The Silk-hat Brigade

Last week I stumbled across a beautifully-illustrated article in a copy of the London Magazine from 1906. ‘Time is Money’ was written by Ladbroke Black and illustrated by Frank Craig. Ahead of the Monday morning commute, I’ve put together some choice extracts from Black’s text describing the ethos and routines of the City in the early twentieth century. The extracts are accompanied by a selection of Craig’s evocative illustrations.

‘Already on the platform the silk-hatted brigade are assembling. Friends and acquaintances greet one another, but ardent cordiality is not the note of these greetings. For each man has in his hand a morning paper, business has already begun, and the time occupied in getting to the City may not be wasted in frivolities or the exchange of empty civilities.’


‘The most unobservant man must have noticed the strange inability of a British crowd to make any concerted move in a given direction without indulging in a sort of football scrummage; and never is this curious racial characteristic more apparent than when the silk-hat brigade is let loose on the terminus platform. With hats pressed firmly on their heads, with sticks or umbrellas grasped almost menacingly in their hands, they stampede towards the ticket barrier … on all the fever of money-making has settled and their one object is to get to work without wasting a second of Time.’


‘They swarm in crowds through the streets converging in long lines from Broad Street, Liverpool Street, Cannon Street, and Fenchurch Street, swelling as they meet into a veritable army of top hats, that again gradually dissolves as the hurrying units dive like rabbits into the vast office warrens in the neighbourhood of the Exchange.’


‘On his desk, deep-piled with letters, stands a telephone; by his side hangs a speaking-tube, and with the aid of these apparently simple instruments he can communicate with the farthest corners of the globe without moving from his chair.’


‘Faster and more furious works the human machine as the afternoon draws in … To make money – that is the purpose that underlies all this effort. Many fall in the fight daily. Vast fortunes are accumulated as if by magic, and as if by magic dissolved.’

So much has altered since the publication of Black’s article, particularly in terms of technology, fashion and gender. The uniformity of the appearance of the men (all men) in Craig’s gorgeous illustrations is not quite replicated on the streets of the City today. With Skype, Twitter, email and so on, we might find the notion of communications ‘with the farthest corners of the globe’ using only the telegraph and a telephone mildly comical. Yet some aspects of commercial life in London appear almost unchanged between then and now. Most notably, the cramped, anti-social mechanics of the journey itself; but equally we are able to recognise the acquisitive rush towards financial gain in the City – regardless of the human cost. Enjoy the Monday commute!


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