The conception of Queen Mary, University of London





August 19, 1882


“IT was the evening of a day in early June. The time was last year, and the place was Cambridge. The sun had been visible in the heavens, a gracious presence, actually a whole week—in itself a thing remarkable; the hearts of the most soured, even of landlords and farmers, were coming to believe again in the possibility of fine weather…”

A dearest friend presented me with a first edition of the book during my latest visit to London. So it starts and I could not stop reading until I reached the end. Walter Besant wrote the book to convince his peers to invest in the East End of London.

“We have, however, to do with only one pair, who were sitting together on the banks opposite Trinity. These two were talking about a subject far more interesting than any concerning mind, or art, or philosophy, or the chances of the Senate House, or the future of Newnham; for they were talking about themselves and their own lives, and what they were to do each with that one life which happened, by the mere accident of birth, to belong to herself. It must be a curious subject for reflection in extreme old age, when everything has happened that is going to happen, including rheumatism, that, but for this accident, one’s life might have been so very different.”

Angela, the younger of two mentioned above, owns the Brewery at the East End of London. She has been educated in political economy to run and expand the business. However, she decides to return to her roots and meet the people to whom she owes her fortune – disguising as one of them. She meets with Harry, who has been equally well educated, because a Lord took him under his custody after Sergeant Goslett fell in the Indian Mutiny. Angela asks what would a wealthy person do to benefit the two millions living at the East End.


“‘What we want here’, he said, ‘as it seems to me, is a little more of the pleasures and graces of life. To begin with, we are not poor and in misery, but for the most part fairly well off. We have great works here—half-a-dozen Breweries, though none so big as Messenger’s; chemical works, sugar refineries, though these are a little depressed at present, I believe; here are all the docks; then we have silk-weavers, sail-makers, match-makers, cigar-makers; we build ships; we tackle jute, though what jute is, and what we do with it, I know not; we cut corks; we make soap, and we make fireworks; we build boats. When all our works are in full blast, we make quantities of money. See us on Sundays, we are not a bad-looking lot; healthy, well-dressed, and tolerably rosy. But we have no pleasures.’

‘There must be some.’

‘A theatre and a music-hall in Whitechapel Road. That has to serve for two millions of people. Now, if this young heiress wanted to do any good, she should build a Palace of Pleasure here.’

‘A Palace of Pleasure!’ she repeated. ‘It sounds well. Should it be a kind of Crystal Palace?’

‘Well!’ It was quite a new idea, but he replied as if he had been considering the subject for years. ‘Not quite—with modifications.'”

The discussion, on what later became in true life People’s Palace, continues.

“They finally resolved that there should be professors, lecturers, or teachers, with convenient class rooms, theatres and lecture halls in the following accompishments and graces:—Dancing, but there must be the old as well as the new kinds of dancing. The waltz was not to eclude the minuet, the reel, the country dance, or the old square dances; the pupils would also have such dances as the bolero, the tarantella, and other national jumperies. Singing, which was to be a great feature, as anybody could sing, said Angela, if they were taught. ‘Except my Uncle Bunker!’ said Harry. Then there were to be musical instruments of all kinds. Skating, bicycling, lawn tennis, racquets, fives, and all kinds of games; rowing, billiards, archery, rifle shooting. Then there was to be acting, with reading and recitation; there were to be classes on gardening, on cookery, and on the laws of beauty in costume. ‘The East End shall be independent of the rest of the world in fashion,’ said Angela; ‘we will dress according to the rules of Art!’ ‘You shall,’ cried Harry, ‘and your own girls shall be the new dressmakers to the whole of glorified Stepney.’ Then there were to be lectures, not in literature, but in letter-writing, especially love-letter-writing, versifying, novel-writing, and essay-writing; that is to say, on the more delightful forms of literature—so that poets and novelists should arise, and the East End, hitherto a barren desert, should blossom with flowers. Then there was to be a Professor of Grace, because a graceful carriage of the body is so generally neglected; and Harry, who had a slim figure and long legs, began to indicate how the Professor would probably carry himself. Next there were to be Professors of Painting, Drawing, Sculpture and Design; and lectures on Furniture, Colour, and Architecture. The Arts of photography, china painting, and so forth, were to be cultivated; and there were to be classes for the encouragement of leather work, crewel work, fret-work, brass-work, wood and ivory carving, and so forth.

‘There shall be no house in the East End,’ cried the girl, ‘that shall not have its panels painted by one member of the family; its wood-work carved by another, its furniture designed by a third, its windows planted with flowers by another.’

Her eyes glowed, her lips trembled.

‘You ought to have had the millions,’ said Harry.

‘Nay, you, for you devised it all!’ she replied. She was so glowing, so rosy red, so soft and sweet to look upon; her eyes were so full of possible love—though of love she was not thinking—that almost the young man fell upon his knees to worship this Venus.

‘And all these beautiful things,’ she went on, breathless, ‘are only designed for the sake of the Palace of Delight.’

‘It shall stand somewhere near the central place, this Stepney Green, so that all the East can get to it.

‘It shall have many halls,’ she went on. ‘One of them shall be for concerts, and there shall be an organ: one of them shall be for a theatre, and there will be a stage and everything: one shall be a dancing hall, one a skating rink, one a hall for lectures, readings and recitations: one a picture gallery, one a permanent excibition of our small Arts. We will have our concerts performed from our School of Music: our plays shall be played by our amateurs taught at our School of Acting; our exhibitions shall be supplied by our own people; the things will be sold, and they will soon be sold off and replaced, because they will be cheap. Oh! oh! oh!’ She clasped her hands, and fell back in her chair, overpowered with the thought.

‘It will cost much money,’ said Harry, weakly, as if money was any object—in dreams.

‘The College must be endowed with 30,000l. a year, which is a million of money,’ Angela replied, making a little calculation. ‘That money must be found. As for the Palace, it will require nothing but the building, and a small annual income to pay for repairs and servants. It will be governed by a Board of Directors, elected by the people themselves, to whom the Palace will belong. And no one shall pay or be paid for any performance. And the only condition of admission will be good behaviour, with exclusion as a penalty.’

The only condition of admission to Queen Mary University of London, according to its founders, had been a noble one. The novel describes, in a most delightful manner, stories of all sorts and characters of all conditions in the particular setting at the end of the nineteenth century. For a critique, see Eliza Cubitt writing in London Fictions. I am unsure if there was a page where I did not pause to consider how the text connected to my own experiences at the Mile End Road and beyond. Mr Maliphant, for instance, says on page 206:

“… a man like me never sits alone. Bless your heart, young gentleman, of a morning, when I sit before the fire and smoke a pipe, this room gets full o’ people. They crowd in, they do. Dead people, I mean, of course. I know more dead men than living. [Emphasis added; FM] They’re the best company, after all. Bob Coppin comes, for one.'”

Or consider Professor Climo, on page 300, who must bear some relation, I say, to Professor emeritus Dicky Clymo. Dicky Clymo patiently taught me manners and much more.

I was also quite convinced that Lord Davenant suffered from myalgic encephalomyelitis, a disease that was at one point researched in a clinical trial with participation from a Queen Mary University of London team, but which the College, unfortunately, mismanaged.

“Oh! you obstinate old man! Oh! you lazy old man’… ‘You lazy, sinful, sleeply old man!’

A voice was heard feebly remonstrating.

‘Oh! oh! oh!’ she cried again in accents that rose higher and higher, ‘we have com all the way from America to prove our Case. There’s four months gone out of six—oh! oh! and you with your feet upon a chair—oh! oh!…'”

The American visitors receive an invitation from Lady Messenger.

“‘It will be a change, indeed, for us,’ she murmured, looking at her husband.

‘What change?’ asked his lordship. ‘Clara Martha, I do not want any change; I am comfortable here, I am treated with respect, the place is quiet, I do not want to change.’

He was a heavy man and lethargic—change meant some kind of physical activity—he disliked movement.

His wife tossed her head with impatience.

‘Oh!’ she cried, ‘he would rather sit in his armchair than walk even across the Green to get his coronet…’

‘Must we go, Clara Martha?’ his lordship asked in a tremulous voice.

‘Yes, we must go; …'”

And when the carriage comes to pick them up,

“‘Timothy,’ said her ladyship, ‘would that Aurelia Tucker were here to see!’

He only groaned. How could he tell what sufferings in the shape of physical activity might be before him? When would he be able to put up his feet again?…’

(But when they are shown around their new home in the West End)

“‘I think I noticed,’ said Lord Davenant, a little more cheerfully, ‘as we walked through the library, a most beautiful chair.’ He cleared his throat and said no more.”

I was deeply humbled from the manner in which Walter Besant chose to promote his cause of fomenting higher education beyond the elites. He also managed to describe one of many attributes of my dear friend & colleague, to whom I own so much of what matters in life, once survival issues are settled: a share of friendship that expands knowledge guiding towards civility.

“‘I hear my uncle!’ As usual, the young man laughed; he sat upon the arm of a garden seat, with his hands in his pockets, and laughed an insolent exasperating laugh. Now, Mr. Bunker in all his life had never seen the least necessity or occasion for lauging at anything at all, far less at himself. Nor, hitherto, had anyone dared to laugh at him.

‘Sniggerin’ peacock!’ added Mr. Bunker, fiercely, rattling a bunch of keys in his pocket.

Harry laughed again, with more abandon. This uncle of his, who regarded him with so much dislike, seemed a very humorous person.”

Ho-ho-ho! 🙂 🙂

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