Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894

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DOWN EAST - CHAPTER I
     
EAST END SHOWS
     
Houses to let—Messrs. Stuckey and Co. — East End hats—Failure of the drapery business—Change after change —At last a penny show—An informal set-to—Weight-lifting—A sickening sight—A favourite spot with pickpockets —Objects exhibited—Poor hospital patients—Summonses taken out—Wholesale correction—Its good effect.     
     
    DOES misfortune attach to premises with the same diabolical persistency that it sometimes shows in its attachment to individuals? Does ill-luck haunt the portals of a house just as it often dogs the footsteps of a man? These are matters. I confess, that have exercised my mind for a considerable -time. I was extremely doubtful at first, but experience and observation have taught me that the correct answer to those —questions is an affirmative one.
    In my wanderings about the East End, I have often noted premises that seem to be in a chronic state of insolvency. The announcement “To Let” appears in the windows, at short intervals, with absolute regularity. I will give an example —a shop in the Whitechapel Road, almost immediately oppo­site the London Hospital.
    How my attention was, in the first place, called to these -premises I really cannot say. If my memory serves me, when the shop originally attracted my notice it had just passed through a sort of resurrectional process. The outside was redolent of fresh paint; the inside had a comfortable and well-to-do appearance. Large posters on the clean windows announced that the shop would be reopened, at an early date, [-4-] as a first-class draper’s; and the public was informed that the new proprietors, Messrs. Stuckey and Co., who had had great experience in the trade, were prepared to offer, on the lowest possible terms, the magnificent stock of a leading West End firm which had gone into liquidation.
    On the morning of the first of May—and a particularly bright morning it was — the premises were duly opened. Several sandwich men, who paraded to and fro on the pave­ment, advertised the fact, and three small boys, stationed outside the door, delivered to the passers-by handbills announcing the great benefits that would accrue to them if only they would enter the establishment of Messrs. Stuckey and Co. The windows were most tastefully dressed. In the right-hand one were silks, dresses, shawls, and the like, the price of each being stated on a ticket, which set forth the number of shillings very prominently, with a smaller figure for the pence, and a still smaller one for the farthings. In the other window was exhibited a most remarkable collection of hats—with regard to which I have a word to say.
    No one who is a stranger to the East End of London can have any idea of the kind of female headgear in vogue in that locality. The material is cotton velvet, the colour, gaudy, and the size, enormous; and let me parenthetically observe that, no matter how shabby or dirty be the rest of the clothing of the ladies to be seen in every street, court, and alley in the neighbourhood of Commercial Road, Whitechapel, and Shoreditch, if they have any covering at all to their heads, it is certain to be one of the hats to which I refer. In a case that came before me some time ago it transpired that these head ornaments are, in many instances, let out on hire, at so much per week or month; and I have frequently had testi­mony borne to the fact that the East End girls will part with everything they possess in the world — will sell themselves, body and soul—to become the proud possessors of the articles in question. The size and colour of the feathers are points on which there is keen rivalry among the denizens of court and alley. Day by day, at the Thames and Worship Street Police Courts, the women of the locality are brought before the sitting magistrate, on charges of drunkenness, assault, and so forth; and though their dresses may be torn and blood­stained, and their faces scratched and otherwise disfigured, there, sure enough, is the accustomed hat, cocked jauntily on one side, and having apparently escaped all injury. Whether  [-5-] these Amazons are careful to bare their heads before coming to close quarters, I am unable to say.
    But to return to the shop in the Whitechapel Road.
    The drapery business, as I have shown, was duly opened, apparently under the most brilliant auspices, and with every outward promise of success; but when I passed the premises some six weeks afterwards, I found that a doleful change had come over the scene. The green iron shutters were up; bills announced that the place was once more to be let; and already the paint was begrimed with soot and dirt. The whole building, indeed, had, a neglected and forbidding appearance.
    I was at the time about to leave London for my vacation, and on my return, two months later, I had occasion to revisit this locality. The premises had opened once more, this time as a furniture warehouse. The inside of the shop had been entirely removed, together with the windows, and a con­siderable stock was in view, both on the ground floor inside and on the pavement without. But it was all to no purpose. In a very short time there was the same climax—bankruptcy. So things went on month after month. Sometimes the shop was a greengrocer’s, sometimes a milk-shop, and once a pawnbroker’s. But even the lucrative trade of a pawnbroker would not do. Subsequently the shop came under my notice judicially as an undertaker’s.
    The undertaker seemed to do a little business at first, and one day, when I was passing the shop, I saw him looking quite cheerful as he surveyed a large oak coffin that was being carried out. But the reign of prosperity was brief. There had been a good deal of scarlet fever about, and trade had been brisk. As time went on, the mutes standing at the door became more and more seedy-looking, and the same may be said of the proprietor himself, who, by-the-bye, was a half-hourly visitor to the gin-palace round the corner, and emitted an aroma very like that of a cask which has lately contained a few gallons of old rum.
    The end very soon came, and even the velvet trappings found their way to the nearest pawnbroker’s. I had the curiosity subsequently to enquire what had become of the undertaker himself, and learnt that he had indulged in a moonlight flitting—a proceeding on the part of the proprietor of these ill fated premises which surprised no one.
    In the beginning of the winter I found myself once more [-6-]  in the neighbourhood, and I was naturally very curious to ascertain whether any one had had the audacious courage to succeed the absconding undertaker. Judge of my surprise when, on nearing the London Hospital, and casting my eyes across the way, I saw that the upper part of the house was covered with a huge sheet of canvas, on which were depicted, in glowing colours, a Fat Lady, who appeared to be double as broad as she was high, and whose arms resembled sacks of flour; a Black Dwarf:, whose hat was level with the ponderous female’s knees; an armadillo, some snakes, and a few other attractions. At the entrance stood a woman, dressed in brilliant attire, and playing a barrel-organ. Beside her was a man with a set of Pandean pipes, who invited the public— which was represented by a crowd reaching well into the roadway—to enter at the moderate charge of a penny per head.
    It was quite obvious what had happened. The undertaker had for his successor an East End showman. This was ringing the changes with a vengeance. Mutes had given way to masqueraders; tights and spangles had taken the place of crape; and, as it subsequently appeared, the solemn realities of death had been succeeded by a coarse burlesque of murder.
    I paid my penny and entered.
    In the body of the room was a waxwork exhibition, and some of its features were revolting in the extreme. The first of the Whitechapel murders were fresh in the memory of the public, and the proprietor of the exhibition was turning the circumstance to some commercial account There lay a horrible presentment in wax of Matilda Turner, the first victim, as well as one of Mary Ann Nichols, whose body was found in Buck’s Row. The heads were represented as being nearly severed from the bodies, and in each case there were shown, in red paint, three terrible gashes reaching from the abdomen to the ribs.
    One of the attractions of the place was a couple of-athletes, who, at the end of their contortions and feats of strength, put on boxing-gloves and announced their readiness to have a round with any one—a challenge that was conveyed to the outer world, through a speaking-trumpet, by the gentleman whose chin rested on the tips of the Pandean pipes. Nor were these individuals the only exponents of the art of self defence. Among the company was a lady boxer and weight-lifter, who announced that she was the strongest woman on [-7-] earth, and offered to fight any male creature of less than ten stone. This “female Samson,” who did not appear to be more than sixteen years of age, wore fleshings, to which cir­cumstance, no doubt, must be attributed much of the interest which, while standing outside the building in company with the barrel-organist, she excited among the passers-by.
    After the curious and prurient had been allowed sufficient time to examine the waxworks, this young woman came inside to go through her part of the programme, and was introduced to the audience as Miss Juanita. Behind the small platform on which she took her stand, a roll of canvas was suddenly let down, and on it were depicted coloured representations of her feats of strength. In one picture she was shown swinging, with the greatest ease, heavy Indian clubs ; in another, sup­porting on her chest six fifty-six-pound weights; and in a third, lifting by her hair four hundredweight. In the centre of the canvas she was represented holding in her teeth a table on which was perched a fat Jew of about twelve stone; and underneath was written “The Lifting of Bacchus.”
    The audience consisted of some hundred persons. Just as Miss Juanita was about to commence her performance, there was a sudden movement in the crowd behind me, and, on turning round, I witnessed an informal set-to between two of the ladies of the Whitechapel Road. They had been imbibing very freely, and it was clear that the pugilistic air of the place had proved infectious.
    The combatants having been summarily ejected, Miss Juanita went through her part of the programme. Her hair, which was very abundant, was let down her back and plaited, a rope was tied to the coils, and an article closely resembling a meat-hook was attached to the rope. Two weights were then pro­duced, and submitted to the close scrutiny of the spectators. One was represented to be ninety pounds, and the other fifty pounds. Miss Juanita bent backwards, attached the rings of the weights to the hook, and then, slowly returning to an upright position, raised the great pieces of metal about a foot from the ground. It was a sickening sight. So great was the strain that, when the performance was over, every nerve in the poor creature’s body seemed to be quivering. She drank something from an old cracked mug, and, after a short interval, put on the boxing-gloves for a spar with one of the athletes. The lady came off victorious, and was hailed with shouts of approval by the spectators.
    [-8-] Pugilism obviously was high in favour with the management, for the audience was privileged to see yet another personal encounter. “Daniel the Dutchman” took the field against the “Welshman,” and worked the spectators up to a high pitch of enthusiasm by the masterly way in which he dealt with his antagonist. The victorious Daniel received a most flattering ovation; and with that the entertainment came to an end.
    On returning home I determined to make enquiries con­cerning this place. I learnt, among other things, that there were four or five establishments of a similar character in the immediate neighbourhood, and that the existence of such places constituted an old grievance among the more respect­able portion of the community. I was told that in every case the proprietors were literally coining money, and I could easily believe it.
    It was not long before I had personally visited and closely inspected all these premises, and anything more degrading and debasing than the performances that went on there I never saw. Nor was the evil confined within doors. I was informed by the police that the pavement outside these places was a favourite spot with the Whitechapel pickpocket for the exercise of his calling. Watch robberies, it appeared, were of almost hourly occurrence there; and my informants stated that in many cases there was a working agreement between the thieves and the proprietor of the show, the latter receiving within the articles that had been stolen without.
    I have no space to describe these establishments in detail. Besides fat women, dwarfs, “living skeletons,” and giants, they contained a number of monstrosities, including “a man with no neck,” and a creature which purported to be a five-legged pig. One attraction, which was alleged to have been brought to this country by Buffalo Bill, was described as “half gorilla and half human being,” and was certainly a most disgusting-looking object. The Whitechapel murders were favourite subjects for representation; and while several show-men merely dabbled in these crimes, so to speak, one enter­prising member of the fraternity dealt exhaustively with the whole series by means of illuminated coloured views, which his patrons inspected through peep-holes Jack Sheppard, Charles Peace, and a host of other similar celebrities lived again on the canvas screens, and there repeated, before an audience of awe-stricken and admiring East End youths, some [-9-] of the more daring acts of their graceless lives. Outside one show stood a coloured man scowling over a representation of the murder of Maria Martin in the Red Barn.
    To those who had the misfortune to live near these places, the noise they occasioned must have been a great curse. Organs were played, drums were beaten, bells were rung, and it was in stentorian tones that the public was invited to enter. It occurred to me, when pondering over what I had seen that such a state of affairs could not be allowed to continue. One thing, I must confess, caused me much surprise. Why had no steps been taken at the initiative of the suffering neighbours, to put down the nuisance? Take the case of the London Hospital, for instance. The patients must have undergone agonies from the constant din, and I marvelled why the authorities of the institution had not ended it by proceeding against the proprietors of the show. What more easy than to prosecute them for causing an obstruction of the public thoroughfare?
    As I have shown, the premises opposite the London Hospital had had a very chequered existence, and, as if to confirm their reputation for ill-luck, the “penny gaff” established there was the first to be informed against by the police. The authorities, however, lost little time in dealing with the others; and quite a crop of the cases came before me within a very short period. In applying for summonses against the proprietors, the police placed me in possession of further details respecting these places. The principal time for the performances, it appeared, was from eight in the evening until half past eleven, though in the case of some fat women and performing Zulus the entertainment was open during the day as well. Subsequently an inspector stated what he saw on the occasion of a visit he paid to one of the shows for the purpose of serving a summons on the proprietor. He said he witnessed an exhibition of female boxers, and a woman “mit nodings on” swimming in a tank—features of the programme that were announced as “novelty attractions.” Outside the show, he said, a man was standing on some steps, shouting to the public to enter, and calling attention to the nature of the entertainment by striking a canvas with a stick. Another man was standing by who alternately played an organ and beat a drum.
    It appeared from the evidence that it was impossible to find the actual owners of the premises, who, it would seem, [-10-] kept in the background so as to avoid the service of process.
    The authorities of the London Hospital and a number of tradesmen of the locality testified to the nature and extent of the nuisance, and proved that it had been in existence for years. One witness stated that he had visited the show at the corner of Thomas Street, and had found that the proprietor was doing a roaring trade. He stated that while the crowd stood gazing at the blood-stained pictures that blocked op the pavement, the pickpockets were making the best of their opportunities. This gentleman, speaking from an intimate knowledge of the locality, declared that no idea could be formed of the extent to which young men and women were morally corrupted by witnessing the exhibitions that were on view at those places. He said it was terrible to hear the jesting remarks that fell from the lips of young girls concerning the murders and other horrors that were illustrated inside and outside the shows.
    Counsel appeared for the defence, and urged that the defendants were merely the hired servants of the proprietors, and, consequently, not the responsible parties. One of the defendants stated that he did not even know the address of his employer; all he knew concerning him was that his name was John. As a matter of course, this would not do for me. I saw at once that the only way to put a stop to the nuisance was to deal with it with a strong hand. I fined the defen­dants forty shillings for each performance, and as that meant, in the aggregate, a good deal of money, they left the court in the prison van.
    Subsequently other summonses were applied for by the police and granted by me.
    In one case, the defendant, Thomas Baker, of the White-chapel Road, said that his employer was a man named Alfred Eaton, and that he resided in Warner Street, Euston.
    “What is Mr. Eaton by trade?” I enquired.
    “A novelty dealer,” was the reply.
    Upon my observing that I had heard of many trades in my life, but never before of the one referred to, my informant said:
    “He is an importer of things the public has never seen. He travels all over the world in search of them.”
    I could not help remarking that he evidently travelled much, and in such distant climes, that it was impossible for  the [-11-] law to get hold of him; and, as before, I fined the defen­dant forty shillings for every performance that had been proved. The money not being forthcoming, he also went to gaol.
    This wholesale correction had the desired effect, and the proprietors of other establishments of a similar character, find­ing the law too strong for them, shut up shop and decamped; and these horrible dens, at any rate so far as the Whitechapel Road is concerned, have become things of the past.
    This amount of good has been effected — it has been definitely established that private houses cannot be put to this vile use; and the proprietors of these exhibitions have been driven from the public thoroughfares, and compelled to take refuge on plots of ground -and other places where the law cannot reach them. It is indeed a matter for surprise that, in a civilised and an enlightened country, possessing so exten­sive a system of local government, it should have been possible for such a state of things to have continued so long; and one cannot help deploring the pernicious influences which these places must have exercised in the past over the poor and ignorant.

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