Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - Sunday in the "Ditch"

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JUST as your old and respected friend named Thomas gets called "Tom," or your dear old and familiar crony Elizabeth becomes "Lizzy " or even "Liz," so do the inhabitants and frequenters of certain parts of Shoreditch speak of it as the Ditch. The Ditch extends even to Bethnal-Green. There are various approaches to it. You may take the turning by the Shoreditch Railway Station, which is Sclater Street ; or a more direct route is to take Church Street for it, and keep along until you arrive at Club Row, going thence to Hare Street and Brick Lane, and then you are in the Ditch up to your very ears. It is nothing of a Ditch on week days-comparatively speaking, that is. From Monday to Saturday it is as sluggish a place as can well be imagined. A dreary, stagnant pool, swarming with fish, but all so lean, and so bent on hunting up and down for the wherewithal to keep body and soul together, that so much hilarity and cheerfulness of disposition as may be evinced even by the wagging of a tail, is on a week day seldom or never seen there. A murderous locality for trades that employ women and children, a den of the dirtiest and worst paid drudgery for male labourers. But it is not all work. Every Sunday throughout the live-long year there is held in the Ditch a sort of market fair, which is attended by hundreds and thousands.
    Winged creatures are the staple of the said market. [-150-] It is not too much to say that, excepting the dodo and the golden eagle, the bustard, and a few others of the rarer sort, there is not a bird which may not be bought in the Ditch on a Sunday morning. Long before the church bells begin to ring out, from every direction the market-folks begin to arrive ; and by the time the bells have ceased their pious invitation, Hare Street, and all the adjacent streets, are crammed full. It is a marvellous spectacle. Fowls of the farmyard are carried about in a manner that, supposing them to be fresh from the country, must astonish them indeed. Here a man elbows his way through the crowd with his hands apparently buried in his pockets, bawling out, in the voice of one who has just discovered a raging fire, and is anxious to be the first to raise the alarm, " Who'll buy a duck! who'll buy a pair on 'em?" You take him for an agent to a duck-dealer, who is ready to shew you where the birds are should you express a desire to purchase; but some one touches him on the shoulder and inquires, "Ow much?" And, lo! in an instant he whips a brace of Aylesburys from his coat-tail pocket, where he had been holding them by their necks. Other individuals jostle and squeeze past each other, with bantams hugged to their bosoms, and with live Dorkings and Spaniards dangling head downwards, and carried by the legs, in which apoplectic position they emit horrible sounds and grow alarmingly red in the gills; while geese in baskets poised on the heads of boys cackle with fright as they come into collision with pigeons in boxes on the heads of other boys.
    Talk of pigeons! In Hare Street, on a Sunday morning, there must be thousands of them. Every house-roof is surmounted by its dormer, and at least one person in every five that go to make up that great crowd [-151-] has a "turbit" or a "dragon" to dispose of, or some that he has just purchased. There is a story told of the first English lark that was carried to the gold diggings, at the time when the first ugly rush had been made to the auriferous region, and morality was at a low ebb among the gentry of the pick and cradle, how the heavenly music of the little songster drew the rough fellows from all parts to hear it, and on Sunday morning they might be seen in scores, lying about in the vicinity of the shanty, against the wall of which the lark hung, dreamily smoking their pipes as they listened to its sermon, the text of which was Home.
    In the Ditch pigeon worship prevails. Coming round a corner I observed, to my amazement, a group of at least thirty men and lads, each with his grimy visage turned skyward, and with eyes that twinkled in ecstasy. Hands, too, were raised and clapped together, as is the way with these vulgar folk when they are pleasure stricken. What could have happened thus to enchant them ? It could not he the good words of the street preacher; he was too far away to be audible. But presently the mystery was explained. "Whew-w-w!" whistled a youth ; "here they is again - Blimy! there s a flight for yer! " a sentiment in which the others agreed, as they too stuck their fingers in their mouth, and blew a blast of admiration. It was a flight of pigeons wheeling and elegantly deporting themselves above the chimney-pots.
    But the chief attraction of the Hare-street Sunday-market lies in its song birds, and herein lies one of the most inexplicable mysteries that marks human nature. What natural affinity can possibly be traced between the innocent little caroller of the leafy woods and the alley-bred, heavy-jowled, grimy biped who is [-152-] here discovered paying homage to its sweet notes, and swearing hideous oaths in support of his assertion that there is nothing in the world he has so much admiration for? Master Muggins's adoration of the sublime and beautiful is not universal. Setting aside his "fancy" for song birds, if young Muggins chose conscientiously to reply to the question, What is the summit, the extreme tip-top of earthly bliss? he would say, "Unlimited beer in a taproom." If he were compelled to state what was his highest ambition, he would probably be embarrassed to decide whether it was the untrammelled ownership of a donkey and barrow, or possession of that wondrous skill that enables men to "floor," at a single throw with a ball, nine "pins" of wood stuck up in a skittle alley. Just fancy, then, Master Muggins making love to a linnet !-hanging longingly about the cage in which it is imprisoned, and marked "ninepence;" manfully offering sevenpence, "every precious oat I ye got in the precious world; bless my precious eyes if it ain't - only it is impossible to reproduce the earnestness with which the fruitless bid was made, or indeed to give the expressive word for which "precious" is here substituted. It is quite touching to observe the manner in which Muggins removes his dirty short pipe from his dirtier mouth to chirrup fondly to the little bird that might have fondly nestled in his bosom but for that base other twopence. It is only when one more closely scrutinises Muggins's bosom, and then reflects on that pure and exquisitely clean little nest of moss in which the linnet recently nestled, that one ceases to feel very sorry for the young fellow's disappointment.
    And Master Muggins is but a type of hundreds of thousands who crowd the Ditch on the Sabbath morn while the church bells are ringing. There is not a bird [-153-] that sings which is not represented in this wonderful market. Chafflnches, goldfinches, bullfinches, blackbirds, thrushes, starlings - there they hang in their shabby prisons outside the shops of the bird-fanciers in broad rows, and stacked in solid stacks in each shop's interior.
    There were larks-thousands of larks - many of them familiar with bondage, who, in the midst of the clamour and clatter, raised their wonderful voices as though mercifully bent on drowning the blasphemous Babel of human tongues, or at least on mingling with it their sweet song to blunt the sting of the offence as it ascended heavenward. Hundreds of other larks, crazy with fright, were beating their bodies against the iron bars. What a terrible mockery must that six square inches of turf be in the sight of that wronged creature which every morning sprang from the dewy grass towards heaven to see the sun rise! A shabby half shovelfull of sickly green for the bold bird that all his life has owned as many broad acres as his keen eyes could look down on at a half mile's height! No wonder that his fevered feet spurn it scornfully, or that in dumb agony he cranes his neck and tosses his head, as though, despite his two days incarceration, he were still incredulous that such a change could be. But that is a sentimental view of the matter, and one which a bird-catcher cannot afford to indulge.
    "Who'll buy a lark? Who'll buy a finch? Who'll buy a battling finch? Who wants a finch wot'll 'peg' or sing agin anything as ever piped atween wood and wire?" Rare qualities these to be embodied in one small chaffinch! and so it seemed, judging from the crowd that at once surrounded the individual who clambered up on to a window-sill, and made this last-mentioned proposition.
    The gifted chaffinch was not much to look at. It was [-154-] housed in a rusty old cage, which was tied in a ragged pocket-handkerchief. The man tore a little hole in the handkerchief bigger, and revealed his treasure - a runt-tailed, partly bald-headed, dissipated-looking wretch of a bird as ever one clapped eyes on. "I'll take ten bob for him, and he's worth twice as much," bawled his owner, proudly. "I've had him out a-peggin" - a way of catching chaffinches with a decoy -  "and I've sung him agin both Kent and Surrey birds, both kiss-me-dear and chuck-wee-do's, and he was never licked yet. I'd a wrung his -- neck if he had been. There must be no two ways about a bird that I keep - yer knows me, some of yer?" Several persons in the crowd seemed to know him very well, but I did not observe that they availed themselves of the advantage to eagerly embrace the splendid opportunity he offered them; and the disreputable-looking finch was finally sold, amid much swearing and cursing for six shillings. And so the fun of the fair was maintained - the police, of whom there were several in attendance, only interfering when words ran dangerously high, or the mob thickened inconveniently at one spot.
    It must not be supposed, however, that all this is allowed to go on without the opposition of those whose laudable determination it is to thwart Satan wherever they may happen to meet him. Nay, of late it appears as though these highway heroes of the modern Crusade were not content with such promiscuous encounters. They have plucked up even more courage than of yore, and now boldly track the foe to his stronghold, and tell him to his face what they think of him, in terms so undisguised that were he not, despite his horns and hoofs, an indifferent, good-humoured sort of imp, he might turn about and retaliate. Perhaps there is not anything desperately perilous in the business, but the frantic desperation with [-155-] which those engaged set about the mission makes it appear so. I had a fair opportunity of observing the process from the very beginning. At the corner of a widish street there was an individual, of repulsive aspect, offering for sale the last published number of a delectable illustrated publication, and holding forth, with a degree of warmth that should have earned him three months at the treadmill, on the spirited illustrations with which that literary venture is adorned. Here was a foeman worthy of their steel, and the street preachers advanced with a firm step and at a rapid pace, within six yards of the man who was shouting, "Who'll have another spicy 'un? Beauty's hunadorned for a penny!"
    The standard-bearer halted and planted his standard firmly between the cobble-stones. It was eight feet high at least, the material being jappanned table-covering, and on it was inscribed an appropriate scriptural motto. The preaching force was not strong. It consisted indeed of the custodian of the banner, a preacher, and a person with some books, who had charge of the preacher's hat. One would have thought that, under the circumstances, gentle remonstrance and persuasion would have been the method adopted by the well-meaning pastor of the highway; but, to my amazement, he affected the opposite extreme. He lost not a moment in shilly-shally, but seized Satan by the horns at once, and commenced abusing him in a tone and at a rate which must at once have convinced the Evil One that he was now in the hands of a person who not only had no dread of him, but was hot and eager to rouse him to fury, and then give him battle to the death.
    The preacher was a short thickset man, with short-cropped hair, and no shirt-collar, and his coat was buttoned over his breast. His gestures were prodigiously [-156-] energetic, and the consequence was, that before he had preached ten minutes he had worked his wrists well. through his coat-cuffs - wrists of a size that matched well with his ponderous fists, which, except when engaged with the prayer-book, were tightly clenched. Evidently he was by no means new to the good work, and experience had taught him the most profitable manner of performing it; but to one unaccustomed to this way of conveying to the incredulous and unbelieving the meek and pacific doctrines of Christ, the spectacle was startling. He was not long in disposing of the illustrated paper man at all events. The latter, after a volley or two of the choicest Billingsgate, finding that his audience thinned, dismounted from his stool, and beat a retreat, which was the means of securing to the preacher quite a numerous congregation.
    It was little short of marvellous how those about him bore the stinging castigation he administered, and the hard terms he applied to them. They were poor purblind fools not to see the advantages of religion; they were robbers, insomuch as they filched the day of rest,  - and turned it to their own vile purposes; they were cowards, for they were afraid of offending the devil. I don't say that as a rule the hundred or so gathered about were deeply impressed, or that any listener's pipe was put out or his appetite spoiled for the nuts or winkles on which he happened to be engaged when he strolled up. But this much may be said, and it is not a little-not one of that rough and uncouth assembly opened his mouth in sneering or in wrath; not one raised his hand to ward off or resent the severe pummelling of which he was metaphorically the victim. From this point of view the preacher of the Street may lay claim to having achieved a victory, and he has my very best wishes.
    [-157-] The instance above recited was not the only one furnished by Hare Street, shewing the courageous determination of a worthy, and, I am afraid, ill-requited few, to win the Sabbath breaker from his wicked ways. About midway in this street of evil repute there is what was at one time a shabby little music ball, attached to an uninviting-looking low public house, known as the Apollo. For some reason or other the Apollo has lost its licence; but, so far as outward appearance goes, it is still a public house. There are legends of "cordial gin" and "fine vatted rum" still to be read, and the publican's name still adorns the portal; the doors, battered and greased by drunken shoulders, were half open, and only for one unusual feature the place might still have been an ordinary public house of the slums, doing a bit of sly business on a Sunday morning. The unusual feature was a written placard on the door-post, announcing that Mrs Someone of Liverpool would preach in the hall that morning; and even as I read, there came from the rear of the premises the sweet sound of voices uniting in a hymn.
    I went in, past the bar that was ruinous, past the parlour in which Hare Street heroes were wont to roar their praises of brown beer, but in which now the hats and cloaks and umbrellas of the pious congregation found temporary harbourage. The hall itself - the music hall - presented a striking spectacle. It was never adapted for a daylight congregation, and, broad, sunny noon as it was, three or four of the flashy little chandeliers overhead were lit ; the sickly unseasonable gas illuminating in ghostly fashion the cobwebs and grime in which the disused glass pendants were enveloped. There were the narrow seats and the ledges in front, just as they were last ringed and smeared by the gin-and-water and half-[-158-]and-half measures, but on them prayer and hymn books now rested.
    On the stage, still looked down on by two Shoreditch cupids, was a table - the very table, probably, which that excellent delineator of Negro eccentricities, "Pumpkin Squash," in the rattling old times when the Apollo was the Apollo, used to whack with his umbrella during his far-famed stump-oration. At this very table, now decently covered with baize, and supported by three or four of her male admirers, was the highly respectable lady alluded to in the placard, holding forth with no small degree of eloquence, and with her benevolent heart earnest in the hard work before her.
    I am sorry to tell, however, that the congregation was not numerous. The heathen of the Ditch is shy of any kind of enclosure. If you wish to tackle him, you must tackle him just where you may happen to find him, and take your chance of his pausing to listen. You have not that claim on his attention which you would have if you invited him into your place of worship, and he accepted the invitation. You are both, in his opinion, on an equally free and independent footing; and he would no more think of questioning your right to preach at the street corner against vice, than he would tolerate your interference with his daily occupation, which is the bawling of "rabbit-skins;" which undoubtedly is a condition of things much more favourable to the brave designs of the preacher than if the said heathen were as blindly brutal as his spiritual aggressor is blunt and plainspoken.
    By the time I quitted the Apollo it was one o'clock, and the public houses were open, which of course accounted for the streets being comparatively clear.

source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874