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

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NIGHT-HOUSES.

PLUTARCH begins one of those biographies which in all times have been the charm of childhood and age, by remarking that, "If things are implicated in a dependence upon definite numbers, it is a necessity that the same things must often happen, being effected by the same means." Thus is it, life in all its broad aspects is everywhere the same. All over the globe there is a wonderful uniformity in human habits. Men who work hard - as a rule - rise early, and go to bed early. Night is the time for rest. So far at least there is harmony between God's law and man's. The men and women who transgress are for the most part waif's and strays. Such are the denizens of our streets by night - such are they who crowd, not alone the night public-houses, but night coffee-houses of our metropolis.
    Here in London these houses are of all kinds. For  instance, let us enter one in the Haymarket. [-150-] The rooms are as smart as gilding and ornamented paper and plate-glass can make them. The waiters are got up regardless of expense. The coffee is good, but dear. The men and women are of the kind usually met with in this locality during the small hours. The greater part are fools enough to think it worth while to buy a little worldly wisdom at a price - it may be at the loss of their bodies and souls - none but madmen would think of paying. In such places as these you are as sure to be injured as if you sat all night carousing in a public-house. These women with forced smiles on their painted cheeks are the veritable Harpies. Theirs is the true sardonic laugh. Do you remember one way in which that ancient phrase is accounted for? Sardinia, it was said, was noted for a bitter herb which contracted the features of those who tasted it. Pausanias says it is a plant like parsley, which grows near springs, and causes people who eat it to laugh till they die; and these women, have they not eaten a bitter plant, and do they not laugh and die? Beware of the women. Beware of the men. See how their cunning eyes glisten if you change a sovereign. If they can get you into a neigh-[-151-]bouring public-house and rob you, they will be rather pleased than otherwise. Look at that tall dark fellow watching us. It was only the other day he met a man here, as he might you or I, and decoyed him into a public-house close by, where his confederates were waiting, and robbed him of forty pounds when they thought their victim was sufficiently "fuddled" with champagne. He and such as he are not particular who they rob. They do not spare the women, I assure you.
    Let us now turn towards Covent-garden. The debauchery of Covent-garden is not what it was. Obscenity is banished from the Cave of Harmony, and better hours are kept; but there are night coffee-houses about here, dirty, shabby places, patronised by dirty, shabby people. how weary and wayworn are the women! They have been walking the streets for hours - they have been dancing in neighbouring saloons - they have paraded their meretricious charms, and, here they sit, hungry, tired, sleepy, and 't is three o'clock in the morning. No home have they to go to but some wretched room for which they pay a sum equal to the entire rent of the house. There is little gaiety here; the [-152-] poor comic nigger, with his banjo and his double entendre playing with all his might, in the hope that some gent will stand a cup of coffee and a muffin, can scarce raise a laugh. Timidly one asks, "Will you treat me to a cup of coffee, sir?" Yes, forlorn one. If your sin is great, so is your punishment; once you might have been a dainty little wife, and now what are you? I say it sorrowfully, the scum of the streets, garbage for drunken lust.
    Let us go a little further on, not into that house, there are only thieves and pickpockets there, and we might be bullied, which is not pleasant. Ah, here's the house we are looking for; it has done a good trade this many a year, for is there not a cab-stand opposite, and cabby knows the value of a cup of coffee on a cold winter's night. Never mind the smell; as business is carried on uninterruptedly during the twenty-four hours, and as the company belongs to that part of the population not guilty of an inordinate attachment to soap and water, and to whom cheap baths are a myth, it cannot be matter of surprise if there be about the place "an ancient and fish-like smell." But here comes the landlord. "Good morning, gents;" [-153-] in an under voice, "you had better mind your pocket; them are some strange characters here. A cup of coffee? Yes, sir. Now then, sir, you had better wake up, it is time for you to be off. You've had a good hour's sleep." "Why not let him sleep?" "Why, you see, sir, such fellows would stay here all night and fill up the house, and not spend a penny; and business is business." A curious medley is here of sleepy, half-tipsy, sickly unfortunates. Yet even here the line is drawn; the door opens, and we dimly discern a mass of rags; so does our landlord, as he rushes to exclude the would-be customer. "What, you are trying it on again, are you? you know you can't come here. Why, you see, sir, if we let such fellows in, the place would swarm with ---," (the reader must supply the blank). But we take the hint, and not unreluctantly depart.
    The night public-house has, I confess, and I am glad to do so, - lost somewhat of its popularity in latter years. At one time it was common everywhere; now it is in only a few streets that it exists and pollutes the atmosphere. In the strand, in the Haymarket, in Oxford-street, night-houses were numerous; but the one to which I more immediately refer was situated in [-154-] the neighbourhood of Tottenham-court-road. Since then, Mr. Spurgeon has been preaching in that locality, but I dare say the night-house exists nevertheless.
    Let us suppose it is about two in the morning, and with the exception of one or two amiable garotters, a few sleepy police, and some three or. four women, the regular population of the neighbourhood may be safely considered to have been long in bed. The gas-lamps shine almost exclusively on yourself. You look up at the windows and you see no lights save where, perhaps, poverty may be stitching for bread, or where Death may have come an unbidden guest and borne away the fairest and the best beloved. At this hour the young bride in all her beauty may be struck down in mortal agony, or the wee pet lamb, whose little silver laugh had so often dispelled the dark cloud that gathered round the home, or the grey-haired man, having just reached the goal, and achieved an independence, may find himself left in this bleak, dark, wide world alone.
        "Leaves have their time to fall,
        And flowers to wither at the north wind's breath,
        And stars to set ; but all-
        Thou hast all seasons for thine own, O Death."
    [-155-] And now let us forget all this, and knock at this door, above which streams a mellow light, and from which we hear sounds of boisterous gaiety. Is it not open yet? Then give another rap. Ah, it is all right now. "Take care of your pockets," says Cerberus, in a low voice,- "there are some rum blokes here." We will, my friend.
    Yes, they must be rum blokes who come here into this filthy, stinking shop, and amongst this filthy, ragged, swearing crew of reprobates. If you wish to see a set of fellows whose mere looks would hang them, I think they arc about us flow. Even the landlord seems uncomfortable in their presence, and wisely allows as little as possible of temptation in his house or on his person, He knows, I believe, they would as soon rob him as any one else, and his small ferrety eyes are evidently wide awake. Indeed, none of the party look as if they had much honest sleep, aTud4n the daylight, I imagine, would present a somewhat seedy appearance. We generally think cabmen not scrupulously honest, but perhaps these cabmen, with ancient great coats and well muffled up, are the honestest fellows here. Then of course there is an Irish "widder," with [-156-] melancholy face and a string of ballads, such as "Mary Blane," "The Red, White, and Blue," "Cheer, boys, cheer," all of which she is willing to dispose of on the most reasonable terms. A decayed swell, probably a railway director in the great year of bubbles, with extraordinary sponges - an article I should have thought quite as unsaleable as soap to the habitués, - and a jockey-like looking person with knives with most wonderful and unaccountable blades, or with some fancy work-boxes or other articles equally ingenious and useless. Women are here, of course, in the last stage of their profligate career, driven out of decent houses, unfit to associate with the well-dressed and the young- wrinkled, repulsive, red. As you see them drink, quarrelling, screaming, and cursing, as they always do till turned out to go God knows where, can you imagine that the difference between them and your own mother is merely that of circumstance, and education, and habit? - perhaps merely the difference produced by drink. I can tell you that little hag was once a rich man's leman, and robed herself in silk and satin, and quaffed her costly wine; and now hark how piteously she begs a drop of gin, ere she staggers [-157-] to her wretched garret and straw to dream of a youth and gaiety now no longer hers. Here she has warmth, light, and society, and the night-house exists for such as she; and if, as is quite as likely as not, she is in league with some of the men around us, here she brings her victim, and then, stupified by drink, she has only to decoy him down some dark passage, and he becomes an easy prey to the sneaking thief who comes skulking up behind. But let us listen-
    "Me and my pal we was a-going along the Hedgware-road, and we sor" -
    "Hold your tongue," is the courteous reply.
    "What do you mean by making all this row?" cries the landlord, with a horrid oath.
    "Now; then, old buffer, another quartern of gin."
    "And a screw of tobacco, master, if you please."
    "Well, old gal, what'll you drink?"
    "Well, I don't mind, what'll you stand?"
    "Suppose we has arf and arf."
    "Ay, to be sure."
    And so the hours pass, and the place gets hotter, and stinks more and more every hour, for the men and women have not a very pleasant [-158-] effluvium, and the hubbub becomes more intense. You tell me you would rather not stay here long. Well, I am quite of your opinion, for a couple of gentlemen with pale faces have been eyeing us most attentively ever since we have been here, and I confess their appearance is not prepossessing. Their short hair seems to indicate an acquaintance with one of the public establishments of the metropolis, with whose inmates it is not well to be too familiar. They are dressed in fustian, with thick boots well studded with nails, a kick from which on the head when a man is down would soon settle his business; and with their close-fitting caps, Belcher handkerchiefs, and heavy animal faces, are certainly not very pleasant-looking young men. I should be sorry to intimate my suspicions to them, as they may be noblemen in disguise, and might feel hurt at my want of charity. In the mean while, as the door is being opened and the coast is clear, I avail myself of the opportunity, and leaving the night-house, am soon dreaming in my feverish slumber that I have just been garotted and left for dead at the door of my domestic establishment, to the intense agony of my wife and children,-of course, by the two amiable young [-159-] people aforesaid, - and I feel for some days after as if I had suffered terribly from a species of night-mare. So hideous is the life, so degraded the company, so revolting are the scenes, at these night-houses, I know not why the law permits them to be open. I am sure they can answer no good or moral end. Mr Norton, a few days since, said, in deciding a case at the Lambeth police-office, he hoped a law would soon be passed to close night-houses. On this head the police magistrates are unanimous.