In a radio programme broadcast on Christmas Eve 1950, the poet John Betjeman invited listeners to join him at a Victorian musical evening…
“A large coal fire is leaping in the grate; fans and watercolours are hung upon the walls… In another room is a piano and beside it a silk screen, Louis Seize style. The folding doors of the sitting room have been thrown open into the dining room to make the place bigger. We are warm, well fed and ready to be entertained. It is a suburban evening in the 1890s and some friends have come in with their music.”
And amongst the friends at this imaginary gathering is Charles Pooter, from George and Weedon Grossmith’s comic novel “The Diary of a Nobody” …and it is Mr Pooter who is invited to open the evening…
“We shall have ‘Twickenham Ferry’ - Mr Pooter, will you sing that? It is suited to all tenor voices and oh! the ripple of the air suggests the long, lazy wave of brown Thames water down where the river is nearly tidal and rowing boats must take care…”
And so, being something of a Victorian party animal and “Twickenham Ferry” such a recent hit, Mr Pooter duly obliged…
"Ahoy! and O-ho! and it's who's for the ferry?" (The briar's in bud and the sun going down) "And I'll row ye so quick and I'll row ye so steady, And t'is but a penny to Twickenham Town." The ferryman's slim and the ferryman's young, With just a soft tang in the turn of his tongue; And he's fresh as a pippin and brown as a berry, And t'is but a penny to Twickenham Town. "Ahoy! and O-ho! and it's I'm for the ferry," (The briar's in bud and the sun going down) "And it's late as it is and I haven't a penny-- Oh! how can I get me to Twickenham Town?" She'd a rose in her bonnet, and oh! she look'd sweet As the little pink flower that grows in the wheat, With her cheeks like a rose and her lips like a cherry-- "It's sure but you're welcome to Twickenham Town," "Ahoy! and O-ho!"--You're too late for the ferry, (The briar's in bud and the sun has gone down) And he's not rowing quick and he's not rowing steady; It seems quite a journey to Twickenham Town. "Ahoy! and O-ho!" you may call as you will; The young moon is rising o'er Petersham Hill; And, with Love like a rose in the stern of the wherry, There's danger in crossing to Twickenham Town.
Oh, the danger of crossing to Twickenham Town! What else might that ‘little pink flower’ lose on the Twickenham Ferry - apart from her heart? As John Betjeman acknowledged, this roguishness was down to the song’s eccentric composer and lyricist Théo Marzials, (1850-1920). In his Christmas Eve broadcast Betjeman described him as “a picturesque figure, with flowing moustaches, long hair and a silk tie that fell in folds over the lapels of his coat.” So offbeat was Marzials that one day in the silence of the Reading Room at the British Museum, while Karl Marx was quietly working below on his masterwork “Das Kapital”, Marzials leant over the gallery and shouted, “Am I or am I not the darling of the Reading Room!?”
At the end of a bohemian life Marzials retired to Colyton in Devon where he became quite a figure in the local community. He attended all the local concerts and musical soireés where, to the consternation of all, he would often criticise, sometimes quite rudely, the efforts of the performers, even standing up and showing them how it should be done!
Of the few visitors he had in Colyton, one, a Mr F.G Skinner wrote…
“Theo had one fair sized room with a single bed, occupying it day and night. By his bedside was a small table on which there always seemed to be a saucer containing sliced beetroot in vinegar so that the room always smelt of this, together with the odour of chlorodyne (a draught containing opium, cannabis and chloroform!) which he took to induce sleep…There was also a huge stockpot on a stove into which he threw all sorts of odds and ends so that he had a kind of perpetual stew. He was sometimes seen and heard walking bare-footed in the garden in the small hours. He would sing in a very soft, low voice and now and then take a flower between his fingers, bend down and kiss it, and murmur, “Oh My Pretty!”
Théo Marzials, author, oddball and the last of the Victorian aesthetes, died on February 2nd 1920 and was buried at Colyton under a stone cross saying “Fight the Good Fight of Faith”.
Meanwhile, back with Mr Pooter at John Betjeman’s musical evening, thoughts were turning back to the river…
“The refreshments are over and only one more song is to be sung. Let it be that most famous of all of Théo Marzial’s songs and lyrics, “The River of Years”…”
Stay, steerman, Oh! stay thy bark, The storm is here and the night is dark I fear the light and the foam afar And the great waves crashing against the bar. 'Nay' said Time, 'we must not bide, 'Tho storms may gather and seas divide, For daylight is fair Yet daylight is fair on the other side.'
I think it would have reassured the ‘little pink flower’ on the Twickenham Ferry. …and the guests in that Victorian parlour so long ago.
The Jubilee Duettists singing ‘Twickenham Ferry’ 1933
If you haven’t already read The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith then you really should. Although it was indifferently reviewed when first published in 1892 it has since revealed itself to be one of the funniest and most amiable books in the English language tackling issues that are still relevant today like suburban life, D.I.Y, sucking up to the boss and worrisome children.
– from Martyn Day