Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Unsentimental Journeys; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, by James Greenwood, 1867


   It is, of course, hard to say, honest poverty is so prodigiously wary of betraying itself; but, if certain signs and tokens are trustworthy, this will not be such a very hard Christmas with the poorest of our brethren.
   Nor is this comfortable conclusion based on tabular statements and statistics. It is not because the casual ward of St. Grudgeabone's-in-the-East is not more than half full, or that, in happy consequence of a dearth of applicants, the soup-coppers at the charitable kitchen remain quite full, that I feel authorised to make the cheering announcement. It is because of the state of the market-of Poverty Market. I have spent an hour there, and have seen with my eyes and heard with my ears, and know all about it.
   Of these markets there are more than two dozen, probably; but it makes no difference to me, and under the circumstances, for they are all alike-alike as oysters in a barrel. The flavour of one is the flavour of the whole, and the market-places of the poor may be as fairly sampled at a single dip. If Dutch plaice are three-halfpence each in Brick Lane, Bethnal Green, they will be at four for sixpence in Strutton Ground, Westminster-not a farthing more or less. If clod of beef is at fivepence in Leather Lane, a journey to Clare Market, with a view to buying it at fourpence-halfpenny, will be fruitless. The gin-shop doors of Whitecross Street; and the Lower Marsh at Lambeth, and at Brill Row in Somers Town, swing in unison, as though held by a single string; and behind the doors, and between them and the flashy ginshop bars, it is uniformly high tide of roaring, turbulent drunkenness, or dismal low tide and a silent shore-yellow, strewn with sawdust, like the sands of the beach, and waiting for the flood. At such times, when you see Mr. Speckles, of the " Upas Tree," nigh to Liquorpond Street, yawning in discontented idleness, you may, if you happen to be of a speculative turn, take small odds that a hundred similar licensed jaws are elsewhere as dismally ajar.
   Or the depth of London poverty may be gauged by a little observation of the frequenters of either of these market-places. Wait until the gas is lit, and then (it should be on a Saturday night or a Christmas Eve) manfully make a plunge, and go with the human tide that rolls and surges through the narrows of, say, Strutton Ground, Westminster. Note the bricklayers, and the masons, and the carpenters-you will know them readily enough; and if you find amongst them a goodly sprinkling of those who, by the angle of their short pipes and the cock of their cap-peaks, are evidently breeches-pocket-proud, you may know without further inquiry that "things are fairish." Likewise, it is a good sign to see flowers in the bonnets of the women, and a "keeper" as well as a wedding-ring adorning the marriage finger; indeed, this latter is a very significant sign, as will be at once understood when it is explained-I have it from a credible party, and one who would not "lend his ears," or indeed anything else, except in matters that were reliable-that, "as soon as ever things get shaky, the 'keeper' and father's Sunday silk handkerchief are the first things put away. One or two may come at brisk times to admit of going to the play or an unexpected raffle, and go with the common run of business and without particular notice; but when they drop in three and four of a morning we know how things are going, and could tell you almost to a day when we should be pretty full of Wellington boots, and fancy waistcoats, and summer shawls and gowns. It's a long chain, if you take the separate links of it; but, lor ! how soon it's wound up! If there's a largish family, they'll come at the clock in six weeks; and I tell you, sir, when you see a working man pledging his clock, you may know that he's pretty well wound up. Yes, sir, it's getting close to the wedding-ring then. That I look on as the last link in the chain; and it's curious, too, considering how they go together, as one may say, that the keeper should be the firstlink and the wedding-ring the last."
   "Especially," said I, "as the value of this last link-I mean the pecuniary value-must be considerably more than that of many of the other links."
   "Well, if you come to that, you know,' said Mr. Backitt, shaking his head dubiously, "upon my word, and although they're lumbersome and take up a deal of room which can be ill spared, I'd rather take in flock beds, and I've a good mind to say flat-irons, than wedding-rings. The worst of it is, the thinner and more worn the things are, there's the more fussing over them. They come cheerful enough sometimes; then they are good thick rings, without more than a year or so of wear taken out of them, and it is buxom young women who bring them, pleasant, and not unwilling to pass a little joke with one; it is the middle-aged and the old women who are the teasers. They never think of pulling off the ring before they get into the box, and there you may see 'em wetting their bony old knuckles, and trying to screw it off with their finger in their mouth, and perhaps piping their eye all the time. You might think the picture was a funny one by only hearing a description of it, but you'd be of quite another mind if you came to see it. The sums they'll ask on the thready old things, too, would frighten one if he was not well used to it; they never think that their wedding-ring is of less value than when they bought it; indeed, I really do believe they think it is more valuable; and they'll talk in that earnest way, bless you, that you'll find yourself lending quite the melting price if you are not careful. I generally get out of serving 'em if I can-turn 'em over to my young man-all a business fellow, sir, I can tell you, and will prosper. The old women don't come it over him. 'Now, then! how much on the old hoop ?' says he, and then slips it on his little finger, and writes off the ticket as coolly as though he was taking in a dog-collar."
   However, to return to my subject at the point where Mr. Backitt broke in upon it. If, as you elbow your way through the crowd in Poverty Market, you discover such signs of prosperity as I have mentioned, you may make your mind easy that business is slack at the workhouse bakeries within and without the city, east, west, north, and south. On the other hand, if the majority of the men you meet wear their heads deep in their capes; if they wear their jackets buttoned high and both their hands in the pockets thereof; if their eyes are downcast, as though good luck had somehow escaped from them into the gutter, and they were there looking for it; if such as have their wives with them allow them to press ahead a pace or so (the reader may have observed how that sometimes when a team came on a bit of heavy road the arrangement of the cattle will be altered, and, until the difficulty is surmounted, the great brown horse gives precedence to the little grey one, who, without half his strength, has six times his capacity for manoeuvring and wriggling out of ruts); if the said wives have pursed mouths and eyes eloquent of arithmetic; if their thin shawls hang squarely at the shoulder parts; if at the greengrocer's a monstrous quantity of potatoes are shot into their big-bellied market-baskets, you may know that wherever you meet the poor man in and about London he is "hard up."
   If throughout the year there is a season during which more than any other a poor man is in danger of getting " hard up," it is most decidedly at Christmas time. He is so much at the mercy of the weather. If he is a brick-layer or a bricklayer's labourer, or a stonemason, or a plasterer, or a navvy, or a gardener, or any one of a dozen other avocations which might be enumerated, a heavy frost falling in the night debars him from bread-winning as effectually as though fetters had grown to his wrists while he slept; and, without being either a gardener or a bricklayer, it is easy enough to imagine what it must be to the frostbound father of a numerous family, and Christmas within a few days' stage. How the enthralled man must find himself eagerly listening to his wife's prognostications concerning her corns and a change in the weather ! How irritated he must feel to hear her grinding at the same superstition at the end of a fortnight, and the frost still pinning the earth with the tenacity of a bulldog at the throat of an enemy! How he must be tempted to kick that provoking cat, who will persist in sitting with her back to the fire, a sure indication of frost! Nor is frost the only enemy with whom the poor willing worker has often to contend against for his Christmas beef and pudding. Daylight is but nine hours long; and even though he allow himself no longer midday rest than suffices for the swallowing of his scanty dinner, "three-quarters " is all the time he can make. Cowardly coughs, and fevers, and influenzas attack his little children at their weak and worn boot-soles. The rent collector must clear his books, by hook or by crook, he says-and his tenant knows what that means-by the twenty-fourth. Dr. Bunney sends his lad with a sharp little note, reminding the already much-perplexed parient that little Charley, who has commenced cutting his teeth, has not yet been paid for ! "It never rains but it pours !" says the poor fellow, as, after consulting his good lady, he returns written word by Dr. Bunney's lad that Mrs. Ginnypeg is not very well, and would be glad of a call when Dr. Bunney is coming her way; and that as regards the little bill it would be an accommodation if she is allowed to settle the two together. Poor Mr. Ginnypeg ! It's all very fine for the carol singers to bawl " Let nothing you dismay! "
   Nevertheless, and all things considered, I should judge from the signs and tokens already hinted at, that the poor man has known Christmases which have caused him much more dismay than the present one. My " market intelligence " is derived from Brick Lane, Bethnal Green; and, goodness knows, if there exists a market deserving the prefix "poverty," this is the one.
   I have spent an hour among the fierce gas-jets, and the clash of butchers' knives and steels, and Babel of " Buy, buy, buy !" and I am of opinion that Mr. Ginnypeg's prospects of a Christmas dinner are at least "pretty fair." Mind, I don't by any means wish to convey the idea that I found Brick Lane overflowing with milk and honey-I did not expect to find it so; but, as an honest reporter, I am bound to say that, after all I had recently read of this plague-parish, I expected to find a leaner and more drouthy state of things than appeared.
   The butchers' shops, from the first-floor windows to the stall-boards, were hung with ribs, and sirloins, and aitch-bones, and shoulders and legs of mutton fat enough to excite the admiration of an Esquimaux. At Mr. Fag- gotty's, the pork and sausage shop, there hung a pig of such vast dimensions that made it a wonder, the natural perversity of porcine nature considered, how they ever managed to drive, or back, or sling him through Mr. Faggotty's narrow slaughter-house doorway. There were fat geese, and fat turkeys, and holly-berry devices on bladders of lard in the cheesemongers' windows, and on the surface of half-tubs of butter. Good signs every one of them, and significant of feasting, but not the signs and tokens I especially allude to, for all that.
   It was the absence and not the presence of certain eatables from Poverty Market that impressed me favourably. Chief of all was the almost entire absence of fish- of fresh fish, understand (of dried, in the form of haddocks and bloaters, there was an unusual quantity, which was satisfactory, inasmuch as it betokened luxuries for tea or breakfast). Now, any one at all conversant with the ways of poverty, knows that the quantity of fish it consumes is enormous. And no wonder. For sixpence a piled-up dish may smoke on the dinner-table; whereas, if the money was invested in butchers' meat, even of the coarsest and scraggiest description, a dinner-plate would contain it, with a fair margin for potatoes. At ordinary times the most conspicuous feature of Poverty Market is fish. Every third stall is a fish-stall; tons of plaice, of soles, and cod are sold in a single market-place in a single day. When fish fails, there is consternation among poor mothers, and general cheerfulness among butchers with mutton-scrags and offal to dispose of.
   Yet, to be always having fish for dinner, even though he is fond of it, has about it a smack of poverty under which the poor man does not rest easy. With his fair five shillings a day, he will not object to fish for supper as often as you please; but he'll have beef, or mutton, or bacon for dinner. In fact, his patronage of fish lasts only during his " hard up " periods, and by this token to-night he is not hard up; the few straggling fish-stalls have no attraction for him or his wife; their sole attention is for the butchers and the abounding animal fatness about them.
   Another ordinary feature of Poverty Market, now pleasantly missed, is the stall whereon is sold penny lots of vegetables for the pot-the three turnips, the onion, the half carrot, and the leak. These are the ingredients which, with a pound of scrap meat, form the family "stew." Doubtless there are worse things than a stew for dinner, but it is not quite the thing for Christmas. If nothing better may be had, why-- But, thank goodness, something better may be had this Christmas, and the penny vegetable lots are not wanted. I counted but four from one end of Brick Lane to the other, and even they had cheeringly added horseradish to their business.
   Another good sign was that the lemon trade was brisk. Moses and Isaac, while they despise the great Christian festival, were not above making a shilling out of it, and elbowed their way through with their mat baskets over their shoulder and a double handful of the yellow fruit, shouting " two a peddy lebbod" as earnestly as though their lives depended on the sale. Now the lemon and destitution are not likely to be found together; one can scarcely imagine a dinnerless family sitting round a yearning firegrate sucking lemons. No; the lemon is good, for its peel sake, in the manufacture of apple-pies; it is desirable as adding pungency to the glass of grog. Probably it is useful in many other ways; but the two mentioned are enough for the purpose, and I can only repeat that when I saw so many lemons about I observed to myself, "Here's another good sign."
   I might go on to a column's length in my enumeration of good signs. I might speak of the crowded state of the shops of the grocers at which pudding-clubs were held; of the prevalence of toy-sellers; of the prodigious quantity of holly and mistletoe about; of the roaring trade driven by the man with the newly-invented roasting-jack, and who exhibited a wooden goose revolving in the most satisfactory manner. I might discuss these things and many more, but I have no time; it is now nearly ten o'clock, and when I left Mr. Backitt, in the early part of the evening, he had said, "Just give me a look in about ten o'clock. I'll tell you what sort of a Christmas it is with 'em." So I made haste to Mr. Backitt's.
   There is no affectation of gentility about Mr. Backitt's premises-no "offices next door," or boxes with catch-latches in the passage for shame-faced poverty with a watch to pawn; the space before Mr. Backitt's counter is nearly as large as that before an ordinary gin-shop bar, and as free. Like a gin-shop door, that of Mr. Backitt is kept ajar by a strap, and I give it a push, with the intention of walking in. But I could not push it far enough to squeeze in; the shop was crowded chiefly by women and girls; there was much gossiping chatter, a frequency of abusive remarks addressed to Mr. Backitt and his perspiring young man, and a strong odour of gin, so that the likeness of Mr. Backitt's place of business to a gin-shop did not cease at the strap-held door.
   "Will you allow me to pass, Miss ? " I said to a young lady of thirteen, who, although already borne down by bundles, was fiercely demanding another "Pashely shawl -name of Tigg !"
   "No," said she, "I shan't! Give us hold of your tickets, and I'll give 'em over to Samuel, if you like."
   "But I haven't any tickets," said I.
   "Oh, you wants to leave," observed the damsel, laughing. " I wish you luck, old boy; they won't take anything in, bless you, while there's so much deliveries. It's as much as they'll 'part.' There was a poor soul, about half an hour ago, who wanted her old man's westkit away from his trousers, and do you think they'd let her have it ? No! Mr. Jackanapes Samuel says, says he--"
   "Shawl, three shillings; Tigg !" at that moment bellowed the young man in question.
   "Here!" screamed Miss Tigg, poking up a long parcel, as an indication where she was to be found; and having secured the "Pashely," she went off, saying no more to me.
   For full a quarter of an hour I tried hard to catch Mr. Backitt's eye, but in vain; it was as much, nay, more, than he could do to count up interest and take money, and bully the boy up the spout for not throwing down the parcels with greater expedition. Meanwhile the mob came swarming in, and the clamour became so deafening that I was glad to escape, without having Mr. Backitt's opinion as to " the sort of Christmas it was with 'em," it is true; but I much doubt if he could have regarded that till full of redemption-money, and pronounced Christmas, 1863, a very hard one.