As it is today, so, during the earlier years of the present reign, both before and after the Great Exhibition of 1851, Hyde Park was the social parade ground, not only of the capital, but of the Kingdom. Then, as now, its human panorama was the representative reflection of the social conditions not less than of the typical personages of the era.

Throughout the later forties or the fifties, the loungers from the provinces were certainly not less numerous in Hyde Park than today. Foreign visitors were beginning to be a feature in the Metropolitan summer. But the scale on which the London season half a century ago was observed was so small as to resemble but faintly its successors known to the present generation. Society scarcely exceeded the dimensions of a family party. Hyde Park itself seemed a Royal pleasure ground first, a popular resort afterwards, to which strangers were, as to the Park at Windsor, admitted by favour of the first Constitutional Sovereign, to behold the pastimes of the rising generations of Royalty. The little boy and girl, steering their ponies through the maze of carriages, horses, or pedestrians, were the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal.

Observers noted with appreciative criticism the progress made from day to day by the young riders. Other of the Queen's descendants of age still more tender, followed with their parents in an open carriage, the exact build of which had been introduced by the Prince Consort, and were manifestly being instructed by their father or mother in the art of acknowledging gracefully the respectful salutations of spectators.

The company crowding the Park, and most familiar to London onlookers differed from the crowds of succeeding decades, first, in the monotony of its composition, secondly, in the commanding ascendancy of some among the individuals whom it numbered. This was a kind of feudal age in our social development. The monarch was surrounded by subjects, the splendour of whose station, or the lustre of whose endowments caused them to shine forth in their exalted firmament, with a light of their own not reflected by, though comparable with, that of Royalty itself. Two noblemen, during the first quarter of a century of the Queen's reign, one Scotch, the other English, seemed to eclipse the rest of the peerage. The Earl of Eglinton, of the period now referred to, was famous, even among Englishmen, from the tournament held some years earlier in 1839 at Eglinton Castle, and described by Mr Disraeli in his last novel, Endymion

.

The lady who had been the Queen of Beauty upon the occasion, the Duchess of Somerset, was then a synonym for all which women envy or men admire. When she appeared in Hyde Park, the crowd gazed at her carriage with the awed admiration that they bestowed on those born to thrones. North of the Tweed, Lord Eglinton summed up to his adoring countrymen, in his own person, all the influence, the dignity, the splendour, the power, and all the other attributes of greatness with which the principle of birth could be endowed. What Lord Eglinton was in Scotland, or to the natives of Scotland in London, Lord Lansdowne* had long been to all classes of Englishmen, not more in his native county than in London. Here, during the earlier Victorian seasons, he was conspicuous in Hyde Park, generally by his perfect demeanour of high breeding, specially by this blue coat and voluminous white neck investment. [*The grandfather of the fifth Marquess.]

Next to the representatives of the reigning family and to the statesmen who were the props of the young Queen's throne, the attention of the Hyde Park crowd was fixed upon a little group of gentlemen, remarkable for the perfection of their toilettes, and for the special attention manifestly bestowed upon their hair, not as today cut down to the scalp, but falling gracefully over the white collar. These were the dandies. The last of the tribe has not long passed away. But as a race they have left no successors.

No single element conspicuous in the Hyde Park of the later years of the Victorian era was absent from that earlier crowd at whose composition we have glanced. The social prominence of English plutocracy whether represented by the great money brokers, whom, Anglo-Saxon or Teutonic, Piccadilly has always known, or by Yorkshire Hudson, whom it knew fitfully during the short spell of his splendour, has been, from Elizabethan or still earlier times, a feature and a force in the social economy of the town. That which, seen between the Magazine and Apsley House, would have most surprised Hyde Park loungers in the early Victorian days, had they been able to lift the curtain of the future, is not the fact of the best coaches of the Four in Hand Club being owned by men whose names have no English sound, and whose taste for horseflesh is not hereditary; but rather the vogue now attained by prevailing bicycles.

The Princes and Princesses who once rode their ponies between Albert and Stanhope Gates are now bearing a part in the government of Empires, but are seldom for long unrepresented in the moving and glittering throng. The 'city' in the Row is not a novelty. Hyde Park is not today visited by early water drinkers who believe in the virtues of the probably forgotten spring in Kensington Gardens hard by. But not many hours after dawn, the novelty, as to early Victorian observers it would have seemed, may be witnessed of ladies and gentlemen issuing in bands from their Tyburnian or Kensingtonian homes to gain an appetite for breakfast, and a store of fresh air for the day's confinement, by making at least once the circuit of the Park while the roads are at their emptiest, and the dewdrops still glisten on the flowers. Something else than the extended popularity of London's most serviceable 'lung' is suggested by the contrast between Hyde Park as it is now, and as it was three or four decades since.

The dandies are not the only feature in the social landscape one looks for in vain. The commanding personalities of individuals of either sex which seemed common on every social plane thirty or forty years since have largely disappeared now. The levelling influences of a democratic epoch have reduced to a uniformity of unheroic proportions those who represent in our public places the interests, the occupations, the achievements, or the society of their day. It is called a prosaic age. It is certainly, as compared with its predecessors, a lilliputian one. At the very zenith of his power, Mr. Gladstone in the streets or parks of London, never fixed the attention of the crowd to the same degree as his political master, the great Sir Robert Peel. The adroit, accomplished, and singularly successful soldier, who, since the Duke of Cambridge's retirement, has been Commander-in-Chief, resembles the Duke of Wellington in stature.

The West End of London is beautified and rendered healthy by extensive parks, all affording ample scope for amusement and exercise to those resident in their vicinity -- viz., Hyde Park, lying between the roads extending westward from Piccadilly and Oxford Street, with Kensington Gardens at its western boundary; St. James's Park, stretching from Whitehall to Buckingham Palace, with the Green Park attached to the south side of Piccadilly; and the Regent's Park, situated to the north of Portland Place, with its vast area, including the gardens of the Zoological, Botanical, and Toxopholite Societies.

In Hyde Park, on the south side of the Serpentine, are the "Drive," and "Rotten Row," frequented during the "season" by the elite of London Society for equestrian and carriage exercise. No such assemblage of rank, fashion and female beauty is to be seen anywhere else as may be witnessed here any fine day in the months of May, June and July from twelve to two o'clock, and from four or five o'clock until seven. A short distance from Rotten Row (west) is the Albert Memorial.

Hyde Park is bounded on the north by the Uxbridge Road, on the east by Park Lane, on the south by Knightsbridge, and on the west by Kensington Gardens. It is an extensive piece of ground, containing nearly 400 acres, part of which is considerably elevated. The long sheet of water called the Serpentine greatly enriches the scenery of the Park, which is intersected with noble roads and lawns with luxuriant trees, planted singly and in groups, and presenting beautiful examples of diversified prospects. The great road through the Park leading to Kensington, called Rotten Row, is a fashionable resort of equestrians. The Great Exhibition of 1851 stood on the south side of the Park, on the site of which the memorial to the late Prince Consort is now erected.

Kensington Gardens adjoin Hyde Park at its western extremity, and contain about 250 acres. Here is situated Kensington Palace, surrounded by its charming gardens, and shaded by its fine old trees. These Gardens once formed part of the Park, but were cut off from the main plot by Queen Caroline, who enclosed them nearly as they stand at present.

Regent's Park is separated from Hyde Park by the numerous streets and squares intervening between Oxford Street and Marylebone New Road. It consists of a circular enclosure of about 400 acres, beautifully laid out, and enriched in the centre with a lake, plantations, shrubberies, and beautiful villas. The grounds of the Zoological, Botanical, and Toxophilite Societies are situated here. The extensive ranges of buildings surrounding the Park, forming splendid terraces variously designated, and all decorated with sculpture in agreement with their respective orders of architecture, produce an effect of beauty and grandeur rarely witnessed. The Regent's Park is surrounded on the north-west, north, and north-east by the Regent's Canal, across which there are bridges at several of the entrances.

Exerpts from: The London Season; Louis T. Stanley. London and fashionable resorts; J. P. Segg & Co., Publishers, 1892.

Copyright © Angel.S 1997 : avictorian.com