Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Days and Nights in London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1880 - Chapter 5

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[-90-]

V.

SUNDAYS WITH THE PEOPLE.

IT is said - and indeed it has been said so often that I feel ashamed of saying it-  that one half the world does not know how the other half lives. I am sure that whether that is true or not, few of my City readers have any idea of what goes on in the City while they are sitting comfortably at home, or are sitting equally comfortably at church or chapel (for of course the denunciations of the preacher when he speaks of the depravity of the age do not refer to them). Suppose we take a stroll in the eastern part of the City, where the dirt is greatest, the population [-91-] most intense, and the poverty most dire. We need not rise very early. On a Sunday morning we are all of us a little later at breakfast than on ordinary occasions. We sit longer over our welcome meal -  our toilette is a little more elaborate - so that we are in the City this particular Sunday about half-past nine - a later hour than most of the City-men patronise on the week-day. In the leading thoroughfares shops are shut and there are few people about, and in the City, especially these dark winter mornings, when the golden gleam of sunshine gilds the raw and heavy fog which in the City heralds the approach of day, very few signs of life are visible, very few omnibuses are to be seen, and even the cabs don't seem to care whether you require their services or whether you let them alone. Here and there a brisk young man or a spruce maiden may be seen hastening to teach at some Sunday school; [-92-] otherwise respectability is either asleep or away.
    As we pass along, the first thing that strikes the stranger is a dense unsavoury mob to be met outside certain buildings. We shall see one such assemblage in Bell Alley, Goswell Street; we shall see another in Artillery Street ; there will be another at the Cow Cross Mission Hall, and another in Whitecross Street, and another in a wretched little hovel, you can scarcely call it a building, in Thaull Street. Just outside the City, at the Memorial Hall, Bethnal Green, and at the Rev. W. Tyler's Ragged Church in King Edward Street, there will be similar crowds. Let us look at them. It is not well to go too near, for they are unsavoury even on these cold frosty mornings. Did you ever see such wretched, helpless, dirty, ragged, seedy, forlorn men and women in all your life? I think not. Occasionally on a week-day we see a [-93-] beggar, shirtless and unwashed and unkempt, shivering in the street, but here in these mobs we see nothing else. They have tickets for free breakfasts provided for them under the care of Mr. J. J. Jones and the Homerton Mission. How they crowd around the doors, waiting for admission; how sad and disconsolate those who have not tickets look as they turn away What a feast of fat things, you say, there must be inside. My dear sir, it is nothing of the kind. All that is provided for them is a small loaf of bread, with the smallest modicum of butter, and a pint of cocoa. Not much of a breakfast that to you or me, who have two or three good meals a day, but a veritable godsend to the half- starved and wretched souls we see outside. Let us follow them inside. The tables and the long forms on which they are seated are of the rudest kind. The room, as a rule, is anything but attractive, nor is the atmo-[-94-]sphere very refreshing. A City missionary or an agent of the Christian community, or a devoted Christian woman or a young man, whose heart is in the work, is distributing the materials of the feast, which are greedily seized and ravenously devoured. Let us look at them now they have taken their hats off. What uncombed heads; what dirty faces; what scant and threadbare garments! There are women too, and they seem to have fallen lower than the men. They look as if they had not been to bed for months; as if all pride of personal appearance had long since vanished; as if they had come out of a pigstye.
    Well, the world is a hard one for such as they, and no one can grudge them the cheap meal which Christian charity provides. It seems a mockery to offer these waifs and strays of the streets and alleys and disreputable slums of the City a Gospel address till something has been done to [-95-] assuage the pangs of hunger, and to arouse in. them the dormant and better feelings of their nature. It is thus these mission- halls are enabled to do a little good, to go down to the very depths, as it were, in the endeavour to reform a wasted life, and to save a human soul. As you look at these men and women you shudder. Most of them are in what may be called the prime of life; able-bodied, ripe for mischief, fearing not God, regarding not man. It must do them good to get them together at these Sunday morning breakfasts, where they may realise that Christian love which makes men and women in the middle and upper classes of society have compassion on such as they.
    Getting out into the open air, or rather into the open street, I heard a band of singers advance. It is a procession, but not a very dangerous one. The leader walks with his back to us, an act rarely exercised out of royal circles. It is thus [-96-] he guides the vocalists before him, who go walking arm-in-arm singing with all. their might; while at the rear a pleasant-looking man follows, giving papers to the people. I take one, and learn that this is Mr. Booth's Allelujah Band, and that a seat is kindly offered me in his tabernacle, where I can hear the Gospel. I don't accept the invitation; I can hear the Gospel without going to Whitechapel, and Mr. Booth's extravagances are not to my taste. Apparently this Sunday morning the people do not respond to the invitation. It is evident that in this part of the City the novelty of the thing has worn off.
    I scarce know whether I am in the City or not. I plunge into a mass of streets and courts leading from. Artillery Street to King Edward Street at one end, and Bethnal Green at the other. Here is a market in which a brisk provision trade is carried on, and men and women are pur-[-97-]hasing all the materials of a Sunday dinner. Outside Rag-fair a trade similar to that which prevails there seems also to he carried on. I see no policemen about, and the people apparently do just as they like; and the filth and garbage left lingering in some of the narrow streets are anything but pleasant. As a rule, I observe the policemen only patronise the leading thoroughfares, and then it seems to me they act in a somewhat arbitrary manner. For instance, opposite the Broad Street Terminus a lad is cleaning a working man's boots. While he is in the middle of the operation the policeman comes and compels him to march off. I move on a dozen steps, and there, up Broad Street -  just as you enter the Bishopsgate Station of the Metropolitan Railway - is another lad engaged in the same work of shoe or boot cleaning. Him the policeman leaves alone. I wonder why. Justice is painted [-98-] blind, and perhaps the policeman is occasionally ditto. In Bishopsgate Street itself the crowd was large of idle boys and men, who seemed to have nothing particular to do, and did not appear to care much about doing that. They took no note of the Sabbath bells which called them to worship. To them the Sunday morning was simply a waste of time. They had turned out of their homes and lodgings, and were simply walking up and down the street till it was time to open the public-house. In that street, as the reader may be aware, there is the Great Central Hall, and as its doors were open, I went in. The audience was very scanty, and apparently temperance does not find more favour with the British working man than the Gospel. Mr. Ling was in the chair. There was now and then a hymn sung or a temperance melody, and now and then a speech. Indeed, the speeches [-99-] were almost as numerous as the hearers. It seems the society keeps a missionary at work in that part of the City, and he had much to say of the cases of reformation going on under his care. The best speech I heard was that of a working builder, who said for years he had been in the habit of spending eight shillings a week in the drink, and how much better off he was now that he kept the money in his pocket. I wished the man had more of his class to hear him. Of course he rambled a little and finished off with an attack on the bishops, which the chairman (Mr. Ling) very properly did not allow to pass unchallenged, as lie quoted Bishop Temple as a teetotaler, and referred to the hearty way in which many of the clergy of the Church of England supported the temperance cause.
    I hasten to other scenes. I next find myself in Sclater Street, and here up and down surges a black mob, sufficient at any [-100-] rate, were it so disposed, to fill St. Paul's Cathedral. This mob is composed entirely of working men -  men who are amused with anything, and hurry in swarms to a hatter's shop, who simply throws out among them pink and yellow cards, indicating the extraordinary excellence and unparalleled cheapness of the wares to be sold within.
    Foreigners say Sunday is a dull day; that then there is no business doing in London; and that everyone is very sad on that day. In Sclater Street they would soon find out their mistake. There, it is evident, little of Sunday quiet and Sunday dulness exists. On each side of me are shops with birds ; and if there is not a brisk trade going on, it is certainly not the fault of the tradesmen. We have just had what the bird- catchers call the November flight of linnets, and in Sclater Street the market overflows with them. The London [-101-] and suburban bird-catchers, who are not to he put down by Act of Parliament, have had a fine time of it this year. The principal part of the linnets are bred on the wild gorse lands, and it is the wild weather such as we have had of late that drives them into the nets of the suburban fowler, who this year has been so lucky as to take five dozen of them at one pull of the clap-net. Goldfinches also are abundant, in consequence of the provision of the Wild Birds Preservation Act. On Sunday a bird-dealer offers me them at three- pence each, or four for a shilling. It is sad to see the poor little things shut up in their bits of cages in the dirty shops of Sclater Street. The proprietor with his unwashed hands takes them out one by one and holds them out in vain. The British workman crowds round and admires, but he does not buy, as he is keeping his money in his pocket till 1 P.M., when [-102-] the "public" opens its congenial doors, and his unnatural thirst is slaked. It is really shocking, this display of these beautiful little songsters. What crime have they committed that they should be imprisoned in the dirt and bad air and uncongenial fog of Sclater Street? What are the uses of the Wild Birds Preservation Act if the only result is the crowding the shops of the bird-dealers in Sclater Street ? I felt indeed indignant at the sight thus permitted, and at the trade thus carried on. Cocks and hens, ducks and rabbits, are proper subjects of sale, I admit, though I see no particular reason why, when other shops are closed, shops for the sale of them are permitted to remain open; but blackbirds, linnets, thrushes, goldfinches, bull-finches - the ornaments of the country, the cheerful choristers of the garden and the grove - deserve kinder treatment at our hands, even if the result be that Sclater [-103-] Street does less business and is less of an attractive lounge to the British operative on a Sabbath morn. Away from Sclater Street and Bishopsgate Street the crowd thins, and the ordinary lifeless appearance of the Sunday in London is visible everywhere. Here and there a gray- headed old gentleman or an elderly female may be seen peeping out of a first- floor window into the sad and solitary street, but the younger branches of the family are away. Now and then you catch a crowd of workmen who are much given to patronise the showy van which the proprietor of some invaluable preparation of sarsaparillla utilises for the sale of his specific for purifying the blood and keeping off all the ills to which flesh is heir. Such shops as are open for the sale of cheap confectionery I see also are well patronised, and in some quarters evidently an attempt made to dispose of ginger-beer. On the cold frosty [-104-] morning the hot-chestnut trade appears also to be in demand, though I question whether all who crowd round the vendors of such articles are bona-fide buyers rather, it seems to me, that under the pretence of being such they are taking a mean advantage of the little particle of warmth thrown out by the charcoal fire used for the purpose of roasting chestnuts. Well, I can't blame them; it is cold work dawdling in the streets, and if I were a British workman I fancy I should find a little more interest in church than in the idle walk and talk of some, or in the habit others have of standing stock still till The Pig and Whistle or the Blue Lion open their doors. It is well to be free and independent and your own master, but that is no reason why all the Sunday morning should be spent in loafing about the streets.
    But what about the many ? Well, the [-105-] public-houses are open, and it is there the British workman feels himself but too much at home. And then there is the Hall of Science, in Old Street, which is generally crowded by an audience who pay gladly for admission to hear Mr. Bradlaugh, who is a very able man, lecture, in a style which would shock many good people if they were to hear him. I must candidly admit that in that style he is far outdone by Mrs. Besant, who takes the Bible to pieces, and turns it inside out, and holds up to ridicule all its heroes and prophets, and kings and apostles, and Christ himself, with a zest which seems perfectly astonishing when we remember bow much Christianity has done for the elevation of the people in general and woman in particular. Mrs. Besant is a very clever woman, and she means well I daresay, still it is not pleasant to see the Hall of Science so well filled as it is on a Sunday night.
    [-106-] The Hall of Science in the Old Street Road is not an attractive place outside, and internally it is less of a hall and more of a barn than any public building with which I chance to be familiar. And yet, Sunday night after Sunday night, it is well filled, though the admission for each person is from threepence to a shilling, and there is no attempt by music or ritual to attract the sentimental or the weak. The lectures delivered are long and argumentative, and it is worth the study, especially of the Christian minister who complains that he cannot get at the working man, how it is that the people prefer to pay money to hear the lectures at Old Street, while he offers them the Gospel without money and without price and often with the additional attraction of a free tea. With that view I went to hear Mrs. Besant one Sunday night. I know little of Mrs. Besant, save that she has been made the [-107-] subject of a prosecution which, whatever be its results, whether of fine or imprisonment to herself or of gain to her prosecutors, is one deeply to he deplored. If a clergyman of the Established Church of England established or attempted to establish the fact that mankind has a tendency to increase beyond the means of existence, a woman, on behalf of the sex that has the most to suffer from the misery of overpopulation, has a right in the interests of humanity to call attention to the subject. In a very old-fashioned couplet it has been remarked of woman-  
        That if she will, she will, you may depend on't;
        And if she won't, she won't, and there's an end on't.
To that class of female Mrs. Besant emphatically belongs. She is one of those rare ones who will say what she thinks. There is a great deal of firmness in her face. Such a woman always goes her own way. It was a pleasant change from the strong [-108-] meat of the Hall of Science - the withering scorn and contempt there poured on all that the best men in the world have held to be best - to the mild excitement of a Shakespearian reading in a public-house. Could there be a fitter teacher for the people who do not go to church, and, let me add, also for those who do ? There could be no negative reply to such a question, and surely if Shakespeare is quoted in the pulpit on a Sunday morning, the people may hear him read on a Sunday evening.
    "Sunday evening readings for the people !" Only think of that ! What a gain from the tap-room and the bar-parlour. Such was the announcement that met my eye the other night in a street not a hundred miles from King's Cross railway station. Mr. So-and-So, the bill proceeded to state, had the pleasure to inform his friends that, with a view to [-109-] oblige the public, he had secured the services of a celebrated dramatic reader, who would on every Sunday evening read or recite passages from Shakespeare, Thackeray, Dickens, Hood, Thornbury, Sketchley, etc. Further, the bill stated that these readings would commence at a quarter-past seven, and terminate at a quarter- past ten. Could I resist such an intellectual treat? Could I deny myself such an exquisite gratification? Forgive me, indulgent reader, if for once I made up my mind I could not. The difficulty was where to find the place, for, in my delight at finding a publican so public-spirited - so ready to compete with the attractions of St. George's Hall - I had unfortunately failed to make a note of the house thus kindly thrown open to an intelligent public. The difficulty was greater than would at first sight appear, for on Sunday night shops are mostly closed, and there are few people in a position to answer [-110-] anxious inquirers. Great gin-palaces were flaring away in all their glory, and doing a roaring trade at the time when church-bells were ringing for evening service, and decent people were hastening to enter the sanctuary, and for awhile to forget earth with its care and sin. In vain I timidly entered and put the query to the customers at the crowded bar, to potman over the counter, to landlord, exceptionally brilliant in the splendour of his Sunday clothes. They knew nothing of the benevolent individual whose whereabouts I sought; and evidently had a poor opinion of me for seeking his address. Sunday evening readings for the people! what cared they for them? Why could I not stand soaking like the others at their bar, and not trouble my head about readings from Shakespeare and Dickens? Such evidently was the train of thought suggested by my questions. Just over the way was a police-station. Of [-111-] course the police would know; it was their duty to know what went on in all the public-houses of the district. I entered, and found three policemen in the charge of a superior officer. I put my question to him, and then to them all Alas! they knew as little of the matter as myself; indeed, they knew less, for they had never heard of such a place, and seemed almost inclined to "run me in" for venturing to suppose they had. What wonderful fellows are our police! I say so because all our penny- a- liners say so; but my opinion is, after all, that they can see round a corner or through a brick wall just as well as myself or any other man, and no more. Clearly this was a case in point, for the public-house I was seeking was hardly a stone's- throw off, and I was directed to it by an intelligent greengrocer, who was standing at his shop- door and improving his mind by the study of that fearless champion of the wrongs of the [-112-] oppressed and trodden-down British working man, Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper. It was he who put me on the right scent - not that he was exactly certain - but he indicated the house at which such proceedings were likely to take place, and as he was right in his conjecture, I take this opportunity of publicly returning him my thanks. Had it not been for him I should have had no Shakespeare, no Thackeray, no Hood, no Dickens, no feast of reason and flow of soul that Sunday night. As it was, it turned out as I expected, and I had very little of either to reward my painful search. As I have said, the nominal hour at which proceedings commenced was a quarter- past seven; in reality, it was not till nearly half- past eight that the celebrated dramatic reader favoured us with a specimen of his powers. It was true he was in the house, but he was down in the bar with a select circle, indulging in the luxuries generally to be found in such [-113-] places. In the meantime I took stock leisurely of the room upstairs in which we assembled, and of its occupants. At that early hour the latter were not numerous. A little foreigner with his wife was seated by the fire, and him she led off before the dramatic readings commenced. reasons, which a sense of delicacy forbids my mentioning, suggested the wisdom and the prudence of an early retirement from a scene rather dull- at any rate, quite the reverse of gay and festive. As to the rest of us, I can't say that we were a particularly lively lot. A stern regard to truth compels me reluctantly to remark that we were unprepossessing looking rather than otherwise. The majority of us there were lads with billycock hats and short pipes, who talked little to each other, but smoked and drank beer in solemn silence. The cheerfulest personage in the room was the potboy, who, as he stalked about with his apron on and [-114-] his shirt-sleeves tucked up, seemed to be quite at home with his customers. Some of the lads had their sweethearts with them at any rate I presume they were such from the retiring way in which they sat- she, after the manner of such young people in a large room, chiefly occupied in counting the ten fingers of her red and ungloved hands, while her male admirer sat smoking his short pipe and spitting on the sanded floor in a way more suggestive of perfect freedom than of grace. I could see but two decent-looking girls in the room, which, by the time the entertainment was over, contained as many as sixty or seventy. Evidently the class of customers expected was a low one, green grocers' and costermongers' boys apparently, and such like. The tables were of the commonest order, and we had no chairs, nothing but long forms, to sit on. In the middle by the wall was a small platform, carpeted; on this platform was a chair and [-115-] table, and it was there the hero of the evening seated himself, and it was from thence that at intervals he declaimed. As to the entertainment, if such it may be called, the less said about it the better. A more fifth-rate, broken-down, ranting old hack I think I never heard. Even now it puzzles me to think how the landlord could have ever had the impudence to attach the term "celebrated" to his name. It seemed as if the reader had an impediment in his speech, so laughable and grotesque was his enunciation, which, however, never failed to bring down an applause in the way of raps on the tables which caused the glasses to jingle- to the manifest danger of spilling their contents. We had a recitation about Robert Bruce, and other well- known readings; then he bellowed and tossed his arms about and screamed! How dull were his comic passages! How comic was his pathos! Surely never was good poetry [-116-] more mangled in its delivery before. I can stand a good deal - I am bound to stand a good deal, for in the course of a year I have to listen to as much bad oratory as most; but at last I could stand it no longer, and was compelled to beat a precipitate retreat, feeling that I had over-estimated the public spirit of the landlord and his desire to provide intellectual amusement for his friends - feeling that these readings for the people are nothing better than an excuse for getting boys and girls to sit smoking and drinking, wasting their time and injuring their constitutions, on a night that should be sacred to better things, in the tainted atmosphere of a public-house.