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


Open spaces wanted—Cricket reminiscences—Cricket in Bethnal Green— Bat, ball, and stumps—A remarkable suit—Cricket technicalities— The game is suddenly stopped—Half-penny rides in Shoreditch—An extraordinary public-house — Brick Lane — Revolting scenes — Long list of night charges on Monday morning—Sunday closing —Parallel between England and Scotland—East End clubs.
   ALTHOUGH several plots of land, and notably some disused burial-places, have of late years been added to the open spaces of the East End of London, that quarter is still lamentably deficient in recreation grounds. Thus, most of the children who live there have to amuse themselves in the crowded, squalid streets, with what results all who read the reports of coroners’ inquests are only too well aware.
   In other parts of the metropolis ample opportunities are afforded for outdoor pastimes. Throughout the warmer months the youths of North, West, and South London may be seen, in all the glory of flannels, taking their full of cricket, boating, lawn tennis, and a dozen other sports, and thereby developing their muscles, chests, and bones, and physically equipping themselves for life’s toils and struggles.
   Has it not been said that the battles of Alma, Inkermann, and Balaclava were won in anticipation on the Upper Shooting Fields at Eton? It was my privilege as a boy to see, on these very fields, the bowling of Alfred Mynn, playing against the school team, I think for Kent, the wicket-keeping of Chitty, the batting of the elder Sir Frederick Bathurst, and the prowess of other great athletes. I witnessed Yardley’s celebrated hit at Lord’s in the Oxford and Cambridge match, and even now I never miss an opportunity of being present at a good game. [-85-] What has all this to do, you may ask, with “Sunday at the East End”? Well, these reminiscences will serve to remind the reader how the youths of the more favoured classes occupy themselves; and I will now invite him to accompany me in imagination on a visit I paid one Sunday morning to a tiny piece of waste ground in Bethnal Green.
   Look at yon ragged, half-starved little fellow; watch him at his game of cricket amid these squalid surroundings; see how he makes his runs, and handles his bat. Why, that attenuated little form hits out with as much heartiness as if he were playing at Lord’s or the Oval. A brick wall forms one boundary of the pitch, and another brick wall the other. If the ground falls short of the regulation number of yards, it is at any rate tolerably level. Three chalk lines on the wall do splendidly for stumps, and this arrangement renders a wicket-keeper and a long-stop wholly unnecessary.
   The mind of the East End “nipper” is equal to most emergencies. That bat, you will have observed, is not of the most approved type, but see how well the little fellow drives with it. I fancy its component parts are half a broomstick and a piece of an old butter-tub. Then the ball is worth noting. Some cricket-balls are made of leather, but this one isn’t. It is formed of a boy’s cloth cap, which has been crushed together and tied round with sundry pieces of string. It hasn’t got much bounce, perhaps, but how the batsman makes it fly!
   Single-wicket is the form of the game being played. Owing to the limited area of the ground there is no necessity for a wide field. The bowling is of the kind known as under-arm. These circumstances might perhaps be expected to militate against the enjoyment of the players but not a bit of it—both sides are engaging in the contest with as much enthusiasm as characterises a team from the Antipodes.
   Our thin little friend has been run out, and an older lad is now wielding the bat. His costume has some points that are worth noting. The left leg of his trousers is split all the way down, and at odd moments naked flesh is exposed. On one foot is a dilapidated button-boot, while its fellow is of the lace-up order, The latter is three or four sizes too large for the wearer, and sadly in need of repair. The front of the sole has become unstitched from the upper, so that at every step the lad takes the two parts of the boot part and meet like an animal’s jaws, showing toes by way of teeth. The youngster wears a coat which is a remarkable illustration of maternal [-86-] ingenuity, the original material having been almost entirely superseded by patches. At the upper part of one of the arms there is an extensive rent, through which at almost every sweep of the bat there appears the shoulder of the lad, who promptly readjusts the rag by a dexterous hitch. He wears no waistcoat, and, his shirt being deficient in buttons, his chest is partially exposed to public view. As is the case with many East End gamins, his head is bare.
   The new batsman is even a more vigorous player than his predecessor. He would make many a four, did not the brick walls arrest the progress of his ball.
   Heaven knows where these youngsters learnt the game, but they have learnt it well. Their running comments, often uttered at the top of their voices, prove them to be well versed even in its technicalities.
   “Now then,” shouts the bowler, “see me take ‘is off stump with a shooter.”
   “Like to see yer,” jeers the batsman. “Yer can’t give nothing but wides, Jimmy Porter. There y’are!”
   Wide or no wide, the ball is struck high into the air. Yells of excitement arise, and a ragamuffin in his shirt-sleeves rushes forward with hands outstretched, amid cries of “‘ave it, Bill! ‘ave it !“
   But the ball slips through his hands, whereat there are howls of “Bloomin’ butter-fingers!” followed by derisive laughter from the enemy.
   The bowler sends another ball.
   “Leg afore! leg afore!” screams one of the field, rushing up to the wicket.
   “‘Twarn’t!” protests the batsman. “My leg was ‘ere. You ‘old yer row, Charlie Fisher, can’t yer.”
   But the majority decide against him, and the next “man” goes in.
   And so the game proceeds, the youngsters being all the while oblivious to the absence of green sward and fresh air. What rare enjoyment it is to one and all! Two of the lads had been sent out in charge of baby sisters, whom they have deposited on a neighbouring doorstep, towards which, while snatching the fearful joy of an innings, they direct an occasional glance, to assure themselves that no harm has befallen the little creatures. Manifestly this is in both cases a contravention of parental authority.
   [-87-] In a little while the game is brought to a sudden termination. A powerful man of threatening mien scrambles over the wall from one of the back-yards, and at once spreads a panic among the urchins, who for the most part, gathering up their coats and the implements of the game, flee precipitately, a few of the bolder spirits, as they disappear round the nearest corner, giving vent to “Yah-boo!” and other derisive exclamations.
   One lad lingers on the spot, and the man steps up and soundly cuffs him, remarking as he does so:
   “Kicking up such a row” (whack !). “You’re the worst of the lot” (whack !), “ with yer mother lying in bed so ill, and wanting quiet, and you go a-screaming under her very window (whack !). “Now git along ‘ome pretty quick.”
   Sorry as I felt for the young cricketers, I could not help admitting that no invalid should be subjected to the annoyance of their clamour.
   The moral to be drawn from the incident manifestly was that proper places of recreation should be provided for the youth of the East End.
   Let us pass from Bethnal Green to some of the quieter lanes of Shoreditch. Many a poor lad has a half-penny or a penny put by for Sunday morning, and it will be interesting to see how he spends it. It is hardly conceivable that any one, even a Jew, would set himself to make a business out of the children of the slums; but this has been done.
   Look at that brake standing in the road, and laden with about forty children. “To Chingford” is painted on a board fixed to the vehicle’s side; but this announcement must not be literally interpreted, but taken rather as a figure of speech. The brake has not been to Chingford, nor is it going there.
   There is a licensed driver on the box, and on a step at the back stands a burly son of Jacob.
    “Now then,” shouts the latter “this way for a long and lovely drive. Only a ha’persny. Just a-going to start. Come along, Johnny; hurry up.”
   The last words are addressed to a breathless ragamuffin, from whom, after hoisting him up, he demands and receives a half-penny; for this Hebrew gives no credit.
   “This way. ‘Ere you are !“ shouts the man, on catching sight of two more ragamuffins hurrying towards the brake. “You’re just in time, young ‘uns. Come along, don’t miss the treat.”
   [-88-] The new arrivals are hoisted in, and, the brake being now tightly jammed with passengers, the driver cracks his whip and sets the horses in motion.
   The vehicle passes through several streets and then comes back to its starting-point, where it discharges its living cargo and promptly secures another. “To Chingford” indeed! However, I must say that the lads are treated with every care and kindness, and they really seem to extract enjoyment out of the little excursion.
   Christians are not averse to take a lesson in money-making from Jews. See that jolly-looking coster over there; he is doing the same kind of business, only on a more humble scale, he having a donkey and cart instead of a horse and brake, and his complement of passengers being six instead of over forty.
   Further on we find yet another form of the same enterprise. Behold that little donkey-cart that is being drawn by a man, a rough-looking customer, from whose face the perspiration is streaming. He can only take four youths at a time. In con­sideration of the absence of a quadruped, he carries his passengers a good deal further for the half-penny than do either of his rivals. Poor fellow! he will hardly make a fortune at such a vocation.
   These Sunday drives have become quite an institution in the East End. The vehicles remain on the road throughout the day, or until the little ones have spent all their half­pennies.
   Leaving the children, we will turn our attention to some of the recreations of the adult portion of the East End popula­tion.
   I must now introduce the reader to an ordinary, or rather very extraordinary, public-house, situated not a hundred miles from Artillery Lane. You will probably say, What can there be extraordinary about a public-house? Well, I will describe the place.
   Some public-houses are palaces; light and glittering, while others are shanties, dark and dirty. In outward appearance the one I am referring to represents a pleasant mean between the two extremes. While there is nothing very attractive, there is nothing very repellent about it. In a word, it is like a hundred and one of these places of entertainment for man and beast that are to be seen in the streets of London.
   [-89-] One thing particularly struck me as I stood looking at this establishment, from the opposite side of the street, after opening hours on a certain Sunday morning. I refer to the number of customers who passed in and out. I wondered wherein lay the peculiar attraction of the place; and in order to probe the mystery I crossed the road and boldly entered.
   The bar proved a very remarkable one. It was crowded, but no one was smoking, no one ordered a second glass, and no one was using improper language. All was as quiet and orderly as a Sunday school. And this was in the heart of the East End!
   I confess I was thunderstruck. As I stood staring about me, I caught sight of a card, headed “Rules,” and printed in bold type, which hung upon the wall.
   I read as follows:
   “(1.) No smoking on the premises is permitted.
   “(2.) No loud talking or obscene language is tolerated.
   “(3.) No customer is supplied with more than one drink until he or she has been off the premises for half an hour, at the end of which period only one more drink is supplied.
   “(4.) No refreshment is served to any one who appears to be under the influence of drink, and if one of a company of friends is in this state, none of them will be served.”
   At the bottom of the card was a note stating that the fore-going rules would be rigidly enforced, and that the proprietor requested all persons who did not care to conform to them, to take their custom elsewhere.
   The mystery was solved, and I took my departure with a deep sense of gratitude to the man or woman who had con­ceived and created this purified public-house. As I wended my may up the street I could not help thinking what an ex­cellent thing it would be if these rules were adopted in all the other public-houses in London. Why should not “the trade” thus join hands with the teetotallers and endeavour to stamp out drunkenness?
   I subsequently learnt that the remarkable establishment I had visited is very widely known and esteemed, and does a very substantial business. Before, however, I pass from this subject, it is only fair that I should mention a doubt that has entered my mind as to whether, in the present state of the licensing law, the enforcement of such rules as I have mentioned would be strictly legal.
   [-90-] It is now night, and we are in the neighbourhood of Brick Lane.
   Let us look at the public-houses hereabouts, and observe what is going on within and without their walls. They are frequented by the depraved, the dissolute, and the drunken. The male habitués are very bad, but the female habituées are even worse. Drunkard after drunkard staggers in at the door­way, and is freely supplied with drink. Outside, the scenes are revolting in the extreme. Men, in a ferocious stage of intoxica­tion, quarrel, fight, and kick, and frenzied women fall upon one another, tearing out hair, scratching, spitting, and even inflicting wounds with their teeth. Verily this is a land flowing with beer and blood.
   These public-houses account for the long list of night charges that the magistrate has to deal with on Monday mornings at the Thames and Worship Street Police Courts. Whereas on ordinary mornings the number is about twenty or thirty, on Mondays it is from sixty to eighty. They are all of one description in so far as the offences arise from drink.
   While I know there is a good deal to be said for Sunday closing, I cannot help admitting that there is also a good deal to be said against it. To begin with, would it not inflict a great injustice on innocent people? Why should a poor man who conducts himself properly be deprived of his glass of ale or spirits on the Sabbath? Do not forget that it is the only day in the week that he has for rest and such recreation and enjoyment as his means will permit. Suppose he has saved enough money to take his wife and children to Hampton Court or Greenwich, or even no further than that extremely pretty, but little known place, Battersea Park—is he to be denied a glass of ale on the journey, or on arriving at his destination, because of the offences of others?
   Again, why should the poor man be placed at a disadvantage as compared with the rich man? The latter has his casks and bottles in his cellar, and no power can prevent him consuming their contents on a Sunday; moreover, its many cases he has his club.
   Recent statistics, I believe, show that, for offences com­mitted on Sunday in England and Wales, the proportion of convictions for drunkenness is one in every eighty-four thousand eight hundred and sixty-eight; whereas, for offences committed on Sunday in Scotland—where the public-houses are on that day closed—the proportion is one in every seventy-four thou-[-91-]sand nine hundred and seventy-six. From these figures it might be assumed that if we had Sunday closing in England and Wales the number of these convictions would increase at the rate of eleven per cent., but I certainly cannot admit the force of such reasoning.
   It must not be forgotten that the number of convictions for drunkenness is not by any means a proper measure of insobriety. If a policeman sees a drunken man conducting himself quietly, or sleeping in a doorway, he passes on and takes no notice. Those who are convicted belong, as a rule, to the disorderly classes, who, the moment the liquor rises to their heads, manifest their natural propensities by obstreperous and riotous conduct. For one drunkard of this order there must be fifty who behave quietly, and always manage to reach their homes, however zigzag may be their journey thither.
   Thus the parallel between Scotland on the one hand, and England and Wales on the other, would not hold good unless it could be proved that the proportion of disorderly characters to the rest of the community is the same in both cases.
   On the whole, I am not disposed to favour the closing of public-houses on Sundays. I think, however, that a great deal of good would be done by imposing further limitations on the hours during which they may remain open. It would, fur instance, in my opinion, be an excellent thing if they were all shut up during the evening and night, from, say, seven o’clock.
   You wish to know what that building is across the way from which, every now and then, a man or woman staggers, quite as drunk as some of the habitues of the public-houses we have just left. It is one of the bogus clubs by which this neighbourhood is infested.
   There are, in the East End, hundreds of these “clubs,” which are a far greater curse even than the beer and gin shops; and I feel very strongly that, while the former are permitted to exist, little or no good would be done by interfering with the latter. The publican, at any rate, is under the eye of the licensing benches and the Excise authorities; but the proprietor of a bogus club is practically under no supervision.
   When in the East End districts, I did all I could to suppress these places, by inflicting upon the owners the heaviest punish­ment prescribed by law. My efforts, however, were attended with little success. The men paid their fines, or went to prison; but the premises passed into new hands, and in a month or two were reopened on the same lines as before.
   [-92-] In most cases these dens are frequented by both men and women, a great number of whom belong to the Jewish com­munity. They are crammed with people on Saturday nights and Sundays, and then it is that the worst scenes of drunkenness, debauchery, and rioting are enacted.
   Wretched women constantly came before me at Worship Street, and, with tears in their eyes, besought me to save their husbands and sons from the temptations and dangers of these places. Alas I the will was not wanting, but I had not the power.

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