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


   EXACTLY opposite each other stands a church and a gin-palace. The former is dedicated to St. Luke, the latter to his head merely, and stands sentinel at the corner of Squalors' Market. Just as it was growing dusk, and the potman pertaining to the palace was kindling the gorgeous outside lamps, I passed under his tall ladder and into the narrow and sinuous thoroughfare.
   The business of the evening was yet young. The naphtha man's white horse, harnessed in the evil-smelling cart, was still in the highway, and the naphtha man, carrying his big can and clinking his measures, had still a goodish many stall-keepers to serve; the secondhand shoeseller was busily arranging along the kerb, and in single file, his dissipated regiment of "wellingtons" and "bluchers," administering a little more blacking to this one to make its patches seem less patchy, and solicitously patting and caressing that whose constitution was so fatally undermined that, for all its blooming appearance, it would succumb before a day's wear, and part body and sole; the Hebrew who sold cloth caps and slippers was idly chatting with the Hebrew who, having nicely arranged his brummagem jewellery, had nothing else (but customers) to do; the "unfortunate miner" was, with his afflicted wife, partaking of a final whet of rum at the " Black Boy" before taking their stand, their five sleekly-combed but starving children for the present larking in the gutter, while from out the horrible courts and alleys-head-quarters of fever and pestilence--came pouring great stores of cabbages and turnips, and fruit and shell-fish-the latter looking none the more refreshed for their night's repose beneath the truckle bedstead, and the former yet tearful from their long soaking in grimy tubs in the cellar. Besides these, there likewise streamed out from the courts and alleys " trotters" and hot penny puddings, and "ham sandwiches," for the delight of the most dainty of the thousand, who would presently crowd every inch of road and footway.
   Of the two hundred and twenty houses of which Squalors' Market is composed, one in every thirteen is devoted to the sale of intoxicating liquors, and it must be borne in mind that in this calculation are not included several public houses that, skulking in crooked chinks and under dark archways, although deprived of the manifest advantages enjoyed by their seventeen brethren in the open highway, yet by means of a beckoning claw in shape of a signboard, affixed at the mouth of the court or alley, "To the George and Dragon," " Back way to the Chip in Porridge," &c., manage to trap many drinkers of the sly and sneaking sort.
   That bread even is less in demand in Squalors' Market than gin and beer is demonstrated by the fact that but ten bakers' shops can there find support. The catsmeat interest is liberally represented, no less than five establishments of that character flourishing in the market. How is this ? Do the squalid court and alley dwellers, with their proverbial extravagance, each keep a cat? or- No; the supposition is too dreadful. Besides, it should be fairly stated that the five horse-flesh dealers vend sheep's heads, split and baked, and the livers of bullocks, and other offal.
   The butchers of Squalors' Market number two less than the gin and beer sellers, and are, dear reader, by no means quiet, well-behaved creatures, such as you are acquainted with. Your butcher wears a hat, generally a genteel hat, and a blue coat, and a respectable apron; perhaps, even snowy sleeves and shiny boots, and a nice bit of linen collar above his neckerchief. You give your orders and he receives them decorously, and wishes you good morning as you quit his neatly-arranged and sawdusted shop. Contrasted with him the butcher of Squalors' Market is a madman-a raving lunatic. He unscrews the burners of his gaspipes, and creates great spouts of flame that roar and waver in the wind in front of his shamble-like premises, endangering the hats of short pedestrians and the whiskers of tall ones; far out from his shop, and attached to roasting-jacks, revolve monstrous pigs' heads and big joints of yellow veal, spiked all over like a porcupine with figure-bearing tickets, that announce the few pence per pound for which the meat may be bought. He wears on his head a cap made of the hairy hide of the bison or some other savage beast; his red arms are bare to the elbows, and he roars continuously, "Hi-hi! weigh away-weigh away! the rosy meat at three-and-half! Hi-hi! "-clashing his broad knife against his steel to keep time. How is it that my butcher is charging me 9d. per lb. for leg of mutton, while Mr. Blolam, here, is charging only 4 d. ? Is my butcher a rogue, or is Mr. Blolam going headlong to the debtors' prison at the end of his street ? I know my butcher to be an honest fellow, and to judge from appearances, Mr. B. is not the man to bring his sleek, redhanded wife and his glossy children to grief, either by reckless trading or excessive charity. This being the case, let the court and alley dwellers thereabout, rather than regret, rejoice and thank their lucky stars that they have no money wherewith to trade with Mr. Blolam.
   The business of the market grows with the night. First come the decent folk-men and their wives, with the chief olive-branch to carry the big basket. Shrewd people are these early birds with an eye to plump worms. It is not, however, till it has grown quite dark, and the gas is lit, and great tongues of naphtha flame start from crazy lamps, and scorch and lap up the living air greedily, that the buyers come shoaling in. Then the fruit and vegetable mongers give tongue, and roar the quality and price of their various wares with a bullying air, and the brummagem Hebrew jabbers of his rings and brooches; and the secondhand shoeman, having beguiled a gentleman to take off his boot and " try something on," keeps him standing on one leg in the mud (and so he will be kept till he consents to buy a pair of shoes); and the miner and his family, ranged in a row, chant their necessities.
   Strolling through the market out of market hours the dearth of fishmongers at once struck you. True, there are fishshops, five or six of them, but the dealings of the proprietors are almost entirely confined to vending the article in a dried or fried state, one or two of them dabbling in shrimps and periwinkles. Where, however, is the fresh fish-the plaice, the soles, the cod-of which, according to Billingsgate statistics, at least one half of all that comes to market is consumed by the very poorest of the London population ? Now, however, when the business of the market is in full blast, the question no longer exists. Here is the fresh fish, in broad fiat wicker baskets, slung round the neck, in solitary "pads," standing in the mud, on little boards or trestles, lit up by a feeble candle, and on great boards, eight or ten feet feet long and six broad, standing on substantial legs, and lit by a great flaring naphtha lamp. The owners of these broad boards are no mean fish-pedlars, standing dumbly behind their wares till a customer happens to call. They are wholesale dealers, fish auctioneers. As many people stand round the board as would fill the largest fishmonger's shop in the metropolis. Yet, excepting a heap of copper money-half a peck of it, probably-the board is quite clear. Surrounding the auctioneer, however (who is dressed in corduroy trousers and blue guernsey shirt, the sleeves of which are rolled above the elbows of his great hairy arms), is a large number of "pads" of plaice, and, just behind him, is a big tub full of water. One of his attendants (he generally has two) presently plunges his arms into one of the "pads," brings out a couple of fish, souses them into the water-tub, and then hands them to his master. Without paying the least attention to the lookers-on the man coolly proceeds to disembowel the fish, to chop through the backbone, to make them handy for the frying-pan, and to thread them on a willow twig. All this while, and unsolicited, the people round are bidding "Threeha'pence!" "tuppence !" " two- un-arf! " " Yours, mum," observes the laconic fishman, handing the fish to the "two-un-arf," and proceeding to disembowel and thread two more. It was curious to observe the various countenances of the bidders and buyers; the eagerness with which some women scrambled over the heads and shoulders of their neighbours to get at their bargains, and with a look that plainly said " the price of these will astonish my Jack, I'll be bound;" while others parted with their halfpence regretfully, and as though conscious of having been a little too hasty in their bidding. Worst of all, however, were the gaunt women with their mites of shawls and ample aprons, and with husband out of work and any number of children, looking out of their anxious eyes as they watch the cutting up of the fish, and whether it be thick or thin. That seems a likely lot! Shall they bid? Better not, perhaps; wait and see the next lot. So they wait till ashamed to wait any longer, and take the "next lot" and chance it.
   It is, however, a great consolation to know that these poor mothers may at the worst depend on ample value for their precious halfpence. Soles and plaice were the fish chiefly dealt in by the auctioneers, and the prices they realised were absolutely ridiculous. Soles, for a pair of which Mr. Greves would charge half-a-crown, were disposed of, after a by no means spirited bidding, for threepence-halfpenny. Touching the cheapness of plaice, I can't do better than quote an instance to which I was an eyewitness. A monstrous fellow, broad and thick as a turbot, was fished out of a "pad," cleaned, gutted, and made ready for the pan, and, after all, the price it brought was fourpence. " If you aint got him at a 'apenny a pound it's furny to me," observed the auctioneer, and a friendly potato salesman's stall adjoining his, he put the fish in his scales. The potato-man had no weights of less than a pound, but the fourpenny plaice asserted its superiority to the seven-pound weight, and only consented to a balance when a large potato was added and brought to bear against him.
   It is a curious fact-and one more proof of the extravagance of poverty-that in nine cases out of ten the fish purchased was intended for the frying-pan, and not for the pot. It was easy to ascertain this, as whenever a bidder wanted a fish to boil, she signified the same at the time she made her bid. " Thrippence-for bilin !" some one would exclaim; whereon the auctioneer would arrest the descent of his big chopping-knife, and deliver the fish entire. Among the squalid poor the same prejudice exists as regards mutton. Fish fried, and mutton baked or roast, if you please; but as to boiling either, except when ordered by the doctor, the practice is regarded as namby-pamby, and French.
   This universal fish-frying is the key to another mystery common to the neighbourhood. In every " general shop," in every rag and bone shop, in the high street, and in the hundred courts and filthy alleys that worm in and out of it, may be seen solid slabs of a tallowy-looking substance, and marked with a figure 6, 7, or 8, denoting that for as many pence a pound weight of the suspicious-looking slab may be obtained. It is bought in considerable quantities by the fish-eaters for frying purposes, and is by them supposed to be simply and purely the fat dripping of roast and baked meats, supplied to these shops by cooks, whose perquisite it is. This, however, is a delusion. The villainous compound is manufactured. There is a "dripping-maker" near Seabright Street, Bethnal Green, and another in Backchurch Lane, Whitechapel, both flourishing men, and the owners of many carts and sleek cattle. Mutton suet and boiled rice are the chief ingredients used in the manufacture of the slabs, the gravy of bullocks' kidneys being stirred into the mess when it is half cold, giving to the whole a mottled and natural appearance.
   "Mine uncle" of Squalors' Market-at least, judging from the only specimen there to be seen-is a totally different character from that generally represented. The pawnbroker elsewhere found is a highly respectable person, smug and decorous of mien and subdued of voice. His shop is the shop of an ordinary dealer in jewellery and other articles of value, and he only insinuates his real business in the most delicate way by means of a neat plate on his doorpost inscribed with an intimation that he advances money on plate, jewels, &c., and that he has a fireproof room for the safe keeping of your property. The pawnbroker before me, however, is a tall, muscular man, with great brown hands, dressed in a shaggy pilot coat with big bone buttons, and wearing his battered hat well off his expressive countenance. He has none of the modesty peculiar to the craft about him, neither is his shop a modest one, or unobtrusive, but a broad-awake and gas-lit place, as open as any potato-warehouse in the market. Over the shop-front, in great yellow letters, is inscribed the word "Pawnbroker," and the proprietor stands in front of it-off the pavement, indeed, and in the road-surrounded by an eager mob, and selling from a basket old odds and ends of wearing apparel, old canvas for towelling, any rag of any sort or shape that will fetch even so low a sum as a penny among the squalid bidders. " Here ye are," says he, with the voice of a Channel pilot, as he dangles by the strings something made of flannel; " here's a perricot! How much for the flannel perricot? 'Tant a new un, and 'tant so far gone but the sides may be turned in the middle, and kiver a body comfortable. Who ses sixpence ? Tuppence, eh? Thanky; s'pose you buy taters with your money-it'll fetch more for 'ouse flannels. Goin' for fippence !-fourpence! Sold agin, and got the money."
   Where had I before seen this muscular pawnbroker? At the dog-show? In the shell-fish department at Billingsgate? On board a bumboat at Portsmouth? No; men very like him at each of the places mentioned, but not he. Now I have it! That " sold again and got the money," settled the point at once. It is a year ago, and he wore a blue apron about his waist, and stood outside a sausage and cheap meat shop in this very market, but the above words were the very ones he uttered as he tossed a pickled pig's head to the young man behind the counter. Now that this circumstance recurred to my memory I no longer wondered to find my friend a pawnbroker! He had a hankering for it at the pig's head period, and kept, besides the sausage-shop, a "leaving-shop," in Brick-lane, St. Luke's.
   Does the good reader know the nature of the "leaving" business? It requires no shop; any back room, cellar, or hovel will suffice for it, and any rascal possessed of a few shillings can start in it. It is a business that can flourish and grow fat in the midst of the most appalling poverty-that does exist, and flourish, and fatten in a thousand alleys and "slums" within the great city of London. It is a simple matter. Being too lazy to work, and having somehow obtained a pound, I take an apartment in a poverty-stricken locality, hang a few odds and ends in my window or against my door-post and put up a ticket announcing that I deal in " ladies and gentlemen's left-off wearing apparel." Presently some "lady" from one of the swarming alleys, hard up for bread or gin, brings me an article of her apparel, or perhaps a pair of still warm and muddy little boots, and requests me to become a purchaser. But no, I am too humane for anything of the kind. "Oh, don't sell the little boots, ma'am," say I; " take them to the pawnbroker's and pledge them for a trifle." " Shure it's no thrifle at all I can get on 'em at the parn-office," says my customer, "because the heels are throd down so." "Well, look here," says I; " I'll lend you a shilling on the boots, and what's more, I'll keep 'em for a month, and you can have them back any time between this and then by paying fourteen pence for them!" The news spreads like fever, and the existence of the new "leaving-shop" is thoroughly knowh within a week. Within a month of setting up I am doing a roaring trade. Everything too insignificant for the licensed pawnbroker's round the corner is brought to me, and I take the goods in pledge, the depositors well understanding that unless redeemed in a month they are forfeited. As twopence on the shilling is the long-established rate of interest demanded at the surrounding "leaving- shops," of course I can't exact more; however, I do as they do- make up for it on smaller sums. If I lend sixpence on a jacket, sevenpence halfpenny must be paid me before it can be ransomed; and if I lend threepence on the Sunday knives and forks or the Sunday baking-dish, nothing less than fourpence halfpenny redeems it, though I may have held it but a few days or even hours. On the whole I do a very snug business; and, what is more, I can defy all the Queen's orders and all the Queen's men, for how can the law step between a man and his simple buyings and sellings ?