Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Ghosts of London by Night

[... back to menu for this book]




BEING, in its humble way, the perfection of what a working man's refreshment place should be, the interior fittings of the night coffee stall included a neat little Swiss clock, a glance at which informed me that it wanted but ten minutes to the completion of the first hour of morning. A bitterly cold morning, with snow on the housetops and with a granite-grey mixture caked hard on the pavement, which no more resembled snow, though it was only of yesterday's falling, than bread blue with mould, resembles the lily-white loaf shot from the baker's oven.
    I had discharged my cab at Stones-end, in the Borough, and walking on towards Newington Butts, spied the twinkling, cherry- coloured beacon that denoted the whereabouts of the welcome harbour of refuge a quarter of a mile distant, and as it was to be my starting point for a purpose the reader will presently discover, I steered for it at a brisk trot.
    Snug and clean as a ship's cabin, the convenient little shelter was built of boards and roofed with tarpaulin, with seats for six, and standing room for half-a-dozen more before the counter. Behind it were two bright tin boilers, each steaming over its charcoal fire; while a seductive fragrance of hot buttered toast, blending deliciously with the aroma arising from the brewed berries of Mocha met me at the threshold, and there and then settled the question as to what it would be best to call for.
    The keeper of the stall was a little, old man of cheery aspect, who wore white calico armlets over the sleeves of his overcoat [-67-] and a white apron. Being such bitterly cold weather, although he could have stood between his two fires and made toast at them with a fork in either hand, he was glad to wear a woollen comforter to keep his ears warm.
    His present customers were three decently-dressed fellows, on their way home, evidently; from a convivial party. Like sensible men, they were partaking of a "steadier" in the shape of a cup of hot and strong tea, and, like loyal subjects of Her Majesty, on whose patriotism thirteen degrees of frost had not the slightest depressing effect, they were singing "God save the Queen," or rather one of them was singing it, while, with much solemnity and feeling, his companions were beating time and something of a tune with their tea-spoons and saucers. The National Anthem concluded with a flourish, they all shook hands with the coffee-man, and, waggishly bidding him give their love to his old woman, took their departure in high spirits.
    "Thank goodness, they're gone," remarked the old fellow as he looked at the clock. "I shan't have any more of their sort tonight, I suppose."
    "What sort, then?" I asked him, as I sipped at my coffee. "What do you mean 'atween now and four?"
    "Well, rather a seedy sort in general," he replied; "monster-scripts I call 'em."
    "You mean nondescripts, I suppose - a sort it is not easy to describe?"
    "That's just what I do mean, master," he replied, towelling a cup he had just washed with an energy that bespoke the strength of his conviction. "What's more if I was a man given to betting, I'd lay a farden cake that not one in three of 'em that look in here between half-past one and four could describe himself; leastways he might, but he wouldn't care to."
    "Perhaps," said I, "the sort of people you allude to get a dishonest living. That will account for their being out and about at such unreasonable hours."
    But the old stall-keeper shook his head.
    "That's the puzzler," he remarked. "If they were the thieving sort it would be plain enough. But they ain't. I havn't kept a night stall all these years in this neighbourhood not to know a thief when I see him. They ain't of that kidney. They- ahem!"
    And, at that moment, there appeared a man dressed in shabby black, and wearing gloves so dilapidated that several of his finger-tips and nails were exposed - neatly cut and well-shaped nails, as was easy to see as he placed a penny on the counter for a cup of coffee, and presently, and as though it required some consideration, another halfpenny for a single slice of bread and butter. He was in no hurry; but, sitting in the glow of the fire, seemed to be eking out his coffee so that it might last a certain time.
    Two journeymen bakers, just going to work, were served, and one of them had detailed to the old stall-keeper the particulars of a dreadful cough to which he was a victim, when another man put his head in, and claimed, in a sharp voice, to him who was waiting-
    "Now, then, wake up there."
    On which the young man jumped up in a hurry, and the two went off together.
    "Now you've seen one of 'em," remarked the old gentleman be-[-68-]hind the counter. "Four nights out of six this happens. Never more than a pen'orth and one slice. The sharp 'un comes in, and never has anything. Sometimes, not often, the sharp un don't come at all. Then the other will sit for an hour, lookin' at last so down on his luck it makes one miserable to see him. You stop a bit longer, if you ain't in a hurry to get home, and you'll see some more of 'em."
    He replenished my cup and filled one for himself, and, both being fortified from my pocket- flask, the old gentleman and myself were soon on better terms. Three times while I sat there as many poor petticoated wretches came begging for a drink of coffee, and it was good to hear the old boy bluster at them while he winked at me, and gave them what they asked, swearing by all that was good, that if they ever dared come in again he'd lock em up. But "monsterscripts" seemed scarce that night.
    Only one more that could fairly claim to be classed under that heading, made his appearance during the remaining half-hour of my stay. This, a bluff man, warmly, though commonly clad, middle-aged, with the hoarse voice of one used to be out in all weathers, and with great coarse hands denoting rough work. He was smoking a big cigar, and after he had ordered some coffee he took a newspaper out of his pocket.
    "You've got a minute to spare, haven't you?" he asked of the old coffee man.
    "I always have for a customer, sir."
    "Well, never mind about 'always' (with a glance in my direction); just run your eye down this ere column of prowinshal news, and read it out. I haven't found them glasses of mine, or I wouldn't trouble you."
    But he didn't want to hear the whole column read.
    "Skip that," he'd say, when the old gentleman had read the first line or two of each succeeding paragraph; but when he come to one under the heading of "Bristol" he let his heavy jaws fall ajar and listened to every word. But he seemed disappointed, after all, and, having only just sipped his coffee, walked off with his paper without a thank you.
    "Riddle-me, riddle-me," said the old coffee-man.
    "Pr'aps you might tell me what he may be. He's been here off and on of nights at that same game for nearly a month now. What should you say a man worked at who never went to bed o' nights, who hadn't got a friend at home to read a paper for him, and who was so anxious for news from Bristol ?"
    I gave up the complicated conundrum, being pressed for time, and having an appointment at St. George's Church at two o'clock.
    Just by St. George's Church in the Borough are two thoroughfares - the one broad and cheerful, the other dingy and narrow, and skulking behind the houses. The first mentioned is the Dover Road. The Borough High Street is composed of the shops and warehouses of prosperous merchants and tradesmen ; but in the back settlements, left and right, may be found a vast acreage of tumble-down tenements swarming with bad men, bad women, bad boys.
    Poor little wretches, who, from earliest infancy, are bound prentice, as it were, to thiefcraft, with capable and diligent masters to instruct them in all its arts and mysteries. But the apprentice qualifying for penal servitude may [-69-] not always take kindly to the business. As he grows up he may be unaccountably smitten with a yearning to be honest. He dare not make mention of his strange malady amongst his friends. He must scrupulously conceal from them its signs and symptoms. Let him confess to having smallpox or typhus fever, and they will brave personal danger and defy the sanitary authorities, and nurse him in their midst; but among such a black flock one turned honest is a white sheep to be shunned as a leper. Not that they are afraid of honesty because it is contagious. They are not likely to catch it. But they are aware of its subtle influence, and are jealous lest it should prove the thin end of a wedge to split and rout them.
    The Kent Street bred lad who would turn over a new leaf must go far afield to do it. Why not go to sea? It is not too much to assume that the name of the adjoining road - the Dover Road - has put this wholesome idea into the head of many a poor gutter waif of the neighbourhood. All that he has to do is to manfully make a start, and keep on and on and eventually he will arrive at the seaport itself and become a sailor.
    Kent Street is much better than it used to be. Still, even now, an honest man will hardly like to hold himself responsible for all the various industries that are carried on in its courts and alleys, or to venture into them alone and after midnight to make inquiries as to the ways and means of the inhabitants He would find them all "toilers " for a certainty. It is no less true that lazy folk take the greatest pains than that the ways of dishonesty - at least as regards the lower classes - are rougher and harder to travel than the paths of probity.
    Take the year through, with its windfalls of luck, and its keen nor'easters of adversity, and the poor rogue has to work harder for a criminal crust than the bricklayer's labourer or the slop tailor for untainted bread. There are mysteries in the under-currents of London life that police statistics fail to throw a satisfactory light on.
    Hundreds of individuals somehow "pick up a living," but how would defy the cleverness of Scotland Yard to explain. They are not of the criminal class, proved and branded, and yet their means of living is a secret, and their hours of business are when the majority of honest men are abed and asleep.
    Who, for example, are the late workers for whom the doorkeepers of the common lodging-houses of Kent Street, of Mint Street, and of half-a-dozen other of the slums of Southwark contentedly sit up hours after midnight.
    It has struck two by St. George's chimes. The gas jet that makes a transparency of the dingy red or yellow blind that drapes the parlour window, and on which is inscribed "Good single beds at threepence half-penny," may be turned low for economy's sake. The upper windows, where the dormitories are, may show no sign of light or life, but push open any one of the battered old Street doors (they're all on the latch), and there will be found the lodging-house "deputy," dozing, perhaps, beside his brazier of glowing coke, but ready to rouse at the swinging of the door, and to receive threepence halfpenny and give in exchange the tin ticket that entitles the holder to join the seven times seven sleepers in the well-packed apartment where the good beds are.
   [-70-] But who is the man, the dozen men, that, after the clock has struck two, push open the the street-door and walk in without ceremony? The "deputy" asks no questions, and therefore he hears no lies, as probably he would were he to show himself inquisitive. It is no part of his duty to pry into the private affairs of the customers of the establishment. It is not as it used to be at these places. Time was, and that not so many years since, when the threepenny lodging-house-keeper was almost invariably a retired thief content to pass the evening of his life as a peaceful purchaser of stolen property, and who, if ever there was any unpleasantness in the shape of policeman hammering at his door at an unseasonable hour, would regard it as his duty to slip upstairs, and, for the benefit of any one whom it might particularly concern, throw out a hint that the back door was unbolted.
    Now, however, there is no lodging-house so "common" but that the law has a kindly regard for it. It must be conducted under a police licence, and inspectors are appointed to see that every lodger gets his fair share of breathing space, and that the sheets are changed something oftener than once a month. But in no part of the Act of Parliament is it insisted on that every person shall on application for a lodging produce to the deputy a certificate of character.
    You must take care of yourself if you are doubtful of the company you may find yourself in. The proprietor takes care of himself. He is a man not given to make himself or others uncomfortable by an affectation of delicacy. He brands his sheets " Stop Thief," with indelible marking ink and in inch-long letters. The backs of the shoe-brushes, the knives and forks, the very gridiron handle, is marked, "Stolen from Dodger's Lodging House." Why not? To a person incapable of an act of dishonesty what is there in mere words? The sheets are as snug to lie in; the bristles of the shoe- brushes are not at all depressed by the shameful brand on their backs; the vile insinuation on the gridiron will not taint the toothsome rasher grilled on its bars. It is assumed that the man who comes to Dodger to lodge is not straight from the country. Even if he be he will get fair treatment as far as possible.
    The deputy who keeps guard in the passage sits on a large box or locker, and is ready to receive any bundle or article of value an intending lodger may choose to entrust with him. As regards one's personal attire, including his cap and his boots, it is understood that he will make a bundle of them them and deposit them beneath his bolster. If he is so careless as to leave his things lying about, and a fellow-lodger should mistake them for his own, it is his look out. They are not all of the thief tribe, however-probably not more than three or four in a score are so.
    What, then, are the majority, and what is the business that detains them abroad until two or three o'clock in the morning. Some of them are known to the police, but not in an invidious sense. There are two guardians of the night gossipping in growling whispers as I halt at the entrance of one of the alleys, a little way up which there is lettered on a lamp the familiar legend, "Lodgings. Presently there comes shuffling over the frozen pavement at a stamping half-trot that betokens benumhed toes, a lank form in [-71-] seedy black, buttoned up to the chin, while the greasy old tall black hat the man wears is pulled down so low over his head that the rim rests on the upturned collar of his coat. He is more than middle aged, and there is an unmistakable air of gentility about the poor fellow, though one gets but a glimpse of him by the dim light of the street lamp. The policemen know him. As he turns sharply out of the highway into the alley one of them civilly accosts him-
    "What cheer, Barnabas!"
    And the other remarks, as to an old acquaintence- " How's the little 'un?" Whereon Barnabas, who in response to "What cheer?" merely nodded, is brought to a standstill, and faces round gratefully to the last questioner, and replies-
    "Thanky, she's on the mend. She'll pull through, after all, I really do think."
    "Lor' now, ain't it wonderful !" the policeman remarks, when Barnabas, not without a bit of a wrench, raises his old hat from his head, and for an instant shows his grizzled grey hair and a face lit with pious thankfulness. Then the door of the threepenny lodging-house opening to receive him, a glow of ruddy light from the coke brazier is cast on the opposite side of the alley, and he is gone. What kind of "toiler" is Barnabas, I wonder; and, child or woman, who is "the little un," and why is it so wonderful that she is mending?
    Next approaches the alley a bird of another sort, one of the true Vulture breed - beetle-browed, and with an under jaw capable, seemingly, of crunching bones as easily as an ordinary person masticates meat, broad-shouldered bullet-headed, and with his throat muffled up in a bulky wrapping of dirty white material, the knot of which is artistically tied under his left ear.
    One of the policemen shoots a ray from his lantern at him as he enters at the arch, and he blinks scowingly, but takes no further notice, and again the fiery shadow on the grimy wall tell that the door where the lamp hangs has opened to receive him. Then comes a fellow as different as light from dark to either - a man who has the appearance of a Thames waterman, and who, though neither jolly or young, is by no means ill-looking. He wears a blue guernsey, his knee-high boots are smeared with shore mud, and he carries a boat-hook. The handle of the last. mentioned touches one of the policemen as the fellow turns into the alley, and the officer not uncivilly, remarks, "Now then, stupid," on which he of the miry boots turns round, and in language so horrible that to listen to it has a more chilling effect on the blood than the night frost itself reveals the kind of ruffian he is, and could be, when put on his metal; and he, too, sought a lodging where the lamp hung. Barnabas appeared to be so dreadfully cold that he was probably a-bed by this time, but just imagine the picture of his as the middle one of three bedsteads, and with the blasphemous boatman on his one side and the heavy-jawed, burglarious-looking brute on the other - they snorting and gasping in their ugly dreams, and he lying awake, with his honest nose within an inch of the sheetbrand "Stop Thief!" with the same look of thankfulness on his face it had worn when he raised his hat in the alley, and cheery at heart, despite all, now that the "little 'un was mending."