Daily Express, Friday, November 27, 1903

Poem 42

(By P. G. Wodehouse)



  [“The aggregate of the people’s savings was again cited by Lord Rosebery 1 as a test of the prosperity of the country. But, as we showed after his speech at Leicester, 2 these figures establish the exact opposite.”—“Daily Express.” 3]


In that theatre where so often, 4
With a heart no prayers could soften,
Vice has persecuted Virtue, 5
Spoke a Parrot orator; 6
And in glib and frothy phrases
He, as usual, sung the praises
(Adding figures to support it)
Of “Your food will cost you more.

And I said: “I hate to pester,
But remember how at Leicester
You produced these self-same figures
In your eagerness to score;
Though your eloquence was glowing,
It resulted but in showing
How unfounded was your statement
That ‘Our food would cost us more.

“Why add figures to the burdens
Of existence at the Durdans? 7
You will only get a headache
Proving one and one make four.
Cease to study Blue-books; 8 hand them
On to those who understand them;
You will ne’er succeed in proving
That ‘Our food will cost us more’.”



For Lord Rosebery, see poem 14, note 1.


For Rosebery’s speech at Leicester, see poem 36, note 1.


The preamble is from an editorial in the Daily Express of 26 November 1903.

In his speech at Leicester, Lord Rosebery argued that the savings of the working classes were evidence of a prosperity that made any change in the fiscal condition of the country unnecessary. The Daily Express, in an editorial on 9 November, responded by arguing that “the gross aggregate of savings is no relative test, but the amount of savings per head of population”, and it provided data to show that, among 11 nations that included the United States, Germany and France, Great Britain ranked last in savings per head.


The theatre was the Surrey Theatre, which was situated on Blackfriars Road, in the south London district of Lambeth. There had been a succession of theatres on the site since November 1782. The Surrey was remodelled as a music-hall in 1904 and as a cinema in 1920, before finally closing in 1924. The building was demolished in 1934, the site now being occupied by a block of residential flats.


“Vice has persecuted Virtue” refers to the sensationalist melodramas for which the Surrey Theatre became well known in the second half of the 19th century, and in which, typically, a helpless maiden (Virtue) is persecuted by a heartless villain (Vice), before being rescued in the final scene. This particular type of entertainment became so closely associated with the theatres, such as the Surrey, on the south side of the Thames, that it became known as “transpontine melodrama”—from Latin: trans, across, or on the far side of; and pons, a bridge.


On 25 November 1903 Lord Rosebery made what the Times described as “a long and characteristically brilliant speech” before a meeting of South London Liberals in the Surrey Theatre.


The Durdans was Lord Rosebery’s home, near Epsom (see poem 14, note 3). On 8 November, a fire destroyed part of the racing stables in the grounds of the house and several of the Earl’s brood mares had to be rescued. The following day there was another fire on the estate, when a large haystack near the Epsom downs and racecourse paddock was found to be ablaze. The Daily Express reported that staff at The Durdans strongly suspected both fires to be “the work of incendiaries” and that a close watch was being kept all over the estate.


Blue Books—so called because traditionally they were bound between blue covers—were official Government or parliamentary reports or compilations of statistics. In this instance, the term refers to the statistical reports compiled by the Board of Trade as part of the Balfour government’s inquiry into the state of Britain’s trade and the desirability (or not) of fiscal reform. The UK National Accounts, published annually by the Office for National Statistics, are still known as “the Blue Book”.