Alfred Rosling Bennett was born on 14th May 1850, and died aged 78, on 24th May 1928. He was a pioneering electrical engineer, remembered by the Times' obituarist for his groundbreaking work in telephony. In 1877, for example, he connected the Canterbury Music hall in Lambeth to the Queen's Theatre in Long Acre, via an overhead telephone line - the first such experiment carried out in London.
LONDON AND LONDONERS IN THE 1850s & 1860s is not, however, about Rosling Bennett's career. The book begins with his early childhood in Islington and focuses, almost exclusively, on daily life in the mid-Victorian metropolis. For example, selecting at random from the first few chapters, we learn about the interiors of omnibuses -- "The floor was covered with a thick layer of straw - in imitation of stage-coach practice - dry and clean every morning, but, as may readily be supposed, in wet weather damp, dirty, and smelly for the rest of the day. It was warm for the feet and kept out draughts, but promoted a too-evident stuffiness, especially when the let-down window of the door was up and the portal itself closed - there were no microbes to worry us in those days - and if a sixpence or a four-pennybit were dropped the chance of recovering it was small indeed." -- and the delivery of milk -- "Now and then, a man and girl driving a couple of very clean cows came round and drew milk from the udder straight into customers' jugs, or at least into a measure that was at once emptied into the jugs. That might be supposed to be a very direct, honest procedure, calculated to render adulteration laws vain and nugatory; but our milkman said that if people could only see the quantity of water 'them poor cows' were compelled to drink before starting, they would cease to wonder that the milk was so thin and blue." -- and the range of popular 1850s 'treatments' for cholera, namely "acorns, mustard plasters, castor-oil, laughing-gas, cold mutton broth, and hot mint-tea".
Victorian memoirs are often very dull things, regaling one with bland tales about meetings with famous folk, assorted commonplaces and platitudes. Rosling Bennett, on the other hand, from the vantage of the 'modern era' of the 1920s, applies a scientific rigour to the memories of his youth. He disdains singing his own praises for telling the reader about barbers touting "bear's grease" as the essential hair-oil (one enterprising hair-dresser even displaying a live bear to woo customers); or a detailed description of police uniform; or a paragraph about the itinerant sellers of draught excluders - the list is endless.
I have encountered no comparable work which conveys the same amount of intriguing information about daily life in the Victorian city, in such a concise and pleasurable manner. For that reason, I commend this book to the reader.