Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 24 - The City Sunday

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XXIV.

THE CITY SUNDAY.

AN unwashed, unshaven labourer sits upon a milestone, kicking it with his listlessly-swung, unlaced boots, sulkily eyeing the closed doors and shuttered windows of a public-house, and exchanging sleepy growls with comrades opposite who are already waiting for the doors to open, meanwhile, to pass the time, employing in turn a shoeblack. No smoke rolls out of the factory chimney, and a rusty boiler basks [-349-] in the forecourt, still showing signs of having once been a garden, as if it hoped its rest might never again be broken. The little green arbours of the Tea Gardens are deserted, and the old sign sways softly over the old water- trough, as if it were rocking itself off to sleep. The warm wind rustles the leaves of the trees that shade the churchyard, and ruffles, too, the leaves of a list hung upon a church door.
    "What's that?" asks a little girl, holding on to the smallest although not little finger of the brown hand of her father, a red-faced navvy in clean, white frock, and other Sunday best, who is leisurely taking his walks abroad, sunning his broad back, like a cart-horse, in the Sunday shine.
    "Catlog o' a sale, most like," answers the huge parent, whose information is not equal to his size.
    Two costermongers, who have clubbed their donkeys and harnessed them to one barrow, rattle by upon it; riding out not on business, but for a holiday. A knot of grimy boys are also starting for the country, with their jackets - those who have got any - thrown over their shoulders. For a space the sunny roadway, and the sunny footpaths on both sides are vacant, but there come half-a-dozen bird-fanciers, with handkerchief-covered cages under their arms, and after them two sly-faced bird-catchers slouching along with their poles and packs [-350-] upon their shoulders. The crossing-sweepers have already taken their stands, although they are likely to obtain the reverse of commendation rather than coppers if they ply their brooms on this dry, dusty day. A single omnibus rolls by, without a single passenger. The cabmen on the rank lounge inside their vehicles, reading or asleep, or loll with their elbows sprawled on the warm hansom roofs. A cattle train rumbles across the railway bridge with measured pantone puff of vapour almost vanishing before another makes its appearance - and it is hard to say which looks the sulkier, the heavy-eyed bullock lowering between its bars, or the guard, robbed of his Sunday; as he hangs half out of his van. In a dead-walled corner a knot of cattle-drovers, who look as if they had never washed their faces, or put on more than one clean shirt in the course of their lives, are playing pitch and toss. Farther on tract distributors in couples are tendering their flyleaves to the passers-by, and children hurrying or loitering to Sunday-school. The clamour of a street market, in which draggle-tailed, depressed-looking women are cheapening flabby meat and wilted vegetables for their Sunday dinner, comes next, and then the bells leap out in silvery peal, or toll with brazen clank and tinkettle tinkle, and the streets become gay with smartly-dressed church and chapel goers, and gilt-edged bibles, prayer-books, hymn-[-351-]books, bound in ivory, or gilt-rimmed, gilt~ crossed purple morocco. Working-men roll out from the easy-shaving shops with fresh- mown chins, and their hands in their pockets. In and about the Sunday paper-hoarded tobacconists cluster tallow-faced mannikins, whose pipes and cheap cigars add no Arabian perfume to the air, and the sellers of lemonade and ginger-beer have began to do a brisk trade from shop and stall. From the foot of Blackfriars Bridge crammed tram-cars are rolling off to Clapham, Brixton, Peckham, and East Greenwich. Up and down the river go crowded steamboats, a gig darts along as if its eight blue-bladed oars obeyed a single will, and less well-pulled wherries splutter about like flies in a slop-basin.
    Men, women, and children are basking quietly on the Embankment and in the Embankment gardens, but even here the young rough must howl and hustle. It is a curious revulsion of feeling one experiences when, after looking up at the grey and purple dome of St. Paul's, the eye is turned upon that swarming product of the city over which its guilt cross shines, clearly defined on the blue, cloudless sky, - the mobs of mannikins that go about, seeking whom they may annoy. The Temple Gardens, however, smile in verdant peace. A line of carriages stretches along Fleet Street from the Temple Gate. The closed new Times office symbolises [-352-] cessation of business in the big city, but not so forcibly, I think, as the old one, hidden, still as a hushed heart, in its dingy recesses. St. Sepulchre's bell is giving its last toll as the charity girls, demure little maidens in old- fashioned caps, file in beneath the inspection of the gorgeous beadle. Newgate Prison is not generally considered one of the architectural ornaments of London, but it and Westminster Abbey seem to me the two London buildings which best represent externally the purposes for which they are intended. Sternly enough, as if the sunshine were an offence to its eyeless face, frowns the black and grey fetter-hung gaol. hard by, the shut-up Smithfield Markets, the chequer-walled Charterhouse, and the old-fashioned houses that stand along three sides of the leafy, grassy square garden, seem to be dozing with less troubled breath now that for a time the trains have ceased to rush along the railway, which has shorn off one of the sides of the square in which monastic quiet used to brood. In a street outside, in front of a weekday dancing-school, there is a bill which invites "All" to enter to hear the Gospel preached. A pale-faced, shabbily-dressed woman, looking wofully in need of glad tidings of even a little joy, slips into the narrow passage which leads into the preaching-room. Not many besides herself have as yet obeyed the all-embracing summons; only a few people, chiefly women or [-353-] girls, with fagged faces and in faded dresses; not ragged or dirty, but not smart enough to go to church, and not rich enough to go to chapel, with its probable chance of a "collection." Their pastor, a little man in seedy black, gives out a hymn, and the little congregation sings it with thin, quavering voices, which, nevertheless, have a sound in them of rest and hope of far-off happiness.
    In the yard of the sealed Post Office, dingy white mail boxes and ruddy mail-carts are taking sunny rest together; no foot-falls in shuttered Paternoster Row and its purlieus; and in the high -walled streets and lanes behind Cheapside-on week-days often blocked with traffic-the only people that I pass are a meditative policeman, and a widow woman resting on a door-step. A boy is making a bicycle scurry over the asphalte of Cheapside, and an old gentleman is driving his old lady along it in a little pony chaise-both evidently proud of the nerve and skill which he displays in being able to pass, without collision, a single, very intermittently dribbling, line of omnibuses.
    The organs of the city churches drone as if the old buildings were softly singing in their sleep. Outside St. Margaret's, Lothbury, sits the verger gazing at the blank wall of the Bank, and sunning himself complacently as he listens to the lulling strains. In Throgmorton [-354-] Street, otherwise untenanted, stands an empty omnibus. No driver or conductor is visible, and the horses seem to have gone to sleep. In Bishopsgate Street there is bustle once more, a seemingly purposeless bustle, for the most part; people surging this way and that way, or mooning about as if they did not know what to do with themselves.
    Some of the shops in Houndsditch are open, and dingy Jews and Gentiles are buzzing about the Phil's Buildings entrance to Rag Fair. More gaily dressed Jews and Jewesses are still selling fruit in the unglazed shops of rubbish- littered Duke's Place, where oranges and lemons, owing to the grimy shabbiness around, look more brightly, purely golden than. anywhere besides. There is more Jewish and Gentile bustle in Aldgate and Whitechapel - open. shops, bawling stall-keepers, dawdling loungers; more sensible folk shouldering their way eastwards to get a breath of fresh air. In Petticoat Lane proper, redolent of fried fish, dissonant with the shouts of shopkeepers, and the yells of roughs trying to get up rushes, you might walk on the heads of the two jostling lines of close-packed passengers.
    In Hoxton a worthy man mounted on a chair is denouncing "Renegades! Renegades!! Renegades!!!" a costermonger throwing in ever and anon an ironical "Hear, hear, hear." Farther on, another preacher is bewailing at the [-355-] top of his voice the bygone happy days of innocence, in which lie had never struck a bagatelle ball, or even knew what dominoes meant. But now their congregations have swarmed out from church and chapel, again brightening the thoroughfares with purple and flue linen; the Metropolitan trains are running once more; fathers and mothers of families are returning from the baker's, bearing homewards, with cautious speed, the shoulder of mutton and batter pudding, toad-in-the-hole, leg of pork and potatoes, or whatever else may be the family dinner; and maidservants and mechanics are hastening to the taverns with their jugs for the dinner beer.
    As soon as the tavern doors swung, they were besieged by those who had been waiting all the morning for them to open, who will remain inside until they are turned out, when the houses are again closed in the afternoon, stupid, savage, or idiotically "merry," to annoy more rational people, and who will return to the public-house, when once more open in the evening, to finish off their Sunday in the utterly joyless manner (to all appearance) in which so many of the lower class of Londoners inexplicably fancy that they find delight.

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