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Little Britain by Washington Irving

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Prepared by:
Anthony J. Adam
email anthony-adam@tamu.edu

Little Britain

by Washington Irving

What I write is most true...I have a whole booke of cases
lying by me which if I should sette foorth, some grave auntients
(within the hearing of Bow bell) would be out of charity with me.


IN the centre of the great city of London lies a small
neighborhood, consisting of a cluster of narrow streets and
courts, of very venerable and debilitated houses, which goes
by the name of LITTLE BRITAIN. Christ Church School and
St. Bartholomew's Hospital bound it on the west; Smithfield and
Long Lane on the north; Aldersgate Street, like an arm of the
sea, divides it from the eastern part of the city; whilst the
yawning gulf of Bull-and-Mouth Street separates it from
Butcher Lane, and the regions of Newgate. Over this little
territory, thus bounded and designated, the great dome of St.
Paul's, swelling above the intervening houses of Paternoster
Row, Amen Corner, and Ave Maria Lane, looks down with an
air of motherly protection.

This quarter derives its appellation from having been, in
ancient times, the residence of the Dukes of Brittany. As
London increased, however, rank and fashion rolled off to the
west, and trade, creeping on at their heels, took possession of
their deserted abodes. For some time Little Britain became the
great mart of learning, and was peopled by the busy and
prolific race of booksellers; these also gradually deserted it,
and, emigrating beyond the great strait of Newgate Street,
settled down in Paternoster Row and St. Paul's Churchyard,
where they continue to increase and multiply even at the
present day.

But though thus falling into decline, Little Britain still bears
traces of its former splendor. There are several houses ready
to tumble down, the fronts of which are magnificently enriched
with old oaken carvings of hideous faces, unknown birds,
beasts, and fishes; and fruits and flowers which it would
perplex a naturalist to classify. There are also, in Aldersgate
Street, certain remains of what were once spacious and lordly
family mansions, but which have in latter days been subdivided
into several tenements. Here may often be found the family of
a petty tradesman, with its trumpery furniture, burrowing
among the relics of antiquated finery, in great, rambling, time-
stained apartments, with fretted ceilings, gilded cornices, and
enormous marble fireplaces. The lanes and courts also contain
many smaller houses, not on so grand a scale, but, like your
small ancient gentry, sturdily maintaining their claims to equal
antiquity. These have their gable ends to the street; great bow-
windows, with diamond panes set in lead, grotesque carvings,
and low arched door-ways.

In this most venerable and sheltered little nest have I passed
several quiet years of existence, comfortably lodged in the
second floor of one of the smallest but oldest edifices. My
sitting-room is an old wainscoted chamber, with small panels,
and set off with a miscellaneous array of furniture. I have a
particular respect for three or four high-backed claw-footed
chairs, covered with tarnished brocade, which bear the marks
of having seen better days, and have doubtless figured in some
of the old palaces of Little Britain. They seem to me to keep
together, and to look down with sovereign contempt upon
their leathern-bottomed neighbors: as I have seen decayed
gentry carry a high head among the plebeian society with which
they were reduced to associate. The whole front of my sitting-
room is taken up with a bow-window, on the panes of which
are recorded the names of previous occupants for many
generations, mingled with scraps of very indifferent
gentlemanlike poetry, written in characters which I can scarcely
decipher, and which extol the charms of many a beauty of
Little Britain who has long, long since bloomed, faded, and
passed away. As I am an idle personage, with no apparent
occupation, and pay my bill regularly every week, I am looked
upon as the only independent gentleman of the neighborhood;
and, being curious to learn the internal state of a community so
apparently shut up within itself, I have managed to work my
way into all the concerns and secrets of the place.

Little Britain may truly be called the heart's core of the city;
the stronghold of true John Bullism. It is a fragment of
London as it was in its better days, with its antiquated folks
and fashions. Here flourish in great preservation many of the
holiday games and customs of yore. The inhabitants most
religiously eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, hot-cross-buns on
Good Friday, and roast goose at Michaelmas; they send love-
letters on Valentine's Day, burn the pope on the fifth of
November, and kiss all the girls under the mistletoe at
Christmas. Roast beef and plum pudding are also held in
superstitious veneration, and port and sherry maintain their
grounds as the only true English wines; all others being
considered vile, outlandish beverages.

Little Britain has its long catalogue of city wonders, which its
inhabitants consider the wonders of the world: such as the
great bell of St. Paul's, which sours all the beer when it tolls;
the figures that strike the hours at St. Dunstan's clock; the
Monument; the lions in the Tower; and the wooden giants in
Guildhall. They still believe in dreams and fortune-telling, and
an old woman that lives in Bull-and-Mouth Street makes a
tolerable subsistence by detecting stolen goods, and promising
the girls good husbands. They are apt to be rendered
uncomfortable by comets and eclipses; and if a dog howls
dolefully at night, it is looked upon as a sure sign of a death
the place. There are even many ghost stories current,
particularly concerning the old mansion-houses; in several of
which it is said strange sights are sometimes seen. Lords and
ladies, the former in full bottomed wigs, hanging sleeves, and
swords, the latter in lappets, stays, hoops and brocade, have
been seen walking up and down the great waste chambers, on
moonlight nights; and are supposed to be the shades of the
ancient proprietors in their court-dresses.

Little Britain has likewise its sages and great men. One of
the most important of the former is a tall, dry old gentleman, of
the name of Skryme, who keeps a small apothecary's shop. He
has a cadaverous countenance, full of cavities and projections;
with a brown circle round each eye, like a pair of horned
spectacles. He is much thought of by the old women, who
consider him a kind of conjurer, because he has two of three
stuffed alligators hanging up in his shop, and several snakes in
bottles. He is a great reader of almanacs and newspapers, and
is much given to pore over alarming accounts of plots,
conspiracies, fires, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions; which
last phenomena he considers as signs of the times. He has
always some dismal tale of the kind to deal out to his customers,
with their doses; and thus at the same time puts both soul and
body into an uproar. He is a great believer in omens and
predictions; and has the prophecies of Robert Nixon and
Mother Shipton by heart. No man can make so much out of an
eclipse, or even an unusually dark day; and he shook the tail of
the last comet over the heads of his customers and disciples
until they were nearly frightened out of their wits. He has
lately got hold of a popular legend or prophecy, on which he
has been unusually eloquent. There has been a saying current
among the ancient sibyls, who treasure up these things, that
when the grasshopper on the top of the Exchange shook hands
with the dragon on the top of Bow Church Steeple, fearful
events would take place. This strange conjunction, it seems, has
as strangely come to pass. The same architect has been engaged
lately on the repairs of the cupola of the Exchange, and the
steeple of Bow church; and, fearful to relate, the dragon and
the grasshopper actually lie, cheek by jole, in the yard of his

"Others," as Mr. Skryme is accustomed to say, "may go star-
gazing, and look for conjunctions in the heavens, but here is a
conjunction on the earth, near at home, and under our own eyes,
which surpasses all the signs and calculations of astrologers."
Since these portentous weathercocks have thus laid their heads
together, wonderful events had already occurred. The good
old king, notwithstanding that he had lived eighty-two years,
had all at once given up the ghost; another king had mounted
the throne; a royal duke had died suddenly,--another, in
France, had been murdered; there had been radical meetings in
all parts of the kingdom; the bloody scenes at Manchester; the
great plot of Cato Street; and above all, the queen had returned
to England! All these sinister events are recounted by Mr.
Skryme, with a mysterious look, and a dismal shake of the
head; and being taken with his drugs, and associated in the
minds of his auditors with stuffed sea-monsters, bottled
serpents, and his own visage, which is a title-page of
tribulation, they have spread great gloom through the minds of
the people of Little Britain. They shake their heads whenever
they go by Bow Church, and observe, that they never expected
any good to come of taking down that steeple, which in old
times told nothing but glad tidings, as the history of
Whittington and his Cat bears witness.

The rival oracle of Little Britain is a substantial
cheesemonger, who lives in a fragment of one of the old family
mansions, and is as magnificently lodged as a round-bellied
mite in the midst of one of his own Cheshires. Indeed, he is a
man of no little standing and importance; and his renown
extends through Huggin Lane, and Lad Lane, and even unto
Aldermanbury. His opinion is very much taken in affairs of
state, having read the Sunday papers for the last half century,
together with the "Gentleman's Magazine," Rapin's "History of
England," and the "Naval Chronicle." His head is stored with
invaluable maxims which have borne the test of time and use
for centuries. It is his firm opinion that "it is a moral
impossible," so long as England is true to herself, that anything
can shake her; and he has much to say on the subject of the
national debt, which, somehow or other, he proves to be a
great national bulwark and blessing. He passed the greater part
of his life in the purlieus of Little Britain, until of late
when, having become rich, and grown into the dignity of a
Sunday cane, he begins to take his pleasure and see the world.
He has therefore made several excursions to Hampstead,
Highgate, and other neighboring towns, where he has passed
whole afternoons in looking back upon the metropolis through
a telescope, and endeavoring to descry the steeple of St.
Bartholomew's. Not a stage-coachman of Bull-and-Mouth
Street but touches his hat as he passes; and he is considered
quite a patron at the coach-office of the Goose and Gridiron,
St. Paul's churchyard. His family have been very urgent for
him to make an expedition to Margate, but he has great doubts
of those new gimcracks, the steamboats, and indeed thinks
himself too advanced in life to undertake sea-voyages.

Little Britain has occasionally its factions and divisions, and
party spirit ran very high at one time in consequence of two
rival "Burial Societies" being set up in the place. One held its
meeting at the Swan and Horse Shoe, and was patronized by the
cheesemonger; the other at the Cock and Crown, under the
auspices of the apothecary; it is needless to say that the latter
was the most flourishing. I have passed an evening or two at
each, and have acquired much valuable information, as to the
best mode of being buried, the comparative merits of
churchyards, together with divers hints on the subject of
patent-iron coffins. I have heard the question discussed in all
its bearings as to the legality of prohibiting the latter on
account of their durability. The feuds occasioned by these
societies have happily died of late; but they were for a long
time prevailing themes of controversy, the people of Little
Britain being extremely solicitous of funereal honors and of
lying comfortably in their graves.

Besides these two funeral societies there is a third of quite a
different cast, which tends to throw the sunshine of good-
humor over the whole neighborhood. It meets once a week at
a little old-fashioned house, kept by a jolly publican of the
name of Wagstaff, and bearing for insignia a resplendent half-
moon, with a most seductive bunch of grapes. The old edifice
is covered with inscriptions to catch the eye of the thirsty
wayfarer, such as "Truman, Hanbury, and Co.'s Entire," "Wine,
Rum, and Brandy Vaults," "Old Tom, Rum and Compounds,
etc." This indeed has been a temple of Bacchus and Momus
from time immemorial. It ha always been in the family of the
Wagstaffs, so that its history is tolerably preserved by the
present landlord. It was much frequented by the gallants and
cavalieros of the reign of Elizabeth, and was looked into now
and then by the wits of Charles the Second's day. But what
Wagstaff principally prides himself upon is, that Henry the
Eighth, in one of his nocturnal rambles, broke the head of one
of his ancestors with his famous walking-staff. This, however,
is considered as a rather dubious and vainglorious boast of the

The club which now holds its weekly sessions here goes by
the name of "The Roaring Lads of Little Britain." They
abound in old catches, glees, and choice stories, that are
traditional in the place, and not to be met with in any other
of the metropolis. There is a madcap undertaker who is
inimitable at a merry song; but the life of the club, and indeed
the prime wit of Little Britain, is bully Wagstaff himself. His
ancestors were all wags before him, and he has inherited with
the inn a large stock of songs and jokes, which go with it from
generation to generation as heirlooms. He is a dapper little
fellow, with bandy legs and pot belly, a red face, with a moist,
merry eye, and a little shock of gray hair behind. At the
opening of every club night he is called in to sing his
"Confession of Faith," which is the famous old drinking trowl
from "Gammer Gurton's Needle." He sings it, to be sure, with
many variations, as he received it from his father's lips; for it
has been a standing favorite at the Half-Moon and Bunch of
Grapes ever since it was written; nay, he affirms that his
predecessors have often had the honor of singing it before the
nobility and gentry at Christmas mummeries, when Little
Britain was in all its glory.

It would do one's heart good to hear, on a club night, the
shouts of merriment, the snatches of song, and now and then
the choral bursts of half a dozen discordant voices, which issue
from this jovial mansion. At such times the street is lined with
listeners, who enjoy a delight equal to that of gazing into a
confectioner's window, or snuffing up the steams of a

There are two annual events which produce great stir and
sensation in Little Britain; these are St. Bartholomew's Fair,
and the Lord Mayor's Day. During the time of the fair, which
is held in the adjoining regions of Smithfield, there is nothing
going on but gossiping and gadding about. The late quiet
streets of Little Britain are overrun with an irruption of
figures and faces; every tavern is a scene of rout and revel.
The fiddle and the song are heard from the tap-room, morning,
noon, and night; and at each window may be seen some group
of boon companions, with half-shut eyes, hats on one side, pipe
in mouth, and tankard in hand, fondling, and prosing, and
singing maudlin songs over their liquor. Even the sober
decorum of private families, which I must say is rigidly kept up
at other times among my neighbors, is no proof against this
Saturnalia. There is no such thing as keeping maid-servants
within doors. Their brains are absolutely set madding with
Punch and the Puppet Show; the Flying Horses; Signior Polito;
the Fire-Eater; the celebrated Mr. Paap; and the Irish Giant.
The children, too, lavish all their holiday money in toys and
gingerbread, and fill the house with the Lilliputian din of
drums, trumpets, and penny whistles.

But the Lord mayor's Day is the great anniversary. The Lord
Mayor is looked up to by the inhabitants of Little Britain as the
greatest potentate upon earth; his gilt coach with six horses as
the summit of human splendor; and his procession, with all the
Sheriffs and Aldermen in his train, as the grandest of earthly
pageants. How they exult in the idea that the King himself
dare not enter the city without first knocking at the gate of
Temple Bar, and asking permission of the Lord Mayor: for if
he did, heaven and earth! there is no knowing what might be
the consequence. The man in armor, who rides before the
Lord mayor, and is the city champion, has orders to cut down
everybody that offends against the dignity of the city; and then
there is the little man with a velvet porringer on his head, who
sits at the window of the state-coach, and holds the city sword,
as long as a pike-staff--Odd's blood! If he once draws that
sword, Majesty itself is not safe!

Under the protection of this mighty potentate, therefore, the
good people of Little Britain sleep in peace. Temple Bar is an
effectual barrier against all interior foes; and as to foreign
invasion, the Lord Mayor has but to throw himself into the
Tower, call in the trainbands, and put the standing army of
Beef-eaters under arms, and he may bid defiance to the world!

Thus wrapped up in its own concerns, its own habits, and its
own opinions, Little Britain has long flourished as a sound
heart to this great fungous metropolis. I have pleased myself
with considering it as a chosen spot, where the principles of
sturdy John Bullism were garnered up, like seed corn, to renew
the national character, when it had run to waste and
degeneracy. I have rejoiced also in the general spirit of
harmony that prevailed throughout it; for though there might
now and then be a few clashes of opinion between the
adherents of the cheesemonger and the apothecary, and an
occasional feud between the burial societies, yet these were but
transient clouds, and soon passed away. The neighbors met
with good-will, parted with a shake of the hand, and never
abused each other except behind their backs.

I could give rare descriptions of snug junketing parties at
which I have been present; where we played at All-fours, Pope-
Joan, Tome-come-tickle-me, and other choice old games; and
where we sometimes had a good old English country dance to
the tune of Sir Roger de Coverley. Once a year, also, the
neighbors would gather together, and go on a gypsy party to
Epping Forest. It would have done any man's heart good to
see the merriment that took place here as we banqueted on the
grass under the trees. How we made the woods ring with
bursts of laughter at the songs of little Wagstaff and the merry
undertaker! After dinner, too, the young folks would play at
blind-man's-buff and hide-and-seek; and it was amusing to see
them tangled among the briers, and to hear a fine romping girl
now and then squeak from among the bushes. The elder folks
would gather round the cheesemonger and the apothecary to
hear them talk politics; for they generally brought out a
newspaper in their pockets, to pass away time in the country.
They would now and then, to be sure, get a little warm in
argument; but their disputes were always adjusted by reference
to a worthy old umbrellamaker, in a double chin, who, never
exactly comprehending the subject, managed somehow or other
to decide in favor of both parties.

All empires, however, says some philosopher or historian, are
doomed to changes and revolutions. Luxury and innovation
creep in; factions arise; and families now and then spring up,
whose ambition and intrigues throw the whole system into
confusion. Thus in latter days has the tranquillity of Little
Britain been grievously disturbed, and its golden simplicity of
manners threatened with total subversion by the aspiring family
of a retired butcher.

The family of the Lambs had long been among the most
thriving and popular in the neighborhood; the Miss Lambs
were the belles of Little Britain, and everybody was pleased
when Old Lamb had made money enough to shut up shop, and
put his name on a brass plate on his door. In an evil hour,
however, one of the Miss Lambs had the honor of being a lady
in attendance on the Lady Mayoress, at her grand annual ball,
on which occasion she wore three towering ostrich feathers on
her head. The family never got over it; they were immediately
smitten with a passion for high life; set up a one-horse
put a bit of gold lace round the errand boy's hat, and have been
the talk and detestation of the whole neighborhood ever since.
They could no longer be induced to play at Pope-Joan or blind-
man's-buff; they could endure no dances but quadrilles, which
nobody had ever heard of in Little Britain; and they took to
reading novels, talking bad French, and playing upon the piano.
Their brother, too, who had been articled to an attorney, set up
for a dandy and a critic, characters hitherto unknown in these
parts; and he confounded the worthy folks exceedingly by
talking about Kean, the opera, and the "Edinburgh Review."

What was still worse, the Lambs gave a grand ball, to which
they neglected to invite any of their old neighbors; but they had
a great deal of genteel company from Theobald's Road, Red-
Lion Square, and other parts towards the west. There were
several beaux of their brother's acquaintance from Gray's Inn
Lane and Hatton Garden; and not less than three Aldermen's
ladies with their daughters. This was not to be forgotten or
forgiven. All Little Britain was in an uproar with the smacking
of whips, the lashing of miserable horses, and the rattling and
the jingling of hackney coaches. The gossips of the
neighborhood might be seen popping their nightcaps out at
every window, watching the crazy vehicles rumble by; and
there was a knot of virulent old cronies, that kept a lookout
from a house just opposite the retired butcher's, and scanned
and criticised every one that knocked at the door.

This dance was a cause of almost open war, and the whole
neighborhood declared they would have nothing more to say to
the Lambs. It is true that Mrs. Lamb, when she had no
engagements with her quality acquaintance, would give little
humdrum tea-junketings to some of her old cronies, "quite," as
she would say, "in a friendly way;" and it is equally true that
her invitations were always accepted, in spite of all previous
vows to the contrary. Nay, the good ladies would sit and be
delighted with the music of the Miss Lambs, who would
condescend to strum an Irish melody for them on the piano;
and they would listen with wonderful interest to Mrs. Lamb's
anecdotes of Alderman Plunket's family, of Portsokenward,
and the Miss Timberlakes, the rich heiresses of Crutched-Friars;
but then they relieved their consciences, and averted the
reproaches of their confederates, by canvassing at the next
gossiping convocation everything that had passed, and pulling
the Lambs and their rout all to pieces.

The only one of the family that could not be made
fashionable was the retired butcher himself. Honest Lamb, in
spite of the meekness of his name, was a rough, hearty old
fellow, with the voice of a lion, a head of black hair like a
brush, and a broad face mottled like his own beef. It was in
vain that the daughters always spoke of him as "the old
gentleman," addressed him as "papa," in tones of infinite
softness, and endeavored to coax him into a dressing-gown and
slippers, and other gentlemanly habits. Do what they might,
there was no keeping down the butcher. His sturdy nature
would break through all their glozings. He had a hearty vulgar
good-humor that was irrepressible. His very jokes made his
sensitive daughters shudder; and he persisted in wearing his
blue cotton coat of a morning, dining at two o'clock, and
having a "bit of sausage with his tea."

He was doomed, however, to share the unpopularity of his
family. He found his old comrades gradually growing cold and
civil to him; no longer laughing at his jokes; and now and then
throwing out a fling at "some people," and a hint about "quality
binding." This both nettled and perplexed the honest butcher;
and his wife and daughters, with the consummate policy of the
shrewder sex, taking advantage of the circumstance, at length
prevailed upon him to give up his afternoon's pipe and tankard
at Wagstaff's; to sit after dinner by himself, and take his pint
port--a liquor he detested--and to nod in his chair in solitary
and dismal gentility.

The Miss Lambs might now be seen flaunting along the
streets in French bonnets, with unknown beaux; and talking
and laughing so loud that it distressed the nerves of every good
lady within hearing. They even went so far as to attempt
patronage, and actually induced a French dancing-master to set
up in the neighborhood; but the worthy folks of Little Britain
took fire at it, and did so persecute the poor Gaul that he was
fain to pack up fiddle and dancing-pumps, and decamp with
such precipitation that he absolutely forgot to pay for his

I had flattered myself, at first, with the idea that all this
indignation on the part of the community was merely the
overflowing of their zeal for good old English manners, and
their horror of innovation; and I applauded the silent contempt
they were so vociferous in expressing, for upstart pride, French
fashions, and the Miss Lambs. But I grieve to say that I soon
perceived the infection had taken hold; and that my neighbors,
after condemning, were beginning to follow their example. I
overheard my landlady importuning her husband to let their
daughters have one quarter at French and music, and that they
might take a few lessons in quadrille. I even saw, in the course
of a few Sundays, no less than five French bonnets, precisely
like those of the Miss Lambs, parading about Little Britain.

I still had my hopes that all this folly would gradually die
away; that the Lambs might move out of the neighborhood;
might die, or might run away with attorneys' apprentices; and
that quiet and simplicity might be again restored to the
community. But unluckily a rival power arose. An opulent
oilman died, and left a widow with a large jointure and a family
of buxom daughters. The young ladies had long been repining
in secret at the parsimony of a prudent father, which kept down
all their elegant aspirings. Their ambition, being now no longer
restrained, broke out into a blaze, and they openly took the
field against the family of the butcher. It is true that the
Lambs, having had the first start, had naturally an advantage of
them in the fashionable career. They could speak a little bad
French, play the piano, dance quadrilles, and had formed high
acquaintances; but the Trotters were not to be distanced.
When the Lambs appeared with two feathers in their hats, the
Miss Trotters mounted four, and of twice as fine colors. If the
Lambs gave a dance, the Trotters were sure not to be
behindhand: and though they might not boast of as good
company, yet they had double the number, and were twice as

The whole community has at length divided itself into
fashionable factions, under the banners of these two families.
The old games of Pope-Joan and Tom-come-tickle-me are
entirely discarded; there is no such thing as getting up an
honest country dance; and on my attempting to kiss a young
lady under the mistletoe last Christmas, I was indignantly
repulsed; the Miss Lambs having pronounced it "shocking
vulgar." Bitter rivalry has also broken out as to the most
fashionable part of Little Britain; the Lambs standing up for the
dignity of the Cross-Keys Square, and the Trotters for the
vicinity of St. Bartholomew's.

Thus is this little territory torn by factions and internal
dissensions, like the great empire who name it bears; and what
will be the result would puzzle the apothecary himself, with all
his talent at prognostics, to determine; though I apprehend that
it will terminate in the total downfall of genuine John Bullism.

The immediate effects are extremely unpleasant to me.
Being a single man, and, as I observed before, rather an idle
good-for-nothing personage, I have been considered the only
gentleman by profession in the place. I stand therefore in high
favor with both parties, and have to hear all their cabinet
councils and mutual backbitings. As I am too civil not to agree
with the ladies on all occasions, I have committed myself most
horribly with both parties, by abusing their opponents. I might
manage to reconcile this to my conscience, which is a truly
accommodating one, but I cannot to my apprehension--if the
Lambs and Trotters ever come to a reconciliation, and compare
notes, I am ruined!

I have determined, therefore, to beat a retreat in time, and am
actually looking out for some other nest in this great city,
where old English manners are still kept up; where French is
neither eaten, drunk, danced, nor spoken; and where there are
no fashionable families of retired tradesmen. This found, I
like a veteran rat, hasten away before I have an old house
about my ears; bid a long, though a sorrowful, adieu to my
present abode, and leave the rival factions of the Lambs and
the Trotters to divide the distracted empire of LITTLE BRITAIN.

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