DOWN EAST - CHAPTER XII
FROM THE EAST END TO RAMSGATE
Modern jews—The isle of Thanet— “L’homme propose” — Ten in a compartment, besides a perambulator—The coster and his bride—— A happy family—Why by they brought the cat and bird—They “take a bite,” while I smoke—A skin-dresser—” Look at the fields, Bill” —Why they chose Ramsgate—Ramsgate sands—The two seasons— Dr. Robson Roose’s opinion—Attractions of Rarnsgate—The lodging houses—Old habitues thereof—The Bath-chair men—” Doctor Ramsgate.”
Many have told of the monks of old,
What a jovial race they were;
And ‘tis most true that a merrier crew
Could not be found elsewhere.
There is no doubt about it. In selecting sites for their monasteries the monks always had an eye for the finest deer pastures, the purest water, and the sweetest air; and those ancient brotherhoods have successors in the Jews of modern times. This remarkable and widespread race have a keen scent for the best of everything, which they are not averse to obtaining at the lowest possible figure; and here are to be found the reasons why a Hebrew paterfarnilias, when he leaves London for his annual excursion to the sea, commonly lies him to the sandy shores of the Isle of Thanet.
And a very good selection too. I believe that in Margate and Ramsgate—and in the latter more particularly—are to be found the most healthy and invigorating of our seaside resorts.
These Eastern people commence their outings about the beginning of July, and from that time till the end of August the denizens of Aldgate, Houndsditch, Shoreditch, Hoxton, and [-103-] East and North-East London generally, are to be found disporting themselves on Margate jetty and Ramsgate sands.
Should you be travelling to Ramsgate or Margate during the two months I have indicated, either by the South Eastern from Charing Cross, or by the Chatham and Dover—the fastest route—from Victoria, you will be extremely fortunate if your first-class compartment is not invaded by those who should, strictly speaking, find accommodation elsewhere. The company is not to blame for this. Its ways and means are not sufficiently elastic to enable it to cope with the enormous crowd of passengers which besieges its booking-offices on a fine July or August afternoon. In this respect I have, from time to time, been a sufferer myself, for I have a house at Ramsgate, whither I annually repair in search of that one blessing of life without which there can be no true happiness —namely, health. If, however, there is temporary inconvenience in having one’s carriage filled with third-class passengers, it is an ample recompense to watch the delight that is depicted on their faces at sight, first of the green fields, and afterwards of the sea and sands. It is a transition indeed from the fetid atmosphere of Whitechapel and the stenches of Bethnal Green, to the pure ozone of merry Margate, wafted as it is almost in a direct line from the North Pole.
On one occasion when I travelled down from Charing Cross by a train that was crammed, a friendly guard managed to reserve me a carriage, and, just as we were steaming out of the terminus, remarked:
“You will be all right in here, Mr. Montagu. There will be nobody to disturb you. 1 think I can guarantee that you will have the carriage to yourself all the way.”
“L’homme propose,” etc. We did not call at Cannon Street, whence another section of the train started, but we did stop at London Bridge. On the platform were, among others, a man and woman, and five children, with a perambulator and sundry articles of luggage of many forms and sizes. The man ran one way, the woman the other, and the porters hurried hither and thither; but seats could nowhere be found in the train. Husband and wife met in the immediate neighbourhood of my carriage, and cried in accents of despair and excitement:
“There is no room! There is no room anywhere!”
“You must wait for the next train,” said the guard; and I shall never forget the look of disappointment this remark [-104-] conjured up upon the faces of the five children, who ranged from a girl of about fourteen to a great chubby boy of three.
I was extremely ill at the time, but this sight was more than I could stand, so, calling out of the window to the guard, who was about to give the signal for the train to start, I bade him unlock the door of my compartment and bundle the family in. Father, perambulator, mother, parcels, children— in they came pell-mell; the whistle was blown, and we were in motion, as well as commotion.
On looking round I discovered that my invitation had been more widely accepted than I had contemplated. Taking advantage of the state of affairs, a couple of late arriva1s in the persons of a coster and a young woman had scrambled into the carriage. Thus we were a party of ten. It was a sultry July afternoon, and the outlook was anything but pleasant. However, things soon settled down.
The father of the family sat opposite to me at one end of the carriage, his wife and children took up positions in the centre, and the uninvited pair occupied the remaining window seats. It transpired during the journey that the coster and the young woman had been married that morning, and were on their way to spend a three days’ honeymoon at Ramsgate. Their luggage consisted of a small hand-bag, containing, I presume, a brush and comb, a pair of irons for the lady’s handsome fringe, and other articles of the toilet.
“Now then, Ikey,” said my opposite neighbour as we steamed through Spa Road, “leave that thar bird alone. He’ll get shaking enough without your rolling him about.”
Looking round, I perceived, in the centre of the carriage, and on the top of a pile of packages, a small cage in which was a linnet. Hard by, I noticed a rush basket, which also, as was proved by its oscillating movement, contained live-stock of some description or other. My curiosity being aroused, I ventured to ask what the basket contained.
“Oh, ‘im?” my vis-à-vis remarked, jerking his thumb in the direction of the receptacle in question, “‘e’s the cat—Joe, as we calls ‘im. Rachel, if you’ve got a knife in your pocket, cut one of the strings and give poor Joe some air, for ‘e didn’t get much from ‘Oxton to London Bridge; or perhaps, sir, it you and this ‘ere gentleman and lady “—meaning the coster and his bride—” haven’t no objection, Joe might come out for a bit and stretch hisself.”
[-105-] The happy pair at once gave their consent, and I, for my part, did not object to the proposal, though I ventured to suggest that the linnet might.
“Lor’ mind one bless sir,” said thank the with a smile, “they don’t mind one another. We are, thank God, a happy and united family, and the cat knows it’s the children’s bird, and would more think o’ touching it than of jumping out of this ‘ere indow. Joe’s used to railways, sir. We come this journey very year, there and back, and Joe knows when the time comes, and enjoys it just as much as Becky, my eldest girl, or any of the young ‘uns.”
Joe had now emerged from captivity, and was alternately playing with the children and rubbing his chin against the bars of the linnet’s cage.
Before we reached Chislehurst I had begun to experience quite a friendly feeling towards the family with whom I was thus so closely brought into contact. Turning to the wife, I asked her how it was that, having so large a family to look after, she cared to burden herself on her holiday with the care of the cat and bird. The bright, piercing eyes peculiar to women of the Jewish race lighted up in a moment, and she replied:
“Well, you see, it’s this way—we ain’t got no choice; though I don’t think,” she added, appealing to her husband, “we should leave them behind even if we had.”
“What the old woman means,” said the man, “is this. We lives in two rooms, and when we goes away we locks up those rooms, and here’s the bloomin’ keys” producing the article from his pocket. “Now, if we left the cat and bird behind, what would become of them, especially Joe? A neighbour might take in the bird; but then neighbours ain’t always to be depended on where dumb animals are concerned, although I admit they’re wery good. We shouldn’t see Joe no more. He’s that artful I believe he’d travel about and try and find us; but, yer see, Ramsgate’s a long way off; besides, he only takes his meals from one of us. By the way, sir, if you’ve got no objection, we ain’t ‘ad nothing since an early dinner, and we’d like just to take a bite.”
Upon this, one of the many parcels was undone, and some cold fried fish and a bottle of milk produced therefrom. My friend was not behindhand in politeness, and invited every one in the carriage to partake of the meal—an invitation which was accepted by the coster, but declined by his newly married wife [-106-]and myself. I’ve no doubt the fried fish was very toothsome, but it emitted a greasy odour, the presence of which in the carriage led me to remark that, if my companions had no objection to tobacco, I would light a cigar.
“Object!” cried the man, with his mouth full of fish, “why, we live in ‘baccy smoke—at least, most of us does. My girl there—Becky,” pointing to his eldest offspring, “is a cigar-maker by trade, and works at Mr. Isaacs’s manufactory in the Commercial Road. She earns good money, too. Perhaps you know Mr. Isaacs, sir?”
As I had seen “Buy Isaacs’s Brand” and “Try our Mixture, Ben Isaacs,” placarded all over the East End, I felt myself justified in returning an affirmative nod.
“And you see, sir,” the man continued, “ I’m a skin-dresser by trade; and as it isn’t by any means the sweetest business in the world, I smoke a good deal of ‘baccy myself; and so,” he added, swallowing his last mouthful of fried fish, “if you don’t mind, I’ll join you in a pipe.” And he suited the action to the word.
“What is a skin-dresser?” I enquired.
My friend looked at me with something like an expression of pity on his face, and replied:
“Well, yer know what fur is, don’t yer? Well, fur is the skins of animals; and them skins is sent over here in a raw state just as they’re stripped off the little varmints—sables, ermines, and other animals what is worth a lot of money, though they’re only little bits of things. Well, you see, those skins have to be dressed and pieced together by the likes of me, and then they are made up into ladies’ cloaks and mantles, and sometimes sold for hundreds of pounds.”
The speaker paused, apparently in a state of hesitation, then, turning to his wife, he had a short conversation with her in Yiddish, which I do not understand. What had passed between the two, however, was revealed by my friend’s next remarks.
Looking wistfully at the coster and his bride, who proved to be very much occupied with each other, and leaning well forward, he said in a low tone of voice:
“You see that thar parcel up there,” pointing to a small bundle on the rack. “Well, that’s full of skins, and that little lot’s worth close on a hundred quid. I’ve worked with my firm for some years now, and our guv’nor trusts me with a little bit of work to take away on our holiday. People don’t [-107-] know their value, that’s one comfort; besides, I’m very careful who I trusts, but the old gal thinks with me that you’re all right and on the square, so now you know all about it.”
As we were passing through Staplehurst we were aroused from our conversation by a shout from the coster’s wife.
“Look at the fields, Bill,” she cried, in delight. “I knows all of ‘em well. Look at the ‘ops; ain’t they fine? When I was a little bit of a kid mother used to bring us all the way down from London ‘opping. ‘Opping, you know, begins in about a month’s time, and goes on till about the first week in -September. We lived in Buck’s Row then, and, lor’, what a change it was to come down to these beautiful fields and all the lovely country. We’d scarcely ever seen the sun before !“
At this moment Bill closed her mouth with a kiss which sounded all over the carriage, and made some whispered remarks, which evidently related to what would happen, given certain eventualities, in years to come.
The situation obviously afforded considerable amusement to my companion. But the Jew will out, and he could not resist enquiring what was the scale of remuneration for the employment to which the young woman referred. From the reverie into which he fell when the desired information was supplied to him, it was clear he was thinking whether “‘opping” was calculated to suit any of the younger members of his household.
“Why do you choose Ramsgate for your holiday?” enquired I later.
“Well, yer see, the fares are very cheap, and when you come to pay for seven that’s rather an important point. Then it’s ‘ealthy for the kids, and, what’s more, we can get all the things Jews require just as well as if we were in the middle of Houndsditch. Now, I wouldn’t mind wagering half a dollar you don’t know what kosher is? Well, you see, we get our kosher meat killed in our own way by our co-religionists accordin’ to the law o’ Moses, and we get our kosher poultry also, if the pieces will run to it. Besides that, you know we re great people for fish, and that’s pretty cheap there. At one or two shops in King Street you can get as good a bit of cold fried as you can get in the Lane, or anywhere in Whitechapel. You take yer basket, yer know, and the whole bloomin’ lot can picnic on the sands. There’s plenty of cheap amusements at- Ramsgate, too. I used to go to Margate, but Ratnsgate takes the cake. Margate’s very nice, though. [-108-] There’s the ‘All by the Sea, the theayter, and two or three capital ‘alls; but when I and the old woman, and the rest, have finished the day, we don’t want no ‘alls; we’re a jolly sight too ready for bed. Beg pardon, did you say you was for Ramsgate, too? Well, I dare say you know the place as well as I do;” and so the conversation went on until we reached our destination, by which time I had quite forgotten the aroma of the fried fish, not to mention that of the parcel of skins.
My new acquaintanceship was not destined to end at the railway station. As I was walking thence to my house I heard footsteps behind me, and turned to find that the man was hurrying after me.
“You must think us very ungrateful, sir,” he said; “I forgot to thank you, but the old woman reminded me. If. it hadn’t a’ been for you, sir, we shouldn’t have been here till ten o’clock at night. We thank you. sir, all of us, Joe included.”
He put out his hand, and I shook it warmly, saying:
“All right, my good friend. I only wish all the better class, as they are termed, took as good care of their dumb animals as you do,” and so we parted.
I think there is no more amusing sight, at the height of the season, than the Ramsgate sands. There you can see thousands of people, mostly Jews and East Enders, enjoying themselves. The fun is all very quiet and harmless, and all participate in it, from the youngest to the eldest. By the way, it is always the man who carries the baby, or wheels the perambulator, in accordance, I presume, with the theory that the woman is the weaker vessel.
Two or three days after my arrival at Ramsgate, on paying my usual morning visit to the sands, I there espied the family with whom I had travelled from London. Becky was seated in a chair, amid an admiring, open-mouthed crowd, intent upon the glib patter of a phrenologist who was feeling the bumps of her pericranium. She was listening in wonder and amazement to what was to happen to her in after life. Close by was young Abe, spade in hand, filling up an enormous hole in the sand which he had previously made, if I am not much mistaken, with the funereal idea of burying his younger brother and sister. Young Ikey was dividing his attention between Ally Sloper, the Hokey Pokey man, and a band of Ethiopian serenaders. The father of the flock was seated hard by, pipe in mouth, buried in the columns of The Daily Telegraph and ever [-109-] and anon he cast his eyes upon his wife, who sat close at hand, on a red cushion, stitching an undergarment. A basket containing fried fish stood at her feet. I don’t think I ever saw a happier group; but, then, who can be anything but happy on Ramsgate sands?
The last time I saw my honest skin-dresser was a few days afterwards, on the pier, when, coming up to me, he touched his hat, murmured a few sentences in a tone of apology, and ended with the words “your wuship.” I felt that I had been betrayed, and that our new-formed friendship was at an end.
It must not be supposed that the Ramsgate season finishes in August, when the excursions practically cease, and the old picturesque town becomes less crowded. Soon the “better class of people” begin to arrive, and they continue to do so during September, October, and November, in which months visitors to Ramsgate enjoy the blessings of art Italian summer —bright blue sky, no fogs, splendid air, and, up to sunset, a climate almost, if not quite, equal to that of Monte Carlo.
Most eminent medical men speak in high terms of the health-giving properties of the town. My own doctor, Robson Roose, is of opinion that the West Cliff of Ramsgate is unequalled as a recuperative resort. A friend of mine, after taking the waters at Marienbad, under Dr. Ott, was suddenly summoned back to England, and was thus prevented from completing the cure, as is usually done, by visiting the Engadine or other foreign place. Upon my friend explaining the position to the German doctor, the latter observed: “Have you ever been to Ramsgate? Go there, for in my opinion you cannot do better.”
The attractions of the place are manifold. There is a splendid harbour; the finest golf links in the world are situated at Sandwich, some four miles distant; there is fine sailing, with equally fine fishing, presided over by my excellent friend, Stephen Penny, principal fisherman and owner of the Avana, which has won the sailing race at the regatta twenty years in succession. A new road, connecting the East and West Cliffs, now in process of formation, and to be opened in a year’s time, will prove a great convenience to residents and visitors, and there is a new park for the people just opened. There can, indeed, be no doubt that a glorious future lies before this popular resort
Among the “better classes” who go to Ramsgate in the autumn are many Jewish tradespeople from various parts of [-110-] London. For the most part they patronise the numerous lodging-houses that are a feature of the Isle of Thanet. From Saturday to Monday some of these establishments accommodate from sixty to eighty persons, and about forty Sit down to dinner there on other days. The boarder pays either by tariff or by the week. The meals are timed somewhat as follows: breakfast, from eight to ten; luncheon, from one to two; and dinner, from six to eight. At the last-named meal there is usually a president elected for the week, whose word is held to be law.
Old habitues of these boarding-houses have their seats at table reserved for them from season to season. For example, at one ot these establishments Mr. Marcus Moses has occupied the seat on the right of the chairman for something like twenty years. He is an old gourmand, and as he is always served first, he has the pick of the dish and his food hot, as he is wont to observe with a chuckle.
After dinner the company adjourn to the drawing-room for music and other recreations. A long-haired German Jew of about twenty-one discourses sweet music on the violin. The Misses Marks render the “Battle of Prague,” and other bold pieces, on the piano. Young Mr. Simpson. clerk to Messrs. Tripp, Staggers, and Squib, of the Old Jewry, and a constant visitor to the London music-halls, sings the latest songs of the popular Mr. Chevalier.
Another well-known figure is the old raconteur and bore, who is never tired of telling you how many juries he has served on, always in causes celebres, and never misses an opportunity of dragging in the name of his “very old friend, Montagu Chambers.” Then there is the conjurer an~ funny man, who lets off imaginary fireworks, a feat he accomplishes by retiring into a corner of the room, pretending to send up rockets from his coat-tail pocket, and then, pointing to the ceiling, uttering the “pish-pish!” that is supposed to indicate the descent of the sticks.
The bath-chair men of Ramsgate, or at any rate some of them, are characters. I was driven to Pegwell Bay the other day by a. singular specimen of the class. Suddenly stopping the vehicle on the cliff, he turned to me and said: “Mr. Montagu, would you mind my asking you a question?
“Certainly not,” I replied; “you may ask me twenty.”
Up to that moment I had not observed him at all closely. [-111-] I now noticed that he was an extremely melancholy-looking man, and a poor, weak-eyed creature, with scarcely any flesh upon his bones.
“Is it true, sir,” he enquired, “that you were once on the stage?”
“Yes,” I said, “for a few months of my life.”
“So was I, sir,” he replied, “for something like fifteen years. Then I was converted to the Lord.”
“Really “ said I. “And what theatres did you play at?
“All over the country,” he answered; “with Mr. Cave at the Marylebone, and in nearly every provincial town in the kingdom. I used to play Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo “—he would have made a far better Apothecary—” and all the legitimate. I was a devoted admirer of Shakespeare, sir. But I did not reach the height of my ambition; I was not as successful as I had anticipated, and I am glad of it now, sir. You see, if I had been, I possibly should not have been converted; and you see, when I was I could not remain in such a sinful life any longer, so it was all for the best.”
“I don’t know,” said I. “What salary did you get as an actor?”
“Well,” he replied, “sometimes as much as four pounds a week.”
“And how much do you get as a chair-man?”
“Well you can make six shillings a day, but not very often and then you have to give half to the proprietor of the chair.”
“Well ,“ said I, “ of course you are the best judge of your own affairs, but one thing is certain—if you failed to draw as an actor, you are making up for lost time now.”
But there was not the vestige of a smile on the man’s face. He was in far too serious a mood to heed any poor joke of mine.
Let me, in conclusion, remark that I have no interest, pecuniary or otherwise, in the Isle of Thanet or its neighbourhood. I know, however, from experience that an invalid or convalescent cannot do better, at any season of the year, than take a dose of “Doctor Ramsgate.”
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