The Battle of Rupert Square

(notes edited by John McGivering)



ORG Volume 5, page 2414, records the first publication of this story (Uncollected No. 174) in the St. James’s Gazette for 28 December 1889 – unsigned – reprinted in the London Evening Standard of 29 March 1948 and in KJ 125/05, which calls it ‘one of the most riotously (sic) delightful of the shorter humorous stories’.
See also KJ 040/108.

The story

The narrator witnesses a curious incident in London, a fight between a cabman and his fare as the horse trots round a square. The driver makes heroic efforts to get rid of the man inside his cab. These culminate in his getting a hose pipe from the water hydrant, putting the nozzle through the trap door at the top, and literally washing the unwanted man out of the wrecked cab. The reason for their enmity is not disclosed, but they turn out to be brothers.

Critical comments

J M S Tompkins looks at this amusing anecdote in her Chapter 2, “Laughter” (p. 47) suggesting that it was Kipling’s

‘…reaction to Hardy’s tragic artistries in circumstances that made him define his own attitude to comic chance more clearly. Hitherto he had proceeded upon the traditional basis of farce without comment; “The Rout of the White Hussars” and “The Arrest of Lieutenant Golightly” (both in Plain Tales from the Hills) run their brief and boisterous course without inviting any celestial onlookers, and there is no elaboration of the gusto with which, in “The Battle of Rupert Square” he watches the tenacious, ingenious and silent conflict between a cabby and a sailor, his would-be fare. while the horse trots round and round the square, until the cab disintegrates…

Tompkins also reminds the reader (page xiv) of:

…the ‘I’ of the tales, wherever, as is often the case, ‘narrator’ is ambiguous. This character is sometimes indistinguishable from Kipling the writer, but by no means always…

She elaborates the point on page 256, in her chapter on ‘Change and Persistence.”

Notes on the Text

dead south-eastern ventricle London is divided into postal districts as the heart is divided into chambers, two of which are ventricles. Kipling meant – in effect – the south-east quarter of London.

In fact the South-Eastern postal districts cover an immense sprawling area from Southwark and Bermondsey to Greenwich and Woolwich alongside the Thames into Kent.

hansom a horse-drawn carriage designed and patented in 1834 by Joseph Hansom of York.

Rupert Square there are various Rupert Roads and Rupert Streets in London, but we have not found a Rupert Square.

wood pavement many streets in London were paved with tarred wooden blocks until the 1920s or thereabouts.

mealy bay a reddish-brown chestnut-coloured beast.

splashboard part of the coachwork that keeps the passengers dry. It is the front of the vehicle, immediately behind the horse.

Inverness-cape a voluminous cloak incorporating a cape

glandered ‘orse a horse suffering from a malignant and contagious disease of the mucus membrane

knacker’s depety (deputy) an assistant to a ‘knacker’ who buys dead animals, selling the meat to feed hounds, etc. and the skeleton for grinding into bone-meal. Now (2009) one usually has to pay him to remove a carcass.

rusty-‘aired, slink-jawed, etc. vigorous abuse reminiscent of that quoted in “The Propagation of Knowledge” (Debits and Credits page 275, lines 1-2) or “The Flag of their Country” (Stalky & Co. page 204, lines 3-5).

four-wheeler A horse-drawn four-wheeled cab – known colloquially as a growler.

trap-door in the roof of the cab so the passenger can talk to the driver.

paupers’ hearse perhaps a reference to an old rhyme, “The Paupers’ Drive” . A pauper is a poor person without adequate means of support, whose funeral would be a plain affair:

There’s a grim one-horse hearse in a jolly round trot
To the churchyard a pauper is going I wot
The road it is rough, and the hearse has no springs
And hark to the dirge that the sad driver sings—
‘Rattle his bones over the stones
He’s only a pauper whom nobody owns!’

[Rhymes and Roundelays by Thomas Noel
published by William Smith of Fleet Street, 1841. There are five more verses]

fusee a long-burning match that will stay alight in a wind.

Braided Fixed Stars matches available in Great Britain from the 1860s to the 1880s or thereabouts

Lor ! a Cockney abbreviation of ‘Good Lord !’ expressing surprise

water-carts used for watering the roads to keep down the dust.

It’s mee brother It is my brother.

4,900,000 the population of Greater London was 5.3 million in 1891. [Bartholomew’s Reference Atlas of Greater London, 1957]

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2009 All rights reserved