on Margate’s sands
Margate is London’s Coney Island, its big suburb by the sea, only far enough away for a long morning’s voyage in a steamboat. It is easy to forget in town how near the coast is; but already at Charing Cross sometimes, when the tide is high, you can smell the fresh salt air through the London smoke; in winter the white gulls haunt the bridges at Waterloo and Blackfriars; and it is just after the widening Thames has lost itself in the North Sea that Margate stretches out its pier into the water. There are plenty of other places on the same cliffs—Broadstairs and St. Leonard's and Westgate, and a dozen more; but Margate first, with Ramsgate as an alternative, is the cockney's choice. This is why some people agree with Mrs. Tuggs 1 that it is altogether too low—«nobody there but tradesmen!» But then, without the London crowd Margate would not be—well, Margate.
If you wish, you can take a train that starts from Charing Cross or Victoria, and, after a long, rambling tour through Kent, eventually gets to Margate. But half the fun is in going by boat. The lower Thames is supposed to be entirely commercial, but from time immemorial it has been the classic stream for the Londoner's frolic. You remember Dr. Johnson taking water to Billingsgate on the night of his famous « frisk» with Topham Beauclerk; and Hogarth sailing with his four jolly companions for Gravesend; and Elia in the «old Margate hoy,» which he was right in thinking «ill exchanged for the foppery and fresh-water niceness of the modern steam-packet»; and Boz on so many of those very youthful excursions of his; or, to come down to our own contemporaries, Ally Sloper, that delightful British «Mayeux,» and his party, dancing on deck, as Baxter shows them in one of his wonderful Sloper drawings? Besides, Margate virtually begins when you meet the crowd hurrying down through the narrow, dirty streets leading to the Old Swan Pier, and you struggle with babies and bandboxes at the ticket-office, and you rush down the long gangway, where you get wedged in so tight that you cannot move hand or foot, while a cool official keeps calling: «This wye for the Sovering—the Royal Sovering. Passengers for Southend pass on to the houter boat. Passengers for Margit and Ramsgit on the Sovering—the Royal Sovering! Show your tickets, please! Move on! This wye for Southend! This wye for Margit!» And from rival boats at the next pier come a still louder screaming and yelling. It all sounds like a page out of Dickens or Thackeray.
When you are fairly off, when you have scrambled successfully for a seat, and the Southend boat has steamed away, and the Royal Sovereign 2 has whistled playfully,—as only a Margate boat can, and very much as the bad boy shrieks when he wishes to make you jump,—you gradually discover that this is the way to see the Thames. For there, at the start, is St. Paul's lifting its dome above the grimy warehouses; and you pass under London Bridge, where swarms of idlers watch you safely through, hoping all the time that you will hit the arches and go to the bottom for their pleasure; and you steam by the Tower, and between the open gates of Tower Bridge, which, once well weather-stained, will be as imposing a feature as the river can boast; and on again, between miles and miles of docks, and «plantations of ship-masts and forests of steam-chimneys»; and on every side are the boats—huge ocean steamers, little penny steamboats, red-sailed barges, big sailing-ships, puffing, smoke-belching tugs. And then, presently, it is Greenwich, with the beautiful buildings of Inigo Jones, and the memories of fish dinners eaten by yourself or in friendly books, and Rosherville, and Gravesend with its gardens, and the broad flats that make you think of Pip and his «great expectations.» 3
And all the while, if, you know how to do the thing in style, a sandwich is in one hand and a pot of porter in the other; for everybody on the boat is eating sandwiches and drinking porter. And by everybody I mean precisely the same company you jostle in the third-class carriages of the «underground » on the day of the University boat-race, or travel with by road down to the Derby,—«the mighty London populace,» Mr. James calls it,—its «female contingent» conspicuously sharing Mrs. Boffin's inclination toward fashion, while a baby, apparently, is as necessary to a Margate outfit as an umbrella on a rainy day. Of course there are musicians on board, —«Italians from the Strand,» is Mr. Mourey's description of the Thames boat band—gold laced and tarnished, out at elbows, playing their poor fiddles and harps and flutes first in the bow, then in the stern, up the middle and back again, and taking up an endless collection. And as the breeze grows brisker and the air keener, as the shores recede farther and farther, there seems to be, as in Mr. Punch's music-hall song, a call for «a drop o' something shorter» 4; for the little bar on deck is filled with men—and women, too: has no long practice in the public-house taught the Englishwoman how to take her drink standing like a man? Already by noon, faces are redder, laughs lighter. There are races round the deck. A few figures are huddled up suggestively against the railings. There are wild shrieks and playful giggles. And in the midst of it children are dancing, children are sick, children are yelling, children are sleeping. And the boat stops no more, though the cliffs are dotted with little towns, until all the gay crowd that does not mean to go on to Ramsgate is emptied upon the pier at Margate, where a crowd as gay watches its arrival..
Oh, I love to sit a-gyzing on the boundless blue horizing
When the scorching sun is blyzing down on sands and sea!
And to watch the busy figgers of the happy little diggers,
Or to listen to the niggers when they choose to come to me.
There you have it in Mr. Anstey's «idyllic» verse 5. Only no one can ever sit« a-gyzing » in romantic solitude. Not even in Santa Lucia in Naples have I seen people herded so close together, and living an outdoor life with such unembarrassed frankness. Rows upon rows, groups upon groups, of men and women sprawl on low steamer-chairs, open-mouthed and snoring without shame. Lovers lie in each other's arms prone upon the sand—the disconcerting spectacle 'Any and 'Arriet always present in their hour of courtship. Family parties sit within neatly dug-out inclosures, mothers with the week's mending, fathers with their pipes. And children by the dozen, by the hundred, by the thousand, barelegged, frocks and knickerbockers rolled well up into little bathing-drawers, are digging and paddling and building; while in a space apart, marked by a gay red flag, poor little pale-faced cripples are hobbling about in the sand, a show for the pennies of the compassionate. And down into this mess of people, too stupefied by sunlight and sea air to seek amusement, come the same beloved negro minstrels who turn up at Epsom and Henley and Hammersmith, and at chance London street-corners on a Saturday afternoon. But they are ten times more gorgeous at Margate: faces shinier, coats and trousers gaudier, sashes wider, buttonhole bouquets huger, hats jauntier, some in tights, some in flannels, with bones, tambourine, and banjo all complete. And a wide space is made for them hours beforehand, and the audience collects, first a circle of children low on the sands; then circle after circle of the steamer-chairs; then people standing behind the chairs, and more people on the Embankment. For the late-comer there is no getting near enough to hear a joke or a song. And when finally the morning's heroes arrive, they bring another audience with them—men, women, and children dogging their every step through the streets, patiently waiting outside every public-house where it pleases them to stop. Talk of the success of a Patti or a Melba: it is nothing to that of the minstrels at Margate!
And down, too, on the beach come the seedy German bands, and the unblackened strolling singers, and the men with pianos and concertinas and cornets and harmoniums, and the preachers, and the photographers. And down, too, comes the Punch-and-Judy man, but not the summer I was at Margate; for Mr. Brown, who had the monopoly, was ill, —so I learned upon inquiry,— and not another Punch of such irreproachable morals was to be found in all England. The fact is, though you would not believe it, the police have a strict eye upon the program of the beach performance.
This is the scene presented by Margate sands every day, and every hour of the day, during the season—serenely domestic at moments, boisterously hilarious at others, especially when a big excursion is let loose upon the place. Then you have the courting that is done by blows and thumps; then you see 'Arry and 'Arriet exchanging hats; then you have horse-play bedlam; and mounted police show themselves in the near streets, and magistrates, the next morning, are officially shocked by the conduct of the «savages» from London.
It is true there is a more elegant end to the sea-front, partly for invalids whose doctors prescribe Margate air, which has the name of being the purest and most bracing in England, the number of Bath chairs proving medical compulsion. There is no promiscuous herding here. Groups take their books and work and gossip into railed-off spaces, with a haughty assumption of the privacy that costs a penny. The very amusements are distinctly genteel: archery, lawntennis, and a lightning draftsman making portraits in a tent while you wait; and as the shore has risen into cliffs, bathers are discreetly screened from public gaze, and the narrow sands are as decorous as in that picture of «Pegwell Bay,» by Dyce, in the National Gallery 6 —a picture of a shingly beach, and two or three lone figures, in the absurd costumes of the fifties, gathering shells in polite isolation.
If you do not care to go to Ramsgate, there are boats in the harbor, with their «boatmen so beguiling,» 8 and the menagerie with its beasts to be fed, and the music-hall attached, with its «stars » from London, who'd «all be in the workhouse should their antics cease to dror!» 9 —an inducement for women and babies and nurses, who would be quite out of place in the palaces of Leicester Square, to flock to this «hall by the sea.» And there are shops full of the indispensable china « souvenirs from Margate.» And first and last and always, there are tea and shrimps! Many things may have changed. Gillray's 10 little phaeton, with the round apron front, and its boy in jack-boots on one of the horses, has disappeared from the beach; the saucer hats and swirling crinolines of Leech 11 are no more: but tea and shrimps are as essential elements to Margate life as the sea and the sky. You are not supposed to need or to wish anything else, and in vain you may try the little restaurants that are perched on the cliffs as delightfully as the Neapolitan cafes on the Posilipo, or those others that set out their tables on balconies looking seaward. If you would dine, you must fall back upon the pompous hotel table d'hôte, which you share with the last theater company down from London. But one other thing you can order at the restaurant, to be sure—champagne. To be in the Margate fashion, you must drink it without so much as a biscuit to eat. On the pier, which is as select as the twopence charge for admission can make it, couples of those stupendously vulgar people you do not believe in when you see them on the pages of papers like «PickMe-Up» 12 —indeed, you hardly believe in them when you see them in life—may be found as early as eleven in the morning pledging each other over a magnum of extra dry. And the Margate swell will bring his friends into one of the restaurants, at any hour after his evening meal of tea and shrimps, and call loudly for champagne, just to let you know that he can do the thing in style when he chooses, and pay for his bottle with the biggest lord or «dook » of them all!
I hesitate to mention beauty as another of Margate's charms, so little has it to do with the popularity of the place. But for all that, very beautiful it is; and its sands every morning and afternoon arrange themselves into a picture as brilliant and gay as you could find at Trouville or Abbazia, at Coney Island or Newport. To follow the cliffs beyond the hotels and villas is to find one's self at once in as pretty English country as Constable ever painted—a country of broad meadows and plowed fields, of hedge-rows and stately elms, of old farm-houses and gray ruins, of cloud-swept skies and misty blue distances. Toward twilight, when the tide is coming in and the beach is deserted except by the small boy kindly giving the necessary spot of black here and there, and the occasional barge left high and dry on the sands, the lines are as lovely as those that the Venetian Lagune make at low water. As for the barges, with their half-furled sails, they are really finer than anything at Venice; while every evening there is the atmosphere for which on the Adriatic you might have to wait a year. And as dusk deepens, lines of light on the Embankment curve with the curving shore, and torches flame from the barrows of the periwinkle-men, and the black, shadowy pier crosses the deep blue of sea and sky as fantastically and decoratively as in a color-print by Hiroshige. And, gradually, what people are pleased to call the vulgarity of Margate is lost in the beauty of night, only broken momentarily by the shriek of 'Arry sporting with 'Arriet in the «shide»!
- Elizabeth Robins Pennell, pp 569-575, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Volume 54, 1897 (illustrations by Joseph Pennell)
1. From The Tuggs's at Ramsgate (Sketches by Boz, Volume 2, by Charles Dickens) in which the Tuggs family make this trip. Her actual quote about Margate is "nobody there, but tradespeople".
2. The Margate paddle steamer Royal Sovereign was still in service in 1919, and the British Pathé archive has this nice clip of it setting sail from Old Swan Pier at Charing Cross:
Margate boat - 'Royal Sovereign'
3. See Noir and the North Kent marshes.
4. A reference to The Poor Old 'Orse, a parody music hall song in F Anstey's 1892 Mr. Punch's model music-hall songs & dramas:
For we 'ad to stop o' course,
Jest to bait the bloomin' 'orse,
So we'd pots of ale and porter
(Or a drop o' something shorter),
While he drunk his pail o' water,
He was sech a whale on water!
That more water than he oughter,
More water than he oughter,
'Ad the poor old 'orse!
5. Also a parody music-hall song from Mr. Punch's model music-hall songs & dramas: The Joys of the Seaside.
6. And still so: Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858. A classic painting of the beach and chalk cliffs further round the Kent coast, it shows in the sky the faint trail of Donati's comet (see previously: Comet apocalypse, 1857).
7. From Albert Chevalier's 1892 music-hall song Wot Cher! or, Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Rd.
8, 9. More quotes from The Joys of the Seaside (see 5).
10/ The caricaturist James Gillray convalesced in Margate in 1807.
11. John Leech, also a caricaturist, was a Margate regular.
12. Pick-Me-Up was a weekly comic magazine with topical articles and cartoons, that ran from 1888 to 1909.