Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859 - Chapter 23 - Down Whitechapel Way

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‘SIR,’ said Samuel Johnson to the Scotch gentleman— 'sir, let us take a walk down Fleet Street.' If I had not a thousand other reasons to love and revere the memory of the great and good old Doctor, I should still love and revere it for his preference of Fleet Street to the fields—of streets generally to sylvan shades—of the hum of men and the rattling of wheels, to the chirp of the cricket or the song of the skylark. It may be prejudice, or an unpoetic mind, or so on; but I am, as I have observed five hundred times before; and my critics may well ask, 'why observe it again?' of the streets, streety. I love to take long walks, not only down Fleet Street, but up and down all other streets, alleys, and lanes. I love to loiter about Whitehall, and speculate as to which window of the Banqueting House it was, and whether at the front, or at the back,* [* At the back for five hundred pounds, despite Mr. Peter Cunningham, who maintains that it was at the front towards the park. I have law and prophecy, book and broadside, mint and cumin to prove it, and I will— some day.]  that Charles Stuart came out to his death. I see a vivid mind-picture of the huge crowd gathered together that bleak January morning, to witness the fall of that ‘grey discrowned head.’ Drury Lane I affect especially, past and present—the Maypole, Nelly Gwynne, and the Earls of Craven, dividing my interest with Vinegar Yard, the costermongers, the pawn­brokers, and the stage door of the theatre round the corner.
[-257-] Holborn, Cheapside, the Old Bailey, the great thoroughfares on the Surrey side of the water, have all equal charms for me.
    I will take a walk ‘down Whitechapel way.’
How many thousands of us have lived for years—for a third part of our lives, probably, in London—and have never been down the Whitechapel Road? I declare that there are not half a dozen persons in the circle of my acquaintance who can tell me where Bethnal Green is. As to Ratcliffe Highway, Shadwell, Poplar, Limehouse, and Rotherhithe, they are entirely terrae incognitae to shoals of born-and-bred Londoners.
‘Down Whitechapel way.’ Have you ever been ‘down’ that way, reader? Ten to one you have not. You have heard, probably, of Whitechapel needles; and the costermonger from whom you may occasionally have condescended to purchase vegetables would very likely inform you, were you to ask him, that he lives ‘down that way.’ Perhaps your impressions connected with Whitechapel refer vaguely to butchers, or, probably, to Jews, or possibly to thieves. Very likely you don’t trouble yourself at all about the matter. You had an aunt once who lived at Mile End: but she quarrelled with everybody during her lifetime, and left her money to the London Hospital when she died, and you never went to see her. You see scores of omnibuses pass your door daily, with Aldgate, Whitechapel, Mile End, painted on their panels; but you have no business to transact there, and let the omnibuses go on their way without further comment.
Those who care to know a little about what their neighbours in the Far East are doing this Saturday night, are very welcome to accompany me in the little excursion I am about to make. A thick pair of boots, and perhaps a mackintosh, or some light covering of that sort, would not be out of place; for it is as rainy, slushy, and muddy a Saturday night as you would desire to have (or not to have) in the month of October. Stay, here is a friend with us who has known Whitechapel and its purlieus any time this five-and-twenty years, on all sorts of days and nights. Here is another who is an enthusiast in the noble art of self-defence, and who insists on forming one of our party, on the principle that a night excursion to Whitechapel must necessarily involve a ‘scrimmage,’ and an opportunity to develop the celebrated tactics of the prize-ring on a grand scale. Those who patronize the deleterious weed may light cigars; and so onward towards  Whitechapel!
On, through Fleet Street—passing St. Dunstan’s as eight [-258-] strikes; noting the newspaper offices blazing with gas from basement to garret; jostled occasionally by the well-looking (though ruined) agricultural gentlemen, with massy watch-chains (and bankrupt purses), who have been discussing port and Protection* [*Written ere ‘Protection,’ as an idea, died a natural death, and became a ‘shadow of the shadow of Smoke.’] after an ample dinner at Peele’s or Anderton’s. On, and up Ludgate the lofty, watching the red and blue lights of the doctors’ shops as they are mirrored in the wet pavement; and thinking, perhaps, that, after all, there may be some good in that early closing movement which has fastened the portals of all those magnificent palaces of linen-drapery, and sent those shoals of spruce clerks and assistants forth for health and recreation—many, it is to be hoped, to the Literary and Scientific Institute, the class-room, and the singing lesson, and not all (as some kind souls would insinuate) to the tap-room or the cigar-shop. On, round the solemn dome of St. Paul’s, and by that remarkable thoroughfare on the left hand side, where, to my mind, the odours of a pastry-cook’s shop, of a tallow-manufactory, of the defunct, yet promising to be phoenix-like Chapter Coffee House, and all the newly-bound books in Paternoster Row are irrevocably combined and blended. On, by Cheapside, the magnificent, where rows of dazzling gas-reflectors illumine shop-fronts, teeming with yet more dazzling stores of watches, rich jewellery, and bales of silver spoons and forks. There are desolate ragged wretches staring wistfully at the glittering heaps of baubles, the clocks, the tiny ladies’ watches rich in enamel and jewels, the repeaters, tine chronometers, the levers jewelled in ever so many holes, the trinkets, and châtelains, and ‘ charms,’ and Albert guard-chains, which Mr. John Bennett, a doughty watchmaker he exposes to public admiration, just as they would at the pennyworth of pudding in the window of a cook’s shop. Are they speculating on the possibility of a gold watch filling a hungry belly? or are they, haply, contempla­ting one bold dash through the frail sheet of glass—one hasty snatch at the watches, and rings, and bracelets—one desperate throw for luxury and riot at the best; or at the worst, for the comfortable gaol, the warm convict’s dress, and the snug cell with its hot-water pipes?
Leaving Cheapside, the magnificent; avoiding the omnibuses in the Poultry as best we may; skirting the huge Mansion [-259-] House, where a feeble gleam from an office in the basement suggests that Messrs. John and Daniel Forrester are yet wide awake, while the broad glare of light from the windows in Charlotte Row proclaims jolly civic festivities in the Egyptian Hall; striking through Cornhill, the wealthy; crossing Gracechurch Street, and suppressing a lingering inclination to take a stroll by the old Flower Pot, and older South Sea House, into old Bishopsgate Street, just to have a vagabond quarter of an hour or so of thought about Baring Brothers, Crosby Hall, Great St. Helen’s, Sir Thomas More, and Mr. Ross the hairdresser :—Supposing this, I say, our party boldly invades Leadenhall Street. Opposite the India House I must stop for a moment, however. Is there not Billiter Street hard-by, with that never-dying smell of Cashmere shawls and opium chests about the sale-rooms? Is there not St. Mary Axe, redolent of Hebrew London? Is there not the great house itself, with all its mighty associations of Clive and Warren Hastings, Nuncomar, amid Lally Tollendal, Piassy, Arcot, and Seringa­patam—Sheridan, thundering in Westminster Hall on the case of the Begums—and the mighty directors, with their millions of subjects, and their palaces in Belgravia and Tyburnia, who were once but poor hucksters and chapmen of Trichonopoly chains and indigo balls—mere buyers and sellers of rice, sugar, and pepper? But my companions are impatient, and, dropping a hasty tear to the memory of Mr. Toole, the great toastmaster and beadle—(dost thou remember him, Eugenio, in that magnificent cocked hat and scarlet coat? and Eugenio replies that he lives again in his son)—we leave Leadenhall Street the broad for Leadenhall Street the narrow; and where the tortuous Fenchurch Street also converges, emerge into the open space by Aldgate pump. We have no time to dilate on the antiquity of the pump. A hundred yards to the left, and here we are, not absolutely in Whitechapel itself, but at the entrance of that peculiar and characteristic district, which I take to be bounded by Mile-end gate on the east, and by the establishment of Messrs. Moses and Son on the west.
First, Moses. Gas, splendour, wealth, boundless and im­measurable, at a glance. Countless stories of gorgeous show­rooms, laden to repletion with rich garments. Gas everywhere. Seven hundred burners, they whisper to me. The tailoring department; the haberdashery department; the hat, boots, shawl, outfitting, cutlery department. Hundreds of departments. Legions of ‘our young men’ in irreproachable coats, [-260-] and neckcloths void of reproach., Corinthian columns, enriched cornices, sculptured panels, arabesque ceilings, massive chandeliers, soft carpets of choice patterns, luxury, elegance, the riches of a world, the merchandise of two, everything that anybody ever could want, from a tin shaving-pot to a Cashmere shawl. Astonishing cheapness—wonderful celerity—enchanting civility! Great is Moses of the Minories! Of the Minories? of everywhere. He pervades Aldgate; he looms on Whitechapel; an aerial suspension bridge seems to connect his Minorial palace with his West End Branch. Moses is everywhere. When I came from Weedon the other day, his retainers pelted me with his pamphlets as I quitted the railway station. Moses has wrenched the lyre and the bays from our laureate’s hands; he and his son are the monarchs of Parnassus. His circulars are thrown from balloons and fired out of cannon. I believe they must grow in market gardens somewhere out of town—they are so numerous. Of course, Moses is a great public benefactor.
Crossing the Minories, and keeping on the right-hand side of the road, we are in the very thick of ‘Butcher Row’ at once. A city of meat! The gas, no longer gleaming through ground-glass globes, or aided by polished reflectors, but flaring from primitive tubes, lights up a long vista of beef, mutton, and veal. Legs, shoulders, loins, ribs, hearts, livers, kidneys, gleam in all the gaudy panoply of scarlet and white on every side. ‘Buy, buy, buy!’ resounds shrilly through the greasy, tobacco-laden, gas-rarefied air. There are eloquent butchers, who rival Orator Henley in their encomia on the legs and briskets they expose; insinuating butchers, who wheedle the softer sex into purchasing, with sly jokes and well-turned compliments; dignified butchers (mostly plethoric, double-chinned men, in top-boots, amid doubtless wealthy), who seem to think that the mere appearance of their meat, and of themselves, is sufficient to insure custom, and seldom condescend to mutter more than an occasional ‘Buy!’ Then, there are bold butchers—vehement rogues, in stained frocks—who utter frantic shouts of ‘Buy, buy, buy!’ ever and anon making a ferocious sally into the street, and seizing some unlucky wight, who buys a leg of mutton or a bullock’s heart, nolens volens!
Bless the women! how they love marketing! Here they are by scores. Pretty faces, ugly faces, young and old, chaffering, simpering, and scolding vehemently. Now, it is the [-261-] portly matron—housekeeper, may be, to some wealthy, retired old bachelor; she awes the boldest butcher, and makes even the dignified one incline in his top-boots. And here is the newly-married artisan’s wife—a fresh, rosy-checked girl, delightfully ignorant of housekeeping, though delighted with its responsibilities—charmingly diffident as to what she shall buy, and placing implicit, and it is to be hoped, not misplaced, confidence in the insinuating butcher, who could, I verily believe, persuade her that a pig’s fry is a saddle of mutton. Poor thing! she is anxious to be at home and get Tom’s supper ready for him; and as for Tom, the sooner he gets away from the public-house, where his wages are paid him every Saturday night, the better it will be for his wife and for him, too, I opine. There are but few male purchasers of butchers’ meat. Stay, here is one—a little, rosy man, in deep black, and with a very big basket, and holding by the hand a little rosy girl, in black as deep as his. He isa widower, I dare say, and the little girl his daughter. How will it be, I wonder, with that couple, a dozen years hence? Will the little girl grow big enough to go to market by herself, while father smokes his pipe at home? or, will father marry again, and a shrewish stepmother ill-treat the girl, till she runs away and.—Well well I we have other matters besides Butcher Row to attend to. We can but spare a glance at that gaunt old man, with the bristly beard and the red eyelids, who is nervously fingering, while he endeavours to heat down the price of those sorry scraps of meat yonder. His history is plain enough to read, and is printed in three letters on his face. G. I. N.
On the pavement of this Butcher Row, we have another market, and a grand one too. Not confined, however, to the sale of any one particular article, but diversified in an eminent degree. Half-way over the kerbstone and the gutter, is an apparently interminable line of 'standings' and 'pitches,' consisting of trucks, harrows, baskets, and boards on tressels, laden with almost every imaginable kind of small merchandise. Oysters, vegetables, fruit, combs, prints in inverted umbrellas, ballads, cakes, sweetstuff, fried fish, artificial flowers (!), chairs, brushes and brooms, soap, candles, crockery­ware, ironmongery, cheese, walking-sticks, looking-glasses, frying-pans, bibles, waste-paper, toys, nuts, and fire-wood. These form but a tithe of the contents of this Whitechapel Bezesteen. Each stall is illuminated, and each in its own [-262-] peculiar manner. Some of the vendors are careless, and their lamps are but primitive, consisting of a rushlight stuck in a lump of clay, or a turnip cut in half. But there is a degree of luxury in not a few; ‘Holliday’s lamps,’ green paper shades, ‘fishtail’ humors, and, occasionally, camphine lamps, being freely exhibited. I don’t think you could collect together, in any given place in Europe, a much queerer assortment than the sellers of the articles exposed, were it not the buyers thereof. Here are brawny costermongers by dozens, in the orthodox corduroys, fur caps, and ‘king’s man’ handkerchiefs. Lungs of leather have they, marvellous eloquence, also, in praising carrots, turnips, and red, herrings. Here, too, are street mechanics, manufacturers of the articles they sell, and striving with might and main to sell them; and you will find very few, or rather, no Irish among this class. I see women among the street sellers, as I move along—some, poor widow souls—some, who have grown old in street trading—some, little puny tottering things, sobbing and shivering as they sell. The buyers are of all descriptions, from the middle to the very lowest class, inclusive. Ruddy mechanics, with their wives on their arms, and some sallow and shabby, reeling to and from the gin-shops. Decent married women, and comely servant girls, with latch-keys and market-baskets. Beggars, by dozens. Slatternly, frowsy, drabs of women, wrangling with wrinkled crones, and bating down the price of a bunch of carrots fiercely. Blackguard boys, with painted faces, tumbling head over heels in the mud. Bulky costers, whose day’s work is over, or who do not care to work at all. Grimy dustnmen, newly emancipated from the laystall. The bare-headed, or battered-bonneted members of the class called (and truly) unfortunate, haunt the other side of the road. There is too much light and noise here for them.
But the noise! the yelling, screeching, howling, swearing, laughing, fighting saturnalia; the combination of commerce, fun, frolic, cheating, almsgiving, thieving, and devilry; the Geneva-laden tobacco-charged atmosphere! The thieves, now pursuing their vocation, by boldly snatching joints of meat from the hooks, or articles from the stalls; now, peacefully, basket in hand, making their Saturday night’s marketing (for even thieves must eat). The short pipes, the thick sticks, the mildewed umbrellas, the dirty faces, the ragged coats! Let us turn into the gin-shop here, for a moment.
It is a remarkably lofty, though not very spacious, edifice—[-263-] the area, both before and behind the bar, being somewhat narrow. There are enormous tubs of gin, marked with an almost fabulous number of gallons each; and there are composite columns, and mirrors, and handsome clocks, and ormolu candelabra, in the approved Seven Dials style. But the company are different. They have not the steady, methodical, dram-drinking system of the Seven Dials, Drury Lane, and Holborn gin-shop habitués; the tremulous deposition of the required three halfpence; the slow, measured, draining of the glass; the smack of the lips, and quick passing of the hand over the mouth, followed by the speedy exit of the regular dram-drinker, who takes his ‘drain’ and is off, even if he be in again in a short time. These Whitechapel gin-drinkers brawl and screech horribly. Blows are freely exchanged, and sometimes pewter measures fly through the air like Shrapnell shells. The stuff itself, which in the western gin-shops goes generally by the name of ‘blue ruin’ or ‘short,’ is here called indifferently, ‘ tape,’ ‘max,’ ‘duke,’ ‘gatter,’ and ‘jacky.’ Two more peculiarities I observe also. One is, that there are no spruce barmaids, or smiling landladies—stalwart men in white aprons supply their place. The second is, that there are a multiplicity of doors, many more than would at first seem necessary, and for ever on the swing; but the utility of which is speedily demonstrated to me by the simultaneous ejection of three ‘obstropelous’ Irish labourers, by three of the stalwart barmen.
The trucks and harrows, the fried fish and artificial flowers, are not quite so abundant when we have passed a thorough­fare called Somerset Street. They become even more scarce when we see, on the other side of the road, two stone posts, or obelisks on a small scale, marking at once the boundaries of the City, and the commencement of that renowned thorough­fare now politely called Middlesex Street, but known to Europe in general, and the nobility and gentry connected with the trade in old clothes in particular, as Petticoat Lane. It is no use going down there this Saturday, for the Hebrew community, who form its chief delight and ornament, are all enjoying their ‘shobbhouse,’ and we shall meet with them elsewhere. We will, if you please, cross over, leaving the kerbstone market (which only exists en one side), and allured by the notes of an execrably played fiddle, enter one of those dazzling halls of delight, called a ‘penny gaff.
    The ‘gaff’ throws out no plausible puffs, no mendacious [-264-] placards, respecting the entertainment to be found therein. The public take the genuineness of the ‘gaff’ for granted, and enter by dozens. The ‘gaff’ has been a shop—a simple shop—with a back parlour to it, and has been converted into a hall of delight, by the very simple process of knocking out the shop front, and knocking down the partition between the shop and parlour. The gas-fittings yet remain, and even the original counters, which are converted into ‘reserved seats,’ on which, for the outlay of twopence, as many costers, thieves, Jew-boys, and young ladies, as can fight for a place, are sitting, standing, or lounging. For the common herd—the hoi polloi [in Greek in original, ed.] — the conditio vivendi is simply the payment of one penny, for which they get standing-room in what are somewhat vaguely termed the ‘stalls,’—plainly speaking, the body of the shop. The proscenium is marked by two gas ‘battens’ or pipes, perforated with holes for burners, traversing the room hori­zontally, above and below. There are some monstrous engravings, in vile frames, suspended from the walls, some vilely coloured plaster casts, and a stuffed monstrosity or two in glass cases. The place is abominably dirty, and the odour of the company generally, and of the shag tobacco they are smoking, is powerful.
A capital house though, tonight: a bumper, indeed. Such a bumper, in fact, that they have been obliged to place benches on the stage (two planks on tressels), on which some of the candidates for the reserved seats are accommodated. As I enter, a gentleman in a fustian suit deliberately walks across the stage and lights his pipe at time footlights; while a neighbour of mine of the Jewish persuasion, who smells fearfully of fried fish, dexterously throws a cotton handkerchief, containing some savoury condiment from the stalls to the reserved seats, where it is caught by a lady whom he addresses by the title of ‘Bermondsey Bet.’ Bet is, perhaps, a stranger in these parts, and my Hebrew friend wishes to show her that Whitechapel can assert its character for hospitality.
Silence for the manager, if you please !——who comes forward with an elaborate bow, and a white hat in his hand, to address the audience. A slight disturbance has occurred, it appears, in the course of the evening: the Impresario complains bitterly of the ‘ mackinations’ of certain parties ‘next door,’ who seek to injure him by creating an uproar, after he has gone to the expense of engaging 'four good actors' for the express amusement of the British public. The ‘next door’ [-265-] parties are, it would seem, the proprietors of an adjacent public-house, who have sought to seduce away the supporters of the ‘gaff,’ by vaunting the superior qualities of then cream gin, a cuckoo clock, and the ‘largest cheroots in the world for a penny.'
Order is restored, and the performances commence ‘Mr. and Mrs. Stitcher,’ a buffo duet of exquisite comicality is announced. Mr. Stitcher is a tailor, attired in the recognised costume of a tailor on the stage, though I must confess I never saw it off. He has nankeen pantaloons a red nightcap—a redder nose, and a cravat with enormous bows. Mrs. Stitcher is ‘made up,’ to represent a slatternly shrew and she looks it all over. They sing a verse apiece; they sing a verse together; they quarrel, fight, and make it up again. The audience are delighted. Mr. S. reproaches Mrs. S. with the possession of a private gin-bottle; Mrs. S. inveighs against the hideous turpitude of Mr. S. for pawning three pillow-cases to purchase beer. The audience are in ecstacies. A sturdy coalheaver in the ‘stalls’ slaps his thigh with delight. It is so real. Ugh! terribly real; let us come away, even though murmurs run through the stalls that ‘The Baker’s Shop’ is to be sung. I see, as we edge away to the door, a young lady in a cotton velvet spencer, bare arms, and a short white calico skirt, advance to the foot-lights. I suppose she is the Fornarina, who is to enchant the dilettanti with the flowery song in question.
We are still in Whitechapel High Street; but in a wider part. The kerbstone market has ceased; and the head quarters of commerce are in the shops. Wonderful shops, these! Grocers who dazzle their customers with marvellous Chinese paintings, and surmount the elaborate vessels (Properties for a Pantomime) containing their teas and sugars with startling acrostics—pungent conundrums. Is it in imagination only, or in reality, that I see, perched above these groceries, an imp—a fantastic imp, whose head-dress is shaped like a retort, who has a Lancet in his girdle, and a microscope in his hand, and on whose brow is written ‘Analysis?’—that when I read the placards relative to ‘Fine young Hyson,’ ‘Well-flavoured Pekoe,’ ‘Strong family Souchong,’ ‘imperial Gunpowder,’ this imp, putting his thumb to his nose, and spreading his fingers out demoniacally, whispers, ‘Sloe-leaves, China-clay, Prussian-blue, yellow-ochre, gum, tragacanth, garbage, poison ?‘—that, pointing to Muscovado, [-266-] and ‘Fine West India,’ and ‘superfine lump,’ he mutters, ‘Sand, chalk, poison ?‘-—that, when I talk of cocoa, he screams, ‘Venetian-red, and desiccated manure ?‘—that, when I allude to coffee, he grins mocking gibes of ‘burnt beans, chicory, poison ?‘—that he dances from the grocer’s to the baker’s, next door, and executes maniacal gambadoes on the quartern loaves and French rolls, uttering yells about chalk, alum, and dead men’s bones?—that he draws chalk and horses’ brains from the dairyman’s milk; and horse-flesh, and worse offal still, from sausages?—that he shows me everywhere fraud, adulteration, and poison! Avaunt, imp! I begin to think that there is nothing real in the eating and drinking line—that nothing is but what is not—that all beer is cocculus Indicus—all gin, turpentine, in this delusive Whitechapel. And not in Whitechapel alone. Art thou immaculate, Shoreditch? Art thou blameless, Borough? Canst thou place thy hand on thy waist­coat, Oxford Street, the aristocratic, and say thy tea knows no ‘facing or glazing,’ thy sugar no potato starch, thy beer no doctoring?
But one of my friends is clamorous for beer; and, to avoid adulteration, we eschew the delusive main thoroughfare for a moment and strike into a maze of little, unsavoury back-streets, between Whitechapel Church and Goodman’s Fields. here is a beer-shop—a little, blinking, wall-eyed edifice, with red curtains in the window, and a bar squeezed up in one corner, as though it were ashamed of itself. From the door of the tap-room which we open, comes forth a thick, compact body of smoke. There are, perhaps, twenty people in the roomy and they are all smoking like limekilns. From a kiln at the upper extremity, comes forth the well-remembered notes of time old trink-lied, ‘Am Rhein, am Rhein.’ We are in Vaterland at once. All these are Teutons—German sugar-bakers. There are hundreds more of their countrymen in the narrow streets about here, and dozens of low lodging-houses, where the German emigrants are crimped and boarded and robbed. Here, also, live the German buy-a-broom girls. There are little German public-houses, and German bakers, and little shops, where you can get sauer-kraut and potato- salad, just as though you were in Frankfort or Mayence, Dear old Vaterland! pleasant country of four meals a day, and feather-bed counterpanes—agreeable land, where you can drink wino in the morning, and where everybody takes off his hat to everybody else! Though thy cookery is [-267-] execrable, and thy innkeepers are robbers, I love thee, Germany, still!
My experienced friend, when we have refreshed ourselves at this hostelry, brings us, by a short cut, into Union Street, and so into the broad Whitechapel-road. Here the kerbstone market I have alluded to, crosses the road itself, and stretches, in a straggling, limping sort of way, up to Whitechapel Workhouse. We come here upon another phase of Saturday-night life.. The children of Jewry begin to encompass us, not so much in the way of business; for though their Sabbath is over, and work is legal—-though Moses, at the other extremity, is in full swing of money-making activity, yet the majority of the Israelites prefer amusing themselves on a Saturday night. They are peculiar in their amusements, as in everything else. The public-house—the mere bar, at least—has no charms for them; but almost all the low coffee-shops you pass are crowded with young Jews, playing dominoes and draughts; while in the publics, where tap-rooms are attached, their elders disport themselves with cards, bagatelle, and the excitement of a sing-song meeting. Smoking is universal. Cigars the rule—pipes the exception. Houndsditch, the Minories, Leman Street, Duke’s Place, St. Mary Axe, Bevis Marks, and Whitechapel itself, have all contributed their quota to fill these places of amusement; and here and there you will see some venerable Israelite, with long beard and strange foreign garb, probably from Tangier or Constantinople, on a visit to his brethren in England. There are legends, too, of obscure places in this vicinity, where what the French call ‘gros jeu,’ or high play, is carried on. In Butcher Row, likewise, are Jew butchers, where you may see little leaden seals, inscribed with Hebrew characters, appended to the meat, denoting that the animal has been slaughtered according to the directions of the Synagogue. In the daytime you may see long bearded rabbins examining the meat, and testing the knives on their nails.
What have we here? ‘The grand Panorama of Australia, a series of moving pictures.’ Admission, one penny. Just-a-going to begin. Some individuals, dressed as Ethiopian serenaders, hang about the door; and one with the largest shirt-collar I have ever seen, takes my penny, and admits me, with some score or two more, where, though it is ‘just a-going to begin,’ I and my friends wait a good quarter of an hour. There are two policemen off duty beside me, who are in-[-268-]dulging in the dolce far niente, and cracking nuts. There is a decent, civil-spoken silkweaver from Spitalfields, too, whose ancestors, he tells me, came over to England at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and who has a romantically French name. He has the old Lyons indentures of his ancestors at home, he says.
We give up the panorama in despair; and, for aught we know, is ‘jest a-going to begin’ at this moment. In our progress towards the Gate, however, we look in at a few more public-houses. here is a costermonger’s house, where the very truck and baskets are brought to the bar. Here is that famous hostelry, where is preserved an oil-painting, containing authentic portraits of three Whitechapel worthies, who once drank one hundred and one pots of beer at one sitting. The name of the captain of this gallant band was ‘Old Fish.’ Here, again, is a thieves’ house—thievish all over, from the squint-eyed landlord to the ruffianly customers. Go in at one door, and go out at another; and don’t change more five-pound notes at the bar than you can help, my friend. Here are houses with queer signs— 'The Grave Morris,' supposed to be a corruption of some dead-and-gone German Landgrave, and ‘The Blind Beggar,’ close to Mile End Gate.
Another ‘gaff’ on the right-hand side of the road—but on a grander scale. The Effingham Saloon, with real boxes, a real pit, and a real gallery; dreadfully dirty, and with a dirtier audience. No comic singing, but the drama—the real, legitimate drama. There is a bold bandit, in buff-boots, calling on ‘yon blew Ev’n to bring-a down-a rewing on ther taraytor’s ed.’ There is nothing new in him, nor in the young lady in pink calico, with her back hair down, expressive of affliction. Nor in the Pavilion Theatre over the way, where ‘Rugantino the Terrible’is the stock piece, and where there are more buff-boots, rusty broad-swords, calico-skirts, and back hairs.
Shops, Gin-palaces, Saloons—Saloons, Gin-palaces, Shops; Costermongers, Thieves, and Beggars—Beggars, Thieves, and Costermongers. As we near the Gate, the London Hospital looms heavily on one side, while on the other the bare, bleak walls of Whitechapel Workhouse stretch grimly along, with a woful skirting-beard of crouching Irish paupers, who have arrived too late for admission into the Workhouse, and are houseless for the night.
Going along, and still anxious to see what is to be seen, I [-269-] look, curiously, at the portraits hanging on the walls of the coffee-houses and bar-parlours. The democratic element is not very strong in Whitechapel, it would seem; for the effigies of Her Majesty and Prince Albert are as a hundred to one of the effigies of the Cuffies and Meaghers of the sword. One portrait, though, I see everywhere; its multiplications beating all royal, noble, and democratic portraits hollow, and far out-numbering the Dog Billys, and winners of memorable Derbys. In tavern and tap-room, in shop and parlour, I see everywhere the portrait or the bust of Sir ROBERT PEEL.
Mile End Gate at last, and midnight chimes. There is a ‘cheap-jack,’ on a rickety platform, and vaunting wares more rickety still, who gets vehemently eloquent as it gets later. But his auditory gradually disperse, and the whole road seems to grow suddenly quiet. Do you know why? The public-houses are closed. The pie-shops, it is true, yet send forth savoury steams; but the rain comes down heavily. Therefore, and as I (and I fear you, too, dear reader) have had enough of Whitechapel for one while, let us jump into this last omnibus bound westwards, reflecting that if we have not discovered the North-West Passage, or the source of the Niger, we have beheld a strange country, and some strange phases of life.