Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - London Courts and Alleys

[... back to menu for this book]



MAY I be permitted to offer to gentlemen of an inventive turn of mind a suggestion as to the production of a mechanical contrivance that shall confer greater benefits on mankind than the steam-engine or the electric telegraph, and earn for the inventor fame and wealth at least equal to those which rewarded the genius and perseverance of Watt and Stephenson? I have not the remotest idea as to what should be the shape of this wonderful machine, or of what material it should be constructed, but its name should be the Plague Preventive and Fever Indicator. The mechanism would need to be so delicate that wholesome air would have no effect on it; but as soon as the atmosphere became tainted with pestilence, it should proclaim the fact with a noise compared with which the din of an ordinary railway whistle is a mellow tinkling. Moreover, the machine, to be perfect, should be uncompromising - not to be quieted with apologies or promises. It must insist that the evil it is exposing be at once remedied indeed, it should be out of its power to leave off shrieking until the cause of complaint was completely eradicated.
    I only stipulate for one thing - that I may be out of town on the morning when this ingenious machine is set agoing. Otherwise it would be simply impossible to escape from the deafening uproar. Supposing Parliament to be sitting at the time, gentlemen of the House [-179-] of Commons would be unable to hear each other speak, for Peter Street lies within a bowshot of the legislative temple. Now Peter Street is full of filthy chinks that swarm with human life in a manner suggestive of nothing so much as a rotten old cheese. The Judges at Westminster would be in the same predicament. There is not a law court, civil or criminal, that would be able to keep out the appalling sound. It is a fact that, notwithstanding all that has been done in the way of bettering the dwellings of the poor of the metropolis, and despite our vaunt that London is the healthiest city in the world, its courts and alleys - east, west, north, and south - may still be reckoned in thousands; the majority of them being unfit for human residence, and not a few in such a condition that many people would not believe in a fairly-written description of them. There is evidence - volumes of it - that London, in a sanitary sense, is steadily improving. The first vigorous steps were taken about a quarter of a century since; and, during the past five-and-twenty years, not a week, not a day has been lost in the highly-important work of making London a city fit to live in. Yet it is a simple fact that within three miles of St Paul's there may be found at least a thousand dens of squalor that are a shame and disgrace to any civilised nation.
    The other day an offender was brought before one of the City Aldermen, charged with offering for sale some fruit that was somewhat decayed. His worship was justly indignant; but the terms in which he expressed himself were painfully significant of the fact that in spite of the advantage of his official position, he little knew what a tiny mite of the city's rottenness that half-bushel of plums or peaches represented. "Good heavens !" the worthy magistrate exclaimed, with a voice tremulous [-180-] with emotion, "do you know what might have been the result had this fruit been eaten? We should have had cholera amongst us."
    My dear Alderman, it is a mercy for which to offer up thanks in all our city churches, that the plague in question is not so easily evoked. People live on garbage such as that in the bushel basket; and the sickening odour that compels your nose to seek refuge in your pocket-handkerchief is the daily breath of their existence. Farringdon Market is not many minutes' walk from the Mansion House; and it might be wagered with a certainty of winning, that this sultry September afternoon there may be found at least a score of half- naked, dirty little children rooting over the scavenger's swept-up heaps, exactly after the manner of pigs or ducks, and gobbling up plums decayed out of all shape, rotten apples, oranges turned blue and with quite a hairy hide of mildew on them - anything. Is this true? I seriously assure you that it is, and that it may be witnessed in Covent Garden or Farringdon Market on any summer's day. But at last there is some hope that this shocking condition of things as regards the juvenile market prowlers will eventually be mended. There cannot be more than six or seven hundred of them, and after some weeks of skilful manoeuvring the active officers of the School Board have captured almost a dozen.
    But as regards the courts and alleys. For humanity's sake, it would be well, were it possible, to cut away a good sized block out of an acre of fair average London squalor, and carry it out somewhere, into Hyde Park, say, where it might be safely and conveniently exhibited. There is a broad field for selection. In the south, between London Bridge and the Elephant and Castle, [-181-] to the right is the Mint, with its awful colony of Irish and to the left is Kent Street, with its network of slums that give harborage to as many individuals "known" to the police as Newgate would hold, even if they were packed close as barrelled herrings. Or you might take the Surrey side of Blackfriars Bridge, and cut your block out somewhere about Windmill Street, in the New Cut, or from the neighbourhood of Vauxhall, where the potteries and the gasworks are. In the east you might take your pick from a hundred examples; but I should recommend a neighbourhood between Rosemary Lane and Limehouse Hole. In the north a remarkably choice sample - a rich, full-flavoured specimen - of alley life may be met with between the Philharmonic Hall and Islington Green. If you went westward, the choice might lie between Peter Street and Parker Street, in Drury Lane.
    But it would be fairest, perhaps, to take a slice out of the centre of the city. It is rotten to the very core. You may stand on Holborn Viaduct and bawl loud enough for the inhabitants of the very filthiest spot in London to hear. It lies between the magnificent new meat market built lately by the Lord Mayor and the Corporation and the great, gloomy Sessions House, that squats on what is funnily called the "green" at Clerkenwell. The block I allude to is bounded on one side by Turnmill Street and on the other by Red Lion Street; and how it has escaped the vigilant eyes of the Sanitary Commissioners and their large staff of officers, who are, and have been for the last five and twenty years, constantly on the look-out for this kind of thing, is a puzzle to me.
    To be sure, the Sessions House, in which the judges have so often publicly expressed their opinion that half [-182-] the vice and immorality existing among the lower classes is due to their herding together in pent-up slums, overshadows the place in question, and thus they may, in the semi-darkness, have missed it; but surely they might have smelt it-it stinks aloud. If that square half acre, including Broad Yard, and Bit Alley, and Frying-pan Alley, could be taken up, just exactly as it is, without so much as disturbing a donkey stabled in a kitchen, or a gutter with a baby playing in it, and transported to Hyde Park-it might be railed in so that none of the creatures could escape, and a deep trench filled with some pleasant disinfectant might surround it - I venture to predict that it would prove an exhibition that would attract more visitors than did the first palace of glass and iron.
    Mind you, there must be nothing artificial or sham about it. Everything must go on just as it did in Turnmill Street - just as it has been going on during the memory of the oldest inhabitant - just as it is going on now. I would not even take down the board from over the two-feet wide entry of Bit Alley, on which is inscribed the particulars of houses to let, and the notice that applications are to be made to the owner, a gentleman who resides far away in some charming rural spot in the country.
    As guide and expositor at this amazing exhibition of the wild tribes of Turnmill street, I would engage the worthy missionary Mr. William Catlin, who would have stranger stories to tell of those among whom he has laboured so long and so faithfully than had a namesake of his, who, years ago, published the narrative of his experiences among the North American Indians. I have explored these dangerous regions with the gentleman in question. In his safe company - for they recog-[-183-]nise in him a true friend, and never dream of molesting him - I have penetrated the fastnesses of Little Hell - so Broad-yard is called - and I have trod with him the dark places of Frying-pan-alley, where, excepting his own, and that of the policeman, the face of a white man is never seen, the natives being at best of a greyish slate colour. There was some stir at that time, now nearly four years ago. I found that, for the use of about a hundred and fifty inhabitants of the alley, there was but one water-closet, which was in a horrible condition. And it would have been infinitely worse, had not some needy old soul occasionally laboured there with a mop and a pail, her reward being a few cinders, bestowed on her by the grateful residents, wherewith to make her a fire. Some hasty improvement was, I believe, made in this department. Then the water supply was acknowledged to be defective, and a peremptory requisition was made on the owner of the houses to fix up a capacious cistern, and he complied ; but I may mention that several months afterwards no water had as yet been laid on, and that the said cistern served as a secluded roost for the ragamuffins who were bold enough to climb up into it.
    I could not promise that the misused water tanks should form part of my Hyde Park Exhibition. Still there would be no lack of other novelties and curiosities such as would fill a crowd of fashionable visitors with awe and amazement. They could have a fair opportunity, for instance, of being enlightened as to the simple way in which cholera is propagated in these regions, the marvel being that, under the circumstances, that baleful disease is not at this moment raging through the length and breadth of the City; for, permit me to repeat, that the courts and alleys of Turnmill [-184-] street are only a few of a thousand, and that in their main peculiarities they more closely resemble each other  than members of a family. Green-stuff-cabbage, greens, turnip-tops, &c.-are the media through which death and devastation are conveyed into many innocent and unsuspecting families.
    Scores of costermongers inhabit the alleys of Turnmill-street. On hot summer nights you can see the poor tired fellows reclining on their barrow-boards seeking that necessary repose that is not invariably to be found on an aged bedstead, with frowsy hangings, located in a little room in which, summer and winter, a fire to cook by is kept burning. The costermonger's best chance of making a penny is when there is a glut of greenstuff in the market and a few waggon-loads are left over, which, at last, are sold for what they will fetch, as they rapidly grow stale and discoloured. It is then that the industrious barrow-man loads up (on the Friday, may be) and conveys his bargain home. It is bestowed in the stable, or in the cellar, till next morning.
    But now the greens are green no longer: the outer leaves look about as succulent as whitey-brown paper, and they are limp to their very hearts. They must be revived. This is only to be done by means of water, and, as may be easily understood, when ten or a dozen costermongers have each a barrow-load of greenstuff to " liven up," it comes rather hard on the cistern. But they are economical with the precious liquid to a horrible degree. They make no secret of the operation. Standing in Turnmill-street any Saturday morning in the season, you may look in at the mouths of the alleys, and there see the washing-tubs in which the cabbages are in soak, while the slimy leaves of the "waste trim-[-185-]mings" accumulate on the slushy cobble-stones where the babies play. You may see all this, and you may smell the dreadful liquid in the tubs. You may see it rolling down the kennel, sluggish as weak treacle. Out of this ingenious industry is evolved those wonderfully bountiful "penn'orth's" of cabbage, for which, in the flare of gas and marketing hubbub, poor mothers with large families, seek so eagerly, in order to eke out the scrap of meat that constitutes the staple of Sunday's dinner.
    I should expect, if my projected Exhibition ever took place, that the aristocratic Belgravian visitors to it would take peculiar interest in the "livening up " of cabbage plants. What could not be seen by looking in at the jaws of Little Hell, and the rest of the Turnmnill Street alleys, the good missionary before spoken of, should describe to his noble and horrified patrons. He would tell them of a condition of affairs so horrible, that to exaggerate them would be almost impossible. Of men and women, and children by the dozen, herding in these crippled old houses, so snugly shut out from the highway-houses, the kitchen floors of which rot in stagnant pools, and are even too bad for the occupation of the by no means particular little Hellites, and the roofs of which are so shattered and broken, that when it rains every available scrap of crockery, with tubs, and pots, and kettles, have to be spread about the floor to catch the descending down-pour. Houses, the stairs of which are full of ragged splintery holes, that must be bad for little shoeless feet, and which have a dangling rope to assist the ascent, the legitimate handrail having been larcenously appropriated for firewood, long ago.
    The painstaking missionary would also tell the sightseers at the Hyde Park Exhibition of the Wild Tribes [-186-] of Turnmill Street, of poor wretches who are too proud to beg or to go into the workhouse, and who every day of their lives set out to pick up their daily bread - cast out crusts, bones with scraps of meat on them - literally out of the kennel and who retire at night to sleep on filthy rags and shavings. Of little children who never come out to play for months together, because they have no rag to cover them, and who amuse themselves within doors, naked as young Kaffirs - a tribe they not a little resemble, both as regards colour, and the fashion of wearing their hair.
    There are sweeps living in the alleys in the parlours of the houses; and there the bed is made and the food is cooked, all among the fat, full bags of soot; for the notion of ever washing herself or her inky progeny appears to Mrs. Sweep a better joke than attempting to scrub a blackamoor white. The good missionary could also tell of families living within his sphere of action, who keep the wolf from the door with cat's-meat skewers, cutting them and pointing them for a halfpenny a gross, and finding their own timber; of the blind and paralytic, and many who in the cold wintertime, lying ill and helpless on their dreadful beds, would starve outright did not charitable crumbs fall to them somehow: something besides crumbs, too - a little money for rent, or they would speedily find themselves put out into the street. "No credit" is the inexorable motto of Mr. Rent Collector in these crazy abodes of dirt and squalor.
    Nor must it be supposed that the lodgings are cheap. On the contrary, they are villanously dear. I use the word villanously advisedly, because of the abominably cruel way in which high rents are screwed out of these poor lodgers. They cannot help themselves. They are [-187-] of a class that wouldn't be accepted anywhere else but in a slum; for the ways of slumming suit their ignorance, their disinclination to be clean, and the bare-faced shifts they are often reduced to, to make a living. The owners of these piggeries that go by the name of human habitations, are well aware of this; and they know, too, that lamentably plentiful as slums are, they are not a bit more so than the demand for them. They are choice resorts, in fact, and those who affect them must pay for them.
    It is no exaggeration to say that many of these horrible houses realize more rent than do tenements of a like size in a fashionable London square. It is one of the safest investments in the world for a heartless speculator. He is all right as long as he can stave off the sanitary inspector, and those who regard it as their duty to call public attention to his mean selfishness, and demand that, for health and decency sake, he should no longer be allowed to fatten on vice and disease and dirt. His tenants will stick to him. Their great dread is that, despite the heavy rent they pay, he will turn them out; and then what is to become of them? Slums are dotted only here and there, and they are generally "full, and it may easily enough happen that the costermonger ejected from Turnmill Street may have to travel - with his family and donkey and barrow - as far as Stepney, say, before he is able to find any one who will take him in; and then he will have to pay as much and perhaps a little more than he did in Little Hell.