city in the whole world. It is not worth while to waste adjectives upon it; the word vile describes it thoroughly. The only good thing about it is the fact that the employes, like most Londoners, are almost invariably polite and attentive. It would be a sorrowful thing for New York if we were to take to building railroads under ground.
Many Americans no doubt remember the pictures of the London underground that were published in one of our prominent magazines a few years ago. There were fine, high arches, lights glittered everywhere, and happy-looking travelers waited for the sumptuous trains to draw up. But the artist who made the pictures must have had a fine imagination, that lifted him high above the sordid regions of fact.
To travel by the underground, you go into a dismal-looking station and apply at the "booking office" for a ticket, taking it first, second, or third class, as you prefer.
Before you have made many journeys you learn that there is very little difference between the first-class carriages and the third, all being equally bad, and all going by the same train. But there is a considerable difference in the cost; what costs a shilling first class costs about a sixpence third class.
A man at the top of the stairs punches your ticket as you go through the gate, and you look down several long flights and see far below dim figures moving about in the haze. In some conditions of the outside atmosphere it seems impossible at first to breathe the foul air of the tunnel. It is an air that you can see; and you feel it the moment it strikes the lungs. The predominant smell is sulphur, mingled with coal gas, smoke, and damp.
The sole light in the daytime comes through a series of small brick arches, that run up slanting to the air above, and what little can steal down the stairways. The long platform consequently is dim and ghostly, and it is nearly always dirty, though brooms are cheap enough here. Beyond the end of the platform, in both directions, is the black tunnel, totally unlighted.
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