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

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[-75-]

RATCLIFFE-HIGHWAY.

LONDON is several cities rolled into one. If we walk along Regent-street, it is a city of gorgeous shops, - if you turn into the West, of parks and palaces,- if you traverse St Giles, of gin and dirt ;-again, in Belgravia it is rich and grand,- in Pimlico it is poor and pretentious,- in Russell-square it is well to do,- in Islington it is plain and pious; and, strange as it may seem, the people are equally localised in their ideas. Jobson, the Stock-broker, lives at Clapham, and for years he has never set foot in any other streets than those leading from the Stock Exchange to that select and favoured spot. The law clerks, who live in Pimlico, seldom stray further than John-street, Bedford-row. The city gents from Islington and Holloway generally cluster round the Bank or the Post-office, and for years go in the morning and return at night by one unvaried route. The races are equally distinct. The swells in the Park, the millers in [-76-] Mark-lane, the graziers in the new cattle-market, the Jews in Houndsditch or Holywell-street, the prim pale lads in the city, the sailors in Deptford and Wapping, the German sugar-bakers in Whitechapel, really form distinct communities, and are as worth studying as any race of
        "Red Indians dwelling beyond the sunset,
          And the baths of all the Western stars."
    I should not like a son of mine to be born and bred in Ratcliffe-highway. That there would be a charming independence in his character, a spurning of that dreary conventionalism which makes cowards of us all, and under the deadly weight of which the heart of this great old England seems becoming daily more sick and sad, a cosmopolitanism rich and racy in the extreme, - all this I admit I should have every reason to expect, but, at the same time, I believe the disadvantages would preponderate vastly. How is this? you ask. Does not Ratcliffe-highway form part of our highly-favoured land? I grant it does. I confess that there the Queen's writ is a power, that it boasts the protection of the police, that it pays rates and taxes, that it has [-77-] its churches and chapels, that it is not cut off from the rest of the empire, that it is traversed by railways, by cabs and busses, and by postmen. Nevertheless, Ratcliffe-highway is not a favourite spot of mine. I saw lately a letter from an Englishman in the Times, complaining of the magistrates of Hamburg, because when he was coming from church with some ladies, he strayed into a street where his sense of decorum was very properly shocked. I know the street as I do every street in Hamburg, and I know this, that it ill becomes Englishmen to write of the immorality of Hamburg, or any other continental town. Let him walk down Ratcliffe-highway or any other spot where vice loses all its charms by appearing in all its grossness. I fear that it is not true generally to the eyes of the class she leads astray, that
        "Vice is a monster of such hideous mien,
            That to be hated, needs but to be seen,"
but I think it is true, or at any rate it contains a portion of truth, so far as regards Ratcliffe-highway, a stroll in which place is sure to shock more senses than one. In beastliness I think it surpasses Cologne with its seven [-78-] and thirty stenches, or even Bristol or a Welsh town.
    Ratcliffe-highway lies contiguous to the commerce and the port of London. The men and boys engaged in navigating merchant vessels belonging to ports of the British Empire were in 1851, 240,298; and of this multitude a large portion at some time or other resides in Ratcliffe-highway. In 1856, 826 vessels, with a tonnage of 498,594 tons, entered the port of London. Jack, when he's ashore, resides here, and Jack ashore is the weakest and simplest of men. As an illustration of the way in which Jack is done-whether in any provincial port or London, for crimps are the same all the world over, - let me refer to a case heard at the Tynemouth Police Court towards the end of last year. A man named Glover, the landlord of a low public-house in Clive-street, a crimp and sailors' lodging- house keeper, was summoned under the 235th and 236th clauses of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, charged with having taken into his possession the moneys and effects of James Hall, a seaman, and with having refused to return and pay the same back to Hall when requested to do so. It appears, after being engaged in the [-79-] Black Sea in the transport service during the late war, Hall, who had to receive 30 15s., took up his quarters at Glover's, and made him his "purser." Glover charged him 14s. a-week for his lodgings, the same as the Sailors' Home, but at the end of 16 days he told him that his money was all gone, and bought the plaintiff's neckerchief of him for 1s., which he also spent in drink. The sailor, finding himself destitute, had applied to the authorities, who summoned Glover. Glover, in his defence, stated that Hall had spent his money in drink and treating, keeping a couple of bagpipers to play to him all the time he was on the spree. Glover produced the following extraordinary account against Hall :-"Dec. 9th.-20 pints of rum, 2 6s. 6d.; 20 quarts of beer, and 15 ounces of tobacco, 15s. 10th. - 8 glasses of rum, and 2s. 6d. borrowed money, 4s. 6d. 11th.-Borrowed money, 2s. 6d.; 5 pints of rum, 5 gills of rum, and 15 quarts of ale, 1 12s. 6d.; 6 ounces of tobacco, 2 glasses of gin, and 2 gills of brandy, 6s. 6d. 12th.- Cash, 2s., 15 pints of rum, and 28 gills of rum, 3; 4 quarts, half a gallon, and 22 gills of beer, 1 3s. 9d.; 15 glasses of rum and 11 glasses of beer, 9s. 3d.; pint of brandy and 16 glasses of [-80-] gin, 8s.; 36 ounces of tobacco and 3 glasses of gin, 12s. 4d. l3th.-18 pints of rum, 15 gills of rum, and 26 quarts of beer, 3 4s.; 26 bottles of lemonade, and 28 gills of beer, 1; 14 ounces of tobacco, 6 glasses of gin, 6s. 2d.; 12 glasses of gingerade, and cash 5s., 8s. ; 1 week's board, 14s. Paid for clothes, 1 2s. 6d. ; 2 pints of rum, 10 gills of rum, and 4 glasses of beer, 16s.; 24 glasses of spirits, 9 quarts of beer, and 7 ounces of tobacco, 14s. 7d. 15th. - 16 half glasses of spirits, 10 glasses and 2 gills of rum, and 1 ounce of tobacco, and beer, 2s. 10d. ; fortnight's board, 1 8s. ; cash, 2 18s.; spirits, tobacco, and rum, 4s. 1d.; cash, 5s. 17th.-Cash, 78.; 20 glasses of spirits, and 8 quarts of ale, 9s. 4d. 18th.-Ale, spirits, and tobacco, 16s. 4d. 19th. - 35 glasses of spirits, and 20 glasses of ale, and 2 glasses of brandy, 1 4s. 10d. 20th.-Ale, tobacco, and cash, 7s. 24th, 25th, and 26th.- Ale and spirits, 7s. 11d., and other items, making up the amount in hand. The defendant had refused to deliver up Hall's clothes on the plea that the man was in his debt. Now in Ratcliffe-highway such men as Glover abound. It is unnecessary then to describe the character of the tradesmen in Ratcliffe-highway, or the charac-[-81-]ter of their wares. At one shop there are the enormous boots, which only navvies and sailors have strength to wear; at another there are oilskin caps, and coats and trousers, or rough woollen shirts, piled up in gigantic masses. One shop rejoices in compasses and charts, and another in the huge silver watches which Jack invariably affects. The descendants of Abraham swarm here. They sell little fish fried in oil; they deal in second-hand clothes; they keep lodging-houses; I believe they stick at nothing to turn a penny, and don't break their hearts if the penny turns out a dishonest one. Everything has a nautical adaptation. The songs sung are nautical. The last time I was there an old woman was singing to a crowd of the "Saucy Sailor Boy" who, coming disguised in poverty to his lady love, is by her ignominiously rejected, to whom rejecting he tells of his real riches, and by whom the rejection is eagerly recalled, but in vain, for the Saucy Sailor Boy declares:-
        "Do you think I'm foolish, love?
            Do you think I am mad,
        For to wed a poor country girl,
            When there s fortune to be had?
[-82-] "So I'll cross the briny ocean,
            Where the meadows are so green,
        And since you have refused my offer, love,
            Some other girl shall wear the ring."
Up and down Ratcliffe-highway do the sailors of every country under heaven stroll- Greeks and Scythians, bond and free. Uncle Tom's numerous progeny are there - Lascars, Chinese, bold Britons, swarthy Italians, sharp Yankees, fair-haired Saxons, and adventurous Danes-men who worship a hundred gods, and men who worship none. They have ploughed the stormy main, they have known the perils of a treacherous sea and of a lee shore; but there are worse perils, and those perils await them in Ratcliffe-highway. It is night, and the glare of gas gives the street a cheerful appearance. We pass the Sailor's Home, a noble institution which deserves our cordial support and praise, and find at almost every step pitfalls for poor Jack. Every few yards we come to a beer- shop or a public-house, the doors of which stand temptingly open, and from the upper room of which may be heard the sound of the mirth-inspiring violin, and the tramp of toes neither "light nor fantastic." There were public-houses [-83-] here - I know not if the custom prevails now - to which was attached a crew of infamous women; these bring Jack into the house to treat them, but while Jack drinks gin the landlord gives them from another tap water, and then against their sober villany poor Jack has no chance. I fear many respectable people in this neighbourhood have thus made fortunes. Jack is prone to grog and dancing, and here they meet him at every turn. Women, wild-eyed, boisterous, with cheeks red with rouge and flabby with intemperance, decked out with dresses and ribbons of the gayest hue, are met with by hundreds-all alike equally coarse, and insolent, and unlovely in manners and appearance, but all equally resolved on victimising poor Jack. They dance with him in the beer-shop-they drink with him in the bar - they walk with him in the streets - they go with him to such places as Wilton's Music Hall, where each Jack Tar may be seen sitting with his pipe and his pot, witnessing dramatic performances not very artistic, but really, on the score of morality, not so objectionable as what I have seen applauded by an Adelphi audience, or patronised by the upper classes at her Majesty's Theatre. And thus the even-[-84-]ing passes away; the publicans grow rich, the keepers of infamous houses fatten on their dishonest gains-obese Jews and Jewesses become more so. The grog gets into Jack's head - the unruly tongue of woman is loosened-there are quarrels, and blows, and blood drawn, and heads broken, and cries of police, and victims in abundance for the station-house, or the hospital, or the union-house, or the lunatic asylum, save when some forlorn one (and not seldom either is this the case), reft of hope or maddened by drink and shame, plunges in the muddy waters of some neighbouring dock, to find the oblivion she found not in the dancing and drinking houses of Ratcliffe-highway.