Instructive Rambles in London and the Adjacent Villages

Okay, this morning I am indebted to Andy who told me about this extraordinary ‘book of its time’, a volume I had heard of but was unaware had anything much to do with Greenwich. Thanks to Andy I’ve had a fascinating couple of hours and am extremely behind with Real Work.

First published in 1798 Elizabeth Helme’s Instructive Rambles… was ‘designed to amuse the mind, and improve the understanding of youth.’ I’d challenge most 9 to 11 year olds to actually understand the language today.

Helme had high hopes – ‘to blend instruction with amusement’, ‘ shew the necessity of all evil propensities being crushed in infancy,’ to inculcate a love of study, industry, charity, duty to parents &c. has been my wish; and to equally to discourage idleness, dissatisfaction with our situation, vanity, falsehood, and arrogance.’

One look at the chapter headingss will tell you that we’re not just going on a sightseeing tour of London and Environs, but we are to be instructed too. Here are some of my favourite bits:

  • The beggarwoman’s story – the disadvantages of a Bad Character.
  • A Roman incampment, Queen Elizabeth alarmed by Beggars – a meeting with two sailors.
  • Idleness punished.
  • The Longevity of a Tortoise
  • The Inconvenience of Too Much Money
  • A Ramble to Westminster Abbey (presumably in 1798 one could still ‘ramble’ to Westminster Abbey…)
  • A Skill in Needlework Necessary to Females
  • Of a dwarf
  • On the Courage Necessary For Females…a Good Disposition to be Preferred to Genius or Aquirements


So. The basic story is that of Mr Richardson, a ‘considerable merchant of the City of London,’ who, a year ago, lost his wife to some unnamed illness. His children, Charles, 11, and Mary, 9, have been placed with a Mrs Bennett in Reading but, it would seem, he’s started to get a bit worried about their moral wellbeing, and he’s finally come to claim them.

This Mrs Bennett is, I can only assume, a prototype of another Georgian Mrs Bennett. She is a lady ‘well meaning but a woman of weak understanding,’  educated with Mr Richardson’s late wife but unlike the dead woman who was a veritable paragon of virtue – ‘reflective and domestic, an affectionate wife, a tender monther, beneficent friend to the poor’, etc etc., has ‘an inclination for gaiety and expence,’ is  ’thoughtless and fond of pleasure, which she knew not how to procure, execpt in the dissipation of the great world’.

Mr Richardson gets there only just in time. Charles is ‘reflective and serious’, but needing instruction and becoming proud. Mary – oh, Mary. Mary is ‘lively and volatile,’ needing  not only instruction but the ‘curb of restraint’. Without Mr Richardson’s intervention, she looks as though she will turn into the weak-minded horror that is Mrs B. There’s nothing for it. Mr Richardson will have to take his children on some instructional walks – and what better schoolroom than the great metropolis?

The book is in two volumes. Chapter XV – An Excursion to Greenwich – A Visit to the Cavern at Blackheath is in the second. You can get it as a POD volume, but Andy told me to search for it on Google Books.

What interests me most about it is what Mr Richardson chooses to take his children to in Greenwich – both things so very 18th Century – to gawp at the poor people in Greenwich Hospital, and a scary trip down a recently-discovered dark hole.

The first trip is to the hospital.

“On their reaching the hospital the children were greatly pleased, and Mary exclaimed, in a rapture, “Ah, papa, you might well call it magnificent! This is indeed a palace! Look, too, at the old men, how clean and merry they appear! I shall always love the memory of King William for this noble generous gift!”

“The institution, returned Mr Richardson, “is indeed higly to the honour of all concerned; for our seamen, after experienceing the hardhsips and dangers of a maritime life, have a just claim to expect to finish their days sheltered from want and the vicissitudes of fortune; and it certainly must be a consolatory reflection to them, that in case of necessity they have such an asylum.”

I can’t decide whether I like best that Mary goes into raptures over old sea dogs,  that Mr Richardson is quite happy to use phrases like ‘vicissitudes of fortune’ and ‘consolotory reflection’ to a 9 year old or that the pensioners appear both ‘clean’ and ‘merry’ in this alternate-universe version of Greenwich.

But there is no time to linger. They spend too long in the park, and have to get a carriage to an inn (no name, sadly), where they eat a hasty meal and then proceed “to view the curious cavern discovered in the year 1780, on the left side of the ascent to Blackheath; and having procured a guide, they entered it.”

This would have been the thing to do, I guess. Only rediscovered eighteen years previously, and, if memory serves, with the added attraction of a bloke with a pair of bellows up the top, puffing air into a special hole to provide some sort of air circulation, after the death from asphyxiation of 19 year old Lucy Talbot, the cave was open to all at 6d a throw.

I’m going to copy the whole visit below. What interests me (apart from the fact that they were going down god-knows-how-many steps to the light of one lanthorn) is what they DON’T see. This is before the days of there being a bar down there, or chandeliers, and before any of the lurid carvings that later writers mention. There’s no way small children – even as prim as these two – wouldn’t notice a giant carved devil’s head. I still see in modern ‘esoteric’ books that this head is automatically ‘ancient’ and therefore proof the cave was used as some kind of ritual ceremonial place. But if it was, it was after this, not in the time of ancient Britons.

But anyway, before I get on my hobby horse again – here it is:

The guide led the way with a lanthorn, down a regular flight of steps composed of chalk, and at least fifty feet from the surface of the earth, at the entrance, and, as the guide informed them, at the extremity of the cavern 160 feet. They then reached the apartments, which are seven in number, and where the guide lighted up candles. Some of these apartments are from twelve to thirty-six feet wide each way and have a communication with each other by archsed avenues.

The sides and roof of these are chalk, the bottom of sand: some of the apartments have large conical domes, upwads of thirty six feet high, supposted by columns of chalk, and in one of them is a well of very fine water, twenty-seven feet deep.

Charles and Mary were not soon weary of exploring this cavern: but Mr Richardson observing the latter shuddered; and complained of extreme cold, desired the guide to lead the way out.

“How amazingly curious!” said Mary, as they reached the top of the stairs, and again beheld the rays of the sun, which was setting as splendidly as possible for the last of October, “yet how gladly do I again see the cheerful light! I shall heareafter consider it with redoubled pleasure; for how dreadful must a dwelling be where it never enters!”

At this point, Mr Richardson sees the opportunity for a little moral instruction:

“Dreadful indeed!” resumed her father. “Yet how many are condemned to labour in the bowels of the earth where no beam of cheering sunshine can ever perfortate to dig for metals and minerals for the use of their more fortunate fellow creatures, who never consider the sorrow and labour they have been produred with!”

Charles is having none of it, following with this delightfully Age of Enlightenment non-sequitur:

“My dear Sir,” said Charles “when I have made myself master of the history of my own country, I know no study that would afford me so much pleasure as natural history.”

“You are perfectly right, Charles,” answered his father. “No pursuit is more pleasant, nor better calculated to improve the mind; I therefore think your intention commendable.


So there you have it. The whole book is fascinating, and I do recommend you take a peek at the (very short) Greenwich chapter. In the meanwhile, I leave you with its end:

Then they entred the coach, which was waiting for them and conversed gaily until they reached town, when it being late, they took leave of their father for the night.

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