Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Shadows, by George Godwin, 1854 - Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI.

    HIGH-STREET, Southwark-High-street in the Borough, as the Londoners call it-presents a busy scene on a Saturday night - probably every night, - but it was Saturday night when we last saw it. A countless throng streams along the pavement, omnibuses and carts fill the wide roadway, and the shops are blazing with light. Lightest of all these and most numerous are the linen-drapers' and grocers', before which the crowd oftenest breaks at one of the latter it stands still, so that those who would pass on must go into the road. It stands still that it may read the "poetry" in the window, wherein the generous proprietor, most anxious to serve his fellow creatures, actually says,- 
        However wonderful, however strange,
        We take old coin and give new in exchange- 
        That is, if you will buy our coffee, so good, 
        Which has long been the best in the neighbourhood."
An ingenious offer of - nothing, grandiloquently. Where all the people are going, and how they all live, are subjects for speculation; but there they are, and, as we just now said, it is a bright and busy scene.
    Here and there women and children are sitting at what would seem to be extra doors to some of the houses, but if you penetrate the darkness you will find these are the mouths of courts, to which they have come to see the world, and get some fresher air, and you begin to have an idea of what may he behind all the brightness and bustle. Nor in walking here can you quite confine your thoughts to [-74-] the Present you remember, as you pass one house, that Chaucer wrote- 
        "Befell that in that season, on a day,
        In Southwarke, at the Tabard, as I lay, 
        Readie to wander on my Pilgrimage 
        To Canterburie with devout courage," - 
Came there the "nine-and-twentie in a companie," whose persons, minds, and adventures he has placed so vividly and enduringly before us, that we have a much better knowledge of them than we have of the majority of our own living acquaintances.
    Southwark (Suthgeweorke, as it was called as early as 1023), is springled with interesting associations, recalled here and there even by the names of the streets. In early times it had a bad character: in 1327, when it had come into the hands of the Crown by some means, the citizens of London showed King Edward III. that felons and thieves, privily departing from the City into Southwark, where they could not be attached by the officers of the City, were openly received and harboured there; and the king, in accordance with their prayer, granted the town of Southwark to the Corporation of London for ever. This, the old town, however, was but a small portion of what we know as the Borough, and is what is now called the Guildable Manor, extending from St. Mary Overy's Dock westward, to Hay's-lane, Tooley-street, by the side of Hay's Wharf eastward, running west along Tooley-street a certain distance, then going south to the High-street as far as the Town-hall, and at the back of the Town-hall to Counter-street, and thence to St. Mary Overy's Dock. The other Manors, viz, the King's Manor and the Great Liberty Manor, were not part of the Borough until they were purchased by the Corporation of London from King Edward VI.
    The turning at the south end of High-street, opposite St. George's Church, is Mint-street.* [* St. George's Church was designed by John Price, architect. The first stone was laid on the 23rd of April, 1734. In the old church here the arithmetician Cocker, "according to whom people so often speak, was buried.]  Here stood Suffolk-place, a noble mansion, erected by Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk. A view of it is given in a drawing by Anthony Van Den Wyngrerde, made about 1546, and engraved in Mr. Brayley's excellent "History of Surrey." The duke gave this house to Henry VIII. who was his brother-in-law, in exchange for a palace in St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, and in it the king established a mint for coinage. We may say, by the way, that there was a mint in Southwark in earlier times, but this was without doubt in the old town, the Guildable Manor.* [* Mr. G. R. Corner, who has well investigated the antiquities of the Borough, thinks that the ancient Mint was most likely at the place commonly described as the Prior of Lewes's Hostelry, but which he considers was the house of a frater. nity, brotherhood, or guild of Jesus; the guildhall, probably, of the ancient town of Southwark. It came into the hands of the parish of St. Olave by grant from the Brethren of Jesus, with licence from King Henry VIII. confirmed by Edward VI. and became the Vestry-hall of the parish.]
   
[-75-] After vicissitudes, Suffolk-place, or "the Mint," was sold : a great part of it was pulled down, and on its site many small cottages were built, as Stowe says, "to the increasing of beggars in the Borough." The district became the resort of lawless persons, the privilege of exemption from legal process being claimed for it : it was an Alsatia, a sanctuary for evil nor was any proper control obtained there until 1723. Here died Nahum Tate, once poet laureate: and Pope constantly refers to the place as a residence of poor poets in his writings. Mat o' the Mint, it will be remembered, is a character in the "Beggars' Opera."
    But we must get back from the past to what more immediately concerns us; so let us walk up this Mint-street out of the busy thoroughfare described at starting. Its evil character has not departed from it. With a gin-shop at the High-street end, and St. George's Workhouse at the other, it has on either side of it con genes of filthy courts unfit for habitation. The houses are tumbling down, the approaches in a miserable condition, as may be seen in Fig. 17. Let us take one of the courts on the south side of it - Wallis's-alley, where the houses (of wood) are in the most distressing state of dilapidation : the ceilings have fallen, the floors are full of holes, and the windows glassless. "I have but two panes," said a poor old woman, living in the upper part of one of them, "in my two rooms." In this house, for which the landlord receives 2s. per week for the front room on the ground floor; 1s. 6d. for the back room; 1s. 6d. for the front room above, and 1s. 3d. for two small back rooms on that floor,-equal to 16. 5s. per annum, there are fifteen persons living, and we may consider that there are at least the same number in each of the adjoining three tenements. For the "convenience" of this body of people there is a hole in the rotting back-yard, but partly covered by two or three planks and a dilapidated seat there is no door, no enclosure, other than a few boards, three or four feet high from the ground The decomposing contents of the open cesspool beneath contaminate the air around, and decency is out of the question.
    We can scarcely restrain ourselves to speak calmly on such abominations.
    A short time ago two men opened a cesspool in Pelham-street, Spitalfields, and, becoming suddenly exposed to its foul gas, both died! In the case of those who die more slowly, the cause is not recognised.
    To the blind persistence in the answer to inquirers, given by the occupants of such places as the Mint, that they enjoy very good health, and that their place is very wholesome, we have again and again referred; but it cannot be too often spoken of for the guidance of those engaged in sanitary investigations. In the immediate neighbourhood of the court just now mentioned, we asked two women as to their health, and received the usual answer. Will it be believed that, on farther questioning, we found the first had had seven children, but that only one was alive, and that the second bad been the mother [-76-] of thirteen, and that the whole were dead? This is no invention : we assert it solemnly as a dreadful fact.
    In Wallis's-alley there is a tap at one end, where the water runs for about a quarter of an hour each morning, and the inhabitants have to catch what they can. On Sundays they have none. The approach 

Mint-street, looking towards High-street.
Fig. 17 - Mint-street, looking towards High-street.

is unpaved; the general condition a disgrace to the locality. Visiting the neighbourhood again, in the daylight, we found in the courts adjoining, "conveniences without doors, and rotting dung-heaps on all sides. In Mitre-court, the general dust-bin had not been emptied for more than three weeks, according to the statement of the in-

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Fig. 18 - Duke-street. Southwark
Fig. 18 - Duke-street. Southwark

[-78-]habitants. Here the water does not run until night, sometimes as late as eleven o'clock "When we are forced, said a woman, "to wait for one another, it runs so slowly; and some of us have nothing to store it in when it does come. "On Sundays, said another, "I and my children are miserably off: it is no use trying to be clean. In South Sea-court, running into Southwark-bridge-road, the refuse lies rotting on the unpaved road. Though boasting such names as King-street, Queen-street, Duke-street, the whole district has an aspect of poverty and misery; and we were not surprised, though a 

Fig. 19 - At the back of Ewer-street, Gravel-lane
Fig. 19 - At the back of Ewer-street, Gravel-lane

little startled at the moment, to find a sufferer from cholera in one of the rooms we entered. 
    As the poverty and distress, so would seem to be the number of children. In one of the courts, on entering, we counted thirty-seven children at play: merry little things, as yet unsaddened or debased; pure little souls, ready to take any impress!
    A few years ago some influential inhabitants of the Borongh sought to improve this neighbourhood by forming a new street from Blackman-street, where it joins High-street, to Southwark-bridge-road, and farther, and an Act of Parliament for it was obtained. Funds, however, could not be raised; the scheme was abandoned, and the [-79-] place remains in the sad condition of which we have given but a faint notion. Inquiries were being made, we understood, by a committee of the inhabitants of the parish with a view to some ameliorations; what resulted we know not.
    As a matter of course, some will think that the Borough "Mint " cannot surely be so bad as we have described it to be. So far from having exaggerated, our feeble words give but a weak idea of the miserable condition of this neighbourhood. Fig. 18 is a sketch of Duke-street, where it adjoins Queen-street. Fig. 19 represents a location called James's-place, behind Ewer-street. The latter is a long street of dilapidated houses, partly wood, which comes into Gravel-lane. The drainage is here most defective; and according to an old inhabitant,- In this and the surrounding neighbourhood were formerly many open ditches, into which the tide regularly ebbed and flowed; these have been covered, and now form 'blind drains.' Even now the tides often overflow parts of this street to a depth of from 2 to 3 feet. The cellars about here are often flooded. The houses are dilapidated, and as a matter of course, have cesspools at the back, many of them without even a covering. The health of the people is very bad: fever, we were told, had killed many lately in Ewer-street, and the courts leading from it. In Red Lion-court, a neighbour said "there have been lately several deaths." Here are cesspools and choked surface drains, which at the time of our visit were undergoing inspection. The place at the back of Ewer-street, which we have sketched, contains twenty or thirty houses. It would be difficult, either by words or illustrations, to give an idea of the squalid and unhealthy condition of this spot. The houses are unfit for occupation: at the back is a large dust-heap. If this disgraceful and unwholesome accumulation be disposed of at the present time, it may be at a loss to the proprietor ; but surely this is not to be set against the lives of men, women, and children? The pavement of this neglected place is broken and uneven, strewed with refuse amid puddles of -water. Sometimes, in parts, the water is up to the knees of the people. The houses are thickly inhabited chiefly by Irish: there are only four closets, with cesspools, for the use of the neighbourhood, and these -we found in a dreadful condition.
    If the thousands who are still streaming past the blazing shops in the High-street, were made to understand and feel thoroughly the loss produced to themselves in money, health, safety, and life, by the close, unpaved, ill-drained, vitiated, and vitiating dens behind, we should soon have matters put in train to bring about a better state of things not only in the "Borough Mint," but in the other places we have described.
    Reader! we have not written for your amusement, but for your knowledge and consideration. Accept the endeavour for the sake of the motive.