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A CATASTROPHE IN THE BOROUGH - "WALWORTH FISHERMEN" - IN A HURRY To GET TO THE "FIELDS"- ARRIVED THERE - AN ANCIENT AND FISH-LIKE SMELL - THE MYSTERIOUS BLACK SHEDS - SEEKING INFORMATION- "WHAT DO YOU WANT?"- THE WOMAN WITH THE KNIFE AND THE BLOOD-STAINED FIST - "BE QUICK, YER ARE LETTIN' OUT ALL THE EAT' "-A MALE CURER - AN AMAZING TRANSFORMATION.
had broken down in the Borough. It was as yet barely daylight, and the frost of
early morning, mingling with the roadway mud, rendered foothold for horses very
uncertain, even for animals but lightly laden and kept well in hand by those who
held the reins. The unfortunate animal that lay sprawling in the road with its
harness broken, and blowing smoke from its nostrils as quick jets of steam are
puffed from an engine, had been very heavily laden, and coming down the hill of
London Bridge, on the Surrey side of the river, the pressure behind was too much
Finding it could no longer walk, it attempted to slide out of the difficulty, but was presently hurried into a run, when over toppled the cart with a broken spring, and down came the poor bony old horse; and there he lay, half hidden in fish, with the knee [-13-] of a costermonger in corduroy pressing his head on the cobbled stones. It was a full freight of fresh haddocks the animal had broken down with. They had not been packed in barrels or baskets, but thrown loosely into the cart, and piled up to such a height that their weight must have been much more than a ton. There was a terrible mess. The fish were all over the road, and it was fortunate that the traffic was as yet not very busy.
The policemen on duty were dreadfully angry.
"Confound you Walworth fishermen," one of them exclaimed; "this will have to be altered you know. You come within an inch of this sort of game every morning, some of you, loading your carts down to the spring-blocks. Now then, you chaps! How many of you are in this lot? Lend a hand, good luck to you, and get it into your barrows, or we shall have to move it to where it'll be spilte before it's cured, I'm thinking."
And then, for the first time, I observed that, following in a string behind the cart, were four or five costermongers with their harrows. That they were individually concerned in the accident was evident from the eagerness with which they set about rescuing the fallen fish, bestowing it pell-mell, and all muddy as it was, in their own humble vehicles. And in less than ten minutes the crippled cart was shifted into a bye street, and the fish wheeled off on the barrows, and nothing remained to tell of the disaster but a smashed haddock or two in the road and a spangling of glittering scales on the trousers of the policemen.
There must have been an odour of spilt fish in the air, I suppose, though, for half a minute later a second vehicle heavily laden and with similar goods came along from the bridge, and, arrived at the spot, the man who led the horse by the bridle sniffed and looked sharply about him, and, spying the broken cart, shouted out with an unfeeling guffaw to the individual left in charge of it,-
"Now who'll have fust turn? Serve you right for being in such a greedy hurry to get to the Fields before us."
It needed but this to resolve me to an act I had been considering since the moment when the policeman made the remark concerning Walworth fishermen. The way the barrowmen had taken just now, and as I had seen them many times before, was in the direction [-14-] of Walworth, but, as far as I was aware, there were no waters worth fishing in that inland locality. There was the canal, and there were the ponds on Peckham Rye, but for Billingsgate purposes it could be but little use angling at either place. Besides, these so-called fishermen were taking fish to Walworth.
Then, again, what did the man mean when he accused the other of being in a greedy hurry to get to the fields before him. Where were the fields and why carry fish to them? For manure, perhaps. But why be in a greedy hurry to do that at this time of year. And even while I stood pondering the matter there came along a haddock-laden pony van and several handbarrows, the attendants being all of the unmistakable Walworth fisherman type. So, as being the shortest way of solving the puzzling business, I faced Walworth way itself, finding it an easy matter to keep up with the barrowmen, one in the shafts, and two others pushing behind, toiling and sweating with their loads.
It soon became evident to me that those in charge of the fish had no intention of retailing it at present. The barrowmen hauled at their loads steadily and without pause until they reached the New Kent Road, and into that capacious thoroughfare they diverged in single file. After that they took to the back streets, in at one and out at another, until they arrived at what seemed to be the very heart and centre of the maze. I don't remember whether Mr. Wemmick in "Great Expectations" states the exact whereabouts of that wonderful residence of his at Walworth, with its yard - wide "moat," and drawbridge, and the curiously prolific verdant patch in the midst of which stood the cottage occupied by the "Aged P.," but I have a suspicion that the goal of the barrowmen was in its near vicinity.
But, alas! how altered. There on every side were now to be seen the ghastly remains of the little houses, each enclosed with low wooden palings. Possibly not many years since sweet-scented wallflowers and mignonette breathed fragrant, thanks to the humble cottage gardeners, whose parlour windows overlooked the cheering scene. Now, sunk among the ashes and rubbish, were the shapes of the tiny beds where hollyhocks and tulips once bloomed, and bleaching white in the wintry wind and drooping in rottenness each from its rusty nail were the strings that used to make fast to the palings and to the rustic arbour before the door the gay canary creeper, and the useful and ornamental scarlet runner. All gone now, and given over to decay and desolation. Who now resided in the dreadfully shabby little houses with the paper- patched and rag-stuffed window panes? Judging from the pervading odour, they should be fishermen, or, at all events, individuals whose dealings with piscine creatures were close and intimate.
An ancient and fish-like smell seemed to fill the murky air like a fog, and nauseated one's palate in the breathing of it like a taste of cod-liver oil. But it was not from the wretched little hovels that the odour was emitted, but from certain low black sheds that stood in their midst, and from the chimneys in the roof of each of which rolled dun coloured smoke enlivened with frequent sparks. It was hither [-15-] that the carts and the harrows with their loads of tens of thousands of fresh haddocks were bound. Here they came to be "cured" by a miraculous process known only to the initiated-a process the secret of which is as jealously guarded as the mysteries of freemasonry. Arrived at the door of one of the long low sheds, the barrowman with his load knocks at it, and the door is opened. But it is useless endeavouring to obtain a glimpse of the interior. As soon as the door is opened there comes belching out a volume of smoke of exactly the colour and density of that which is rolling out at the chimney-pots, and veiled in it the barrowman wheels his burden within the shrouded portals, and for a time- for ten minutes-he remains invisible. Then he reappears without his vehicle and empty-handed, and with the demeanour of a man who has no anxiety as regards the ultimate result retires to a neighbouring public house.
I waited and watched, and saw at least half-a-dozen loads so delivered-though unless there were subterranean accommodation beneath the floors of the sheds it was difflcult to understand where the many hundredweight of fish found only temporary stowage in bulk, to say nothing of the room required for dealing with them separately, if it really were a fact that they came here to be transformed from wet fish to dry.
At present, however, it was only what I had seen that led me to suppose that the miraculous cure of fishes was a business of so private a nature that only the craft were privileged to witness it. There could be no harm in politely soliciting admittance to one of the sheds. I knocked, and was answered by a voice, hoarse with breathing smoke and seemingly belonging to a female.
"What do you want?" inquired the voice.
"I beg pardon,but may I speak with you a moment?"
The door was opened a little way, and in an instant the dun smoke came at me, taking me by the throat with such garotter-like ferocity that I gasped for breath. Had I gasped in fright it would have been no great wonder. I can't say whether it was the chief magician who opened the door or merely a subordinate conjuror, but she was a fearful sight to see, as far as could be made out in the blinding and choking brown vapour out of which she angrily regarded me. She was bare- armed to the shoulder, a middle-aged and muscular woman, and she held in her blood-stained fist a short sharp-pointed knife, and her head was bound in a red handkerchief, and her skin was tinted of the hue of saffron, and the rims of her eyes were afflicted with such a heat of inflammation, that it seemed to have burnt off all her eyelashes.
"Now, then, what is it?" she demanded sharply, adding, with a [-16-] gasp, "You're a lettin' out all the 'eat, don't you know. What's your business?"
"I merely wished to know if you would have any objection to my looking through your little place here."
"Only that I have heard a great deal of the clever and curious way you have of curing fish, and if it wouldn't be putting you out at all-"
"There, that's enough of it" - and she waved away the remainder of my civil speech with the fist that grasped the sharp-pointed knife - "When we want your sort we'll send for you."
And the door was rudely closed in my face. There was nothing for it but retreat, but I did not give up all attempt to penetrate the mystery.
There were several of the sheds, and by passing up a short street I came on another row, and sauntered slowly past them, in hope of overhearing something of what was going on within. But I could hear nothing but a sousing of water with an occasional chopping sound, nor was there a chance of peeping in at a chink. The sheds, which were mostly of boards, were seemingly as carefully caulked as the planks of a ship. I did not care to make a second application for admittance, but I looked in at the public-house to which I had observed the Walworth fishermen adjourn, and from the bar I could see six or eight of them playing dominoes in the tap-room, the door of which was open. Presently there came in from the street an individual who, only that he was a male, was the exact counterpart of the terrible she with the red-rimmed eyes who had so sulkily repulsed me. If anything, he was of a tawnier hue than she was. His upper half was clothed in a sleeveless shirt of blanketing, such as sugar-bakers wear, and his chest and throat and arms were naked, and of a deep orange colour. His eves were smutched with smoke, and as he entered he was wiping his reeking face with a rag he wore handy, tucked in at his waist-strap.
"My stuff ready, Dave?" one of the domino-players called out to him.
"Just going to take em down," was the reply of the yellow man.
"Time you was," grumbled the barrowman; " I've been here werry nigh three hours. They ought to be well done by this time."
"They are well done," returned the other; "I'll go and pack em for you."
And he went away, and a few minutes afterwards the barrow- man went out, and immediately afterwards I saw him wheeling away a high-piled load of as delicious-looking dried haddocks as ever were bought. I can offer no [-17-] explanation. As everyone who has read about the curing-houses of Yarmouth and Grimsby is aware, the conversion of the fresh herring to the bloater state, or the haddock, limp from the sea, to a straw-coloured, toastable delicacy, is an operation that occupies a considerable time-several days, at least-and that with every appliance and convenience. At the Walworth establishment about three hours seemingly is the time required. It can hardly be more. I went away for a while, and returning about eleven o'clock, I met the very barrow-man I had seen going into a shed with his load of wet fish just before eight; and it would be impossible, judging from eyesight evidence, for a more perfect cure to have been effected. I can tell the reader no more than I have of the process of conjuration, nor is that so important as to know that it accomplishes all that it aims at, and that the result, however arrived at is (there is, I am informed, another fish-curing establishment at Bermondsey, and a third in Spitalfields) that scores of tons of a wholesome and nutritive fish are brought, as it were, to the very doors of the poor, and that at a price that would have been impossible under the old tedious system of curing.