If it be accepted as an established fact that it is a "far cry to Loch Awe," it must also be conceded that, from a West-end point of view, Bethnal Green marks nearly the uttermost bounds of metropolitan civilisation, and that the upper end of the Hackney-road is almost the ultima Thule of the world of London. And it cannot be said that the beauties of the route - at all events of the route which was selected by the becry cabman who took charge of the present writer a couple of Saturdays ago - are at all calculated to lighten the tedium of the journey. The passage, for instance, of the defile of Orange-street, Red Lion square, is not calculated to produce an equable frame of mind at starting. This cheerful thoroughfare is always blocked up by a railway van; a ginger-beer cart, in charge of a small boy of hopelessly stolid aspect and preternatural obstinacy; a hand-barrow, the owner whereof is presumably solacing himself at the bar of the neighbouring public-house; and a hansom cab, the driver of which smiles pleasantly on the turmoil around him, and, save that at intervals he expectorates and swears pleasantly, manifests no signs of life, however much he may be adjured to "pull up 'arf a yard," or "jist back up agin the kerb." When he has sufficiently goaded his fellow-man to madness, he makes the desired concession - I believe that it is always the same man, and that he adopts this means of displaying his hatred of his kind - and leaves just room enough for you to pass between his wheels and those of the railway van. It is scarcely necessary to say that the gentleman in charge of this latter vehicle never by any chance makes way at all, but sits aloft chewing a straw, and grimly enjoying the sarcasm with which the boy who looks after the interior of the van relieves the monotony of the proceedings. Neither is he concerned when, after sending the hand-barrow flying among the foot-passengers, and knocking the ginger-beer boy among his bottles, your cabman wildly dashes his wheels against the rock of Pickford. He knows what will come of that - he has tried it often - and his grin of satisfaction, as you are wildly bumped from side to side, is even harder to hear than the shrill whistle with which his boy hails your misfortunes. Thus it happens that you emerge from Orange-street - at least I always do - in an agitated state of mind, scarcely to be soothed even by the gentle melancholy of Clerkenwell. However, those long lines of dull, shabby streets; of mean little houses distinguished only by the number and magnitude of the shining brass plates with which they are adorned; of narrow up and down thoroughfares, stretching away in endless succession to right and left, and reminding you a little of Bath in very reduced circumstances; of beer-houses and watchmakers, general shops and lodgings to let, speedily produce their ordinarily depressing effect, and prepare the mind by gentle degrees for the dirt and misery, the uncomfortable sights and sounds of Shoreditch and the adjacent neighbourhood. Through what back settlements I passed to reach the Cambridge-road, I shall in all probability never know. All that I can say of them with any certainty is, that they were not pleasant either to the eye or to the nose, and that they made the Cambridge-road itself, albeit as dry, and dusty, and uninteresting as the great desert of Sahara, quite a cheerful and pleasant thoroughfare by contrast.
Unaccustomed barouches are to be seen to-day in the Cambridge-road. A shining mail-phaeton stands before a Bethnal Green public-house, and the groom in charge, gorgeous as to his buttons, brilliantly black and delicately cream-coloured as to his top-boots, is burying his nose in an East-end pewter, not proud, but yet with a certain air of superiority and condescension refreshing to behold. A real live swell of the first brand (meeker he than the booted one) is contemplating, the shop of the dairyman who keeps his cows in the front parlour, and draws his milk "in your own jugs," as if it were bitter beer, or "cream of the valley;" and more elegant ladies' dresses stir the dust of Bethnal Green than Bethnal Green has ever seen before, except, perhaps in the process of manufacture, in which condition the neighbourhood is aware (painfully enough, sometimes) of silk, and familiar with lace, and feathers, and ribbons. But these novelties have no attraction to-day, even for a Saturday afternoon crowd, with plenty of time on its hands. There is something more attractive just round the corner. Horses and carriages, and even real live swells, your East-ender can see any day he may choose to make a journey westward; but to have a museum opened all for yourself, to have had it inaugurated with all sorts of state and ceremony by the Heir to the Throne, and to be able to go in and out free gratis and for nothing, as often as you like, are events the like of which are not of everyday occurrence in Bethnal Green. Thus it happens that the hardworking, struggling people of the East, and the curious dilettante of the West, who are attracted hither by the fame of Sir Richard Wallace's noble loan, agree for the time to sink their differences, and flock with one accord to the latest experiment of the indefatigable Mr. Cole.
The Bethnal Green Branch of the South Kensington Museum, as the new exhibition in the East is officially called, is our old friend the Brompton Boilers  removed from South Kensington, and, with certain alterations, put up in the heart of Bethnal Green. The attractions which the South Kensington part of the show offers to sight-seers are not exciting or interesting, but the liberality of Sir Richard Wallace has provided, in this remote part of London, such an exhibition of works of art, as it would be difficult to match in the proudest collections in the world. This gentleman, already well and favourably known to the poor of Paris as well as of London, may in truth be called the founder of this museum. Without his loan of the art treasures collected by the late Marquis of Hertford, a collection justly described in Mr. Cole's introduction to the catalogue as being of "almost unexampled beauty and value," it might perhaps not have been very easy to make the Bethnal Green Museum so attractive as to insure its immediate success. But, as it is, South Kensington is as lucky in the East as it has been in the West, and has secured at once, and without difficulty, a good start - one of the most important points for any enterprise, and more especially for an enterprise addressed in the main to ignorance, and exposed to the unreasoning prejudices too often entertained by the lower class of English people against art and all belonging to it.
If the stream of people flowing into the building is a goodly sign of success, the crowd inside is even better evidence still, and most satisfactory of all is the proof which is afforded by a bird's-eye view of the building from the upper gallery, and by a subsequent tour of the various departments, that the bulk of the people present are the very people for whose benefit the exhibition is intended. The fate of mechanics' institutes, of working-men's clubs, and other well-intentioned but perfectly futile attempts to get into the confidence of what are conventionally known as the working classes, and to help in some way the work of education from outside, might have inspired misgivings as to the probable success of the Bethnal Green Branch in the proper quarter. But the first glance at the people present is sufficient. Whether it is that gratuitous shows are rare in the north-east of London; whether it is that a love of art for its own sake actually exists in the Bethual Green breast; whether the prestige of a royal visit has anything to do with it, or whatever the cause may be, the result is clear. Sir Richard Wallace's collection attracts, literally, the people.
We are all here. From all parts of London, in all sorts of clothes, by all sorts of conveyances - Shanks's mare and the Marrowbone stage having I fancy, been most in request - we have come in our hundreds, if not in our thousands, and being here, seem determined to make the most of what is provided for us. We are here, three of us, in diaphanous muslins, in flyaway silks, in impossible bonnets, in paniers, high-heeled shoes, chignons, poudre de riz, and the rest of it. We don't know what it is to want anything, and know nothing of work except that it is "horrid," and not for the likes of us. With us is our escort, no whit behind us in splendour, though in a somewhat more subdued style, and we look through our eye-glasses, say rude things in an audible tone, and make ourselves generally objectionable in our usual manner, and in a perfectly natural and artless style, as it is our nature to do, being, as it is also our nature to be, perfectly satisfied with ourselves the while. We are here also, four of us, in alpaca, a good deal worn and rather faded; with poor little shawls and mantles, and crushed little bonnets - we must keep up with the fashions - or shapeless little hats; with odds and ends of ribbon, where no ribbon should be, and with generally vague ideas on the subject of the proper management of colours, which it is to be hoped Sir Richard Wallace may help to set right. Our escort has a fustian jacket and a fur cap, and has his barrow somewhere round the corner, and we know right well what it is to work hard for our scanty wage, and have often had a pretty good notion what starvation means. But we seem to take just as much interest in the beautiful things before us - albeit we have never seen such things before - as those resplendent beings to whom such sights are common, and we are satisfied, for the time being, with ourselves and our lot, and are just as free with our comments on our neighbours as if we had been born and bred in fashionable circles. We are here, whole families of us - small tradesfolk we - somewhat bewildered, but critical, and disposed, the elder of us, to improve the occasion with lectures, and to turn the Museum into an educational instrument for the benefit of the younger members of our families, a proceeding which reduces us younger branches (our name being also legion) to the lowest depths of gloom and misanthropy. Some of us have mounted our Sunday suits in honour of the occasion, some of us have come in our working clothes, many of us in all probability have to make one suit serve for work and play, and must perforce come in that, or stay away. We have come, having to do with the driving of sheep and cattle, in the long square-cut linen or holland coat with many pockets protected by huge flaps, in the tight horsey trousers, big ankle-jacks, mud-coated in the driest weather, and thick sticks, affected by our kind. We are shrewd-looking mechanics, engineers in linen working-jackets, railway porters in velveteen suits, carpenters, smiths, weavers, labourers: representatives, in fine, of all the countless industries of the industrious East. We are of as many and as widely different occupations as are celebrated in the old nursery line about "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, gentleman, apothecary, ploughboy," how does it end? Thief, I am afraid. And I am afraid also that even that branch of industry is not unrepresented among us. For we are, some of us, too slinking as to our walk, too stealthy as to our eye, too defiant and aggressive, and, at the same time, too cringing and mean as to our manner, not to be easily recognised. When we assume this shape we are as a rule too long in the neck, and much too narrow in the shoulders; our hair is suspiciously short, or greasily long; we are shabby rakes addicted to dirty finery, and our complexions have that peculiar muddy, unwholesome shade of colour, which seems, somehow, exactly adapted to the atmosphere of a metropolitan police-station, or of a low public-house singing-room. But being here (as we are, indeed, everywhere else) we cannot but feel that the exercise of our predatory instincts would be out of place, not to speak of the vigilant eye of the policeman being upon us, and we cast aside the responsibilities of business and enjoy ourselves with the best. "Father" and "mother" are here, be sure, old-fashioned in manner as well as in years, and rarely to be seen away from their own neighbourhood, for the young brood are all scattered, and there is no strong arm left to help the old people. Consequently, when mother, who, though old enough in all conscience, is still apple-checked and brisk, bustles cheerily up the stairs, father, who in the neatness of his poor dress, and the elaborate brushing of his old-world broad-brimmed hat, speaks volumes in favour of mother's care, is fain to rest, half-way, on his stick, and to reply to the cheerful call, "Come on, father," with a tired cough, and some little irritability of manner. Here also, of course, are Jones and his "old 'oman." Jones, a steady, persevering sight-seer, generally in some way connected with carpentering or upholstering, for ever pushing on, and sorely troubled by the old 'oman, who, dressed in the warmest clothing, is a perspiring and flame-coloured witness to the heat of the day, and would give anything to be allowed to sit down or go home. Young and old, men and women, boys and girls, rich and poor, we have all been invited to the feast, and have all come.
We have, as may be supposed, the most different views on matters of art, but unite on the common ground of colour, and when we see plenty of it, know we are all right. Thus a Dead Peacock and Hare, by Weeninx, brilliant in the brightest of blues and greens, makes all our world kin, and holds us in rapt and open-eyed admiration. An unmistakable costermonger remarks that it is "a fine thing;" two young ladies with a certain undefined air of sewing-machine somehow pervading their appearance, opine that it is a "gorgeous picture;" and one young gentleman in a large green tie, which serves admirably to set off the somewhat seedy state of the rest of his attire, remarks to his friend that it is a "splendid work." The friend, conspicuous by wearing, himself, a large portion of a peacock's feather in his wideawake hat, thinks it "stunning," but is even more impressed by a remarkable portrait of Her Majesty the Queen, by Sully, painted many years ago, which is a perfect dream of red and crimson. By-and-bye, no doubt, these worthy people will learn to look at the two noble Vandykes close by, which they now pass over with hardly a glance; but we must not expect too much all at once. All in good time, too, will come an eye for Sir Joshua, but Nelly O'Brien has now to look reproachfully from under her large hat at careless gazers, and the Strawberry Girl and Lady Conway must for the time go without their usual crowd of admirers. But we seem to respect the gift-horse proverb, and look at everything respectfully, even if we cannot understand or admire it all; except, indeed, when we come to allegory. Allegory almost always excites us to mirth, and even to derision, and it must be admitted that we have some reason for turning up our noses, educated or uneducated at Lemoyne's "Time revealing Truth," which not one of us fails to do. We are not quite up to Meissonier and the subtler French pictures (we are a little astonished at there being any French painters at all to begin with), but Decamp's Arabs, and Vernet's dashing soldiers and brigands, the blood-dripping sword of Allan M'Aulay, and the broken head of the dog of the regiment, come home to all our feelings, and it is a blow to us when even Vernet proves too much for us with the Apotheosis of Napoleon, which we pronounce "a rum go," and which we declare (and not with out reason) our inability to make out. Rosa Bonheur holds quite a levee of drovers, pale with admiration, and it is curious to notice that one of our favourite pictures is Ary Scheffer's noble Francesca di Rimini. It is true we can't quite make out what it is about, but there is no doubt we admire it hugely, and Costermonger Joe, who stands before it full of admiration, and explains his views to his party with much energy - the effect of the lecture a little marred by the goodly bunch of flowers the honest fellow will keep in the corner of his mouth - has quite a large and appreciative audience. The gentleman in the dress-coat and black satin waistcoat over yonder also attracts a considerable circle of listeners as he loudly expresses dissatisfaction with Mr. W. P. Frith's "Lady bringing in Wine on Salver," whom he avers to be identically the same individual as the "young gal in the print they calls ' Sherry, sir?' as hangs in the club-room," and is not to be appeased until reminded that the picture was painted by "'im as did the Derby Day," when he is somewhat mollified, and even goes the length of conceding that the picture is a "pretty thing." But being of a critical, not to say a carping disposition, he is presently to be found again addressing the public before Meissonier' s admirable "Polichinel," which he pronounces with great fervour to be "no more like Punch than it's like my Bill," and presently, overcome with disgust, leaves the building, to all appearance the only discontented man among us.
How we inspected the china, popularly described as " such a lot of cups and saucers," the beautiful vases, and miniatures, and objects of art generally; the Beauvais tapestry and old French chairs and sofas, stigmatised by an authority among us, with a carpenter's rule protruding from his breast-pocket, as "rig'lar shabby furniture ;" the Venetian thrones, which, in the opinion of the same authority, have been "just done up expensive," and all that we thought and said of all these things, there is no time or space to tell here. Neither is it necessary to chronicle the acute boredom and mental prostration which overcame most of us when we fell a prey to the Food Collection (although Mr. Cole does tells us it is one of the most popular divisions of the South Kensington Museum), or worse still, when we were claimed for its own by the Animal Products Collection, which is "intended to illustrate the various applications of animal substances to industrial purposes." It may be merely recorded that we took no interest in the quantity of water contained in rye, that albumen and gluten did not come home to our feelings, and that for the most part we looked with incredulity, if not with contempt, on the glass phials and cubes supposed to represent the chemical components of the human body. Nor did an exhibition of mushroom powder, of dried mushrooms, and of a bottle of mushroom ketchup, at all raise our spirits. Indeed, in this department all that we seemed curious about was the case containing the analyses of various kinds of liquors, and as that reminded us that the human body requires periodical refreshment, we generally withdrew after a brief examination of this part of the show.
We behaved ourselves admirably, as Londoners almost invariably do when the better side of their character is appealed to, and when they are trusted, as they are trusted here, to be, so to speak, themselves the guardians of order, and I have no doubt it would have gone hard with any one who had shown the smallest disposition to behave ill. And the worthy alderman who objected so much to the introduction of beer into Victoria Park some two or three years ago, may perhaps be surprised to hear that, although Mr. Cole has been rash enough to listen to the voice of the tempter, and to establish Spiers and Pond in the basement, the Bethnal Green Branch Museum is not in consequence turned into a "drunkery," and that no sign of any likelihood of an abuse of reasonable privileges was anywhere to be seen. As I left the building, people were still streaming into it in crowds, and I met many more evidently bound for the Museum as I made my way along the Cambridge-road. I could have no doubt that the complete success of the undertaking is thus early assured.
It had been an exciting week for Hackney and Bethnal Green, that last week of June, and an unmistakable morning-after air pervaded the neighbourhood on the Saturday. Two royal progresses - the Museum was opened on Monday, and the Princess Louise did her part of the good work by inaugurating an excellent children's hospital in the Hackney-road on Friday - are enough to try any neighbourhood, and had "taken it out" of Hackney considerably. The flags which had waved a welcome to the royal visitors were coming down very leisurely, and the tradesmen were taking their time about stripping the red and gold hangings and inscriptions from their shops. Indeed I saw one gentleman, evidently unable to bring his mind to the destruction of the elegant decoration which made his first-floor front so brave a show, who was calmly sitting at his open window and smoking a contemplative pipe, as if he were almost in hopes that the Prince of Wales might have forgotten something at the Museum, and might shortly be expected back that way to fetch it. It was hot in the Hackney-road and dusty, and there was much sitting in the gateways of brewhouses and outside taps, and much scraping of fiddles, and a general air of mild dissipation which was very seductive. So I did at Hackney as the Hackneys did, and poured a modest libation to the success of the Museum; and to the healths of Sir Richard Wallace, who nobly deserves the thanks not only of East London, but of his country at large, and of Mr. Cole, who has been one of the best abused men of his time, but who will perhaps in the long run be found to have done almost as much for the education of the working classes as any philanthropist of them all.
1] The South Kensington Museum, now known as the V&A Museum, was created for the 1851 Exhibition. The original building had an iron frame and was nicknamed the "Brompton Boilers". When the new, permanent building was almost complete, this iron frame was moved to the East End and the Bethnal Green Branch, the subject of this article, was set up. It's now the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. (THHOL)