Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - Sunday in the City

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ONE of the most common of popular errors, and strangely enough, especially amongst folk who all their lives have resided within omnibus ride of the Mansion House and the Monument, is that on Sunday London is a deserted city; that its streets both wide and narrow, and which from Monday morning until Saturday night are as busily thronged as a bee-hive at swarming time, are all through the intervening four and twenty hours utterly empty and forsaken. It is generally accepted that the reason why the goodly sprinkling of churches to be found within the city's limits fall so uncommonly short as regards Sabbath day congregations, is to be found in the fact that there are people to speak of left within earshot of the ringing of the church bells, and that if on a Sunday the whole community to be discovered within the various gates which indicate the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor were compelled to go to church, St. Paul's Cathedral would afford ample accommodation for the purpose, with room to spare.
    It is not a little singular that such a bare-faced affectation of fact should so long have existed without challenge in an inquiring age such as the present. Is Aldgate with its world-renowned pump included in the city of London? Is Houndditch and the half-score of streets in the last-mentioned thoroughfare, and which have outlet in the Whitechapel Road? Why, the truth is, - and in order that there may be no mistake [-71-] the evidence is renewed every Sabbath Day throughout the year, - there is no place in England so crowded, so densely mobbed and close packed, as during certain hours of the forenoon is this, the very heart and centre of the city, on a Sunday morning. Goodness knows it is not because their tongues are not loud enough to reach the ears of those whom they would summon that the chimes in the belfries fail to cause the various churches in the city to be full to overflowing. It is exactly at that time when the ringers, fresh to their work, are setting the bells clanging their loudest that the streets below swarm thickest with the hundreds who, with their faces turned all in one direction, and who have come from south, and north and east and west by twopenny 'bus and tram and penny steamboat, and who though as yet a full quarter of a mile from the place whither they are bound, find the pavements so full that rapid headway is not to be made without elbowing, and elbow they do vigorously, lest all the bargains be sold before they are there to bid.
    They are rough customers, nine out of ten of them, and the fact that the urgency of the mission on which they are bound did not admit of their staying to denude their hands and faces of any of yesterday's work-a-day grime, or to pass the teeth of a comb through their uproarious shocks of hair, does not do much towards redeeming the unfavourable impression created by their untidy aspect, and the prevailing greasiness and raggedness of their habiliments, from the crown of their battered hats or caps to where should be the sole of their, in most cases, dilapidated old boots. So they go trooping, quick march, down Leadenhall Street and Houndsditch and Aldgate towards the Old Clothes Market.
    It is like no other market in England. It has covered ways and spacious "exchanges," which on week-days are guarded by toll-takers, who exact a certain sum from all corners ere they may enter to engage in their daily business of buying and bar-[-72-]tering. From Monday until Saturday these places are resorted to by dealers only - those who collect old wearing apparel - the "bagmen" who are of the lingering race of London street criers, and those who purchase wholesale the said collections. But on Sundays, exchanges, squares, bazaars lanes and alleys, all are thrown open free to all corners and the amount of business transacted during Sunday morning church time can only be judged by personal observation of the immense concourse or patrons that flock to and block up every passage and avenue and outlet and inlet. Round about the exchanges and covered ways are streets innumerable, Cutler-street, Harrow-street, White-street, all long and narrow thoroughfares, and one and all literally crammed full, road and pavement. Such an amazing spectacle is to be found nowhere else. There used to be something which bore a faint resemblance to its general aspect in those good old times when murderers were publicly strangled in the Old Bailey; but that is an affair of the past. Occasionally such a mob is seen in modern times at some great conflagration; but that is only for a little while, and before the police have time to arrive and disperse it, while here the enormous mass of people is permitted to roll sluggishly through the over-gorged streets for hours together.
    There is no opportunity for retreat when once the adventurer is fairly launched. There is no choice but to abide in the thick of the unsavoury stream, moving as it moves, until some fat distant outlet is attained. It must be said in its favour, however, that it is a perfectly good-humoured mob. Considering the perpetual crushing of unprotected toes by hobnailed heels, and the bending of ribs under the crushing pressure of uncompromising elbows there is heard on all sides an astonishingly small amount of cursing and swearing; but the most marvellous part of the business is the various things the people contrive to do in the very heart and thick of the crush. There are shops for the sale of second-hand clothes on either side of all the [-73-] narrow thoroughfares, but the bulk of the business is done by those dealers who bear their goods about with them, slung over their shoulders or hugged in their arms, and who push and drive through the mob with the rest, screeching out with all the strength of their lungs what it is they have got to dispose of, and what the price of it is. The vendor's of second-hand hats cannot, under such circumstances, go about with their's hugged in their arms, so they mount them sometimes on the dome of an expanded umbrella, and holding the latter aloft pass through the crowd, crying out, "A hat for a shillin'! A hat for a shilhin'!" until they are well nigh breathless and red in the face. "Here's a weskit ! Who'll have a weskit for a tanner? Who's the buyer of coat? Here's a stunner for  three-and-six - half-a-crown - two-bob - anything!" "Who wants a shirt? Who'll buy a pair of trousers? Who ses a pair of hard working trousers for nine-pence?" And while five hundred voices are blending to advertise these and a score of other amazing bargains, dealers in another line of business wriggle their ware through the close-jammed multitude with bright tin kettles balanced on their heads containing hot green peas, sheep's trotters and pickled cucumbers for sale.
    Everything goes on in a wonderfully peaceable manner, though to the uninitiated it would seem that pugilistic encounters were going on in twenty different spots at one and the same time; for there may be seen able-bodied men and strapping lads stripping themselves of their outer garments, and that with an earnestness of purpose that can apparently only indicate impending fisticuffs, especially as in each case there us something of a "ring" formed, and the individual reduced to his shirt and trousers is sedulously "attended to" by a friend who holds his jacket and waistcoat. But there is no battle, nor is one intended, and all this stripping portends nothing more alarming than the trying on of some garment offered for sale.
    [-74-] Boots and shoes are "tried on" in the same unceremonious fashion, the persons who contemplate becoming purchasers squatting down on the pavement or in the muddy roadway. A rare trade in old boots is done in this place, the great attraction being that a pair of some sort may be bought for almost any price, and it is no uncommon thing to see some poor wretch negotiating for a pair so deplorably dilapidated, that it seems no boots can be worse until you direct your attention to those he has on. And to be sure, the pair coveted cannot be so vastly superior, since all that is asked for them is fourpence and his old ones in the bargain.
    And are all these thousands of people who patiently move with the crowd, or violently elbow their way through the evil-smelling, almost overwhelming crush, in search of bargains in the shape of more than half-worn-out coats and waistcoats, and threadbare trousers, and boots and shoes, the vamped-up defects of which grin perceptibly through the polish with which they are so bountifully coated; are all these hunters after something worth more than the price required for it of the tag- rag and unwashed order? Undoubtedly.
    Surely you cannot for a moment suspect that the very considerable number of black-coated, semi-genteel individuals who mingle with the mob, and evidently take such deep interest in what is going on, even to the handling and close inspection of the goods offered for sale; surely you cannot imagine but that these grave and decently dressed men, elderly as a rule, have come to pick up bargains in such a place? Oh, dear no. They are simply persons of an inquisitive turn of mind, and who have somehow heard or read concerning this wonderful market, and who have slipped away from home, and - just for once - from church-going, that they may satisfy themselves that it is a reality, and not a fiction. If you are still sceptical as to this being their real intention, you may be quite convinced by overhearing - and when one is so closely wedged in a crowd [-75-] how is it possible to avoid overhearing what your next neighbours are talking about?
    Listen to the dialogue which takes place between two of the decently attired clerkly-looking personages alluded to. They are acquainted evidently, for they address each other respectively as Jones and Robinson, and shake hands as cordially as their pent-up condition will permit.
    The unexpected encounter has a striking effect on both. Robinson's countenance changes to a sickly hue, and he visibly breaks out in cold beads of perspiration; while, as for Jones, his face glows hotly, and there is an embarrassment, not to say a wildness, in his eye, that certainly did not exist there a few moments since. In a breath, as it were, they ask of each other, "Why, who on earth would have thought to find you here!"
    But the matter is easily explained. It is curiosity, pure and simple, that has taken them both to the Old Clothes Market. Ha, ha! How confoundedly strange that the same inclination should have seized on both at the same time, - on a Sunday too, of all days of the week!
    "Well, it's a queer place, isn't it? Never could have supposed that such a place existed. Couldn't have supposed that the old clo' trade played such an important part in the domestic economy of the people. But, there, you know the old saying, my boy," remarks Jones, at the same time taking his friend by a disengaged button-hole at the breast of his coat, "you know the old saying, that one half the world has no idea how the other half contrives to jog on and eke out an existence."
    The two friends are so close together that it is nearly in at Robinson's ear that Jones whispers the sage observation above recorded ; and had Jones's breath been the wind of a powerful pair of bellows, and the face of his acquaintance a flagging fire, it could not have blazed up more suddenly under the operation.
    "Ah, indeed! Well you may say that, Jones!" gasps the [-76-] guilty man, and at the same moment gently disengages his friend's finger from his button-hole, and, with a ghastly affectation of thinking of anything in the world but of what he is doing, applies it to the button on the opposite side, and there secures it. But with the most disastrous effect. The increased tightness suddenly develops an extraordinary bulginess of Robinson's breast pocket, which assumes the strange shape of the heel and sole of a small boot.
    Jones has a quick eye, and acute indeed are Robinson's sufferings as he fancies that they are fixed on the identical spot.
    "Phew I it's awfully hot here," exclaims the poor fellow; "I shall try and get out of it. Perhaps you would like to have another turn round !"
    "Well, the fact is I've only just come," replies Jones lightly, and so the friends part, mightily glad to be rid of each other.
    Well, and what of all this? What has it do with the remarkable fact that mixing with this motley gathering of dirty corduroy and greasy fustian is to be found a tolerably thick sprinkling of threadbare broadcloth and seedy gentility? What of the shoe-shaped thing in Mr. Robinson's pocket? This of it, - it provides a perfect key and explanation to very much that otherwise might have remained mysterious and inexplicable. The shoe-shaped thing was a veritable shoe, one of a small pair, and suitable for a child of ten years or so old, and which the sorely pinched Robinson had been so fortunate as to secure a few minutes before at a cobbler's stall, at the ridiculously low price of fifteen-pence.
    And Robinson is a very decent and respectable fellow, highly esteemed by the firm he has served for at least fifteen years,- an assertion incontrovertible in the face of the fact that when he first entered the office of his present employers, it was at the insignificant salary of fifteen shillings a week, and that now, thanks to a succession of "rises," he is in receipt of the handsome emolument of seventy-five pounds per annum. Out of [-77-] this sum, however, he has to maintain a genteel appearance for himself, his wife, and the large circle of small Robinsons who form such a compact, hungry selvage to the family dining-table. For the trifling sum of one shilling and threepence, papa has purchased a pair of shoes with tolerably sound soles, and a neat and imperceptible patch on one of the upper leathers; and Miss Louisa Robinson, who since Wednesday last has been excused from attendance at school on account of being rather poorly, will be able to-morrow morning to resume her academical studies.
    There now, the cat is out - Robinson's cat that is; the creature he tried so desperately hard, poor fellow, to conceal beneath the breast-lappet of his coat; and the truth is that almost every one of the decently attired individuals conspicuous amongst the Rag Fair mob carries about with him, jealously concealed from inquisitive eyes, a creature of the feline species. Jones's cat very nearly escaped at the same time as Robinson's. An extra hard poke of an elbow, or a sudden push from behind, would certainly have released the animal; for all the while that make-believe gentleman, taking-a-walk and peripatetic philosopher, was discoursing to his friend of the mysteries of human existence, he carried, concealed in his hat, a diminutive second-hand waistcoat and four small collars, in excellent condition, excepting that they were slightly frayed at the edges and bore the name of their original owner in full length in indelible marking ink-a "lot which Jones had picked up in the course of his Old Clothes Market ramblings for the small sum of one-and-six.
    And it is no exaggeration to say that there were scores on scores of unfortunate Joneses and Robinsons -  worthy, real good fellows every one of them - abroad that Sunday morning, and all bent on the same errand. That they find it worth while may be safely assumed; they wouldn't be there else. At the same time, there can be no question but they are awfully [-78-] swindled by the unscrupulous persons with whom they are brought in contact. They are ignorant of the art of haggling, and even were it otherwise, they dare not practise it. The reproachful ghost of respectability is ever at their elbow, whispering "there's somebody looking", and urging them to get the shameful business done as soon as possible. Their dealings are extremely rapid. The movement of the crowd with which they are progressing is so slow that ample time is afforded for the unobtrusive contemplation of the goods exposed for sale, and whenever the article sought for - a boy's jacket or a waistcoat, or a pair of mended shoes - is identified, out comes the bit of tape, with knots in it betokening the requisite length and breadth, a hasty investigation for lurking stains and artfully concealed rents and bare places, and then the price asked is paid; and as soon as may be the shy purchaser makes his way out of the crush, so that he may retire to some secluded gateway, and make a neat parcel of what he has bought with the sheet of brown paper and the piece of twine he has brought with him from home for the purpose.