Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - The Italy of Leather Lane

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IT is a fact not generally known that within the last four or five years a foreign horde has penetrated to the very heart of London, and successfully besieged and ousted the inhabitants, dispossessing them of their houses and tenements, and settling themselves in their place without further contention or remonstrance on the part of the ejected.
    To be sure, it is a somewhat shady quarter of the metropolis which has thus been subjugated ; nor is it very extensive. Possibly it does not occupy more than three acres of land, and the brick-and-mortar growths thereon have, as a rule, long ago attained even to dead ripeness and decay, so as fairly to entitle them to condemnation and demolition. Nevertheless, they are still crowded with lodgers from garret to kitchen. The occupants of the dilapidated houses are Italians chiefly, and the colony in question is situated within gunshot of the Holborn Viaduct, and still nearer the Farringdon Street Station of the Metropolitan Railway. When it is further revealed that the slice of the city which has fallen into the hands of the Italian enemy is bounded on one side by Leather Lane and on another by Saffron Hill, the reader may feel disposed to smile at the so-called discovery, and regard it as of the mare's-nest order. There always was an Italian colony in the neighbourhood indicated, from a time so remote as to be beyond the memory even of the oldest inhabitant. Saffron Hill, with the adjacent squalid [-110-] little thoroughfares and blind alleys, including Back Hill, Eyre Street Hill, and Summer Street, have been known, at least to the police, as the haunts and nightly abiding places of the majority of the organ grinders, as well as of the bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy players, and the whole host of musical tatterdemalions. The reader is possibly likewise aware that from time out of mind the invariable system pursued by the whole race of peripatetic instrumentalists was to quit their sunny clime unattended by their wives and families, and sojourn amongst us only for so long as sufficed for the scraping together of a certain sum, and then to make their way home again, thus giving place to new adventurers, their kith and kin, who were eagerly anxious to try their luck in the same direction.
    Of late, however, this system appears to have been abandoned - our foreign friends seem to have reconsidered the entire question from an economic as well as a domestic point of view, and to have arrived at the conclusion that in the long run it would be cheaper and decidedly more comfortable to induce their spouses to embark with the children, and while the nest of the future was in process of feathering to be content with a home in foggy England. Thus is accounted for the bewildering spectacle which greets the eyes of the daring explorer or of the unaccustomed wanderer who finds himself lost in the mazes which exist west of Liquorpond Street. At two minutes to ten in the morning, say, he may be threading his way through the unmistakably English crowd that throngs the Leather Lane market. He progresses but a hundred yards or so, and before the clocks chime ten, he has altogether lost sight of his native land, and is stranded on a foreign shore. It is in vain that, seeking a solution of the sudden mystery, he looks up the Street and down the street, and at the windows of the houses to the left and right of him. The thoroughfares are narrow here, and the houses tall, and the amazed stranger gazes upwards to see a pair of strangely draped and becowled old women briskly [-111-] gesticulating, and chattering to each other from opposite sides of the way in outlandish lingo; while lolling negligently from neighbouring casements are other women - olive-visaged, big-eyed beauties of more recent years, whose magnificent locks are half concealed beneath brilliant silken head-gear, and who wear in their ears great earrings of gold, coral, and amber, and about their necks, and depending over their quaintly-laced stomachers, necklaces of carved beads, cumbered with twinkling charms, weird-looking, and suggestive of fetish.
    Half reclining on the door-steps on Eyre-street-hill, and lounging against the door-posts, are bearded fellows of brigandish attire, with slouched hats adorned with a bright bit of feather, while at the street-corners and at the mouths of the numerous alleys are younger men, gay-hearted Italian youths, who innocently disport with lively damsels of their own nation; and besides these there are becloaked and scowling old men who puff at their cigarettes vehemently, as though they were trying to make them flame as well as smoke, and who stand in groups of twos and threes in whispered counsel, and looking as though they were bent on business, at the bottom of which were poniards at the very least.
    That they are harmless creatures enough there can be no doubt; indeed, while the stranger wonderingly regards them, there occurs an incident which, while it totally destroys the romance, serves to exculpate at least one of the cloaked, moustache-twirling patriarchs from all suspicion of being anything but an honest handicraftsman. A ragged young native of sunny Italy emerges from an alley, staggering under a head-load of chalk images and monuments, calls out to one of the seeming conspirators, evidently his master, and engages with him in brief converse, the subject of which, seemingly, is the victualling for the day of the image vendor, for the former enters a baker's shop close at hand, and presently emerges with part of a loaf of the half-quartern size. But then comes the question, [-112-] how is the lad to carry it? His old jacket is buttoned to his chin, and it is plain that an overture on the part of the aged man to break the bread in two pieces, and thrust one in each of the youth's trousers-pockets, is not favourably regarded. At last the difficulty is overcome by the ingenuity of the master. He detaches an effigy of St. Paul's Cathedral from the board on the lad's head, squeezes the bread into the interior of the sacred edifice, first compressing it between his hands to make it fit, and St. Paul's being then replaced, the boy goes on his way contented.
    The shops of this odd bit of Italy in London are exactly in keeping with all the rest. The stocks exposed therein consist almost entirely of maccaroni, half-yard lengths of crusty bread, all manner of beans in bowls, common sausages in their vulgar brown skins, sausages of genteeler mould smartly coated in tinfoil, and green, yellow, and purple liquids in clumsy glass bottles heavily stoppled with coarse wax; but most un-English of all are the children in the streets. The boy of British blood - albeit of ragamuffin extraction - is invariably an active lad. He is all for running and jumping, and is incessantly on the move. If he is off his feet for a few moments it is merely that he may enjoy the luxury of walking on his hands, or in order that he may indulge in one of those somersault or other acrobatic performances in which his soul delights. But the Italian boy, even when transplanted to English soil, loses nothing of his innate love of lounging and taking his ease in a recumbent position. His playground is the pavement, and the only amusements he takes kindly to are those which are not inconsistent with his lying on the flat of his ragged back, or curled up dogwise in sunny nooks and corners. His games are those in which the fingers and tongue play the chief parts, his most favourite pastime appearing to be a sort of easy adaptation of the English game of "Buck, buck, how many horns do I hold up?" but without the fatigue of laying a back or leaping thereon. It is [-113-] pleasant, however, to find that be is happy and content with English gutters and the manufacture of mud-pies, and that, cut off from the grapes and melons of his native clime, he finds consolation at the sweetstuff shop and at the stall at the corner where damaged plums are sold at the rate of a half-penny the saucerful.
    Speaking of these last, the luxuries of the children of the poor, reminds one of another very prominent feature of this picturesque Italia in the slums. It is not many years since the youth of London were amazed by the appearance of the first perambulating ice-cream vendor. Hitherto the dainty in question was as foreign to the street-boy as the taste of mangoes or green figs, and it appeared about as unlikely that he would be induced to take kindly to the one as to the other. The probability of the British working boy, with his natural appetite for solids, accepting a spoonful of sweetened congealed water for his hard-earned penny seemed distant indeed.
    But the boy of the period has advanced with the age, and his taste has grown refined. Such prodigious success attended the first penny ice-cream seller that hundreds of others scented the feast afar off, and at the present time ice-cream stalls are as common almost as fruit-stalls. It seems, however, that an Englishman can no more manufacture the dainty than he can turn the handle of a street-organ. The operator in both cases must be Italian, and to all appearance, the whole fraternity of ice-cream producers have pitched their tents by the side of those of the Back-hill organ folk. The extent of their prosperity may be judged from the fact that a smart public-house in the latter neighbourhood has thought it worth while to have conspicuously notified that that is the only house-of-call for ice-cream merchants and Italian musicians.
    It seems a pity, since the former are doing such a profitable business, that they cannot be induced to remove to a less ob-[-114-]jectionable quarter of the town. How penny ice-creams are produced is a mystery, of course known only to the initiated. All that is certain concerning them is that they are devoured, to the extent of several hundred weight a day, by the children of the poor, and it would be a satisfaction to know, at least, that they were manufactured in cleanly places. This, unhappily, is not the case. It may be safely said that Summer-street, Back- hill, is about as nasty a street as any in London. The gutters stand stagnant, and the roadway and pavement are in an abominable condition. The houses, for the most part, are deplorably dirty and dilapidated, and a peep in the passage reveals backyards which are well worthy of the outer Street. And in this street and in these back-yards are scores of ice-cream barrows and ice-making machines, and one cannot feel quite comfortable over the reflection-what kind of places are those in which the dainty is made, and can the ingredients, under such unfavourable conditions, be particularly wholesome?