Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - "Down Ratcliff Way"

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IT is now nearly twelve months since the Licensing Amendment Act became law, and the main feature of it - that which relates to the half-hour extension of the time until which public houses and beershops may remain open at night - was put to the test.
    As the reader may possibly be aware, the last-mentioned indulgence was never demanded, never urged as necessary, never expected by a proportion of at least nine out of ten of those to whom it was granted. A mere hundred or so of tavern-keepers were at loggerheads with the authorities, as to the desirability of keeping open their houses a little later than twelve o'clock for the accommodation of people who chose to patronise places of amusement from which the audiences - were not dismissed until that hour, when the Home Secretary, by a device, as remarkable for its simplicity as for its boldness, solved the mighty difficulty.
    The surest way of winning the affections of a people is to show respect for its homely, time-honoured traditions and maxims. The right hon. gentleman, who was doubtless aware of the popularity of the old English saying, "what is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander," shrewdly judged that he could not go far wrong if he cut the Gordian knot in which the publican's disagreement was bound, by declaring his conviction that what was good for the Crown and Cushion,  in [-116-] the Strand, was likewise good for the Three Jolly Tinkers, in Brick Lane; and that, to put an end to the vexed question, the shortest way would be to tar them all with the same brush.
    The purpose of this paper is an attempt to make known the result of a personal inquiry into the working of the vast experiment in one of the worst and lowest neighbourhoods in London, where the public-houses outnumber the bakers' shops, and where gin by the "quarten" commands a sale of three to one as compared with quartern loaves.
    It has always struck me as being not a little remarkable that those who regard it as their mission to preach against drunkenness and its attendant evils should pay so little attention to a rich and extensive field of material which lies all ready to hand - viz., the rieighbourhoods of Ratcliff and Shadwell, at the east end of London. Were I to enlist under the banner of Sir Wilfred Lawson, and be deemed capable and worthy of taking some sort of leadership in the praiseworthy crusade to which that inexorable opponent of the "demon Alcohol" is devoted, I would ask for a no more promising tract of battleground on which to display my prowess against the enemy than that discoverable between Breezers Hill, in St. George's Street, and King David Lane, in the same thoroughfare.
    The distance between the spaces named is probably not more than eighty or ninety yards, but weeds in a neglected garden do not crop up in ranker luxuriance than the public-houses and beershops within the boundaries indicated. I am not certain, but roughly guessing, I should say that there are at least five and thirty of those places here. Genteel society may well be excused incredulity as to the existence of so many dens of vice and dissipation licensed by law in these days of school boards and public libraries. They might have been possible before gas and steam were enlisted to lighten the people and expedite their advancement to perfect civilization : there could be no question that such haunts were no rarity [-117-] when Hogarth painted Gin Lane; but we are supposed to manage these matters very differently in modern times.
    Well, those who think so should go and see for themselves; in no other way can they thoroughly comprehend how grave a mistake was made, when, as a short cut out of the difficulties which beset this particular branch of the Licensing Amendment Act, was resolved on the ingenious device of tarring the whole body of publicans with the same brush by making the extra half-hour universal.
    It is generally agreed that the bane of drunkenness is never so hideous as when it is demonstrated in womankind, and no illustration of the disastrous effects of reckless indulgence in intoxicating liquors appeals to an audience with such telling force as that of the once sober and well-conducted female yielding by degrees to the terrible temptation until she at length sinks to the condition of a gin-soddened poor wretch, lost to every glimmer of self-respect, and capable even of starving herself and her children rather than forego her only remaining enjoyment in life. Such a story never fails to move to their inmost depths the commiseration and pity of those who hear it. It is no novel narrative.. Almost every day it is repeated in some shape or other in the newspapers; scarcely a morning passes but the "wretched woman" herself appears at the police-court to answer for her misbehaviour. But, after all, she is not by any means the extremest exemplification of the extent to which vice and strong drink may brutalize and change the nature of a human creature.
    Were I in pursuit of the commission above hinted at, I would undertake with one cast of my net in the sea of infamy which flows between Ship Alley and Gravel Lane to bring to land fifty petticoated specimens, the least vicious of which, compared with the ordinary draggle-tail drunken woman of London streets, shall be of jet black, as it were, compared with mere grey. Not, however, as illustrating the prostrating effects [-118-] both as regards mind and body, of inordinate indulgence in publicans' goods. The female of the locality in question is seldom seen dead drunk, as it is termed. Such a condition is almost impossible to her. She is far advanced beyond the weakness of succumbing easily to the influence of intoxicating fluids-if she was ever subject to it, which is doubtful-bred and suckled on gin, as she probably was, and weaned on gin and bitters. It requires a pen far more graphic than mine to adequately depict this modern Black-eyed Susan, whose prey mainly is men whose "follow the sea." It is marvellous that even spoony "Jack ashore" can discover anything in the least attractive in her. In language and manner she is as coarse as a coal-whipper, and the guiding principle of her shameful existence seems to be to make known her contempt and abhorrence of all that is modest and womanly.
    It is no exaggeration to say that there are many hundreds of women of which she is a type, the daily and nightly business of whose lives it is to prowl about this delectable neighbourhood, seeking whom they may beguile and plunder, and it is equally true that it is chiefly at the public-houses and drinking-shops that they mature their plans for robbery. I do not mean to say that the publicans who keep these houses knowingly permit felony to take place on their premises; but it is absurd to suppose that they are not perfectly well aware that the women who swarm to their bars, and their concert rooms, and their dancing saloons, have no other object in view besides that of "picking up" and despoiling the weak-minded individuals who are so unfortunate as to fall into their clutches.
    These women are the mainstay and support of half the public-houses hereabout. They go out in search of plunder of nights as systematically as did the foot-pads and the highwaymen of olden times. They do not resort to one tavern or dancing room and there spread their nets for chance corners; such a plan [-119-] would be by far too slow, uncertain and unremunerative. It is as with every other kind of fishing, this "fishing for flats," - there is never any certainty as to the particular spot at which spoil may most plentifully abound. There may be an equal spread of it from the Pickled Herring to Paddy's Goose, or at may all have shoaled into one lucky corner; therefore it behoves all who would share in the take to be vigilant and on the alert. And vigilant they are. They pursue their investigations, these flashily bedizened and painted prowlers, with as cool an eye for business as do the night patrols in garrison towns, who look in at all the taverns in search of drunken and skulking soldiers. It might be imagined that such a proceeding would lead to quarrelling and contention, but it is not so. There really does seem to exist a certain sort of honour amongst these creatures which leads them to respect the laws of the chase, and should a pair of huntresses, - they usually go in couples, - succeed in snaring a victim, possession of the prey is never disputed even by the hungriest of the unlucky pack. No; twenty times an the course of as many minutes, the easily swinging doors of the dancing-room may be thrust open showing a head and shoulders, and a pair of eyes keen as those of a fox, but that is only to see how business is going. At these Ratcliff houses its fluctuations are rapid. There may be next to nothing doing in a dancing-room one hour and the next a gang of shipmates perambulating the highway may fall in with another gang, and they all turn in at the first tavern that comes in their way, offering instant employment to a greater number of wreckers that may happen to be on the spot. Should this be the case, the head and shoulders above mentioned are promptly followed by the full skirts, if not, if there appears to be no more than a fair proportion of plunderers to the to-be plundered, the head and shoulders vanish as suddenly as they appeared, and betake themselves elsewhere. They have no time to waste; every half-hour is precious, especially when the night grows late, [-120-] and those to be beguiled become more and more helplessly drunk.
    An hour after ten is worth, to these man-catchers, more than two hours in the early evening, and it may be easily understood how inestimable is the half-hour after midnight, which is now vouchsafed them. And what amount of compensating advantage can be shown to balance the evils for which in Ratcliff Highway and its neighbourhood, "the extra half-hour" is responsible? There are no night factory hands, no railway travellers, no play-going folk in this quarter of the town to whom facilities for obtaining beer or spirits, after twelve o'clock, would be a convenience. Could it be tested, it would probably be found that out of every sovereign which passes over the bars of the hundred or so public-houses to be found between Cable Street and Limehouse Church after midnight, at least nineteen shillings is expended in drink for those who are already drunk at the instigation of the merciless shes, whose successful further attacks on their pockets and property mainly depends on the condition of helplessness to which their victims may be reduced.
    It is a marvel that, under the circumstances, the neighbourhood in question presents as a rule, and even up to the time when the public-houses and beer-shops close their portals, a comparatively orderly aspect. It is not unlikely, that if the various grievances which I have herein endeavoured to point out, were brought under the notice of the police authorities of the district, they would declare that they were exaggerated, and argue that if the place were the pandemonium it is said to be, to keep the peace there, as undoubtedly it is kept, would be impossible. But it must not be forgotten that, though undoubtedly a great deal is due to the excellent discipline and vigilance of the constabulary force, at least so much as regards avoidance of absolute outbreak and rioting, is attributable to the peculiar system of business adopted by the dancing-saloon and concert-room proprietors themselves.
   [-121-] Never were truer words uttered than those constantly in the mouth of the publican, that a drunken man is his greatest detestation, and never did spoken sentiment so nakedly betray the debasing influence of the liquor traffic. The publican hates a drunkard as he hates the gout or any other inevitable result of excess; the man for him is he who is able and willing to sit or stand, and swig and swig until his last shilling is exhausted, comporting himself, meanwhile, as a jolly fellow should, and so setting a noble example to all who behold him, and finally walking off with his prodigious swallowings, as insensible to their influence as the beer barrel or the gin vat which originally contained them.
    The keepers of the dancing and singing rooms "down Ratcliff-way" share in the prevailing abhorrence of their class, for the objectionable persons who cannot drink like a pig without appearing as one, and take well-considered precautions against unpleasant results likely to arise therefrom. They employ their own police. By way of example, let us take the case of the Prussian Flag in Ship-alley. The Prussian Flag is probably as largely patronized as any public-house in the neighbourhood, to which is attached a free dancing-room. The nature of its business considered, it may claim to be regarded as a thoroughly well-conducted house, and it is evidently understood by those who frequent it that its managers are persons who will stand no nonsense. On the ground-floor there is a spacious and scrupuluously clean bar, and the bar space in front is partly occupied by a bagatelle-table for the innocent amusement of those who have neither taste nor talent for dancing. The dancing-room is upstairs.
    On the occasion of my visit I was for a few moments in doubt as to the way to it. But while I was hesitating there came down a flight of stairs in the far corner two magnificent females, the one in a skirt of maroon-coloured velvet, and with a coronet of gold and pearls, and with a yellow "bandanna" [-122-]  temporarily covering the broad expanse of shoulders, &c., which the extremely "low" body of her dress left bare. The other lady either was, or affected to be a daughter of Scotland, and wore a plaid silk dress, with a broad scarf of similar material crossing her bosom and fastened with a brooch at her hip. They were both hot and perspiring from recent exertions and had evidently retired from the festive scene in quest of refreshment. They passed the bar, however.
    "Going to have a drop of brandy, Beller ?" remarked a hawk-eyed young fellow with a hook-nose and a meerschaum pipe, and who was drinking at the bar.
    "It won't run to it just as yet," replied Beller, ruefully.
    Seated on a corner of a table by the door was an old fellow with a basket containing something covered with a cloth, and approaching him one of the gorgeously attired females asked him for a "penn'orth," whereon he put aside the cloth and disclosed a tin pot full of peas boiled and still smoking hot. A "penn'orth" was a small saucerful, peppered, and well soused with vinegar.
    "A penn'orth for you too, miss ?" asked the old man to the syren in tartan.
    "Ain't got the coin," as briefly she replied; "I'm goin' snacks with Poll," which she did, for Poll having devoured half the peas handed the saucer and the leaden spoon to Bella, who disposed of them in three mouthfuls, and after this economical refection the ladies made for the stairs again, I following in their wake.
    The dancing-room, if not lofty, was spacious - sixty feet by thirty at least, with, at the far end of it, a refreshment bar resplendently painted, and gilt with looking-glass panels. At the end nearest the door was the space set apart for the musicians - a contrivance in shape and size closely resembling a corn bin perched up against the wall, and containing the performers, four in number, artistes of the street musician [-123-] type, and who wore their caps and hats and took advantage of their short spells of rest to smoke short pipes and regale on beer from a quart pot. Above the heads of the musicians, dangling from nails in the wall, were four or five gorgeous hats and bonnets, the property of as many female frequenters of the room, and who with a praiseworthy regard for coolness as well as economy, preferred to disport themselves with their tresses unencumbered. Of the tender sex present, with a few exceptions, they were all of the Poll and Bella sisterhood, in flashing silks and satins, and with bare arms and shoulders; but one and all, and there must have been at least fifty of them, of exactly the stamp as regards manner and language as though they were cast in one mould. The same brutal, expressionless mouth, dead to everything but the intaking of brandy and gin and the outletting of foulest blasphemy, the same transparent mask of abandonment to the fun in progress, and through which unmistakably and invariably appeared a restless impatience of all frivolity that impeded business, and the cold, calculating sharp look-out for the main chance, and which was no more quenched or even tamed by the measures of strong drink, swallowed at the expense of the victims marked as fair prey, than fire may be quenched with oil.
    As for the male dancers at the Prussian Flag, it s more difficult to describe them even than the women. In one respect only was there a striking family likeness amongst them, and that was that they were all drunk, or nearly-jolly and devil-may care drunk as the inebriated sailor as a rule is. A strangely mixed company, and presenting a picture well worth the attention of the clever artist daring enough to paint it ; quite a theatrical scene. The painted and tricked out women as before mentioned, and the men of almost every country and climate under the sun. Lithe-like Italians, quick as cats and lively as kittens; bronze-complexioned fellows, with dull, jet black lank hair and bright red coral earrings, copper-coloured men, [-124-] whose complexion was sickly yellow, and full black Africans grinning with delight, and perfect pinks of politeness as regards their behaviour to the ladies, and each one, although the heat of the room was stiflingly oppressive, wearing about his throat a bulky woollen wrapper of a gay colour for warmth sake; all there, and a dozen others beside, to say nothing of the "white folk," the spare-ribbed, hatchet-faced Yankee, the broad-beamed, heavy jowled German, and the true British mercantile tar, who, to do him justice, was rather more drunk than everybody else.
    There was no attempt at ball-room attire as regarded the gentlemen. By far the greater part were dressed in that broad ship rig, and a few cases were to be seen of individuals who were so indifferent to, or defiant of ball-room proprieties as to appear in their great deck boots, but no one interfered or remonstrated with them. The "M.C's" certainly did not. Indeed, I am not quite sure that they were entitled to be so styled. "O. P.'s" would best apply to them, those initials standing for "officers of the peace."
    There were four of them, long-backed, broad-shouldered young fellows, with their shirt sleeves rolled back above their elbows, and who acted as waiters, and who when not so engaged took each a seat at the corners of the room, and blandly smoked their pipes and looked on. But their business embraced something beyond looking out for and executing the orders of customers. A lady sitting in company with a huge Norwegian, whose shaggy hair, as he rested his tipsy head on the table, was dabbling in spilt rum and water, was seen while playfully patting his hand, to be endeavouring to relieve his little finger of the thick silver ring which adorned it.
    "Stow it, Emma!" called out one of the vigilant waiters.
    "It's on'y a lark," pleaded the young woman, coaxingly.
    "Lark or linnet you stow it, or I shall have to show you [-125-] down stairs," returned the waiter, civilly but firmly; and with a snarl and an oath the young woman desisted.
    Shortly afterwards there were signs of a sudden row. A lady taking offence at her partner's-a black mm-stinginess, had forcibly expressed her indignation by punching him in the face and cutting his lip, whereon the other black men who witnessed the fracas hurried up to the rescue, and there was all at once a tremendous commotion and flourishing of fists. But before one might count twenty the four agile waiters were on the spot as well as two of the musicians out of the corn bin - the flute and the cornopean, and able-bodied men both, and in a jiffy all the coloured party were hustled down stairs and out of the house, and in less than five minutes the four waiters had resumed their corners, the flute and cornopean had returned to their duties, and the trifling interruption was forgotten in the delights of the mazy dance.
    As the night advanced the dance grew mazier though, to the sober on-looker, possibly less delightful, for then it was that the hard-featured, keen-eyed women, who as before remarked, appear well-nigh invulnerable to the tipsying effect of wine and spirits, plied their victims with heavier and more frequent doses of potent liquor, so that they might render themselves utterly helpless into their Lands to be led captive to the infamous dens which abound in the neighbourhood, there to be plundered at leisure.
    It may be said as regards the question of the extra half hour that in the case of the man who recklessly abandons himself to drinking all the evening and up to twelve o'clock at night, he is not likely to be much the worse for an extended indulgence of thirty minutes; and this may be so with men whose capacity for swallowing intoxicating fluids is reasonably limited; but as a rule the seafaring individual is not of this class. As long as he can stand he will go on drinking, and his "sea legs" remain faithful to him after his reason has gone by the board [-126-] or very nearly. By twelve o'clock he may be drunk, but could if he were then left alone find his way home to his decent lodging house.
    It is the broadsides of liquor, as it were, which are poured into him in his then crippled condition which undo him and lead to his becoming the stranded wreck we so frequently hear of: but not a tenth as often as if we heard all-invariably plundered and sometimes barbarously treated.
    And how about the decoys - the cold-blooded pirates who, under false colours and in rich array, lure him to his ruin? Grateful, indeed, are these inexorable harpies for the "extension of time," which has been graciously conceded to them, in which to follow their abominable avocations; but, poor wretches, it is not them who reap the benefit. They are not birds of prey, tree to enjoy the spoil, which by hook and crook falls into their possession. They are as a rule no more their own mistresses than the silks and laces with which they are so gaily bedecked, are their own property. Their gay plumage is only lent to them to go a hunting in. It belongs to the odious male and female wretches who own the dens to which helpless drunken men are beguiled.
    Let any one who doubts this pay a visit to Ratcliff or Shadwell any morning, say at noon. That is an "off-time" at the various sailors' drinking places and dancing saloons. The foolish Jacks who are ashore are still abed sleeping off the effects of the over-night's spree, or those that have beer, cleared out have skulked off somewhere penniless and ashamed; but the public-houses are not without customers. About the still dirty bars flock the splendid creatures I have endeavoured to describe, but bearing no trace of being the same, except for the paint with which their dirty faces are still smeared, and the burnt cork and pencilling which by daylight render more repulsive the expression of their bleary bloodshot eyes. Their gowns are draggletailed and tattered, their hair [-127-] in greasy loops and ropes about their ears from which the tawdry earrings are still pendant. They meet to drink glasses of raw gin, by way, as they say, of a "freshener" after the ball-room fatigues of the previous evening, and to brag of the money and valuables it was their luck to "make" out of those who last night fell into their clutches. And when the day declines and the gas is ablaze again there they will be found, Bella and Poll, and their thousand wicked sisters, haunting the dancing saloons or prowling from public house and seeking whom they may devour, with no man seeking to hinder them, nay, cheered by the kindly dispositions of the rulers of the nation who have ordained that their hunting grounds shall remain open to them half an hour beyond the time their absurdly squeamish predecessors thought quite late enough.