Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859 - Chapter 27 - Gibbet Street

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THE Ghetto is for the Jews, and the Fanal for the Greek merchants, the Cannebière for the Marseilles boatmen, and the Montague Sainte Genevieve for the rag pickers. Holywell Street is for the old clothes vendors, Chancery Lane for the lawyers, Fifth Avenue for the upper Ten Thousand, and GIBBET STREET is for the thieves. They reside there, when in town. It is an ugly name for a street, and an uglier thing that the street should be a den of robbers; but—with the slightest veil of the imaginatively picturesque so as to wound nobody’s sensitive feelings—it exists. Gibbet Street and the thieves — the thieves and Gibbet Street—are as manifest and apparent as the sun at noonday. Gibbet Street is just round the-corner. It is only five minutes’ walk from the office of ‘Household Words.’* [*A.D. 1855] It is within the precincts of the police-station and the police courts of Bow Street. It is within an easy walk of the wealthy Strand; with its banking-houses, churches, and Exeter Hall. It is not far from the only National Theatre now left to us, where her Majesty’s servants are supposed to hold the mirror up to nature nightly; and veluti in speculum might be written with more advantage over the entrance to Gibbet Street, than over the proscenium of the play-house; for vice and its image are in view there at any hour of the day or night: a comfortable sight to see. Gibbet Street is contiguous to where the lawyers have their chambers, and the high Courts of Equity their sittings; and a bencher from Lincoln’s Inn might stroll into Gibbet Street in the spare ten minutes before the Hall dinner, and see what nice work is being cut out for the Central Criminal Court there; while an inhabitant of Gibbet Street, too lazy to thieve that day, might wander into the Inn, and see the Lord High Chancellor sitting, all alive, in his court, and saying that he will take time to consider that little matter which has been under consideration a trifle less than seventeen years.* [*Such scandalous delays existed when I wrote this paper. Such delays, lam glad to acknowledge, exist, save in very rare cases, no longer.] A [-308-] merry spectacle to view. The Queen herself comes within bowshot of Gibbet Street many times during the fashionable season, when it pleases her to listen to the warblings of her Royal Italian Opera singers. The tips of the blinkers of her satin-skinned horses were seen from Gibbet Street; the ragged young thieves scampered from it to stare at her emblazoned coaches; and, if one of the ethereal footmen —transcendant being in the laced coat, large cocked hat, bouquets, and golden garters—had but run the risk of a stray splash or two of mud on his silk stockings, or a stray onion at his powdered head, or a passing violence to his refined nose, he might have spent an odd quarter of an hour with great profit to himself in Gibbet Street: better, surely, than bemusing himself with beer at the public-house in Bow Street. He would have seen many things. Been eased, probably, of his gold headed stick, his handkerchief, his aiguillettes, and his buttons with the crown on them; and, on his return, he might have told the sergeant flunkey, or the yeoman footpage, or the esquire shoeblack, or the gentleman stable-boy, of the curious places he had visited. The Lord Great Chamberlain might hear of it eventually. It might come to the ears of Majesty at last. For the first time, I wonder? Is anything of Gibbet Street and its forlorn population known in palatial Pimlico? Perchance: for hard by that palace, too, there are streets full of dens, and dens full of thieves. Do not Hulk Street and Handcuff Row, and Dartmoor Terrace and the Great Ticket­of-Leave Broadway, all abut upon Victoria Street, Westminster; and is not that within sight of the upper windows of the palace of Buckingham?
It is plain to me that a thief must live somewhere. He is a man like the rest of us. His head has a cranium, an os frontis, a cerebellum, and an occiput, although it be covered by a fur cap, and decorated with Newgate ‘aggerwators,’ instead of a shovel hat or a velvet cap with pearls and strawberry leaves. He is a ragged, deboshed, vicious, depraved, forsaken, hopeless vagabond; but he has a heart, and liver, and lungs: he feels the summer’s sun and the winter's ice. If you prick him, he bleeds; if you beat him, he cries out; if you hang him, he chokes; if you tickle him, he laughs. He requires rest, food, shelter—not that I say he deserves them, but he must have them—as well as the best of citizens and ratepayers. Ferocity, dishonesty, are not the normal state. [-309-] A lion cannot be always roaring, a bear cannot be always hugging; and, unless you make of every thief caput lupinum, and shoot him down wherever you find him, he must have his den, his hole, or his corner; his shinbone of beef, or his slain antelope. Being human, he is also gregarious; and thus Gibbet Street. If you leave holes, the foxes will come and inhabit them; if you suffer heaps of rubbish to accumulate, the bats and dragon-flies will make them their habitation if you banish the broom from your ceiling corners, the spiders will come a-building there; if you flush not your sewers, the rats will hold high holiday in them; and if, to make an end of truisms, you are content to bear with rottenness and dirt in the heart of the city that has no equal, on the skirt of your kingly mantle a torn and muddy fringe; if your laws say, Dirt, you are an institution, and Vermin, you are vested, and Ignorance, you are our brother; if you make and keep up, and sweep and garnish a Thieves’ Kitchen, with as much care and precaution as if it were a diplomatic mission to Ashantee, or a patent place, or an assistant commissionership, why the thieves will come and live in it. Which is the greatest scandal—a house infested with vermin, or the carelessness of the servant who has suffered them to accumulate there? Gibbet Street is a scandal—a burning shame; but it is not half so scandalous or shameful as the governmental dwellers in Armida’s garden, who have suffered the foul weeds to grow up; who have yawningly constructed succursal forcing-houses for crime and ignorance, and have had a greenhouse in every gaol, and a conservatory in every Gibbet Street. They may say that it is not for them to interfere: some of them interfere to obstruct national education; others interfere to manufacture pet hypocrites in gorgeous gaols.
I notice that the principal argument of the police before the magistrates when they wish to put down a penny theatre, a penny dancing saloon, concert-hall or beershop, lies in the fact of the place inculpated being a resort for thieves and the worst of characters. Bless me, good Mr. Superintendents and Inspectors, astute and practical as you are, where are the thieves to go? What are they to do in the small hours? Is the Clarendon open to them? Would they be welcome at the Sacred Harmonic? Would Mr. Albert Smith be glad to see them at the Egyptian Hall? Are their names down for the house dinners at the Garrick or the Carlton? You will have none of them even in your prisons or hulks, [-310-] but you turn them out with tickets of leave as soon as they have imposed on the chaplain with sham repentance; or as soon as your gamut of reclaiming measures has been drummed over. You empty them on the streets, and then, wall-eyed, moon-struck Society holds up its hands and gapes, because astute Superintendent X., practical Inspector Z., tells you that the thieves are gone back to Gibbet Street; that they are ‘forty thieving like one’ at the corner; and that they are careering about with life-preservers, chloroform-bottles, crow-bars, and skeleton keys. Where else should they go? Where can they go? ‘Where !‘ echo the six hundred and fifty-six slumberers in Armida’s Garden,. waking up from a sodden trance; ‘but what a shocking place this Gibbet Street is! We shall really have to move for leave to bring in a bill some day to put it down : meanwhile, let us never, no never, give a thought to the practicability of putting down thieves or thieving by moving one finger, by making one snail’s footstep towards the discountenance and destruction of the teeming seed from which crime is grown,’—seed colported and exposed as openly as the rhododendrons or ranunculuses in the little brown paper bags in Covent Garden Market; seed that, with our eyes shut, and with a dreamy perseverance in wrong-doing, we continue scattering broad­cast over the fields; afterwards spending millions in steam­ploughs of penal laws, and patent thrashing-machines of prison discipline, and improved harrows of legislation, and coercive drains, and criminal subsoiling; all for the furtherance of the goodly gibbet harvest. What is the good of throwing away the cucumber when you have oiled, and vinegared, and peppered, and salted it? Why don’t you smash the cucumber-frames? Why don’t you burn the seed? Hang me all the thieves in Gibbet Street to-morrow, and the place will be crammed with fresh tenants in a week; but catch me up the young thieves from the gutter and the doorsteps; take Jonathan Wild from the breast; send Mrs. Sheppard to Bridewell, but take hale young Jack out of her arms; teach and wash me this unkempt vicious colt, and he will run for the Virtue Stakes yet; take the young child, the little lamb, before the great Jack Sheppard ruddles him and folds him for his own black flock in Hades; give him some soap instead of whipping him for stealing a cake of brown Windsor; teach him the Gospel, instead of sending him to the treadmill for haunting chapels and purloining prayer.books out of pews; [-311-]  put him in the way of filling shop-tills, instead of transporting him when he crawls on his hands and knees to empty them; let him know that he has a body fit and made for some­thing better than to be kicked, bruised, chained, pinched with hunger, clad in rags or prison grey, or mangled with gaoler's cat; let him know that he has a soul to be saved. In God’s name, take care of the children, somebody; and there will soon be an oldest inhabitant in Gibbet Street, and never a new one to succeed him! * [*Reformatories, thank God! have multiplied in the land since these lines were first penned.]
It is the thieves that made the place, not the place the thieves. Who offers to build a new Fleet Prison, now arrest on mesne process is abolished? Is not Traitors’ Gate bricked up now that acts of attainder are passed no more? Would not the Lord Mayor’s state-coach be broken up and sold for old rubbish a month after the last Lord Mayoralty? There would be no need for such a place as Gibbet Street, if there were no thieves to dwell in it; but so long as you go hammering parchment act-of-parliament-drums, and beating up for recruits for Satan’s Light-fingered Brigade, so long will the Gibbet Street barracks be open, and the Gibbet Street billeting system flourish.
Near a shabby market, full of damaged vegetable stuff, hedged in by gin-shops—a narrow, slimy, ill-paved, ill-smelling, worse-looking street, the majority of the houses private (!) but with a sprinkling of marine-stores, rag-shops, chandlers’ and fried-fish warehouses, low-browed, doorless doorways leading to black rotten staircases, or to tainted backyards, where corruption sits on the water-butt, and fever lives like a house-dog in the dust-bin: with shattered windows, the majority of them open with a sort of desperate resolve on the part of the wretched inmates to clutch at least some wandering fragment of pure light and air: this is Gibbet Street. Who said (and said wisely, and beautifully too), that a sun­beam passes through pollution unpolluted? It cannot be true, here, in this abandoned place. If a sunbeam could permeate into the den, I verily believe it would be tarnished and would smell foully before it had searched into the abyss of all this vapour of decay. What manner of men save thieves, and what manner of women save drudges, bond-servants, yet loving help-mates to their brutal mates, live here? It would be wholesome and profitable for those [-412-] young ladies and gentlemen who imagine even the modern thief to be a rake, bejewelled, broad-clothed, with his brougham, his park hack and his seraglio, to come and dwell here in Gibbet Street. Ask the police (when they are assured they have a sensible man to deal with, they tell him the plain truth), ask astute Superintendent X., practical Inspector Z., where the swell mob is to be found. They will laugh at you, and tell you that there is no swell mob now. Well-dressed thieves there are, of course; robbers on a great scale; well-educated men of the world; cautious; who live by themselves, or in twos or threes, and in luxury. But the thief, generically speaking, is an ignorant, coarse, brutalised, simple-minded, spendthrift, in spite of his thievish cunning. He is always hiding his head in the sand, like the imbecile ostrich; coming back to hide where there is no concealment, in Gibbet Street after a great robbery, and pounced upon immediately by X., the astute, or Z., the practical. The thief is recklessly improvident. His net earnings, like the receipts of an usurer-ridden prodigal, are infinitesimally small in proportion to his gross plunder. The thieves’ and leaving shops are his bill-discounters. He gorges tripe, and clods, and stickings. He is drunk with laudanumed beer and turpentined gin. He pays five hundred per cent, excess for his lodging, his raiment, and his food. He is robbed by his comrades; for there is not always honour among thieves. He is as often obliged to thieve for his daily bread, as for the moans of indulging his profligacy. There is no work so hard as thieving. Hours of patient watching, waiting, marching, countermarching, flight, skulking, exposure, and fatigue have to be passed, for often a reward of three-half­pence. The thief’s nerves are always strung to the highest degree of tension; he has no holidays; he is always running away from somebody; always seeking or being sought. The thief is as a man afflicted with a mortal disease. Like a person with disease of the heart, who knows that some day he will stagger and fall, the thief knows he has the great convict aneurism; that the apoplexy of arrest must come upon him. He knows not when. He gets drunk sometimes and forgets the skeleton; but he knows it must come some day—a skeleton with a glazed hat, a number and letter on his collar, and handcuffs in his pocket.
You need no further picture of Gibbet Street. Walk twenty yards and you can see the place itself—the stones, [-313-] the gutters, the rags that hang out like banners; and the wretched, pale-faced population: some men’s faces swollen by liquor, and some women’s from bruises, and some women’s and men’s from both. It is safe enough to go down Gibbet Street in the day-time—at least you are safe enough from personal violence. If you are well-dressed, of course you will be robbed; but, at night, you had better avoid it, though policemen patrol it, and the carriages of the nobility and gentry, who are patronising the theatres, are sometimes stationary at its upper entrance.
I have been acquainted with this Tartarus these dozen years; and, although I am a professional town traveller, and have frequented, of malice prepense, the lowest haunts of half a dozen European capitals, I never bestowed much notice upon Gibbet Street. I took it for granted as an abode of thieves, glanced curiously at its low-brewed, bull-necked, thick-lipped inhabitants, and buttoned up my coat pockets when I was obliged to pass through it. Lately, however, it so happened, that Gibbet Street and I have been nearer acquaintances; and, curiously, my more intimate knowledge of this home of dis­honesty has been due to the fine arts.
My friend Poundbrush—that celebrated but unassuming artist—paints Grecian temples, Egyptian pyramids, Oriental kiosks, panoramas of the Mediterranean, and bombardments of the Malakhoff tower—occupying many thousand leagues of landscape and square feet of canvas—at a great atelier or painting-room, spaciously erected for the purpose, in the very thick of Gibbet Street. How Messrs. Doubletie and Coverflats, the accomplished directors of this great scene-painting under­taking, could have selected Gibbet Street as a location for their studio seems, at the first blush, to pass comprehension; but the rent may have been moderate, or the premises conve­nient, or the situation central; at any rate there they are with thieves to right of them, thieves to left of them, thieves in front of them; volleying oaths and ribaldry all day long.
Under Poundbrush’s auspices I have had many opportu­nities lately of assisting at the At Homes of the Gibbet Street thieves. Their interiors are not by any means difficult of visual access; for their windows are, as I have said, mostly open. Besides a great portion of their daily business is transacted in the open street. They eat in the street, they drink, fight, smoke, sing, and—when they have a chance— thieve in the street. A very curious contemplation is pre­[-314-]sented by standing at the window of this studio. Turning your back to the busy painters, who are pursuing a beautiful, humanising art, revelling in fruits and flowers, sunny land­scapes, and stately architecture, and then to turn your eyes upon this human dunghill. What have we done to be brought to this strait? Look into the black holes of rooms, cast your eyes upon those ragged heaps where the creatures sleep, hear the men curse, and see them strike the wretched, wretched women.
It was in some of these latter-day contemplations of the thieves in their domesticity in Gibbet Street, that I came to my grand (!) conclusion that the thief is a man—and that he must eat and drink and sleep; and I am gratified to be able to chronicle one little trait of human nature in my human thief, and that, too, of the kindlier sort. At one o’clock, post mere-diem, lately, the waiter from some adjacent cookshop was journeying through Gibbet Street (always a North-west passage of great peril and travail to waiters and potboys), and, in his hands, he bore one of those stately pyramids of pewter-covered dishes of meat and potatoes, which none but waiters can balance, or cookshop keepers send out all hot. A thief passing that way—a young thief, probably inexperienced. new to Gibbet Street, who had not yet acquired its code of etiquette—followed the waiter dexterously, and was about to tilt the topmost dish from off the pyramid, with a view to upsetting the whole edifice, scattering the viands, and making off with the contents. I trembled for the result. Two or three half-naked boys and a hungry dog of most dishonest appearance, watched the proceedings with anxious eyes. The nefarious purpose had nearly been accomplished, when there issued suddenly from a doorway, a tall robber— a black-whiskered Goliath. He, espying the intention of the juvenescent footpad, suddenly cast him into the kennel; thus allowing the waiter with his savoury cargo to pass safely by: and roughly shaking the youth, cried out, ‘What are you up to? Don’t yer know, yer fool! Them’s for Painting Room!’
What was this? Was it reverence for art, or can there be really some honour among thieves, some hidden good in this wretched Gibbet Street?