Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Frostbitten

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WHEN at any time I am desirous of ascertaining the ways and means of the poor of any particular locality, I prefer to make my way to the establishment of the local pawnbroker. My peripatetic researches have made me acquainted with several worthy tradesmen who are engaged in this particular line of business, and the one I fixed on keeps a flourishing shop no great distance from the New Cut at Lambeth. The selection was not made at [-34-] random. The thoroughfare in question is a market street extending from the Blackfriars Road to the Westminster Bridge Road, and is in the midst of a densely populated neighbourhood. The inhabitants for the most part are mechanics and labouring men whose earnings are tolerably regular, but besides these there swarm in the numerous courts and alleys a nondescript class who at best live meagrely "from hand-to-mouth," as it is called, and who, as regards the male kind, are incapable of giving more definite information respecting their means of subsistence than that they "pick up a living somehow," and that they are ready and willing to turn their hand to anything so long as it is honest.
    As for the females of this class - the wives, and mothers, and sisters - they can no more afford to be fastidious than the sterner sex, and bravely help to keep a fire burning in the grate and to conjure a loaf into the cupboard by toiling at home at all manner of slopwork, or by vending small articles about the streets; while not a few are in the "button-hole" branch of the flower trade, or watercress-sellers and doorstep-cleaners. One way and another, here is just the kind of community to feel the pinch of Jack Frost's icy fingers sooner than any other. I had my suspicions that the pinching had already commenced through what I had observed the morning previously-  Sunday morning.
    Poor folk, whose means are precarious, and who know nothing of an early wages table on a Saturday, are in the habit of postponing their marketing until Sunday morning, and such places as the New Cut are much resorted to by them. As a rule, brisk and ample is the business done there, the provision shops being all open up to church time, just as on a week day. But this Sunday, bitterly cold as it was, and with the snow soiled to the complexion of oil-cake, clogging road and pavement, business was decidedly slack in the "Cut." The cow- heels in the tripe shops had a petrified appearance, while the tripe itself looked like a new sort of shoe-soling. The joints at the cheap meat shops hung frozen and rigid, and in much greater plenty than is ordinarily seen; nor did the stock seem to be much reduced despite the vigorous endeavours of the butchers, with their showman shouts of "Hi! hi! hi! wake up, wake up, wake up!" and their clashings of knives and steels. The marketing throng seemingly had no heart to contemplate the ribs, legs, and shoulders so temptingly ticketed on the upper hooks.
    As they furtively counted the money at their disposal, the poor threadbare women with the big market baskets regarded wistfully, though doubtfully, even the heaps of mean scraps and cuttings, a pound of which might be bought for fivepence. Equally unavailing were the persuasive voices of the young men at the pork and bacon shops. Sausages were in brisk demand, as is always the case amongst the poor when times are hard, and the street fishmongers, who were retailing fresh haddocks at the rate of sixpence a lot of half- a-dozen, and codfish at twopence a pound, were busy as they well could be. Very wholesome, I daresay, and cheap indeed at the price-and it was no fault of the fish that it presented such an uninviting appearance-but, certainly, it did not strike one as being satisfactory raw material to [-35-] represent, alone and unassisted, a working man's Sunday dinner. I may be prejudiced against the cod, but, to my thinking, it has, under even favourable conditions, such a dead-and-done-for look that one almost expects to find, on the direction card affixed to the long and narrow wicker receptacle in which it is placed for conveyance, not the address of the buyer, but some neatly-engraved particulars of the fish's birth and parentage, with its exact age at the time of its demise. But I never saw cod so stiff and stark as those exposed on the stalls, or more unpleasantly suggestive of a coroner's inquest and a verdict of "Found drowned." But there were plenty of poor buyers, happily innocent of such morbid qualms, and the frozen fish went off as fast as the fishmongers could weigh it. But I don't believe they would have bought it if they had the means to buy butcher's meat.
    To get a bit of something to send to the baker's - beef, pork, or mutton - for the Sunday dinner is, with thousands of poor honest folk, the one luxury of their lives - a something pleasant to look back on till the following Wednesday, and then to begin to look forward to. Those who choose may find a comical side to such a picture; but the poor children who are chiefly concerned regard it with nothing but seriousness. To them the baking dish has a peculiar significance. On account of its intimate and exclusive association with Sunday ceremonials, it is held in high respect, not to say reverence. In more respectable circles it is the custom of nurses and mothers to pacify the discontented little ones by promising them this or that when the ship comes home.
    Among the very poor the baking dish represents the symbolical vessel, and with a fair wind it arrives in port with pleasing punctuality; and who can wonder if the poor bread-fed little mortals hail its advent with rejoicing, and worship with all their hearts and appetites the fragrant freight of crackling pork and baked potatoes it brings them? And, again, who can gauge the depths of their disappointment should the longed-for argosy fail them? Should Sunday morning come without the blissful bustle of mother getting dinner ready, they are dismayed to find the brown-hulled earthenware vessel, with its white ribs, high and dry in dock as it were, and no prospect of its launching with even so poor a cargo as a breast of mutton or a medley of " block ornaments." But poor mother is not quite beaten, though very nearly. She endeavours to distract attention from the present dearth with promises of unheard-of banquets to come off "one day next week;" and in order to show some difference, and to make it seem a little like Sunday, she spreads the old white table cloth, and makes toast of the slices of dry bread.
    [-36-] There were so many visible signs of this dismal condition of affairs existing, or at least threatening, in the neighbourhood in question, that I resolved to go to my friend the pawnbroker and take his opinion on the matter. As before mentioned, it was on a Monday morning, which is prime pawning time among the thriftless labouring classes. I was agreeably surprised on arriving at the shop, to discover what I imagined was a favourable symptom. There is a door in a side street adjoining my friend's premises which opens on to a long, dark passage, and other doors, which in turn open to a partitioned portion of the pawnbroker's warehouse counter, such arrangement being made, in deference to the spirit of delicacy that is supposed to possess even the most habitual pawner, when he or she seeks a small temporary monetary advance on tangible security.
    I peeped in at these isolated closets, and three Out of the five were empty. In one box there was a bricklayer waiting to pawn a clock, while beside him was a poor soul, most miserably clad, who was being served. She had deposited on the counter a bundle of such size that it might have consisted of wearing apparel of sufficient worth to have realised a pound at least; but when the active and experienced pawnbrokers's assistant untied the parcel and tilted out its contents, he shrugged his shoulders as he inquired "How much?" and shrugged them again, and more emphatically still, when she replied, "Three shillings, please." As white rags, merely at threepence a pound, there seemed to be the money's worth, but it was as evident to me as to the poor woman herself that there was no hope of her obtaining as much as she had suggested.
    "Children's things are not worth taking in, however good they may be," was the assistant's remark, as he turned over the contents of the bundle, "and there's nothing here but the two baby's bedgowns that havn't had a lot of wear. Look here" and he held up a tiny flannel petticoat, and showed two sieve-like patches rubbed by little knees; "and here again," and he displayed a similar garment of slightly larger size; "not a bit of good to us - only fit for house-flannel; and as for these three small frocks and four pinafores you may take 'em back with you, if you like; eighteen-pence on the rest is the most I could say."
    "O, pray, make em half-a-crown," pleaded the poor soul "two shillings ; come, you might kindly make em two shillings, William."
    "I might ask you round to this side, and tell you to help yourself out of the till,'' returned William, pleasantly, as he made a tight roly-poly pudding of the little garments, and proceeded to write a ticket, "but I aint going to we've got such a ware'us full of rubbish as it is that we don't know how to stir. Got a ha'penny for the ticket?"
    "Lord help me, no, nor a farden neither," the woman replied, and with such a sigh that had not pawnbroking fossilised his heart of human kindness, William could have done no other than have torn up the ticket and drawn out another for two shillings instead.
    "I hope you may never have a lot of little uns, and only eighteen-pence to buy em food and firing with."
    "I'd sooner have the Queen's shilling, and go for a soldier," retorted the lively William, winking [-37-] at the bricklayer. "Now mister, how much on the Dutchman?"
    When I remarked that I was agreeably surprised to discover what I hoped were symptoms of matters being not so very bad amongst the poor, I of course alluded to the apparent slackness of trade at the pawnbroker's, and not to the case of the unfortunate depositor of the children's clothing. But, unhappily, I soon found reason to modify my hopeful views. Even while William was negotiating the Dutch clock with the bricklayer, the, door of the compartment we were in was slammed open with such sudden violence that the assistant looked up with anger. Nor did the sternness of his countenance relax when he made out the cause of the unceremonious interruption. In the wide open doorway, blocking it up completely, so that the individual who bore it on his shoulders was invisible, was a monstrous bulk tied up in a coloured counterpane.
    "Hold hard, there," exclaimed William, skipping over the counter to meet the bulky intruder; "is it a feather or a flock?"
    "It's a flock un, mister," replied a muffled voice in the rear.
    "Then we don't want it here; we're full of flock 'uns;" and the assistant gently pushed at the bed until he pushed it out at the doorway, when he closed the door.
    "It's enough to be bothered with flock beds when regular customers bring 'em," remarked William, as he returned to complete the documentary evidence that two shillings had been lent on the bricklayer's timepiece, "if we took em in of anybody just now we should precious soon be choked up into 'em. It's bad enough to be stuck full of bedclothes."
    I was not altogether unknown to William, and having disposed of the bricklayer, he held out his hand for the article I designed leaving, but on my responding with a friendly shake of his fingers, he at once recognised me, and called his master. Presently, and referring to the assistant's remark respecting the bedclothes and bedding, I inquired if it were a fact that there was an exceptional inflow of those articles at the present time, and how he found business generally in what might be termed the poor pawner's department. His reply was not satisfactory. I had, it seemed, wrongly interpreted the Monday-morning slackness. It was not because his regular customers were so well off that they were under no necessity to pledge their goods with him in the usual weekly manner, but because the bitter frost of the last week or so had brought them, men and women, to such a deadlock as regards money-earning, that not one in six (and to my astonishment he informed me that his regular weekly pawners numbered more than three hundred and fifty) had been able to perform the act of Saturday-[-38-]night redemption, and consequently they were cut off from their accustomed source of money-raising on Monday morning.
    I inquired whether the woman who just before had pawned the children's clothes for eighteen-pence was one of those regular customers, and, reference being made to William, it appeared that, to the best of his recollection, he had never seen her but twice before-on the previous Thursday, when she pledged a pair of woman's boots for ninepence, and again on the Saturday, when she left a gold wedding-ring - a worn-out thread of a thing, William said it was - for eighteenpence.
    "That's where it is, you see," explained Mr. Pawnbroker, in the tone of a man with a grievance. "The popular idea is that when people begin to feel the pinch of poverty in earnest, and to part with goods they never thought of parting with before, it is a pawnbroker's harvest-time. There was never a greater mistake. It is all very well as long as they have clothes to fall back on, or tools, or bits of trinkets, that are ready-money if they run out of date, or sheets and blankets, we don't mind; but when it comes to such precious rubbish as old-fashioned tea-caddies, chimney ornaments, and books, and things they prize because they are keepsakes, it's enough to tire one's patience to stand behind the counter and turn them away. It's the same with the bits of rags of clothes they bring when they're hard drove, as many of them are just now. The ridiculous sums they ask on their threadbare things would astonish you. Don't take my word - stay a little while and judge for yourself."
    I availed myself of his suggestion; but during the ensuing hour-and-a-half-by which time it was past three o'clock-there happened no striking corroboration of Mr. Pawnbroker's assertion. The doors of the row of little boxes were opened and shut pretty frequently, but the goods offered in pawn were of the ordinary kind-chiefly wearing apparel-and for the most part the property of regular customers - so regular that in many instances neither William nor his master deemed it necessary to inquire what was the amount of the loan required. They simply glanced over the articles, to see that in number and condition they were about as usual, and made out a ticket and handed over the expected amount.
    "Wait a little longer," remarked Mr. Pawnbroker to me; "the hard-up sort drop in generally about four o'clock. They manage somehow to get over breakfast time, and then the husband, out of regular work because of the frost, goes out to try and pick up a job that will bring them a trifle, and not succeeding, his wife is bound to raise a shilling if it is possible, to get them a meal and a bit of firing, and if there are any youngsters to feed, she goes at it desperate sometimes."
    And, sure enough, there shortly afterwards made her appearance as exact a specimen of the kind of customer he described, as though he had sent for her on purpose. A pinched and sickly-looking woman of thirty, perhaps, with something bulky beneath her shabby plaid shawl, which brought forth, proved to be three small pictures-common prints in the cheapest of cheap frames, chipped and damaged, and a man's shabby old cloth waistcoat. She asked a shilling on the lot; and when William peremp-[-39-]torily declined to have anything to do with it at any price, she came down to ninepence - to sixpence.
    "I would not give 'em house room if you left 'em for nothing, "remarked William, curtly, but firmly. On which the woman dejectedly wrapped up the pictures in the old waistcoat and left the box; but in a minute or so, during which time I suppose, she had been making up her mind in the dark passage for the sacrifice, she re-appeared with the rejected pawn under one arm, and with the shabby plaid shawl off her shoulders, and already rolled up for consignment.
    "P'raps you can lend me a shilling on this?" said she, laying the shawl on the counter, and William not objecting, she presently hurried off with the precious coin in her hand, but with her narrow shoulders, except for her flimsy old gown, exposed to the freezing wind. As though to pile up the agony, now a start had been made, not a quarter of an hour afterwards, came a woman with a tattered old "ulster" on and the hood of it pulled over her head by way of a bonnet. She placed a rolled-up cotton gown on the counter, and, seeing it, William exclaimed,
    "What's the use of you bothering? Didn't I tell you this morning that I couldn't take in that dirty thing?"
    "But I bin and washed it," returned the woman, eagerly ; "it's all right now - it is indeed."
    The vigilant assistant, however, would not take her word to that extent. He unrolled the article, and held it up.
    "All right you call it?" he exclaimed, "what with the body of it that damp that it will go mildewed and rotten before it's been here a month. You'll have to take it home and dry it before I'll have anything to do with it."
    "Oh ! don't say that!" said the woman, imploringly; "I ain't got a bit of fire to make it no drier by. I had to borrow a penny to buy a bit of coke to do it with, arid it's all burnt out. Don't say you can't take it in, after them at home have been a waiting all this time."
    But William, the inexorable, had already re-rolled the damp gown, and, clapping it on the counter ledge for her to take away, went and served another customer, without further argument.
    "Lord help us! we'll have to lie hungry as well as cold tonight, then," said the poor soul.
    And as she took up the rejected garment, and put it beneath the tattered ulster, it was plain to be seen that she had no gown on.
    "What did I tell you?" remarked Mr. Pawnbroker; "you'll see plenty of these sort of cases if you wait long enough."
    But I felt that I had waited fully long enough already, especially as I was anxious to overtake that miserable woman before she got out of sight.