Saturday Night in London in 1824

Engraving of a watch house being tipped over with a night watchman in it. “Tom Getting the Best of a Charley.” Courtesy of the Museum of London.

For most of the people of London, Saturday nights meant the work week was behind them. Saturday night was an evening where Londoners could relax, carouse, or enjoy themselves by visiting the market, the theatre, or their local ale house. Moreover, on Saturday nights, London was filled with all sorts of interesting people. Because Saturday nights were so popular, night watchmen sometimes stood in circular timber or stone structures (called watch houses) to observe the local happenings, or they patrolled the streets between 9 or 10 pm 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” until a few years later in 1829.) With London alive and thriving on a Saturday night, one person wrote a description of what it was like to be there, and his description is provided below almost verbatim:

“I love the bustle and confusion of a Saturday Night: – I like nothing better than to gaze on the varied groups that present themselves to the keen observer of men and things; and to enter into all the minutia of the varied scene, all, especially about the market-places, is noise, bustle, and confusion; all gives busy note of the preparation for the morrow, yet all seems happy and contented, The mechanic, with face shining and half washed, has received his wages, and hastens to provide the morrow’s dinner: — the dapper apprentice has just closed the shop, and hurries to the tailor, or hatter, to provide an article in which he can figure away in on the morrow; perchance he contemplates a trip to Richmond, if the skies forbid it not, or a journey to Hertford; (for that at present is the centre spot of attraction for all the idle gadabouts of London.)

Cats Meat Seller. Author’s Collection.

About eleven the bustle is at its height, and Babal beat hollow at sounds; – now the gin-shops begin to fill, and crowds of servant-girls, dustmen, and intellectual butcher boys, indulge their tender sensibilities at the shrine of some neighbouring ballad-singer, who, with note unmusical, warbles, or rather roars out some plaintive ditty: — now the flying pieman, with voice and gesture, a la Harley, scatters around his puns and pastry in rich profusion, much to the edification of the surrounding vegetable vendors, donkey-drivers, cats-meat men and match-merchants; on one side may be seen a group composed of fish-women and oyster-wenches, discussing their tipple and small talk, perhaps scandal; for ladies, in whatever sphere they may move, if admitted into the boudoirs of some fair one of rank, hear sly innuendoes and allusions to the Lady Marys and Lady Janes; we may hear of singular circumstances:
‘Bless me can it be possible?’ ‘Do you believe it?’ ‘Who did you have it from?’

Now in St. Giles’ it is much the same, only clothed in different language; we may there hear how mighty high Moll holds her head, and what good clothes Bet wears, and how strange ’tis wa’ a’nt seen Sall lately,’ and so on to the end of the chapter. Turn your eyes and you may, perchance, see a group of ragged urchins risking their pence and suppers, by tossing halfpence with some itinerant vendor of mutton-pies. mark well the eager and expectant look of the young aspirant for fortune’s favours, and the calm and subdued countenance of the man, ere the hand is removed that decides the issue of the toss. Now the well known and oft repeated cry of, “What do you buy, what do you buy,” is silenced for this simple reason, all are too busy to cry it. Now drunken tailors and printers reel by you, perhaps upset you; and the pawn-brokers’ shops have been filled since six o’clock with every description of characters, from florid drunkard to the distressed mechanic, who pledges an article for the morrow’s meal.

Such is Saturday Night in London.”

References:

  • The Mirror of Literature Amusement and Instruction, 1824, p. 10.

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