At work! Before six in the morning, London, winter and
summer, is astir. The postmen have already cleared the letter-boxes. It is not a
place where the lazy man can lie under the canopy of heaven, and live through a
perpetual summer, on dishes of maccaroni. The lazzaroni of Cockayne, must needs
be a cunning set. If they will not work, and work hard, they must
cheat or steal. He who falls from honest, methodical, skilled labour, and the
regular travel by the workman's train, must earn his shilling or eighteenpence a
day as boardman or dock labourer; or he must withdraw to the workhouse, or
starve; or shift to the East and become of that terrible company whose
head-quarters may be taken to be somewhere about Bluegate Fields. The rigour of
the climate, the swiftness of the life, the hosts of men with open mouth, the
tough hand-to-hand wrestling for every crust, compel that sternness, and produce
that careworn look, which sit upon the poorer classes of London workmen.
Before six in the morning, while the mantle of night still lies over the sloppy streets, and the air stings the limbs to the marrow; the shadows of men and boys may be seen, black objects against the deep gloom, gliding out of the side-streets to the main thoroughfares. They are the vanguard of the army of Labour, who are to carry forward the marvellous story of London industry another step before sundown: to add a new story to a new terrace; the cornerstone to another building; bulwarks to another frigate; another station to another railway; and tons upon tons of produce from every clime, to the mighty stock that is for ever packed along the shores of the Thames. As they trudge on their way, the younger and lighter-hearted whistling defiance to the icy wind, the swift carts. of fishmongers, butchers, and greengrocers pass them; and they meet the slow-returning waggons of the market-gardeners, with the men asleep upon the empty baskets. The baked-potato man and the keeper of the coffee-stall are their most welcome friends, and their truest; for they sell warmth that sustains and does not
As the day breaks, in winter, the suburbs become alive with shop-boys and shop-men, poor clerks, needlewomen of quick and timorous gait, and waiters who have to prepare for the day. The night cabs are crawling home; and the day cabs are being horsed in the steamy mews. The milkmen and women are abroad, first street vocalists of the day. The early omnibus draws up outside the public-house, the bar of which has just been lit up. The barmaid serves, sharp of temper and short in word, in her curl papers. The blinds creep up the windows of the villas. The news-boys shamble along, laden with the morning papers; prodigal of chaff, and profuse in the exhibition of comforters. The postman's knock rings through the street; and at the sound every man who has to labour for his bread, whether banker, banker's clerk, porter, or vendor of fusees at the bank entrance, is astir.
Another working day has fairly opened; and mighty and multiform is the activity. Hasty making of tea and coffee, filling of shaving pots, brushing of boots and coats and hats, reading of papers, opening of morning letters, kissing of wives and daughters, grasping of reins, mounting of omnibuses, and catching of trains, in every suburb! The start has been made: and the sometime silent City is filling at a prodigious rate. The trim omnibuses from Clapham and Fulham, from Hackney and Hampstead, make a valiant opposition to the suburban lines of railway. The bridges are choked with vehicles. While the City is being flooded with money-making humanity, the West End streets are given up to shop-cleaners and town travellers; and while these early bread- winners are preparing for the fashion of the day, gentlemen who live at ease, amble to and fro the early burst in the park; and Her Majesty's civil servants honour the pavement, each looking as though he had just stepped out of a band-box, and protested somewhat at the stern duty that compelled him to emerge before the day was aired, to use Beau Brummell's delightfully whimsical phrase.
On our way to the City on the tide of Labour, we light upon places in which the day is never aired: only the high points of which the sun ever hits. Rents spread with rags, swarming with the children of mothers for ever greasing the walls with their shoulders; where there is an angry hopelessness and carelessness painted upon the face of every man and woman; and the oaths are loud, and the crime is continuous; and the few who do work with something like system, are the ne'er-do-weels of the great army. As the sun rises, the court swarms at once: for here there are no ablutions to perform, no toilettes to make, neither brush nor comb delays the out- pouring of babes and sucklings from the cellars and garrets. And yet in the midst of such a scene as this we cannot miss touches of human goodness, and of honourable instinct making a tooth-and-nail fight against adverse circumstances. Some country wenches, who have been cast into London, Irish girls mostly, hasten out of the horrors of the common lodging-house to market, where they buy their flowers, for the day's huckstering in the City. They are to be seen selling roses and camellias, along the kerb by the Bank, to dapper clerks. There is an affecting expression in the faces of some of these rough bouquetieres, that speaks of honourable effort to make headway out of the lodging-house and the rents; and reminds one of Hood's Peggy rather than of the bold, daintily attired damsel who decorated the button-holes of the Paris Jockey Club under the Empire. Then there are sad, lonely, unclassed men, who are striving might and main to keep out of the lowest depths: widowers left with sickly children; small tradesmen who have been ruined, and are not fit for rough unskilled work; even men of superior station, as worn-out, unfortunate clerks, or schoolmasters. Some, in their very despair, beg; others become hireling scribes for their low associates; others, again, fall ultimately out of the lists of labour, whether honest or dishonest, and are carried off, protesting to the last, to the House. Some, of merrier mood, take to trifle-selling in the streets.
Waking London is, indeed, a wonderful place to study, from the park where the fortunate in the world's battle are gathering roses, to the stone.-yard by Shadwell where, at day-break one chilly morning, we saw the houseless, who had had a crust and a shake-down in the casual ward, turn to the dreary labour by which it was to be paid. Waking London on the river banks is a picturdsque phase of the general stirring. The first wherries put off through the ghostly shipping upon the leaden tide, as the sky pales in the east. There has been an illumination by Billingsgate for hours; and the murmur of the traders and porters strikes upon the ear as we lean over the parapet of London Bridge, and mark the growing light peeping through the lines of the vast fleets at anchor on the north and south of the stream. The air is clear (it sometimes is in maligned London); the stars are twinkling fainter and fainter as the sun approaches ; and only the skirmishers of the advanced guard that is to tramp and plunge across the bridge before many hours have passed, are on the footways. The grand dome of St. Paul's has unwonted grandeur in the blue, unblurred light; and the dreamer's fancy may people the cross with angels spreading radiant wings to travel over the mightiest city of the earth, and protect the unknown heroes and heroines who every day toil and moil under deadening loads of trouble.
The bees swarm curiously, too, at Charing Cross and Pimlico; whence they travel under the houses; and over the houses, to the City. The journey between Vauxhall, or Charing Cross, and Cannon Street, presents to the contemplative man scenes of London life of the most striking description. He is admitted behind the scenes of the poorest neighbourhoods; surveys interminable terraces of back gardens alive with women and children; has a bird's-eye view of potteries and work-yards of many kinds; and, on all sides, from hundreds of fissures and corners, finds his imagination quickened by the feathering of all-compassing steam.
And so the City fills. The gates of the Exchange are thrown open; the underwriters unfold their papers upon their tables; the flys from the suburbs bring ancient dames to the Bank to touch their dividends; the Stock Exchange becomes noisy; the banks in Lombard Street fill with customers and clerks; the Lord Mayor takes his seat in his police-court; the bankrupt appears in Basinghall Street; and the pigeons of the Guildhall strut about unconcernedly amid the plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses, jurymen, and lawyers, who follow in the wake of the judges, to the sittings in the City.
The centre of the activity is the figure of George Peabody: the noble American citizen who made his piles of gold by honourable labour in these busy streets and buildings, and while he travelled on his busy way was mindful of the poor who passed by him; whom he watched as he travelled hither, just as we on our pilgrimage have watched them; and concluded that much of their misery and corruption came from the "evil communications" which are inevitable in the crowded lanes and alleys to which he who can command only a poor sum by the work of his hands, is driven by necessity. The massing of the poor, the density increasing with the poverty, is at the root of the evils which afflict most of the great cities of Europe. It is the striking and affecting feature of London especially, where in the lanes and alleys the houses are so full of children that, to use a wit's illustration, you can hardly shut the street-door for them. In the poorest of London districts the men, women, and children appear, on entering, to have abandoned all hope. There is a desperate, ferocious levity in the air: and the thin, wan, woe-begone faces laugh and jeer at you as you pass by.
They are the workless of work-a-day London born in idleness to die in the workhouse, or upon bare boards.