Barnaby Rudge HTML version

Chapter 16
A series of pictures representing the streets of London in the night, even at the
comparatively recent date of this tale, would present to the eye something so very
different in character from the reality which is witnessed in these times, that it would be
difficult for the beholder to recognise his most familiar walks in the altered aspect of little
more than half a century ago.
They were, one and all, from the broadest and best to the narrowest and least
frequented, very dark. The oil and cotton lamps, though regularly trimmed twice or thrice
in the long winter nights, burnt feebly at the best; and at a late hour, when they were
unassisted by the lamps and candles in the shops, cast but a narrow track of doubtful
light upon the footway, leaving the projecting doors and house-fronts in the deepest
gloom. Many of the courts and lanes were left in total darkness; those of the meaner
sort, where one glimmering light twinkled for a score of houses, being favoured in no
slight degree. Even in these places, the inhabitants had often good reason for
extinguishing their lamp as soon as it was lighted; and the watch being utterly inefficient
and powerless to prevent them, they did so at their pleasure. Thus, in the lightest
thoroughfares, there was at every turn some obscure and dangerous spot whither a
thief might fly or shelter, and few would care to follow; and the city being belted round
by fields, green lanes, waste grounds, and lonely roads, dividing it at that time from the
suburbs that have joined it since, escape, even where the pursuit was hot, was
rendered easy.
It is no wonder that with these favouring circumstances in full and constant operation,
street robberies, often accompanied by cruel wounds, and not unfrequently by loss of
life, should have been of nightly occurrence in the very heart of London, or that quiet
folks should have had great dread of traversing its streets after the shops were closed.
It was not unusual for those who wended home alone at midnight, to keep the middle of
the road, the better to guard against surprise from lurking footpads; few would venture
to repair at a late hour to Kentish Town or Hampstead, or even to Kensington or
Chelsea, unarmed and unattended; while he who had been loudest and most valiant at
the supper-table or the tavern, and had but a mile or so to go, was glad to fee a link-boy
to escort him home.
There were many other characteristics--not quite so disagreeable-- about the
thoroughfares of London then, with which they had been long familiar. Some of the
shops, especially those to the eastward of Temple Bar, still adhered to the old practice
of hanging out a sign; and the creaking and swinging of these boards in their iron
frames on windy nights, formed a strange and mournfal concert for the ears of those
who lay awake in bed or hurried through the streets. Long stands of hackney-chairs and
groups of chairmen, compared with whom the coachmen of our day are gentle and
polite, obstructed the way and filled the air with clamour; night-cellars, indicated by a
little stream of light crossing the pavement, and stretching out half-way into the road,
and by the stifled roar of voices from below, yawned for the reception and entertainment