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The wreck of the Hesperus

Whenever I recall my maternal grandparents – which I do often, with great affection – I can hear their voices in my head. In my memory, their accents are like the ones you hear in old war movies, where actors like Sir John Mills played the chirpy cockney Londoner.  Those quaint London accents have long since disappeared. But I realise that my day-to-day conversation contains some lovely old figures of speech absorbed from the grandparents, with their idioms which saturated my childhood.

My grandmother was born in the year that Queen Victoria died, and so she was technically a Victorian, although of course she actually grew up in the reign of  Edward the seventh. I now realise that the adages and sayings which I associate with my her are remnants of those Edwardian times. Perhaps they are reflections of expressions she and my grandfather had heard from their own Victorian parents.

To a great extent, they’re   based in the popular entertainment of those days before cinema (at least, before talkies), and TV. And the popular entertainment of the times was the music halls. I suppose the grandparents were employing popular catch-phrases that everyone had picked up from nights out at the pubs and the halls, much as we do today with phrases from TV and cinema.

Will our great-grandchildren still be using phrases such as “I’ll be back”, or “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”, or even “May the force be with you!”, and wonder where on earth their great-grandparents had heard them?

My Old Dutch

When they weren’t bickering or fighting, my grandfather would sometimes refer to his spouse as “old dutch”. Sometimes this would be elongated, in phrases such as “I don’t know, go and ask the duchess”.

Some etymologists consider that this originated as rhyming slang – Duchess of Fife – wife. However, the Dukedom of Fife wasn’t created until late Victorian times, and duchess and its shortened form – dutch, as a term of affection for a wife or mother – was in use from at least the 1700s.

Mr Albert Chevalier

I think my grandparents used the phrase after hearing it in turn from their own parents, who in turn must have heard it in the London music halls. These were a huge part of all their lives. I’d been taught a whole batch of music hall songs at a very early age, some of them decidedly risque. I’m sure that they’d picked up the phrase from the famous song by the great music hall artist Albert Chevalier – you can hear him sing a scratchy rendition of it on YouTube:

We’ve been together now for forty years, and it don’t seem a day too much ,
There ain’t a lady living in the land, that I’d swap for my dear old Dutch.


“You look like the wreck of the Hesperus !”

How often I’d hear that phrase, when rushing off to school, uniform askew, after too late a start. So where on earth did this one come from? It’s actually a poem by Longfellow, published in 1842. I would not be surprised if the grandparents had learned parts of this at school. It’s in simple ballad form, tells a story, and has the sort of moral ending that Victorians and Edwardians loved – pride comes before a fall.

It was the schooner Hesperus
That sailed the salty sea,
And the skipper has taken his little daughter
To bear him company.

The skipper won’t shelter from a hurricane, believing that his sailing skills will allow him to weather the storm. You can guess the rest.

On the parish

I was bought up in a household of hardened tea drinkers.  A cardinal sin was to brew weak tea. If such a transgression occurred, the offending cup was returned to the maker with the riposte, “it’s too weak to throw itself on the parish!”.

This phrase originated in the days before the introduction of a National Health Service, and the safety net of the Welfare State. What if you fell upon hard times, or succumbed to  illness,  and your family could not offer support? Your only option was to apply for Parish Relief.

Poor Laws were first formally implemented in Elizabethan times. Each parish was responsible for the support of any of its parishioners who needed help. In order to prevent malingerers, recipients were subject to strict conditions. You might have to reside at the Poor House (later, Workhouses), under a harsh penal regime, with scant food and hard work. It really was an option of last resort.

Workhouse at St Marylebone, London


I can imagine the shudder of fear that a Victorian family might feel at the thought of not being able to work,  or to earn money to live. Researching my own London family tree, I found several instances of forebears being evicted from their lodgings and the entire family sent to the workhouse.

Interestingly, my cordwainer ancestors in Shoreditch suffered a collapse in earnings in the 1840s. This was  most probably because of the competition from the newly-opened factories in Northamptonshire, making mass-produced shoes. The whole family of nine went to the workhouse.  Throwing yourself on the parish was bad news.

Blind O’ Reilly!

This is my go-to phrase to express surprise. I realise now that it permeated family conversation when I was a child. I have only recently researched its origins – and found that there is some dispute as to its source.

Martin O’Reilly was a famous Irish pipe player in Victorian times, dying in 1904. He became blind and so had to support himself by playing the pipes. O’Reilly  played professionally throughout Ireland, but I can’t find any evidence he crossed over to Britain to perform. Perhaps his fame crossed the Irish sea by repute.

Arguing against this suggestion, The Cassell Dictionary of Slang believes it comes from the 1940s, and mentions a Liverpool Trade Unionist with this same nickname.

And to add to the fun, there was also a Victorian music hall song about an Irish hotelier, who lived the high life – hence the phrase – “the life of Reilly”. It had the chorus:

Are you the O’Reilly that keeps this hotel?
Are you the O’Reilly they speak of so well?
Are you the O”Reilly they speak of so highly?
Gor blimey O”Reilly, you’re looking well.

Blimey O’Reilly is bandied about probably as much as Blind O’Reilly – although not in my family, as I recall.  I wonder if the two versions refer to the same source, or if they are completely independent. Who knows?  Myself, I prefer to imagine the blind Irish piper, whose name and fame lives on.


When two or more Londoners are gathered together, they shall use Wotcha! as a salutation, both as a hello and a goodbye. It’s the law. But it isn’t a corruption of watch you – watch yer.  It’s actually a question – What cheer? And it’s an ancient phrase, first noted in mediaeval times. Cheer is used in the sense of a person’s mood or disposition, so the question really is “what sort of mood are you in today then ?”.  Incidentally, I have been told that the Scots use a similar idiom, by asking “Whit like?”.

Inevitably though, we are back to the music halls. Mr Chevalier again immortalised the phrase. Up to Victorian times it had been in universal use, at least throughout the south-east, but he forever appropriated it for Londoners. And all through this song:

 “Wot cher” all the neighbours cried,
“Who you gonner meet, Bill?”
“Have you bought the street, Bill?
“Laugh!  I thought I should ‘ave died –
Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road.

And another music hall great, Harry Champion sang this one , seamlessly linking the two great cockney attributes of cheerfulness and sociability (oh, and of course, beer):

Wot cher me old brown son, how are yer?
Wot cher me old brown son!
If you’ve got some money and some time to spare,
Come and have a tiddley at the Old Brown Bear…….

Hiding in plain sight

When I actually think about these phrases, I do feel a bit of a shiver down the spine. They are used in my everyday speech without a second thought. But on reflection, they are in fact an echo of a long-dead Edwardian world, a key that opens a door into lives lived a hundred years ago.

       For James and Florence


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