[... back to menu for this book]
A TAMED DRAGON
TIGER BAY OF THE OLDEN TIME - OPIUM DENS AND SAILOR TRAPS - FISHING FOR "JACK" - THE SYRENS FO THE DANCING SHOPS - THE DRAGON BEARDED IN HIS DEN - RATCLIFF PAST AND PRESENT - WHAT THE "BRIGANTINE" USED TO BE AND WHAT IT IS NOW - "MISS LARKINS WILL OBLIGE AGAIN IN THE COURSE OF THE EVENING" - THE DRAGON AT ITS LAST GASP
Little more than a dozen years ago Ratcliff Highway and its immediate
surroundings represented one of the most notorious strongholds of vice and
ruffianism to be found through the length and breadth of the metropolis. For an
individual residing in the more respectable parts of London to venture thither
after dark for the purpose of seeking acquaintance with the habits and customs
of the savage tribes located between St. Katherine's Docks and Limehouse, used
to be accounted a daring thing to do, [-101-] and
an achievement to boast of. Nor was the evil reputation of the place an idle
rumour. Time out of mind Ratcliff Highway, or rather the gruesome network of
courts and alleys spreading out behind the houses of it, was colonised by a race
of rapacious robbers and man-catchers with an ogre-like appetite for the flesh
and blood of sailors. Near at hand was "Tiger Bay," as it was called,
because of the bloodthirsty nature of the wretches who lived there and where
dwelt the "opium masters" in whose vile dens foreign sailors - yellow,
black, or tawny-coloured - resorted by day and by night, to sprawl on filthy
mattresses and indulge in an "opium drunk," the price of the
indulgence being two- pence-halfpenny a pipe.
The parish authorities were of course perfectly well aware of all that was going on, but were unable or unwilling to bestir themselves to mend matters. Morning after morning the newspapers recorded cases of the most atrocious character investigated by the magistrates at the Thames Police Court. It was the same sickening and disgraceful story over and over again - a sailor robbed and left battered and bleeding on the street stones, or a sailor hocussed, and beguiled to some infamous lodging-house, there to be plundered and stripped even of the clothes he wore, or a murderous fray with knives among the seamen themselves, in which blood was spilt and lives jeopardised. Occasionally, by way of a change, the females of the locality would engage in a scratching and tearing match, involving the production, by way of evidence, of tangled tresses of hair, torn by main force from the human head, or more eloquent testimony still in the form of a detached human ear or part of a nose. Over and over again the magistrates declared indignantly that Ratcliff Highway and its neighbourhood were a disgrace to civilisation, and demanded some special interference on the part of the Legislature but nothing resulted from such unqualified condemnation. When it came to the question "What had best be done?" no one had any remedy to propose. It was all very dreadful of course, but how was it to be helped?
Every day of the week sailors of every nation were arriving in the port of London, and nine out often of them had no idea of penetrating inland further than the "Highway." They came ashore to "spree "- to spend their money in female society and unlimited grog. They desired nothing else, and at Ratcliff Highway, or in its immediate vicinity, they could be accommodated to their heart's content. It could scarcely be said that the foolish fellows were entrapped or betrayed. They knew perfectly the quality of the company they joined with, and laughed as much as they swore when they found they had been fleeced of their hard earnings. Their losses did not cure them of their folly. They went to sea again, and lined their pockets afresh, but came capering ashore with so little animosity for faithless Poll - who on the last occasion helped herself out of Jack's waistcoat pocket while she embraced him and swore eternal constancy - that should he chance to meet her again, she could easily persuade him to come and stand a drink while she explains that little affair, and in the end plays him the same old trick over again. The extent to which the seafaring fraternity [-102-] were plundered was evidenced in the gorgeous array of the insatiable she-creatures who turned out at nightfall to seek their prey in the streets and public-houses. In fine weather they might be counted by dozens perambulating the pavements in rainbow raiment, with bare arms and lowcut bodices, with satin dancing shoes on their feet and no covering at all on their heads. In this theatrical costume they swarmed at the drinking bars and dancing shops, enchanting. Jack Tar noodles as much by their dazzling splendour as by the ease and freedom with with which they tossed off countless glasses of brandy and port and sherry of the delicate Ratcliff brand. In those times the stranger who ventured alone after ten or eleven o'clock through any of the streets between the "Highway" and Cable Street was almost certain to be hustled and robbed, nor could the police, who patrolled their beats in twos and sometimes threes, ensure any man's safety.
This delectable state of affairs is all over now, however, or nearly. The devouring dragon, if not defunct, is to-day so tame and docile that he will hide his fangs and meekly droop his tail at sight of a single policeman. Doubtless this wholesome reformation dates from the day when the handsome and spacious Sailors' Home first opened its hospitable doors and invited all manner of mariners, no matter what service engaged in, to come there and board and lodge on such tempting terms that it was surprising that every available bed was not bespoke during the first week. It was not so, however. The idea was strange and novel, and on the face of it did not at all chime with Jack's notion of absolute liberty. The rules and regulations of the establishment might have been framed solely and entirely in his interest, but anything in the least savouring of discipline was opposed to the inclination of Jack ashore, and he was shy of the Home, so that it required much skilful manoeuvreing on the part of its managers to induce the Tar family to take to it in preference to the hole and corner sailors' boarding houses that abound in the immediate neighbourhood. Even now the proprietors of the latter places, by means of their touts and scouts, make desperate attempts to wile away those bound for the Home, even such as have approached its very steps. There are two entrances - one in Well Street, the other in Dock Street, and at all hours of the day the shabbily-dressed harpies may be seen lying in wait for the homeward-bound, and arresting their progress with feigned rejoicing at having once more encountered them, avowing that theirs was the boarding-house where they were so comfortably entertained previous to setting out on their last voyage, and generously insisting on being permitted to stand a drink at the next public house just for old acquaintance sake. In nine cases out of ten the rascals are uttering sheer lies, and have never set eyes on the sailor before in their lives, and, judging from the summary way in which their affability in the majority of instances is rejected, it would seem that the dodge is a stale one.
Anyhow, the Home years ago fully satisfied the expectations of its promoters, and it is growing more and more in favour with the class to whom it appeals, who have long ago discovered that they are richer in health, in money, and in [-103-] domestic comfort, than they ever were, or by any possibility could be under the old system. This has doubtlessly helped materially to bring about a gratifying change, but the Sailors' Home is not the only enemy the land-sharks of Ratcliff have had to contend against. Bolder bidders in the cause of respectability and sobriety have had the temerity to encamp in the midst of the grog-shops and the dancing saloons. A model lodging house has been opened, there are several clean and economical coffee-houses of the ordinary kind, and, besides these, there are two or three establishments, well situated and commodious, where food and lodging may be obtained, both of excellent quality and on reasonable terms-a conspicuous feature of each concern being announcements in the windows in several languages, that seamen of all nations arc welcome to enter and sit down with their mates, or read the newspapers, or write to their friends, with a good fire for their comfort, all free and with not a penny to pay.
How is it possible that the Ratcliff Highway of old, whose prosperity depended mainly on foolish Jack, the money-waster, can hold its own against such formidable opposition ? It does not hold its own. A short time since, on a Saturday, my inquiring mind led me to pay a visit to the neighbourhood, and, not having been there for several years previously, I was much astonished to find how marked a change had come over the whole place. Commencing at Ship Alley, I perambulated the Highway to its other extreme, and I scarcely know another thoroughfare of its extent with which would he fair to compare it as regards cheerlessness and dreariness. Excepting the public houses and the dismal-looking Prussian and Dutch beer-bars, the shops were all closed, and the parochial authorities seemed to have agreed that, in a locality where so little business was doing, it was mere waste to turn on the gas of the street lamps at full pressure. There was plenty of music to be heard. The number of public houses with concert and dancing saloons have not perceptibly diminished, and, hard times compelling them to compete keenly one against the other for customers, it being Saturday night, the brass bands and the pianofortes were all busy at work, with the windows of the rooms in which the instrumentalists were performing, kept well open, but seemingly with but little effect. Here, for example, is the "Brigantine.'' Not more than ten or twelve years since the "Brigantine,'' though not the largest, was one of the most notorious and valuable public [-104-] house properties in Ratcliff Highway. It made no pretensions to display in the way of plate-glass and elaborate gas chandeliers, nor were its customers the most select of the locality. But they spent plenty of money, or caused it to be spent, and that in the most reckless and devil-may-care way. "Tiger Bay" was not many streets off, and the "Brigantine" was much patronised by the wiliest, the sleekest, and the most ferocious of the tigresses whose dens were in the awfully shady locality mentioned.
On Monday and Saturday nights especially, was the long room at the rear of the "Brigantine" crowded with merchant seamen of all nationalities, and the painted, petticoated creatures who lured them home to make them their prey. There was a nightly concert, the singers being nearly all females, and attired in the costume of ladies of the ballet; and the custom was for the said ladies, in the intervals of their professional avocations, to come amongst the audience and sit on the knees of the sailors, and cajole the silly fellows out of glasses of liquor and shillings and half-crowns. The most bare-faced robbery used to be practised openly and without rebuke at this same Brigantine. I recollect on one occasion being there, and sitting at a table next one at which a fine looking English sailor lad was being beautifully befooled by a couple of sirens of the "bay." They had kept his company long enough to clear his pockets of all his money, but they hadn't done with him yet.
"Let us have some more brandy, Jack," exclaimed one of the seductive creatures, with an oath that would have shocked a coal- heaver; "I ain't half drunk yet."
"Can't be done, my dear," hiccoughed the young fellow, with a laugh; "not another shot left in the locker."
"What odds about that, you've got a good jacket on. Let me go and pawn it for you."
Catching at the brilliant idea, the young sailor slipped his arms out of the garment in question - a reeling jacket, as it is called, and worth probably a pound - and gave it to her. In less than two minutes she returned with half a pint of brandy, in a measure, and that was all that he got for his jacket.
"Now I've got no baccy," remarked the good natured noodle, presently; "what's to be done?"
"Well, you've got a silk neckysher as will fetch the price of some," responded his obliging friend; and next moment the neckerchief followed the jacket - not farther than the bar, I am afraid - an ounce of tobacco being brought back as the equivalent of its value.
"Well, I'm (somethinged)," the woman's female companion observed, "you have got a nerve, after the way he's been treating you all to-day and yesterday."
"Yah what odds?" replied the other with a brutal giggle. "I'd have his skin if I could get it off him, and it would fetch me anything."
But alas for the good old times! The "Brigantine" is no longer "as good as a little gold mine," to its proprietor. One Saturday night at nearly ten o'clock I chanced to pass its well-remembered portals, but no longer as of yore was the bar crowded from counter to wall, neither was there to be heard unceasing sounds of uproarious hilarity, and the shrieking laughter of women. There were [-105-] sounds of harmony, however, and pausing to find whence they proceeded I saw that the front doors and the door in the passage that led to the rearward concert-hall were wide open, so that the passing public might have a fair view of a lady singer on the platform- she most accommodatingly came to the extreme edge of it for the purpose-and be thereby induced to enter. There was a tout at the door, who politely informed me that it was quite free of charge, and I went in. Commercially speaking, the " Brigantine" is a wreck, unseaworthy, and crippled beyond repair. The merry crew that at one time manned the prosperous vessel had seemingly dwindled to three - a seedy young fellow with paper cuffs and collar, and with his hair parted down the middle, who fulfilled the functions of chairman, another young fellow who presided at a piano shockingly out of tune, and one female vocalist. She wore a flimsy and faded skirt of many colours, and a shabby old silk sash round her waist, with a grenadier's "busby " on her head, in which "character costume" she sang with a by no means unmusical voice some idiotic verses, indecently spiced, concerning a soldier who courted a cook. The audience - I was at the pains to count them - consisted of two slatternly women, one with a baby, and both without their bonnets, in the front row; three sailor boys; half a dozen labouring men, who shared one pot of beer among them; and four or five flashily bedizened young ladies of the neighbourhood - miserable, poor objects, with not so much as a glass of liquor to make them forget their wretchedness.
There they sat, paying no more attention to the singer and the song than though both were a hundred miles away, intent on wistfully watching the door. The dreary drivel about the cook and the soldier at an end, the chair-man rapped a postman's knock on the table before him by way of applause. "Miss Larkins will oblige again in the course of the evening," he announced behind his hand, for he was in the act of gaping; and Miss Larkins, divesting herself of the busby, twisted up her back tresses in a knot (the weight of the military head-dress had dislocated her hairpins), joined the waiter, who, in his shirtsleeves, and smoking a dirty short pipe, was leaning his arm on the mantel-shelf by the fire, brooding probably on happier days gone by. He observed Miss Larkins, and with a sigh, shrugged his shoulders and knocked the ashes out of his pipe on the top bar of the fire-place. "You seem out of sorts, Bill," she remarked sympathetically. "I'm out of bacca, Tilda," he dismally responded, and put up his other arm on the shelf and rested his forehead on both, while Miss Larkins, searching for a pin, made fast a bit of her flouncing [-106-] that had dropped away from the skirt. "Play up something livelier than that, good luck to you!" snapped the chairman to the pianist (the three sailor lads a moment before had gone out laughing). On which the obedient instrumentalist abandoned "Annie Laurie," and went in as vigorously as the means at his command admitted of for the "Men of Harlech"; to which stirring march I shortly afterwards followed the example set by the three young sailors.
The " Brigantine" was not the only establishment of the kind I visited that night. I had been over the ground more than once before, and knew which of the dancing and concert saloons did the most thriving trade in the rattling old time when the Ratcliff dragon was at its friskiest. Certainly some were busier than others, and I found none where business was so stagnant as at the "Brigantine." In the immediate neighbourhood of Wellclose Square is a dancing saloon as notorious as any in the district. In the old times the place in question was so highly favoured by women of the worst class, and by their ruffian male friends and advisers, that in order to maintain anything like order, and prevent murderous affrays between the latter and the victimised sailors, it was found necessary to employ as waiters, several individuals not unknown in pugilistic circles, whose trade mark was a broken nose. On Mondays and Saturdays especially, in the large room where the dancing took placer might be counted fifty or sixty girls and women, most of them in theatrical or masquerading costume who charged "sixpence a turn" for the valued privilege of whirling them round the saloon a time or two. In the hands of such supporters of his establishment, when they grew unruly and uproarious, the landlord was helpless, and under such conditions the prize-fighting waiters had orders to turn out the gas. The result was an immediate stampede down the stairs, and a free fight at the bar, but the street being but a few feet distant, the muscular attendants were able in a short time to "clear the house," their summary process being to throw out those who declined to depart on more peaceable terms.
There were sounds of music as I was passing the place, and I went in. There was the spacious bar as of old, and there was the wide staircase, but the latter was no longer crowded with a crush of painted and bedizened girls and women with naked shoulders and visible insteps. In place of that imposing spectacle was a printed notice to the effect that no females were allowed upstairs unless respectably dressed, and wearing their bonnets. I found the great dancing room tolerably well filled, the dancers giving the brass band. perched in their hutch against the [-107-] wall plenty to do. But the notice at the stairfoot had not been posted there in vain. There was not a. woman present but wore her head covered, and though the proceedings, as compared with what used to be, were, decidedly dull; from a moral point of view the improvement was immense. Wherever I went were to be found the same unmistakable symptoms of the old dragon being in a bad way. Its claws were blunted, its forked tail, metaphorically speaking, no longer lashed defiantly, but limp as a dead eel, drooped between the monster's legs; its glittering armour scales have lost their sheen, its nostrils no longer emit flames of fire, and it has lost much of its ancient odour of brimstone. This is a signal victory for those who, by their indefatigable perseverance, have wrought the amazing change, and, while they show themselves capable of such good work, it can only be said for them-may they go on and prosper.