Borough Insight

What the Dickens?

This year is the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens. In June 1851, Dickens describes a visit to Epsom for the Derby which he visited many times in the 1850s.dickens

A straggling street, an undue proportion of inns, a large pond, a pump, and a magnificent brick clock case, make up— with a few more
touches not necessary to be given here—the picture of the metropolis of English racing and the fountain of Epsom salts.

For three hundred and sixty-four days in the year a cannon-ball might be fired from one end of Epsom to the other without endangering human life. On the three hundred and sixty-fifth, or Derby Day, a population surges and rolls, and scrambles through the place, that may be counted in millions.

Epsom during the races, and Epsom at any other time, are things as unlike as the Desert of Sahara and the interior of the Palace of Glass in Hyde Park.House

A railway takes us, in less than an hour, from London Bridge to the capital of the racing world, close to the abode of its great man, who is — need we add!—(Henry Dorling)  the Clerk of the Epsom Course.

We are presented to the official. He kindly conducts us to the Downs, to show how the horses are temporarily stabled; to initiate us into some of the mysteries of the " field; " to reveal to us, in fact, the private life of the race-horse.

Well, to be sure, there never was such a Derby Day, as this present Derby Day!

Never, to be sure, were there so many carriages, so many fours, so many twos, so many ones, so many horsemen, so many people who
have come down by " rail," so many fine ladies in so many broughams, so many of Fortnum and Mason's hampers, so much ice and champagne!

If I were on the turf, and had a horse to enter for the Derby, I would call that horse Fortnum and Mason, convinced that with that name he would beat the field. Public opinion would bring him in somehow.

Look where I will—in some connexion with the carriages— made fast upon the top, or occupying the box, or tied up behind, or dangling below, or peeping out of window—I see Fortnum and Mason. And now, Heavens! all the hampers fly wide open, and the green Downs burst into a blossom of lobster-salad!


(Edited extracts from the weekly newsletter, Household Words, 7 June 1851)

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