[--back to main for this book--]
PICKED UP IN THE STREETS.
SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE EAST END
ON a rainy Saturday
afternoon a sight may be seen in this huge London that gives a most vivid idea
of its hugeness and its heterogeneous population-a little foreign town in its
midst, silent and sealed. Wander on such an afternoon through the Jews' quarter
- the nest of narrow streets, and lanes, and courts, of which alley-like
Petticoat Lane, or Middlesex Street, and the broader and more wholesale dealing
Houndsditch may be called the main arteries, and you pass line after line of
fast-shuttered shops, catching over window-blinds glimpses of Jewish
domesticities arranged by Gentile hirelings, hearing now and then the wheeze or
the tinkle of indoor music, but seeing scarcely any outdoor life, save when a
little band of laughing Jewesses (arrayed in the bright-hued and sometimes rich-tissued
garments and gilt back-[-2-]combs, in which their parents love to frame their
lemon-like complexions and glossy black or almost scarlet hair) make a dash out
into the rain and then flash back again, screaming like a flock of paroquets. On
a brighter Saturday afternoon the elders in Israel lean and loll at or on their
thresholds, exchanging remarks and repartees with their neighbours on each side
and opposite, whilst the youngsters - the girls for the most part bare-headed,
armed, and necked - take their al fresco amusement.
On a summer's Saturday evening in Duke's Place (as those who frequent it persist in calling St. James's Place) a crowd of shrewd-looking Jews in black broadcloth, more or less white shirt sleeves, and gold chains, and portly, gaily-garbed Jewesses, with jewelled rings on their fat fingers, may be seen "enjoying the evening air" in armchairs tilted in front of the closed or nearly closed fruit warehouses; the children meanwhile playing leapfrog, or dancing ,to an Italian organ on the rotting fruit-market garbage that litters the small square. But still - especially as contrasted with its bustle when the street-sellers pour into it for their supplies - there is a Sabbatic tranquillity in the dingy, oriental-looking little place. A good deal of the Sabbath-keeping in the Jews' quarter may be formal and perfunctory enough, there being, probably, in proportion to totals, nearly as many merely nominal Jews as merely nominal [-3-] Christians in London. The widespread outward show of the observance, nevertheless, brings Sinai and London slums into an historical connection which it is startling to realise. The old clothesman still, after a fashion, observes the law which his forefathers pledged themselves and their seed to keep for ever, under the curses which the Mountain of Blessing echoed back to Mount Ebal.
The Friends, who have a meeting-house and a reading-room on the borders of the Jews' quarter, must find its seventh-day quiet congenial, but that advantage has a heavy set-off in its first-day stir. This sets in as the Sabbath sun goes down - an epoch, for the most part, only ascertainable from the almanac in London. Shutters are then rattled down, and the whilom quiet streets again buzz with life. The elders, with appetite sharpened by abstinence, resume their chaffering, whilst the young Jews flock to the theatre, the singing-room, or the dancing- room, play cards, or dominoes, or bagatelle in low coffee-houses, or gamble by tossing on tables muffled to prevent the chink of the falling coin from being heard outside. The Jewish element crops up every here and there in the strange medley of gaslight and squalor, dissipation and destitution, to be seen on a Saturday night in the East End, during the hours in which courts and thoroughfares in the City proper, that hum like hives by day, are almost [-4-] as silent and solitary places to hear the chimes in as a country churchyard.
To give an idea of some of the ins as well as outs of the East End's strange "Preparation for the Sabbath, or rather Sunday"- as seen under efficient guidance, in some out-of-the- way places - is the object of this paper.
Rattling into London on a Saturday night by the railway that runs round its north and east like a great fortification, you can see a great part of the East End in gloomily picturesque panorama. The angular meanness of the buildings is veiled by the dusk, and there stretches on either hand a hummocked wilderness of mysterious murk, now thickly, now thinly, sprinkled with withered windfall stars. In by-streets the lamps are so few and dim that the feeble flickering light they cast upon the house-fronts is only less dark than the pitchy blackness that broods above the lonely-looking roofs on which unseen murder might be done. In the midst of the gloom gas-works' furnaces give out their infernal glow, kindling the air above and around into a core of lurid light, and painting bloody gleams and weirdly fantastic shadows on the neighbouring buildings and the grim black gasometers, that look like gore-stained devil's drums. Shadowy warehouses, and chimney-stalks, and ships' spars hang between the darksome earth and the darksome sky in. very spectral fashion. And then, as [-5-] the train rumbles over a bridge, there is a glimpse for a moment of a long broad thoroughfare, with its dense dark throngs of stationary or slowly circulating passengers, dimly seen through the dazzling glare of the great publicans' lamps, and the double avenues of blazing shop burners and street-sellers' flaring lights; gas-lit dust, and smoke, and mist hanging and dancing above like motes in the sunbeams, and the shrill or hoarse cries of the costermongers piercing the hum of many voices like sea-gulls screaming over murmuring waves.
I may as well jot down here a little incident I witnessed near a railway arch, whilst walking from the station to the place in which I was to meet my guide. Under the arch (on a route not likely to have been selected for the playing of a trick), a ragged little girl, crying bitterly, was prying into a patch of black mud, in which, she said, she had dropped a penny. Some roughly clad men, who looked like dock labourers, were giving her their sympathy and help; but, as the help proved fruitless, the sympathy seemed very cold consolation. "Mammy had sent her out to buy "supper" (!) with the missing coin, and would "whop" her if she returned empty-handed. When, however, a passer-by, who had stopped like myself to see what was the matter, gave her a penny, her tears were soon dried, and the little group was dispersing when one of the men ran back to [-6-] say to the departing donor, "God bless ye, sir- may ye niver want a penny!" Had he lingered, he might have been suspected of wanting a penny for himself; but he instantly ran off again. Had I witnessed the scene later in the night, when I had learned to look upon human nature with detective eyes, I might have thought the whole affair - notwithstanding the poorness of the result from such ponderous machinery - a "plant"; but, as things were, I found more pleasure in supposing that the Irishman, as the next best thing to doing a benefit himself, wished to enjoy the moral gratification of bestowing commendation on one who had conferred a kindness, which the Irishman's pinched pocket enabled him to appreciate.
When I reached my rendezvous-one of those quietly-placed "publics" that seem to have given a friend the slip in the main street, and to be peeping round the corner with a chuckle to see whether the friend has overshot them - the Irish barmaid (who was unpatriotically wishing her "counthry" at the "bottom of the say," owing to the pitiless amount of banter which her "oncets," &c., &c., were drawing down upon her) regarded me with a humiliating mixture of compassion and contempt, as a neophyte in naughtiness who had innocently obeyed the decoy call of the police and come to be caught. A Jewish-eyed customer, [-7-] leaning on the bar, who saw that I ran no risk of being taken into custody, favoured me with a glance of even greater superciliousness, as an inquisitive greenhorn bothering his head and wasting his time on matters that furnished no opportunity for a profitable "deal." Meantime a moon-faced young German, in his shirtsleeves, kept on silently popping in and out from a back-room, like the figure on a cuckoo-clock grown dumb through age. He popped out; he gave a smile of blandest, most comprehensive, but very vague benevolence; he cut a caper, and then he popped in again, with a, never-ending Da capo. My guide I found to be a shrewd, wiry, active man, with an eye that seemed, sharply yet quietly, to take in everything at once, as if, like a fly's, it could see all round him: well set up, and most civilly well spoken to those who spoke him fair, but supplied with an unlimited amount of "chaff" for those disposed to bandy it. I presently discovered, to my astonishment, that, having been engaged in a police-court all day, he was in full uniform, barring the helmet; for outwardly his knowing low-crowned hat, his neck-scarf, and his overcoat gave him the look of a sporting man.
Ignorantly supposing these to be a disguise, asked him how it was that, in spite of them, whenever we went, his calling seemed to be generally known. With a smile at my "greenness," he answered that he did not care how [-8-] many people knew him in his everyday dress; when he didn't want to be known, he would defy his own mother to recognise him. "These, sir," was his reply to a question as to whether he ever carried arms, as he took from his pocket a pair of "darbies," clinked them like castanets, and slipped them on his fist like "knuckle-dusters." "With the bracelets on I'd undertake to knock down a man twice my size." In his moral judgments as well as his attire there was a sporting tone. He seemed to look upon criminals much as a rat-catcher looks on rats. The particular vermin pursued at any one time must, of course, be done for; but the breed at large was regarded with compassionate forbearance as nature's provision for the policeman's excitement and support. He did not blame a man for showing fight - so long as he did his collarer no serious damage - if he had any fair chance of escape; but to do so when he had no such chance, just for the sake of being thought "game," my companion considered "bosh," - a folly which few "regular criminals" would be spooney enough to be guily of. My guide summed up his ethics on this head thus: "If a man don't try to hurt me, I won't hurt him. But if he does, I hit him hard. No man likes to be hurt, you know, sir."
I was favoured with details of an East End capture effected on the previous Saturday night, or rather Sunday morning. My mate and his [-9-] mate, after searching all the other houses which their quarry "used," had tracked him, in the small hours, to the last. Like rabbit-netters on either side of a hedge, the mate watched the front of the house, whilst my acquaintance (whom, for convenience sake, I will henceforth designate as C. Sharp) went round to take it in the rear. In clambering over the back-yard wall, he disturbed the tenants of the back-yard's hen-roost; and, aroused by their cluckings and crowings, dim faces appeared at the back windows of the neighbouring houses, to see who was stealing the fowls. There was no time to be lost. With a kick and a shoulder-shove the back-door was forced in, but just then up went a bed-room window; and, rushing out again, C. Sharp beheld his man drop first his clothes, and then himself, into the next back-yard. The dividing wall was climbed over somehow, and C. Sharp pounced upon his prey, still sprawling in his shirt. "Let me get up - I've spilt some money - I'll go quietly," he cried. But the captive was a good deal bigger than his captor, and had sworn to "put his light out"- a metaphor for murder - rather than be taken by him. So C. Sharp politely informed him that he should have every facility for finding his scattered cash when he could hunt for it in hand-cuffs and held him down until the consort-sergeant rushed in to complete the capture. One thinks of the time, and toil, and [-10-] skill which these men devote to the security of society, and of the deadly risks which, at any moment of the day or night they may be called upon to run in her interests, their services certainly seem cheaply purchased, poorly paid, by a wage far nearer twenty than thirty shillings a week.
"Well, what is it precisely that you want, sir?" said C. Sharp. "To get a general notion of East End life on Saturday night, eh? Well, this kind of thing, of course, you've seen before; besides, you can see that North, and South, and West, as well as East." I assented; "this kind of thing" being a long, narrow thoroughfare so crowded both on the pavement and the roadway, that the squalid, greasy passengers trod on one another's heels; a road kerb-fringed. on both sides with the quaintly-lighted stalls of bawling street-sellers; side-paths bordered by dingy publics and dimly-lighted chandlers' shops, and gas-flaring opposition butchers' shops and greens-and-coal sheds next door to one another. Perhaps, the butchers' shops - in front of which plump journeymen kept up their cry of "Buy, buy, buy, buy," like monotonously strident night-birds, whilst hollow-eyed women, whose skinny cheeks and limp cotton skirts seemed both to have lost the very memory of their last washing, cheapened meat exposed at 4d. a pound - had a specially pantomimic look from the queer cut of the tiny "joints" with which [-11-] their fronts were hung; and there was some interest in being told, time after time, that such and such an apparently thriving greengrocer, watching more draggle-tailed spectres picking out his potatoes, had begun life a few years before with a costermonger's barrow; but otherwise there was not much novelty in the walk along that thoroughfare. Its general feature was not the success in life of the distributors, but the dreary depression in life of the actual or would-be purchasers - the misery caused sometimes by their own drunkenness and crime, but oftener, perhaps, by civilisation's impotence or carelessness to remedy its own barbarian-making consequences, which may be seen, alas, in almost every London street-market. As we turned down a lane en route for a sailors' music-hall, we passed a policeman in controversy with a blear-eyed knave, who cowered before him like a frightened beast, but with just a hint in blear eyes of the savage gleam that may be seen in the eyes of a cornered rat. He would have liked to spring at the tall fellow who ordered him to move on, but pluck was not his line, and so he cowered, and coaxed, and sulkily protested with curbed sauciness. "The most notorious duffer in London, sir," said C. Sharp. "He waylays drunken sailors, and sells them rings for gold, and paper packets of dry horse-dung with a pinch of tobacco at the top smuggled he calls it. They must be drunk, or [-12-] else they must be precious fools, to be taken in by a chap like him. Just look at him. There certainly was not much to allure confidence in his aspect as he slunk away after receiving something like Lord Chesterfield's reply to his plea that he must live. The very lift of his legs seemed to betray him as a sneaking rascal.
The music-hall was a chapel-like structure, with a gallery running round three sides of it, an orchestra for a deacon's pew, and a glass-panelled stage for apse or chancel. Waiters in white neckcloths, red waistcoats, and metal-buttoned livery coats ministered to the wants of the audience (largely "seasoned with salt"), who, pipe or cigar in mouth, and glass or measure in hand, were listening, as if they were trying hard to think it funny, to a song by two "comiques," male and female, attired in the Zany costume, supposed .to be facetious, which now stares one in the face from every music shop. A stanza of idiotic trash was shouted and screamed in concert, with much rolling of eyes and restlessness of arms and legs. Presently the restlessness became ungovernable, and the performers broke into a symphony of idiotic dancing. And so on, and so on, until the song finished, amidst thunders of applause, in a teetotum whirl by the male performer, with one arm stuck out like the spout, and the other curved like the handle, of a teakettle; whilst the female performer, clasping her hands round [-13-] the latter, spun round in a concentric orbit. Such asinine "comicality," however, is common now-a-days to most of the music-halls of a land which once enjoyed the richest of humour, but now worships Great Vances and Jolly Nashes, and shrieks with delight at a burlesque "break-down." What struck me as special in this music-hall was the business-like manner in which the sailors were taken in tow by the female corsairs cruising in squadrons about the hall. It is a delicate, or rather an indelicate, thing to write about, but unless such scenes are at least hinted at, East-End night life - and, for that matter, day life too - would be very imperfectly described. These women made their selections in as open and matter-of-course a way as farmers picking out horses or cattle at a fair, and the selected got up and walked off with them with as little anxiety to avoid notice as if the suddenly affectionate couples bad been husbands and wives walking out to church.
A narrow, paved alley, almost every other window in which had little blue and red flags painted on its panes to show that it belonged to a sailor's lodging-house, led us down to the thoroughfare which Mr. George MacDonald has called "the' sailor's heaven at sea and hell ashore." The stiff sailors' garments, dangling outside the slopseller's at the dim corner, swayed in the night wind like pirates hung in chains.
[-14-] "The Highway" is said to be a very different place from what it was when such ghastly sights might be seen with the bodily eye on the point of the reaches as the ship tacked up the Thames. During the last generation the Sailors' Home, the Thames Mission, and other agencies, are reported to have diminished Ratcliff rowdyism very markedly. I noticed myself the other day a cheap book-shop in the Highway, which would seem to be an indication of a higher tone of taste. It is still, however, a route that one would not like to take a decently-bred child along either by night or day. The maxima reverentia has been owed so long there that the indigenous youth can be scarcely made more wickedly knowing than they are by the still deferred payment. The Highway abounds in low publics, to which, in the rear, low dancing-rooms are attached. "In a brisk time they are all going, sir," said C. Sharp, "but things are slack in the shipping-trade just now. However, let's step in here," pointing to a doorway with a foreign name over it. "It's a place the foreign sailors are fond of. Many a man has been stabbed in it!"
At the top of a dwarf staircase leading from the bar drooped a dusty curtain. Behind was a room, recently swept and watered, with benches running along the walls. On these sat half a dozen bold-eyed girls, waiting for partners. Not a sailor had as yet come in; [-15-] unless the pea-jacketed, olive-complexioned master of the ceremonies was one. This functionary chose to confound my identity with that of some fast gentleman who, he said, had taken out a girl on a previous evening, and proffered his services to find me "another partner" - one of the sisterhood at the same time advancing to save him the trouble. He begged my pardon as politely as any regular M.C. could have done when I assured him of his mistake; but, as there was no dancing to be seen there unless I figured in it, I thought that it was high time to depart.
"That didn't taste much like sherry, did it, sir.?" said C. Sharp, as we stepped into the street. "However, I can venture to take a nip there. There are some of those places where I'd no more do it than I'd drink a gallon of laudanum. Did you notice that man behind you in the bar? - the man with the white wide-awake that was trying to pick a quarrel when we first went in? He's one of the 'cutest thieves we have. You may remember he said 'Good-night, sir,' to me, and I said 'Good-night' to him. If a man is a thief, you may as well be polite to him till you want him." I could not help being amused at the semi-respectful manner in which he spoke of the 'cute wide-awake, against whom he had to pit his wits - much as a chess-player who has won three games, but lost one, speaks of his opponent. I could not help, however, thinking [-16-] also that, if it could be done without risking the liberty of the innocent, or bearing hardly on guilty men who wish to reform, it would be a good thing if such "habit and repute" rascals - men whom the police know to live by felony, and who know that the police know that they know that the police know it - could be prevented from going at large until some false move of theirs enables their antagonists to give them check.
The next dancing-room we entered was, most literally, in full swing: inflated skirts rushing round and round like balloons caught in a cyclone, and coming down in what children call "cheeses" when whirlers and whirlees halted for a minute "to get," - in their own graphic, although not exactly Belgravian, phraseology- "a blow." (An utterly otiose adjective, of a complexion as florid as their own, was prefixed to the substantive by the panting pairs.) Two Guards drummers were coming down the stairs; two Guardsmen were lounging on the tables in the dancing-room, critically scrutinising the dancing; but the male dancers were all sailors - and so far as the mere dancing (which seemed thoroughly enjoyed for its own sake) went, both male and female dancers were very harmlessly employed. It was a pity they left off dancing. It is a pity Jack cannot find purer partners. Very pitiful it was to see, amongst the partners whom he had, a still innocent-looking girl of [-17-] seventeen, with country freshness still upon her cheeks, and her housemaid's cap still fluttering like a white butterfly on her bonnie brown hair.
Once more in the Highway, C. Sharp suddenly stopped, and shouted, as it seemed to me, "at large." But at the sound two stunted boys slipped from the pavement, and slunk along the roadway, burying their drooped heads in their raised shoulders, drawing in their spines, and sneaking away with furtive, half-grovelling speed, exactly like hounds shrinking from the lifted lash. If they had only let their hands, extended in token of innocence, touch the ground, and had had propitiatory tales to wag, the resemblance would have been complete. It was inexpressibly painful to see human beings crouching in that bestial fashion before their fellow-man. "In the image of God created He him" would have been a fiendishly mocking text to remember, had it not been for that other memory - in all points like as we are, yet without sin. "Trying pockets, sir, that's what they were doing," was C. Sharp's explanation. "Out-and-out young rascals they are. They lurk about here, and when they see a sailor a bit sprung coming along, one of them puts out his foot, and when the spooney chap stumbles, the tother makes a rush at him and grabs his watch. - But things are slack in the Highway to-night. What do you say to a peep at the Spitalfields Thieves' Nest? You've been there [-18-] before, have you? Oh, by day. But they might have robbed you even then; for they lie as thick as young rabbits. I expect, though, you didn't look about you much - didn't go up any of the courts - just walked through Flower-and-Dean Street, or something of that sort. Some folks fancy they can see London life that way, and what they don't see they can make up. You gents have a gift for making a precious lot out of a little. Now, if I was in the writing line, I could make a book out of my life.
But when, with winking eyes, we emerged from the dim, "long, unlovely" side street into the East End's chief artery, - that broad, blazing, brawling, utterly unhomelike thoroughfare, set out with long lines of street stalls (dimly lighted with candles stuck in blacking- bottles, or flaring with "portable gas" and smoky, stinking oil-flames), and thronged with Whitechapel roughs, drunken drabs, anxious marketers, and poor purposeless folk, who seem to have congregated simply for the sake of company and to warm themselves by the gas, - C. Sharp proposed that we should first look in at some of the places of amusement in that neighbourhood. (The "free list" is never suspended for members of the Force.)
In the first theatre people were standing in close-packed tiers, a dozen deep, at the back of the pit, and when we mounted to the almost equally crammed gallery, the hot foetid steam [-19-] that filled it soon drove us down again. Most necessary seemed the fresh lime-wash on the unplastered bricks of the staircase walls. But what were these uncomfortably thronged East-Enders listening to in breathless attention? To their credit be it recorded, - Antony's speech over the dead body of Caesar. Antony ranted a little, perhaps more than a little; he informed the citizens that twas good they knew not they were Caesar's hairs (a reading which may account for his baldness); and the indignant citizens raised their menacing arms somewhat after the mode of semaphores. Nevertheless, the gratifying fact remained, - hundreds of people, not generally credited with refined taste, stood and sat spell-bound by Shakspeare, conscientiously, however crudely, acted. Far more rational entertainment that on both sides than music-hall howling, or what we witnessed in. the next theatre we "patronised." A crowd stood outside staring at a placard which announced "All places full." The lobby of the "dress circle" was choked with gazers standing on tiptoe. The impatient gallery was striving to drown the orchestra and "whistle up the rag." When the curtain rose, a gentleman in evening costume appeared upon the stage, with his wristbands turned up, and brandishing a flashing scimitar. Having conducted a young lady in white muslin to an arm-chair, as politely as if he were a fashionable dentist, simply about [-20-] to pull out her, tooth, he once more walked about, brandishing his weapon. Again he approached his victim, masked her, and shore off the head amid silence, only broken by hysterical shrieks from a few of the women. When a gore- dripping head was held up by the hair, whilst a seemingly lifeless trunk lay back in the chair, it "brought the house down;" but the applause was not nearly so great when, after a little more manoeuvring with the mask, the young lady rose from the chair as full of life as ever. There seemed to be a general feeling of disappointment at seeing her with her head on again. As we came out, C. Sharp discussed the performance with an inspector with whom he had fore-gathered. "It draws," remarked the inspector sententiously, "and takes; but, somehow, not as it did at the West End. You see, the people here are up to illusions." "Hillusions!" grimly retorted C. Sharp. "They don't sham to cut a woman's head off; they do it."
We went next into a "penny gaff." Two floors of a house had been knocked into one to form the concert-room. Rough wooden seats, rising at the end of the room nearest the door like a flower-stand, with a villanously dark, dirty, narrow, and malodorous passage behind the same, were devoted to those disposed to pay only a penny for their entertainment. Two-pence was charged for a seat in the more aristocratic gallery, or perhaps I ought to call it [-21-] "balcony-stalls." The accommodation and the audience seemed precisely of the same stamp in both; the latter consisting chiefly of boys of from ten to sixteen, some of whom favoured my companion with a furtive scowl from beneath their heavy, low-pitched brows. At the farther end of the room was a tiny, tawdry stage, like that of a cheap child's theatre slightly magnified, and on it a tall woman, who looked quite a giantess in that narrow space, was singing something. Probably it was too sentimental, or not highly flavoured enough, for the taste of her hearers, for they sat as glumly silent, and as puzzled-looking as jurymen listening to "points of law" of which they can make neither head nor tail. A drearier specimen of "enjoyment" never witnessed. As we went out, we were met by the male "star" of the establishment with a sheaf of benefit-tickets in his hand; which he pressed us to purchase on the ground that he was going to sing on his benefit night "The Eel-pie Shop" - I think he added "as performed before His Royal Highness."
Before turning into the Thieves' Nest, C. Sharp went back to speak to a policeman in uniform we had passed. "May as well have some one handy," he said, as we walked through a black, narrow lane. "This is the place where the two policemen were killed. One never knows what may happen in here. We never try to take a man single-handed here. It would be stupid. [-22-] The people swarm out of every door like ants, and you have to fight your way through them as if you was bathing at Brighton.
The only persons to be seen in the lane, however, were two gamins, each, as far as I could see, almost solely clad in a pair of man's trousers. One of them pushed the other from the narrow footpath as we passed, exclaiming, half in earnest and half in satire, "Vhere's yer manners? Make vay for the perliceman!" As we dodged in and out round dim corner after corner, very much like kittens running after their own tails, we looked into sundry lodging-houses, whose low windows shed welcome patches of light on the black, cramped, sloppy, roadway. Inspection, I suppose, has improved them of late years; for I must say that the kitchens were much cleaner, brighter, and quieter than I had expected to see from what I had read. In one or two, crowded with both sexes, a little horseplay was going on, but, for the most part, the inmates crouched in cat-like, silent enjoyment around capital fires, and upon boards that, by gas-light at any rate, looked at least light yellow. In one hostelry, locally known as the Cadgers' Asylum, there were only half-a-dozen of such silent baskers; one arranging the rags with which his toes were swaddled, another toasting a herring, three smoking, and the sixth, a bent old man with a grey head, but not a venerable face, looking dreamily into the [-23-] red forest-vistas of the coals. They all seemed "dog-tired." A big black pot over the fire sent out a cheerful bubble and an unctuous odour, but otherwise there was nothing to suggest those sumptuous "beggars' feasts" of which we have read-now-a-days, I am inclined to think, almost as mythical as nectar and ambrosia. "Yes, sir, things is slack in our line, and I have got the rheumatics bad," said the deputy (that, I believe, is the proper phrase), as he advanced from the fire to welcome us to it, rubbing at the same time the right sleeve of his brown Cardigan with a wincing face.
The lodgers looked up with sleepy awe at the superior being thus addressed, and, whilst he took quiet stock of them, nodded eager assent to the deputy's representations of the "flatness" of the beggar-market. The term is scarcely appropriate, since stimulated sharpness on the part of those appealed to has probably made "cadgers," in more than the mercantile sense, "depressed." Not a dozen yards from the Cadgers' Asylum, we met one of the fraternity, who, not recognising C. Sharp in the gloom, began his piteous tale in a tone that was imperative rather than supplicatory. It was curious to note his startled change of tone when C. Sharp spoke to him. "I was speaking to that gentleman, sir", he said, and hastily "absquatulated." That "things were flat, we were told again when we looked in at the [-24-] district's restaurant, a little cabin whose shelves were lined with coarse earthenware basins, and on whose counter leaned some three or four pale flat-busted women, who seemed to have nothing but their dirty gowns on, and to think some nutriment might be obtained by breathing the atmosphere of a place in which cowheel-soup was made. They had all, however, their grateful joke ready for C. Sharp when he graciously condescended to jest with them. The policeman to such people seems to be a heathen's idol - to be banged about the head in moments of furious disappointment, but in sane hours to be buttered with slavish, though still superstitiously suspicious, adulation.
In a nook which (although I pride myself on my "organ of locality") I could no more find again without guidance, than I could name Dr. Livingstone's last lodging-place, I was introduced to a landlord who had "lived for the last six weeks on rum." We had to force our way into his kennel of a bar, by ungallantly pushing against the counter a broad-shouldered woman, whose weight kept the half-glass door fast closed.
The mite of a place was thronged - some of the customers looking like decent tradesmen; but as soon as we got in, there was a hush, followed by a wish to speak to personal character. "I'm old and tough," said an old woman, smiling a most drearily lonely smile.
[-25-] "The worms is my husband. He was a fine young man when flash young fellers now wasn't thought of. I'm sixty-six, come Lady-day, but no man ever put a hand on my shoulder, or had cause to, and I don't mean to give 'em cause, either." There was some gin, perhaps, in the poor old body's pathos, but she certainly did look a most desolate old soul, as she leaned against the wall, smiling all to herself that joy-less smile. On the west coast of New Zealand, a year sometimes comes and goes in which there is no summer: there are many such lives in the East End of London.
Behind the bar knelt a matronly-looking woman (with roses, which, though only artificial, seemed to be drooping as if stifled, in her cap), bathing and bandaging her husband's leg; the rum-loving Boniface having recently tumbled down stairs. Both looked up anxiously when we entered, and when C. Sharp, for a joke, had introduced me as his "pal," the old man became very pressing in his entreaties that we should "put a name to something at his expense." The exact nature of our "business" he was plainly puzzled to conjecture - what particular customer we were looking out for, or what misdeed of his own we wished to bring to light; but having, probably, an extensive choice to pick from, he was all the more anxious to conciliate. We had not to clear the doorway in order to get out; it was cleared for [-26-] us with most polite, and yet uncomplimentary, promptitude. I never before saw my room so pointedly preferred to my company.
Some of those I had just left might possibly be thieves now and then, but I wanted to see how indubitable "professionals" enjoyed themselves on Saturday night, when off duty. On mentioning my wish to C. Sharp, he said, "Well, sir, there's a house not far off whose regular customers are a'most all regular thieves - anyways used to be. I hardly like to take you in, for we might get into a mess if they'd got the beer on board. However, we'll look in just for a minute."
We were doomed to disappointment. When we entered the cavernous, dimly-lighted bar, the solitary landlord looked up for a moment with a glance of expectation, but it changed into one of disappointment and suspicion when he saw who had come in. He was a strange host to find in such a hostelry; dandyishly dressed in spotless white linen and good black broadcloth, sporting a neatly curled moustache and Dundreary whiskers, and wearing on a face otherwise as insipidly regular as a hairdresser's dummy's, a look of drolly Byronic-hero-like dejection. "Not a man in dere, sir," he said in. a slightly foreign accent, as C. Sharp advanced towards the inner darkness that seemed to creep in noiseless inky wavelets into the dim bar. C. Sharp, having satisfied himself that [-27-] there wasn't, opined "new comer, I think?" and having been answered in the affirmative, led me off to find materials elsewhere for a sketch of a "Robbers' cave in London - bandits revelling." "Your manners," says Emerson, "are always under examination, and by committees little suspected - a police in citizen's clothes - but who are awarding or denying you very high prizes when you least think of it." The force of the italicised simile came home to me as I walked along the broad thoroughfare again - C. Sharp seemed to know the biography of every street-seller we passed. His moral diagnosis was not charitable, and, when favourable, very guardedly expressed. "Now that man's honest," he would say every now and then, "in a sense." Presently he stationed me behind a cab-rank, causing some commotion amongst the cab-drivers, who came round to inquire, "Anythink up in hour line, guy' nor?" But what C. Sharp wanted me to see was a case of attempted pocket-picking. He gave me a lighted glass panel to guide my eye, and for some minutes we watched it as intently as astronomers waiting for the transit of a planet - in this case, Mercury. But Mercury would not cross the disk, and so we once more set out in quest of a place in which we might find him in company with Bacchus. "We'll go up here," said C. Sharp, halting at a stairfoot that led to the first floor of a dirty public-house, [-28-] that somehow reminded me of a beaten prizefighter that had taken to drinking. "For one man that isn't a thief, you'll see twenty that are." Two roughs lounging on the stairs looked up saucily; but when they saw who had come, they rolled themselves up like sowbugs. In the room we entered there must have been, according to the formula just given, considerably more than forty thieves. Amongst them there were a few women, and one of these-taking me for a Telemachus gone astray, and not seeing, or not recognising, the Mentor who stood behind me - got up at the end of the room, and began, in vulgar phrase, to "cheek me." She was speedily, however, pulled down, and ordered to "shut up" by her sharper-eyed companions. But sulkiness, rather than sharpness of vision, was the attribute that chiefly characterised the assembly. They glared at me heavily - much as Van Amburgh's beasts, after a full meal, might have glared at an inexperienced friend whom he had taken into their age. The tamer, perhaps, might have some right to come inside; but what right had the stranger to tempt them, if he was not to be torn?
Anything less picturesque, or jovial than the appearance of the room, it would be hard to conceive: two or three score of thick-necked, low-browed young men and hobbydehoys, in greasy cords or threadbare pea-jackets, and a [-29-] sprinkling of ugly, shabbily-dressed women, sprawling their elbows on porter-slopped tables in rough wooden boxes, smoking rank tobacco, drinking adulterated beer, and listening, in moping, unsocial silence, to the wiry jangle of a worn-out little square piano in a corner, that seemed to shriek complaint against the cruel vigour of its seedy, bottle-nosed thumper.
As a finish to our night about town, C. Sharp conducted me to what he called the "lower slums" (nearer the docks), warning me that I must not mind a rough word or two. Not a word, however, either good or bad, did we hear directed to ourselves; and (save when a troop of little ragamuffins dashed, hooting like a flock of owlets, into a black gap that looked more like a narrow cliff-chasm than a humanly-inhabited court, and the angry voice of an old Irishwoman, jealous for the gentility of her residence, bade the "owdacious spalpeens," from an upper window, "be off wid ye") we heard and saw, indeed, no sign of life. Black silence and bad smells were the salient features of that ganglion of interlacing alleys, courts, and lanes, some flat-sided as a packing-case, and others dimly differentiated with squat, pent-housed doorways, and low-pitched archways, that seemed to have been expressly designed for garrotters' lurking-places. It was like wandering through sewers. Ever and anon we stumbled upon ash-heaps, that sent up a stifling stench when the [-30-] foot stirred their garbage. Even here, however, washing was done. On clothes-lines stretched across courts, rags rustled in the night wind like tattered banners in a church. They might surely have been hung lower down, for who could care to steal them? I might, perhaps, have seen more life in the lower slums if I had wandered through them without an official guide; but, even if I had been able to get into and out of them alone, I frankly confess that I should not have liked to venture.
It was a relief both to body and mind to feel the breeze blow fresh from the country as I mounted the hill at whose foot the big, black city I had left, canopied with a haze of lurid light, lay like a City of Destruction - to see the almond-blossom gleaming, although only by gas-light, in the suburban gardens - to hear the early Sabbath hour tolled from e church surrounded with grass and trees - to return, after all the dismal homelessness I had seen, to the peace and purity of a home in which I was waited for, and little children were smiling in their sleep.
On another occasion I alighted in Goodman's
Fields, hard by the theatre in which Garrick made his first hit, and which bears
his name. In front of it, blocking up the greasy pavement, and overflowing into
the slushy, sloppy [-31-] roadway, there is a little crowd of shabbily-dressed
girls, boys, and undersized hobbledehoys. A little chaffing and pushing is going
on, but for the most part they stand as still as bullocks under the drizzling
rain, feeding their eyes, until the theatre opens, on the gilt cap-band of its
front manager, beadle, or whatever else the bulky, uniformed official who stands
outside to keep order may be called; and on the theatre's little cluster of
gas-lamps, which, damp-dimmed though they are, differentiate it with a glow-worm
glimmer from the other houses of the dark row in which it stands. We
will look into the theatre presently; but, in the meantime, we are due at the
adjoining police-station, where we have to meet the dragoman from Scotland Yard,
who is to accompany us on our Eastern tour. Up a paved alley into a little paved
court, in which a number of helmeted, great-coated policemen are drawn up in
line; and then up some old-fashioned doorsteps into the outer police-office. Its
walls are tapestried with police-notices, one of them illustrated with a
photograph of a "wanted" house-breaker. It contains a dock, with a
height-gauge behind, and a desk at which a sergeant in uniform is writing.
Opposite him is an inspector in uniform, with a ledger-like book before him,
framed in a pigeon-hole in a railway booking-office-like partition. We have made
a little mistake as to time, and go into [-32-] an inner office to wait. Its
occupants give up their stools to seat us, and, to beguile the time, bring out
an assortment of handcuffs, fit them on us, and laughingly snap-to the steel
bracelets; a venerable and popular clergyman, the late Dr. Guthrie, who is of
the party, looks particularly droll in the "darbies."
True to his time to a minute, our dragoman arrives, but before we start we look into the station's cells. Only one is occupied. When a "bull's-eye" flashes into it, a pallid, dirty, boy of ten, curled up on a bench, tries to cover his face with the rug which is his only bed- furniture. He is "in for" stealing a pound and a half of sugar out of a van. Poor little pale-faced fellow, perhaps he stole it to raise money to go to the theatre hard by, which is the first place we call at, as the nearest approach to a "penny-gaff." When reminded that in 1868 there was a genuine penny-gaff in Whitechapel, our dragoman says that the gaff has been put down, and the premises turned into a wax-works place.
Our theatre consists of pit, boxes, and gallery: prices of admission-to the boxes, twopence; to other parts of the house, one penny. The pit is the only part of the house tenanted when we look in, and that is only spotted with clusters and couples of grimy, greasy, heavylooking young people. They chat aloud freely during the performance, some playing the part [-33-] of (generally indulgent) critics, others of explanatory chorus. On the whole, they behave well enough; but the uniformed official, with somewhat supererogatory jealousy for the reputation of his house, is very fond of shouting "Order!" A girl looks angrily at him, and retorts- "Horder! You wants a deal too much horder, you do. We ain't afore a jury!"
"Wapping Old Stairs" is the piece at which for a few minutes we assist. All the songs have been cut out, the uniformed official explains, because none of the performers can sing; but he adds proudly, as if the statement must necessarily make us condone that deficiency-
"The great Braham used to sing Wapping Old Stairs -be-yutiful song, gentlemen, isn't it ?-the Great Braham!"
The scenery and other stage appliances of our theatre are almost as scanty as they were in the early days of the drama. The acting, in spite of the poor house, is conscientiously vigorous and vociferous. It is quite as satisfactory to the aesthetic sense as the bulk of English acting anywhere nowadays, and more satisfactory to the ethic sense. It is not a bit like nature - its comicality is very dreary; but, then, ever and anon it bawls out moral maxims through a speaking.-trumpet.
Our young friend who objected to the uniformed official's court-crier-like demands for "order," acts as chorus to the less-experienced [-35-] members of her circle. "The cap'en's only a woman. dressed up," she says. One of the characters has to talk in Cockneyese. He talks it when he is not performing, the large majority of his. audience talk it too; and so, to render the would-be caricature effective, he has to ultra-aspirate the vulgar vernacular outrageously. Our young chorus almost shrieks with delight. "H-he -hignorant means hignorant," she interprets.
No great harm done, so far, to anything but the Queen's English, we think, as we move out, and turn riverwards.
A music hall largely patronised by sailors is our next house of call. It is full of fog and tobacco-smoke, and fumes of steaming grog. Glasses are clattering, spoons clinking, tongues clacking. There is a hush for a moment or two whilst the trapeze performer, who is earning his bread by risking his neck, darts and swings in mid air. As soon as he has reached his perch, with patches of perspiration blotching his flesh-coloured tights, tables are thumped until tumblers and jingling spoons jump up in a staggering dance; the people in the lower part of the house thumping hardest, as if expressing their gratitude - not because the performer is safe, but because he has not missed his hold, and dropped on them and their "refreshments." In the gallery, women, whose business there is unmistakable, are roaming [-36-] about ; but, whilst we stay in it, " decency," perhaps, is not more openly outraged, so far as we can see, than it is in music-halls farther west. Sailors are the favourite victims. Maudlin with drink, they yield at once to the allurements of their generally hideous and harsh-voiced sirens.
Our dragoman tells us, however, that sailors, as a class, are not nearly such big fools as they used to be. The case is exceptional now in which a sailor allows a "siren" to take possession of him as soon as he is outside the dock gates, and keep possession of him until he has spent on her all his wages for his last voyage, and as much as he can get advanced and discounted of his wages for his next voyage. Sailors' Homes, doubtless, may be credited with a considerable proportion of this improvement. In most large ports now, a sailor who wants to protect himself against temptation, is able to do so, through the various instrumentalities of these admirable institutions. But there are fools amongst sailors still, as we see again when we go into some of the numerous dancing and singing rooms behind public-house bars in and about Ratcliff Highway, as St. George's Street, E., persists in calling itself, and getting itself called. We do not see these rooms, however, in the full tide of their revelry, because, as we enter, we generally hear the warning ting of a bar-pulled bell. The women customers of the [-36-] house do not seem to mind our brief presence, but rather to like it - so long as we soon move on again - as an unexpected item in the evening's entertainment; but the white-faced, brown-Cardiganed, short-aproned ,used-up-looking waiters regard the unprofitable visitors as sulkily as they dare before a dragoman from Scotland Yard, and finger-telegraph contemptuous appraisements of us (as we judge from the titters which acknowledge the receipt of the telegrams) to the girls behind us. Some of the houses are frequented by sailors of all nations; others are distinctively Spanish, German, and so on. In a Prussian house we enter, we are told that the girls are dancing with one another, "because this --- war keeps all the men away." In another house an old Irishman, drunkenly sympathetic with the French, and most gratuitously supposing that none of us can, more soberly, share his sympathy, inquires with semi-articulate indignation whether we expect to go to heaven? The landlord takes him by the collar of his coat and the seat of his breeches and runs him out into the street, where, when we go out, we find him waiting to bid us go - to the antipodes of heaven.
Dancing and drinking are the staple amusements of these behind-bar rooms. The poor lost women - one or two bloated middle-aged women, but most of them young women, some mere girls - young women and girls, who, if [-37-] any of them ever had a trace of beauty in their faces, have had it fearfully obliterated sit on the benches that run round the room, by themselves, or loll against men, and dance with one another, and dirty, half-drunk, heavy-footed sailors. Some of the miserable creatures are the lowest dregs of prostitution filthy in person and almost in rags; but others wear low-neck dresses of cheap, flashy silk, and sham moire-antique, white petticoats with worked borders. White stockings, and red boots with tassels. They leer very openly; now and then they indulge in a little horseplay, and give just a hint of the lascivious style in which they usually dance, but they have not drunk enough yet to make them utterly reckless; and so, whilst we remain, they behave as decently as they know how. Not only the sullen waiters, but the surly, silly sailors, who will be carried off by-and-bye to be robbed - perhaps literally stripped of everything - in Palmer's Rents or Tiger Bay, look relieved when we move towards the door of the dancing-room. In one case the company sends after us a male - rather than a vale-dictory " Yah-ah-ah!"
Some of the rooms have a little stage at the farther end, on which the hired performers dance and sing. The amusement provided in one room is about the most singular I ever witnessed anywhere. A zany, in a bobtailed, plaid dresscoat, is dancing about the floor, [-38-] pulling his long, bushy, false moustache, and lifting a tiny drab hat, which, being tied on with elastic, flies back to his head as often as it is lifted; meanwhile the zany sings a lot of gibberish to which not one of the people he has been engaged to entertain condescends to pay the slightest attention.
Her Majesty has given her name to a good many streets; but dirty, narrow, squalid Victoria Street, Bluegate Fields, is, we think, the one that she would feel least proud of, if she could see it. Off this dismal Victoria Street there is a double row of miserable little two- floored houses, called Victoria Court, and two of these are houses-of-call for Chinamen and Lascar opium-smokers.
"Close up, gentlemen, don't lose sight of me," says our dragoman, as we sidle in single file through a fog-choked little covered passage. Presently we reach Victoria Court, and stop outside Eliza's door. (Eliza is the original of the woman opium-smoker in "Edwin Drood. ) Our dragoman calls up the pitch-dark staircase, "You at home, Eliza?" Being answered in the affirmative, be leads the way up the narrow, how, corkscrew-like little staircase - or rather, we have to stumble up it the best way we can. In a dirty little room there is a dirty little bedstead, outside the dirty clothes on which a black-moustached, swarthy Lascar, who passes for Eliza's husband, lies rolled up in a rug. [-39-] He pretends to be asleep, but now and then gives, a grunt of inquiry, and Eliza answers him in his own tongue. She is a sallow-faced, carelessly-dressed woman, reclining on the other end of the bed, with her opium-pipe, lamp, &c, ready to her hand.
Some wet clothes are hung up to dry before the little fire. She is asked whether she is getting ready to go to church or chapel next day. "Ah, no," she answers in a canting whine, "that's what I can't do, but it's where I should like to go if I was prepared." When asked how she came to take to opium-smoking, she says that she can speak Hindi and Hindustani, and used to be with those that spoke them, and one would say to her, "Have a whiff," and another would say to her, "Have a whiff," and she knew no better, and so she got into the habit, and now she cannot leave it off.
In intervals between her talk she scoops out prepared opium from a little gallipot, sticks it on the needle that crosses the broad shallow bowl of her ruler-like pipe, turns the bowl to the orifice in the glass cover of her lamp, humours the pill with the spatula end of another needle to get it to kindle, and then takes a long pull, - sometimes sending back the smoke through her nostrils and her ears.
"It's very healthy, gentlemen," she says, when we remark upon its not unpleasant odour. [-40-] "When the cholera was about, nobody took it that lived in a house where they smoked opium."
There used to be half-a-dozen and more of these houses in the East-end, but the two in Bluegate Fields are the only ones now known to the police (1870). The Strangers' Home officials exerted themselves a good deal to put the others down; but lodgers in the Strangers' Home are still, during the day, pretty frequent customers at, the two houses in Victoria Court.
"Craving for drink, gentlemen!" Eliza presently exclaims; "wanting to have a smoke, and not to be able to get opium, is a hundred times worse than that. I used to drink about as free as any, didn't I, sir?" appealing, almost proudly, to our dragoman for corroboration of her statement; "but I've broke myself of that. But if you can't get a pipe when you want it, it's like as if you was having electric shocks one after another, or as if you was haying a knife scraped along your bare bones." A drachm of opium is the largest amount which Eliza owns to having smoked in a day.
Across the court and up another dark little staircase into "Johnson's" dirty bedroom. Johnson is a Chinaman, but he has an English "wife," who sits before the fire grumbling - because they have to pay 4s. a week for a house that lets in the rain. There are a few dirty prints on the walls, and a little oblong [-41-] chimney-glass, with the backing almost worn off. On the dirty bed reclines Johnson, a corpse-complexioned, sapless-looking man, whose face twitches as if he had the tic douloureux until he succeeds in lighting his charge of opium. When asked why he smokes opium, he answers that he could not "go to sillip" (sleep) if he did not smoke it, and when an inquiry is made as to the number of pipes he could smoke in a day, he says five hundred dozen, if he could get them. A Chinese lodger, in Chinese costume (a slender, taper-fingered, black-moustached, almost obsequiously polite young fellow, who is sitting at a little table reading a Chinese history of the Taiping Rebellion), bares his white, gleaming teeth in a broad smile when he hears his landlord give this hyperbolical estimate of his powers. The two Chinamen cannot talk to each other in Chinese, as they come from different provinces. From what they say to each other and ourselves in "pigeon English," we gather that the lodger came over to England as a ship's cook, and is now staying to see a little of the country, supporting himself by selling penny packets of scent in the streets. At Johnson's hint he brings out the box in which he keeps his stock, and soon disposes of sundry little white and pink parcels of some atrociously sickly-scented stuff. Johnson next shows us the modicums of opium, which he sells his customers for 6d., 8d., 1s. 6d., and so on, and then [-42-] taking a stickless gas-candle, he shambles off the bed and down his narrow staircase, to light us out. As he stands at his doorway and looks out into the fog, he holds the candle above his head. When the light falls on his filmy-eyed, twitching; sickly-yellow face, it looks not unlike that of a galvanised corpse.
On another night Johnson is in his ground-floor room, and calls out cheerily, "Come in," as soon as he hears us at the door. He is lolling on a bed-tick divan, made out of a greasy bed and mattress placed on the floor and against the wall. He is in high good humour, almost constantly joking and laughing. Now he takes a pull at the opium-pipe, and then he puts it into the mouth of a drowsy Lascar, who begins to smoke with his head on the legs of another Lascar who is lying as motionless as a log. Johnson manages the lamp for his lazy customer, and meanwhile smokes a cheroot. A slight Chinese sailor, who has had his dose, stands up in the middle of the room chuckling at anything and nothing. A more powerful fellow, of a negro-like complexion and cut of countenance, who says that lie comes from Singapore, has also had his dose. He sits musing by the divan for a minute, and then gets up and seats himself before the fire, where he begins a song of the kind the tom-tom players sing. Johnson says, approvingly, " Nice - very good cantic," and then he and the two [-43-] Lascars and the Chinaman burst out laughing, in that dingy little hole, as if care, for them, were banished from the world.
Through the fog again, in which stray sailors and Guardsmen are reeling, and women of the town and roughs are standing at corners on the look-out for prey. When we stop before the first lodging-house we have to enter, a drink- flushed young fellow in a duck jacket staggers up, and demands, rather than begs, for money.
This lodging-house makes up more than three hundred beds for men. It was formerly a sugar-works. The ceilings, the beams, and the pillars that prop the different floors all smell of fresh limewash. The alterations are not quite completed in the lowest floor. The pavement is littered with rather uncomfortable-looking heaps of mortar. The washing- places are on this floor, and every lodger is expected to wash before he goes to bed. Here, too, is the kitchen, with a numbered locker for each inmate, and a wide range, in which, as is the case in all common lodging-houses, an almost oppressively hot fire is kept up night and day all the year round. The furniture consists of tables and forms, on which here and there a man is asleep on his back, or with his head upon his arms. The dormitories, through which we walk as quietly as we can, are big enough in length and breadth, and, of course, as they are registered, each sleeper has [-44-] his proper cubic allowance of air; but they are low. A tall man is apt to knock his head against the whitewashed ceiling. The beds stretch away in long vistas, head to head. The bedsteads are of wood, and the lodging-house keeper maintains that if taken to pieces every now and then, and plunged into a copperful of boiling water, they can be kept freer from vermin than iron bedsteads could be. A good many of the bedsteads are already occupied; the dark coverlets swell up like graves. Some of the occupants are snoring, others, half-awake, blinkingly watch us as we pass their beds. Here and there a man is undressing. The ventilation is good, the bedding sufficient; but there is a lack of privacy, in Ěthe great dormitories, in which men are herded like boys at school, that makes them look very unhome-like.
Across the Whitechapel Road, where the fog is so thick that passing vehicles, dimly appearing, suddenly vanishing, have a phantasmal look; and people who want to cross, linger on the kerb, like timid bathers hesitating to take their plunge. Up, by way of Osborne Street, to the lodging-houses, which are as thick as thieves - and some of them almost exclusively used by thieves - in and about Flower-and-Dean Street. But there are comparatively respectable houses - houses that will not take everybody in - in that neighbourhood; and in some of these there [-45-] is a degree of comfort which a stranger does not expect to find in a low lodging-house. To be able to pass the little lodge in which sits the proprietor or his deputy before his account book, must be cheery, after a weary day in the cold streets, or wearying docks. Some of the inmates have lived in them for years as weekly lodgers; others pay half-weekly; chance-corners pay every night. The general charge is four- pence a night, or two shillings a week, for a single bed in a general dormitory. For a trifle more, a boarded-off bedroom, dark, but private can be secured. In all registered houses the number of beds which each room is to contain is stated on a ticket hung upon the wall In the comfortable houses it is enclosed in a little gilt frame; in the houses in which the proprietors strive to do the very least they ,can, it is pasted on a bit of millboard. These comfort able houses have "maple"-framed engravings along their walls, and, besides the kitchen, with cooking apparatus, and dressers covered with white crockery, a "coffee-room," with boxes, to which the lodgers can retreat when tired of the kitchen, in which each cooks for himself the food he has brought in. One of these comfortable houses is a regular warren. A row of old-fashioned buildings have been thrown into one; and if it were not for index-fingers, with verbal directions beneath, painted on the corner of every passage, a stranger might wan-[-46-]der about in it the whole day long without being able to find his way out. It must not be supposed, however, that all the inmates of these better houses are model characters. In one, a hulking tramp dogs us about, hoping first that our honours, and then that our lordships, will give him a trifle to drink our healths. In the coffee-room of the same house, a lodger of the "patterer" class leans back in his box, puts his legs on the seat, and somewhat to this effect addresses the room at large :-" My friends, we are in a place of public entertainment. Is there anything derogatory in that? My friends, there is nothing derogatory in being in a place of public entertainment, into which, as into the London tavern, any person of good moral character, or, perhaps, otherwise, can come, if he has only money enough to pay for his admission. My friends, there are gentlemen present. They may, and they may not, have paid for admission to our room; I cannot say. But, my friends, the gentlemen go about and smile, and now they laugh. Why do they smile and laugh? What is a smile and laugh? Can they not express their feelings in a way more satisfactory to our feelings ?- put into a more substantial shape those sentiments of deep admiration and philanthropy with which doubtless they regard us?" Even in these houses, too, it is considered a great joke for a lodger to ask of our dragoman, "Who's wanted?" or for our [-47-] dragoman to say to some unseen sleeper, into whose cupboard bedroom he has peeped, "Don't disturb yourself; I'll let you go to church in peace to-morrow."
On our way to houses of a lower class-lower in character and comfort, although the charges are sometimes the same as those of the better class houses-we pass one with the whole of a lower window-sash smashed in. The dirty drab blind, inscribed with "Accommodation for Travellers," leans against the shattered frame. The mischief was done, we learn, by some ill-conditioned fellow who had a spite against the keeper of the house; and as we pass the broken window there comes out a clamour of angry voices, highly flavoured with the hottest oaths, which seems to menace the continuity of the other casement.
Whilst our dragoman is giving some local information in straight, narrow, dark, damp, dingy Flower-and-Dean Street, one of us happens to be looking through the glass of the door of the next lodging-house upon our list. There are thieves, slimly-built thieves, very shabby-looking thieves, slipping about by twos and threes, in the dimly gaslit darkness; but they can see our guide, and slip past as quietly as they can. Inside, however, eyes begin to peer curiously into the outside gloom. Presently three or four fellows make a move towards the door, and one lurches out into the [-48-] street, with a view of commencing operations on the inquisitive stranger, who is supposed to be alone. It is odd to note how disappointed he looks, how his bullying aspect collapses into servility, when he catches sight of our police-guide.
When we enter, we find that an attempt is being made at "cleaning up for Sunday." A table .has been pushed askew, a form laid on it, and a man and woman are ploughing up the conglomeration of mud, greasy newspaper scraps, and litter of various kinds with which the floor is caked. At a table on one side sit a number of limp, damp, scanty-skirted, depressed women, who look as if they had been not long before fished out of a stagnant ditch. On two forms running from the fireplace sit two rows of men. The last of the right-hand row is an almost imbecile-looking young man, who is nursing a baby-a wee, sickly mite, with a pinched, pale-blue face, staring goggle-eyed out of the rough jacket of its clumsy nurse. The fire would soon roast an ox. The men's clothes are very dirty, some of them filth-sodden; herrings are being toasted, rank tobacco is being smoked, there is a stale smell of fried fish in the air; the mere memory of that atmosphere gives one nausea. When we go into the bedrooms we find one of the lodgers smoking in bed. The dragoman taps the pipe with his stick, and says, "Don't go to sleep with that in your mouth, my man." [-49-] It is taken out of the mouth, but is popped into the mouth again, as we pass out of the further door.
One house we enter, whose deputy has to go out to buy a "halfpenny dip" to show us over the bedrooms, is almost entirely occupied by young thieves and prostitutes, ranging from youths and girls of eighteen or nineteen down to mere children. As we go in, a woman, who feels herself, or pretends to feel herself, above her company, calls to our guide, "Turn out the thieves." Thieving does not seem to be a very profitable calling, judging from the members of the profession seen here. they are eating coarse food in a foul-scented room, and are all shabbily dressed. One of the boys is without shoes and stockings, and his clothes are more like lengths of list tied on to him than torn portions of once continuous cloth. The hobbydehoys look heavy, both in heart and mind, but the boys are merry as grigs, and sharp as needles. "We're only having a game, sir," explains the spokesman of a double row of them seated before the fire. It is a queer game. The spokesman makes a little speech, and then all the other boys hold out their hands in turn to receive a sounding whack from a weighted thong. The harder a boy is hit, the more he seems to like it. Merry as they are, however, it is most painful to see so many mere "chits of children," girls as well as boys, each on his [-50-] or her "own hook," without any home but such a crowded den as this, earning their scanty bread by vice and crime. Surely, for our own sakes, we ought to do something for these fatherless and motherless. From the boy's at any rate - acute, patient, daring - good citizens might be made. The hobbydehoys sit mum whilst we are in the house. "We are very quiet, you see, gentlemen," says our smiling guide. "Sometimes," emphasises one of the party, and the heavy hobbydehoys silently relax into a broad, knowing grin. "Good night, sir; good night, gentlemen," they shout after us in a tone of relief, as the door closes behind us.
[----nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.----]