Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 18 - From Billingsgate to Bethnal Green

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 "A FEW small fishes" might seem a sorry feast for a multitude, but what hosts have been fed by the swarming shoals of those individually small fish, the Clupeidoe! Amsterdam, according to the Dutch proverb, is "built of herring-bones." It was the herring, a Dutchman boasts, which enabled his countrymen to throw off the Spanish yoke; and although the Dutch herring fishery is now next to nothing in comparison with its ancient glories, the first herring of the season is still; I believe, considered a royal fish in Holland, whilst in honour of the first draught the Dutch fishmongers decorate their shops with flags, garlands, and dried herrings! There are herrings caught off Iceland, in Norwegian fords, along whose wildly grand shores the tell-tale telegraph wire now runs-erected mainly to betray the fish's whereabouts - in the Baltic and the Caspian, the White Sea and the Black Sea, on the coast of Kamtschatka and the coast of Carolina. Our Nova-Scotian colonists have herring galore, and a little time ago I read that on the other side of the world the same fish, or its pilchard cousin, had taken a freakishly [-261-] sudden resolve of thronging towards and into Port Philip Bay, in numbers so vast, that captains of Melbourne-bound ships reported having sailed for miles through closely packed shoals, whilst the fish were caught ready for market by the primitively expeditious plan of backing carts to the water's edge, and bucketing the herrings into them in basketfuls.
    Who has not heard of the fishery of Yarmouth, and of the four golden herrings (more genuine than that seen by Theocritus' fisherman) which it gave to Charles the Second, in acknowledgment of the visit he had paid it expressly for the encouragement of its staple industry? One of the most exciting scenes I ever witnessed was when, after cantering backwards and forwards for hours over the waters of the Moray Frith in a Buckie boat - which, after dark, ran frequent risk of running into others similarly cruising; the crews of all sleepily eating or drinking, yarning, joking, or smoking, or downright snoring round their fires amidships -  I was roused about midnight from the nap into which I was nodding, as I sat beside the steersman, by an excited shout, announcing that the "fleet" of herrings had risen at last. The news seemed to spread with an electric thrill of sympathy through the flotila of fishing-boats on the look-out for them. Down came masts and canvas with a rattle; the nets were shot as fast as the buoys [-262-] could be splashed into the phosphorescent water.
    I scarcely ever saw a more beautiful sight than when I woke-or rather, was roused from my sleep on the floor of the boat to see it-in the morning. The sun was just coming up above the horizon, gilding the leaden waters, and the moist back-fins of the so-called "whales" that were cruising about, just giving a glimpse of their hog-backs, and tinging with a rosy-red the grey and white of the circling, screaming sea-birds. The dark net was being hauled in, each length as it came in thickly hung with flashing, flinching, fluttering green, blue, pink, silver, gold.
    I never saw sprats the very instant they came fresh from their home, but, very shortly afterwards, I have seen waggon-loads of them grinding along the lanes about Wivenhoe and  Fingringhoe, in Essex, and when I saw them sparkling like heaps of polished silver coin fresh from the Mint, though only a weak watery winter sun fell upon them, I could not help wondering that such a wealth of (in two senses) beautiful food should be carting off for conversion into most unfragrant manure. Of course, this might not entail a very large absolute loss of aliment. The sprat would be eaten or drunk ultimately, metamorphosed into a small portion of a loaf of bread, or of a pint of beer, or of a slice of meat, instead of masticated [-263-] as a little fish. In the case of the meat- metamorphosis, however, the very poor, whose condition has not gone up with the general rise of wages amongst the labouring classes - the helpless, shiftless folk who must be poor under any circumstances, since, even in case of a culbute générale, they would be too weak to I get much out of the consequent scramble - would have altogether lost the good the sprats might have been to them. It is about sprats as a food for the very poor, a meat that contains its own sauce, as the oyster its own pepsine, besides the condiment of hunger, that I am going to write; although the sprat is not so much the very poor man's friend as it used to be. Formerly sprats were sold for from a halfpenny to a penny a plateful; now they command from a penny to twopence a pound, which is considerably less than a plateful as that vague measure used to be piled. But first we must go to Billingsgate, to see the poor man's fishmonger buy his sprats.
    Billingsgate, according to one account, derives its name from King Belin, who built a gate near the site of the present market, on which, in a brass vessel, his burnt ashes were placed. A mythologist of the modern school would say that the human mind, from the necessities of its nature, created King Belin to represent by his brass urn the impudence, and by his burnt ashes the all-portions-of-the-frame [-264-] to-burning-destruction-consigning freedom of speech, which still characterise the locality to which lie is said to have given his name. It is not now, any more than in days gone by, a Billings-and-cooings-gate-not exactly the place to send any one to who would draw from "the pure well of English undefiled," but still just the place to send any one to who would learn the richness of our tongue in rancorous and racily humorous abuse.
    We shall doubtless hear plenty of Pope's "shameless Billingsgate," as on this winter morning, raw with a frost-fog, in which blurred gas-jets are burning, we try to sidle our way down to the damp market-shed through this dead-lock of basket-piled vans, with high-perched drivers (who are frequently asked whether it is cold up there, and, almost invisible in the fog, growl down gruff responsive "chaff" ), fishmongers' lighter four-wheeled and two-wheeled vehicles, pony-carts, donkey-carts, donkey-barrows, hand-barrows, wheel-harrows, basket-bearing men, women, hobbledehoys of both sexes, boys, girls, and little children, and toe-trodden-on and rib-"scrunched" sellers of street wares. With our own toes tingling and sides aching, we (always excepting speed in both cases) zigzag like crackers, double like hares through the serried throngs, at times almost knocked over like ninepins by the projecting loads of heavy-laden burden-bearers, perspiring, panting, but still [-265-] with breath enough left to indulge at our expense in language which we are very polite to content ourselves with characterising as rather more than slightly impolite.
    Were you ever kept down in the "cabin" of a -fishing-boat, in which the malodours of semi-putrid bait, bilge-water, bad spirits and tobacco, stale beer, over-night onions, and sodden woollen garments contended for mastery, whilst shipped seas washed about the dirty littered floor up to your ankles? If you have been, you will have some idea of the comfort of our struggle through Thames Street, sloppy and miry in spite of the frost. The greasy blue guernseys and green cords of some of those we get crowded up against, and who swear at us most lustily for our most involuntary proximity to them, unrefreshingly anoint us with fish-slime, and transfer to us a few of the scales with which they are spangled like harlequins. A great deal of shouting and gesticulating is going on in the gas-lit gloom.
    It looks very much like quarrelling, downright fighting, or at the mildest horse-play jesting, as we edge our cork-screw way along the market's crowded aisles, and the net-work of narrow alleys about it; but it is really most business-like buying and selling that is being transacted; hoarse top-coated salesmen trying to get the utmost for their consignments, or their own recently snapped-up bargains; buyers, [-266-] the least school-educated amongst them, their wits sharpened by their small amount of capital, by no means the least cute in their calculations, determined not to bid a fraction more than they think they can get a fair profit on. It is too foggy to see the traffic on board the plump, sprawling-finned Dutch eel-boats, which look in fine weather as if they had been varnished with treacle-that is, if any of those stolid - stage - smuggler - manned, fore-and-aft chubby-cheeked craft are this morning lying in the river; but we can see oysters shovelled up like coals from the oyster-boats, and shot from sacks like coals afterwards on shore. We see sackfuls of whelks, brimming over like Benjamin's; heaps of mussels, again coal-like - damped-small-coal-like - shovelled up into corners; a few piles of gritty cookies; hollow- pitted slopes of brown and pink shrimps; little heaving chaoses of live crabs and lobsters, with here and there a loose claw nipping spitefully at vacancy or its neighbours; boiled lobsters glowing through the fog like rowanberries through a Scotch mist; dried fish in brassy yellow bundles, smoked haddocks in amber-yellow strata; basaltic columns of fish-barrels; fresh herrings, spry; cod, stupid; haddock, sulky; gurnet, convivial; pike,. devilish; and salmon, arrayed in silver scale-armour, royal- looking even in death; an array of dimly orange-freckled, brown-backed, white-waist-[-267-]coated, Quilpishly-grimacing flat-fish, and avalanches of our silvery sprats making a moonshine in that (in numerous senses) shady place.
    Sprats are so plentiful this morning that, in spite of its inclemency, they sell very cheaply. Buyers of fresh sprats for poor neighbourhoods have to remember that a very raw morning sends the price of coals up immediately and most exorbitantly (although all classes of customers have to complain of extortion somewhere or other in the ingeniously complicated coal trade) for those who have to buy coals for immediate use. Sprats may be exceptionally plentiful, but what will be the good of buying them to retail if the great - that is, the poor - consumers of the sprat, accepted as sprat, have not fuel to cook them with? The poor creatures must be too sharp-set to have even a copper to spend, before they could be brought to make a meal off raw sprats.
    But their cheapness has tempted one of the costermongers to invest nearly all his stock- money in them. On the shaft of his laden donkey-trap his boy sits sentry, drinking the coffee and munching the bread-and-butter which his master has brought him out from the coffeehouse, inside which he now sits enjoying his own breakfast, and negotiating with his month full - a circumstance which muffles, not unpleasantly, the hoarse loudness (as of an angry bull that has got a sore throat through bellow- [-268-]ing) of his normal language - for the loan of a barrow for his boy. The costermonger, still mouthfully masticating and maledictory, "emerges" (as half-educated people, anxious to avoid "commonplace phrases," are very fond of saying) from the coffee-house ere long, and, partly by means of his maledictions, succeeds after a time in extricating his trap from the throng. Having driven to a dingy yard in Curtain Road, in which the barrow he has hired is laid up in ordinary, and transferred to it a portion of his glittering stock, he dispatches his boy with the barrow in one direction, whilst he drives off his cart in another. Crossing Shoreditch, the lad strikes into the Bethnal Green Road, and wheels his barrow up and down the melancholy streets that branch from it on either hand. Fog still chokes them, and although the frost has somewhat nipped nose-offences, as well as the blue noses of the poor shivering wretches who envy the comparatively well-fed and well-clad boy they meet (since he has had a warm, sufficient breakfast, his "cords," cap, and boots are sound, and he has a comforter twisted round his throat and tucked into the breast of his sleeved waistcoat), still the air there is too normally malodorous with ancient stenches constantly recruited by new-born ones, for even the purifying influence of cold to make it endurable by any except lungs "to the manner born." Greedily the poor creatures glance [-269-] at the heaped pile of succulent silver which the lad pushes before him, shouting with a lustiness which proves that ki8 lungs, at any rate, have not been weakened by want- "Sprat! Sprat, oh! Fine fresh sprat! All alive, all alive, oh! Penny a pound! Fine fresh sprat! Sprat! Sprat, oh!"
    They pop their heads out of their doors like rabbits - only half-frozen rabbits - from their holes. They look hungrily at the sprats; they make hasty calculations of ways and means, by the simple process of fumbling in the pockets of their thin, skimp, patternless skirts for a stray copper. Ever and anon the barrow is stopped and surrounded by a little ring of lean women, watching the boy's weighing, for all their leaden eyes, with the keenness of cats about to pounce upon a bird-holding up their broken, chipped, cracked, coarse, white and willow-pattern plates, and yellow basins, their crumpled colanders and battered sink-bowls, their aprons, or the "laps" of their dresses, for their tiny purchases - or trying to coax the coster-lad to throw in a few of the tempting little fish.
    "Jest 'alf a dozen - you'll never miss 'em," whines one old woman.
    "Shouldn't I?" answers the lad with a grin; "an' if I didn't, wouldn't the chap as I'm workin' em for, if I was to give summut over to all as axes for it?"
    If he had not eyes, so to speak, all round his [-270-] head, and were not also of precociously bullying voice and bellicose deportment, he would not be able to preserve his stock from fraudulent or forcible diminution at the hands of famished youngsters and lads, as big as himself, or bigger, who crowd up to his barrow when he stops to trade. Their purchases completed, the poor bargainers hurry back with their feast, which they at once proceed to cook; those who live in. the same house sometimes adopting the "co-operative system of housekeeping" by clubbing for a fire, squatted before which they follow out the cookery-book's injunction that sprats should be "served hot and hot," by hooking them out of the frizzling frying-pan with their fingers. "Fingers were made before forks," says the adage, and hunger drives mankind back to the primitive state to which the saying refers.
    On goes the boy, pushing and bawling. A good many of the black houses he passes have the long weaver's casements, and now and then a magnified yellow shuttle can be seen projecting from a door-jamb; but a great many of the silk-weavers who once almost exclusively peopled this neighbourhood have been starved out of it. Here and there, however, in a bare room, there still stands a loom - for the most part silent, since either there is no work, or else the fireless weaver's fingers are too numb to shoot the woof athwart the warp.
    [-271-] The boy stops in front of a ground-floor front room, in which a dirty woman with touzled hair, who seems to have scarcely anything on but a cotton gown, and her four daughters (the youngest has not yet been three years upon this, to her, most doleful earth) are hard at work matchbox-making, at twopence-halfpenny a gross. They look so famished that it seems wonderful they do not devour the paste - which they have to find. One of the little girls comes out with a broken plate.
    "Can yer make us a good 'a'porth?" she asks in a wheedling voice.
    For once the coster-lad takes pity, and gives her a good deal more than the market value of her money. The poor little maid rushes back. with unwonted brightness in. her eyes.
    The fish are tilted into the black pan; the miserable spark of fire in the grate is coaxed into a tiny flame with scraps of refuse wood and paper, and, still going on with their work, the match-makers snatch a meal; wiping their fingers, after the Japanese fashion, on bits of paper, which they afterwards put under the pan to feed the fire.
    If sprats do, indeed, form a portion of the Lord Mayor's Feast, what a contrast between their condescendingly amused tasters there, and their ravenous consumers in Bethnal Green!

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