History Of Madame Tussaud's
( Originally Published 1920 )
Tussaud's during the war—Chameleon crowds—The psychology of courage-Men of St. Dunstan's—Poignant memories—Our watch-man's soliloquy.
UNDER the stress of war many strange things revealed themselves at Tussaud's—things by no means easy to define, subtle, illusive, immaterial, difficult to comprehend and hard to describe.
At the outbreak of hostilities the attendance suffered a severe check. This disquieting effect was in the main, I believe, due to the great wrench suffered by the public mind through the country's sudden transition from the normal condition of peace to a strenuous state of war. But as each month passed the flow of visitors steadily increased in volume, until it far exceeded that of pre-war days.
By the time the manhood of the Empire had, in a great measure, doffed its sombre everyday suit and donned khaki, khaki became the dominant colour of the throng that filled the Exhibition rooms.
With this change in attire there came a marked alteration in its demeanour. Usually sedate and re-served, it now betrayed—in startling contradiction to all reasonable expectations—a cherry, devil-me-care character which, curious to relate, resolved itself into a tone unmistakably flippant; a mental attitude to which we soon realised we must give our careful consideration.
He would indeed have been a poor psychologist who had taken this outward showing as a true indication of the feelings of our brave fellows; for it was obviously but the assumption of that demeanour so strongly characteristic of the British disposition, that of facing an ugly job in a cheerful spirit.
It was the ready answer to the pessimist, "If it's got to be done, what's the use of being miserable about it?"—a philosophical bearing that perhaps found its deepest _expression in their "Cheerio !" and insouciant wave of the hand bidding farewell to wife, mother, and child ere turning to face the grim realities and dread uncertainty of war.
To keep pace with the stirring and ever-fluctuating events of the day, large maps of the battle areas were specially produced for the Exhibition, and lectures were given before them, explaining our varying for-tunes in the great conflict. It was in the giving of these lectures that we were soon able to take a fairly correct measure of the disposition of our visitors.
They were, first of all, delivered on somewhat academic lines, with, perhaps, too pronounced an idea of imparting instruction rather than that of affording entertainment. It was soon found that if the attention of our visitors was to be held, it was necessary to adopt a more optimistic and lively, if not an almost bantering, tone if the dissertation were to receive any real mark of appreciation on the part of those who cared to listen.
As the struggle proceeded Tussaud's began to assume the position of a pointe de réunion of a very remarkable character, and this quite irrespective of class or nationality.
We opened our doors as early as eight o'clock in the morning, and even then found that not a few had been waiting for admission for some considerable time. This forced upon us the conviction that the Exhibition had risen in favour as something of a place of refuge by those who had involuntarily found themselves abroad early in the morning and had borne its existence in mind.
Be this, as it may, throughout all hours of the day Tussaud's proved a centre of attraction to many champions of their country's cause. Here they were to be seen, whether on their final leave before going out to the front, or homeward bound to enjoy a brief respite from the turmoil of the conflict, and awaiting a train to carry them to their families.
During the autumn of 1914 and far into the following year there congregated within our walls numerous hapless and pathetic beings, strangers to us by their foreign tongue, who, having come from nowhere in particular and having nowhere in particular to go, aimlessly wandered into the Exhibition.
We can only presume that they came to help pass away many a sad and anxious hour, or maybe to take measure of the semblance of those who were at that very moment foremost in striving to stem the tide of the cruel incursion that had driven them to take refuge in a foreign land.
Then as time wore on there came a touch of relieving colour that showed itself here and there amid the prevailing khaki; at first a mere fleck that gradually became more pronounced as the war advanced. This was the hospital blue of our valiant soldiers who had not passed unscathed through the ordeal of fire, as cheery a gathering as ever set foot within the place, a cheeriness readily responded to by their fellow 'visitors through the medium of sympathy and admiration.
One sad sight there was, however, which touched the hearts of the people so deeply that no display of cheerfulness on the part of the sufferers—and they, too, were invariably light-harted—could quite evoke a sense of mirth.
St. Dunstan's Hostel for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors in Regent's Park is not very far from Madame Tussaud's, and many of its inmates visited the Exhibition, and, for the matter of that, still find a pleasure in coming in couples or small parties to spend an hour or so among the models and the relics.
In spite of the distressing fact that they have been deprived of the gift of sight, they stand in front of the models and pause while the biographies are read out to them from the Catalogue by some more fortunate companion. Then they almost invariably nod to express their comprehension of the subject before them, and seem to see and understand through the faculty of their imagination much that would other-wise have been made manifest to them through the function of their eyes.
During the past few years our attendance has totalled to a figure reaching several millions; but the number visiting the place hardly constitutes so remark-able a fact as the many diverse nationalities and tribes they represented, or their coming from so many far-distant and remote parts of the world.
The landing of a fresh contingent at any one of our ports, or the arrival in London of any body of men attached to our Allied Forces, brought distinct and unfamiliar types of humanity to our doors.
"I had often heard of the place, but never thought I should have had an opportunity of seeing it," was a remark that often fell upon the ears of our attendants; and we know, for many reasons, that most of them had made up their minds to visit the place long before they had set foot upon our shores.
Of the many telling experiences of the last few momentous years, the one that will be retained longest in our memory will most assuredly be the touching sight of the war-stained and weary Ten who, during the earlier days of the war, literally stumbled through our turnstiles into the building.
Dazed for want of sleep, begrimed and besmeared with the very mud of the trenches, they flung themselves upon the nearest ottoman or couch, or in some out-of-the-way place upon the floor, to snatch a few hours' sleep in comparative comfort.
One evening, when strolling round the rooms sometime after the place had been closed, I found myself looking at the watchmen, who were busily engaged sweeping the floors. The chief among them, an old and valued servant, possessing a disposition that generally enabled him to look upon the bright side of things—although he was so often constrained to view them only during the sombre hours of the night—caught me gazing at him.
With a face I thought unusually grave he bade me "Good-evening," and ruefully remarked, "It seems to me, sir, some of this dirt has come a long way." Then, pondering for a while, with his eyes fixed upon the floor, he resumed, "Yes, sir, some of it from the very trenches." And I somehow believed the old fellow was right.