Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Ragged London in 1861, by John Hollingshead, 1861 - The South

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It has long been the boast of moving panoramas that their chief aim is to convey instruction. They carry us across America, or from Southampton to India; they hop from city to city throughout Europe, or they glide past with certain pictures of Australia, but they avoid a sketch of London. No speculator has ever been bold enough to grapple with the back streets-the human warrens--on the south side of the metropolis; to start from Bermondsey, on the borders of Deptford, and wriggle through the existing miles of dirt, vice, and crime, as far as the Lambeth Marshes. Picturesque as poverty and wretchedness look upon canvas, free as pictures are from harsh voices and unpleasant smells, no attempt has ever been made to deal with the [-166-] black-holes of London in this popular form, and the "Special Correspondent" still remains in possession of the property. 
     A very vast and melancholy property it is.* 

     [*The permanent poor in the district allotted to the Southwark police court alone, have been recently calculated at, fifty thousand. *] 

     Within the boundaries before mentioned, and down in the hollow of the water-side basin of London, lighted up at intervals with special markets of industry, or budding into short patches of honest trade, sinking every now and then into dark acres of crime, and covered everywhere with the vilest sores of prostitution, are something like four hundred thousand people, or one-seventh part of the whole metropolitan population. In many respects, its standard of civilization is lower than either that of Whitechapel or St. George's in the East, especially in the Southwark and Waterloo Road districts. It has scores of streets that are rank and steaming with vice; streets where unwashed, drunken, fishy-eyed women hang by dozens out of the windows, beckoning to the [-167-] passers-by. It has scores of streets filled with nothing but thieves, brown, unwholesome tramps' lodging-houses, and smoky receptacles for stolen goods. To look at such places--to know from experience that they have existed in this state for twenty years, and to learn from history that many have been notorious for more than a century --makes me doubt whether the world has really such things as working vestries, inspectors of nuisances, police authorities, and local selfgovern- ment. I am no advocate for routing out the industrious poor from an overcrowded district to make room for stucco temples or ornamental squares. Such metropolitan improvements are merely quieting doses for grumbling ratepayers, and schemes for benefiting one corner of London at the expense of another. The working-classes in most cases must live where their bread grows, and there are Acts of Parliament more than enough to exercise a control over the structure and arrangement of their dwellings. But the recognized haunts of vice and crime want no ventilation, no enlargement, no tinkering philanthropy.
     [-168-] They ought to be ploughed up by the roots. The Mint, in Southwark, is still the dear old collection of dens which it was in the days of our grandfathers, and, if it has no murky cellars like old St. Giles's, this virtue is due more to its geological formation than to its local self-government. The foundations are nothing but rotten muck. The whole district is far below the level of high-water mark in the river, and the sewage in many places bubbles up through the floors. The courts and alleys branch off on either side at every step, leading into endless mazes of low, sooty passages, squares, and "rents." Some of these holes and corners must have received their titles from the most bitter satirists, for they bear such names as White-hind Alley and Dove Court--emblems of purity--Rose Passage and Melior Street. In some cases a little learning and mystery are combined in the name, and one row of stunted dwellings is known as Pariatealia Place. In another case the proprietor of the property is less ambitious, and is contented with the humble and appropriate name of Halfpenny Court.
     Con-[-169-]sidering the alarming fruitfulness of mothers in most of these wretched neighbourhoods, I should like to have some of the places christened Malthus Yard. This is a suggestion for the consideration of the Metropolitan Board of Works.
     A local correspondent, Mr. Dexter, writing January 30, 1860, gives this neighbourhood the same character as I do :-- "Hundreds of the poor," he says, "living in Pariatealia Place and the courts, passages, squares and rents so thickly surrounding it, flock daily from eleven till one to the soup-kitchen. I am sorry I cannot give a better account of the neighbourhood than you do. Your statements are strictly true; and a more favourable relation would be wanting in accuracy. If any one will muster up courage sufficient for the task, and visit the people of the district, he will find more misery, wretchedness, and almost starvation than he would care to see often. I could point to Palmer's Rents--I think the next turning to Pariatealia Place; in one house would be found a blind girl, who, in the summer time, [-170-] works at fancy knitting, in the City, but who, from illness and other causes, is so reduced that she cannot pursue her usual avocations. She has had no relief but the bread and soup the Melior Street soup-kitchen has supplied. Three doors nearer Snow's Fields may be found five or six families in a small house. On the ground-floor is a labourer with a wife and four small children. Nearly all the furniture and clothing they had has been disposed of, in order that the children, one of whom is ill, might not absolutely starve. At the top of the house may be found a self-reliant Irishwoman, who has struggled hard to keep herself her brother and sister-in-law, and their children. But neighbours, as poor as herself, cannot find employment enough for her, and her brother has been several weeks out of employment, and unable to provide anything for his own family; while, to make the case still worse, his wife was last week confined. These cases are not isolated ones, but samples from very many hundreds, which lie together sickeningly close in these densely crowded courts and ill-ventilated houses. [-171-] It will be long ere affairs can improve much among these people."
     The dreary zig-zag panorama of the south side of London--the part that is popularly known under the head of "over the water" --might open at Lower Bermondsey, near Jacob's Island. Here we begin with an old, dilapidated red-brick mansion, sunken, decayed, chipped, and neglected, let out in tenements, with rowing-sculls in its passage, a boat lying high and dry in its yard, and its old gardens covered with courts and huts of the most wretched character. Its over-hanging, hood-like porch is still full of the ancient mouldings, representing clusters of fruits and flowers, and containing the date, in relievo, of 1700. Near this place is a black, shattered wooden building, which looks in its outlines like those houses which children draw upon slates at the early age of three years. The courts at the back are crowded with hovels, whose rooms have not always got doors, and whose windows have not always got sashes. There are bare, black bits of ground occasionally containing one withered [-172-] tree; and close courts with public yards, where the inhabitants have the usual privy in common. The rents are two shillings and three shillings a week by the room, or four shillings a week by the house. In one yard a ragged crippled man and a ragged child were spinning a rope, while a sooty woman, with an infant, looked on from one of the window-holes; and in another yard a decent old woman, whose room sent forth a gust of hot irons, was quarrelling with a bricklayer about the drain. "I never see such people as you are," said the man, "you're never satisfied!"
     Going towards London Bridge, you can branch off on either side, and visit numerous small courts and alleys, more or less dirty, neglected, and degraded, but you will find nothing, perhaps, worse than Magdalen Court, in Tooley Street. It is a blind alley of small two-storied houses--close, dwarfed, foul, and unwholesome; filled with the lowest order of people who prey upon sailors, and curtained at intervals with patched clothes, hanging across to dry from house to house. The rents are high, as an extra profit is always made [-173-] out of such places, and the houses let for about seven shillings a week. There are hundreds of such courts at Wapping and Rotherhithe, on both sides of the river, filled with coarse drunken women, whose thick fingers are covered with showy rings. Sometimes a crew of Malay sailors are enticed into these traps; raw spirits are sent for in basins and quart pots from the neighbouring publichouses; robbery, quarrels, and madness follow, as a matter of course; knives are drawn, a "muck" is run, and the whole bleeding, riotous, drunken population roll out into the open thoroughfare.
     Bermondsey Street will show you a few more holes and corners on your road to the back of St. George's Church, in the Borough, every place being painfully like every other place, and every inhabitant, with a few struggling exceptions, painfully like every other inhabitant. Here is an extract from the letter of another local correspondent written in January, 1861, about the Bermondsey Ragged Schools:-- "I am sorry to say that the distress is still very great, as there are so many out of work. I have before me a [-174-] list of cases filled up by the visitors, several of which I have also visited myself. This list consists of nineteen of these destitute families, containing a total of one hundred and fifteen human beings. Three of the fathers are unable to work through illness. Some have been out of work four and five months, some nine and ten weeks, and the rest are unable to get work at present. Most of these families occupy but one room. The following are some of the notes of the visitors: `Not tasted food to-day' -- ` Very needy case,' -- `This case has not sought relief,' -- `The home very clean, but empty,' -- `The family is very much distressed,' -- `When visited, no food nor fire,' -- `One room, very wretched.' "
     When you arrive at the back of St. George's Church, you may look up Kent Street, another nest of dirt, vice, and over-crowding, which is in much the same state as it was when Smollett called it "a beggarly and ruinous suburb," and bemoaned the necessity for bringing visitors from the Continent through it on their road into London. It was then the highway from South-[175-]wark to Dover--part of the Old Kent Road--and the French mail was often robbed while passing along it. The plan was to draw a rope across the entrance, over which the horse stumbled, and the post-boy had to return to the city and report the loss of his bags. Its character now is very slightly improved, and it is still the worthy companion of its neighbour, the Mint.
     Passing over the Borough Road and down Mint Street, you will find yourself in the citadel of thieves. The low lodging-houses here-where beds are let at threepence a night--form the chief evidences of trade. At one of the doors of these saffron-coloured places I saw a half-drunken militiaman and a black sailor, but very few hulking men standing at the corners. There were few children in the muddy roads, and the silence was as noticeable as in Old Nichols Street, Shoreditch. Norfolk Street is the most notorious thoroughfare in this district-often figuring in the police reports; but every by-court and alley is choking with filth, vice, and crime.
     Most people know, or have heard, something [-176-] about the Mint, in Southwark, and I will not, therefore, dwell upon that, but pass down to the St. Peter's district, near the river and Southwark Bridge. Here the inhabitants are chiefly labourers about the wharves, and dredgers, who get their living on the river by fishing for bits of old cord, iron, and fish. They seldom go lower than Deptford, and their gains are very precarious. Over-crowding is very common amongst them-six, eight, and ten people living in one room, and this long after the sons and daughters have grown up into young men and women. There are instances where the son or daughter will get married, and bring home the wife or husband to the same house or room, and thus two families are compelled to huddle together. This is very common in such neighbourhoods, as all delicacy of feeling, even when the inhabitants are not steeped in poverty, has been early destroyed in youth. Education means something more than merely learning lessons out of a book, and habits early implanted last longer even than leases, districts, or towns.
     [-177-] Some of the houses in the courts about the Skin Market, although standing in an ancient neighbourhood--near the supposed site of the Globe Theatre and the old Bear Garden-have been built within the last twenty years. There is Pleasant Place, where the rooms are only about three yards wide, the back-yard about three feet square, and the windows not more than two feet and a half square. The court or passage in front is in exact proportion with these dimensions, and the houses stand in three parallel rows with their faces to each others' backs. I stood at the side of one of the end houses, and it seemd to me that I could almost span it with my arms. Each house lets for about four shillings a week, and contains two of these confined rooms. In White Hind Alley, near this place, there is a row of old black, rotten, wooden dwellings, chiefly rented by river thieves. This wretched district is watched over by the Rev. M. Mungeam (who kindly took me over it), the honorary secretary of the South London Visiting and Relief Association--a benevolent society which [-178-] strives to do all the good it can in the vast expanse of London "over the water," but whose funds are not equal to its work. It is a branch of the Metropolitan District Visiting Society at Charing Cross, and draws some part of its support from the parent source. Most of the local clergymen on the south side are on the committee.
     Nearly the whole of the streets, courts, and alleys about Gravel Lane and Blackfriars are equally filthy, crowded, and faded. Crossing over the main road, we open up another channel of social degradation in the New Cut. The entrance to this thoroughfare in the Blackfriars Road is depressing enough, and the sight does not improve as you get further in. You begin with a closed block of houses, covered from garret to basement with fluttering rags of bills, and at every step you may glance right and left into wavy, smoky, damp, dismal side thoroughfares. No house to house visitation is necessary to show you the social condition of these places; they are either full of low prostitutes, with few children in the roads, or the roads are crowded with [-179-] children and the houses are full of the working poor. Each street has got a dingy beer-shop, if not a public-house, and at least one small coalshed, advertising "an enormous fall in coals." Such streets run at right angles into the Waterloo Road, cross over that very mangy thoroughfare, and continue into the heart of Lambeth, by the side of the South Western Railway. Granby Street is perhaps the worst sample of a prostitutes' street in this neighbourhood, and the vice it contains overflows in every house and oozes out on to the pavement.
     The New Cut does not differ much from Shoreditch, or Chapel Street, Somers Town, and it may be shortly described as a succession of groves. There are groves of stiff cheap clothing, groves of hardware, groves of flabbylooking meat, groves of boots, and groves of haberdashery; with the stalls of costermongers, filled with fish and vegetables, lining the gutters. There are plenty of gin-shops and a few cheap bakers, and at one corner stands the Victoria Theatre, formerly called the Coburg. It is a [-180-] large, well-built house, and has been celebrated, in its time, for good acting; but it is now one of the "threepenny theatres," giving a very coarse kind of drama, suited to its audiences. The fittings are faded, the walls are smeared with greasy dirt, the pit floor is muddy and half covered with orange peel and broken bottles, and the whole place is a little cleaner than the courts and alleys at its back, but nothing more. The audience are worth looking at; and on the night of a popular drama, such as "Oliver Twist," or "Jack Sheppard," the gallery presents a most extraordinary picture. Half the evil, low-browed, lowering faces in London are wedged in, twelve-hundred deep, perspiring, watchful, silent. Every man is in his yellow shirt sleeves, every woman has her battered bonnet in her lap. The yell when Bill Sykes murders Nancy is like the roar of a thousand wild beasts, and they show their disapprobation of the act, and their approbation of the actor, by cursing him in no measured terms. I once heard an eminent performer say [-181-] that he looked upon hisses as applause when he played Iago; and if he played it at the Victoria Theatre, earnestly and powerfully, he would stand a chance of being spit upon and pelted. The most daring "star" never ventures to appear at this dramatic temple.
     Not far from this place--towards the end of our panorama--nestling at the back of the Waterloo Road, immediately under the shadow of the large engineering premises of Messrs. Maudslay, Sons, and Field, is a reproduction of the worst features of a back settlement in Manchester, Bolton, or Birmingham. In no part of the overcrowded parish of Lambeth--a parish that probably contains nearly one hundred and seventy thousand people--are there any streets more badly built, more neglected, or more hopelessly filthy and miserable than Jurston Street, Cooper Street, and their adjacent thoroughfares. Here is a sample of what a great manufactory may nourish--nearly always does nourish-under its lofty walls. The labourer receives his fair day's wages for his fair day's work, according [-182-] to the market price; finds it necessary, like all other labourers, to be "near his bread;" crowds upon a particular spot, and gets a wretched dwelling at a very high price. Six and seven shillings a week are paid for dwarfed houses in and about this London Bolton, and this for the privilege of living within the sound of the factory bell--of being surrounded by dust-heaps in the streets, and fronted by a yard, called Owen's Yard, let out as a winter refuge for showmen's vans. Most of the regular inhabitants here are employed at the engineering works, and the showmen--the vagrants as they would be called, squatting for a shilling a week in their yellow smoking boxes upon wheelslook down upon these toiling householders with pity and contempt. They have let out their giants, their fat women, their dwarfs, their spotted boys, and boa-constrictors, to different exhibitors about London, and they form a half-gipsy settlement in this public yard, free from bad drainage and overcrowded rooms.
     Behind some of the houses at the end of [-183-] Jurston Street, behind a cat's-meat shop, where the proprietors complained that they were not able "to get their money in," are a few rows of stumpy, close cottages standing in very rotten yards. There is no gas-lamp to light this part of the settlement (this is the case with many similar places), and after dusk the inhabitants have to feel their way in and out of their houses. One of the male residents was looking at an overflowing drain, which was evidently faulty, and I asked him if he ever had a visit from the local inspector of nuisances.
     "Inspector!" he said. "We never see no inspector down here--no nothing, except the landlord for his rent."
     As I threaded my way out of this black, smoky, wretched Bolton-looking district I met two tallymen coming in to dun their debtors, with their oil-skin packs under their arms, and a cabman clearing out, with what, I presume, were his worldly goods--an old round table, and a few battered chairs crammed inside a Hansom cab.