Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - Over the House-Tops

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NOW has the season of long evenings and gas-light set in, and all the showmen of the town are busy as bees preparing the street walls and banging their gongs and shouting to the public through speaking-trumpets made out of newspaper advertisement - sheets concerning the surpassing excellence of the entertainment provided at their various establishments. A man might be possessed of as many legs as a centipede, and still be unable to accept half the invitations to "walk up" that assail him on every side. Theatrical managers have new plays and old actors, and new actors and old plays for him. Galleries of Illustration open their doors to him, ventriloquists and conjurors and magicians beg his patronage, and he has his choice of "Readings" from a penny upwards. Those delightful and still improving places of amusement, the music halls, are not behindhand. Neddy Bray, the inimitable Neddy, has a bran-new song with a hee-haw chorus (copyright), in which the audience are permitted to join, and Rummy little Ramsbottom promises to convulse his admirers with something original and spicy, entitled "Julia's Crinoline." If, however, good reader, you will for this one evening be guided by me I will undertake to introduce you to an entertainment the like of which may not be seen elsewhere in London, and the cost of it shall not exceed sixpence. If you are desirous of knowing its nature, I can only tell you that it is something in the way of [-224-] a gallanty show. But you would never understand the sort of exhibition it is from mere description, and as it is growing dusk if you wish to see it to-night ye had best start at once.
    We must take train for conveyance to the show-place. We must mount the many stairs at Fenchurch Street Railway Station and procure passage to Shadwell. "What! is it at that shady quarter of the town where the said exhibition is?" you ask. To which I reply, "Not at all the gallanty show I promised you is to be seen as we travel along. On the Great Eastern line all trains are slow, but it is on this occasion to our advantage to take the slowest, and that which stops most frequently. This is the "Parliamentary;" let us take our seats. Now that we have advanced so far, and have a spare minute or two before us, in order that you may be spared puzzling as to the show's invention and contrivance, I will explain the matter to you.
    You see, a railway fully armed with Parliamentary powers is the most tyrannical monster under the sun - a big, blusterous bully, who will take the wall for no man. Resolved on a certain road, "obstacle" is a word erased from its vocabulary. If a hill opposes, it must be cleft; if a mountain, it must be bored; as for a few mere streets of houses, down they go before a flick of the monster's finger and thumb. It made up its mind, did the monster, that a proper way to extend its snaky length was from Fenchurch Street to Shadwell, a district crowded with tumble-down tenements of the most poverty-stricken kind, and straightway it carved itself a passage without more concern for the creatures it disturbed and deprived of housing than a gardener digging a trench considers the worms that his spade dispossesses. Low lying ground is that on which the old-fashioned over-crowded houses stand, so that the railway, starting from a superior elevation, could not, here arrived, stoop, but maintained its original level perched on arches so tall that the engine panting and whistling on its way frequently over-[-225-]topped the surrounding chimney-pots. Again, the said ground, although at present so shabbily covered, possessed a prospective value so enormous that the railway was glad to pare its requirements to an inch, buying nothing to waste to the right or left ; the consequence is that the tenements remaining abut so closely on the iron way, that in many cases the stoker at his post might tap at the windows with the aid of a mop-handle, and in any case could easily hold whispered conversation with the inhabitants of the upper chambers of the houses, supposing that the latter at any time were so disposed. Passing along the railway route in question at noonday these windows, bare and naked, or scantily curtained with drooping rags, affording a view more or less distant of the strange interior, is an odd spectacle to behold, but it is not until the evening, when the candle is lighted, and such makeshift blinds as may be are drawn across the grimy panes that the panorama of poverty attains perfection. Then commences our gallanty show.
    In well-ordered and ordinarily decent neighbourhoods the upper rooms of the houses are invariably devoted to sleeping purposes, but, hereabouts, small and inconvenient as are the tenements, not in one case in ten can any apartment pretend to be a bed-chamber and nothing else. The inhabitants cannot afford it. Dilapidated and wretched as are these shallow and narrow houses, with their patched roofs and little windows and door-sills all aslant with age and decay, the rent demanded and eagerly paid for them in many instances exceeds that of the roomy and convenient suburban villa residence. Any mite of a chamber in this district of squalor will realize a rental of at least three shillings a week, and how can a poor toiler for farthings and halfpence afford to pay more ? Besides, sleep is a luxury in which these hardly beset ones grudgingly indulge under any circumstances. If nature were not so exacting with them ; if they might enjoy immunity from weariness, and never feel sleepy, they might earn perhaps twelve shillings in a week [-226-] where now they can earn but seven. What a fine thing it would be if some Houndsditch genius, a merchant tailor he should be, could invent a precious ointment which applied to the eyelids would ensure perpetual wide-awakeness! If in addition to this invaluable property it possessed another - that of endowing the anointed optics with the cat-like capability of seeing in the dark, the boon to poor needlewomen and sweating tailors would be perfect. Just imagine the joy with which such an invention would be hailed. No candle to buy, no time wasted in profitless sleep, no work bungled and ill-stitched in the weary small hours of morning, when gapes and nods will assert their sway in spite of all manner of preventives resorted to, such as sipping hot tea without milk or sugar, or sitting with the feet in cold water, or eating salt that the pangs of thirst may goad and keep flagging nature in a lively condition (all of which mysteries of slop needle-craft and many more are, notwithstanding the innocent reader's incredulity, nightly practised within sound of Big Ben of our Parliament Houses). Why, by a free use of the precious ointment the poor stitcher would be enabled within five years to lay down the implements of his craft and retire into the country - to Ilford or Woking. There is no burying in towns now, thank heaven; no conveying a wretched tailor from the miserable garret where he stitched himself into a parish shroud to just over the way to the prison churchyard adjoining the market High Street, with all its Saturday night's roar and rattle and its costermongers' clamour, and its flare of gas and naphtha. Acts of Parliament now forbid such indecency, and the defunct tailor must be carried out into the country to sleep his last sleep, though, through all his tedious life, his knowledge of grass was confined to seeing it in its manufactured state of bay in the Whitechapel market. A most excellent alteration this, but one which has not altogether escaped censure at the hands of those unconscionable mortals who are never satisfied. Say they, " It is very well, as far as it [-227-] goes, this new and improved state of things; but how would the system work if it were exactly reversed-if you packed your live poor into the country, instead of the dead, and brought the latter for interment to the town?" But, of course, such an argument is too absurd to occupy the mind of a sober citizen for so long as a single minute.
    But we have got quite away from our gallanty show, though indeed, for that, the subject of the digression is responsible ; it was all through observing the figure of a hard-working tailor reflected on a makeshift blind made out of an old newspaper hung behind a top floor window. He is a quarter of a mile away by this time, but he is still present to the mind's eye. He must have worn a shade over his eyes I think - a peaky shade that cast a reflection shaped like an enormous beak. How else is it to be accounted for that the shadow on the blind was like nothing so much as a bird of the dodo species, lame of a wing and stuck in the mud, and exerting itself might and main to effect its extrication? Poor man; it is doubtful if he ever heard tell of a dodo. Anyhow, his experience of the hawks and vultures of the human tribe is much more extensive. At present he is engaged at work provided him by one of the latter, Abrahams by name, and the wing-like action of his swift right arm is accounted for by anxiety to earn fifteenpence a day by making soldiers' trowsers at fivepence a pair.
    The next scene, ladies and gentlemen, of our gallanty show is of so puzzling a nature that it is a fortunate circumstance our train slackens its speed, giving us a fairer opportunity of observing it. This time it is a coloured counterpane that serves as a window blind. When the hour for roosting at length arrives, and the roost is far advanced, the candle will be extinguished, and the perverted counterpane restored to its proper office. The colours and the patches of the blind make the shadows on it harder to understand. Evidently there are several people little and big employed in the room, and judging from all the [-228-] evidence visible they are one and all engaged in teasing and torturing flat fish, of the plaice sort, in a manner frightful to behold. Each operator has a fish by its tail, which he is clawing and squeezing until in its agony the poor creature presently emits from its mouth a monstrous bubble larger than one's double fists, and which the torturers snip away from it with a pair of scissors, and immediately begin again their cruel handling of its tail. You might, my worthy companion, contemplate the odd spectale long enough before you guessed what it meant, but as it happens I have witnessed the operation in substance as well as in shadow, and know all about it. The occupants of that apartment are not a family of fish torturers - they are manufacturers of "air balls" - those coloured balloons so popular of late years with the little ones. What appears to be a flat fish is in reality a pair of bellows, and the bubble or bladder is derived by fastening the bit of skin over the nozzle of the bellows and inflating it by working at the handles. When the bladder is full its mouth is secured with a bit of thread and snipped off, to make way for a fresh one. When this ingenious little toy was first invented thousands were sold in the streets at sixpence each ; now they are made and sold by these Bethnal Green toilers at the rate of three shillings and sixpence for a gross of a hundred and forty-four.
    Jerking us a little way forward, the engine answers the purpose of pulling the bobbin, and we have a change of scenery. This time the window is bare, and we have grim reality in place of fantastic shadow. Here you observe a party at tea. A party at prayers it appears like at first sight, since with the exception of the woman, all the members of it are down on their knees. They are small members every one, and they are ragged and towzle-haired. The woman is the mother. Hasty, flaring sticks have made the kettle boil, and by their fading glow what is going on may be distinctly seen. Mother, with her bonnet [-229-] on as though but recently home from work, has a loaf on her lap and a knife in her hand, and fast as her experience enables her to cut slices, she is evidently unequal to the demand. Cups and saucers, or a teapot, are luxuries unknown in that family. There is a big yellow jug, containing something that smokes, and in the interval of devouring slices the members of the tea- party take up the vessel and have a swig. Just as we are hosing sight of this window mother has the bottom crust of the loaf elevated on her knife, as though she was asking "Who will ?" "Who would!" Seven pairs of hands, eager and open as the beaks of young blackbirds, are ready to answer her. Send the widow a bigger loaf, good Lord!
    Here is a picture on the blind of a group of slipper makers, as may be known from the pile of the leather and carpet luxuries set on the window sill to dry. This is another tailor, who with his wife are squatted down, plucking pain and trouble from their breasts, and flinging it away at the rate of sixty strokes an hour. So the shadow will have it at last. Here is an old gentleman, a dirty old gentleman with bare hairy arms and a long beard (there is no blind at this window) amusing himself with a popgun. That is to say the thing in his hands as at first seen in the distance and by a feeble light looks like a popgun. He has lots of popguns lying on a table and hanging against the wall, and apparently he is engaged in testing the one he has now in hand, ramming a pellet into it with a stick. Alas poor man. Such trivial amusement is not in his line. He is a maker of German sausages, and that heap of brown stuff on the old tea-tray is not material for popgun pellets, but wholesome sausage stuffing. All night his evening's work will dry in the smoke of the sausage-maker's chimney, and tomorrow he will be found on his beat from public-house to public house, vending his foreign produce to tap-room customers at the rate of sixpence a pound. It is said that this person does [-230-] an immense trade, the flavour of his goods being peculiarly spicy and agreeable. It is to be hoped (in the event of the sanitary authorities not discovering it beforehand) that the sausage merchant will not depart this life with his secret unrevealed.