UNDER LOCK AND KEY
Newgate's sombre walls suggest sad thoughts on the black spots which blurr our civilisation. Those who will not work and have not the means of living honestly, are the pests of every society. The vagrants, the tramps, the beggars, the cheats, the finished rogues, are a formidable race amongst a population of more than three millions, closely massed. They are the despair of social reformers, for he who has once taken a liking to the bread of idleness, is beyond redemption as a citizen. He will shift his ground, change his cheat, do anything, save work. A couch under a hedge, a turnip stolen from a field, a feast of blackberries, anything to save the sweat of his ignoble brow. London has always been infested with the vagabond class. Johnson wrote:London! the needy villain's gen'ral home,The common sewer of Paris and of Rome, -."
But we supply our own needy villains in these days. London draws the idle and vicious from all parts of the country. They are humble imitators of Mr. Micawber, who thought that something must turn up in a cathedral city. They are lineal descendants of the rogues who surrounded Queen Elizabeth's coach, near Islington; and the crop, it is to be feared, has quite kept pace with the increase of the population. The cheat has developed, the vagrant has become a systematic traveller, the beggar has a hundred stories, known mostly to the Mendicity Society in Red Lion Square, which the rascal of old could not employ. Education has, with its good, brought into being the begging-letter impostor. A policeman, in his scorn of the schoolmaster and other new-fangled machines, has been known to make the sage remark that reading had only taught the young vermin to steal the dearer article. Years have brought the merciful as well as the most philosophic mind: and kindness erected into a remedial agent has devised scores of plans for making industry inviting to the cadger, for persuading the beggar, whose skin has never been moistened with an hour's honourable exertion, to work, to delight in a tough job. A turn round Newgate will surprise many a smug, respectable Londoner, who imagines that the people who beg or steal in order to avoid work, are all natives of Whitechapel or Drury Lane. In the yard where we saw the Convicted describing serpentine lines, by way of exercise, on two or three occasions, there were only four or five convicts of the lower classes, the tall prisoner for instance was a colonel in the English army; in the Unconvicted yard, where the moving coil of prisoners showed themselves in
their daily dress, an attenuated, half-starved, and wholly crushed little postman alone represented the wage class. The juvenile yard was in the sole occupancy of a young clerk who had committed a murderous assault on a barrister in the Temple; and a most pitiful sight he made, with his little white hands peeping through the coarse convict dress. The main body of the prisoners were in the garb of gentlemen, to use the phrase that would inevitably be applied to them on their appearance at the bar of the Old Bailey. Those who will not work, and cannot honestly live without work, are of all classes; and we have traced their serpent trail through every scene we have come upon in the course of our wanderings. The lists of the refuges, the prisons, the workhouses show the reverse of that bright medal whereon are struck the names of the brave men who have handled an office broom in the beginning, and ended the possessors of enormous wealth, and the objects of the general respect. In the list opposite the Peabodys, are the names of men who began with wealth and ended in disgrace and rags, the Sir John Dean Pauls, the Redpaths, and the Roupells.
If in the densely-packed haunts of poverty and crime, in the hideous tenements stacked far and wide, round such institutions as the Bluegate Fields Ragged Schools in Shadwell, there are hundreds who have never had the chance of escape to comfort and virtuous courses; there are, and they are the main body of the army, the victims of Drink, illustrators of every horror, form of suffering, and description of crime, to which the special curse of our land leads the poor. At the corner of every tumbledown street is the flaring public-house lamp, hateful as the fabled jewel in the loathsome toad's head.
I should, however, recommend those gentlemen who are anxious get at a true idea of the causes of crime; of the influences which foster it; of the natures pronest to it; and of the surest means of reducing its extension and its gravity, to put themselves in the hands of an intelligent, a reflective, and courageous professional student of the criminal classes like Sergeant Meiklejohn of the detective service. In his company they will see the policeman's bull's-eye turned on extraordinary faces and figures such as we marked in a card-playing scene; while they will listen to very instructive stories of the devious ways by which men
and women reach Newgate.
Such education on the spot would be worth more to our legislators, hereditary and elected, than any number of attendances at Congresses, Charity Organisation Associations, committees, and lectures. I remember accompanying Lord Carnarvon to a meeting of ticket-of-leave men which we had convened up a court by Smithfield, and that we learned more about them that night, than a year of blue-book and treatise reading could have given us.
" He has never been anything else but a thief. He was born a thief, and always will be a thief!" said a guide through the low neighbourhood of Shoreditch to me, one night, as we stepped out of a thieves' kitchen. He pointed to rather a handsome lad of twenty, with a piercing, restless eye, and remarkable for the rapid movements of his limbs. He was with the rest of the company, well dressed. I observed this.
"Yes," said the policeman, "he must have done a good bit of work lately: so had those flash pickpockets, we met at the Music Hall just now."
We paused before a crowd, grouped round a baked potato vendor.
"Those," said my knowing companion, "are only poor: not thieves."
God help them: and keep them clear of Newgate's lock and key.
But the outer world has very little knowledge of the difficulty. It recurs every hour of every day. What can come of these frequenters of the penny gaffs of Shoreditch; these Shadwell loungers, offspring of drunken and shameless mothers ; these dancers at the Ratcliff hops; these loungers along the Whitechapel Road, all cheapening food for the dismal Sunday they will be compelled to spend in their cellars and attics? The common lodging houses are, as we see, by the familiarity of the police with the landlords and inmates, under severe control ; but who is to curb the flow of the conversation, when groups of young thieves find themselves upon the same benches before the kitchen fire with poor artificial flower makers?
"Once they come here," said one of our police guides, "the best of them are lost. They cann't help it. Some will struggle for a long time; but unless they are fortunate enough to get away, they are done for. You see, they come into the kitchen early, to cook their supper; and thus they fall in with all sorts, except those who could do them any good. That's how it begins
with many of them. The rest are born in it."
"And God knows," said another guide, "how hard some of 'em, decent creatures who have got into trouble, fight to leave it all. But you see, there's no place for them as cheap as this."
The bull's eye rambled along the lines of a series of partitions, each containing a bed and a chair.