Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858 - Catherine Street

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STRAND, is a busy place by day-time (it does a great business in the newspaper line, and about four or five in the afternoon it is used by the acute newsboys of the metropolis as a kind of Change), but it is busier far by night, and the later the hour the more active and lively it grows. As you walk along the Strand any time in the afternoon and evening, have you not seen (to our shame be it said) a sight not visible in the chief thoroughfare of any other capital in Europe? The sight I allude to is that of girls, whose profession is but too evident from their appearance, stopping almost every man they meet, mildly, perhaps, in the early part of the evening - but, under the influence of drink, with greater rudeness and freedom as the night wears on. These girls, as you .observe, are dressed in finery hired for the purpose; and following them, as a hawk its prey, you will perceive at a respectful distance old hags, always Jewesses, [-46-] whose business it is to see that these girls do not escape with their fine dresses, and that they are active in their efforts to entrap young men void of understanding. Well, these women all live in the neighbourhood of Catherine-street. What a filthy trade the Jews and Jewesses of London drive! You may go into Elysiums, and wine-rooms, and saloons, in this district, and you will find them belonging to Jews - the waiters Jews - the wine, the women, the cigars, all in the hands of Jews - true to their ancient vocation of "spoiling the Egyptians." Let me not be understood as joining in vulgar prejudices against the Jews. Without reading "Coningsby," or "Lord George Bentinck, a Political Biography," I am ready to confess that there have been, and still are, great and gifted men born to the Jewish race; but I am speaking of the vile crew who earn an infamous livelihood by pandering to all that is degraded in man or woman - whose vulture eyes follow you up and down Catherine-street, and who, if they could, would rob you of your last farthing, and tear off from your back its last rag, and who by fair means or foul rear up prostitutes, and trade in flesh and blood. But  pardon the digression, and yet not exactly [-47-] is the subject a digression, when we remember Catherine-street and its neighbouring courts would be a very different locality, had not the Jews selected it as a fitting place for operation. In the days Consule Planco, as Mr Thackeray would write, in the hot youth of the Regency, before George IV. had become prematurely used up, and a moral people had erected a statue to the memory of the most dissolute king in Christendom as a lesson for England's ingenuous youth and as an example for future royal princes, Catherine-street was gay indeed, if wine and profligacy in the lowest and worst reality of forms are ever gay. There was Mother H.'s, where bucks assembled, and reckless women danced and drank for a few short years ere they died wretchedly in parish poor-houses, or sought oblivion and repose in the dark waters of the neighbouring Thames. Up and down Catherine-street what wretchedness masked in smiles has walked - what sin in satin - what devilish craft and brutal lust, aye, and, what is worse than all, what unavailing repentance and regret!
    A very fleeting population is that of Catherine-street. These women, commencing their life at eighteen, are few of them supposed to last more [-48-] than eight years; and if you see them in the day-time, before they are painted and dressed up-with their red eyes and bloated faces, you will think few of them will last even that short time; but they pass on one by one to the spirit land, not as did Antigone, conscious of duty done, though wailing her unwedded state, nor as Jephthah's high-souled daughter, for whom Hebrew maidens devoutly wept-but with body and soul alike loathsome and steeped in sin. Here in Catherine-street vice is a monster of a hideous mien. The gay women, as they are termed, are worse off than American slaves, and the men at the best are but drunken fools frittering away time and money and health, and rooting out from their hearts all trace of the divine that may be yet lingering there. The West is the more fashionable quarter, and the glory of Catherine-street is fled. Almost every house you come to is a public-house, or something worse. Here there is a free-and-easy after the theatres are over; there a lounge open all night for the entertainment of bullies and prostitutes, and pickpockets and thieves, greenhorns from the country or London-born; here a dancing saloon, which we are told in the advertisement no visitor [-49-] should leave London without first seeing, and there a coffee-house where, when expelled from gayer places of resort, half intoxicated men and women take an early breakfast. All round you are bitter memories. Every stone you tread is red with blood; you can almost hear the last dying shriek of virtue, before, by means of the tempting purse or the hocussed draught, the poor victim-feebler in her struggles every hour-be lost for ever. Yet the gas burns brightly by night, and there is dancing, and wine, and songs, and in the small hours you may hear a hollow laughter, sadder even than cries and tears. Think what years and years of tedious culture must have elapsed to produce this concentrated essence of vice. How many must have died in the seasoning-how many must have turned back shuddering as they saw the dark ending to their infatuated career - how many weeping parents must have won back to decency and the observance of' moral and social law-how many the want of pecuniary means must have compelled into a reluctant abstinence! Such a crop could only be reared in such a Sodom and Gomorrha as ours. That landlord, gloating over his ill-gotten gains, could not have sunk into so fallen [-50-] a condition rapidly. It has taken years to make him what he is. There is no excuse for him, and he knows it. It is not for the honest refreshment of the weary or the bona fide accommodation of the public that his house is open. The real public have been in bed for hours. These men around us are here for immoral purposes. These women are on the same bad errand, and that they may better pursue their vocation, here they come and drink; but he sells his poison, thinking not of the mischief it will do, but of the gain it will bring. Is he not a degraded man, with his double chin, and dirty face, and low forehead? can you see in him one trace of' benevolence or humanity? Do you doubt this ?-spend your last farthing in his bar, pawn every article of clothing you have, and go with an empty pocket and in rags, and you will soon be ordered to the door. You see he is now turning out that wretched creature. He has allowed her to drink till she has no more money; but she solicited chance customers, and they treated her to gin, and so the landlord let her stop; but now she is so drunk as to interfere with his business, and he turns her houseless and friendless out into the streets. Let us watch her. She [-51-] is too far gone to have any decency left. Drink and sadness combined have tortured her brain to madness. Her curses fill the air; a crowd collects; the police come up; she is borne on a stretcher to Bow-street, and in the morning is dismissed with a reprimand, or sentenced to a month's imprisonment, as the sitting magistrate is in a good temper or the reverse. The longer we stop here the more of such scenes shall we see, for with such publicans and sinners Catherine-street abounds. I have known life lost here in these midnight brawls; yet by day it has a dull and decent appearance, and little would the passing stranger guess all its revelations of sorrow and of crime.