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Today is the anniversary of the Coronation of Edward VII, at Westminster Abbey in 1902. Consequently, every year on this day I am reminded of Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, published in 1903, but reporting on events of the previous summer. The whole of Chapter VII is about the author’s experience of the Coronation. He observes the parade from Trafalgar Square during the day:

And as it was thus at Trafalgar Square, so was it along the whole line of march—force, overpowering force; myriads of men, splendid men, the pick of the people, whose sole function in life is blindly to obey, and blindly to kill and destroy and stamp out life. And that they should be well fed, well clothed, and well armed, and have ships to hurl them to the ends of the earth, the East End of London, and the “East End” of all England, toils and rots and dies.

…  and then spends the evening on the Embankment with the destitute.

On the bench beside me sat two ragged creatures, a man and a woman, nodding and dozing. The woman sat with her arms clasped across the breast, holding tightly, her body in constant play—now dropping forward till it seemed its balance would be overcome and she would fall to the pavement; now inclining to the left, sideways, till her head rested on the man’s shoulder; and now to the right, stretched and strained, till the pain of it awoke her and she sat bolt upright. Whereupon the dropping forward would begin again and go through its cycle till she was aroused by the strain and stretch. …

…  Fifty thousand people must have passed the bench while I sat upon it, and not one, on such a jubilee occasion as the crowning of the King, felt his heart-strings touched sufficiently to come up and say to the woman: “Here’s sixpence; go and get a bed.” But the women, especially the young women, made witty remarks upon the woman nodding, and invariably set their companions laughing.

When describing the Coronation celebrations and its participants, London’s writing drips with seething sarcasm; his writing about the poor is fueled with pure anger. He uses this chapter in particular to highlight the chasm that existed between the well-off — and indeed even ordinary people — and the destitute poor. All of this in the capital city of the wealthiest and most powerful nation which had ever existed: ‘Abyss‘ is laced through with this particular irony, utterly and deliberately without and ounce of subtlety.

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Coronation souvenir. Royal Collection Trust.

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East End tenement. Photo by Jack London.

The People of the Abyss is an important piece of reportage which should be familiar to all historians of modern London. I see it as a sort of progress report between the bookends provided by Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) and Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Mayhew, of course, didn’t feel the need to be ’embedded’ as the other two did, but he did have a penchant for impoverishing himself nonetheless – another story. ‘Abyss’ is far more angry than the other two and certainly more ‘left-wing’. All have the virtue of being easy-to-read despite their most harrowing subject matter. I think the explanation for this is that the writers were all journalists who wrote extraordinarily well.


People of the Abyss (1902) by Jack London is available online for free from the Project Guthenberg, here. Scroll down for the Coronation, Chapter VII.

British Pathé footage of the Coronation of Edward VII.

 

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190 years ago today, our most extravagant and self-indulgent monarch, George IV, celebrated his coronation. He was determined that it should be more lavish, more spectacular than Napoleon’s Imperial coronation of 1804. Such were the preparations, it took a full 18 months to organise following his accession and cost £243,000, funded from the public purse and French war reparations. A massive amount at the time, equivalent to around £20 million today. Apart from Nelson’s funeral, the public had not witnessed a public spectacle on this scale; George III’s coronation, some 60 years previous, had been an extremely modest affair by comparison. So the great throng in the streets of Westminster lapped it up: bread and circuses.

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George IV as he saw himself. Portait in coronation plumage, by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

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George IV as others saw him. “A Voluptuary” by James Gillray, 1792.

The Prince Regent, as he had been for some 10 years from 1811, had waited many decades for this moment. His outfit included a red velvet robe with gold embroidery trimmed with ermine; a 27 foot long train supported by page boys whom he instructed to stretch it out wide so that the public could see the embroidery; a lavish brown wig; and a black Spanish hat adorned with ostrich feathers and a heron’s plume. George eschewed the traditional St Edward’s Crown and instead commissioned one of his own which was decorated with rented jewels. He lobbied Parliament for three years to purchase it outright but to no avail: they all had to go back. It was here too that the Royal Sceptre was re-designed to include the Hope Diamond, obtained from France after the Revolution.

The procession travelled from Westminster Hall to the Abbey on a specially-built, raised, covered walkway. It included every high officer of state in all their finery: bearers of the crown, sceptre, orb and sword of state; bishops; peers; barons of the Cinque Ports; dignitaries from the City of London bedecked in their robes and paraphernalia of office. It was a hot day, the service itself took an age and the corpulent King soon began to suffer under the weight of his robes, barely managing not to faint entirely. Cue the famous incident of his estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick, making an appearance. She was pointedly persona non grata at the celebration, but turned up anyway and created a great scene at the doors of the Abbey. Anticipating this, George had hired prize fighters – fully costumed for the occasion – to act as bouncers specifically to keep her out. (One of my favourite George IV stories is that on Napolean’s death, he was told “Sir, your enemy is dead”. To which he supposedly replied: “What, my wife has died?” She in fact died three months afterwards).

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The Coronation banquet, Westminster Hall

Following the coronation ceremony, the nation’s finest returned to Westminster Hall for a lavish banquet. The majority, seated in galleries, had to watch, mouths watering, as the lucky 300 diners tucked in. The banquet was kicked off with the last enactment of an archaic ceremony whereby the king’s Champion, in this case Henry Dymoke,  rode into the hall on horseback and challenged anybody to deny the king’s his rights. To avoid mishap, a trained horse – used to crowds – was borrowed from Astley’s Circus. The fare included soups, venison, veal, mutton, beef, braised ham, savoury pies, geese, braised capon, lobster, crayfish, cold roast fowl and cold lamb, dishes of jellies and creams, all garnished from hundreds of sauce boats of lobster sauce, butter sauce and mint. Having no doubt consumed his fair share of this lot, the exhausted king retired to Carlton House, forced to take an anti-climactic route through the slums of Westminster due to a carriage accident blocking the arranged passage. His best days already behind him, the ageing George only had illness, obesity and political squabbling to look forward to.

Acknowledgements must be made to detailed account here.

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