Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - "Johnson's Retreat"

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"JOHNSON'S RETREAT."

 "JOHNSON'S RETREAT" * [*This place, which was situated in the Hornsey district of northern London, has happily been abolished since this article was written.] is eligible for the resting and refreshment of those home-returning wayfarers who on Sundays and holidays patronize our end of the town for the sake of its hedge-skirted lanes and blossoming fields.
    There is nothing of the flashy tavern tea-gardens visible about "The Retreat" - indeed, there is no tavern attached to it, and a glass of grog may not be obtained there for love nor money. Yet it is not strictly teetotal. Over by the stall where the ginger-beer and Banbury cakes are vended, you may procure, drawn from the barrel, a jug of ale. A jug, mind you, and not a dissipated bright public-house pewter - a vessel of brown glazed earthenware, such as farm-labourers and other rustics quaff their sober home-brewed from. The sort of pot it is impossible to sit and sot at. The influence of bright pewter measures on weak minds is a subject worthy the attention of our total abstinence chiefs. There never was so much drunkenness as since the invention of pewter pots.
    In the old times, as our historical novelists have been at considerable pains to discover and make known, boozing and carousing occupied a large share of the leisure of such as could afford the luxurious pastime, but it is a remarkable fact that [-134-] the tipplers and bibbers, from the humble retainer in the kitchen to the baron his master, who sat in the armour-hung hall of his ancestors, were invariably described as quaffing their potations out of flagons made of some lustrous metal or another whereas, drinking to drunkenness out of delf; when delf was the universal material of the poor man's pot, was of such rare occurrence that the indefatigable Harrison Ainsworth himself has been unable to light upon a single instance sufficiently well authenticated to warrant its citation. How may this be explained? Are crockery and home - pottery and domestic felicity - so intimately associated that the brown jug, wherever it is met - even at the drinking shop - acts as a kindly remembrancer of wife and fireside, and ensures the happy balance of mirth and wisdom? if so, let us have an anti-pewter-pot association with all speed, whose aim shall be the total abolition of the more seductive measures and the substitution of brown jugs. At least, Parliament might be moved to make a law insisting that every publican shall hang up in his bar, and fair in view of his customers, the homely clay cup as a hint against inebriation and excess. Who knows the good that might follow the adoption of a plan so simple? There is a story told of a company of Californian gold-diggers, who for many months cut off from the wholesome influence of female society and left to their own devices, had grown to be as brutal and reckless a crew as can be well imagined. Well, one day this charming fellowship in the course of its wanderings in the desert came upon a woman's bonnet - a battered, tattered wreck of female finery, cast off and trodden into the mud. But there was enough in it to rouse the better natures of the finders. Respectfully raising the discarded finder they on the spot got up a feast in honour of it, giving it the post of honour at the head of their rough camp table. Sweethearts and wives were toasted, and home and old friends, long-forgotten fireside stories 

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[-135-] and songs were sung, and such fond memories of absent ones recalled, that every fellow of the company went to bed that night resolved to mend his ways, and, what is better, all stuck to the resolution more or less. Yet nothing is more common than for people to declare their disbelief in magic!
    Johnson, of "The Retreat" - for the propriety of whose ways a hundred Sunday-school teachers and promoters of treats for little children are at this moment ready to vouch - affects earthenware drinking-pots, and out of them you must be content to take your liquor, supposing you should require refreshment of a more exhilarating nature than may be extracted from a ginger-beer bottle. You will be disappointed in expecting, because "Johnson's" is known as a tea-garden, to find the facilities for dancing afforded by the proprietor of "The Grotto" and similar disreputable places. "The Retreat" provides no German band, perched up aloft, no capacious platform. Such dainties may be very well where young men and women are concerned ; but Johnson's customers are children merely, and if the frisking lambkins desire to indulge in saltatory exercse there is a nice patch of green, and it is hard but that they can caper to the music of their own sweet voices. The beer on tap is, of course, not for these innocents, but for their elders - their fathers and grown-up brothers - who, by way of a treat, bring them to this delightful old-fashioned place. There are swings here, and roundabouts, and pretty games of puss-in-the-corner, and kiss-in-the-ring, and the entrance gate stands wide open, and there is neither policeman nor money-taker. No wonder so worthy a place is well patronized and supported! No wonder that Monday after Monday bands of schoolchildren, marshalled by benevolent gentlemen of clerical attire, with neat flags and banners bearing appropriate scriptural mottoes, are met in the green lanes on their way to "The Retreat." How the benevolent Johnson can afford to keep [-136-] the place open is marvellous. All this great space of ground - all these arbours, and swings, and roundabouts, and no other profit except what arises from the sale of penny bottles of ginger-beer and a pint or so of ale, and the furnishing of substantial teas with thick bread and butter and watercresses at the rate of sixpence a head ! Surely the concern must he a loss, and the proprietor of "The Retreat" no common tradesman but an eccentric gentleman of means, who, pitying the sad condition of little boys and girls dwelling in pent-up courts and alleys, devotes his time and his money in mitigating the evil, hoping for reward not here, but hereafter. May he find it!
    It was as may be yesterday that, reflecting on the self-sacrificing of the amiable Johnson, we expressed this wish and, as may be to-day, with our eyes opened to a totally different view of Mr. Johnson's character, we still say may he in some shape or way receive his due, and that speedily. That he may receive his due here and not hereafter is the very best his friends can wish for him, since, according as it is written in The Book, a man dying as he has lived may expect no mercy at the last assize. He is a man one would desire to be the exact reverse of. The creature whom in his ways he most resembles is now happily extinct in this country. No mother's baby was safe anywhere but at her own bosom while the ravenous monster was permitted to prowl at large, and even older children sent on errands were in danger from its cowardly cunning and ferocity - as witness the fate of little Red Riding Hood. What a shocking tragedy was that Goodness knows how many centuries have elapsed since its perpetration ; but ask any six-year-old child in the Queen's dominions and he is able to give you the fullest information on the subject, even to detain,, the conversation that took place between the scraggy impostor and the affectionate little girl with the pot of butter.
    [-137-] Long enduring as the English language is the legend of that wolf's infamy. The arch villain! Had he been content - he could not have been so very hungry - with devouring only grandmanama, his crime might possibly in time have been forgotten ; but when we find him, with deliberate calculation and scheming, beguiling the sweet and unsuspecting little girl to a bloody and violent death, why then- Why then, since he gobbled her up body and bones at a single meal, his method of treatment was decidedly less cruel and much to be preferred to that adopted by modern wolves, in clothing fictitious and innocent-looking as grandmamma s nightcap and bedgown, who lurk in dens of which "The Retreat" is an example, enticing little Red Riding Hoods by the score, and for the sake of a profit of twopence affording facilities for their descent to such terrible depths that from thence death is looked up to and cried for as a friend and deliverer. As already intimated, there is no bobbin to pull or latch to fly up at Mr. Johnson's gate. There it stands wide open. "How dark your garden is, Mr. Johnson!" "All the better for you and the stupid boy with you, nay dear, that you may sit in one of my arbours and partake of the pint of beer he so manfully orders." "What great ears you've got, Mr. Johnson!" "All the better for you, nay dear. The naughty things I am obliged to hear amongst my after-dark customers passes in at one and out at the other the more readily." "What little eyes you've got, Mr. Johnson!' "All the better for you, my child; otherwise I must see amongst nay after-dark customers very much that is shocking and immoral, and turn you and your companions out and lock my gate."
    Mr. Johnson does not eat the little girl all up, however. What he does do, and the fullest extent of his doing appears in the above imaginary little dialogue. It was on a Sunday night; just when the spring was advancing and the evenings growing [-138-] longer, that "The Retreat" was visited, and a scene more disgraceful than that witnessed cannot be imagined. As regards the ordinary suburban tea-garden, the proprietor is obliged to observe a certain amount of decorum - he cannot admit little boys and girls, apparently under fourteen years of age say. Not that he objects on personal grounds. Oh, dear no. He has a family himself, and likes children as well as any man, and threepence is threepence by whomsoever tendered. Nor has he moral qualms worth speaking of on the subject. The matter stands thus:- Young men and women when they come out to enjoy themselves at a tea-garden like quiet. Without tranquillity sweethearting is the merest farce, and to preserve tranquillity where boys and girls are is simply impossible. They will romp and giggle and indulge their propensity for prying and peeping and poking their inquisitive little noses into just those places where they are least welcome. They - the sweethearting couples - won't stand it. They don't object to paying the rent of a box to the amount of several sixpences, taking gin-and-water as a receipt but they won't put up with intrusion. It is not likely. An Englishman's house is his castle all the world over, and whatever the place he rents, it may be fairly regarded as his house. Nor is the spirited proprietor inclined to be hard with his renters. He is not the man to break a contract because it is insinuated, and not stated. When children of tender age seek admittance to his gardens he sternly refuses them, telling them that his is no place for brats, and that they had best be off home and get to bed.
    And so, Heaven knows, they had better, and probably they would do so if no other gate were open to them. Mr. Johnson's is the other gate, and a walk of a mile or more is no obstacle to those flocking to it. Who and what are these juvenile teagarden customers? Errand boys as to the male portion - little boys engaged at shops or factories, and earning from 5s. to 8s. [-139-] a week, and allowed 6d. out of it for pocket-money. Good boys enough in the main, in all probability, children of decent parents who see no harm in Bill and Dick staying out an hour after church-time on their only evening of leisure. Bill and Dick, aged respectively thirteen and fifteen, are not the youngsters they appear to be they would have you to understand. Wearing a tall hat is quite a matter of taste, and all young men have not got whiskers. If a young fellow chooses to wear a jacket and blucher boots, that is exclusively his business; like the tall hat, it is a matter of taste, maybe. Anyhow, he must be a pretty old boy who can take his swig at the beer when it conies to his turn, and who can smoke a cigar without betraying symptoms of illness ; and there in the dark recesses of an arbour - ("The Retreat" is absolutely dark, and without the slightest attempt at illumination) - may be made out Dick and his brother sitting along with Jemima Riggs and Betsy Trotter, puffing manfully at their penny cigars (though every puff produces an internal shudder worse even than that which attends a gulp of Epsom salts), and handing about the brown jug, and ejaculating " Damn," and " So help me this," and "Strike me" t'other, with an earnestness and frequency calculated to impress the two young ladies that though young they are lads of mettle and knowing cards, up to snuff of every degree of strength and variety of flavour, and possessing a knowledge of the time of day to a fraction of a tick. It is wonderful the lengths these foolish little dogs will go - the serious sacrifices they will make in dread of "looking little" in the eyes of the shrewd old women of fourteen, their companions. They don't care a pin's head for beer, and, indeed, never take a drop of it through the working days, but beer is the drink of men - of young men as well as old. It would be ridiculous to think of smoking a cigar with ginger-pop, or to "keep company" on sherbet or penny ices: so beer [-140-] is the liquor in request, even though the purchase of a second pint of it sweeps away Dick's pocket-money to the last farthing.
    And who are Jemima and Betsy? They are even younger than Bill and Dick, and though very forward and naughty children, have at present but a limited knowledge of vice. They are girls who are just launched in the world to learn a trade, or who mind children, or help mother who is a laundress, and very probably are absent from home on the same artful pretence as their "young men," and would as certainly as those worthies come in for a whipping if they were found out by their parents. If they are juvenile hands at factories they have constant opportunities for hearing the conversation of elder girls relative to their Sunday evening experiences of their flirtation, and their "sprees," and their sweetheart's generosity, until it becomes plain to Jemima - thirteen next birthday - that to have a "young man" is to possess all that is desirable on earth. That conclusion paves the way for the first step, which is to arrange with Betsy Trotter to "slip off" on Sunday evening and go for a walk. Then Dick and Bill are encountered, and four more customers are booked for "The Retreat."
    There may not appear much in all this; it may even seem injudicious to discuss the morality of calf-love, and to drag before the public for its consideration the billings and cooings of Tommy and Sally. The records of our reformatories and penitentiaries, however, tell a different story. Nor is it necessary for any one who is curious on the subject to consult printed and published statistics. Let him any night, between the hours of nine and twelve, take a walk between the Angel at Islington and Highbury, or through Regent Street and the Haymarket, or along Westminster Road, from the bridge as far as the thoroughfare known as the New Cut. Let him count the num-[-141-]ber of painted, flaunting, poor little wretches, under fifteen years old, who, with the regularity of policemen on beat, there ply their terrible trade, and then say that no harm comes of calf-love of the sort described as indulged in under the auspices of a friendly Johnson all in the dark, and stimulated by a pint or so of that excellent tradesman's potent "sixpenny."

source: James Greenwood, The Wilds of London, 1874