Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - At a Public House of Mourning

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AT A PUBLIC-HOUSE OF MOURNING.

FIVE miles without the City gates there is a cemetery of such prodigious dimensions as to provide constant employment for twenty grave-diggers. These men go to work as regularly as carpenters or stonemasons at six o'clock in the morning, and, excepting the customary half hour for breakfast and the hour for dinner allowed to all journeymen, work the live-long day at digging six-feet holes in the graveyard clay.
    Nevertheless, in " busy seasons," the number of holes the diggers make never exceeds the demand for them, unless they work overtime. It has happened on a Sunday that more than seventy bodies have been brought there to be buried, and the average number passed through the cemetery gates on week days exceeds forty. It was an official attached to the burying-place who kindly gave me this information. " And on an average, how many mourners attend each funeral, should you think ?" I inquired. " Well, you might safely reckon 'em all round as five each," replied my informant- "But Sunday's the day for 'em. You never happened to drop in at the Jolly Sandboys on a Sunday afternoon, I suppose, sir? That's the Jolly Sandboys, the first 'public' you come to after turning out of the cemetery lane. The regular house-of-call for mourners that is. It is a sight to see, I can tell you, when the bar of every room is crammed, just like the scrooge at the door of a threepenny gallery at the theatre."
    [-126-] Between three and four o'clock, as I was advised, was the hour on a Sunday afternoon when the "scrooge" at the bar of the house- of-call for mourners might be expected to be at its height but preferring to be in good time, the next Sunday I was on the road, and in the vicinity of the Jolly Sandboys, shortly after two. It was a lovely afternoon, and it was hard to believe that the quaint and modest little hostel in question could ever be anything but a house of cheerfulness and content. There is a broad space before the Sandboys, which lies back from the road, with lively flower-pots at the upper windows and a horse-trough in front of it, and wisps of hay about the ground, and matronly hens fussing over broods of unruly chicks, just under the palings, where the sun shines hottest. The only visible human being near the Sandboys is a lazy-looking man, who appears as though he had abandoned a seafaring life on the chance of one day finding a horse to hold, and who sits on the stump of a post, with his head resting against the horse-trough, placidly puffing smoke from a short pipe, with his " sou'-wester tipped over his eyes, so as to shade them from the sun, but not so far as to shut him out from a view of the chickens, who, as they nestle in the hot sand, plump and happy, and indifferent to the oats that lie within easy pecking distance, present to his sleepy mind's eye indeed a soothing picture, which leaves him nothing to desire - except to be a chicken.
    But it was only while you stood with your back to the high road and restricted your vision to the strictly straightforward, shutting out what was to be seen to the left and to the right, that this scene of tranquillity might be perfectly enjoyed. It is necessary to shut your ears as well as your eyes lest the rumbling of many wheels causes you to look about you, when the charm would be instantly broken; for the wheels are those of black carriages - of hearses with dead men and women in them, and of coaches following close behind laden with those who bemoan the departed, and whose swollen eyes appear wofully at the windows as the [-127-] hearse is heard to turn down the lane - the cemetery lane, which is a long lane, and for their dear dead has no turning. The Sandboys is close by, but it has no attractions for the bereaved ones, and even the hearse driver and the clusters of men in shabby black who hang on at the back of the sombre coaches pause not an instant in their cheerful chattering to glance aside. It seems very much as though my cemetery friend had hoaxed me. A crowd indeed! The tearful ones on their way to the burying-place looked as little like pothouse "scrougers" as the Sandboys looked a likely place for scrouging in.

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    Four o'clock, and I once more approached the Sandboys, after an hour's stroll between the hedges, and lo! the scene is changed utterly. My cemetery friend was right ; it is indeed a sight to see! Peace has been banished, and noise and confusion reign in its stead. The lazy man - he may be known by his nautical sou'wester - has roused from the post stump, and is now an energetic ostler, divested of his coat and waistcoat, and, with his dirty shirt sleeves rolled above his elbows, rushing hither and thither, and bawling and swearing like a whipster at a horse market. There are other ostlers besides this one, three or four of them, as there had need be, for now within the square space before the tavern - where an hour since the chickens basked, fifteen hearses and black coaches find standing-room, and to every coach is attached a pair of big black horses, requiring refreshment after their load-drawing. The drivers and other attendants, too, they need refreshment, and they are taking it in the freest manner. There you may see them - the hearse drivers - in merry groups, lounging against the black wheels, with glasses of gin and pewter pots of beer in their hands, and short pipes in their mouths, cracking their jokes, and laughing, and funning for all the world as though they were on the road [-128-] with pleasure-vans and a gay company bound for Epping Forest. Some of the undertaking people had white favours pinned in the crape swathing about their hats, denoting that they were concerned in the interment of some baby or poor little innocent maid; and queer it looked to see these symbolic hats all askew on their owner's head, and a pipe and a pot of beer in their owner's hands.
    But where were the mourners ? Where were the red-eyed ones whose woe was unquenchable, and who were suffering under such frightful outrage? Where were the males amongst them, who, with their indignation for the time grown stronger even than their sorrow, should have remonstrated with these indecent villains; and remonstrance failing, have plucked the scandalous pipes from their mouths, and spilled their abominable liquor in the gutter ? Where were they ?
    Well, the astonishing fact is that they were engaged precisely as were the coffin-bearers and hearse-drivers, and giving countenance and encouragement to their sotting and pipe-smoking by doing likewise. Some were eating as well as drinking. Some, a shade more decent than their neighbours, or with a greater regard for appearances, declined to alight and enter the portals of the gin shop, and preferred to stay within the vehicles in which so recently their uncontrollable tears were shed and against the black cushions of which their heads, for ever bowed, had rested, and took biscuits and ale, and plates of cold beef and brandy-and-water, and gin-and-water, while the master undertaker with one black kid glove off and his "weeper" trailing down his back, attended at the coach window to the orders of his customers like a tavern waiter - with this difference, that his customers, instead of giving him pennies for himself; pressed him to drink with them, and handed him liquor out of the coach window, which he drank with an expression of countenance beautifully indicative of the cheerful resignation that upheld him in this trying hour.
    [-129-] This was outside the Sandboys; inside matters were not improved. My friend, the cemetery officer, had not exaggerated when he compared the crowding at the bar to the pressing for admittance at the gallery door of a theatre. The said bar, which is a very narrow and inconvenient one, is within a few feet of the entry door, and the door could not be shut, the rush was so great. Such a rush, too! Every one distinguished, though in never so modest a manner, by the trappings of woe - the men with black crape about their hats and caps, and with more black crape pinned on to their jacket sleeves where they were too poor to purchase black clothes; and the women with their black gowns and their heads sheltered in the sombre hood that concealed their hair and left nothing but their pinched and ghastly faces visible; old women, newly made widows, young women, but a few minutes since parted from their dead fathers and brothers, jostling and elbowing within the narrow space, and clamouring with the money held up in their hands for half- pints of gin and pots of half-and-half, and short pipes, and screws of tobacco. Shut out the crowning horror of the hooded faces and the craped hats, and the uproar was just that to be met any Saturday night at a Whitecross Street gin-shop. Foul language and a disposition to "have a row" were elements not wanting. Two of the Sandboys' customers at least were in cue to provide against the last-mentioned deficiency. One of them was a costermonger seemingly, and wore about his hairy cap some crape wisped like a portion of a hay-band. "What did they mean by charging fippence a pot for beer?" "What sort o' game, ---- his eyes, did they call it to charge fippence when fourpence was the reg'lar?" "It might do for some bloaks as come there and was too miserable to look arter their a'pence, but he'd see 'em all first before they fiddled him out of a farden." In vain his wife or his mother, or whatever she was, urged him to pay the other penny or give back the beer; not he, he would drink the beer without paying another mag, or [-130-] he'd see who'd hinder; and as he spoke he shot from under the peak of his mourning cap dangerous glances at the slim young barman all very much to the amusement of four undertaker's men, who, a-straddle on a form, were regaling on a nice piece of cold pickled pork, brought down on the hearse with them.
    Besides the standing room before the bar there was other accommodation for mourners, consisting of some large rooms and a sort of tea-garden in the rear. Before five o'clock every room was full, so much so that the limited accommodation in the way of hat pegs was exhausted, and there remained nothing - since the watchful eye of the undertaker, whose property the weepers were, was on them - but to pile the hats with the weepers attached in the centre of the tables where the gin measures and the pewter pots stood; but even here the precious streamers were not free from danger ; it was impossible - especially after the fourth or fifth pot - to pour out the beer without spilling a little, and in this the badges of grief dabbled. To be sure, although the various parties at the tables patronized and obliged each other by pulling the hell and handing pipe lights, the conversation was not of a sort that might be termed cheerful, turning chiefly on the cattle plague, the high price and bad quality of liquor at these roadside houses, and the awful power of lightning - a subject suggested by a photograph hung up in the bar of two horses in a hay-cart struck down in a storm. Everybody drank deeply of the liquor, however indifferent it may have been-the women that, come what might, their crushing grief might be for the time forgotten, and the men as the handiest way back into the world in which, with a dead relative about their necks, as it were, they had found it inconvenient to mix of late. 
    The worst of it is that neither man nor woman can drink intoxicating liquids without becoming intoxicated - a fact that became painfully manifest as the evening advanced amongst the weakest of the mourners and those who were in the hands [-131-] of the most unscrupulous of the master undertakers, who sat down with them and generously stood half-pints of gin out of the profits of the job. Gustave Dor? might have met with a pretty picture or two out in that tea-garden. It was patronized by the women chiefly, the men affecting the rooms. I call it a tea-garden because there were settles and forms about it, and the trees and shrubs were of the common tea-garden type; but all the tea that was drank there might have been contained in a dram glass, or even a less capacious vessel. It was all gin. Rows of women - still with their cowls on - with gin measures or glasses in their hands - some desperately merry, some who had been so successful in drinking to forgetfulness of everything, that their matronly modesty was lost sight of; and some flooded back to weeping again, and wringing their hands, and letting their tears fall into their liquor, and refusing to be comforted, although a trio of their cowled companions stood round uttering "Cheer up" and "Come, come; don't take on so, that's a dear," and with more gin in their hands. It was about these maudlin groups that the ghouls in rusty black - the undertaker's men - were busiest, for there most gin was to be cadged: and they drank it with a grin and wink at their companions till their fishy eyes blinked, and their noses glowed on their cadaverous faces, and their white neckties went out of shape, and their professional hats inclined to the backs of their heads. It had never been my misfortune to see together so many assistants in the undertaking line before, and I may safely say that a more sottish, audacious, impudent set of ruffians it would be hard to find. It is through them or their masters that all this mischief is brought about. They bring away from the cemetery men and women worn out by long watching and anxiety and all manner of grief depressed in spirits, and with no mind for battling against temptation or discovering the cunning designs of a rogue. How it is on week days I am unable to say, but without doubt Sunday is recognized by the undertaking [-132-] fraternity as a day for boozing and drunkenness, and they rely on the "mourners" to provide the means. Their dodge is a very simple one. Turned out of the cemetery lane and approaching the Sandboys, "It is customary to bait the horses here - very comfortable house, I assure you, sir," says master undertaker, respectfully putting his head in at the coach window - "P'r'aps you'd like to get out and rest for a little while - p'r'aps the ladies would." That, in five cases out of six, is the way in which the weak-minded mourner - especially of the lower order - is trapped and betrayed into excess, and all in order that the coffin-carriers and the hearse-drivers may secure a skinful of gin and smoke their pipes for a couple of hours in a free and easy manner.
    And yet, how may the evil be remedied? To shut up the Sandboys would be regarded as monstrous police tyranny, to found a training college for undertakers would be not unattended with difficulty. No Act of Parliament regulating the quantity of refreshment a mourner at a funeral should take would pass a second reading. Nevertheless, when one sees, as I saw, a company of bereaved ones in a hearse, setting out for home, the men smoking short pipes, the women giggling in semi-drunkenness, and for a driver, a hilarious person, likewise with a short pipe, and with the air of the ancient Jack Ketch driving a criminal to Tyburn, it really seems that something should be done.

source: James Greenwood, The Wilds of London, 1874