Drury-lane itself, the painted cheek is less frequently met with than in the
Haymarket; the deadly sins which revel in this classic neighbourhood do not use
paint, and scorn to employ the blandishments of seduction. Their names are
Poverty, Drink, and Dirt.
In the Strand, just opposite to majestic Somerset-House and half-hidden by the railings of the church-yard, which encroaches upon the natural dimensions of the street, there is a narrow passage, which turns up into Drury-lane. That lane, though of unequal breadth, is always narrow, and numberless are the blind alleys, courts, and passages on either side. The first and second floors of the high and narrow houses, shelter evidently a class of small tradesmen and mechanics, who in other countries would pass as “respectable,” while here they work for the merest necessaries of life, and, like their customers, live from hand to mouth. A few of them are usurers, preying upon poverty, coining gold from its vices and morbid longings. As for the garrets of those houses, we would not for the world answer for the comfort of their inhabitants. All the lower floors are let out as shops, in which are displayed dingy dresses and articles of female ornament, coarse eatables, cheap and nasty literature, shockingly illustrated; thick-soled shoes, old clothes, awful cigars—all at very low prices.
But the gin-palaces are the lions of Drury-lane ; they stand in conspicuous positions, at the corners and crossings of the various intersecting streets. They may be seen from afar, and are lighthouses which guide the thirsty “sweater” on the road to ruin.
.... It is Saturday-night, and the orgies of Drury-lane have commenced.
… A dense fog, with a deep red colouring, from the reflection of numberless gas-jets, and the pavement flooded with mud; a fitful illumination according to the strength of the gas, which flares forth in long jets from the butchers’ shops, while the less illumined parts are lost in gloomy twilight. If your nerves are delicate, you had better not pass too close by the gin-shops, for as the door opens—and those doors are always opening—you are overwhelmed with the pestilential fumes of gin. The pavements are crowded. Slatternly servants with baskets hurry to the butchers and grocers, and the haunters of the coffee-houses of Drury-lane elbow their way through the very midst of the population—the sweepings of humanity. A wicked word this, but the only one fit for these forms of woe and livid faces, in which hunger contends with thirst, and vice with disease.
What subjects for Hogarth on the narrow space of a couple of flag-stones ! How ravenous the craving which flashes from the eyes of that grey-haired woman, as she drags a slight, yellow-haired girl—perhaps her own child—to the gin-shop! The little girl follows in a dumb wooden way; but her small slight hand is shut with an anxious grasp, as though she feared to lose her weekly earnings—the wages, perhaps of hard work, or still harder beggary. She stumbles at the threshold, and almost falls over a couple of children t are crouching on the ground, shivering with cold, and waiting on their father within. The father comes, staggering and kicking the air, with manifest danger to his equilibrium, and cursing awfully. The kick was meant for his wife, a thin woman, with hollow yellow cheeks, whose long serpent-like curls are covered with an old silk bonnet, while her stockingless feet are contained in large slippers. She counts five copper pence in her bony hand, looks at her drunken husband, and at the fatal door, and at the costermonger’s cart in the middle of the street; and she counts her pence, and recounts them, and cannot come to the end of them, though they are but five. The large oysters in the dirty cart, too, excite her appetite. Which is it to be? the public-house or a lot of oysters? “Penny a lot, oysters!” shouts the man, as he moves his cart forward. A dozen greedy eyes watch his movements.
Similar groups are met with at every step. At the door of almost every gin-shop you see drunken women, many of them with children in their arms; and wherever you go, amidst the confused noise and murmur of many voices, you hear distinctly the most awful oaths. It is not at all necessary to quote those oaths. Let it suffice, that one of them, beginning with a B, startled Dr. Keif’s ears a hundred times at least in his walk through Drury-lane.
The fog has vanished in Drury-lane; for about midnight the London sky is usually clear; the moon looks out from behind the steeple of St. Mary’s church in the Strand, and at each street-corner stands a policeman, he being on the look-out. The progress of the two friends is stopped by a dense crowd, surrounding a couple of Irish women, who are settling a little “difficulty” of their own. Ragged little boys stand in dangerous proximity, urging them on, and making very laudable exertions to procure for the street the gratification of a “real fight,” for hitherto the two Amazons have used their -tongues rather than their fists, and indulged in an interchange of epithets beginnning with b and ending with ~ and repeated with extreme volubility an incredible number of times.
“You’ve got no pluck! you daughter of a dog’s daughter, that’s what you hasn’t!” shouts a little imp of a fellow, jumping right between them, and splashing all the bystanders. With bursts of laughter and many curses, the crowd disperses down the street and follows a stretcher, carried by two policemen, who have just issued from a dark gate-way. On the stretcher, her head and legs hanging down, is a tall, consumptive-looking girl, with her hair loosened and sweeping down like a black veil.
“They’re taking her to the station-house,” says a woman with a pipe and a strong Irish accent—” taking her to the station-house, for the blessed dthrop is such a stranger in her throat— poor Poll! believe me, gintlemin, it’s only hunger has made her drunk—only hunger!”
All of a sudden the lights are put out in the gin-palaces, the barrel-organs are silent, the bowling and cursing shrinks into a hoarse murmur; and the multitude disperse gradually, like muddy water which runs through the gutters and is lost under ground. The street is all silent and lonely; only one tall figure comes with rapid and noiseless steps out of one of the alleys. It looks round in every direction; hut there is no policeman in sight. It steps up to our two friends, and looks at them in silence with staring glassy eyes. It is not the spirit of midnight, nor is it a ghost; but neither is it a form of flesh and blood, for it is all skin and bones. And the clear light of the harvest-moon displays a half-starved woman with an infant on her arm, to whom her bony hand is a hard death-bed. For some minutes she stares at the strangers. They put some silver into her hand, and she, without any remark or thanks, turns round and walks slowly away.
“The holy sabbath has commenced,” said Dr. Keif, “the puritanical sabbath, on which misery feels three times more miserable.”
“My dear friend,” said Mr. Baxter, “twenty-five years ago you might have found the whole of Oxford Street crowded with figures similar to the one which has just left us. If you would see them in our days, you must seek for them in some dark corner of Drury Lane.”
see also the same author on Gin Palaces - click here
Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853
see also J. Ewing Ritchie in Days and Nights in London - click here