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AN EXPLORATION INTO "JACK KETCH'S WARREN."
A FEW days since it was my good fortune to receive a rather curious and
interesting letter. The writer was a City missionary, and the communication was
dated from the " Mission House, Turnmill Street, Clerkenwell." It was
a remarkably blunt and plain-spoken communication. It set forth that in a story
of mine recently written and published mention was made of Frying-pan Alley, and
an attempt made to describe that place and its inhabitants, whereas nothing
could be plainer to any one well acquainted with the locality than that I in
reality knew next to nothing about it. "Not that it is in any degree
wonderful or surprising that it should be so," was the text of my friend's
epistle, "since it is almost impossible, except from one or two
sources, to obtain anything like reliable information as to Frying-pan Alley, or
the other disgraceful and disgusting alleys and courts adjacent. It is a waste
of time to make inquiries of the police. A single policeman is rarely, if ever,
seen in Frying-pan Alley, Bit Alley, Rose Alley, or the Broad Yard, in the
course of his perambulations 'on beat;' it would be scarcely safe in riotous
seasons for him to show a face there, and secure harbour is thus afforded to
thieves. The sanitary officers of the parish are even more timid than the
police, so that year in and year out the alleys mentioned are the undisturbed
breeding-places for fever and [-57-] pestilence,
and though sickness and disease in one form or another is never absent, a
Scripture reader is almost as unknown to the wretched creatures who herd there
as a breath of pure fresh air. There are but two persons - the parish doctor and
myself-who have a perfect knowledge of the extent of vice and misery constantly
to be met with in these alleys. Further, the writer intimated that if I could
only find courage to enter into an investigation of these Turnmill Street
horrors, it might be the means of working a good he had been, single-handed,
long endeavouring to accomplish; and further still, and better than all, he
generously announced his, willingness to become my conductor and guide if I
decided to entertain his proposal. So tempting an offer was not to be neglected,
so I wrote back and fixed a day.
I found the mission house in Turnmill Street a very modest and unpretending place. It had evidently at one time been a shop of a small sort, and its windows were now closely placarded with Scriptural notices and temperance lyrics, and announcements of missionary lectures and "mothers' meetings." I knocked at the door and inquired for Mr. Catlin, and that gentleman promptly made his appearance.
I trust when he reads this that he won't be offended at my remarking that he was not at all the sort of man, as far as personal appearance goes, I had reckoned on making the acquaintance of. I had got it into my head (chiefly, as I believe, from the nature of a tract and a little poem composed by that celebrated philanthropist and lenient judge, Mr. Payne, that accompanied the missionary's letter to me) that I should find him a prim and precise person in glossy broadcloth of raven black, and the stiffest and most spotless of neckcloths. But he did not in the least resemble this picture. He was a shortish, thick-set, and muscular man, with a brown and weatherbeaten face, short crisp hair, like that of a blacksmith, and a pair of bright restless eyes, and a hairy, knuckly fist that could [-58-] have come of nothing but hard labour. He came downstairs, ready attired for walking, in a shaggy brown overcoat and a black billycock hat.
We went into the shop, and after ten minutes' chat were on the easiest terms imaginable. It was a largish shop, as though the parlour behind had been added to it, and in the rear of this again was a tolerably commodious school-room, capable of accommodating a hundred and fifty persons, I should say-the rent of which, together with the whole of the premises, had been guaranteed to the owner for the space of three years by a kind-hearted stationer in the City. Very much snore he told me concerning his labour and its field, with which I will not trouble the reader. I may mention, however, that he was not always a missionary, as he gave me to understand, having in his young manhood engaged in the prize-fighting profession, lodging in Seven Dials along with a now celebrated "pug," who, so far from despising his old friend, on high days and holidays dropped in and took a cup of tea with him and his wife. Putting a packet of tracts in one pocket and a small Bible in the other, and humming a lively tune with the air of a contented carpenter or any other sort of handicraftsman setting out to an easy job, he came out of his house and led the way.
"There are two places I should like you to see before we begin the alleys," remarked my guide, "not so much that they are worse than we shall find elsewhere, as that they form part of the house property of one of the most advanced reformers' in our parish."
With that he pushed open a door opening sheer on to the highway, and when we had entered in at it and traversed a long and narrow passage, we came upon this spectacle-a building that at one time of day might have been a washhouse, about twelve feet in length, eight in width, and of the height of a tall man. The walls were of bare brick, and stained in great black patches where the rain had trickled through the [-59-] shattered roof, and the floor was broken and of a dark slate colour. In the corner to the right, and in a line with the door, a rickety bedstead, with its posts aslant and thickly barked with dirt and grease, bearing a spread of foul rags and tatters that served as a bed; a something that served as a table, a broken-backed chair, a couple of stools, and several public- house cans (borrowed, as I suppose, from taverns in the neighbourhood and not at present returned) as water vessels and cooking utensils. In a sort of hole hacked in the grimy wall a skillet with a fire in it, and huddling over the fire a gray-haired, hungry-faced old man in his shirt-sleeves, and wretchedly old waistcoat and trousers; and an old woman with her skin of a colour with the floor-boards, and, as well as might be guessed from appearance, with no other covering than a shockingly old and dirty cotton gown, with hands like the claws of some huge and unclean bird, and a frowsy nightcap, but ill concealing a head of hair raggeder than any crow's nest ; and a young woman tidier and cleaner than either, but still a sight to see; and a little child of two years or thereabouts, amusing itself with one of the public-house cans before mentioned. But stranger than all was the odd kind of litter that strewed the hovel -a litter of paper-scraps of every sort and condition. Brown paper, white paper, printed paper; paper that had served as parcel wrapping, and paper torn off the wall to which it had been originally stuck by the bill-sticker in lively strips and pennons, and showing brilliantly in red and blue and yellow amongst the humbler debris; post-office envelopes, handbills crumpled up, and showing traces of the kennel, into which they had been cast; all in pell-mell confusion, on the bed, under the bed, strewing the floor, and in dangerous proximity with the unguarded fire skillet, and filling a great sack lying along on the floor.
"It is my trade, sir; how I gets my living," explained the hungry-looking old man - John Smith by name, and aged eighty [-60-] seven. "It's a hard way of getting a crust, but it's better than the work'us. I'm up and out every morning by three o'clock. I was up and out at that time this morning. It's no use going out in the daytime ; you gets interfered with so. It ain't the streets I look to so much as the dust-holes down mewses, and them kind of places, though, of course, I don't overlook what I see laying about in the gutters. I teams the bills off the walls when I gets a chance - not at the advertising stations, sir; oh, dear no, though I dare say they thinks that I do. That 'ud be a month if they caught you at it, and it ain't worth the risk. Besides, it's the poorest sort of scrap papers that you get off walls; it only fetches a shilling a hundredweight, and they don't care about taking it at that. Eighteen pence a hundredweight is what I get for the other when it is pretty clean ; but it takes a long time to pull together a hundredweight out of little bits. Well, sir, as you say, it isn't much of a dependence; but you see it is a dependence as far as it goes, and gets us a bit of bread and keeps a roof over our heads."
"Very little more than a bit of bread falls to their lot, poor old creatures, I imagine," I remarked to Mr. Missionary, as we made our way out of the passage into Turnmill Street again.
"Yes, it is sometimes a flavour of meat as well, I am almost sorry to tell," replies Mr. Missionary; "he didn't tell you of something else he looks for in the dustholes He hunts for bones that have been thrown there since the day before. The worst of them he sells, but such as have a bit of meat left on them are put by and washed and made into a stew."
From Tumnmill Street we made our way to Aylesbury Street, as far up as a house just opposite the churchyard, and again my guide pushed open a door, which opened, like that we had just left, into a dark passage, and presently we came on a staircase, so dark that it was necessary to feel the way up; necessary for me, that is. Mr. Missionary evidently knew the way as well as if he lived there, and skipped up with an agility [-61-] which often left me blundering behind. Up and up, till four long flights were accomplished, and the garret story reached, and at the back garret door Mr. Missionary knocked.
"Come in!" somebody called, and my friend opened the door. That I could tell by the sound caused by turning the door handle, but for all the interior of the room that was rendered visible the door might have been shut as before, with this advantage, that we should not have been choked and blinded by a great cloud of foul chimney smoke that came belching out upon us.
"Oh it's only you, sir ; come along in, sir ; we're a little thick up here, you see, sir."
"So you are, and that's a fact," replies Mr. Missionary cheerily, and marching bravely into the smoke. "Couldn't we have the window open a bit, and let a little of it out? Ay, I thought we could ; it won't give you cold, Mrs. Grinder, if you put your shawl over your head. And how are we to-day, Mrs. Grinder?"
Now that the smoke had partly escaped out at the diminutive and paper-patched casement, I could see about me. The chamber, like all back attics, was neither convenient nor capacious. At its highest the flat of the hand might be laid on the ceiling, and at parts it slanted down so abruptly that there was barely room for creeping under it. One time of day ceiling and walls bad been yellow-washed, now they were soot-covered. I don't mean to say - as regards the ceiling, at least - that it was merely blackened with smoke; it was literally coated with a thick fur of soot, such as is seen in the interior of a chimneypot.
There were two old women occupying the garret - Mrs. Grinder and her servant. Mrs. Grinder was aged eighty years, and presented as ghastly a picture of humanity as can be imagined. There was a fire-place, with a handful of fire in it, with a breadth of old carpet nailed across the aperture as low as the [-62-] top bar almost, by way of inducing a little of the smoke to find its way up the chimney; and crooning nose and knees over it sat Mrs. Grinder, her puckered old face deathly white in such places as had come in contact with her hand, but otherwise smoke-dried to the brownish sallow of a Chinese. One of her eyes had faded right away, and the other was following rapidly, and on her head she wore a plain skull-cap, secured under her chin, grimy and festooned with sooty cobwebs, as was everything else in the pestilent den. She had a drop of weak slop of tea without milk before her, and she was mumbling a slice of dry toast.
Mrs. Grinder's servant was not in such bad condition; indeed, although, according to her own statement, she was sixty-seven, she was by no means past worldliness or looking after the main chance. I call her Mrs. Grinder's servant, though, perhaps, it would be more correct to style her that poor old woman's partner. She was used to Mr. Missionary, but seeing a stranger with him she instantly busied herself in improving her personal appearance by dipping a dishclout in some strange liquid that stood by in a broken basin and rubbing her face and hands with it, and I suppose by way of impressing me with what a particularly cleanly old person she was, she never ceased to chafe either her face or her hands with the rag the whole time I was there.
Mr. Missionary being engaged in reading a chapter out of the Bible to Mrs. Grinder, I had some whispered conversation with the other old woman. "She's a-goin' fast, that's my belief" - (this with a jerk of the thumb towards poor Mrs. Grinder). "I thought she was off last night, but lor : I wasn't a bit frightened; a Christian woman ain't got no call to be frightened, has she, sir? That's where I sleeps, on that box. She sleeps on the ground, on that there nice new bed, what Mr. Catlin bought for her, but she used to sleep raley on the ground - on the bare boards - afore that time. I does for her, don't [-63-] you see, sir. I has eighteen pence a week from the house, and I gives her ninepence out of it for my lodging, and I waits on her, and has my bit of wittIes for it. She has a shilling a week from the house and a quartern loaf, and I goes to church o' Sundays to get the bread. She don't get the bread from the house, don't you know, sir, but from the church. When the service is over, we goes into the vestry, and there's the bread. Meat ~ve never gets, nor yet beer, cept whesi all unexpected somebody pops in and gives the old woman a trifle, and sez, 'Get a bit of meat with it,' and then I gets a mouthful."
But surely you don't both live through the week on half-a-crown and a quartern loaf!"
"Oh no, sir. The old woman gets a shilling a week from Mr. Catlin ; but arter all, it's less than half-a-crown, because there's eighteen pence a week to pay for rent. Werry hard pinchin' for two poor old women, ain't it, sir ?"
"But do you really get nothing else?"
"Notting else - 'cept the rice flour from Mr. Catlin. He's got a sackful on it; leastways, there was a sackful on it at first, and there it is for the askin' to them as he knows stands in want of it. Many a basinful of it for supper has the old woman and me had."
"But why don't she go into the workhouse?"
But it was too late. The poor old half-dead woman, who had sat moaning and groaning with her cheek against the sooty carpet that hung before the chimney as though she had no atom of strength to do anything else, instantly fired up as though she had been galvanized, life flashing in her weak remnant of an eye.
"Go to the house yourself: I shan't go to the house. I Won't go. What do you mean by it ?" It was shocking to witness the poor old creature's fierce energy, and to hear the high-pitched passionate tones in which she spoke.
[-64-] "Lor a mussy, who said you was a-goin' ?" remonstrated her partner.
"I won't go. I'll never go. I'd sooner die."
" No, no, you shan't go to the house, I'll see to that," remarked Mr. Missionary soothingly, whereon the old woman, comforted, leans her cheek against the sooty carpet again, mumbling her thanks, and begging her comforter to come again soon and read some more of the "blessed words" o' promise to her. And then, after gladdening the heart of the poor old things with a prospect of meat for dinner, we bade them good-day, and found our way downstairs again.
"Now we'll pay a visit to Jack Ketch's Warren," remarked Mr. Missionary ; "don't imagine that I gave it that name, it's been known as such these fifty years. We'll go through the three alleys, and then we'll look in at Little Hell."
On our way from the house where poor old Mrs. Grinder resided to the first alley on our list, my guide discoursed of the petty thieves of his neighbourhood, and what a cunning and desperate set they were. "Snatching" from passing vehicles appears to be their staple of business, and a very safe and simple staple it is. The "Warren" has many mouths, and a single jump from the highway will reach any one of them, and follow who dare Even should a sufferer find the hardihood to pursue a delinquent he can by no possibility be successful, and this not so much that a thief will be screened by the general populace (indeed, as will presently appear, the whole locality would be better named "Squalor's Warren" than Ketch's), as on account of the endless facilities that favour the thief's escape. Such a thing as a closed street door is scarcely to be met with in any of the alleys, and every house has cellars below, and a trap in its roof, and low walls in its rear, a scramble over which will take the pursued into the back premises of a house in another alley. The best plan is to bear with your loss with all the patience at your disposal, and go [-65-] your ways quickly as possible out of such a desperate place, as you always may unless your case should be as peculiar as that of one unfortunate Mr. Missionary told me of. There was a waggoner and an empty waggon coming up Turnmill Street, and the waggoner, who was a cripple, had a call to make at a shop there. He was unable to walk any distance without crutches, but as it was only a couple of steps or so from his waggon to the shop-door, he left his crutches in the waggon, and hobbled in without them. In a minute or so he hobbled out again, and lo his crutches had vanished. Mr. Missionary told me of another case in which a chandler's shop in the main street had been entered in broad daylight, and while the proprietor sat in the shop parlour with the door open half a tub of butter by some means was spirited away.
Shortly after hearing this last little story, it was my good fortune to find myself in the midst of a gang of this light-fingered gentry. We went into a certain house, and the young gentlemen, having no serious business on hand at the moment, were larking in the passage. My friend knew them every one by name, and they knew him, and I must do them the justice to say that their treatment of him was highly creditable to them. "Ah Mr. Cathin, how do you do, sir ?"
Mornin', Mr. Catlin, hope you're well, sir!" " I wish you were all as well, my lads," replies my friend, turning his bold, blunt, honest face to them. "Why, now, why don't you great strapping chaps turn out and look for a job ?" "Can't get nothink, Mr. Cathin; there's lots of coves out of work jes now, sir." "There always are, Joey, of one sort and another. If you want work you can have it. I'll tell you what I've done. I wrote to that brickmaker I was speaking about the other day, and I'll answer for it you can get on if you'll go and see. Why don't all of you go, now? It would be company to work all together, and you'll earn eight or ten bob a week !" The proposition, however, though civilly received, was not palatable. "I'd have [-66-] a turn jolly sharp," at last remarked a stag-eyed, bullet-headed youth of about sixteen, "on'y I'm afeard of spiling my hands for gold chain makin', which is my trade." And the rest very gladly took refuge in the little joke to laugh uproariously, and bustle out of the embarrassing presence of the good man.
"Did you ever hear of a poor creature whom the police call the countess ?" inquired Mr. Missionary.
I had heard of her very frequently. I distinctly recollected that the last time the titled lady appeared in a police-court the case was headed "The Notorious Countess Again - her Hundred and Seventy-eighth Conviction. I have since mentioned the countess's case to an elderly friend of mine, and he informs me that more than a quarter of a century ago she was about as handsome a wicked woman as might be met between Pall Mall and Piccadilly. At that time she was receiving an annuity from the nobleman whose name she borrowed, and was the gayest of the gay-splendidly dressed, sparkling with gold and jewels, riding in a carriage, eating of the daintiest, and drinking wine at a guinea a bottle. Even at that time she was a violent-tempered woman; and, being gifted with enormous muscular development, was not the pleasantest of companions; but it was not until fortune took fright at her fading beauty that she gave way to her pugilistic tendencies. She is an old woman now, but for many years a single policeman would almost as soon think of tackling an escaped tigress as the countess, and out of her one hundred and seventy-eight commitments it may be safely said that at least a hundred out of the number were for assault as well as drunkenness. It is a wonder that the countess is not dead years and years ago. But she is not. A gaunt, grey old woman, she lives in a Turnmill Street alley, under the protection of a gentleman in the bullock-driving interest. The pet of the saloon, the belle of the dance, the dashing beauty is at present domiciled in a wretched little den, to reach which it was difficult work, groping a way up the dark rickety stairs. In reply to a tap at the [-67-] door, a gruff muffled voice growled "Come in," and we went in. No fire, little or no furniture, and a few blackened potatoes left cold from yesterday on a plate on a shelf. To the countess's praise be it spoken, however, the place was clean.
The countess was not at home, but the count was. Behind the door there was an erection in bedstead shape and a great heap of rags and tatters piled in the middle of it. Under this heap lay the count. It was nearly noon, but his lordship was not disposed at present to quit his couch, and hearing the missionary's cheery voice at once ducked his head beneath the rags, rendering himself quite invisible. He remained invisible, his bulky shape curled up dog-wise under the bed clothing. My friend imagining that he must be ill advanced to the bed-side and inquired solicitously as to his health.
"Well! course I'm well," growled the count.
"Dun no and don't keer ?"
"She isn't drinking, is she ?"
"Dun no and don't keer ?"
"It's such a lovely morning quite hot in the sun."
"Ah ! you won't own to being queer, that's where it is. You wouldn't lay here when you might be up and looking for a job if you felt all right. It's that rheumatism hanging about you. Ah! it will be all right by-and-by, my friend, if we only mind ourselves and look up. There's no pain or poverty in heaven, hey ?"
"Don't you think it would do you good to get up and have a walk?"
"This bright weather will make the work stir, don't you think?"
[-68-] Not a bit more uncivil than this was the count towards my friend, although, as I was informed, he was amongst the least amiable of the alley dwellers. But for that matter, and as I have before remarked, everybody was civil to Mr. Missionary, from the blear-eyed old sinner of eighty to the hideously dirty small creatures of tenderest age, who left dabbling in the gutter or delving in the reeking mounds of vegetable offal to pluck him by the coat-tail and say, "Hahlo, Mr. Tatlin!" That any man single-handed should be able to conquer the deepest of all prejudices in the minds of a people of the stamp such as his daily dealings lie amongst, and bring them to regard him as their disinterested friend and counsellor, the arbitrator in their fierce disputes, and the peace-maker in their quarrels, is simply marvellous, and shows what indomitable energy and singleness of purpose may accomplish. Without the happy gift of tact, however, even under the favourable conditions mentioned, a missionary might easily fail. Mr. Catlin has this happy gift. With all possible respect and admiration for him, I should say that he is the jolliest missionary in the service. He doesn't go about sad, solemn, and with his dismal opinion of the miserable world he is for a term compelled to sojourn in imprinted on his countenance. He knows - and it is a thousand pities that all pastors and teachers similarly engaged do not know it also-that these alley dwellers are not far-seeing-their existence is essentially what is known as a "hand-to-mouth" existence, and that principle is sure to contaminate any higher views they may be brought by easy gradations to arrive at. They expect immediate results to appear after any undertaking they may embark in. I heard a story the other day of a man of this class which fully illustrates what I mean. He was a painter by trade, and so ungodly that never since the time of his marriage had he once entered a church. One day his wife fell ill and a Scripture reader came to her, and at the same time took opportunity to address a few words of advice to her husband. [-69-] "How can you expect the Lord to look after you when you so completely neglect Him?" remarked the Scripture reader in reply to an observation of Mr. Painter that "he hadn't flicked a brush this eleven weeks." "If you were to attend church regularly all that would soon be altered." "Do you really think it would, now?" "It is certain." "Then I'll give it a trial." So he did. He went to church three times on the following Sunday, and because he didn't immediately fall on a comfortable job at good wages, when the Scripture reader came the following Wednesday he flatly declined to let him into the house, alleging as a reason that he always suspected that preaching and praying was just a parcel of cant, and now he had tried it and proved that it was.
The alley dweller believes in what he sees, and if you show him a good man and tell him that because of his sinless life he is without a single care or sorrow, the alley dweller won't believe you unless the man in question is rosy and smiling and comfortable-looking. Such a man he finds in the missionary of Turnmill Street. He carries a smile and a cheery and encouraging voice wherever he goes, and he claps shoulders or shakes hands with any thief or ruffian that crosses his path with an air of brotherly kindness that carries weight with it. Not the crushing weight of conscious superiority brought to bear against branded depravity and vice, but a lever weight, that for the time at least raises what is left of the man out of the slough in which he is wasting and brings him face to face with a friend. Always bright, always ready with a little joke, always in cue for a snatch and a tune (sacred of course), such another man is never seen in the alley except on very festive occasions indeed - at a wedding for instance, or a christening. And when the alley dweller marks this he finds something very potent indeed in Christianity.
We went up an alley and into a house where lived a man whose wife had been ill during six years. She was abed, with [-70-] her head bound up, poor thing, and looking pitiable enough with her white face and her great despairing eyes looking out from the gloomy corner where she was lying. Her husband had at one time been a master sweep at the west end of the town, but now followed the trade of a chair-caner. Their room, although scantily furnished, was more decent than any we had as yet been into, and the man was at work shaving cane as he sat on a stool by the fire. As became him, my missionary friend at once gave his attention to the sick woman, and in an undertone I chatted with the cane-shaver. Things were very bad with him, he informed me. If he earned eighteen pence a day he was lucky - a sum, as he truthfully observed, the inside of enough to pay rent and buy bread, to say nothing of the bit of nourishment the missus ought to have. "She ain't so well to-day," explained the cane-shaver, sinking his voice," "and I'll tell you how I thinks that happens. You must know that she fancies a bit of buttered toast at breakfast - she'll eat that when she can't eat anything else - and we generally manages to get it for her. Well, somehow, the ha'pence wouldn't run to butter this morning, and I was 'bliged to send for a bit of drippin' instead. That did it. Her poor stomach, don't you see, sir, won't bear trifling with, and the drippin' toast turned her off sick as a horse. Things ain't as they used to be, sir, or else I'll wager she shouldn't want for nourishers. Why, one time o' day I was doing as good a bizniss as any one in the trade. It was me, with eleven other master sweeps, as gave evidence before Parliament about the climbing system." And with that with an air of pride he strode across the room and fetched an old bag made of bed-ticking and carefully secured at the mouth by many wraps of twine. It was quite a sight to see the changed expression of his face as he dived his hand into the bag tenderly, as though its contents were live birds, and one at a time brought out for my inspection the credentials of his old respectability. There were [-71-] letters from Somerset House-letters gloriously branded, "On her Majesty's Service," and with the Royal Arms at the back, and Acts of Parliament, and other deeds and documents, the nature of which he would cheerfully have explained had not my friend, who by this time had ministered to his patient, hinted to me that we had farther to go.
And here I may relate a rather singular fact that the mention of documents has put into my head. The institution of matrimony is one that is much neglected in the Turnmill Street alleys, and this, despite the efforts of their best friend, who is generally understood to be at any time willing to give a bride away and pay the fee for putting up the banns, and of the generosity of the minister of St. James's, Clerkenwell, who charges nothing in such cases for his clerical services. Difficult, however, as it is to induce them to undergo the ordeal, they by no means hold the marriage state in contempt, as is evinced by the fact that in almost every case where it has been performed between the couple residing together you will find the certificate, either framed or plain, hanging against the wall though why the spot selected for it should so invariably be beneath the clock, should that useful article of furniture be present, is more than I can guess.
The sanitary condition of the Turnmill Street alleys is a disgrace to the parish in which they are situated, and shows something monstrously defective in the working of all the various Acts of Parliaments passed for the wholesome housing and cleansing of the very poor. The houses in the alleys are lofty, each containing ten rooms, and in the majority of cases every room harbours a family. In one of the houses (only for Mr. Missionary's sake I would most gladly give its number and the name of the landlord) fifty-six individuals find shelter, and the rent of the dilapidated, dark, and miserable structure amounts to 26s. a week. "Rents are going up too," a lodger who paid 1s. 9d. for a mite of a room, which [-72-] whitewashed and otherwise rendered decent, might serve as a kennel for a mastiff, ruefully informed me. "There have been a thousand houses pulled down for the railway within half a mile of this, and they come swarming down here after lodgings because there's nowhere else to look for 'em. I was threatened to have another threepence put on me last week." "Where's the use of making a fuss about it?" said another. "There was a fuss made about two years ago when we was a-dyin' up of fever here like rotten sheep, and the police came with their chloride of lime and their brushes, and their whitewash pails, and it was 'Move on there,' and turn out here, and there wasn't to be no living of two families in a room, nor no chuckin' your waste of vegetables and that into the cellar, when the dust heap was a-runnin' over, and we was all to be made that respectable that we wasn't to be allowed to go out without scented ile on our hairs, as a feller may say. Well what come of it? They whitewashed every mortal outside thing they could dab a brush on, and they turned the donkeys out of the parlours, and then they walked off, and we have seen nothing of 'em since, and we don't want to for all the good they are. What happened arter they was gone? Why, the donkeys had to be stowed somewhere on the premises, that you may be sure, and the parlours, what warn't thought good stablin' enough for a moke, was werry soon let for a couple of families to live in."
One of the greatest evils to be met in the "warren" is the scarcity of water. There is a cistern attached to each alley, and once every week-day the water company allows a limited supply of the precious fluid to run into it. The said supply, to judge from the size of the vessel that holds it, would be unequal to the wants of the inhabitants even supposing that the water was required only for time ordinary purposes of personal ablution and cooking and house scrubbing, but apart from these legitimate uses the inhabitants, or half their number [-73-] at least, require water for trade purposes. They are costermongers (as we style them, but "general dealers" as they invariably style themselves), and the commodity in which they mainly deal is green stuff - such as cabbages, savoys, and turnip tops. They buy at a cheap rate such stock as is left over from the day's market and will not keep till the next market day. They carry it home - over-night, perhaps - and stow it somewhere (where, one is afraid to hint at almost as regards houses where space is so precious) till the morning. The appearance a bunch of greens would then present may be easily imagined; no one would give a single halfpenny for the flabby yellow things and they must be revived. Every general dealer has a tub that is used for this purpose amongst others, and any one bold enough to look into either of the alleys on a Saturday morning may witness at full blast this process of cabbage dressing. Every coster man or woman is busy over a tub, soaking, trimming, and selecting, batch after batch, until the stuff in the vessel becomes too thick and nauseous to be of further service - a fact lothfully recognized by the green-washers, since no more than that one tubful of water may be obtained. In the evening this precious "green-stuff" is carried on the barrows to the Aylesbury Street or Leather Lane markets, and there disposed of in "lumpin' penn'orths" to economical mothers, who take home the vegetable and boil it for their husband and children. It might be worth inquiry how much disease and death may be traced to this source. "I have known the neighbourhood through several years," said an individual with whom I had some talk on the subject, "and I never yet knew a time when sickness in some shape or another did not exist amongst us. In summer time it is frightful. I have seen as many as thirteen children buried out of the alleys in the course of a single Sunday afternoon."
Very shocking - incredible almost coming from the mouth of any one except that of a credible eye-witness. Incredible [-74-] that is to the thousands and tens of thousands whose knowledge of the poorest of the poor is confined to what they may happen to read in the newspapers concerning them. If they could for once in their lives and for humanity's sake screw their courage to a pitch that would enable them to become spectators of what is to be daily and hourly seen in these alleys their wonder would be rather how that death laid his hand on the inhabitants with such lightness. Soon as one unused to so pestilential an atmosphere puts his head in at the dark, ugly mouth of one of these alleys - not so wide in one case as an ordinary wash-house door - the odour that assails his nostrils is of so sickening and deadly a nature that to proceed seems sheer foolhardiness. The walls on either side are black and damp, as is the vaulted roof overhead, and the broken paved way under foot squelches up foul mire as the foot presses it. A little way between the walls and you come on the houses, black as the entry and as unwholesome-looking, and so close on either side that without exaggeration it would not be at all difficult for opposite neighbours to shake hands out of their respective windows. The door sills of the houses are broken and worn down to the gangway, and the thresholds are mere traps for unguarded feet to stumble over, and over head, increasing the wretchedness and gloom of the place, hang suspended from props and brooms thrust out at the upper windows, the rags that have undergone the mockery of washing, and now trickle down melancholy splashings, augmenting the filthy gutter that rolls sluggishly down the middle of the alley. Everywhere is stench, everywhere uncleanness and squalid misery.
Nor must one other feature standing out with terrible prominence in these foul dens be overlooked-sufficient of itself to account for all the sickness and death that there take place, ay, and far ten times more even though the cold of Siberia reigned there constantly. I should always desire to be well [-75-] within the mark in making statements of this nature; and when I say that the average number of houses in each alley may be taken at twenty, I believe I allow a margin. I think I may also state, with as little fear of contradiction, that in each of the houses four families reside, consisting each of five individuals, giving a total for each alley of four hundred human beings, men, women, and children. For the accommodation of all these there is but one water-closet. "It is impossible to keep them clean," I was informed (not by Mr. Missionary, but by a person whose knowledge of the subject was beyond dispute). "There are a goodish many people living up here of a reg'lar clean and decent sort, and a goodish many who are as bad as the beasts of the field. Up this alley it is one man's job to give the place' a wash down every morning, and he gets the rent of his room forgive him for his trouble, but it's never fit for a decent person to pass, let alone go into and how can it be wondered at? They can't get a man to do the job down the next alley because the landlord wont pay for having it done ; so an old woman living up there does it, and the people what lives there give her their cinders for her trouble. You see what it is now, sir, and this is March and not a particularly warm day either. You should pay a visit to this quarter some hot afternoon in August. Why, even the reg'lar lodgers can't stand the awful smells there are here on summer nights, and you may see 'em squatting out on the kerb and laying on their barrows in Turnmill Street till the air has got a bit cool." I cast an eye into one of the "places" as I passed it hastily, and all I can say is that if every cinder that old woman had given to her was converted into a golden nugget, the value realized would still fall very short of the service expected of her.
Scavengering in the alleys, as I was given to understand, is but a shade better cared for than the sewer business. I went into a hovel in a corner where lived an unlucky little man [-76-] whose sole subsistence was the manufacture of such skewers as are in requisition at cat's-meat shops. There was a bed in the room, as, indeed, was without exception the case as regards every room I entered that morning; but in this case there was a young boy lying desperately ill on it, and the father sat by the fire ragged and unshaven, and with a leathern apron on, cutting up the billets with a sharp knife, while mother sat at the other side sharpening the blunt sticks as father cut them. The price obtained for the skewers was sixpence a thousand, and out of that they had to buy material-wood-billets and string. The wood per thousand cost them twopence, and if they both sat at work and stuck to it from morning till night, they could cut and point three thousand skewers, and so earn a shilling short of a halfpenny that went for twine to tie the three thousand skewers into thirty bundles. "We're obliged to tie 'em in bundles, because it's only the respectable shops that we serve," explained the skewer cutter.
"Your little boy appears very ill," I remarked.
"Ah, but he's better since they've moved the heap," replied the child's mother, "the dust heap, I mean, you know, as you might have noticed just at our door as you came in."
"It won't be long before it requires to be moved again, I should imagine, judging from its growth towards your doorstep."
"Lord bless you, sir, that's nothing. The scavengers come once a week or so in the winter, and are able to keep it under a bit; but whether it is because they are extra busy, I don't know; but the way they let that heap grow there in summer weather is astonishing. It tells up, you see, sir, when the fruit glut sets in ; and there is a deal of waste in plums, and such like, to be chucked away, and there is nowhere else to chuck it but just here. Why, many a time I've seen the heap so big that it run over and fell all into our passage, and when they found that they've gone on chucking it into our passage as they brought it, and we had to make our way through it pass-[-77-]ing in and out. It ain't so much the inconvenience, but the smell, sir, is something awful."
"In the walnut season when they bring their wet mucky shells here, and chuck 'em out by the bushel! phew it's grand then, I can tell you," put in Father Skewer-cutter, looking tip for an instant with a wry face.
"But why do you stay here?" I asked.
"Why? we must, because we can t get a place at the rent we can afford to pay anywhere else. That question's very soon answered."
"What rent do you pay?"
"Two shillings a week."
"Why they tell me that for that sum you may get a three-roomed cottage and a good bit of land to grow your own vegetables in the country."
"Ah, but they don't use many skewers in them parts," answered the old man, with a knowing shake of his head, as he bent with a will over his work again.
"It is very little the poor fellows in this quarter see of the country, I presume," I remarked to my informant, as we made our way round to Broad Yard.
"Well, sir, we try to do a little good in all directions, and the one you mentioned has not been forgotten. Last year I beat up amongst a few friends, and got enough money to take a hundred and fifty of them down to the sea-side. We went to Brighton, mid a very pleasant day we made of it. I think not one in twenty had ever seen the sea before. In the carriage where I was one man said to another, just as we came in sight of the sea,' See them there fields, Joey? I'm for a quiet stroll and a pipe over them as soon as we get out,' nor could he be persuaded that what he saw was the water till we got near enough to see the waves rising and falling."
"That," continued my friend, as we passed a cellar door, "is where I once had an interesting interview with a sweep, and [-78-] nearly lost my life. He was a very hard character to deal with, and the worst of it was that you could scarcely ever catch him to have a few words with him. When he wasn't out, and in an unfit state to talk with, he was down in his cellar here amongst his soot. But one day I was coming past, and I heard him at work, and as I thought in a good humour. I couldn't see him, because the cellar runs a good way under, and is as dark as night, and there wasn't any ladder. 'Never mind,' thought I, 'I'll have a jump for it,' and so I did, and alighted fairly in the middle of a heap of soot as high as my waist. I thought I should have been smothered. In an instant the soot flew up and filled my eyes and nostrils, and there I was floundering until he came to help me. I shouldn't have been surprised if he had grumbled a bit, but as soon as I was able to speak and make some sort of explanation, 'And d'ye mean to say that you've took all this trouble over me?' said he, and from that time we have been the best of friends."
In the alley adjoining we found the house where lived the man and his family last on our visiting list.
"I think you will admit after you have witnessed it that a more distressful sight you never saw," remarked my guide.
And without doubt he was right. The house was the dirtiest of all the dirty ones I had entered. There was a strong stable flavour in the air that pervaded the basement, and a sound of snorting and stamping of hoofs that declared the proximity of donkeys. But the smell was very much to be preferred to that which grew on you as you ascended the tumble-down staircase. Dirty suds seemed to be the chief ingredient of the sickening stench proceeding from the open door of the first floor, which betrayed its whereabouts. This was the room where Mr. Burke lived. Mrs. Burke was washing - that, at least, was how she described her occupation, though from the colour of the rags she was dabbling and sluicing about she might have been dyeing. Mr. Burke had just risen from his [-79-] bed and was in the act of pinning and tying on a few rags to fit him for hobbling to the hospital on account of some complaint that afflicted him. In the corner there was a bedstead, a bed dirty as dunghill rags (I trust that the reader will regard this as plain, simple truth, and acquit me of any attempt at word-painting), and three or four sacks, such as potatoes are brought to market in, only fifty times dirtier - being nearly black, in fact; and on the sacks, naked as they were born, except for their tremendous shocks of dirty, tangled hair, squatted three children, varying in years from, say, four to ten. Not only were the poor little creatures shockingly unclean, but the dirt on them - all over them, on their legs, on their chests, on their prominent ribs - was of that dry and polished sort, such as may be seen on the hands of a workman at a dirty trade.
"Why don't they get up?" I asked.
"Cos they ain't got no clothes," replied Mr. Burke; "they ain't had no clothes for ever such a while."
"But what do they do all day?" I asked.
"Oh, I don't know; they mooses themselves somehow. I can't help it. I'm so crippled, don't you see, and can't do no work, and the work'us won't help us to no more'n a loaf. They thinks themselves lucky if they gets wittles, let alone clothes, poor kids."
"Hallo! why, where's the baby?" inquired my friend, as a shrill, though muffled piping made itself heard; "why, I declare it's right down under the sacks;" and heroically approaching the heap of foul rags, he made a dive and fished up Mrs. Burke's last suckling, kicking and squalling, and not a bit more like a baby than a skinned rabbit, and with an apology for a flannel petticoat slouched about its poor little body.
"Give her to me, please, sir, and I'll give her a drop; and then baby must be good while mother rences out her clothes and gets them out o' winder."
That baby, and poor Mrs. Butke "giving it a drop," and the [-80-] terrible smell the suds emitted, and Mr. Burke's rheumatic groans as he tortured his arms into his tattered jacket, and the gambols of the naked children on the sacks, brimmed the cup that had been filling since I began my explorations, and taking leave of the Burke family, and shortly after of the gentleman who had been so kindly instrumental in letting me into these little secrets, I gladly hurried away to where the air was fit to breathe.