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


   "THEN we will put that down as settled," said my friend the carcass-butcher; "you will be at the corner of St. Sepulchre's at five o'clock tomorrow morning, and I will meet you." " Very good," replied I, and so left him. But I thought it anything but " very good." Had May or June been the time of year I might not have entertained any very serious objections to a view of the rising sun, but the prospect of witnessing the birth of a mid-November day was quite another thing. However, my friend talked of five o'clock with a familiarity that bespoke so intimate an acquaintance with it, that I was ashamed to demur or to explain that the hour in question and myself knew so little of each other that a meeting might possibly be embarrassing-at least to one of us.
   Punctually, however, I arrived at the appointed spot, at the same moment my friend suddenly emerged from the darkness and confronted me with a newly-cut pencil behind his ear, and the brightness of his blue apron already sullied and smeared with red and white. "Come along," said he; "we shall have time to walk round before the bustle begins."
   Crossing the road to the prison corner, we made for the market, passing on the way a row of butchers' carts, backed to the kerb, and with the tailboards down. West-end carts they were chiefly, as the golden legends on the panels attested: the butchering interest of Bethnal Green and Whitecross Street seemed to be unrepresented. My guide, however, explained this by shrugging his shoulders significantly and observing, " That sort don't need to get here early; they can buy at any time." I observed that the vehicles in question were mostly furnished with portable cushions, and that the horses were generally clothed with valuable cloths or leather loin-covers. All alone on the dark highway stood this property, abandoned to the tender mercies of "lurchers" and "market-snatchers." At least so I imagined, and signified to my guide that I thought it a very stupid, not to say culpable system, affording as it did such opportunity for theft. My guide, however, by a mere gesture, set me right on this head; he pointed to a figure lurking in the shadow of the prison wall, holding in one hand a sheaf of cart whips, and who, holding his other hand level with the peak of his cap, kept a lynx-eye on the property entrusted to his charge.
   We turned into Warwick Lane. Although the market traffic had not yet commenced, there was considerable noise and confusion. Railway vans thundered over the cobble stones, and railway-van drivers were thundering at each other, and at the market beadle, and at the Corporation generally, such uncomplimentary language as vexed railway-van drivers will. Certainly they were not without grounds for vexation. Whitehart Street and Warwick Lane are the only carriage-ways into the market-square; and, when it is considered that the carriages are about seven feet wide, and that the roadway of Warwick Lane is little more than ten feet, and that of White Hart Street something less; that the vans contain over two tons of meat; that the uneven stones, moistened by November fog, afford to the horses' feet about as easy footing as would a pavement of buttered rolls; and that a market beadle (what does he know about horses ?) takes the bridles into his hands and frantically " backs " van, carman, and all, or endeavours to urge the perplexed cattle forward by probing their flanks with his market cane and uttering small canary chirpings-it is no wonder that the carmen occasionally exhibit a little ill-temper. This uproar, however, has its advantages-it relieves a stranger's mind of the horrors that would beset it if, in the midst of gloom and the jaundiced light that gas and daybreak make, the vehicles were disburdened quietly and by stealth. Breathing the air of yesterday's shambles, the beholder would see long and broad packages, mysteriously shrouded in sackcloth, borne up dark passages or stacked before the unopened shops, and it would require some more powerful counteracting influence than the big, innocent-looking wicker baskets in which the mutton is packed to assure him that the canvas sacks contained nothing more dreadful than sides of beef. This muffled beef-much of it from Aberdeen and other remote regions-was almost all in " sides;" that is, the hind-quarters with the whole of the ribs attached. Economy keeps shoulders of country beef out of the London market; for, taxed with carriage-dues, such inferior portions of the ox would not be able to compete with that which is killed in London. This rule applies also to mutton, and goes far towards elucidating the mystery that hangs over metropolitan mutton-chops. There are scores of taverns in the City where hundred-weights of chops are cooked daily. I know of a butcher's shop in Chancery Lane, and of another in Threadneedle Street, and of another in Cannon Street, which daily exhibit the loins of as many sheep as go to make an average flock; but I never saw at either place a twentieth of the number of legs needful to carry the loins; and as for breasts and heads, half-a-dozen sheep would be entitled to them all. Now, as no breed of sheep was ever yet known to yield more than a certain number of chops, what becomes of the other portions of these animals ? I used to entertain the notion that the mutton-chop merchants disposed of the rest of the sheep to poor-neighbourhood butchers, but inquiry convinced me I was in error. I have perambulated the byways of the City Friday after Friday (that being the day on which the little butcher restocks his shop), but never yet discovered any other mutton but entire and fresh from the rearward slaughterhouse. However, my friend the marketman solved the riddle in a twinkling. He informed me that many tons of saddles of mutton only arrive in the big wicker baskets weekly from the country.
   Early as it was, the market taverns were open, every one of them. The windows of the "Old Coffeepot" were brilliant, and the gaslight within, shed on rows of bottles, cast seductive, ramhorn rays into the raw, foggy air; the portals of the " Salutation and Cat" were ajar; the " Bell" was up and doing; the " Market House" blinked snugly behind its red curtains; the "Dark House" was already deep in its matutinal rum-and-milk; and at a certain hybrid establishment-half-beerhouse, half- coffeehouse-known as " Mother Okey's," and a house- of-call for disengaged porters and out-o'-work butcher lads, the windows were streaming with the exhalations of the mocha brew. I peeped in at " Mother Okey's," and was surprised, considering how precious is market space, to find that lady's premises so extensive. Her forms and tables covered more ground than many of the leading salesmen can afford. At the tables, deeply scored with lines necessary to the game of " shove-halfpenny," were seated a troop of out-o'-works and porters at breakfast; and, from the prevalence of juicy steaks, I am inclined to think that many an in-work mechanic fares worse than an out-o'-work butcher.
   Apropos of the scantiness of market space, the rents exacted by the Corporation for such miserable hovels as go to make up the market, almost exceeds belief. For the privilege of hanging a board-about two feet wide and seven long-beneath the window of a public-house, and the use of a shed opposite, capable, if converted to its proper use, of holding a couple of tons of coals, my informant pays a hundred pounds a year ! and this in the worst part of the market. "And not dear either, as prices go here," said he. "Why, if I could move my premises to the other end-say to within twenty yards of Bonser's (the chief firm in the market, in the main entrance from Newgate Street), I'd give two hundred a year for them willingly. Salesmen in that quarter are giving more for less accommodation than I possess." The friendly marketman and I then went to breakfast, and when we returned the wholesale marketing was in full swing. In the space of half an hour a marvellous change had taken place. Shops no longer existed, nor wooden walls, nor benches, nor bulks, nor posts even; neither were there any taverns. The " Bell" was choked-dead and buried-by pig meat, the "Dark House" gasped for breath beneath a crush of beef, and "Mother Okey's" was overwhelmed with veal and mutton-her very doorway reduced to a mere crevice between two carcasses. The monsters who rushed about with filthy nightcaps and "knots" in their hands, crying "Here I am!" "Who wants me?" and "Now, my masters!" were nothing but meat; the hair on their heads was felted with fat, their vision was impeded by it, their wrinkles " stopped" with it; their hands were animated steaks, and their flimsy garments were by its agency rendered impenetrable as tarpaulin. The great sides of beef, now unshrouded, hung naked and rosy on giant hooks; and sheep that had left their fleecy coats three hundred miles behind them, were delivered from the big wicker baskets, and ranged in clustering rows. Then there were the butchers. West-End aristocrats, with spotless jean coats and Gibus hats; half-and-half dandy butchers, with blue half-sleeves and ribbed aprons; and real, practical, working butchers, in blue coats and market leggings. By mere pinches or pokes with the finger, they decided on one-hundred guinea purchases in less time than your cautious reader or I would take to choose a quarter of lamb; and, making their way through the wall of flesh to the watch-box counting-houses behind, paid down their crisp bank-notes and clinking gold like true British butchers. So for some hours the wholesale marketing continues, and not without peril may the uninitiated in market ways mingle amongst and note these things. When once caught in the meaty maze, to get out of the way is impossible. Every man's meat is against him. His ear is rasped by the jagged vertebrae of an Aberdeen ox, " by leave " as he is informed by the giant on whose back the offending joint is borne; and, while he is turning to inquire by whose leave, the sharp, icy paw of a defunct pig wriggles itself between his neckcloth and the back of his neck. So situate, he is unable to avail himself of the warning "Hi " and takes the consequence-a headless sheep applied battering-ram-wise at the small of his back, and he hardly knows whether to kick or thank the man with the meat-truck who, by a mighty rearward push, extricates him from his dilemma. Nor is he less morally than physically outraged. To him it seems that barefaced, wholesale thieving is being practised on every side. The suetty and knotted ruffians before mentioned are the delinquents. He sees them without the least reserve march up to a row of "sides," help them on to each other's backs, and decamp with them through the rush without let or hindrance; another, turning square out of the press, seizes a sheep off a hook and runs off; while a third, before the very eyes of the market beadle, is plundering a wicker basket of saddles of mutton. Even if the stranger were made aware of the true state of the case, it is doubtful if he could be convinced that the property was perfectly safe in the hands of the market porters; for it frequently happens that the purchaser's cart is a long distance from his purchase, which has to be wriggled and pushed and pulled through a dense and opposing mob before the said cart can be reached. The heat of wholesale traffic at last subsided, and, it being Saturday, the retail buyers came straggling in. My friend, however, informed me that at least an hour would elapse before anything worth calling business would be doing; so I reminded him of a celebrated sheep-slaughterer he had before mentioned, and proposed to beguile the hour by an inspection of the said slaughterer's premises. Directed by my friend, I made my way to the shop of Messrs. Venables and Dixon, near the marketsquare.
   In a great wooden box, rude as a rabbit-hutch, sat a polite gentleman at his ledgers. He couldn't ask me into the hutch without himself getting out of it, so we chatted through the air-holes. He told me that the number of sheep slaughtered by the firm averaged five hundred a week through the year, but that during some parts of summer as many as a thousand a week " were turned out." He further informed me that each sheep passed through four pairs of hands, and that he employed two such gangs constantly. The two gangs of eight men could kill, skin, and properly dress a hundred and sixty sheep in twelve hours, which is little more than four minutes for each sheep.
   "And pray, where may your slaughtering premises be situated?" I inquired, never dreaming that accommodation for such wholesale killing could be found within the market precincts,
   "There is our slaughter-house, sir," replied Mr. Wilson, jerking his thumb toward a doorway behind his hutch, and from which a cloud of opaque vapour was issuing.
   There indeed it was, and this was what I saw on approaching the doorway from which belched the stifling smoke. I saw a barn no larger than a drawing-room, in which were eight men gory to the elbows and with their faces speckled red. But, limited as was the room, the eight men did not have it all to themselves; there were likewise in the room at least fifteen sheep-alive, half dead, dead, and half undressed, and hanging from beams completely muttonised. By the door there was a great sweltering pile of fleecy hides, and in an extreme corner was a hideous wooden tank, with bars across the top, and along the bars was a row of freshly-slain sheep. As fast as the dressers lugged one from the crimson bars to the stone floor, a hot and saturated giant, looking hideous through the gloom that lurked in the place, plucked another from the frantic live ones, who were penned against the wall, and who, having the blood of their fellows before their eyes and on the floor, causing their feet to slip, stared about them and uttered sounds such as I never before heard sheep utter; except one, and that was in Old Smithfield Market, and I heard somebody say that had been kept without water till driven mad. I trust I am not mawkishly sentimental; but when I saw emerging from that dismal den, foggy with the steam of blood and departing breath, and contrasted the sad, limp bodies of the poor animals with the rosy carcasses that came from the country in the wicker hampers- when I saw the former, borne along on the butcher's back, wag their heads mournfully, and as though aware of their ignoble appearance-I could scarcely forbear wagging my own sympathetically.
   Gladly I escaped to the comparatively Arcadian air of the market, where the retail business had now commenced in earnest. The leviathans of the market, such as the Messrs. Bonser, despise petty huckstering, and are close shut up an hour ago; still there are shops and stalls displaying abundance of meat-some prime and handsome, and some very, very ugly. Were I made market inspector for a single day, I should doubtless provoke the law by sending tons of this fresh-smelling, but skinny, bloodshot meat to be burnt in the knacker's yard at King's Cross. But I suppose the inspector knows best, and the meat is all perfectly sound and wholesome. Whether or no, it all finds purchasers. The newly-married young shoemaker, ninth son of a managing mother, brings hither his little wife, and instructs her how to invest half-a- crown economically; the family man brings his wife and an olive-branch to carry the basket, and bids, per stone, for meat enough to last an entire week; the hard-up man, his wife's week's charing concluded, brings her all the way from Camden Town, and they purchase enormous joints of veal at an absurdly low figure. But what I have seen of the retail business of Newgate Market disposes me to believe that if you want sound, nutritious, animal food, you can't do better than patronise the butcher round the corner. The meat that goes so wonderfully cheap in the market, the butcher round the corner would not keep on his premises. But folks like to dabble in the "wholesale." I do. I'd have my pen'orth of apples picked from the tree if I could; as I can't, please serve me from a full bushel basket. There fore, why should I blame Mrs. Jones for liking to pick out her nine pounds of " brisket" from as many tons ?