Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858 - Up the Haymarket

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IF I take up the reports of our various religious societies, I find we are spending an enormous sum in sending the Gospel into foreign parts. I don't say but what this is praiseworthy-Indians, Turks, Jews, Assyrians, bond and free, are they not all children of one common Father with ourselves? - but let us not overlook after all the claims of home. I do not speak now of the lowest classes, of the refuse and outcasts of our towns, of the Pariahs of our civilization; I speak of the heathens in satin and broadcloth, of the vice that wears patent leather boots and the best French kid, of the intemperance that feasts at rich men's tables, and that is born of hock, and claret, and champagne.
    But what has all this to do with the Haymarket? Wait awhile, and your curiosity will be satisfied. It is day-time, and we will stroll up thither. There is nothing peculiar about the place, except the unusual number of gin-palaces, [-60-] hotels, French restaurants, oyster-shops, coffee- houses with the blinds drawn, as if to show they did not care to do business, and the general sleepy appearance of the waiters. There is a cab-stand seemingly inclined to shut up shop, and if it were not for the omnibuses there would be but few indications of life. On the right-hand side as you go from Pall Mall there are most respectable shops, but the wonder to me is how they manage to attract custom sufficient to enable them to pay what must be their very heavy rents. At the top of the Haymarket we find the street from Leicester-square to Piccadilly always full of traffic, and just opposite are the oyster- shops, and Turkish divans and cafés, all quiet enough now, but at the witching hour of night destined to be filled to suffocation with fast men and flash women, with cabs and carriages, with old hags with fruit and flowers, male vendors of pencils and knives, policemen and bullies, fools and rogues. Let us skip over a short interval of time, and suppose the neighbouring church bells to have chimed the midnight hour. A few steps take us to the Lowther Arcade. We take our stand with a crowd just opposite a building with an entrance lighted with gas, which we learn to [-61-] be a handsome casino-one of the handsomest in London - devoted to dancing and drinking. The hour of closing has arrived, and the votaries of pleasure, as it is called, are leaving. There are an immense number of women all splendidly dressed-from the young girl who has not yet learnt the bitterness of the life she has ventured on, to the woman thoroughly dead to all feeling, all modesty, and shame. It is a sad sight, though few see the snake in the grass for the flowers; and of the gay ones there none think they will ever become like the bloated, ragged women now standing in their path and asking with the true professional whine for alms. Some are borne away in broughams, some in cabs, but the most on foot. Let us now look at the men. You cannot see a finer set anywhere. Are not the flower of our youth and manhood there? Of course I refer merely to their physical formation. Young fellows from the army and navy, men from all our universities and inns of court, gents from the city and the Stock Exchange, and respectable middle-aged country gentlemen stopping in town a night, and just dropping in to see what is going on. Before us there is enough material to found a mighty empire, including even that [-62-] pale melancholy little lordling dashing along in his cab, who has already, boy as he is, a regiment; and all this multitude is going headlong to the devil at express speed, in spite of the baptismal vow and the ministrations of the church. But let us see what they are about. Here a portion seeks supper at the neighbouring oyster-rooms, and a rush is made at the waiters as they bring in oysters and pale ale, as if the parties had been famishing all day. Then we knock at the door of a place at one time much patronized by a certain marquis, and still bearing his name; and we find some that we saw leaving the casino here drinking; or we go into another, where the crowd is so dense we have scarce room to stand, and find the same occupation vigorously carried on. Of course at the places which do not have closed doors the bars are all filled, and drinking seems the order of the night. In the mean while let us march up Piccadilly. The small hours have now come, yet the place is redolent with life. Young fellows are singing "We won't go home till morning" - policemen are bidding the unfortunates that won't fee them move on - hideous females are waiting to rob the drunkards they may meet in their path-and men with [-63-] hawk eyes and hungry aspect are hovering all round like so many birds of prey; and boys - for they are everywhere, all dirt and rags, yet happy in the richness of young life, for childhood, even the most abandoned, can never be sad - dance round us, in the hope that "your honour" will find a copper for "poor little Jack," singing to us of that far-famed Ratcatcher's Daughter, who
        "Didn't live in Vestministere,
          But the t'other side of the vatere."
Well, I d rather be one of them than the proprietress of yon house, with the gas lamp over the door, who by this time has been borne by the Great Northern in a first-class carriage, side by side with senators, and city magistrates, and clergymen, and it may be your wife or mine, to her country seat. We are standing in the very temple of vice-its ministers are all round us. Not one unholy appetite but can be gratified here; gamblers, blacklegs, prostitutes, surround us on every side. Here law, and order, and deceney are alike all violated. If it be in the prohibited hours, we can go into coffee-houses and get as much brandy as we like, which of course is easily removed when the signal is made that [-64-] the inspector is coming, and is again brought out when he is gone. But let us knock at this door; the glare of gas indicates that there is something going on, though the cold fowl in the window, and the cigar shop close by, scarcely inform us what. We pay for admission, and, entering through a narrow passage, find ourselves in a large saloon, with a balcony all round. On the ground-floor of course there is dancing, and at the end is a bar where drink is being rapidly supplied. Up in the balcony are young fellows sitting with gaily-dressed women, drinking sherry-cobblers and smoking cigars. In time the room gets crowded, and the people in it grow a little the worse for drink. Though we can scarce see for the smoke, and hear on account of the roar of many tongues, it is not difficult to perceive in the hilariousness of some, in the bad temper of others, in the stupidity of most, and in the foul language of all, that the drink is producing its legitimate effect. That girl in satin and rouge in another hour we shall see lying on the stone pavement with an unmeaning grin, till she is borne by policemen on a stretcher to the lock-up. That fine manly lad, out to see life, will sleep to-night where the [-65-] mother now praying for him in her dreams little .imagines. She would not have sunk so low, he never would have blasted a mother's hopes, had it not have been for the drink. Come out with me into the air. What a crowd there is round us, all looking pale and seedy in the clear light of a summer morn! What has kept them out ,all night-? What has made them what they are but the drink? You start at that moving mass of sores and rags. I remember her fair and beautiful, richly apparelled and sumptuously fed; but the drink has been her bane, and will be, till one of these calm summer mornings she will be carried insensible to the nearest hospital, thence to be buried, unwept and unknown, in a pauper's grave. Away from this moral dung- hill. In a few hours the police will have retired, the debauchees will have gone home to bed, the oyster-houses and gin-palaces will be deserted, the place will have a serious and quiet business air, and bishops will ride past it in their cushioned carriages to make speeches at meetings for the promotion of the Gospel in foreign parts. As we go up Regent-street we see the lamps being extinguished, and the milk carts going round, and the red newspaper expresses tearing [-66-] along to catch the early train, and the green hills of Hampstead looking lovelier than ever. In the sober light of day our night in the Haymarket will seem unreal, and when we shall tell our experiences, we shall be told possibly that our picture is overdrawn.