Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - A Revolutionist Stronghold

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ONCE upon a time, having an inclination to obtain an insight into the strange companionship of English Republicanism, I betook myself to a meeting convened by the Patriots and held on Clerkenwell Green. It was on an evening in the summer, and I got into conversation with a promising young Revolutionist who stood at my elbow. I afterwards found that he was what is called a "sweep-washer" in the goldsmithing way, but at the time I took him to be a person in the peripatetic pastry and sweet stuff line. He had no basket - indeed it was the invisibility of that necessary article that first drew my attention particularly towards him. A Republican chief was on his legs in a green-grocer's cart, drawn up just by the pump, and my young friend, with his visage as pale as a baker's, and set teeth, had his eager gaze fixed intently on the orator the while he muttered, half aloud, "Pies and biscuits! Pies and biscuits ! that's the sort. There's nothing like 'em. Pies and barrakays!"
    The latter word was new to me, but I supposed it to be some new-fangled article of confectionery of the hardbake or toffey kind. Presently, however, some uncommonly treasonable outburst on the part of the orator in the cart made him bold to relax his clenched teeth a little, and his less impeded utterance opened my eyes to the young desperado's real character.
    It was not "pies and biscuits" that he was muttering, but pikes and muskets, and the innocent sweetmeat became "barricades."
    [-101-] "There's nothing like 'em," exclaimed the pale youth turning to me, clashing his narrow jaws viciously together as though barricades were his natural food, of which he had long been deprived, and were famished for want. "What do you say, guv'ner!"
    I whispered him back that at present I was undecided between barricades and petroleum, on which he released a dirty hand from the bosom of his waistcoat and tendered me the grasp of brotherhood on the spot. We got into conversation.
    "It is tremendously hot," said I, "standing out here in the blazing sun; wouldn't it be better to meet somewhere under cover."
    "Lor' bless yer! our place wouldn't hold a quarter of 'em," said he.
    "Our place ?"
    "Ah, you know - Hole in the Wall,* [* This stronghold of English Republicanism has since been removed to more convenient premises, in the neighbourhood of Clerkenwell Green.]  up in Kirby Street. It's a reg'ler snug crib in the winter, but it's too close in the summer. Ever been there on Sunday nights?"
    I was ignominiously compelled to admit that I never had.
    "Ho, it's a treat, I tell you," replied my young friend, wagging his head in rapture at the mere recollection. "It's head quarters, don't you know - where the banners is, and where the portraits and the pictures is. Lor bless you, what you hear here is on'y milk-and-water to some of the speechifying of Sunday nights at the Hole. Ha! I should like to catch a skyun of the aristocracy trying to do the lofty with us there! I should like to see one of em so much as put his head in at the door!"
    And the precious young Republican snapped his lean [-102-] jaws again with as much relish as though they had at that moment, fixed on the ear of the unfortunate "skyun" under the startling conditions above-mentioned.
    We parted affectionately by the Sessions House, my friend confiding to me his firm conviction that the happy time was approaching when we should see the gutters of Belgravia running with gore, and it was not until quite recently that the accidental perusal of a scrap of newspaper recalled to my mind our conversation, and also the resolution I at the time made, that, come the winter, I would one Sunday evening, avail myself of the treat the young gentleman with the jaws had described to me. There was to be an "important meeting and discussion," at the Hole in the Wall on the coming Sunday evening, at half-past eight o'clock, and all true friends were invited to attend.
    I was not a true friend, but I felt that I was open to conviction, and might become so one of these days, and I considered that fact a sufficient ground for accepting the invitation. It was not a pleasant night. It rained, and the wind blew about the gaslight in the lamps of the public-houses in dismal Kirby Street, in a manner that rendered it difficult to decipher the signs.
    A rare night for conspirators! I was passing up the darkest part of the street hesitating of whether it would be safe to make inquiries of a policeman, when from a shadowy doorway, a voice called out "Hi! my friend! here!" Was this the Hole-in-the-Wall! Had republicanism grown to this pitch - that the brotherhood did not scruple to challenge strangers and passers-by to join their ranks! I walked to the dark doorway. "Did you call?" I asked of a person of whom I could make out nothing but his white neckcloth. "Yes, my friend; our mission-room is at the end of the passage here, and the [-103-] good Word is about to be preached. Come in for half an hour!" I don't know whether this is the common way in which they fish for wayfaring sinners in the shady neighbourhood of Leather-lane; I only knew that, hole in the wall as it undoubtedly was, it was not that one of which I was in quest, and passed on.
    At last I found it: the stronghold of Revolutionism, the council-place from which from time to time emanate those startling manifestos that bewilder Scotland-yard and drive the Home Secretary almost crazy.
    It is not an imposing edifice, the Hole-in-the-Wall. It is a small and particularly dingy public-house, with nothing to redeem it from absolute commonplace excepting a modest card in the window announcing that there was a "discussion" every Sunday and Thursday, admission free. It was plain from the outside where the discussion was held, for on the dingy blinds of the first floor were reflected several heads, three or four with hats on, and one adorned with a bonnet. I could of course form no idea of the face that was beneath the bonnet, but I must confess that my timid nature derived unspeakable comfort from the feminine reflection. Supposing that when I was in the midst of this band of desperate and daring men I were somehow betrayed and my true character revealed! The bare thought was enough to conjure to my mind a picture of what would instantly follow - the gleaming daggers, the heavy bolts on the doors shot in their sockets, the hasty book passed round and pressed to white lips, so that the oath, "Death to traitors!" might be renewed; the red cap plucked from the figure of Liberty, and thrust over my head, and pulled down over my eyes; and then the shriek of a woman, "Nay he shall not die! Doubtless he once had a mother - I am a mother-spare him!" Murmuring [-104-] blessings on the bonnet, I pushed open the door, and, ordering a pint of stout and a screw of mild bird's-eye as I passed the bar, I made straight for the stairs before me and ascended.
    Stern truth compels me to remark that my first impression on gazing around was, that the British Crown and Constitution are in no immediate peril, if the Opposition at the Hole-in-the-Wall are their most formidable enemies.
    It was not an "off night" by any means. A Republican leader of eminence was on his legs even as I entered, and the business in hand was considered sufficiently attractive to induce at least a hundred and fifty decently dressed persons to brave the inclement weather and come and assist at it. The room or rather rooms - for there are two knocked into one - are so small that the place was crowded, and at least twenty blocked the landing outside, on the hard chance of squeezing in presently. By means of a wink on my part of the recognised value of twopence at least, the waiter got me in under false pretences, and elbowed a way for me right up to the fire-place, and stood my stout on the mantleshelf.
    From this point I had an excellent view of the room. There could be no doubt as to the place being the headquarters of at least this branch of the Republican League, for there in a stack at one end of the room were the big and little banners that are unfurled only on special occasions. At either end of the rooms too there was a raised platform, somewhat larger than the top of an ordinary chest of drawers, with a raised seat, and an awning of dingy old chintz. The walls and ceiling are cracked and weather-stained, and there are a few coloured prints and pictures on the walls, the latter [-105-] being chiefly persons of Republican note, with a coloured print of the interior of the House of Lords with members assembled, all dinted and stained ; as though, in their virtuous frenzy, the denouncers of a bloated aristocracy had flung the dregs of their rum-and-water at it, and pelted it with bits of tobacco-pipe. Over the doorway is the design of a working man-a figure of Liberty ramming home a charge in a cannon, with the mysterious words beneath, "Ireland - Chain Shot."
    Then there are some framed boards inscribed with the names of the great men-some who have been, and some who still are attached to the cause. Horrible daubs these; as ill-lettered as the rules of a goose club exhibited in the tap-room of a beer-shop; the work of a genius who has as much disrespect for the Queen's English as for Majesty herself, for he spells solicitor "ter." As for the company, among which might be counted fifteen or twenty females, it seemed to be of the respectable mechanic sort. A good-humoured assemblage, with a partiality it scorned to conceal for tobacco and beer, and one that was not to be checked by the lack of table room to stand a quart pot on. Nay, the trifling inconvenience afforded those present an opportunity of demonstrating still once again that invention - which of course means the grandeur and greatness of a nation-is peculiarly the offspring of the necessitous. Many of those present, as they sat on their chairs, held their hats by the brim between their knees, and converted the hat's interior into a snug receptacle for their pint of sixpenny - an instance of ingenuity that might be sought in vain amongst the bloated aristocracy.
    But the most remarkable feature of the evening was that, though those who would have it so tried desperately hard, for it was not a Republican meeting at all. [-106-] That is to say, it was not, as I had fully expected-and what any one who from time to time may have read of the tremendous doings at this stronghold of revolutionists would naturally expect - it was not an assemblage of persons who were unanimous in their discontent of affairs as they exist, and who come together to chafe at the old wound and keep it open, and amongst whom there is but one opinion as to the manner of healing it. To be sure there were a few of the red-hot school present, men who have seen service beneath the Reformers'-hill in Hyde Park, men who have spouted sedition to such an insane extent that, compassionating their infirmity, Government has refrained from shutting their mouths; such men as these were there, and spoke with as much violence as ever, but it was only the few that applauded; and when they had done and more temperate men rose and had their say exactly on the other side, it was impossible not to perceive that these gave most satisfaction. I can't say what has gone before, but taking that Sunday evening as a fair sample of a Republican meeting and of what are the prospects of Republicanism in London, I should say that it would be a mere waste of labour to attempt to snuff it out. The "brief candle" is already spasmodically flashing and flaring in the socket of the candlestick, and will presently expire without the aid of an extinguisher.
    This certainly was my conviction, as at eleven o'clock I gladly made my way out of the unwholesome room reeking with tobacco smoke and the fumes of gin and beer, but it occurred to me afterwards that perhaps I jumped at somewhat hasty conclusions. I should not forget that it was Sunday night, and that it was very possible that many staunch Republicans might refrain from putting in an appearance from religious scruples. [-107-] They met twice a week, Sunday and Thursday, and if I came on a Thursday I might find a very different state of things.
    Stay, I might do something better still. At the bar of the Hole-in-the-Wall, and on the walls of the discussion hall, there were printed notifications to the effect, that on Monday a concert would be held in the hall for the benefit of a tried and faithful Republican leader, and it was most sincerely hoped that on such an occasion his friends would rally round him.
    This was exactly the thing. There might be many men whose conversion to the ways of Republicanism was so complete that they were content to sit and enjoy their opinions at home. But here was a claim on their gratitude as well as on their opinions. Here was a brother, a prominent man and a leader, who perhaps had expended his little savings in forwarding those interests they all had so much at heart, and who now would be sincerely glad to receive from his numerous friends the small sum of twopence each-that was the price of admission to the concert-to help him in his distress. Here would be a splendid opportunity, if London Republicans had any pluck remaining in them, to display their zeal to make the patriotic speech, to sing the song of revolution and regeneration.
    Anticipating a crowded gathering, I reached the Hole-in-the-Wall half an hour before the advertised time of beginning the concert, but I was much more than that time too soon. As the appointed time drew nigh, three or four came in, and, as nothing was as yet stirring, took a pint of beer and a pipe at the bar. Three or four increased to ten, perhaps, and then somebody thought perhaps we might as well get up stairs. Some of them did not pay, however, for when there were at [-108-] least thirteen persons present there were only sixteen pence in the plate as the well-spread pence themselves confessed.
    Then came in two notables, one of them, indeed, a gentleman who by this time might have written M.P. after his name had he not been unfortunate; but the company took no more notice of him than if he had been the waiter, and he took four of gin-and-water in a corner. Then began the singing, which fortunately was enlivened by the laughter and engaging liveliness of three or four married female Republicans who were tossing their male friends for threes of hot rum at a side table. I say that it was fortunate that these mirthful ladies were present, or otherwise the company might have gone to sleep. There were no stormy songs sung. The spirit of Song was as languid as though it were hard up for the twopences, and foresaw what a dismal failure the affair was. Somebody sang "Brigham Young," and somebody else "Good Old Jeff," and some one else "Tom Bowling."
    By half-past ten there were perhaps four more songs sung of an equally soul-stirring and revolutionary character, and there was about three and sixpence in the plate; but after this the company began to dwindle, and I thought it time to take my departure.

source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874