As anyone that’s been hanging out with me for the past couple of years will attest, I’ve recently become more and more interested in nineteenth-century Margate. It’s not simply that my research affection for urban Bloomsbury has been superseded, as such, by a fascination for all things maritime and beachy. Rather, I’ve started to realise that much that captures my imagination about the West Central district of London between the 1820s and 1840s also applies to the North Kent coastal town, and that the two very different places nevertheless shared much in common, in terms of their role within the cultural politics of the time. Both of these sites were, in my understanding of this period, at the very front line of what we might call early nineteenth-century modernity, embodying what Greg Dart (2012) describes as a ‘Cockney’ class hybridity, at once democratically open and pretentiously vulgar.
The short poem below pays homage to a Margate contemporaneous with its publication in The Ingoldsby Legends – that idiosyncratic collection of poems, stories and other literary tit-bits written (though concealed by the Ingoldsby pseudonym) by the Reverend Richard Harris Barham, which began appearing in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1837, but which quickly assumed a book form in the 1840s. The Legends were immensely popular from the beginning, and beloved throughout the Victorian period, though now they’ve faded almost completely out of view, even in scholarly circles. A number of the book’s constituent parts render Margate, a place the author knew very well, but this one I particularly love for the way its form meets the tacky Cockneyism of the town, via its shoddy rhymes and lack of patience: its preference for effect over reflection. In literary historical terms, Barham is worth reading in order to recognise the continuities and discontinuities of earlier forms of satire (such as the mock-epic) with those that surface in this early Victorian period. But the poem’s chief value for me is in its work of constructing a new kind of lower-middle-class consumer hub within a literary genre more conventionally reserved for more sublime or beautiful landscapes. As the ‘Cheapside Buccaneer’ suggests, one can never escape London in this town, a (pleasantly) disconcerting moment for metropolitan readers who may have been conned into thinking the poem would take them away from themselves – to Margate, or Buenos Ayres (intriguingly, a row of houses near the beach possessed this street name). No, like the crews that ’embark so gay’, the poem leaves us to ‘disembark’ feeling rather ‘queer’, having just read a stanza that admits in its last lines how excessively ‘stiffly grand’ the whole experience has been:
I've stood in Margate, on a bridge of size Inferior far to that described by Byron, Where 'palaces and pris'ns on each hand rise, ' --That too's a stone one, this is made of iron-- And little donkey-boys your steps environ, Each proffering for your choice his tiny hack, Vaunting its excellence; and should you hire one, For sixpence, will he urge, with frequent thwack, The much-enduring beast to Buenos Ayres--and back. And there, on many a raw and gusty day, I've stood and turn'd my gaze upon the pier, And seen the crews, that did embark so gay That self-same morn, now disembark so queer; Then to myself I've sigh'd and said, 'Oh dear! Who would believe yon sickly looking man's a London Jack Tar,--a Cheapside Buccaneer!--' But hold my Muse!--for this terrific stanza, Is all too stiffly grand for our Extravaganza.