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

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SOME years ago - about the time, indeed, when first was hazarded the bold experiment of challenging any number of the criminal class to come face to face with those who were anxious for their reformation, and give a reason for their persistence in the ways of dishonesty - I was present at a gathering of the kind somewhere in the neighbourhood of Deptford. The person who convened the meeting was himself a penitent thief; he had gone through the minor grades of imprisonment, and finally served a lengthy period [-125-] of penal servitude - if I rightly recollect - and had turned itinerant preacher, his special self-imposed mission being the reclamation of boy thieves. On the occasion in question - aware, no doubt, of what a wretched and half-starved business that of stealing is, especially amongst the youthful of the fraternity - Mr. ------ had caused a handbill to be printed, and circulated in the shadiest parts of the neighbourhood, giving notice that on a certain night a hot supper of pea-soup with unlimited bread would be provided for as many as chose to come, the only condition being that they must be thieves who had undergone at least one conviction.
    Knowing well the ways of artfulness, and stimulated possibly by vivid personal recollections, the well-intentioned tamer of young thieves took his stand at the entrance, and questioned each boy as he came up as to his eligibility for admittance. The result showed that the precaution was not unnecessary. There were other hungry boys besides the young thieves of the locality, and the tempting bait of a hot supper was too much for them. Bold as brass three or four came up to the threshold and unblushingly announced themselves as having been once or twice convicted, and it was only after a considerable amount of keen cross-questioning that they confessed to the attempted imposture, and slunk empty away. There could be no doubt that this was a faulty - even a dangerous - feature of the experiment, inasmuch as there could be but little question, judging from the disappointed scowl on the faces of these small traitors to the cause of honesty, that if on the spot they could have qualified themselves for soup they would not have hesitated.
    Another unsatisfactory outcome of that novel meeting, so it seemed to me, was the air of heroism assumed by the majority of the juvenile delinquents when we were all inside the building, and they and the black sheep confessed were ranged on forms in a part by themselves. Taking office as waiter, and assisting in distributing bread amongst them, I had an opportunity of lingering between their rows and taking note of their conversation. It was all about thieves and thieving, with an amount of unmistakable bragging and lying as to the number of times they had been "quodded," and under what circumstances and where; every boy endeavouring to make himself to be a blacker little sheep than his neighbour, while he furtively glanced towards that part of the room where the wondering and nervous congregation were seated, rather wishing than otherwise that his devil-may- care vaunting might be overheard at that distance.
    Nor was this all. When the feast was concluded and the founder of it took his place on the platform, the boys became quiet as mice, and, with mouths ajar and bated breath, awaited what was coming. Another mistake! In stead of delivering to them an earnest and simple address on the folly and unprofitableness of a life of crime, the speaker at once launched into a graphic and thrilling account of his own infamous early life, commencing with his petty thefts, and continuing the narration step by step until his reckless career culminated in a burglary with violence - all the details of which were faithfully [-126-] given - and a sentence of penal servitude. When this had all been told, and the speaker began to discourse religiously, it was as when the curtain descends on an exciting drama at the theatre. There was no more strained attention. The hushed silence gave place to a very audible whispering and restless scraping of feet, and longing glances towards the door. They sat it out somehow or other, but it was my impression then, and has been ever since, that, however good the intention, the experiment was a failure, and had best not be repeated without a considerable alteration in the programme.
    How possible it is that such gatherings may be attended with great success, has, however, been unmistakably shown by what has taken place at the Mission Chapel, Little Wild Street, Drury Lane. It is not the first time. Once a year for the past three years the Mission in question, whose ministrations are mainly confined to the squalid back streets and thief-haunted slums of the surrounding neighbourhood, have distributed invitations among the most depraved characters it is their lot to encounter to come on a certain night to the Mission Chapel, and partake of a plentiful supper, and afterwards listen to a little wholesome advice. It speaks significantly for their goodwill as well as for the confidence these wretched outcasts must have in the promoters of the movement that, from the first, they have responded in great numbers and without hesitation. What is still more to the purpose, on each occasion they have conducted themselves with propriety, entering and taking their departure in a quiet and orderly manner, eating and enjoying the bountiful meal provided for them with evident thankfulness, and listening attentively and respectfully until the parting benediction. And this is all the more gratifying when it is remembered that the members of the "criminal class" to whom the tickets of admission were issued were not children but adults, many of them matured in the ruffian calling to which they had faithfully served an apprenticeship; men who had probably mated and married amongst their own fraternity, training their sons and daughters to follow in their footsteps. To be sure, the inducement was considerable, taking into consideration merely the supper feature of it.
    Long before the doors were opened at six o'clock, the narrow street was almost impassable, not with those who were the fortunate possessors of tickets, but with the many who I had scented the meal from afar, and who, though fully eligible and to spare on the score of criminality, were without the precious little piece of card that was the passport to the good things within. They had gathered there in the desperate hope that those who had drawn the necessary and inexorable line might relent on finding them so numerous, and so deplorable and hungry-looking, or that the gentlemen visitors might still have a ticket or two to give away. No wonder they were so eager. It was not a mere common bit of supper that was prepared for the two hundred expected guests; it was a banquet-a full and luxurious entertainment, as though the object of the generous providers was not only to pacify present stomach-cravings, but to give the partakers a foretaste of the sumptuous diet that might one day [-127-] commonly be theirs after years of perseverance in the paths of rectitude.
    There was cold roast beef and pudding and bread, and it was quite understood that every man was at liberty to eat without stint and until he had enough. But the good-natured committee went beyond these plain terms. They put themselves out of the way to sharpen the appetites of their guests, and beside every man's plate there was a little saucer of pickles; not of your common kind, but cauliflower and onions, and walnuts even. Nor was this all. There was cheese to follow, and crowning luxury, celery as well. After this, the reader will not be surprised to learn that, the tables were draped with white cloths, and that vases of the gayest flowers that bloom at the winter time of year plentifully bedecked each festive board.
    The favoured two hundred gathered first in the body of the chapel, which is an exceedingly handsome edifice, and come supper time filed off in orderly squads to where the tables were laid, and further space being required, a large number were accommodated in the front row of the spacious lower gallery, resting their plates on the ledge where on Sundays repose the hymn books of the congregation. After the meal they all flocked back again to the ground floor, and for the first time could be seen to full advantage. To full advantage literally, unless their appetites were insatiable, since for more than half-an-hour they had been steadily pegging away at the beef, with a methodical and judicious consumption of the pickles such as showed their wisdom as trenchermen. They looked vastly better for it. Even the visages of the most ferocious [-128-] -  and there were some terrible-looking fellows amongst them - were softened, and the fierce obstinacy of their hair was visibly subdued.
    It is very remarkable as regards the lowest order of humanity how the hair on their heads seems to indicate the condition of their morals, and to grow rebellious and bristly, or tame and obedient, according to the man's mode of life. It changes as he changes. This was observable by a glance at the sconces of the assembled two hundred. By a judicious arrangement those of their number - and there must have been at least fifty - who for some time past had availed themselves of the assistance and advice of the conductors of the mission, and who were for the most part men of redeemed character, sat in the front rows, and the appearance of their hair, as contrasted with those who sat in the back rows, was very striking. It lay smooth as the fur on the back of a kitten, and allowed itself to be twisted into side curls and to be "parted." There was one young fellow who actually had his hair parted down the middle; though I had the secretary's assurance that not so very long since the front rows of guests were exactly like those I now saw at the back, and whose hair in many cases was like a wig made of old door mat running wild in brambleish fashion over the ears and towards the eyes, so that at a very short distance it seemed that the men wore caps of some towzled material, and had forgotten to take them off. Heaven knows where the good people of the Mission had discovered many of the poor wretches who sat staring before them as though they could not understand the strange sensations attendant on a wholesome stomachful, but I could not help thinking, as I gazed on them, that if it were possible to win them back and teach them to become as other men it would be an achievement indeed.
    There is a cellar-bred look about the poor wretches, a mouldiness and mildew about their habiliments combined with peculiar grime, that is never seen on the clothes of the roughest labourers. Their faces are of the hue of indifferent tallow, their frames gaunt and bony, and their dresses rags. There is a moody and weary look in their eyes such as is never seen in the eyes of men who have not tasted prison life. If not all of them, by far the greater portion of those present had done so. Mr. Wheatley (the secretary) vouches for it, and he should know as well as any man in England; and if any man in England is engaged in nobler work than the gentleman named, it would be a treat to know him. At nine o'clock every morning Mr. Wheatley may be found at the gate of Coldbath-fields Prison, in Clerkenwell, that being the hour when those who have served their time are discharged. His question to each one is very simple, "My friend, if you would like to have a good breakfast before you go any further, come along with me, and you shall have it, and welcome."
    The offer is all the more valuable because in not a few instances the prisoner's old "chums" will be there, with a generous suggestion of a drop of gin and a pipe of tobacco. There is a convenient little asylum near at hand, and it is satisfactory to say that once in twice Mr. Wheatley is successful in capturing the emancipated one, and bearing him off to partake of hot coffee and bread and butter, [-129-] which, of course, is but a steppingstone to more important matters, In the interesting report read at the meeting, it was stated that in less than two years and a half rather more than 24,000 prisoners have been discharged from Coldbath-fields, and of that number Mr. Wheatley has persuaded 12,000 to breakfast with him, and of these 4,000 have listened to his earnest pleadings to them to begin a new life, and followed his good advice to the extent of pledging themselves to become teetotalers.
    From this it would seem that if it were requisite the gentleman in question could muster at any time a couple of thousand instead of two hundred of the criminal class, and everyone but too willing to bear grateful witness to the good work in which he, with his colleagues, are so earnestly engaged. That the valuable services of the mission are appreciated in high quarters is sufficiently shown in the fact that Mr. Flowers, the magistrate, occupied the chair, and that many chaplains and other influential prison officials were on the platform. Letters also were read from Sir William Harcourt, Mr. Howard Vincent, Director of the Criminal Investigation Department, and many other gentlemen, congratulating the mission, and expressing regret that they were unable to be present.

source: 'One of the Crowd' [James Greenwood], The Mysteries of Modern London, 1883