Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Days and Nights in London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1880 - Chapter 8

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AN effort is being made by a band of British philanthropists, of which the Rev. Mr. Turner is secretary, to put down, if not the opium traffic, at any rate that part of it which is covered by the British flag. Opium is to the Chinese what the quid is to the British tar, or the gin-bottle to the London charwoman. But in reality, as I firmly believe, for the purpose of opening the door to all sorts of bribery and corruption, the traffic is prohibited as much as possible by the Chinese Government, for the ostensible object of preserving the health and morals of the people. This task is a very difficult [-171-] one. A paternal Government is always in difficulties, and once we Christian people of England have gone to war with the Chinese in order to make them take our Indian-grown opium - a manufacture in which a large capital is invested, and the duty of which yields the British Government in India a magnificent revenue. It is a question for the moralist to decide how far a Government is justified in saying to a people: "We know so and so is bad, but as you will use it, you may as well pay a heavy tax on its use." That is the practical way in which statesmen look at it, and of course there is a good deal to be said for that view. But it is not pleasant to feel that money, even if it be used for State purposes, is made in a dirty manner; though I have been in countries where the minister of the religion of holiness and purity is content to take a part of his living from the brothel-keeper and the prostitute. Evidently there [-172-] are many men as ready to take the devil's money as was Rowland Hill to accept the Bible at his hands.
    But I am touching on questions not to be settled in the twinkling of an eye, or by a phrase or two in print. Perhaps I may best serve the cause of humanity if, instead of saying what I think and feel, I merely content myself with describing what I saw in the East- End of London, one Saturday night, in this year of grace one thousand eight hundred and seventy- five.
    Have my readers ever been in Bluegate Fields, somewhere down Ratchiffe Highway? The glory of the place is departed. I am writing more Americano, where the wickedest man in the town is always regarded as a hero. The City missionary and the East London Railway between them have reformed the place. To the outward eye it is a waste howling spot, but it is a garden of Eden to what it was when a policeman [-173-] dared not go by himself into its courts, and when respectability, if it ever strayed into that filthy quarter, generally emerged from it minus its watch and coat, and with a skull more or less cracked, and with a face more or less bloody.
    "Thanks to you," said a surgeon to a City missionary who has been labouring in the spot some sixteen years, and is now recognised as a friend wherever he goes, "thanks to you," said the surgeon, "I can now walk along the place alone, and in safety, a thing I never expected to do;" and I believe that the testimony is true, and that it is in such districts the labours of the City missionary are simply invaluable. Down in those parts what we call the Gospel has very little power. It is a thing quite outside the mass. There are chapels and churches, it is true, but the people don't go into them. I pass a great Wesleyan chapel. "How is it attended?" I [-174-] ask ; and the answer is: "Very badly indeed." I hear that the nearest Independent chapel is turned into a School Board school; and there is Rehoboth,- I need not say it is a hyper place of worship, and was, when Bluegate Fields was a teeming mass of godless men and women, only attended by some dozen or so of the elect, who prayed their prayers, and read their Bible, and listened to their parsons with sublime indifference to the fact that there at their very door, under their very eyes, within reach of their very hands, were souls to be saved, and brands to be snatched from the burning, and jewels to be won for the Redeemer's crown. I can only hear of one preacher in this part who is really getting the people to hear him, and he is the Rev. Harry Jones, who deserves to be made a bishop, and who would be, if the Church of England was wise and knew its dangers, and was careful to avert the impending [-175-] storm, which I, though I may not live to see the day, know to be near. But let us pass, on leaving Rehoboth, a black and ugly carcass, on the point of being pulled down by the navvy. I turn into a little court on my right, one of the very few the railway has spared for the present. It may be there are some dozen houses in the court. The population is, I should certainly imagine, quite up to the accommodation of the place. Indeed, if I might venture to make a remark, it would be to the effect that a little more elbow- room would be of great advantage to all. From every door across the court are ropes, and on these ropes the blankets and sheets and family linen are hanging up to dry. These I have to duck under as I walk along; but the people are all civil, though my appearance makes them stare, and all give a friendly and respectful greeting to the City missionary by my side. 
    [-176-] All at once my conductor disappears in a little door, and I follow, walking, on this particular occasion, by faith, and not by sight; for the passage was dark, and I knew not my way. I climb up a flight of stairs, and find myself in a little crib -  it would he an abuse of terms to call it a room. It is just about my height, and I fancy it is a great deal darker and dingier than the room in which a first-class misdemeanant like Colonel Baker was confined. The place is full of smoke. It is not at first that I take in its contents. As I stand by the door, there are two beds of an ancient character; between these beds is a very narrow passage, and it is in this passage I recognise the master of the house - a black-eyed, cheerful Chinaman, who has become so far naturalised amongst us as to do us the honour of taking the truly British name of Johnson. Johnson is but thinly clad. I see the perspiration glistening on his [-177-] dark and shining skin; but Johnson seems as pleased to see me as if he had known me fifty years. In time, through the smoke, I see Johnson's friends - dark, perspiring figures curled on the beds around, one, for want of room, squatting, cross-legged, in a corner - each with a tube of the shape and size of a German flute in his hands. I look at this tube with some curiosity. In the middle of it is a little bowl. In that little bowl is the opium, which is placed there as if it were a little bit of tow dipped in tar, and which is set fire to by being held to the little lamps, of which there are three or four on the bed or in the room. This operation performed, the smoker reclines and draws up the smoke, and looks a very picture of happiness and ease. Of course I imitate the bad example; I like to do as the Romans do, and Johnson hands me a tube which I put into my mouth, while, as I hold it to the lamp, he [-178-] inserts the heated opium into the bowl; and, as I pull, the thick smoke curls up and adds to the cloud which makes the room as oppressive as the atmosphere of a Turkish bath. How the little pig-eyes glisten! and already I feel that I may say: "Am I not a man and a brother?" The conversation becomes general. Here we are jolly companions every one. Ching tells me the Chinese don't send us the best tea; and grins all across his yellow face as I say that I know that, but intimate that they make us pay for it as if they did. Tsing smiles knowingly as I ask him what his wife does when he is so long away. Then we have a discussion as to the comparative merits of opium and beer, and my Chinese friends sagely observe that it is all a matter of taste. "You mans like beer, and we mans in our country like opium." All were unanimous in saying that they never had more than a few whiffs, and all [-179-] that I could learn of its effects when taken in excess was that opium sent them off into a stupid sleep. With the somewhat doubtful confessions of De Quincey and Coleridge in my memory, I tried to get them to acknowledge sudden impulses, poetic inspirations, splendid dreams; but of such things these little fellows had never conceived; the highest eulogium I heard was: "You have pains- pain in de liver, pain in de head- you smoke- all de pains go." The most that I could learn was that opium is an expensive luxury for a poor man. Three-halfpenny-worth only gives you a few minutes' smoke, and these men say they don't smoke more at a time. Lascar Sall, a rather disreputable female, well known in the neighbourhood, would, they told me, smoke five shillings- worth of opium a day. Johnson's is the clubhouse of the Chinese. He buys the opium and prepares it for smoking, and they come [-180-] and smoke and have a chat, and a cup of tea and a slice of bread and butter, and go back and sleep on board ship. Their little smoking seemed to do them no harm. The City missionary says he has never seen them intoxicated. It made them a little lazy and sleepy- that is all; but they had done their day's work, and had earned as much title to a little indulgence as the teetotaler, who regales himself with coffee; or the merchant, who smokes his cigar on his pleasant lawn on a summer s eve. I own when I left the room I felt a little giddy, that I had to walk the crowded streets with care; but then I was a novice, and the effect would not be so great on a second trial. I should have enjoyed a cup of good coffee after; but that is a blessing to which we in London, with all our boasted civilisation, have not attained. I frankly avow, as I walked to the railway station, I almost wished myself back in the opium den. [-181-] There I heard no foul language, saw no men and women fighting, no sots reeling into the gutters, or for safety shored up against the wall. For it was thus the mob, through which I had to pass, was preparing itself for the services of the sanctuary, and the rest of the Sabbath.