Thomas De Quincey on the sewers as a conduit for small boys from Winchester College to the downtown pubs

With his guide to the Ziph language, and with the death of a Savoyard organ-grinder’s white mouse, of which he was probably not the author in any sense.

The Mousie's Funeral, from <i>The Sunbeam</i> in 1882.

The Mousie's Funeral, from The Sunbeam in 1882. Image: Internet Archive.

James Hogg published and assisted Thomas De Quincey in the 1850s, his final decade, and so I wondered briefly whether “The Autobiography of an Unrecognised Genius” printed in the annual anthology of Hogg’s Instructor in 1852 might not be some forgotten ravings by every literate teenager’s favourite narcomaniac. But though there are coincidences of location and habit, I don’t believe this excerpt from a night spent by the Unrecognised Genius in the lodgings of some Italian (“Savoyard”) organ grinders to be the work of the Opium-Eater:

One little fellow was in deep distress. One of the white mice, by exhibiting which he earned his livelihood, had drooped and fallen ill during the day; on his way home for night he had bought for it a bit of sweet cake, but the poor little animal refused to eat. He had been coaxing it all evening; and, now that it lay motionless, save that it panted and gasped for breath, he hung over it, and nursed it with most assiduous attention. His care was all in vain; he placed a few crumbs of cake near its lips; it seemed to be sensible of his affection, looked up in his face, crawled an inch or two to his hand, and, when he raised it to his face, licked his lips as it had been wont to do, and with a slight struggle died. The tears had been oozing out from his eyelids, and trickling one by one down his cheeks for some time, while he watched his poor favourite in its pain; but now that it was quite dead, he burst into a fit of passionate weeping, and refused to be comforted. It was delightful to see how all these poor creatures shared his grief. The Savoyard who had brought me with him used all his efforts to pacify the poor little fellow; and in a few minutes these men and boys, each contributing a trifle, had collected him a sum twice the value of the mouse he had lost. My Savoyard raised his head, and, giving him the money tried to comfort him; but the child shook his head mournfully; thanked them for their kindness; said, it was not the money he cried about, but it was his favourite little mouse; and, looking again at his lifeless pet, which he still pressed to his bosom, he broke out into sobs. Long after the inmates of the room had closed their eyes in sleep, I heard a sob or a sigh break from his breast, as he dreamed of the companion of many a weary walk, and the sharer of many a scanty meal.

Still, De Quincey’s 1853 Autobiographic Sketches are certainly closer than the 1822 Confessions to Victorian muricide. The following passage from the former reminded me of a distinguished Ordnance Survey cartographer, John Crickmay, who used to bellow like a bull through the culverts on the water meadows at St Cross, Winchester, to the alarm of passersby and the delight of small children:

Dr. Mapleton, a physician in Bath, who attended me in concert with Mr. Grant, an eminent surgeon, during the nondescript malady of the head, happened to have had three sons at Winchester; and his reason for removing them is worth mentioning, as it illustrates the well-known system of fagging. One or more of them showed to the quick medical eye of Dr. Mapleton symptoms of declining health; and, upon cross questioning, he found that, being (as juniors) fags (that is, bondsmen by old prescription) to appointed seniors, they were under the necessity of going out nightly into the town for the purpose of executing commissions; but this was not easy, as all the regular outlets were closed at an early hour. In such a dilemma, any route, that was barely practicable at whatever risk, must be traversed by the loyal fag; and it so happened that none of any kind remained open or accessible, except one; and this one communication happened to have escaped suspicion, simply because it lay through a succession of temples and sewers sacred to the goddesses Cloacina and Scavengerina. That of itself was not so extraordinary a fact: the wonder lay in the number, viz., seventeen. Such were the actual amount of sacred edifices which, through all their dust, and garbage, and mephitic morasses, these miserable vassals had to thread all but every night of the week. Dr. Mapleton, when he had made this discovery, ceased to wonder at the medical symptoms; and, as faggery was an abuse too venerable and sacred to be touched by profane hands, he lodged no idle complaints, but simply removed his sons to a school where the Serbonian bogs of the subterraneous goddess might not intersect the nocturnal line of march so very often.

One day, during the worst of my illness, when the kind-hearted doctor was attempting to amuse me with this anecdote, and asking me whether I thought Hannibal would have attempted his march over the Little St. Bernard,—supposing that he and the elephant which he rode had been summoned to explore a route through seventeen similar nuisances,—he went on to mention the one sole accomplishment which his sons had imported from Winchester. This was the Ziph language, communicated at Winchester to any aspirant for a fixed fee of one half guinea, but which the doctor then communicated to me—as I do now to the reader—gratis. I make a present of this language without fee, or price, or entrance money, to my honored reader; and let him understand that it is undoubtedly a bequest of elder times. Perhaps it may be coeval with the pyramids. For in the famous “Essay on a Philosophical Character,” (I forget whether that is the exact title,) a large folio written by the ingenious Dr. Wilkins, Bishop of Chester, and published early in the reign of Charles II., a folio which I, in youthful days, not only read but studied, this language is recorded and accurately described amongst many other modes of cryptical communication, oral and visual, spoken, written, or symbolic. And, as the bishop does not speak of it as at all a recent invention, it may probably at that time have been regarded as an antique device for conducting a conversation in secrecy amongst bystanders; and this advantage it has, that it is applicable to all languages alike; nor can it possibly be penetrated by one not initiated in the mystery. The secret is this—(and the grandeur of simplicity at any rate it has)—repeat the vowel or diphthong of every syllable, prefixing to the vowel so repeated the letter G. Thus, for example: Shall we go away in an hour? Three hours we have already staid. This in Ziph becomes: Shagall wege gogo agawagay igin agan hougour? Threegee hougours wege hagave agalreageadygy stagaid. It must not be supposed that Ziph proceeds slowly. A very little practice gives the greatest fluency; so that even now, though certainly I cannot have practised it for fifty years, my power of speaking the Ziph remains unimpaired. I forget whether in the Bishop of Chester’s account of this cryptical language the consonant intercalated be G or not. Evidently any consonant will answer the purpose. F or L would be softer, and so far better.

As elite cryptography or obfuscation of a casual nature, Ziph is a cousin of transpositional, proto-spoonerist tongues like Marrowsky, Medical Greek, and Gower Street Dialect – see this piece by Pascal Tréguer. I have met something like it before amongst the Lower Orders, but can’t remember where.

Obviously I didn’t go to Winchester College, or I would own more organs, as well as a barrel of monkeys. I was however sometimes introduced into the chapel on Sunday mornings (not via the sewers), and there I met Edward Heath, who I am sure would have been utterly uninterested in any of this.

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