3477. Robert Southey to Katharine Southey [fragment], 4 May 1820

3477. Robert Southey to Katharine Southey [fragment], 4 May 1820⁠* 

Streatham, Thursday, May 4. 1820.

My dear Kate,

Since I have been in London I have very often wished that you, and Isabel, and Bertha were with me for a little while, to see what a number of strange things there are to be seen in this great overgrown town. London is so large a place that if the whole lake of Keswick, and the whole vale from the end of the Lake to Bassenthwaite, and from Skiddaw and Latrigg on one side to the foot of the mountains on the other were covered with houses, altogether would not make so great a city as London by one half. Think then what a huge place it must be; and all full of streets, with no gardens or fields; nothing to be seen but buildings on every side, and stone pavements under your feet, and such a smoky air overhead that you can hardly see what a blue sky is. And then such a number of carts and carriages, going all day long through the streets, and almost all night too; and such thousands and ten thousands of people; from morning till night the great streets are as full as Keswick is upon fair-day.

I arrived in London on May Day, which is a holiday for the chimney sweepers. All the chimney sweepers, little and great, on that day are dressed as fine as they can make themselves, with ribbons of all colours, and a great deal of gilding about them, and feathers in their caps; and they go about the streets with a wooden thing in one hand (such as the churchwardens carry about in church to collect money for a brief), and their brush in the other; and with these they make a clatter, and beg money from those who stop to look at them. They have generally a green man in company who is also called “Jack in the Bush,” because he is in the middle of a green bush, which covers him all over, head and all, so that you can see nothing but his feet, and he goes dancing with the rest. This bush is ornamented with ribbons, and I have seen them in former times half covered with bright pewter pots and dishes, which it must have been a great fatigue to carry about and dance under their weight, especially in a hot day, and being so shut up from the air. This Jack in the Bush is a comical sight, but I am sorry to say that it does harm by frightening horses: a poor curate in the adjoining parish of Tooting, the other day was thrown in consequence under the wheels of a stage coach, and it is not yet known whether he will recover from the dreadful hurts which he received. [1] 

But how would you like to see these chimney sweepers that are so very fine! I have seen you and Bell and Bertha look somewhat like them when you had dressed yourselves up; but you were never half so fine, because you had no gilt finery about your clothes. Moreover the sweeps beautify their faces in a remarkable manner. I will tell you how to do it if you wish to be as fine as they are. You know their faces are very smutty: they let the smut stay that they may be known for chimney sweepers: therefore to be like them you must first rub some soot upon your faces. Next, you must rub some whiting upon your cheeks and forehead, that there may be great white patches in the middle of the smut; and then upon the white you must rub a little rose pink, and upon that again here and there you must stick some beaten gold, so that the face may be black and white, and purple, and gilt: if you do this, you will then be as fine as so many chimney sweepers on the first of May. I must not forget to observe that the chimney sweepers make a feast with the money which is given them; and they are so fond of their holiday that they make the first of May last the whole of the week; so you may tell Edith that her birthday is not yet over in London.

If I were to describe the extraordinary things which I have seen in the shops only while walking along the streets, a whole letter would not afford sufficient room. I will only tell you, that in one window I saw a great many shaddocks, [2]  fresh from the West Indies, which fruit is like an orange, but as big as Cuthbert’s head; and that I saw two horns of the narwhale or sea-unicorn, one on each side of a shop door.

I came here yesterday, and return to town tomorrow, when I am to breakfast with Miss Wordsworth on the way. There is no room here to tell you about your little Welsh uncles, Alfred and Southey, nor about your little Welsh aunt, Georgiana. It is Isabel’s turn to have the next letter, and then I will write all about them, and about my little god-daughter, Bertha Vardon, [3]  who is your rival for the love of Mr. Nash, and calls him mon ami. However, don’t you be too jealous; I shall bring Mr. Nash home with me, and that will be a great advantage for you. ...

God bless you my dear child.

Your affectionate father,



* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856)
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), III, pp. 192–195. BACK

[1] Possibly Samuel Curlewis Lord (c. 1791–1867), who was from Tooting and was Curate of Tooting Graveney before becoming Vicar of West Barsham 1818–1853 and Rector of Farnborough 1853–1867. BACK

[2] The pomelo fruit. BACK

[3] Emily Bertha Vardon (1819–1891), Southey’s god-daughter. BACK

People mentioned

Southey, Isabel (1812–1826) (mentioned 3 times)
Nash, Edward (1778–1821) (mentioned 2 times)
Southey, Bertha (1809–1877) (mentioned 2 times)
Hill, Georgiana (1816–1873) (mentioned 1 time)
Hill, Alfred (b. 1815) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)
Streatham (mentioned 1 time)
Skiddaw (mentioned 1 time)