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AMONGST THE POOR
Anybody whose acquaintance with Bethnal Green commenced more than a quarter of a century ago, will remember that some of those names of streets and rows which now seem to have such a grimly sarcastic meaning expressed, not inaptly, the places to which they originally referred. Hollybush Place, Green Street, Pleasant Place, and other neighbourhoods, which now consist of ruinous tenements, reeking with abominations, were outlying, decent cottages, standing on or near plots of garden ground, where the inmates reared prize tulips and rare dahlias in their scanty leisure, and where some of the last of the old French refugees dozed away the evenings of their lives in pretty summer-houses, amidst flower-beds gay with virginia stocks and creeping plants.
At this time, and before the present main road was formed to supersede the old Bethnal Green Road, which lies nearer to Cambridge Heath, this district was but a sort of country extension of Spitalfields; for Spitalfields had begun to assume the appearance that it exhibits now that its worst features have been exceeded by the wretched maze of streets and alleys which have built all greenness, except that belonging to rottenness, out of Bethnal. It may be remarked that the worst parts of Bethnal Green are not those inhabited by weavers, and that wherever the weaver is found, his general appearance, and the tidiness [-10-] of his poor room, offer a striking contrast to those of many of his neighbours. His work requires a "long light," or leaden casement, so that he most frequently occupies garrets, originally designed for his trade. Poor, suffering, nearly starved, and living in a house which shares with the rest the evils of bad or no drainage, and insufficient water supply, his business requires at least some amount of personal cleanliness, for the delicate fabrics on which he is employed could never come out unsullied from the touch of coarser hands.
Skirting the station of the Great Eastern Railway, in Shoreditch, and traversing Club Row - the Sunday morning resort of pigeon and bird fanciers - the earnest visitor has only to cross the road and turn up Nichols Row, to find himself in as foul a neighbourhood as can be discovered in the civilised world (savage life has nothing to compare to it), and amongst a population depressed almost to the last stage of human endurance. Should he have started with an impression that report had exaggerated the misery of these dwellings, he will, if he have the heart and the stomach to inspect them, prove that no allowable strength of language could do more than adequately express the condition of the dens which surround Friars Mount. It is true that several of the main thoroughfares, though dirty and ruinous enough, do not indicate externally the teeming and filthy rooms, which can only be appreciated by a closer inspection. Even though here and there a falling tenement is propped up by a shoreing-beam, to prevent the wall from bulging over into the street, there are still the remains of poor respectability in some places; and ragged, dirty children, and gaunt women, from whose faces almost all traces of womanliness have faded, alternate with the clean-looking and even well-dressed families of [-11-] some of the shopkeepers. Let the traveller penetrate further, and he will enter upon a maze of streets, each of which is a social crime, and each of which contains tributary hovels many degrees worse than itself. They are not always easy to find, since, if they have ever had any names, the names have been obliterated, except from the memory of the police or the City missionary, the doctor or the landlord; and the entrance to most of them is by a covered alley, not wider than an ordinary doorway-nay, sometimes so narrow that a brewer's drayman would be compelled to walk in sideways.
At the end of this blind court there will be found either a number of black and crumbling hovels, forming three sides of a miserable little square, like a foetid tank, with a bottom of mud and slime; or an irregular row of similar tenements, mostly with four small rooms, fronted by rotten wooden palings. In either case there are three peculiarities which are common to a great part of the whole neighbourhood.
The two or three places of convenience, common to the entire row or square, are in front of the houses. The water supply is obtained from a single tap, which increases the mud in one dirty corner for an hour or so a day, when it is besieged by slipshod haggard-looking women, and prematurely old children, bearing every possible variety of vessel, in which to hoard the precious liquid. The drainage of the hovels is so imperfect as to be practically useless. It may be easily imagined in what a state water collected in open vessels will be found, after having been kept for a night in a room, where a whole family is crowded together, without the means of common decency or cleanliness.
Add to these conditions the decay of vegetable matter, [-12-] the occasional evidence of the presence of pigs in adjacent houses, which have back yards (these particular tenements have none), and that insufferable sickly odour which always belongs to human beings living in such a state, and the result will represent a score of places extending over a whole district for more than a mile in length, and half a mile in breadth.
The locality of Friars Mount, which is nominally represented by three streets, named respectively Old Nichols, Nichols, and Half Nichols, includes perhaps, most obviously a great part of the vice and debauchery of the neighbourhood; such vice as may be exhibited amongst the poorest class of prostitutes and their paramours, who are mostly thieves of the common filching sort.
Many of the houses in the main thoroughfares (the three streets just mentioned) have been originally built for weavers, and have the appearance of an original respectability, which could scarcely have lasted till the plaster was dry upon their walls. Many of them are now propped up with timber shoreings, and threaten either to fall in upon their inhabitants, or to bulge outwards upon the roadway.
There is little distinction in the condition of the people or of their rooms, however, whether they half live by vice, or half starve at such poor trades as can be carried on in such a place. The dark, steep, broken, and filthy stairs, the black and crumbling ceilings, the bare and broken walls, show no effort on the part of anybody to render them tenantable. Undrained, unwashed, and scantily supplied with water, the rooms underlet to such an extent, that one wretched garret (unfurnished, except with a rude bedstead or two, and some filthy bedding) will be made [-13-] to contain ten persons, each house, from garret to cellar, is full of evil influences.
There is nothing picturesque in such misery; it is but one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth, and poverty, huddled in dark cellars, ruined garrets, bare and blackened rooms, teeming with disease and death, and without the means, even if there were the inclination, for the most ordinary observations of decency or cleanliness. In the neighbourhoods where the inhabitants follow poor trades, the condition is but little better; a few streets where there is a more cleanly appearance do but lead to a repetition of the horrors just witnessed; and from garret to cellar whole families occupy single rooms, or, if they can find a corner of available space, take a lodger or two. In some wretched cul de sac, partly inhabited by costers, the foetid yards are devoted to the donkeys, while fish are cured and dried in places which cannot be mentioned without loathing. Bandbox and lucifer-box makers, cane workers, clothes'-peg makers, shoemakers, and tailors, mostly earning only just enough to keep them from absolute starvation, swarm from roof to basement; and, as the owners of such houses have frequently bought the leases cheaply, and spend nothing for repairs, the profits to the landlords are greater in proportion than those on a middleclass dwelling.
It may be asked how people can long endure such a condition of physical wretchedness. The question is difficult to answer; but it is certain that they will endure almost anything rather than "go into the house," that is, than become Union paupers. And recent revelations have shown that even the utmost misery and starvation are not sufficient credentials for relief in the Bethnal Green Union, unless certain difficult forms are first recognised, so that [-14-] while the parochial officers have been quarrelling, the poor have died, waiting for the settlement of their disputes. Some of the people here can earn no more than from six to ten shillings a week, and on this as many children have to subsist. Of what their food is composed can only be known on close inquiry, even when they apply for, and obtain, the dole of parish bread.
The places to which public attention was first drawn during the inquiry into the condition of the dwellings of the poor in this district are bad enough. Thorold Square, with its muddy area and foetid pump, was a disgrace to civilisation.
Hollybush Place, in the vicinity of foul cowsheds and sties where pigs added their special filthiness, and their special diseases to the district, was a shame to humanity; but in Friars Mount, and at the other extremity of the parish in Twig Folly, there are horrors exceeding all that these places have or had then to show, and in the latter neighbourhood the presence of noxious trades is superadded.
I have already spoken of the difficulty in guessing what can be the food on which these people live, and the sties, cowsheds, and slaughter-houses suggest to the inquiring mind a terrible association with the large number of shops where the coarsest parts of meat seem to share the space with what butchers call offal. Cow-heels, bullocks'-hearts, kidneys, and livers, thin and poor-looking tripe, and sheeps-heads are amongst the uncooked portion of the stock; while the cooked viands are represented by piles and chains of bruised, and often damaged-looking, saveloys, black-puddings, and a sort of greasy cakes of baked sausage-meat, known as "faggots," sold for a penny or three farthings, and made of the haslet and other internal portions of the pig. It is often the case that these [-15-] shops have some display of joints of meat, coarse, poor, and flabby-looking, but they bear no proportion to the staple trade. It would be curious to inquire how many Bethnal Green pigs, or if any Bethnal Green cows, ever find their way to a regular dead-meat market, there to come under the observation of an authorised inspector.
Of what quality is the milk which comes from those sheds so close to fever-haunted courts? From what sty comes the pork which is used to make up these cheap and ready-cooked viands to which people resort who have but twopence to spend, and a fireless grate at home?
I have written the word "home," but it is almost impiety to associate with it any meaning which can attach to the dens of Bethnal Green. Their existence is a national crime, and that they have existed for so long is pretty plain evidence that they will yield to nothing short of direct legislative interference.
Of the miserably poor inhabitants of this district, a very large number are occasional paupers, receiving out-door relief, when they can contrive to fulfil the conditions which are imposed before the relieving officer receives their names for the parish dole of bread. It is often the case that those members of the family who get work could support themselves even by such poor trades as I have mentioned; but there are numerous instances in which the earnings of a family consisting of four or five persons, only enables them to pay half-a-crown a week for their single foul room, bare of all furniture save a broken chair or two, and a heap of ragged bedding, and some straw or shavings thrust into a tattered sack, occupying a place on the floor in each corner. In a very recent case where the death of one of the family (a man of middle age) brought the matter under public notice, the amount on which four [-16-] persons were compelled to live, had not for some time exceeded nine shillings and sixpence a week. It has happened that the parochial authorities have refused to admit sick or dying persons except on the condition that the relatives who can only just support themselves should enter the union also, and thus relinquish such employment as they have been able to obtain.
The utter repugnance of many amongst the poor to become paupers, in the sense of a residence in the Union, may be inferred from the sufferings to which they continually submit rather than avail themselves of the provision which was intended not only as a privilege, but as a public right.
Amongst all the homes of the poor in the districts of Bethnal Green and Spitalfields, those occupied by the weavers are, perhaps, on the whole, the cleanest, though not always the least indicative of utter poverty.
There are, in fact, whole streets of old-fashioned houses (some of them of considerable size) where the upper floors are lighted by long leaden casements, extending for the whole width of the rooms. Here the click of the shuttle may be heard all day long while the weaver has work to do. When he is "at play" (the term used to express the period while he is waiting for a fresh "piece" or "cane," as the web of silk is technically called), his time is spent in waiting his turn at the warehouse of his employer till he obtains work again. Unfortunately the cheapness of the French and German silk and velvet which is now exported free of duty, and the operation of the country factories as well as those of the large towns, have combined to reduce the London weavers to a very deplorable condition. The "play time" which formerly denoted a time of relaxation while fresh work was being prepared, [-17-] now signifies a fireless hearth and hungry children. The boys and girls of weavers who are unfortunate enough to follow the same calling, are first taught to wind silk on small pieces of reed placed on a spindle. These, when covered with silk or cotton, are known as "quilles" (perhaps from quenouille), and are placed in the shuttle to supply the woof. When these boys and girls go out to work to assist other weavers, they arc known as "week" boys or girls (heaven knows this would generally be true if the word were spelled with an a), and their wages vary from a shilling to half-a-crown a week according to their ability, with the addition of a pint of tea or coffee morning and evening, but without food except such as they take with them. Stale bread and butter or dripping-penn'orths of that unctuous and pasty pudding which may be seen in all the cookshops of this neighbourhood, and an occasional (very occasional) basin of leg-of-beef soup, a saveloy, or a plate of pieces, such as the trimmings and coarse fat of ham and brisket of beef, are their ordinary articles of diet. Their luxuries are baked potatoes, stewed eels dispensed by teacupfuls at street stalls, fried fish, and whelks, which are eaten with infinite gusto at a dozen stalls about Brick Lane and Shoreditch. I have already mentioned the shops for the sale of offal. Many of these may supply some really good articles of food-amongst which may be classed cows' heels and those baked sheep's heads, the appetising steam from which, as they frizzle in the long japanned kettles, salutes the nostrils of many an expectant family who have been hungry all the week, and look forward to this as the crown and reward of their week's work on Saturday night. It may readily be believed that in a business where all the family must, if they are fortunate [-18-] enough to obtain employment, help to keep the wolf from the door--the cookshop is a convenient substitute for the kitchen of more favoured households. To leave the loom or the silk wheel, and to light a fire and cook a meal for a family in the room where work is going on, often would be a loss of time and no little inconvenience. It would be difficult too, in any way to obtain more than a taste of meat for the few halfpence which they have to spend. No, the cookshop, with its mingled steams and mixed flavours of many meats; its great slabs of peasepudding; its long rolls of "spotted" or "plain" ; its baked potatoes and gravy; its ha'poths of "pie-crust" ; flat, damp, hot, flabby slabs of greasy dough, four inches square; its "faggots" and dense peppery saveloys, supplies the immediate wants of these people during half the week at least, that is to say--with many of themduring the time that they are not absolutely starving on such slender additions as they can make to the coarse workhouse loaf.
Their rooms are frequently tidy, although they are often badly ventilated, and pervaded by a strong ammoniacal smell from the animals which most of them keep, whether they be pigeons, white mice, cats, rabbits, fancy dogs, or singing birds. Of these, pigeons and singing birds are the most common, the former being kept in the lofts, and flying from dormers on the tiles, where their masters spend a great part of their spare time, and notably their Sunday mornings. The birds hang here and there upon the walls, in breeding-cages, or carol outside the long garret windows, trying to drown the click of the shuttle, or the whistle of the cutter as it severs the silk upon the long grooved wire used for making the velvet pile.
In one of these long "shops" a whole family and all [-19-] their live stock will sometimes live, and yet the delicate fabric upon which they work will come out from the loom without a soil. Amidst the turned up stump bedsteads or the roll of blankets on the floor, the few pieces of broken crockery, and the rickety furniture, some of which is generations old, there is often seen some sort of order and decency which is worthy of a better fortune; and as the patient men and women stand and remove from the long silken band every knot and burr, or sit at the loom, laboriously weaving in the bright soft tints, we cannot but wonder at the fortitude which such a life demands, and at the honesty which, under such conditions, may be trusted with commodities so valuable. It may be believed to what a state of depression a trade must have come, when those who follow it speak of it, and of themselves in connection with it, in a sort of apologetic disparagement.
Meeting one of these people anywhere casually, and as casually asking him what calling he follows, the answer would be, in nine cases out of ten-
"Me! Oh, I'm only a weaver."
While the same inquiry regarding a son or daughter would be met with--
"Well, sir, only follerin' my own trade, if you can call it a trade, but we're in the hopes of a somethink better for 'em."
I can remember Bethnal Green and Spitalfields in better times, when "a weavers' strike" was an occasional event, and masters and men established what was called the "book price," or a definite rate of payment per yard, according to the quality of the silk and the labour required.
There is sometimes even now a feeble remonstrance exhibited by a meeting of the hands of one or other of the [-20-] manufacturing houses, either in Spital Square or in some of the streets abutting on Spitalfields Market; but the word "strike" seems too vigorous an expression to denote their proceedings. They are, in the main, not ignorant people, and they know that their condition cannot well be remedied in the face of the present free importations of foreign goods, and the facilities for manufacture, with still cheaper labour, abroad and in the provinces.
Some faint traditions of a much earlier time still occur to me, when the weavers were the immediate descendants of those brave, gay, light-hearted emigrés, some of whom learned of their lady wives to make lace on pillows, and so earned an honorable subsistence. In their day Bethnal Green was, as I have said, an outlying, countrified suburb of the town, which ended at Shoreditch, where it stretched towards Hogsden Fields. In their day, too, the weaver who worked five days a week might wear his laced coat on Sunday, and play his game or two of bowls in an afternoon. There were old songs in the old French tongue, old courtesy, old love for birds and flowers, which has survived amongst their degenerate descendants; old china and such other quaint waifs and strays, the flotsam and jetsam of former domestic shipwreck, as they brought with them in their exile.
Ah! even the last shreds and shards of these may be seen sometimes in the weaver's garret of to-day. A cracked china cup, an ivory carving, a silver-keyed flute, a flawed and riveted punch-bowl, a pair of spectacles, a scrap or two of old point lace-such things have I seen here and there; but, like the language in which their forefathers lamented and rejoiced, these tangible reminiscences are almost lost, even to such as are the veritable descendants of the old refugees. Their names alone record the relationship, [-21-] and they have often been twisted into a vulgar look by misspelling. Two years ago I used to notice a board outside a window near Club Row, amidst the pigeon shops, which intimated that there was, somewhere close by, "A Day School both in French and English," but I miss it to-day, and the last remnant of the old weaver colony seems to have floated away with it, as on a raft, into the great sea of oblivion.
I have said that the names of some of the people are all that is left of their origin, but I am mistaken. The name of many of the tools, and portions of machinery used in their craft retains traces of its French origin, from the "tantot," with which the web is pulled forward, to the "trevat," with which the silk is cut to form the pile of velvet. The weavers, however, are less numerous in Bethnal Green than in Spitalfields, and in the streets which lie between the two, and their numbers are diminishing, for the trade seems to be dying out in London.
The "week boys," but more notably the bird, dog, and pigeon-fanciers, make up a part of that assembly of men, boys, and hulking youths (mostly in velveteen cord, and with greasy caps pulled over their sleek hair), which pervades the neighbourhood of Club Row on Sunday forenoons. From the marshes, or from still further afield, where they have been pegging for chaffinches, or jingling robins, or netting larks--from the tops of neighbouring high-pitched roofs, where they have been looking after "strays" (erratic pigeons), or from some convenient public-house, where "a party has been arskin arter a little dorg o‘ the tarrier sort," the individuals comprising this crowd come at about church time; and here they lounge about, exchange or sell birds and pigeons, criticise dogs, make appointments for a singing match between rival birds at the [-22-] "Queen of Spades," in Hare Street, or arrange the next pigeon-flying contest from ‘Ornsey-wood ‘Ouse to certain dormers near Mr. Barber's shop in Club Row.
In the afternoon they reappear with their shoes highly polished, their faces bearing the evidence of soap and water, and their side locks ingeniously curled and scented with "rose- oil," the favorite unguent of the district, and until dark they may be seen spread over Victoria Park, listlessly looking at the water over the coping-stones of the bridges near Temple Mills, or lying on their faces in the long grass of the marshes beyond Homerton. Such of them as can obtain a vehicle, or get a seat in one, drive, by way of the Lea-Bridge Road, to Epping Forest, and enjoy their beer and long pipes at High Beech or the Roebuck, much to the annoyance of harmless pedestrians, to whom they make the night hideous by their furious and reckless driving, and by the strange cries and half-tipsy oaths which they leave, as it were, floating behind them in the clouds of dust raised by the rickety wheels of their overloaded carts and costermonger's barrows.
Many of these, if not thieves, are at the same time amongst that dangerous class which is found occupying a position between the pauper and the convict. At present they "have a job of work" somewhere, and do it; in a week or two they may be amongst that large class of the London population who "go out to look after a job," and to do them justice are willing to work if they can find work to do; but who, failing in its discovery, have too little moral restraint to go back to their miserable lodging with an empty stomach if they can "find" anything which will procure them a meal. It appears to me, as I watch a group of these fellows: shambling, tight trousered, sleek haired, artful, but yet hulking youths of [-23-] seventeen or eighteen; that they are in the long run more expensive than paupers, and more dangerous than either thief or convict. They utterly decline to seek for or to accept parochial assistance, "they know a trick worth two of that," as one of them says; "only jest ketch me at it - tried it once when we was all kids, and the whole lot went into the house, and I ain't never had no stomach for skilley (workhouse gruel) since; still if you like to pay for a pint o' beer I aint no ways pertikler, and I haven't had a drop since yesterday, s'elp me." Now, it is just the younger of such as these who come from pauperdom itself into a condition which must, unless by extraordinary accident, lead to crime. What becomes, I would ask, of the foundling - the deserted infant - whose only parent is the parish, whose home is the workhouse ward? What may become of him depends very considerably on the particular parish in which it may be his lot to be cast away. It may be a haven, or a quicksand on which a life is flung to lie a wreck thenceforth. There will be great chance of the latter, if instead of teaching him a trade under a competent master, he is merely taught to botch at some common journeywork set him by a teacher, who for a wretched stipend and his rations, fulfils the place of "instructor" in this, that, or the other calling. The boy so mistaught comes out from the imprisonment of the four bare walls, into the wide wilderness of the barer streets, and being unable to compete with those who know so much more than he, takes up any casual work, or hangs about purposeless and hungry till he gets a job by some lucky chance.
His career is often too soon told; the casual meal, the common lodging-house, where his threepenny bed may be nest to that of an old thief, the deadening of such moral [-24-] influences as he may have brought with him from "the parish" ; the companionship which keeps him on that debateable ground which lies between the workhouse and the jail; and at last, except in rare cases, a lodging in some foul room in a tenement filled with those who are worse and further on the road to crime than he--a room with no furniture save a table and two broken chairs, and a heap of ragged bedding and a creaking bedstead; a room in which the windows are half glass, half ragswhere the grate is fireless and rusty, and the very rats starve, so barren is the whole wretched tenement of food ;though thirty living souls, and perhaps one or two dead bodies may all be there to-night, and every night, under one roof.
This lodging may be in Nicholl's Street, Bethnal Green, or in Little Kate Street, Spitalfields, or in the foul, feverhaunted courts about Gray's Inn Lane, or it may be in the purlieus of Somer's Town, or away near Kensington, or in a blind, quiet alley behind the glare and bustle of Whitechapel, say near Flower and Dean Street, or about "Tiger Bay," and Bluegate Fields, or in Southwark, in one of the shattered tenements where the landlord takes the rents under protest from some Chancery litigant, and the "Fence" waits warily day and night for stolen goods.
In whichever of these places he takes up a lodging of his own, he will probably share it with a girl, a mere child of thirteen perhaps, who is half street hawker half prostitute, just as he is half casual labourer half thief. They may live together till both go several steps downward, and he becomes known to the police as a regular pickpocket and filcher; while she no longer sells any wares except in occasional seasons of bad luck, but is either seen flaunting on the streets, or follows his business [-25-] and her own together, adopting him as her "fancy." It matters little to which of these districts they may betake themselves; in all of them the rooms are equally foul, and bare, and dirty; in each, the streets have a strong family likeness in their dirty pavements, their sunken steps, their blurred and mud-stained windows, patched with newspapers and stuffed with rags; their broken and rickety stairs, their foul landings, their poisonous exhalations from choked drains, and reeking cesspools and decaying filth; their teeming inhabitants who stare sullenly from the fetid cellars, or whose infants may be seen on the topmost stair; above all, in the pale, sickly children with worn, old faces and bent limbs, in the slipshod, angry, shrill women who sit and stand about the doorways, or congregate at the gin-shop, which is already flaring with gas on a hot summer's afternoon, an hour before dark; in the brutal or half drunken ruffians who regard the passerby with the look which seems to inquire of themselves or their companions whether robbery and violence are worth their while; in the slinking figures which one sees for a moment, in doorways, round corners, at the threshold of the public-house, but seldom in it-speaking to clean but shabby women, some of them with black eyes, others with babies at their breasts; few of them, and these mostly the Irish, with any covering for their heads-the Irish adhering to their habit of wearing the shawl as a hood - in some or all such particulars do these neighbourhoods attain a bad pre-eminence.
The figures - mostly of men - which I have alluded to as appearing with something of a stealthy movement, are thieves. Not young cadgers, like him who was lately from the workhouse, but regular thieves of the ordinary stamp - the thieves of "Thief London" in fact, not the known [-26-] "cracksman." He and his like (for they are few) take furnished lodgings and live anywhere-Camden Town, Hackney Road, Islington, and, for aught I know (but I think it likely), in Kensington. Not the forgers, for they are criminal according to circumstances, and belong to no particular class. Not the coiners, though some of these have been engaged in that business, and many of them have been concerned in passing bad money; but the coiners live here, or elsewhere, according to their convenience, and seldom in any place so well known to the police and so often visited by them. No, these are the regular thieves-pickpockets, magsmen, sharpers, when they can sport a respectable "get up;" --shop-lifters, highway robbers or footpads (garotters, as it is now become customary to call them) are of a rather different stamp, but often grow from similar materials to those which have helped to form the casual thief whose case I have been considering; they are stolid, bullet-headed ruffians very often, and the women with black eyes and sharp tongues, and ready oaths, are their women; - often either regular prostitutes, or the keepers of low brothels, to which their particular paramours act as bullies, or help to secure the plunder of some drugged or drunken victim. They can always have the help of counsel-these fellows; and while her fickle attachment lasts, the woman, who is the terror of half the screaming wild cats of the neighbourhood, will endure blows, and cruelty, and drunken extravagance, and will, in short, bear almost any ill-treatment from her male "pal" ; but let him "take up with another poll," and if he have any cause to fear, he had better choose some fresh locality.
To go back to the regular thieves; they are so much more numerous than the rest that I have counted eleven [-27-] as I stand here by the corner, and know that I am the cause of their uneasy shifting hither and thither, and that they are watching me as closely as I am looking at them.
Theirs is a poor trade. Its poverty is manifest by their threadbare or coarse and mended clothes, the superficial cleanliness of their appearance notwithstanding; by the shabby, earnest-eyed, depressed women who share their fortunes; by their own almost gloomy looks-looks sometimes so wistful and anxious, that it would be difficult to imagine them in any condition which would induce them to make merry. They are not all marked by this demeanour, but this is the prevailing expression; and well it may be, for stealing in a "regular" way is doubtless as poor and ill-paid a business as one could enter into. Not even with habits of economy-and few London thieves can afford to be extravagant--will one in fifty succeed in saving any considerable sum. His "chances" must be good to keep him in more than the mere necessaries of life, and he has no opportunity for luxuries.
How many times do we hear of a thief (a regular professed thief) being drunk, for instance, or of wearing fine clothes, except in the way of his profession, or of smoking choice cigars, or dining off whitebait and ducks and green peas? In these latter articles I believe they are at times a little extravagant; but a first-rate dinner is a rare event with them. The lucky ones who are clever as sharpers, or the hotel swindlers--a class by themselves, who occupy quiet lodgings or furnished houses in various districts often live luxuriously; but the ordinary thief seldom rises above very plain eating, and exceedingly moderate drinking. They are often in "trouble," and though they are generally willing to help each other, the savings of a few months may he expended in the cost of a defence, and the [-28-] amount necessary to start afresh after a period of imprisonment. I have said before that there are now no "thieves' kitchens," where ruffians of more or less truculence meet and carouse as they talk over their achievements. and devise new schemes of plunder; there are, however, public-houses in Thief London. I have one in my eye at this moment; it lies in the direction of Dockhead, and a shabby, dirty, half-ruinous, ill-stocked, and melancholy-looking establishment it is; as I pass the bar, I look round for the tap-room, and not finding it, follow the eye of the landlord, who has been half-sullenly and quite silently regarding me from behind his beer-engine. His eye involuntarily directs me to a dirty door at the end of a passage--a door which leads down a step to a large room, where there is a wide kitchen range, and a few wooden seats against the bare walls, the original colour of which is no longer distinguishable from that of the dirty tables, besmirched with stale beer, with which several flies, oppressed with some evil influence about the place, are irrigating a field of stale tobacco-ash. Sitting at a table near the grate, where a dull fire is struggling through a superstructure of cinders, sadly in need of the poker, which has been taken away, sit five young men. They have not come there to drink, for there is neither pot nor glass before one of them, and to judge from their general appearance they scarcely seem to have met with any intention of making merry, for they are leaning with their elbows on the table, and speaking only at long intervals and in a weary and dissatisfied undertone, suggestive of low spirits and general dissatisfaction. They are singularly alike even in the matter of dress, though one wears a threadbare coat, a size or two too small, and buttoned up to meet a half-dirty cotton handkerchief which is [-29-] wound round his neck; and another, who is moodily scoring a table with the end of a burnt lucifer, has a horsey look, in consequence of a flapped fustian jacket, corduroys tight in the calf, and with what a "New-Cut" clothier advertises as "artful buttons at the bottom," and a frayed seal-skin cap. All of them are greasy at the elbows, bulgy at the knees, and exhibit a lounging hopelessness in their beetling brows, their furtive eyes, the occasional shuffling of their feet. They take no notice of me as I enter and take a seat in a corner near the door, but I can see, by that same shuffling of feet and a twitching of the shoulders which pervades the company generally, that they are quite conscious of the presence of a stranger. A face with deeply sunken eyes and an aggressive jaw, seems somehow familiar to me; and as he who wears the fustian raises his head with suddenly assumed indifference, I remember when and where I have seen him before. The when was one day last week, the where was a Gravesend steamer; and though on that occasion the horsey-looking individual wore a dirty-white great coat, which looked like an enlarged flannel waistcoat, and was enveloped, as to the neck, in a yellow worsted comforter, I recognise him as one of a select party of ruffians who were seeking some convenient spot to regale themselves with a prize fight, and landed at Erith for that purpose.
"‘Ow was he--why, what d‘ye think he was?" says this person, in a defiant voice, in answer to a subdued question from one of the others. "I tell yer he ain't arf knocked out o'time--not up, of course, he warn't, but he ain't much wuss than Bantam."
"I dunnow about that," replies an oily looking youth, who has got up pretending to look for the poker, but in reality to look at me; "it don't seem arf square, do it?" [-30-]
"What ain't square? what the (local substantive) do you know about it? Hark at Weasel" (this to the company, not including me). Public attention being thus directed to Weasel, who makes a feint of dancing a melancholy double shuffle on the hearth; the rest smile faintly, and one of them ventures to ask what the horsey one has "put upon it, as makes him so (adjective) cocky." This produces so smart a retort, seasoned with adjectives allied to such inappropriate substantives, that were it not for two of the company who never raise their eyes from the table, and express no interest whatever except by another twitch of the shoulders, I should imagine that they arc quite unconcerned at the presence of a stranger; as it is, I know perfectly well that their conversation is for the time directed to me, and that they affect to be talking of sporting matters, and affect it very badly. One of the silent youths rising presently, and going out at a door opposite to that by which I entered, I see that the room opens upon a disused stable-yard, at the end of which is a tumble-down shed, leading by a wooden ladder outside to an upper room which might once have been a loft. He comes back again directly, and makes some sort of signal with his fingers which directs attention to the other door, through which come two men, one of whom I at once identify as a principal in last week's amusement. I identify him, notwithstanding the fact that his nose and mouth are swelled into one irregular contusion with a gap on one side, where a couple of teeth are missing-and that his eyes, which I remember were rather deeply sunk, are now nearly on a level with his cheek bones. I cannot help thinking how the characteristic expression of a face may remain even after the shape of the face has been altered, and compare him mentally to one of those toy [-31-] heads made of gutta percha, which may be squeezed into a dozen shapes without altering their identity. Two or three of the party rise listlessly as the new visitor approaches; but they give him no word of greeting, and not one of them relaxes his gloomy overhanging brows for more than a momentary expression of interest.
His least damaged eye regards me with as much indifferent and yet marked attention as he can conveniently throw into it, and he stops for an instant on his way to the table, so that I have time to notice that one arm of his rough overcoat hangs loose, while the hand belonging to it rests in a sling made of a bright silk handkerchief. With this exception he is muffled in innumerable wraps, and looks faint, his face assuming the colour of mildewed paste.
"Have you seen him?" says somebody, at last.
"Yes, I've seen him," he replies, "an‘ he's agoin' to get up."
Not another word is said, but by some mysterious concert they go one after another out at the back door, the disabled ruffian leading the way, accompanied by his friend and supporter.
In five minutes I rise to go too by the way I came, and I only stay because one of the silent youths with the shiny elbows returns, looking straight before him, advances a pace or two, and after slowly carrying his eyes quite round the room, but not looking at me, vanishes without even the pretence of having forgotten anything.
[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.-]