Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 11 - Sunday Morning in Petticoat Lane

[-back to main for this book-]

[-170-]

SUNDAY MORNING IN PETTICOAT LANE

In the core of the City, on a Sunday morning, there are streets as silent as sepulchres. When you disturb their bush with your echoing footfall, you do not see another human being, except, perhaps, some weary watchman or housekeeper looking down with lack-lustre eyes on the bare pavement of the deserted close-shuttered thoroughfares, or into a disused churchless churchyard, walled in, like the bottom of a well, with towering warehouses.
    It is startling to cross from that drowsy calm into the brawling bustle of the Aldgate and Whitechapel Jews' quarter.
    In and about Houndsditch shops are open and watchmakers at work, heedless of the chaff upon their screwed-up eyes shouted in at them by filthy young roughs hanging before their windows. Every now and then some one passes with a garment or hat in his hand, or a clothes-bag on his back. Phil's Buildings and Cutler Street are choked with buyers and sellers of old clothes-male and female, pouring in and out of the old-clothes exchanges like very dirty bees at the entrances of very dingy hives. The atmosphere of those densely-thronged marts does not remind one of "spicy breezes [-171-] blowing soft from Ceylon's isle "-it is redolent of oleaginous malodours, of a general dusty musty, fustiness. And yet what energetic bargaining is going on over the old garments! Though some of them look fit for little else than scarecrows, how voices are raised to sea- bird screeches, what elegancies of very composite English-Cockneyese plus Irish brogue, Jewish enunciation, and a splutter of foreign gutturals - are exchanged, how arms are pump-handled and fists are clenched, in the transfer of these fallen leaves of use and fashion. Some of the chatterers look very much as if they were going to fight. Hard by in their Meeting House the Friends are sitting, silent as sleek uncooing doves. London is rich in contrasts. By the bye, do Quaker hats, coats, and  breeches ever find their way into Rag Fair? And if so, who buys them to wear again?
    On the other side of Houndsditch street-sellers are coming with their baskets and their harrows from the fruit market in Duke's Place and Mitre Street. The busiest of the marketing is over∑ in front of one of the unglazed stores stands a chaise with a white pony, which gleams like moonlight, and a scarlet-lined rug which glows like fire, from their contrast to the dinginess of the sloppy rubbish-littered square, on which the gloomy, grimy Synagogue frowns down. The chaise is waiting, I suppose, to carry the storekeeper, with his portly gold-[-172-]chained mother in Israel and black-eyed little children of Israel into the country, but most of his fellow-tradesmen and their wives linger in somewhat slovenly undress, as if they expected to do a good bit of business yet in their papered pale-golden lemons, their brown walnuts, and Brazil nuts, their shaggy-haired cocoa-nuts, and rocky lumps of conglomerated dates. Some flashily dressed young fellows stand talking before the Jew public-houses. Their talk is of business - no mere time, and therefore money-wasting chaff. Indeed everybody in this part of the world seems to want to make a deal of some kind. "Vat do you think of it. Mosshy?" shouts a woman to her husband, who is leaning with his back against the wall on the other side of the street. Mrs. Mosshy has been redeeming a spare five minutes in bargaining for something she had not the slightest intention of buying before the would. be vendor chanced to pass her way, and wishes for time marital approval of her proposed investment.
    But Petticoat Lane on Sunday morning will give the most vivid idea of the greed of gain, or the hard struggle to make a living, there is in the neighbourhood I am writing about. 
    Petticoat Lane on Sunday morning is a very striking but by no means beautiful sight. It is not the place an Englishman proud of his country would take a foreigner to see, unless [-173-] he were simply proud of his countrymen's business energy. Cramped Middlesex Street is then crammed with, for the most part, a very frowsy throng. When two persons with clean faces and in moderately decent clothes meet there, they give one another an astonished stare. The one or two burly policemen who stand at corners - black breakwaters in the struggling tides that flow from Whitechape1 to Bishopsgate Street, and vice versa - look sulky when. a "respectably dressed" person passes them.
    "What on earth brings you here, to increase our bother? they seem to say. "Perhaps you'll get into a scrimmage, and then what can we do for you, or you do for yourself?"
    On. the whole, however, the Sunday crowds sidle, with their arms down, through the Lane without breach of the peace, and with a general display of rough good-nature; though now anti then a sturdy, stubbly-chinned denizen of the locality scowls on the "respectable intruder"  in it as if he would like to pitch into him for his impertinence. Stunted squalor, however, rather than sturdiness, is the general characteristic of those with whom you most literally rub shoulders in Petticoat Lane. Those who object to contact with the Great Unwashed should give it a wide berth; otherwise they will feel inclined, like Mr. Pendennis in his dandy days, to take a perfumed bath. Little [-174-] children, however, manage to get through the crowd without being crunched like snails. or course horseplay goes on. A favourite joke, when a jam occurs, is to seize one of the street-sellers' barrows which still further block the very narrow street, and drive it like a ploughshare with a wild " Hi ! Hi ! Hi!" through the obstructing crowd. When these crushes take place, the explorer of the Lane must not be astonished if he should be cannoned through the open doorway or window of a shop, or find a sticky seat on a confectionery barrow. The way in which both street-sellers and shopkeepers expose their goods in a place in which, if an organised dash were made at them, it seems as if it would be impossible for the owners to preserve them from plunder or wanton mischief, is one of the curiosities of London life.
    The barrows are freighted with the usual eatables and drinkables, flimsy toys and flimsier gimcracks of East- End al fresco trade. The specialties of the Oriental-looking open-fronted shops are fried fish , greasy-looking tarts and cakes, little tubs of cucumbers pickled in piccalilli mixture, second-hand tools, and all kinds of second-hand integuments for man, woman, and child. There are swaying lianas of hats and caps, ranks of "restored" boots, piles of gaily-coloured handkerchiefs - some, perchance, in Pistol's sense, " conveyed "- and, groves of dusky garments in which, here [-175-] and there, a footman's old livery, a soldier's stained coat, or a faded silk or satin gown shines faintly like a dust-dimmed king-parrot, ibis, or macaw.
    Rusty, dusty, cobwebby old metal lies upon the ground, looking more likely to secure an archaeologist as a purchaser than any one in want of something to be turned to daily use; and, indeed, some of the boots and shoes, in spite of all the care their cobblers have bestowed upon them, seem about as wearable as lumps of coal. Per contra there are some very gay heaps of women's boots, and one tray full of tiny bright-coloured. babies' shoes that have a strangely innocent look in this den of dirt and greed. A hulking bricklayer's-labourer halts before the tray. His Cap, his hair, his flannel jacket, his corduroy trousers gartered with twine, are all so powdered with dust that a cloud of it flies out, as from a beaten mat, when he jostles against any one ; his beery face is as roughly red as one of his own bricks; he has a stubbly chin, and a black, or rather a dull green, red, and lead-coloured eye; and he carries under one arm a vicious bull-terrier, dropping blood from recent bites on muzzle, paw, and ear. The bricklayer's-labourer is not a captivating being, but I have hopes of him when he stops and buys a doll's-like pair of steel-starred blue morocco shoes for his " little'un at whoam."
    Salesmen shout at the top of their voices, [-176-] "Buy, buy, buy;" "What gentleman'll stand treat next?£ &c., &c. Those who come to buy, and those who only come to look, keep themselves warm, and "enjoy company," or to wile away the time until the public-houses open, are almost all making a noise of some kind or other. And so, in two conflicting turbulent tides, little dreamt of by many a neighbouring church and chapel goer, the motley, tobacco- scented crowd forces its way up and down.

    How sweet the Sabbath thus to spend!

[--nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.--]