Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pauper, The Thief and the Convict, by Thomas Archer, 1865 - Chapter 7 - Tiger Bay

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VII.

TIGER BAY

    This portion of thief-London, which has lately been made somewhat prominent by newspaper allusions and descriptive articles respecting a few of its inhabitants, is generally associated in the public mind with dangerous ruffianism and unscrupulous crime. This is, in a sense, true enough; but he who goes to Tiger Bay - a district represented by Brunswick Street, and the thoroughfares or no thoroughfares surrounding it - in the expectation of meeting with roaring, riotous vice, or in fear of sudden and desperate robbery, would altogether mistake the place. It is true that the unsuspecting wayfarer going through some of these dark alleys might be suddenly pounced upon by a couple of ruffians and there and then be robbed and half stifled, but it is not this sort of crime which gives its name to Tiger Bay. The tigers are, for the most part, quiet in their lairs; slinking, watchful, crouching, cruel beasts, who wait there, sharpening their claws, and looking with hungry eyes for the prey that their treacherous she-cats bring down. Jack is their prey chiefly; they half live on him, and he knows it, and so upon these shallows, where he is lured to his destruction, he has bestowed the name of Tiger Bay; for to him the tiger, - as a land animal, to cope with which he is unequal, is more expressive than the shark who meets him on a more congenial element, and therefore, - "Tiger Bay." 
    [-129-] Seen in the morning, Tiger Bay itself wears a worse aspect than it assumes at night, for then are displayed the effects of the previous debauch: outside the doors half-dressed, slatternly women lounge, many of them lolling about the pavement, and even sitting with their feet in the roadway, returning the not always complimentary greetings of their friends who lean out of the windows, or smoke pipes with their elbows resting on the sills. As Jack turns out here and there, and essays to depart, he is too often followed with jeering cries, which, being resented by his particular tigress, lead not seldom to a fight in which women are torn and disfigured, their scanty garments rent and sent to the winds, while men grapple with each other till blood begins to spot the roadway, and the police come upon the scene. 
    The dwelling-place of the ruffian and the thief-Tiger Bay is not named after these, but takes its name from the brothels and those who keep them - the harpies and harlots who deal with drugged liquor, and the slinking bullies who come, like foul beasts, about the prey. 
    There are few of these about to-night, however, for Jack is not yet being towed into the Bay, though he is waited for by more than one bloated unwholesome-looking landlady, who lets rooms to "dress lodgers," which is the West End name for prostitute - by more than one shrivelled crone, who creeps along in the shadow of the houses to fill her nightly gin bottle before the closing of the public-house. 
    Apart from this, the houses are so quiet and respectable in appearance, just in this locality and at this time, that the casual passenger might imagine them to be the dwellings of decent mechanics. Yet there is something boding, I almost begin to feel that there is something [-130-] even startling, in the intense stillness, which, when I learn the truth and see the lights dimly shining through the closed blinds at upper windows, is awfully suggestive of a patient crouching like that of the animal after which the place is named. Coming to a door where a company of young girls are sitting on the step and far out upon the pavement, I am still impressed with this stillness, for they are talking and laughing together in voices so low that they scarcely disturb the street. Not one of them appears to be older than eighteen, the youngest about fourteen; and they too are waiting for Jack. They get up as I come along, and, knowing my companion, reply civilly enough to his inquiries, since they think he may have business to transact there, and that somebody is wanted; for he is a police sergeant, and has been so long attached to the district that his portly figure and round, rosy, good-humoured face are known to most of the people even in Tiger Bay, so that he is treated with as much respect as the nature of the tigers will allow. These girls sitting here get up quickly, and, pushing open the streetdoor, invite us to enter with a mocking assumption of welcome. "Oh, no, the door's not shut," they answer in reply to inquiry; will we walk in? "for the room door ain't shut neither;" a statement proved by their opening one on the right, near the stairs, and desiring us to come in and not to be afraid. 
    It is evident that they consider this a good joke, by their giggling amongst themselves, and one of them precedes us into the apartment, where a couple of flaring tallow candles reveal a stout middle aged woman lying in bed. There are still some remains of a past beauty in her bloated face, and in the long black hair, which is streaming over the pillow; it is evident too that she is the mistress [-131-] of the house, for her room is well furnished, and has a wonderfully snug, not to say luxurious, appearance. The girls who have admitted us seem to take a delight in ushering us in, especially as there seemed to be something suspicious in their all sitting on the stones outside while the lights shone within. But they were only crouching there, waiting wearily for such prey as might be drifted accidentally into the Bay. She inside had waited as long as it suited her; but, being secure of her miserable lodgers, and well knowing that the best of the pickings would come to her share at last, she has finished her nightly allowance of drink somewhat early, and now stares at us with dull drunken eyes, as she rolls her head on the pillow and inquires our business. There is something so humorous in this that our conductresses snuff the candles, that we may have a good view of the room; and as it dawns upon the proprietress that she is really in bed, and that we are in some sort unaccustomed visitors, she delivers it as her opinion that our presence there is a sanguinary insult, a remark which produces a subdued burst of merriment from the party outside  - who seem glad of any incident to relieve the evening's monotony-but in which I can scarcely help concurring, even though she is half asleep again before we go out into the street. 
    More terrible in appearance are the purlieus of Tiger Bay than that place itself. On my way to the maze of foul courts and alleys, half lighted, and with an odour which turns me sick, lying about Bluegate Fields and the neighbourhood, I am led through one long passage, so narrow that I can touch the houses on either side, and so dark that but for the click of a lock here and there, or a low whistle sounding from an open doorway, I should think the whole place deserted save by myself and my [-132-] guide, the steady tramp of whose boots can be heard just before me, even when he is invisible. By the time we are half way through I hear him speak in a low tone, and presently there comes out of the shades another officer, whose lantern turns a broad yellow glare upon the blackened house fronts, and, being shut up again, makes the darkness still more painful. To be alone in such a place at night would expose any one to the possibility of robbery and even of murder-by any determined and practised ruffian who might run the chance-almost before a cry could be heard. Out amongst the streets lying off from the Bay there is little more security, except from the fact that other officers appear suddenly here and there from remote corners, or from the dark patches of shadows under black archways, and beneath dead-walls. 
    It is the utter silence, and the impression of stealthy villany which is conveyed by the sound of an occasional voice, the sudden shutting of a window, the disappearance of two or three shadowy figures in a passage, or round a dim corner, the sudden coming upon a ghostly group sitting before a door, and hushing their low talk as we go by - it is each of these things, and all of them together, which, with the wretched houses, the dirty streets, and broken roadways, suggest the true nature of the place, and a danger far greater and more startling than mere uproarious violence and coarse debauchery. 
    There is much, and yet but little, to be seen here; colonies of Irish, hordes of Germans, burrowing in the wretched tenements and swarming from roof to basement, the children wallowing in dirt, and clothed in tatters, yet sometimes thriving as if in defiance of all those rules of hygiene which are held to be most essential. Common lodging-houses, whose owners curse and defy us beneath [-133-] their breath as they hear our steps in the passage, but who ultimately precede the officer up the creaking stairs, as he demands to see the rooms, in one of which he may find somebody for whom he has been looking. Rough lodgers, not directly amenable to the law, looking up from one of half a dozen beds in a room, salute us with maledictions so hearty as to leave no doubt of their sincerity. Anxious-looking faces, pretending to be innocently unconscious, peeping furtively from beneath the coverlids in fear lest the visit may be for them:- listless, worn-out, hopeless faces, neither knowing nor caring for anything, and past the fear of most things, yet summoning energy to damn us for leaving the door open; a dozen houses, in which some modifications of all these may be seen, and where poverty and crime lie cheek by jowl, the pauper, the thief, and the convict, having their representatives under the same roof - houses, where we have to find our own way up the rickety staircases, and into rooms where every corner has its tenant, often famished and fever stricken.     
    A cellar where four lascars roll their yellow and black eyes upon us as they glare silently at each other, and smoke from one bamboo pipe, each in turn making a mouth-piece of his fist, and so inhaling enough rank vapour to last him till his turn comes round again. The two wretched women who are cooking some rice at a scanty fire are English, but so degraded, even below the degradation of such a neighbourhood, that they answer only with ghastly grins and a cringing paucity of words which seems to be borrowed from their companions, and to indicate the relinquishment of their last claim to the recognition of their old associates. Rooms, where dark-skinned, snakelike Hindoos (beggars and tract-sellers by day) live with English and Irish women as their wives, and live, as it [p. 134] would seem, not always so miserably as might be imagined. 
    Wretched rooms in the most wretched of all the houses, where yellow Chinese sit in the midst of filth upon a heap of rags or on a dislocated couch, the refuse of a neighbouring broker's shop, and stupefy themselves with opium, while their two or three wives quarrel or fight, or cook a modicum of rice and pork over the embers of a wretched fire, or themselves lie in blank indifference on the floor, overcome by the heavy fumes which are even more sickening than the foul air of the reeking hovels where Sin-Yang or How-Chi sit looking at intruders with an imbecile expression of surprise on their dirty gamboge faces, or blinking their black beadeyes, like great mechanical toys or wax-work, unpleasantly resembling life, but still more unpleasantly reminding one of death. These are some of the things disclosed by that portion of thief London lying dockward; and as I turn again into the broad thoroughfare of Whitechapel I meet tigers and tigresses going homeward to their dens, bearing Jack with them, and roaring jocose execrations, fierce epithets, or customary oaths, by way of greeting. Soon, however, all is still again; the last illuminated gin-palace is closed for the night, the gas is turned off at the Effingham Saloon, and, except for an occasional cry, as of some drowning wretch, there will be till morning a deep calm even in Tiger Bay. 

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