Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pauper, The Thief and the Convict, by Thomas Archer, 1865 - Chapter 8 - Weasels Asleep

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    I had already seen something of that teeming neighbourhood lying between Field Lane and the boundary of the district known as the West End. I knew that the very day after my visit the colony of organ-grinders had, by some extraordinary chance, come under the inspection of an officer of health, who found it composed of a number of men huddled together in lodgings so crowded that as many as ten people had been known to sleep on a landing where the effluvium was sickening, and the condition of the whole place such as is commonly described by the epithet "beastly dirty." I had learned too, with genuine pleasure, that to alleviate the awful sum-total of misery and degradation, the male night-refuge in connection with the Field Lane Ragged Schools had, during twelve months, received 3234 strangers, of whom 711 had been provided for, and the others bad left for work. That in the female refuge 2647 women had been sheltered, and many of these were from fifteen to twenty years of age. That altogether upwards of 10,000 persons had shared in the charity of the institution. That of these, 1695 had been taken from the streets, and had been placed by the committee in a position in which they could earn their own livelihood. And that the total receipts were £ 4182 12s. 8d., and expenditure £ 3739 11s. 11d. 
    I know too that in Fox Court, Gray's Inn Lane, once [-136-] the famous Thieves' Kitchen, in the days when thieves had kitchens, -has been for some time past opened as a school; that the superintendent and teachers, with a perseverance which must be almost dauntless, have striven until their work has become acceptable to a very large number of the poor, and none the less so that they really, as far as their limited funds will permit, provide for the temporal needs of the people in the district. That they visit the lodging-houses to give religious instruction; have organized a visiting and relief association; have regaled the parents of the children in the Hall of Gray's Inn with roast beef and plum pudding; have given a good supper to eighty-two men who have attended their meetings from the common lodging-houses; have had children's treats, lectures, concerts, and mother's meetings; and have instituted a penny bank and a free lending library. All this has been done by the earnest efforts of men and women who felt that the very magnitude of the evil against which they had to contend was a reason for their striving to reclaim ever so small a part of that domain where the law seems to have effected little, and the Gospel must still be carried with a living influence and sympathy, without which it is no Gospel, but the very brassiest of brazen sounds, the most unmeaning tinkling of cymbals. 
    Yes, I know that all these things have been done, and yet that the results, full of hope as they may be, are but as a single green twig upon a great blank wall. 
    The growth of one small school is too slow to cover such a black and frowning space, and more cuttings from the Tree of Life are wanted, with willing hands to plant them. 
    Some unwholesome examples of the influences of the neighbourhood are to be seen even in the main thoroughfare [-137-] of Holborn, for here, in a tavern, where the gas is full on, and the energies of the barmen are at their stretch to supply the demands for liquor, there is a remarkable assembly of thieves and prostitutes, alternating with a few casual customers, who have come in for a "glass of bitter," and are of course unconscious that it is a well-known member of the detective police force who is conversing so affably with a gentleman in the tightest of corduroys and the sleekest of heads, over a glass of whisky and water. 
    I have no business here, however, and my evening's excursion has nothing directly to do with the police. I have received, in fact, a general invitation from the landlord of a common lodging-house; and as I know he is always to be found at this particular time sitting in a sort of state to receive his customers, I determined to pay him a visit. 
    His house is reached by an archway leading to a narrow court where there is a great quarrel in progress, proceeding - as I am informed by an Irishman, who has evidently been laid up with a broken head, and now stands taking the air of the main street - from a lot of drunken people. This intimation having been given with a manner which would denote that my informant was innocent even of the smell of strong drink, I refrain from pursuing so painful a subject, but make the best of my way to a doorway on the right, where I am recognised by a young man, whose appearance is so different from that of the ordinary inhabitants of the locality, that I am at first doubtful whether I have not made his acquaintance elsewhere. 
    He is, in fact, dressed in black, and wears a scarf confined by a neat pin, and an unobtrusive silk watchguard; a white apron over all, gives him the appearance of a barman at a respectable tavern -a resemblance made all the more striking by his having taken off his coat and rolled [-138-] up a pair of very clean shirt sleeves, nearly as high as his elbows. He is, in fact, no other than the general foreman or manager of the two houses, one of which I am about to enter, and where from eighty to a hundred beds are made up when business is pretty brisk. In answer to my inquiries, I am told that the proprietor (known here as the guv'ner, or more frequently as "the old man," "governor" having, after all, a disagreeable association) is at present not at all busy, and will be glad to see me, whereupon I walk into a dirty passage, and, finding myself in darkness before I have proceeded for half a dozen steps, I push open the first door that offers itself where I see signs of a light. As it happens, this is the room where the proprietor sits, if I may so speak, at the receipt of custom. It is a dim, fusty, frowsy back parlour, with a window which would look--if it were not too blind to look anywhere-upon a bare paved yard, with a sink in it. The proprietor's bedstead, a low "stump," of the regulation common-lodging-house size and pattern, occupies a long recess on one side, and is as confused a bedstead as it has ever been my lot to see, heaped as it is with a large variety of bed-clothes, not a little tumbled, as though they had served as a couch during the day for a series of individuals of very diverse tastes in their choice of position. Opposite this, on the other side, a long deal dresser, with a few shelves, is set out with two or three common articles of earthenware, some common knives, and certain small parcels and bundles appertaining to lodgers, who have left them in the proprietor's care. On sundry lines overhead hang proprietor's stockings, and some other small belongings of his, which appear to make a pretence of having been lately washed, and are now in process of becoming dirty again in the rather close atmosphere of a not very well savoured [-139-] room, in a remarkably ill-savoured neighbourhood. At a rickety table, and in a large, old, easy chair, which, to judge from its size, shape, and greasy leather covering, was superannuated when a hall porter of the last century took it with him into private life, sits the proprietor himself, whose general appearance is that of a highly respectable vestryman in his year-before-last's suit of clothes, and with a confirmed habit of going to bed without taking them off. There is something in the proprietor's manner so sagacious, and withal so full of a sort of experienced consideration, that he might be a sitting magistrate with a compassionate interest in a prisoner, or even an alderman with a philanthropic purpose, except that he is more deliberate than any magistrate of my acquaintance, and more intelligent than most London aldermen. 
    I am so reassured by the calm and dignified manner in which he desires me to "take a chair," that I am less startled than might have been expected when a large black cat makes a sudden spring on to my shoulder, and nearly causes me to overturn one of the two unsnuffed dips, in rusty iron candlesticks, by the light of which the proprietor is engaged in making entries of customers as they appear in a large, dingy, thumb-marked ledger, ruled with a money column, and containing the names of such lodgers as come night after night, and mostly occupy, a particular bed in some favorite room. The proprietor has heard of his establishment being mentioned even in print, in a police report, as a "thieves' kitchen" a title which he holds to be altogether libellous; there is a kitchen there, as in all common lodging-houses, for the use of the customers, but he don't own that his customers are thieves, and don't know them to be thieves; "some of 'em," he is "quite certain, aint," and others, he [-140-] has no doubt, are, but he asks no questions, and he don't want thieves; if a thief goes there, he perhaps knows him, and them that he thinks are only just going wrong he talks to, and tries to persuade them to keep themselves right. 
    Does he ever give credit? 
    Well, yes; sometimes he does to his regular lodgers, or if he knows that a young fellow is hard - up he don't mind letting him come for a night or two, if he's well disposed and tries to get work; and as for thieves, he don't want 'em to come, and they know that he won't harbour 'em; nor, on the other hand, won't ask questions, and then he can't know nothing. As to the police, they got no information from him; he never has any to give 'em, and he's determined not to have anything to do with the police, and not to have his men made a show of, like wild beasts. The police shall learn nothing from him; what they want to know let them find out for themselves, for they'd, most of 'em, convict him or me of a robbery if they could, supposin' they couldn't get hold of the right person, that they might get the credit of convicting somebody. He knows 'em pretty well, and there ain't much to choose amongst 'em; no, nor magistrates and lawyers and the whole lot of 'em. There mayn't be false swearing, call it what you like, but they wag their jaws to a lie, swear they don't see black, because they won't look at anything but white. 
    Am I aware that some property very near there, and now devoted to a lodging-house, belonged to Lord Bacon? He was one of 'em. One of the greatest rascals that ever went unhung, he considers him. 
    As to literature, it's his opinion that Milton was the greatest poet for sublimity, and then Shakespeare and Byron. 
    Did he enter the name of his lodgers in that book?
    [-141-]  Yes, such names as the regulars chose to give, or such as he knew 'em by they mostly put against the numbers of the rooms they occupied, so that there should be no mistake. 
    Some of the names chosen are either evidence of a peculiar taste on the part of those who chose them, or are highly illustrative, for I notice that the list includes "Dick Turpin," while some modest lodger, who is, I suppose, his companion, is satisfied to be recognised as "Dick Turpin's mate." Similarly, "Cock Sparrow" is followed by "Sparrow's mate," while "Oxford," "Jeweller," "Bos," "Countryman," "Rubbing-up Jack," "Rubbing-down Bill," "Coachman," and a few others, rely entirely upon their own attractions. 
    During the time that we are conversing the lodgers are coming in. Their chamber candlesticks have already been prepared in the shape of half inches of rushlight stuck upon small shards of broken crockery, of which ingenious adaptations there are perhaps forty on the table. It is comparatively early, and yet the larger number of the men and lads, as they come in, pay their threepence, and go off to bed at once, with a tired look which seems to disregard everything but sleep. Some of these have to be called at four and five o'clock in the morning; but others come and engage their beds and then go out again, or borrow a plate and take their supper with them into the kitchen, whither I shall presently follow them. 
    A man who has been driving a hearse, a stableman who leaves part of a harness in care of the proprietor, a plasterer, a couple of bricklayers, two or three whose occupation is not to be discovered from their appearance-one of them a shabby buttoned--up man with a hang-dog look, and another, an elderly man who looks as though he sold  [-142-] books or pamphlets in the streets or at the bars of public-houses - one or two unmistakable young London thieves, and two boys who came in upon the introduction of a third, and stand laughing and kicking at each other in the passage until they come just within the door to pay their money; when proprietor "reckons ‘em up," (as he says,) at a look, and at once informs them that he won't have any tricks, and that if they make a disturbance he shall "be with 'em, and throw 'em down stairs in half a minute." 
    They are both thieves he tells me presently; not that he has ever seen them before, but he knows in a moment by the looks of 'em, and he should have told 'em so if I hadn't been there, and have given ‘em a talking to, which he has under present circumstances forborne out of regard to their feelings. 
    Another bricklayer, another plasterer, three wretched buttoned-up men of different ages, each in a lower stage of shabbiness than the last, and all more miserable in appearance than the labourers in their coarse grimy clothes; several hungry, anxious, pallid-looking youths, who are, I am assured, willing enough to work if they can get work to do, and have only occasionally gone wrong when it was that or starvation; a cab-driver and a lanky young fellow all begrimed with coal dust from head to foot, and with a short pipe in his mouth. This lodger is so astoundingly lively and wide awake in comparison with the other labourers who have come in, that he makes the place quite cheerful, and holds an argument with the proprietor and his foreman to prove that he was there on the previous night, which impression is corrected by reference to the book, where he is much astonished to discover that he figures under the denomination of Pot-boy, and delivers  [-143-] an opinion that he must have been "tight" when he gave such a name as that, which probability is by no means denied, although the name is persisted in.     
    "You must get your beds very dirty," I remark, not, perhaps, unnaturally impressed with the appearance of this visitor. 
    "Well, you see, there's what we call clean dirt, and that doesn't so much matter; but, as a rule, the people that look most respectable - them that wear shabby clothes and seem cleanest outside, that is, without any rough dirt on 'em - are really the dirtiest; they're often swarming with vermin, and once or twice we've had a bed in a dreadful state after one of that sort." 
    "Do you often have people who have been in good circumstances, broken-down gentlemen or scholars, for instance?" 
    "Oh dear, yes; some that we know, and perhaps more that we don't know, as we never ask any questions, or very seldom. I've had a baronet; he was hard up, and went away to the hospital, where he died; and I've had a clergyman, brought down with drink, he was; and I've had two or three literary men, clever fellows one or two of ‘em; but all for drink, and no respect hardly for themselves. It's mostly drink that does it with them." 
    Not desiring to bring the conversation to a personal issue, I professed myself anxious to "have a look over;" that proposition having already been made to me by my host, and to that end follow the foreman, who precedes me, up a flight of creaking stairs, with a flaring candle which barely serves to reveal the discoloured paint upon the walls, and the time-worn woodwork of the floors. I am bound to say that the apartment specially retained by the proprietor for his own use is by no means the best 
    [-144-] example of cleanliness in the building, but at the same time it must be remembered that none of the other rooms contain any other furniture than beds and bedding. 
    The walls are for the most part covered with common paper hangings of light clean patterns, and both floors and staircases are evidently well swept and not unfrequently scrubbed, duties which, together with the bedmaking, are performed by the foreman, with the assistance of another young man, who has, this evening, taken his turn out. In every room a printed notice is hung against the wall, stating the number of beds which are allowed to be occupied in that room, according to the requirements of the Act for regulating common lodging-houses, and the measurement of the Government Inspector. Assuredly not too much space is given to each sleeper; and although there would be perhaps sufficient ventilation if the windows were allowed to remain open at the top, such is the repugnance of the lodgers to cool air, that even in this stifling night, in a close neighbourhood, they carefully fasten up every aperture, and one irritable inmate exhorts us with imprecations not to leave that adjective door open. Two large dilapidated old tenements have been thrown into one, or rather united by a landing leading from one to the other, and by a communication between the back yards. Such repairs as are necessary have been effected, and have, I understand, cost a considerable sum; but every foot of space has been made available, and as there are rooms at all sorts of queer angles and up little supplementary flights of stairs, and at the end of unexpected passages, the effect to an unaccustomed visitor is a little confusing; especially as the general resemblance of the apartments to each other is not counteracted by any change of furniture. Some of the rooms, however, are larger than others - the [-145-] most commodious holding eight or ten beds, the smaller ones only four. The bedsteads are all of one barrack pattern, that of the cut-down wooden "stump," and the bedding consists of flock mattrasses, coarse sheets, blankets, and rugs, but no pillows, a bolster answering the purpose. These articles are, in fact, mostly returned military stores and other cheap bedding, picked up at second-hand, "down The Lane," by which is meant Petticoat Lane, sometimes known by its more genteel name of Middlesex Street, where the Jew brokers deal in everything, from a surgeon's lancet to a saddle-back boiler; or, from a child's old shoe to a diamond snuff-box. Up and down the stairs, which grow narrower as I ascend, and along passages where sometimes the boards bend beneath my tread, I am conducted to the topmost story, which is only reached by a high flight of new steps, steep as those of a ship's hold, and known to the lodgers as "Jacob's ladder." What can be the motive for some of the customers preferring the rooms to which this leads--as I am informed they do-is matter of conjecture; but it is assuredly a place in which nobody would desire to find himself without a light, unless he had some strong reason for the preference. 
    I see no angels coming and going upon this ladder, which is named after that of the patriarch's dream, but I see many faces as I pass through the rooms where the lodgers are, some of them, already asleep. More than one, half-hidden by the bed-clothes, peer out keenly and with a look of wistful inquiry, which is not altogether free from anxious fear; others stare with a dogged indifference; others, again, are relaxed in sleep; while one, which is deadly pale and lighted by blood-shot angry eyes, belongs to a man who is a confirmed drunkard, and, not having money to buy gin, drinks the naphtha-like spirits which he [-146-] uses in his work, mixed with a jug of water, which stands even now beside his bed. In almost every room faces, watchful, stupid, anxious, weary, dogged, aggressive, cunning, with each and every variety of expression, but with miserable poverty, if not crime, plainly visible in by far the larger number, look at me as I pass, or turn heavily round in sleep. In one room the single tenant, who is sitting up in bed making an ineffectual effort to turn his shirt, says in a drunken voice that he's not wanted, evidently associating my visit with the police, and immediately afterwards falls into the verse of a comic song, in the midst of which I leave him to darkness and himself. Down by another staircase into a large paved yard, of a dark and melancholy appearance, furnished with a shed where there is water and a sink, but no towel, since a former experiment in that direction led to the last one being stolen; down another short flight of stone steps (as loose and irregular as those of a cathedral turret), round a sharp corner, through a half-opened door, and I am in the kitchen. 
    A large stone-paved place, occupying the entire basement of one of the houses, its walls whitewashed, and its low ceiling crossed with beams. At the further end a large wide range, in which a good fire is burning, and on the hearth a tin pot, a gridiron, and a toasting-fork, for the convenience of those who have anything to cook, or desire to drink warm beer on this sultry night. Sitting on forms drawn up to the two or three rough deal tables, or taken to the wall for the greater convenience of leaning against it, such lodgers as have brought in food with them uncover it in a deliberate, secret manner, as though they objected to reveal its quality, and eat it in a stealthy way, which seems to impart a relish to it. Whatever it is, there [-147-] is but little of it; and to-night, at least, the fire is but little used for culinary purposes. At the middle table a party is playing at all fours with a pack of greasy cards, and those who are not watching or disputing about the game either sit listlessly about the room, lounge on the forms, or speak together in muttered tones. Here and there are gathered three or four lads or men who seem to know each other, and occasionally a burst of laughter, a rough joke, or even the momentary excitement of a fight, will create a diversion; but for the most part the lodgers are moody, listless, and somewhat suspicious in their bearing; so much so, that it strikes me they are no better off in this respect than the politer society from which they are excluded, and that their reunions have a general resemblance to some other parties at which I have been present, inasmuch as everybody must feel bedtime a relief from the oppression of a simulated conviviality. 
    If any one thing is farthest from my thoughts at this moment than any other it is the sea, and yet I am presently making the voyage to China in a large trading ship, and have just stepped into the second mate's cabin. To be more circumstantial, I have turned round a corner of the great kitchen on my way out, and have been invited by my guide to look at his drawing-room. The place which he is pleased thus to designate is a place of some six feet square, which may formerly have been a large closet, and is so situated that, while it commands the entrance to the kitchen, it is out of sight, and, in a measure, out of sound of what is going on there. This, I learn, is where he sometimes sits during his nightly duty; for it is his business to keep awake, and pretty wide awake too, till the earliest lodgers begin to stir abroad, a regulation not altogether unnecessary in an establishment where the [-148-] street-door is always open, and threepence down entitles any man or boy to tumble into the first unoccupied bed he happens to find in his way. To make a sort of bower, not in the horticultural, but the boudoir sense, in a little whitewashed closet at the corner of a common lodging-house kitchen, is, I make bold to say, a stroke of genius, which beats stage transformation scenes all to nothing; and yet here it is, as wonderfully suggestive a snuggery as it has ever been my lot to visit. I'm not sure that there isn't a sofa in it; at all events there is some contrivance which looks like one, and there is a chair and a table, and a shelf of books, and another shelf of sea-shells, and a collection of stones and bright knickknacks, of very little value to anybody but the owner, but God only knows of how much value to him; and coloured pictures, and prints and gay engravings from our old friend the Illustrated News; and a flute, or I am much mistaken, but certainly something in the shape of music peeping from behind one of the shelves and a score of odds and ends, which never could be catalogued even in a broker's inventory, to which fate heaven grant they may never approach. 
    There is something so delightful in the sudden revelation of such a place - it is so small, that we can't both sit down in it, and the atmosphere of the kitchen is at the present moment about equal to that of a small bakehouse when the batch is being drawn - that I almost lose myself for a moment in a sea-dream, minus a whiff or two of briny breeze; and determining to see no more that can destroy so pleasing an impression, call in upon the proprietor, who is still sitting in his bower under an umbrageous canopy of worsted stockings, and take my leave. 

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