Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Days and Nights in London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1880 - Chapter 7

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ON Christmas Eve, in the midst of a dense fog that filled one's throat and closed one's eyes, and rendered the vast City one huge sepulchre, as it were, peopled by ghosts and ghouls, I spent a few hours in what may be called studies at the bar.
    First, I turned my steps down White- chapel way. It is there the pressure of poverty is felt as much as anywhere in London, and as it was early in the evening I went there, I saw it under favourable circumstances, for the sober people would be shopping, and the drunken ones would scarcely have commenced that riot and [-156-]quarrelling which are the result in most cases of indulgence in alcohol. From the publican's point of view, of course, I had nothing to expect but unmitigated pleasure. The stuff they sell, they tell us, is the gift of a good Providence, sent us in order to alleviate the gloom and lighten the cares of life. "It is a poor heart that never rejoices," and on Christmas Eve, when we are thinking of the birth of Him who came to send peace on earth and goodwill amongst men, a little extra enjoyment may be expected. In some bars ample provision had been made for the event; decorations had been freely resorted to, and everything had been done to give colour to the delusion that Christmas jollity was to be produced and heightened by the use of what the publican had to sell. Almost the first glimpse I got of the consequences of adherence to this doctrine was at a corner house in Whitechapel, before I got as far as the church, where from the [-157-] side-door of a gin-palace rushed out a little dirty woman with a pot of beer in her hand, followed by a taller one, who, catching hold of her, began to hit her. On this the attacked woman took a savage grip of the front hair of her opponent, who began to scream "Murder! " with might and main. A crowd was formed immediately, in the expectation of that favourite entertainment of a certain section of the British public - a free fight between two tipsy women ; but, alas ! they were too far gone to fight, and, after a good deal of bad language, the woman with the porter pursued her victorious way, while the other, almost too drunk to stand, returned to the bar, to rejoin the dirty group she had left, and to be served again -  contrary, as I understand, to the law of the land - with the liquor of which she had already had more than enough. In that compartment everything was dirty - the women at the bar and the man behind it, [-158-] nor was there a spark of good feeling or happiness in the group. There they were -  the wives and mothers of the people - all equally besotted, all equally wretched. Oh heavens, what a sight!
    And this reminds me of what I saw at a bar in the Gray's Inn Road, in one of the largest of the many houses opened for refreshment, as it is called. In one compartment there were some thirty or forty wretched, dirty, ragged people, mostly women. One of them was in a state of elevation, and was dancing to a set who were evidently too far gone to appreciate her performance. With tipsy gravity, however, she continued her self- appointed task. Ah, poor thing! thought I, you are gay and hilarious now - to-morrow you will lie shivering in the cold - possibly crying for a morsel of bread. You have a garret to sleep in, and nothing to look forward to but the hospital or the workhouse. Heaven [-159-] wills it, says the pietist. Heaven does nothing of the kind. In the mad debauchery I saw in that bar I am sure there must have been spent money that would have given the wretched topers happier homes, better dinners, and a future far happier than that which I saw hanging over them.
    In Chancery Lane I came on several illustrations of the joyous conviviality of the season. One poor fellow just before me came down with a tremendous crash. Another nearly ran me down as he steered his difficult way along the slippery street and through the gloomy fog. Another merry old soul had given up all attempt to find his way home, and had seated himself on a doorstep, planted his hat on one side of his head, put his hands in his pockets to keep them warm, and there, asleep, with a short pipe in his mouth, and his legs stretched out, looked as mournful and [-160-] seedy an object as anyone could desire to contemplate. He had evidently been having a pleasant evening with his companions over a social glass, merely keeping up good old English customs, wishing himself and everyone he knew a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
    At the gin-palaces near the railway termini, and in those bordering on any place of general marketing, the crowd of customers was enormous, and the class was far superior to those I saw in Drury Lane or Whitechapel, or the Gray's Inn Road. They were real respectable working men and their wives, who had been out marketing for the morrow, and who, proud of their success in that direction, and of the store of good things they had collected for the anticipated dinner, had to treat themselves with a parting glass ere they went home. It was a busy time for the men at the bar. In one large public with [-161-] four or five compartments, I reckoned there must have been nearly a hundred customers. It was quite an effort for anyone to get served; he had to fight his way through the mob to pay his money and get his glass, and then to struggle back to a quiet corner to drink off its contents with a friend or his wife, but there was no drunkenness.
    The men and women of the respectable working class are not drunkards. They have too much sense for that, but they were merry, and a little inclined to be too talkative and heedless. For instance, a party of four went straight from a public-house to a railway station at which I happened to be waiting. One couple were going by the train home- another couple had come to see them off. The wife of the travelling party was fat and heavy, and in her jolly, careless mood, induced by the evening's conviviality, as the train came up, he missed her step and fell between the [-162-] wheels and the platform. Fortunately the train had come to a standstill, or that woman and her husband and her family would have had anything but a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
    In one place, patronised by navvies and their wives, there was such a hideous exhibition of indecency that I may not record it. "Why don't you interfere'?" said a gentleman to the pot- boy. "Oh," was the reply, "you can't say anything at this season of the year. It is best to leave them alone."
    In such low neighbourhoods as Drury Lane it seemed to me that the men preponderated; indeed, at many places they were the only customers. One could not much wonder to find them in such places. Either they live in the low lodging-houses close by, where they pay fourpence a night for a bed, or they have a room for themselves and families in the neighbourhood. [-163-] In neither case is there much peace for them in what they call their home. They are best out of doors, and then comes the attraction of the public-house, and on Christmas Eve in the dull raw fog almost the only bright spot visible was the gleam of its gaudy splendour, and as a natural consequence bars were pretty well filled. They always are in poor neighbourhoods of a night, and especially such as have a corner situation. It is always good times with the proprietors of such places, even if trade be bad and men are out of work, and little children cry for bread and old people die of starvation and want. A corner public-house is never driven into the bankruptcy court.
    But let me change the scene. These low neighbourhoods are really disgusting to people of cultivated minds and refined tastes. I am standing in a wonderfully beautiful hall. On one side is a long [-164-] counter filled with decanters and wineglasses. Behind these are some lively young ladies, fashionably dressed, and with hair elaborately arranged. The customers are chiefly young men, whom Albert Smith would have described as gents. They mostly patronise what they call "bittah" beer, and they are wise in doing so, as young men rarely can afford wine, and "bittah" beer is not so likely to affect the few brains they happen to have about them. Of course a good deal of wine is drunk, and there is a great demand for grog, but beer is the prevailing beverage; and as to tea and coffee and such things, they are unfairly handicapped, as the Hebe at the bar charges me sixpence for a small cup of coffee, while the gent by my side pays but twopence for his beer; nor can I say that he pays too much, as he has the opportunity thus afforded to him of talking to a young lady who has no refuge from [-165-] his impertinence, and who is bound to be civil, unless the cad is notoriously offensive, as her trade is to sell liquor, and the more he talks the more he drinks. But the mischief does not end here. Many a married man fancies it is fun to loll over the counter and spoon with the girls behind. He has more cash than the gent, and spends more. If he is not a rich man he would pass himself off as such; he drinks more than is good for him ; he makes the young ladies presents; he talks to them in a sentimental strain, and it may be he has a wife and family at home who are in need of almost the necessaries of life.
    In many cases the end of all this is wretchedness at home and loss of character and means of subsistence; if he is in a house of business he lives beyond his income, and embezzlement is the result. If he be in business on his own account his end is bankruptcy, at any rate his health [-166-] is not benefited by his indulgence at the bar, and to most men who have to earn their daily bread loss of health is loss of employment and poverty, more or less enduring and grinding and complete. What the gin-shop is to the working man, the restaurant and the refreshment bar are to the middle classes of society. There is no disgrace in dropping in there, and so the young man learns to become a sot. Planted as they are at all the railway termini, they are an ever-present danger; they are fitted up in a costly style, and the young ladies are expected to be as amiable and good-looking as possible, and thus when a young man has a few minutes to spare at a railway terminus, naturally he makes his way to the refreshment bar.
    Dartmoor was full, writes the author of "Convict Life," with the men whom drink had led into crime - from the mean wretch who pawned his wife's boots for nine-[-167-]pence, which he spent in the gin-shop, to the young man from the City who became enamoured "with one of the painted and powdered decoy-ducks who are on exhibition at the premises of a notorious publican within a mile of Regent Circus." At first he spent a shilling or two nightly; but he quickly found that the road to favour was a bottle of Moët, of which his inamorata and her painted sisters partook very freely. The acquaintance soon ripened under the influence of champagne till he robbed his employer, and was sent to Dartmoor. "He told me himself," writes our author, "that from the time he first went to that tavern he never went to bed perfectly sober, and that all his follies were committed under the influence of champagne."
    Another case he mentions was even worse. At the time of his conviction the young man of whom he writes was on the eve of passing an examination for one of the [-168-] learned professions; but he had been an habitué of the buffet of let us call it the Royal Grill Room Theatre and a lounger at the stage door of that celebrated establishment, and had made the acquaintance of one of the ladies of the ballet. Under the influence of champagne he also soon came to grief. "In the name of God," says the writer to young men in London, "turn up taverns."
    But what is to be done? The publican, whether he keeps a gin- palace or a refreshment bar, must push his trade. The total number of public-houses, beershops, and wine-houses in the Metropolitan Parliamentary boroughs is 8,973, or one to each 333 persons. This is bad; but Newcastle-on-Tyne is worse, having one public-house to 160 inhabitants, and Manchester has one to every 164 inhabitants. The amount paid in license-fees by publicans in the Metropolitan district last year amounted to [-169-] £108,316; the total for the kingdom being £1,133,212. But great as is the number of these places, the trade flourishes. A licensed house in one of the finest parts of London (Bethnal Green), lately sold for upwards of £22,000. Another, a third or fourth rate house in North London, sold for £18,000 ; other licensed houses sell for £30,000, £40,000, £50,000, and even more. As to the refreshment bars, it lately came out in evidence that a partner in one of the firms most connected with them stated his income to be £40,000 a year. It is said one firm, whose business is chiefly devoted to refreshment bars, pays its wine merchants as much as £1,000 a week.