Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859 - Chapter 3 - Down Whitechapel, Far Away

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IT is natural that a metropolis so gigantic as the Empress-city of Britain should set the fashion to its provincial kinsfolk. It is, I believe, a fact not very much controverted, that London habits, London manners and modes, London notions and London names are extensively copied, followed, and emulated in the provinces. There is scarcely a village, not to say a town in Great Britain where some worthy tradesman has not baptized his place of business London House, or the London Repository, where he pretends to sell London porter, London hosiery, or London cutlery. There are few towns that do not number among their streets several whose appella-[-33-]tions are drawn from the street - lists of the London Post-Office Directory. Regent Streets, Bond Streets, St. James's Streets, Pall Malls, Drury Lanes,. Strands, Fleet Streets, Ludgate Hills, Covent Gardens, Cheapsides, and Waterloo Places abound in great profusion throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. There is sometimes a ludicrous incongruity between the appearance, class, and species of street familiar in London, and the synonymous street presented in a country town. A man, for instance, is apt to be puzzled when he finds a little greasy cube of ill-favoured houses, resembling a bar of soap just marked for cutting into squares figured down as Belgrave Place or Wilton Crescent. He will not be quite prepared to recognise Cheapside in a series of basket-makers' cottages with small kitchen-gardens; nor will a dirty thoroughfare, principally occupied by old clothes- vendors and marine-store-dealers, quite come up to his ideas of Bond Street or Regent Street. Islington-composed of a long avenue of merchants' warehouses, each rejoicing in a plurality of stories, with gaping doors where there should be windows, and huge cranes from which perpetually balance sacks of meal or hogsheads of sugar after the manner of Mahomet's coffin - creates in the mind of the London-bred Islingtonian a curious dissociation of ideas. And when he comes upon a Grosvenor Street, in the guise of a blind alley, or upon a Holborn fringed with pretty suburban villas, or a Piccadilly next to a range of pigsties, or a Fleet Street planted with flowering shrubs, he cannot fail to doubt whether a street is still a street 'for a' that.'
    These topographical incongruities have lately been brought under my notice in the great commercial port of Liverpool. In Liverpool, which can show - its suburbs and dependencies included - a population not much under four hundred thousand souls, I found Pall Malls, Fleet Streets, Covent Gardens, Drury Lanes, Houndsditches, Islingtons, and other places, all with London names, and all with a most opinionated want of resemblance to their London sponsors. Islington I found to be not a district, but a single street, the site of several public-houses, one or two pawnbrokers', and numerous chandlers' shops. Fleet Street is without bustle, Drury Lane without dirt, and Covent Garden without an apple or an orange. Park Lane - the very sound of which is suggestive of curly- wigged coachmen, high-stepping carriage-horses (jobbed mostly; but such is life), silver-studded harness, luxurious [-34-] carriages hung on feathery springs, ostrich feathers, diamonds, Danish dogs, blue ribbons, the ladies' mile, the Grenadier Guards, and the Duke of Somerset's coronet-tipped gas-lamps, the whole pomp, prides and circumstance of our glorious aristocracy - Park Lane I found to be filled with shops, pavement, and popnlation; and devoted to the vending of marine-stores, the purveying of fiery gin, the receipt of miscellaneous articles in pledge, and the boarding, lodging, and fleecing - with a little hocussing, crimping, and kidnapping included - of those who go down to the sea in ships: in short, a West Coast Wapping.
    There is, however, no rule without an exception; and I came ultimately upon a street, which, albeit possessing certain originalities of aspect and existence not to be found elsewhere, did nevertheless offer in its general character something approaching a resemblance to the London highway from which it has drawn its name. Whoever built this street was evidently a man impressed with a sufficient idea of the general -fitness of things. He must have bean a travelled, or, at least, a well-read man; and he evidently had a  keen remembrance of that great London artery which stretches from Aldgate Pump to Mile End Gate, London, when -he called that Liverpool street, Whitechapel.
    I am thankful to him for having done so; for had the Liverpool Whitechapel not resembled in some measure the London Whitechapel, and thereby become exceptional, I should having walked Down Whitechapel Way, in London, one Saturday night in eighteen hundred and fifty-one - not have walked down this Whitechapel Way (two hundred and twenty miles away) one Saturday night in eighteen -hundred and fifty-three.
    Whitechapel in Lancashire is so far like Whitechapel in Middlesex, that it is passably dirty, moderately thronged by day, and inconveniently crowded by night; is resorted to by a variety of persons of a suspicious nature, and by a considerable number about whom there can be no suspicion at all: that, moreover, it has a kerb-stone market for the negotiation of fruit and small ware: that it is scoured by flying tribes of Bedouins, in the guise of peripatetic street vendors; that it is sprinkled with cheap tailoring establishments, cheap eating and coffee-houses, cheap places of public amusement, and finally, that it is glutted with gin-palaces, whisky-shops, -taverns, and public-houses of every description.
    [-35-] Thus far the two streets run in concert, but they soon diverge. The Liverpool Whitechapel is intensely maritime (or what I may call 'Dockish'), intensely Hibernian - in its ofshoots or side-streets almost wholly so - intensely commercial, and during the daytime, not wholly unaristocratic; for it is intersected in one part by Church Street, the Eden of the haberdashers' shops and the pet promenade of the beauty and fashion of the City of the Liver. Lord Street the proud branches off from it, full of grand shops, and the pavement of which is daily trodden by those interesting specimens of humanity, 'hundred thousand pound men:' - humble-minded millionnaires who disdain carriages in business hours, and in the humility of their wealth, condescend to pop at stray times into quaint little taverns, where they joke with the landlady, and ask for the 'Mail' or the 'Mercury' after you have done with it, as though they were nothing more than wharfingers or entering clerks. Nor are these all the high connections Whitechapel in Liverpool can claim. At the upper end branches off a short thoroughfare, leading into Dale Street, likewise patronised by the magnates of Liverpool. At its extreme end, again, is the confluence of streets abutting on the stately London and North-Western Terminus in Lime Street, and on the great open space ,where stands that really magnificent building, St. George's Hall. -The The consequence of all this is that there is a constant cross stream of fashionables mingling with the rushing river of the profanum vulgus.
It is half-past ten o'clock; for the early-closing system - on -Saturdays, at least - is not prevalent in Liverpool; and thousands have yet their purchases to make on Sunday morning. Before we enter Whitechapel, glowing with gas flowing from enormous jets, we are attracted by an extra blaze of light, by a concourse of people, and by a confusion of tongues, over which one strident and resonant voice dominates; all being gathered round the booth of Messrs. Misture and Fitt, to which booth we must turn aside for a moment.
    In the left hand centre of a piece of wasteland, these gentlemen have boldly pitched - among the potsherds, the dead cats, and broken bottles - a monster marquee, gaily decorated with pink and white stripes and variegated flags. Here Messrs. Misture and Fitt have gone into the quack line of business, in a Bohemian or travelling manner. They are herb doctors, chiropodists, universal medicine vendors, veterinary prescri-[-36-]bers, and much more besides. A mob of men, women ,and children are talking, screaming, laughing, and jesting around the temporary laboratory of these medical sages, before a long counter which creaks beneath a bountiful spread of nasty-looking preparations, pills, pots of ointment, bottles of sarsaparilla, cases of herbs, blisters, plaisters, and boluses. The whole affair has the appearance of the stock in trade of half a dozen unsuccessful chemists and druggists, who had been burnt out or emigrated to the backwoods, or set up business in Canvas Town, and here clubbed the remainder of their goods as a last effort to sell off under prime cost. There are several gaily-decorated placards eulogistic of Misture's Epileptic Pills, and Fitt's Concentrated Essence of Peppermint. Pitt is haranguing his select auditory as we draw near. His style of eloquence is something beyond the old hocus.. pocus diatribes of the old medical mountebanks. He is not so broad as Cheap Jack, not so lofty as Dulcamara, not so scientifically unintelligible as the quacks you see in the Champs Elysées or the Boulevard du Temple, in Paris. But he is astonishingly rapid; and mingles with a little bit of sporting a snack of slang, and a few genteel anecdotes of the nobility and gentry. He has-so fluent a delivery, such tickling jokes for the men and such sly leers for the ladies, that the former slap their legs and break forth into enthusiastic encomiums in the dialect of Tim Bobbin. The latter simper and blush delightfully. Some of his jokes apply forcibly to the personal appearance of a select few of his auditory, and provoke roars of laughter. A happy allusion to the neighbouring church-yard, being close to a doctor's shop, tells immensely. At the upper end of the drug-heaped counter the other partner, Misture-hard-featured with a fox's face; one of those men who will wear black clothes and white neckcloths, and who never can look respectable in them-is silently but busily engaged in handing over divers packets of the medicines his partner has been praising to eager and numerous purchasers. I see through Misture and Fitt in a moment. Pitt is the volatile partner, the fine arts professor. Misture is the sound practical man of business. Misture is the careful builder, who lays the foundation and gets up the scaffolding: Pitt does the ornamental work and puts on the fancy touches. Do you not remember when Geoffrey Crayon and Buckthorne went to the bookseller's dinner, that the [-37-] latter pointed out the partner who attended to the carving,  the partner who attended to the jokes? They are prototypes of Misture and Fitt.
    The busy throng tends Whitechapel way, and down Whitechapel we must go. So great is the number of orange-sellers and oranges in Whitechapel, that it would seem as if the whole of one year's produce of St. Michael's and the Azores bad been disgorged into the narrow street this Saturday night. The poor creatures who sell this fruit - desperately ragged and destitute - were formerly much harried and beset by the police, who in their over-zeal made descents and razzias upon them, put them to horrid rout and confusion, and made so many of them captives to their bows and spears (or batons), that the miserable creatures scarcely dared to venture into the light for grievous fear and trembling. They offered oranges in bye-places and secret corners, as if they had been smuggled merchandise, prohibited under annihilating penalties. Latterly, however, some benevolent persons took their case in hand; and, demonstrating to the authorities that to obstruct a thoroughfare was not quite high treason, nor to offer an orange for sale was not quite sufficient to warrant a human creature being hunted like a wild beast, the dread taboo was taken off, and some small immunities were conceded to the army of orange-vendors.
    My Uncle's counting-houses, which abound here in Whitechapel, are all thronged to-night. As per flourishing gold letters on his door-jamb, he proposes to lend money on plate, jewellery, and valuables; but he is not much troubled with plate, jewellery, or valuables on a Saturday night. If you enter one of these pawnshops - they are called so plainly, without reticence or diffidence, hereabout - and elbow your way through Vallambrosian thickets of wearing apparel and miscellaneous articles, you will observe these peculiarities in the internal economy of the avuncular life, at variance with London practice; that the duplicates are not of card-board, but of paper having an appearance something between Dock-warrants and Twelfth-cake lottery-tickets, and that the front of each compartment of the counter is crossed by a stout wooden barrier; whether for the convenience of the pledger to rest his elbows on while transacting business, or to restrain the said pledger from violently wresting from My Uncle's hands any article before he has legally redeemed it, I am unable to say. Furthermore, it will be not without emotion that [-38-] you will become sensible that in very many of the pawnbroking warehouses my Uncle is for the nonce transformed into my Aunt - not simply figuratively, in the French sense - but substantially. The person who unties your package, names the extent of the investment therein by way of loan, fills up the duplicate and hands you the cash is a Young Lady; sharp-eyed, quick-witted, and not to be done by any means.
    I have said that my Uncle is troubled with few articles of any considerable value on Saturday nights. This is ordinarily the case; but not unfrequently a young lady of an inflamed complexion bears down on my Uncle, laden with the spoils of some galleon from the Spanish Main; the watch, chain, trinkets, and clothes of some unfortunate sailor fresh from abroad, whom she has plundered. Sometimes this tight craft disposes successfully of her booty, and sheers off with all her prize-money, and with flying colours; but occasionally, suspicions being awakened and signals made to the Preventive, she is compelled to heave-to, and to tack, and to change her course, and even to proceed under convoy to a roadstead known as Bridewell; the harbour-dues of which are so considerable, that an overhauling before a stipendiary magistrate, and a lengthened sojourn in a graving dock near Kirkdale gaol are absolutely necessary before she can get to sea again. Sometimes, again, a drunken sailor (they are every whit as apt to rob themselves as to be robbed) will drop in with a. watch, or a gold thumb ring, or even the entire suit of clothes off his back to pawn. One offered a five-pound note in pledge on a Saturday night; upon which my Uncle considerately lent him (be was very far gone) five shillings - taking care to ascertain to what ship he belonged - and the next morning, to Jack's great joy and astonishment, returned him four pounds fifteen shillings.
    Here is a 'vault:' it has nothing-to do with pallid death; It is, indeed, a chosen rendezvous for 'life,' in Whitechapel - such life as is comprised in spirituous jollity, and the conviviality that is so nearly allied to delirium tremens. The vault is large enough to be the presence-chamber of a London gin-palace; but lacks the gilding, plate-glass, and French polish, which are so handsomely thrown in with a London pennyworth of gin. The walls are soberly coloured; the only mural decorations being certain and sundry oleaginous frescoes, due, perhaps, to the elbows and heads of customers reclining there against. The bar-counter is very high, and there are no [-39-] enclosed bars or snuggeries; but there is. one unbroken line of shop-board. The vault is very full to-night. A party of American sailors in red flannel shirts, and bushy whiskers, and ear-rings, are liberally treating a select party of ladies and gentlemen; hosts and guests being already much the worse for liquor. One mariner, to my personal knowledge, had been regaling for the last ten minutes on a series of 'glasses to follow,' of almost every exciseable fluid, taken without any relation to their chemical affinities or proper order of succession. He is now reduced to that happy frame of mind, common, I am told, in some stages of Bacchic emotion, which leads him to believe, and to state (indistinctly), that though he has spent his last sixpence, it is 'awright;' and that things generally must come round and be as satisfactory (in a rectified point of view) as a trivet. Next to the sailors and their guests are a knot of Irish labourers, gesticulating, quarrelling, and all but fighting, in their native manner, and according to the custom of their country. Next are ragged women, and mechanics, who have already spent, prospectively, up to the Friday of the next week's earnings. Next, and next, and next, are sailors, and Irish, and women, and mechanics, over and over again.
    We are arrested at the door by an episode of a domestic nature, which merits tarrying an instant to witness. A very broad Lancastrian chandler's shop-keeper; speaking broad Lancashire, and of mature years, has been drinking in an adjoining apartment with a Sergeant and a couple of recruits of one of Her Majesty's regiments of militia. Arrived at that happy state in which the celebrated Willie may reasonably be supposed to have been when he had finished brewing the peck of malt, it has occurred to this eccentric tradesman to slip on one of the recruit's scarlet jackets, and to represent to the partner of his joys (who, according to the Hymeneal Statute in that case made and provided, has 'fetched' him) that he has 'listed;' at which she sheds abundant floods of tears, and beseeches him to 'cast t' red rag off and coom awa.' 'Coem awa, Robert, coom awa,' she passionately says, 'yans nowt but jack-shappers (hangmen), yans nowt but "shepstering rads" (whatever can they be?) coom awa! The'll crop te pow, lad. They'll mak thee shouther arms, lad. Dunna go-wi'em, Robert.' But her adjurations are vain. Her husband - who, however far gone he may be in liquor, is a long way too far North to list in reality - maintains the impossibility of vio-[-40-]lating the engagement he has recently entered into with Her Majesty the Queen. 'I'se geatten byounty, lass,' he represents, 'an I mun go wi Seargent!' At length, deeming further expostulation useless, she abandons the cause; 'Go thy ways, thou fool,' she exclaims; Go thy ways and be hanged, thou Plump Muck!' with which last transcendant figure of rhetoric she sweeps into the street. Whether the appellation of 'Plump-Muck' (pronounced 'ploomp-mook') has touched some hidden chord in her husband's bosom, or whether the bent of his inebriety takes suddenly another direction, I could not discover, but he presently falls into a fit of grievous weeping, and to use his own words, 'whips off t' skycarlet rag' and follows his spouse into Whitechapel, into which we emerge likewise.
    More gas, more music, and more crowds. Wax-work shows where Monsieur Kossuth, Queen Elizabeth, and Gleeson Wilson the murderer, may be seen for the small charge of one penny. Raffles for fancy articles on the Sea-side bazaar plan, with results nearly as profitable. Panoramas of Versailles, the Himalaya Mountains, and the City of Canton. Shooting Galleries (down cellar-steps), Dissolving Views, Dancing and Singing Saloons. These, with shops for the sale of chandlery, slop-clothing, hosiery, grocery, seamen's bedding, ships' stores, and cheap literature (among which, I grieve to say it, the blood-and-thunder school preponderates), make up the rest of Whitechapel. It is the same in the continuation thereof: Paradise Street, which, however, boasts in addition a gigantic building known as the Colosseum: once used as a chapel, and with much of its original ecclesiastical appearance remaining; but now a Singing Saloon, or a Tavern Concert, crowded to the ceiling.
    As we wander up and down the crowded, steaming thoroughfare, we catch strange glimpses occasionally of narrow streets. Some occupied by lofty frowning warehouses; others tenanted by whole colonies of Irish; ragged, barefooted, destitute; who lurk in garrets and swelter in back rooms, and crouch in those hideous, crowded, filthy, underground cellars, which are the marvel and the shame of Liverpool - warehouses and cellars, cellars and warehouses without end - wealth, the result of great commercial intelligence, rising up proudly amidst misery, hunger, and soul-killing ignorance.
    If I may be allowed to make a parting remark concerning the Lancashire Whitechapel, it is with reference to its elasticity. [-41-] All the rags and wretchedness, all the huckstering merchandise, seem to possess a facility for expanding into gigantic commerce and boundless wealth. Not a cobbler's stall, a petty chandler's shop, but seems ready to undertake anything in the wholesale way at a moment's notice, and to contract for the supply of the Militia with boots and shoes, or the British navy with salt beef and tobacco immediately. Hucksters change with wonderful rapidity into provision dealers, brokers into salesmen, small shopkeepers into proprietors of monster emporiums. The very destitute Irish in this city of all cities of commerce, (the Great Liverpool runs even London hard in matter of fast trading!) after a preliminary apprenticeship to the begging and hawking business, become speculators and contractors on a surprising scale.
    So may Whitechapel flourish all the year round, I say: may its dirt, when I next see it, be changed to gold, and its rags to fine linen, and its adjoining cellars to palaces. Although, to be sure, the one disastrous thing likely is, that, when the work of transmutation is completed, other rags, and cellars, and dirt, will take the place of what has been changed to fine linen, palaces, and gold. The ball must roll, and something must be undermost.