Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - How the Poor Live, by George R. Sims, 1883 - Chapter 10

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WHEN I come to the task of describing how the poor amuse themselves, there comes back to me the memory of a certain "exam" I submitted myself to in the happy long ago. I am not quite sure now whether the result was to be a clerkship in Somerset House, or a certificate of proficiency which I could frame, and glaze, and hang up in my bedroom ; all I remember is, that I was taken up to London with half-a-dozen of my fellow-collegians, and deposited in a large room, at a desk, and that in front of me was placed a paper with a string of printed questions on it, which I was requested to answer in writing. The questions were not particularly flabbergasting then, though I doubt whether I could answer a single one of them correctly now; but that which carried terror to my fluttering heart at once was the special note which enjoined me to write my answers briefly and concisely. There are certain questions which will not be answered in half-a-dozen words. Several such there were on my examination-paper, and such a question, after a lapse of years, again stands and defies me to mortal combat.
    "How do the poor amuse themselves?"
    The name of their amusements is legion, and to catalogue them briefly is beyond my powers, even after a long life passed among postcards, which are used on one side only, and telegraph forms, on which one word over twenty puts 25 per cent, on to the cost of transmission.
    The principal amusement of the people who have no money is, I take it, loafing at street corners and gossiping with their neighbours, and the form of enjoyment by far the most prevalent is getting drunk.
    The public-house, after centuries 6f philanthropic tall-talk and hundreds of miles of newspaper and magazine writing, tracts and essays, remains still the Elysian field for the tired toiler. The well-meaning efforts of the societies which have endeavoured to attract the poor to hear countesses play the fiddle and baronets sing comic songs in temperance halls have not been crowned with anything like success, for the simple reason that there is an air of charity and goody-goody about the scheme which the poor always regard with suspicion. They want their amusement as a right, not as a favour, and they decline to be patronised.
    The public-house, then, is still the centre of attraction for the masses during their leisure-the public-house and its giant offspring, the music-hall. The old Free and Easy, held every Monday or every Saturday, as the case night be, in the bar-parlour or the big room up stairs, is dying the death - the halls have killed it. There are a few still in existence, but the attendance is meagre, and the entertainment is only kept up by ambitious amateurs of the type who sit back in a chair and close their eyes to sing a sentimental ballad, and the young gentlemen who are anxious to exchange the workshop or the counter for the footlights, and try their hand first at the comic songs of Messrs. Arthur Roberts and McDermott before the dozen or so of the bar-parlour frequenters of the Blue Bear who make up the weekly audiences of the "Free and Easy."
   The old sporting-houses, once the resort of half the blackguardism of the East-end and a good deal of the West, have gone down before the steady bowling of the law. The friendly bouts with the gloves between local "chickens"  and "novices," which once were regular Saturday night amusements, are few and far between, and dog-fights and ratting matches have to be searched for by the curious as diligently as though they were looking for a policeman in a suburban neighbourhood, and the result is generally the same.
    That boxing and ratting, and other forms of the "fancy," still exist as part of the amusement of the lower orders, is perfectly true, but they exist in such a hole-and-corner, out-of-the-way, few and-far-between style, that they can no longer be classed as among the amusements of those who cannot afford to pay high prices of admission to illegal entertainments.
    The noble art of self-defence did undoubtedly linger among the lower orders as a pastime long after it had passed out of favour with the Corinthians, and many of the porters of Billingsgate, Covent Garden, and Smithfield, waterside labourers, costermongers, and street hawkers are to this day famous as "bruisers," and given to indulge their friends at odd times with a display of their prowess on the extreme Q.T., in quiet out-houes and secluded spots where the police are unlikely to mar the harmony of the proceed-[-48-]

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[-49-]ings. Such meetings, when they do take place, always attract a mob of the lowest riff-raff, and if there be, as is generally the case, a charge for admission, ragged wretches, who look as though a crust of bread and cheese would be of considerable advantage to them, manage in some mysterious way to find the requisite amount of silver, without the production of which the crystal Bar of the Pug's Paradise moves not, and the sporting Pen is sent disconsolate away.
    It has been my good or evil fortune, in my desire to know all sorts and conditions of men, to witness some of the latest revivals of glove-fighting; now in drill-sheds, now in top floors of public-houses, and once in the upper floor of a workshop, which nearly gave way with the weight of accumulated blackguardism collected. These, it is only fair to say, were mostly "ramps," or swindles, got up to obtain the gate money, and generally interrupted by circumstances arranged beforehand by those who were going to "cut up" the plunder.
    As a matter of fact, the suburban racecourse has now absorbed most of the poorer patrons of the ring, and the fighting men - that is, the class who are of the slum order -  find employment in connection with the betting lists and booths. The turf is still as highly patronised as ever in poor districts, in spite of the objection of the police to ready-money betting, and the racing element enters largely into the recreations of the residuum.
    This, however, is hardly the class of amusement with which we are concerned, which is more that which engages the attention of the poorer toilers after work hours. The Saturday night is the great night in these districts for the play which prevents Jack being dull, and accordingly it is a Saturday night we select to take a trip once more through the streets of the unfashionable quarters.
    We choose the heart of a thickly-populated district, and emerge from comparative quiet into a Babel of sound. A sharp turn brings us from a side street into one long thoroughfare ablaze with light and as busy as a fair. It is a fair in fact; the pavement and the roadway are crowded with a seething mass of human beings side by side with the meat-stalls, the fish-stalls, the fruit and vegetable-stalls, and the cheap finery-stalls; there are shooting-galleries, try-your-strength machines, weighing-chairs, raffling-boards, and nothing is lacking but "three shies a penny "and a Richardson's show to make a complete picture of an old-fashioned fair.
    All the world and his wife are out to-night, and the wildest extravagances are being committed in the way of fish for supper to-night and vegetables for dinner to-morrow. The good housewives, basket on arm, are giving the ready-witted hawker as much repartee over the price of a cabbage as would suffice for a modern comedy.
    The workman, released from his toil, is smoking his pipe and listening open-mouthed to the benevolent and leather-lunged gentlemen who are sacrificing household utensils, boots, ornaments, concertinas, and cutlery, at prices which would have cajoled the money from the pocket of a Daniel Dancer. And the golden youth of the neigbbourhood, with their best attire on, all cut after one relentless fashion - the mashers of the East - they too are out in full force, entering into the wild delirium of reckless pleasure which the scene invites.
    The principal amusement in the street, apart from buying knives and neckties of the Cheap Jack and entering into a raffle for a concertina, which is the sole business of one densely crowded stall, seems to be shooting at a target - three shots a penny, and the prize for hitting the bull's-eye, a real Whitechapel cigar. This seems to he an intensely popular pastime with the boys, and the one who wins a cigar and turns away and proudly lights it is at once surrounded by a crowd of lads, who praise his skill and plead for a puff at the luxury which his marksmanship has won for him.
    The public-houses are crammed all along the line. This form of "amusement " seems to be the favourite one with families, for in house after house there are little groups

comprising a grey-headed old lady with a glass of neat gin, a buxom young woman with a baby and ditto, and a burly young fellow with a big pewter. On barrels against the wall and on forms set round, these groups of young men and young women arc talking more or less loudly, and spending an idle hour in putting the bulk of the week's wages down their throats. It is a truism to say that the curse of the lower orders is drink, but no man with eyes can walk on a Saturday night through the homes of the wage-earning class without feeling how terrible the evil is, and how earnestly, without being either a bigot or a fanatic, every man who has a chance should raise his voice at the criminal neglect which flings these poor people into the arms of their only caterer - the publican.
    Many people object to the music-halls as sinks of iniquity. That they are unmixed blessings I am not going to contend,


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but if properly conducted they do an immense deal of comparative good. Drink is sold certainly in some of them, but few people get drunk. A very little liquour goes a long way at a hall, and the people being amused and interested in the entertainments do not want much liquid sustenance. The entertainment at some of the lower halls might, it is

true, be weeded of certain suggestive songs, but after all the best patrons of indecency are the rich, and the poor give their loudest applause to skilful dancing and sentimental singing. A good ballad, well sung, "fetches" the masses as nothing else will, and they can appreciate good music. If the managers of the halls would do away with the coarser items in their programmes, I should say that this form of entertaining the masses was absolutely calculated to benefit them. I am quite certain that to keep young men and women off the streets and away from bars is no bad service to the cause of morality. In the east of London there are several places where a big entertainment is given and no liquor is sold at all. At one of them - the best of its kind in London - there are two houses nightly. From seven till nine dramas are performed, then everybody is turned out and the house is refilled with a fresh audience for a music-hall entertainment - and nearly every evening the theatre is crammed to suffocation; the admission is 1d. the gallery, 2d. the pit, and 3d. and 6d. the upper circle and boxes. On the night of our visit there wasn't room to cram another boy in the place; [-52-] the gallery and pit were full of boys and girls of from eight to fifteen, I should say, and the bulk of the audience in the other parts were quite young people.
    The gallery was a sight which once seen could never be forgotten. It was one dense mass of little faces and white bare arms twined and intertwined like snakes rotund a tree - tier above tier of boys rising right away from the front rows until the heads of the last row touched the ceiling. It was a jam - not a crowd-when one boy coughed it shook the thousands wedged in and rotund about; and when one boy got up to go out he had to crawl and walk over the heads of the others; space below for a human foot to rest there was absolutely none.
    All this vast audience was purely local. Our advent, though our attire was a special get-up for the occasion, attracted instant attention, and the cry of " Hottentots" went round. " Hottentots "is the playful way in this district of designating a stranger, that is to say, a stranger, come from the West.
    The entertainment was admirable; the artistes were clever, and in only one case absolutely vulgar; and the choruses were joined in by the entire assembled multitude.
    When it was time for the chorus to leave off and the singer to go on again, an official in uniform, standing by the orchestra, and commanding the entire house, raised his hand, and instantly, as if by magic, the chorus ceased.
    Of course there are disturbances, but the remedy is short and effective. Two young gentlemen in the dress circle fought and used bad language to each other. Quick as lightning the official was up stairs with a solitary policeman, the delinquents were seized by the collar, and, before they could expostulate, flung down a flight of steps and hustled out into the street with a celerity which could only come of constant practice.
    It is fair to say that the youths seemed quite ready for the emergency, and took their "chucking out" most skilfully. I should have fallen and broken my nose had I been flung down a flight of steps like that; these youths were evidently prepared, and took a flying jump on to the landing. What they did outside I can't say, but after a chorus of hooting at the helmeted intruder, the audience resumed their seats, and the performance went on without any further interruption.
    Such places as this - the cheaper halls, gaffs, and sing-songs - are the principal places of resort of the ladies and gentlemen of the slums who have coppers to spare for amusement. But the streets themselves offer to many a variety of entertainments for which there is no charge. A horse down is a great source of quiet enjoyment; a fight attracts hundreds; and round in one dark spot, we came upon an al fresco gambling establishment, where some hundreds of lads were watching half-a-dozen of their companions playing some game at cards on a rough deal stand, presided over by a villainous-looking Jew. What the game was we could not stay long enough to study, for our approach was signalled by scouts, and as we came close to the crowd it dispersed as if by magic, and the gentleman with the board produced from his pocket a quantity of coughdrops, and flung them upon the board, bawling aloud, "Six a penny, six a penny !" in a manner intended to convince us that this was his occupation. Possibly we were mistaken for plain clothes policemen ; at any rate, we were followed and watched for fully a hundred yards.
   The mock-litany scoundrel had a big crowd in one street, and an infant phenomenon - a boy who played all the popular airs down the spout of a coffee-pot-was largely patronised; but the biggest audience of the evening surrounded a gentleman who, mounted on a cart, was at once carrying on the business of an ointment vendor and the profession of an improvisatore. His ointment was only a penny a box, but its intrinsic merits were priceless. It was warranted to draw glass or iron or steel from any part of the human body with one application; also to cure weak eyes, bad legs, and sores of all descriptions.
    The gentleman indulged in anecdotes full of ancient and modern history, all proving the value of his ointment, and every now and then he dropped into rhyme.

If you have a bad leg, and physicians have given you up,
Or you've been to the doctor's who've half poisoned you with nasty stuff,
Perhaps you fancy that it's no good that your leg can't be cured;
But Moore's ointment will do of that, rest assured.
Try it ; if it don't succeed, you're only a penny the worse.
If you don't try it, you may think of it too late, when you're in your funeral hearse.
It's cured hundreds, and thousands will testify It is good for even the tenderest baby's eye.
Why pay a doctor, or in hospital lie for months, When this ointment will cure you by only applying it once?

    Then the gentleman broke off into prose, and related how Napoleon, in the Island of "Helber" had bought a box of this very ointment of the seller's grandfather, who was under the British Government then, and had declared, it ever he got free, every soldier in the French army should have a box in his knapsack, and also gave certain humorous reminiscences of his own struggles to get the English people to believe in the specific. His eloquence was not thrown away, for he did a roaring trade, and at one time a perfect forest of hands was held. up to secure the famous ointment.
    The crowd thins as closing time comes, and the hawkers pack up what is left of their stock, strike their naptha-lamps, and wheel off the ground. What they have left they will sell in the early market on Sunday morning.