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


   I HAVE reason considerably to modify the opinion I lately expressed concerning the Houndsditch Sunday Fair. A week or two ago, having, as I imagined, explored it thoroughly - having perambulated Moses Square, where the rags and tatters, and secondhand hats and bonnets, and shoes and stockings, were bartered andhaggled; and Cutler Streetand Petticoat Lane, famous for workmen's tools, musical instruments, and military and marine stores; and Phil's Buildings, where swarm and chaffer among themselves the real " Ole Clo " men and women; and the "Exchange," where, collected from Heaven knows what sources, are constantly exposed for sale silk gowns, satin gowns, costly laces, and shawls of Persia and India, tarnished certainly, but still with a thoroughbred air about them that begot much sympathy for their unfortunate condition-when I had discovered all these things, my impression was that I knew all about the business; and this is what I thought of it:- That it was, as a business, nasty, and mean, and miserable; that they who embarked in it were to a man or woman Jews; and that its character gave the flattest contradiction to the proverbial cunning of the Jew, likewise to the vaunted value of his organs of vision when directed mammonward; that the Hebrew was, after all, but a low- flying and lumbering, albeit an industrious and copiously perspiring, bird, and content with such fatness as carrion afforded; satisfied to burrow in muck and grow smugly sleek on such scraps and offal as the world and his wife overlooked, or, knowing the existence of, despised; with no lofty aspiration for the rich stream yielded by fair commerce and enterprise, but meekly eager to churn a livelihood from the City's scum.
   Such, however, is no longer my estimate of the Houndsditch Jew, and, as for his market-place, I may say that, having explored and scrutinised it foot by foot, you know of its mysteries very little more than the mariner knows of the mysteries of the sea. Like the said mariner, you may observe the turbulent surface and see all round about you fish pursuing and pursued, with here and there a curiously-snouted monster, whose business, beyond the certainty that it is predatory, cannot be made out. The mariner, unless he be likewise a diver by profession, or becomes, unluckily, one of a wrecked crew, will never know even for a moment what the sea is like at heart. So as to the depths of Houndsditch; unless a man be, as am I, a professional diver, or, just a simple merchantman bound on an eastward land voyage, he be treacherously directed from his proper course by an Israelitish pilot, and finally stranded a sheer hulk on a Whitechapel shore.
   Such, I am bound to confess, might I have been for all my diving experience, or, at the least, have dived and found nothing, had I not been carefully directed and instructed by an old cruiser in the intricate Houndsditch waters who now enjoys a pension as a retired police inspector. It was he who set right my presumptuous assertion that I knew all about Rag Fair. He inquired, among other things, "What did you think of the jewellery rooms? Did you look in at Barnet's? Did you have any difficulty in getting admittance at Mendez's ? Were you not astonished at the tremendous display of gems and precious metals at Moses Levy's ? "
   Now, as the reader has been made aware, I had seen vast quantities of jewel-shaped ware, and, to the extent of several tons, of studs and pins, and bangles and bracelets; but the metals of which they were composed were palpably no more precious than brass or copper. As to the ownership of the goods, that might have been claimed by a Levy, or a Mendez, or a Moses, but for certain I could not say. As to the " difficulty of gaining admission," I had not experienced it; on the contrary, Levy, and Mendez, and Moses had each in turn laid violent hands on me with a view of compelling me to inspect the valuables displayed on their boards and benches. All this I explained to my friend, but with no other effect than to convince him that the important feature of the Sunday fair alluded to by him had altogether escaped me. Recent as were my experiences of the inodorous rabble that swarmed at the said fair, I should have been content to have allowed my work to have remained incomplete as it was; but my friend assured me that the real jewellery exchanges were highly-respectable places where nobody but rich men-workers in gold, dealers in silver plate, and diamond-merchants-congregated, or, indeed, had business; and he, moreover, drew such graphic and curious pictures of these " back-slum" golcondas that I was fain to take a list of them and promise to go and see.
   The list comprised five jewellery marts, all to be found within easy stone's-throw, supposing the speaker to stand in Houndsditch between Bevis Marks and Cutler Street. Two of the five are on the Cutler Street side of the main thoroughfare, and the remaining three so close to the Duke Street orange market that the pungent scent of the refreshing fruit comes in at the open sashes of the crowded show-rooms in a way to be grateful for. Of the Cutler Street emporiums I will say nothing; certainly they were tolerably rich, and it was somewhat astonishing and suggestive of the forty thieves and " Open Sesame " to find one tapping "three distinct times " at the battered door of a mangy-looking public-house, so very mangy and beetle-browed, with its heavy, overhanging portal and blinking little windows, backed by dingy red curtains-and to find the door gently opened by a ringletted houri, with her bosom in glittering chains, and her ears fettered with masses of gold and cornelian-to find yourself gliding stealthily in with a softness that any one of the celebrated forty might envy, and boldly, and with the aid of a lodger of long standing, crossing the space before the bar, and pushing open a door on which was simply inscribed "Parlour,"-to find yourself crossing the threshold, and the door heavily, though softly, plugging to, and shutting you in-in among a company beady-eyed and hawk-nosed, some with little black beards, some with grey beards resting on their shirt fronts, and all of them chattering like London sparrows -doing, too, as well as talking. On the common-looking tables were common iron teatrays inches deep of silver watches and watch-cases, and naked works that looked as though the cruel Jews had flayed them. Over these trays the beady-eyed ones stooped, and plucked, and poked, and picked, fiercely demanding the price as with a foreknowledge that it would be preposterous, and to discuss it a simple waste of time. At least, you might be led to ascribe such fierceness of bargaining to this cause, were you unaware of the fact that Jews among themselves never haggle; they see what comes of it in their transactions with Christians, and carefully eschew "the silly custom." "Ow butch?" asks Mr. Levy, taking up a watch. "Two powd; " and, though he may receive the information with a wriggle as though he had been pricked, if he wants the watch, he merely retires from the way for a moment to screw up his courage, and comes back with the " two powd" in his hand, which is tolerably good evidence that "'bating" is never entertained even to the extent of a penny.
   The second Cutler Street jewellery mart was as much like the first as peas in one pod, and, had I seen none other, would have seemed marvellous. But I had yet to see that which put them both in the shade, reducing them to mere pedlar's packs, whereas before they appeared goodly acres of the estate of that Croesus, Thomas Tiddler. Number one of the Orange Market gold and silver stores was fair enough; there were a few hundred more chains and watches and bracelets than occurred at the other side of Houndsditch, to saynothing of a sprinkling of diamonds, and a measure or so of rubies and emeralds. Number two Orange Market (a shut-up public-house, as was number one) was even more wealthy than the other; but number three!
   Number three is situated to the right of the Orange Market coming from St. Mary Axe. My head is so crammed with Jewish names that I am by no means sure how the proprietor of number three was called. There, however, was his name painted over the doorway. of his tavern, and, to the best of my knowledge, it was the same as that of one of the rare old masters in the art of painting. It was about eleven o'clock on the Sunday morning, and the church bells were summoning good folks, and good folks were responding to the summons and wending, their way churchward. As to the jewellery mart I was about to enter, it, too, might have been a place of worship, a meeting-house for the Some-of-these-days saints, or at the very least a vestry-room. The tavern itself was, of course, fast closed, but at the side there was a spacious private entrance, the step to the door of which was demurely whitened, while the door itself was so closely ajar that at first sight it seemed shut, and all as quiet and as moral as could be. When you pushed the door, however, it swung easily open, and within you found the hall nicely matted and covered with oilcloth, and at the end, or what seemed to be the end, of the passage was a highly respectable-looking door covered with dark baize. This you likewise pushed open, and found a little bit more passage, with an ordinary sitting-room door in one of the walls of it: of this you turned the handle, and there you were.
   Fancy an apartment as long as Fleet Street is broad, and wide in fair proportion, with a line of tables about four feet wide on either side down the whole length of it, with two large windows at one end of it, and at the other end a snug country posting-house liquor-bar. In the roof at the liquor-bar end of the room a broad skylight. Behind the tables and seated on forms, a close row of Jews of every country and complexion, some dark almost as Arabs, others freckled and sickly fair; some so old and shaky that they sat muffled up in cloaks and comforters; others so young and un-Jewish that it seemed a mere temptation to rogues to seat them there as dealers. On the broad tables, on every one of them, and so that they were completely covered, were vessels of gold and of silver, cups and vases, and jugs and goblets, gold chains in great coils; while silver chains in heaps, being of small account, kept in the rear along with silver spoons and other articles in the same inferior metal; bracelets flickering with rare topazes, lockets glaring with ruddy opals, crosses and clasps and necklaces rich with great pearls, and looking chaste as snow; coronets brilliant with clustering emeralds, and earrings ablaze with diamonds. Besides these there were gems unset, piled in the corners of the trays like cherrystones, or stowed in common pillboxes. As to watches of gold and of silver, I am quite certain that had they all been placed in a sack, the strongest porter from the Orange Market outside would have been unable to carry it, even though its contents were the reward of his labour.
   The body of the room-capable of holding at least two hundred people-was chokeful. You could not move without endangering your own toes or somebody else's, nor turn your head without the certainty of encountering a great blast of tobacco smoke from somebody's lips, for-and this seemed to me the most curious part of the business-the company, although orderly, was not the most genteel one would wish to meet, and there were seedy-looking and even shabby-looking men amongst it, who smoked cigars almost to a man, so that the place was downright hazy with smoke, and it was a difficult matter to see from one end to the other. And yet there was the mixed company handling the contents of the trays as freely as blackberries, and passing diamonds and pearls to each other, and struggling with costly rings and necklaces through the press that they might examine them at a better light than that afforded near the vendor's stall; and the vendors all the while placid and serene, and evidently in no fear of being robbed. As for the proprietor of the tavern, he lounged over his bar, and chatted to his customers, and served them with brandy and other fiery liquors (the church bells were still ringing); and everybody, even to the seedy man who stood near the door with some sort of pickled vegetable in a tub, and with a row of white saucers inwhich to serve out pen'orths, seemed so contented, and warm, and comfortable, that the sight was quite affecting.