Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - At the Pawnbroker's

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A FAULTY figure in Mr Pledger's polite reply to my request for permission to be allowed to visit his establishment on a Saturday night, led to my arriving there just three hours before he expected me. He had written, "With much pleasure. Be here at eight o'clock." But his manner of making an "eight" is very like that adopted by most people in making a five, and so it came about that at the hour last indicated I crossed the threshold of his dingy, low-ceilinged shop, which is situated not a hundred miles, or, indeed so much as ninety-nine from White Cross Street, in the parish of St. Luke.
    There was an open door at the side-street portion of Mr. Pledger's business, which disclosed a long, gloomy passage, and all down one side of it were other doors, battered-looking, dinted, greasy, furnished with neither latch nor knocker. In one respect they were similar to the door of prisons cells, inasmuch as each had a "spy-hole" the size of a penny bored breast high in the panel, the use of which I presently discovered, for there suddenly glided in from the street a young woman who bore in her arms what from its size and shape might have been a newly mummified baby in brown bandaging. She did not perceive me, but I saw her apply her eye at three spy-holes in succession, and then she tried a fourth, and with more satisfaction I suppose, since next moment she had vanished into the box beyond. Evidently the peep-holes were a delicate provision made by Mr. Pledger on behalf of shy customers, who, availing themselves of them, might guard against the unpleasantness of finding themselves in the same small compartment with their next door neighbour.
    I took the earliest opportunity to congratulate Mr. Pledger on his kindly regard for the more sensitive of his clients, but, with a [-13-] laugh, he bluntly disclaimed the polite intention, declaring that the boles were for ventilation.
    "There are not many bashful ones amongst my customers," said he, "and so you'll say when you see'em, about ten o'clock tonight, jammed altogether in a crowd, every box full, and the passage as well, and out on the very pavement, and everybody pushing and driving and clamouring to be served. But there won't be any of that fun for a couple of hours to come, and perhaps you would like to have a look over my place and get an idea of how we get through our business?"
    I willingly accepted his invitation, for Mr. Pledger's establishment had been mentioned to me as one that was greatly patronized by the toiling population in the midst of which it was planted. I accompanied him down to his underground cellars, where the light of a couple of safety lamps dimly disclosed hung all round the cellar walls - a sorry sight - workmen's idle tools, while the floor was strewn with mortgaged ironware and with scores of flat-irons ruddy with rust.
    Then we went upstairs. My first impression on entering what the friendly pawnbroker called the current-pledge warehouse was that if the place had been planned by an experienced incendiary for an unquenchable conflagration the arrangements could not have been more perfect. It was the second door of the house, and the partition walls had been removed, Converting it into one room about 30 feet deep and 20 feet wide. With scant elbow-room for any one who walked between, the whole space was fitted from floor to ceiling and from end to end, with separate frames of unpainted deal, divided and subdivided into compartments about 18 inches square, each one of which was stuffed full of large and small bundles of wearing apparel, or goods equally inflammable. The windows were opened back and front, and there were ventilators in the floor and ceiling.
    "We are obliged to keep the place well aired, you see," remarked Mr. Pledger; "you'd be surprised at the smell of mildew and mouldiness there is here if we have the place shut up for a few hours."
    "But what about fire?" I asked him.
    "You're right there," replied Mr. Pledger, shrugging his shoulders; "I reckon it would be a most tremendous flare up if it once broke out."
    "You take every possible precaution, of course?"
    "Yes, every possible precaution, but you see we are much at the mercy of our customers. When we are busy 'taking in' we can't overhaul the pockets of the jackets and things that are brought here. We often find lucifer matches and cigar lights loose in the pockets of men's clothes when they are out of date and forfeited. It is a wonder that our trade does not suffer from fire more than it does. Should I suffer much loss in the event of a conflagration? I should indeed. I am pretty heavily insured, and at a risk premium, but I should find myself many hundred pounds on the wrong side of the ledger."
    "It would be for the owners of the pawned property to estimate and prove its value, and you would have to pay it I suppose?"
    Mr. Pledger laughed.
    "Don't be harder on us than the Act of Parliament is," he replied. "We are liable according to a settled scale, the value of [-14-] everything we advance money on is assumed to be twenty-five per cent. more than the amount of the loan, and that is what I should have to pay in every case by way of damages - five shillings in the pound on the sum appearing on the face of the pawn ticket."
    "And how many customers are represented by these racks-full of parcels - one for each?" I asked him.
    "Take the average," returned Mr. Pledger, "I should think you might put it at five parcels for every customer. You've no idea what it is to do what I call a family trade in our line of business, sir. Some of my customers have as many as eight or ten parcels to take out every Saturday night, quite a load for one of the elder boys or girls to carry. But you shall see for yourself by and by. We find it handier to keep the goods of our regular weekly customers on one floor, and in some sort or order ready for collection and throwing down the spout. It is tearing work as it is for two of my young chaps, stripped to their braces, from eight till eleven on Saturday nights. When I speak of our weekly customers I mean those who bring their goods to pawn regularly on Monday and redeem them again at the end of the week for Sunday wear. Is it a common practice? Well, I'll give you some idea, and you can judge for yourself. I reckon we have in the racks here at the present moment between fifteen and eighteen hundred parcels, and I'd lay a wager that when we put up the shop shutters to-night there won't be one hundred left. And I'd make another wager, and lay odds that by twelve o'clock next Tuesday morning the racks are all full again, just as you see 'em now, and with the very same parcels, and each one with a ticket pinned to it exactly like that it bore the week before."
    Once before I had seen such a show as the closely-packed racks presented, but under very different conditions. It was at Tothill Fields Prison for Women at Westminster, and in that department of it where the wearing apparel of the eleven hundred and odd incarcerated ones was separately deposited until the precious day of liberty arrived, and the owners might moult their gaol-bird plumage and take to their own feathers again.
    As in the pawnbroker's warehouse, each parcel had its pigeon hole, and to it was pinned a document of identity, not in form of a pawn-ticket, but a small square of paper, inscribed with the name of the prisoner whose property it was, together with the character of her offence and the term of her sentence. And I well remember that the most striking feature of the shameful show, was the hat or bonnet of the erring one perched atop of the clothes bundle, and outraging the sternness of the dimly-lighted chamber with their blowsy show of flowers and feathers. It was at a period when women's out-of-door head-gear was elaborately ornamental and of considerable size, so that there was but scant space in its allotted wooden cell for the skirts, and the boots, and the bonnet as well. Often the last-mentioned gaily bedizened article was unceremoniously thrust into the receptacle all askew or with its crown crushed in; but, despite these disadvantages, there seemed in it a devil-may-care-air of jauntiness and of defiance of all prison discipline that no amount of rigorous treatment could conquer.
    Every bonnet there appeared capable of telling its story, and [-15-] how far it was responsible for the degradation it had brought on its owner. Nor could one conceive the said confession being made in a contrite spirit. There did not seem to be a single really penitent bonnet in the whole collection, or one that, come the time when the law had no further right of detainer on it, and it once more crowned the head from which it had been for some months before dethroned, would care a button how much the young woman had taken to heart the good chaplain's admonition, or how earnestly she had promised him amendment. It, the flashy bonnet, would win her back to the wicked ways within a week of her regaining her liberty.
    I remarked to Mr. Pledger that a business such as his must be peculiarly susceptible of fluctuations and uncertainties, to which he replied, that, on the contrary, it was so steady that there never was a week that disturbed the balance of it by more than ten or twenty pounds.
    "A customer-I mean, of course, a regular customer," said he, "brings me an article for the first time-a new gown or a suit of Sunday clothes belonging to her husband or her boys. I put my my own price on it, or my young men do; and we've got to be precious careful, too, on that first occasion, I can tell you, for we're bound, in a manner of speaking, by that price ever afterwards. It is a fixed sum, and they look forward for it every time the pledge is renewed, and they kick up as much row as though you were robbing them if you dock the regular amount and offer them less."
    "But when the security depreciates in value through wear," I suggested, "then, of course, you lessen the amount of the loan?"
    Mr. Pledger's shrewd eyes glowered gloomily through his spectacles, as though I had broached a subject fraught with recollections that were not of the pleasantest.
    "I'm glad you mentioned that, sir," said he, "because it affords me an opportunity for setting right a misconception that possesses the general public. We pawnbrokers are set down as a rapacious lot, always on the look out to lend the smallest possible amount on property offered in pawn, and greedy as sharks in the way of charging interest. I won't say anything about the last mentioned part of the business, because that's settled by Act of Parliament. But as to lending the smallest sums, so that we may make a large profit in the event of property remaining unredeemed and being forfeited to us, you are probably aware that it is not the genteel pawnbroker, whose dealings are mainly with better class people that raise money on plate and jewellery, who has a bad name - it is tradesmen, who, like myself, deal almost exclusively with the mechanic and labouring classes. We are supposed to be grippers and grinders, whose gains are enormous, and who run no risk at all. Why, sir, there never was a greater mistake.
    "A man like me who has a good weekly intake and outflow spread amongst, roughly say, three hundred customers, is compelled to inn a risk that, supposing all his customers were to refrain from redeeming what they deposit with him, would go a long way towards ruining him. As regards a pawnbroker's regular customer trade in a poor neighbourhood, the security he holds for sums lent would not as a rule, cover his risk by a half should the pledges run out and the goods be sent to the [-16-] auction rooms. What do I mean when I say that the pawnbroker is compelled to run the risk ? Well, he must either do so or offend his regular customers and drive them to the opposition pawnbroker over the way or round the corner. I'll try and put it more plainly to you. Say a journeyman carpenter's wife pawns her husband's Sunday clothes with me for fifteen shillings -taking 'em out on Saturday and bringing 'em back on Monday regularly. That goes on for six months, or even a year, until as money security the suit isn't worth more than eight or ten shillings, but the carpenter's wife won't hear of any reduction of the amount of the loan. Since she had fifteen shillings last week, why can't she have it this, is her question, and until you are able to show her that the things are worn threadbare, she won't listen to reason. It doesn't matter of course, so long as she takes the suit out regularly on Saturday nights, the interest being four- pence, with a penny for the ticket, making fivepence."
    "Which is one and eightpence per month, or one pound per annum," I ventured.
    "Exactly," continued Mr. Pledger; " but supposing that the carpenter falls out of work, or becomes aware that you have lent him on his suit about double its worth, and he leaves it on your hands? I give you my word, sir, that when times have been bad for a long while I have had a matter of a couple of hundred pounds' worth of unredeemed goods by me that I'd been glad enough to have returned to the borrowers without any interest at all, if they'd only paid me the net sum lent, and thought myself well out of a difficulty."
    "Then from what you say," I remarked, "and returning to the original question of the possibility of a fire taking place on your premises, your regular customers, the owners of these two thousand parcels of various property, would not suffer any very serious loss or inconvenience?"
    "They wouldn't suffer much in the way of actual loss, but I wouldn't answer for the amount of inconvenience," returned Mr. Pledger with a grim smile; "some of the wives would find it slightly warm for them, I fancy. I don't mean they would find the fire itself warm, but the consequences of it. Why, sir, I have known a fire at a poor neighbourhood - pawnbroker's be the cause of so many savage assaults being took to the nearest station house, that the inspector on duty hasn't known where to put 'em all. Such an event makes known such a deal of secret pawning, you see, that the husbands never suspected. Scores of labouring men only want their decent clothes once a week and at holiday times, and never dream but they're in the drawer all ready for 'em to put on when they want 'em; and scores of women make use of my drawers instead of their own at home, to raise a few shillings, mostly buying gin with the money, and the husbands never the wiser, until a fire or some other mischief lets the cat out of the bag; then the women have to look out for squalls. It is wonderful what some women will do for that drop of gin when they grow used to it, continued Mr. Pledger, smiling, as an amusing instance illustrative of his last remark crossed his mind. "There is one customer of ours who never pawns anything but a razor, an old thing with a broken handle, and not worth a penny, come to the real value. Well, sir, you'd hardly believe that that razor [-17-] brings in about four and twenty shillings a year to us. It is an old woman who pawns it, and her husband, who is a decent fellow, works at some place where he is paid every night. Every morning, as regular as clockwork his wife is the first customer here with the old razor, and raises fourpence on it, or more correctly speaking, three-pence ha'penny, deducting the ha'penny we are entitled to charge on every pawn-ticket we issue. Just as regularly she fetches it at night, when her husband comes home and gives her her allowance of housekeeping money out of his day's pay. She's obliged to redeem it, you see, because he has a habit of shaving himself every morning before he goes out, and of course she has to pay a halfpenny interest every time. The threepence goes in gin. I know that for a fact because the publican down lower here is a friend of mine, and she's looked for at his place of a morning just as she is at mine. Do I think that the facilities afforded to poor people for borrowing money tempt them to intemperate habits? I don't believe that in nine cases in ten drink has anything to do with the matter at all. It's habit, sir, as much as anything that brings them here. It 2s quite a mistake to suppose - I am speaking of my own regular customers - that it is poverty that drives the working classes to the pawnshop. I could almost answer for it that of the whole number of women who regularly pawn their things with me half at least have husbands who are in constant employment at fair wages. If you come to think of it, they couldn't be regular customers unless such Was the case. How do I account for their ever coming here at all if they are always in receipt of regular earnings? That's easy enough explained. Something happens that throws the hand-to~mouth system out of gear to the extent, say, of ten shillings. Ready money is required for the weekly rent, and to keep the pot boiling the ten shillings has to be obtained. What is easier than to carry something - a bettermost coat or a gown that is worn only on Sundays - to the pawnbroker's? There will be money to redeem it on Saturday night, when the husband brings home his regular wages, and the accommodation costs but twopence or threepence. Come Monday, of course the loan has to be renewed, and so the thing goes on, and it becomes a regular habit to draw on me at the beginning of the week for means to meet the house. hold expenses; and the result, sir," said Mr. Pledger, smiling benignantly and spreading his hands and arms, "is what you at this moment see around you."
    It was by this time seven o'clock, and a fitful sound of muffled bumping that might have been the thumping of a head against a deal partition, but which in reality was caused by the precipitate descent down the spout of unredeemed parcels, announced that the earlier applicants were arising. But it was yet an hour and a half ere they appeared in such numbers as to provide really hard work for the three young men and Mr. Pledger himself, who now took their places behind the long narrow counter that extended all along in front of the row of boxes. The system pursued was very simple. Taking his stand at the far end of the shop, and "pulling himself together" as though about to engage in a walking match, one of the young men called out, "Now, then, tickets ready " an intimation that was instantly followed by a general out-thrusting of fists [-18-] along the front row, each one grasping one or more pawn tickets. Then the young man started, and with jaunty dexterity, and hand over hand, gathered the pasteboard crop without missing one for after gleaning. It was no use any one exclaiming, "Hi, Charles, you never took mine."  "You wasn't ready with it," replied Charles; "you'll wait till I come round again. The collected tickets were thrust into a leather bag that hung like a tongue in the mouth of the spout, a bell spring ~vas touched, and with a nervous leap the bag vanish upward. An interval of two or three minutes, and then commenced a downpour of parcels. Intermittent at first, but momentarily increasing until the spout was choked by a bundle of bulky dimensions, this impediment being removed by a shopman, down came those behind by dozens, to be recognised by their wrappings, and vociferously demanded by the owners. By nine o'clock there was such a clamour and such a crowding that I had no doubt that business must now be at fever heat; but I was mistaken. The pawnshop pulse was calm then to what it became half an hour afterwards; but it was half-past ten o'clock before it reached delirium pitch. Every box was jammed full, the passage beyond was blocked and impassable except to those of strength, who used their bulk of bundles battering-ram wise, and forced a way through the press. I have no doubt that at the last there were at least a hundred and twenty customers, mostly women and big girls, crushing and struggling to the front, each one with a sheaf of tickets in her grip ready to be thrust forth when Charles made his next collection, and all the time, as fast as those who had been served scrambled out as many more scrambled in; while in the midst of the intolerable heat and the uproar the leather bag in the mouth of the spout lapped up the tickets, and the storm of parcels came pelting down as vindictively as though the two youths above had been goaded to madness, and hoped, by perseverance and the exercise of sufficient muscular exertion, to presently maim one or other of the insatiate foes below, who never ceased to bawl up the spout whenever they reloaded the bag, "Now, then, up there, don't go to sleep." Meanwhile, Mr. Pledger himself not at all flurried and in the coolest of perspirations, gave his sole attention to the receiving of redemption money; and by shutting-up time, the "interest," which was placed in a separate bowl, made such a substantial show that I could come to no other conclusion than that, despite the various drawbacks enumerated by Mr. Pledger, pawnbroking in a poor neighbourhood was not such an unprofitable business after all.