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


   Its situation—Its condition twenty-five years ago—Poor Jack in the hands of the Philistines—A modern Babel—The Thames Tunnel—” The Forty Thieves”— “Paddys Goose” —I visit the neighbourhood—An opium den—”Amok Amok “__We conceal ourselves—Scene in the street—Its cause—Strange manner of taking an oath—Watney Street —Thames Police Court—An interesting case—its termination—A revengeful design frustrated by accident —A curious batch of summonses—Ratcliff Highway improved—us causes—Further improvement required.
   THE condition of Ratcliff Highway some five-and-twenty or thirty years ago was a terrible disgrace to London. Matters have vastly improved since that time, though even now the thoroughfare is very far indeed from being a model one.
   Ratcliff Highway, running parallel with the river, extends from Little Tower Hill to Shadwell, and is in close proximity with the London, the Wapping, the Regent’s Canal, and other docks, which at the period I have alluded to were continuously crowded with shipping. In those days the Highway was the scene of riots, debaucheries, robberies, and all conceivable deeds of darkness. Such, indeed, was the character of the place that it would have been madness for any respectable woman, or, for the matter of that, for any well-dressed man, to proceed thither alone. The police themselves seldom ventured there save in twos and threes, and brutal assaults upon them were of frequent occurrence.
   The inhabitants of Ratcliff Highway lived upon the sailors. There were a great many lodging-houses there; still more clothiers and outfitters; and any number of public-houses and beershops, nearly every one of which had a dancing saloon at [-75-] the back of the bar. Jack came ashore with his pockets full of money, but they quickly emptied. He was ready enough to spend his pay, but there were other persons still more ready to despoil him of it. In those days there were no Government officials to board the vessels and arrange for the safe despatch of Jack’s money, and Jack himself to his home. No sooner did a vessel reach her moorings than she was swarming with boarding-house touts, crimps, outfitters, runners, and other rapacious beasts of prey. Poor Jack was soon in the hands of the Philistines.
   From the public-houses in Ratcliff Highway there constantly issued the sound of loud laughter, mingled with shouting and fearful imprecations. Far into the night the women and the drunken sailors danced and sang to the accompaniment of screeching fiddles. For the most part the women wore white dresses and white shoes. If the sailors were not entirely fleeced inside the saloons, the process was completed by bullies and fighting men when they staggered out into the street. The poor fellows were frequently drugged, and sometimes half murdered.
   Sailors of every nationality were to be met in this thoroughfare, including a great many Portuguese, Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, Norwegians, and Scandinavians. The Highway was indeed a veritable modern Babel. Among the disreputable characters to be met there were men dressed as sailors who sold parrots and parrakeets, many of which could blaspheme almost as naturally as their owners.
   The Thames Tunnel was open in its original form at the time of which I am writing. As my readers are aware, it is now used by a railway. Previously, besides a roadway, there was on one side a pavement set apart for the use of pedestrians. The charge for admission was a penny for each person. One of the features of the place was a bazaar, where a variety of goods were exposed for sale. Several times during the year a regular fair was held in the tunnel, among its attractions being swings and donkey-riding. Those fairs certainly ranked among the curious sights of old London.
   The immediate neighbourhood of Ratcliff Highway was as bad as the thoroughfare itself. In Albert Street half the houses were of the vilest description, and very much the same may be said of Albert Square, Victoria Street, Chancery Lane, and Baroda Place. These places were frequented by a band of robbers who openly called themselves “The Forty Thieves,’ [-76-] and who plied their nefarious calling by day as well as by night. Sometimes these ruffians went the length of attacking and robbing pedestrians in Devonshire Street and Commercial Road.
   One of the vilest houses in the Highway was the “White Swan,” better known as “Paddy’s Goose”; oddly enough, its site is now occupied by the Wesleyan Methodist Home Mission Hall. This excellent institution has done much to purify the neighbourhood.
   My last visit to Ratcliff Highway, which was paid early in the seventies, very nearly resulted in serious consequences to myself. The adventure is worth describing, as it throws some light on the horrors of the district.
   If any one in those days desired to visit Ratcliff Highway and its environments, it was usual, and indeed necessary, to get permission from the authorities at Scotland Yard for either a lodging-house inspector or a police officer to act as an escort.
   One day I and some friends, after dining at the “Ship and Turtle,” proceeded to the Leman Street police station, where, as had been arranged, we picked up two officers who were to act as our East End guides. From Leman Street we proceeded at once to Bluegate Fields and Ratcliff Highway.
   Going the round of the drinking and dancing houses, we witnessed some curious sights. The women, thieves, and other bad characters appeared to be on the best of terms with our companions, who were repeatedly offered drink, and once or twice invited to join in a dance. Of my friends and myself no notice whatever was taken.
   During the evening we went to the Chinese quarter, where are to be found the opium dens, into one of which we penetrated. Ascending a ladder, we entered a loft where about a dozen men were sitting or reclining on wooden benches, smoking opium. Our guides shook hands with the man who “bossed” the premises, and whose manner was the pink of politeness. His language, of course, none of us understood. Motioning us to seat ourselves in this most rudely constructed and uncomfortable of divans, he proceeded to offer each of us the calumet of peace.
   The officers had told us what to do. We were to accept the pipes, take one or two whiffs, and then put them down again. That, we were assured, would suffice to satisfy the laws of hospitality.
   [-77-] When the man offered me a pipe, I made certain signs to indicate that I should prefer a cigarette. Being extremely intelligent, he understood my meaning in a moment, and at once folded a little opium in paper and handed it to me. I proceeded very gingerly to smoke it, not without grave misgivings; but, I am happy to add, no unpleasant consequences resulted. The cigarette had a very soothing effect, but it neither drugged me nor made me ill.
   After tipping the courteous Chinaman we took our leave, and wended our way back to the Highway, where we proposed to wait a short time preparatory to visiting the “Bridge of Sighs,” and the night refuge in its immediate vicinity. It must have been very nearly one in the morning.
   Now it was that the serious occurrence to which I have alluded took place.
   We had just emerged from a narrow passage, and had proceeded a few yards down the main thoroughfare, when out attention was suddenly arrested by the shrieking and shouting of a number of persons evidently running helter-skelter in our direction. The next minute above the din we heard the cry “Amok! amok!” at which the police officers were evidently very much alarmed.
   “This way, gentlemen, and be quick, for God’s sake 1” they exclaimed, as they unceremoniously hurried us through the nearest doorway. When I looked around me I found we were in one of those East End shows which I have described in a former paper. Having fastened the door, the two officers consulted together in an undertone. We heard the sound of fleeing footsteps outside, mingled with human screams, groans, and oaths. My friends and I stood stock still and listened. The sounds gradually passed away in the distance. In a little while one of the officers opened the door and slipped out. The other remained behind, and in answer to our enquiries said he was afraid it was an ugly business, and that his comrade had gone out to see how the land lay, and to render any assistance in his power. Pending the other’s return, he peremptorily forbade us to stir from where we were.
   In a little while the other officer came back and said it would now be safe for us to quit the premises. On our emerging into the Street an extraordinary sight met our eyes. There were pools and trails of blood on the pavement and in the roadway; here and there was the prostrate form of a [-78-] human being surrounded by men and women half distraught with grief and fear; a couple of four-wheeled cabs had just arrived crowded with policemen, and, in the distance, men carrying stretchers were to be seen rapidly approaching.
   We soon learnt what had occurred. A number of China-men had been drinking with some women in a public-house, and just as the premises were about to close, a dispute had taken place. The foreigners alleged that they had been robbed; this was indignantly denied by the women; some Englishmen came forward and had their say in the matter, and, in the end, a serious disturbance took place. Finding that the affair was becoming one of blows as well as words, the Chinamen ranged themselves in a body, drew their knives from their pockets, and, shouting “Amok! amok !“ fought their way into the road and rushed upon all whom they met, stabbing and cutting men, women, and children indiscriminately. The knives of these people are peculiarly adapted for ripping flesh, and thus the wounds inflicted were for the most part of a very serious nature.
   A body of police arrived upon the scene, and the murderous ruffians were all arrested and removed to Leman Street. It only remained to convey the wounded to the London Hospital, and this was done with commendable despatch.
   Subsequently I had the satisfaction of seeing the culprits tried and convicted. For the defence there were several Chinese witnesses, each of whom, on being sworn, went through the extraordinary process of taking up a plate and breaking it—a fate which, if I am not much mistaken, in some instances overtook the oath itself.
   As I have said, Ratcliff Highway has greatly improved in recent years. The same cannot, however, be said of its immediate neighbourhood. Certain streets in Shadwell could never have been in a worse condition than they are at present.
   While acting as one of the magistrates of the Worship Street district it was a part of my duty to sit on certain days at the Thames Police Court. I found that the most convenient way to reach it from the West End was to go by the underground railway from Baker Street to Shadwell and proceed thence on foot. The distance from the railway station to the Court is an inconsiderable one but the best route is through Watney Street, which is the most disgraceful thoroughfare I was ever doomed to traverse.
   On either side of the way are poor, squalid shops. Through-[-79-]out the day the road and the pavement are crowded with barrows laden with fish, vegetables, and other articles of food, cheap second-hand furniture, old iron, rabbit skins, and many articles besides. So great is the throng of dirty and ragged human beings that it is very difficult to make one’s way through the street. There is a good deal of unceremonious shoving in the crowd, but to remonstrate thereat would be to run a very good chance of being sent rolling in the gutter. A few policemen pick their way through the street, but I think they would be slow to incur the displeasure of such an evil-looking crowd.
   The stench in Watney Street is sickening. It arises for the most part from the greasy mash formed underfoot by the miscellaneous refuse from the barrows.
   Needless to say, this pandemonium contains a number of thriving public-houses. The women who infest the place are of a lower order than those to be met with in the Ratcliff Highway of to-day. When you gaze on their brutal and vicious faces, soddened with drink, you have a difficulty in believing that such beings are fellow human creatures.
   While I was discharging temporary duty at the Thames Police Court, several interesting cases from Ratcliff Highway came before me. One was that of a sailor who was charged with stealing a watch. The prosecutrix, who it was evident from her brogue hailed from the Emerald Isle, entered the box and told her story. She said that she kept a lodging-house for sailors, and that the prisoner always stayed there when he was on shore. The good woman proceeded to expatiate upon her own virtues, which, as I had a tolerably extensive knowledge of the class to which he belonged, made me follow her narrative with some suspicion.
   “I have been,” she declared with emotion, “more than a mother to the boy” (the “boy” being, I should say, over thirty, and standing six feet high). “When he got with bad people and lost, all his money some time ago, I took him in, sir, just the same, and gave him clothes and food, and, as if that wasn’t enough, I got him a kit when he went to sea again, because he hadn’t a farthing in the world to buy one.”
   Whi1e she said this, the alleged culprit, standing bolt upright in the dock, simply smiled.
   Stopping the prosecutrix, I begged her to come at once to the subject matter of her complaint.
   “Well, sir,” she continued, “I had two watches, which I [-80-] kept in a drawer in the kitchen. They were safe enough there yesterday, because I saw them, and I went out shopping, sir, leaving the prisoner in the kitchen, and when I came back he was gone and so was one of the watches. I went and told the. police, sir, and they’ve found the watch in a pawnshop, and the assistant what serves there has seen this man, and he is sure it was him as pawned the watch.”
   Witnesses were called who bore out the prosecutrix’s story, and the prisoner declined to put any questions to them. Thus the case against him seemed tolerably clear, and I was about to have the depositions read over, preparatory to committing him for trial, when, not feeling quite satisfied, I said to him:
   “You will have an opportunity presently of saying what you like in your defence; but before the witnesses leave the Court, are you sure you would not care to put any questions to them ?“
   “Quite sure,” he replied; “but if you wouldn’t mind, sir, I should like to put a question to you.”
   “Well,” said I, “ it’s a little irregular, but if it will do you any good, I have no objection.”
   “Thank you,” he returned. “What I want to ask you, sir, is this. Can a man be guilty of stealing his own property?”
   “Certainly not,” I replied. “But what on earth do you mean?”
   “Well, sir,” said he, “it’s just this way. I did take the watch, and I did pawn it, but I had a perfect right to do so, for it is my property. It was given to me by my uncle nine years ago. Before I went my last voyage I gave it to the old woman to keep, and when I returned I asked her for it, but she always put me off with excuses. Yesterday I found out where it was, and after she went out I took it, and thought it would be far safer it I pawned it.”
   I called the woman back into the box, and asked her what she had to say to the man’s explanation. Without changing colour or moving a muscle of her face, she gave an emphatic denial to his statement, which she characterised as a pack of lies from beginning to end.
   This did not by any means satisfy me, and, turning to the prisoner, I asked him if he knew the number of his watch.
   “Yes, sir,” he replied. “Seventeen hundred and ninety-four. My uncle, whose name was , bought the watch at Sir John Bennett’s two days before Christmas Day in the year 18—“
   [-81-] This detailed statement, I confess, was rather more than I had expected. It made my course of action very simple. Ordering the case to be put back, I despatched an officer to Sir John Bennett’s to make enquiries, and, if necessary, request Sir John to send any assistant who might possibly be able to throw light upon the case.
   Later in the day the sailor was put back into the dock. An assistant from the watchmaker’s entered the box and explained to me that it was the custom at their establishment to enter in a book the name of every purchaser of a watch, together with its number. This book he had brought with him and produced. There, sure enough, under the date in question, was the name of the prisoner’s uncle, bracketed with the number “ 1794.”
   I told the prosecutrix what was my opinion of her, and at once discharged the prisoner.
   For a specimen of villainy and perjury this was bad enough; but the matter did not rest here.
   My usual days for sitting at this Court were Monday and Tuesday, but it so happened that, in the following week, I chose the Thursday instead of the Tuesday.
   Among the night charges there appeared, to my great surprise, my friend the sailor. Referring to my register, which lay before me, I found that he was charged with stealing a razor from a barber’s shop. The barber himself was the first witness. He deposed that the prisoner came to his establishment for a shave, and that soon afterwards a razor was missing from a shelf. It appeared that while he was shaving the sailor, he was called away to another part of the shop to serve a customer, and that, according to his statement, the theft occurred while his back was turned.
   I asked the witness whether he had any other evidence to call.
   “Yes,” he replied, “a woman is here who was looking through the window and who saw the prisoner take the razor from the shelf and hand it to another man.”
   Hereupon with the greatest effrontery in the world, the lodging-house keeper who had prosecuted in the other case stepped into the box. A few questions sufficed to smash her testimony to pieces, and the sailor was once more discharged. This vile woman had either tricked the barber, or by some means had induced him to enter into the plot, and I doubt not that she craftily arranged for the case to come into Court [-82-] on a day when I was not likely to be sitting. Happily an accidental circumstance was the means of frustrating her revengeful design.
   A batch of summonses of rather a curious character came before me one morning. For years a number of women had, in Ratcliff Highway and the vicinity, kept shops which were ostensibly for the sale of ginger-beer, cigars, and matches, but which were in reality for the sale, without a license and during prohibited hours, of spirits and malt liquors.
   The evil grew to such an extent that representations were at length made to the authorities, who decided to take strong measures to put an end to it. It was arranged that two police officers, dressed as sailors, should go the round of the cigar and ginger-beer shops to obtain incriminating evidence against the women who were carrying on this lawless traffic.
   Two detectives from the West End were selected for the purpose, as it was felt that there was a likelihood of local members of the force being recognised.
   The ruse answered admirably, and a number of convictions were secured. It was curious to watch the faces of the female defendants while the officers were giving their evidence. One old woman shook with fury as the detective recalled the incidents of his visit—how she had said, “Yours ain’t much like the hands of a sailor”; how he had replied, “No, of course not, because I’m a purser’s clerk”; and how the two had laughed over the ease with which the accused were being hoodwinked. I never, before or since, heard such venomous abuse as that which poured from the lips of this old woman. There cannot be touch doubt that if the two detectives had shown their faces in Ratcliff Highway within a year of that date, they would have been somewhat roughly handled.
   After the great strikes the maritime prosperity of London began to wane, and one result was that the character of Ratcliff Highway somewhat improved. Other circumstances have assisted to purify that region. New docks drew the shipping lower down the Thames; the great liners are manned by a better class of men than were the sailing vessels of thirty years ago; and I am not sure that the changes brought about in the shipping world by the construction of the Suez Canal had not something to do with the transformation alluded to.
   Much good has no doubt been effected by the appointment of certain Board of Trade officials. A sailor is now shipped in [-83-] proper form. Articles are no longer signed in some disreputable little public-house, and Jack is no longer sent off on a long voyage with a kit barely adequate for a trip to Ireland.
   But though it gives me great satisfaction to record that Ratcliff Highway is better than it was, I confess I could wish to see it better than it is.

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