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THE "LITTLE WONDER."
"FLOWRYDEAN STREET" is the name generally given by its habitués to Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields; but just as a rose by any name would smell as sweet, so Flower and Dean Street, call it what you will, would smell as unwholesome, look as uninviting, and resound with discord as unholy. It is one of the worst of East-end slums, and its denizens are among the worst of East-end roughs and drabs. There are no words in which to paint the depth of degradation, the intensity of misery, which are revealed by a night walk up this most deplorably poverty-stricken byway. When I went thither for the first time, equipped of course in my usual "kipping" costume, I almost hesitated to seek the hospitality afforded by the common lodging-houses which line each side of the street. At the first hostelry in which I sought a refuge the deputy, a big bull-necked man with a red face, and a handkerchief that in coster parlance would be described as "rorty," told me that all the beds were let, and I was constrained to go further, and, as the sequel will show, to fare, probably, worse. The [-79-] next house at which I stopped was a low, mean-looking edifice, the dirty canvas screens in the still dirtier windows bearing the inscription-
THE ORIGINAL LITTLE WONDER
Lodgings for Lodgings for
Single Men 4d. Single Women 4 d.
Good Double Beds 8d. per night.
A little wonder it was - a little wonder for dirt, for evil
sin ells, for the poverty and brutality of the lodgers, for the gross profanity
and obscenity of their language, for the sights and sounds to be seen and heard
on all sides. Would to Heaven it were "the original and only"
little wonder; but, alas there are scores of "doss-'ouses" as bad,
though it would be well-nigh impossible for any to be worse.
The door of the Little Wonder leads straight into the kitchen, in which, when I entered, an enormous coke fire was burning with such fierce intensity that, as a gentleman present remarked, "the temperaycher was more like 'ell than anythin' else." There was no deputy, and my fourpence was taken by a blear-eyed old woman who might have been any age above seventy, and who was indiscriminately addressed as "Anna," "old death's 'ead," and "old 'ooman." The pence were dropped into a dirty little canvas bag, and I was bidden to take a seat, and was at liberty to survey my companions. These consisted of men who were more ragged, more dirty, and more disreputable than even the "busy bees of Brick [-80-] Lane, or the gentlemen who "dossed" at Wilson's. The girls and women were, most of them, street-walkers of the lowest type - and no one save those who have seen and heard them can form any conception of how low that is. All were smoking, swearing, and shouting; and all, especially the women, were about as ill-looking and undesirable specimens of humanity as one could meet in a lifetime. During the evening there were unmistakable indications of the fact that the house was one of ill-fame, and the sights and sounds were such as it would be impossible to describe upon paper. The unhappy women were, by many degrees, worse than the men. Their language was more obscene, their habits were more filthy, and they had abandoned even those primitive restraints of decency which hold sway over savages. Circes, they wallowed in moral filth, and seemed to revel in their degradation.
It will readily be imagined that in the midst of squalor and misery such as exist in common lodging-houses, quarrels - and indescribably fierce and desperate quarrels - are of frequent occurrence. One such dispute occurred at the "Little Wonder" on the night of my visit, and as it is my business to depict every phase of lodging-house life, I propose to describe it, or, at any rate, as much of it as can with any regard to decency be set down upon paper. It must be understood, however, that this is done, not in order to hold those who took part in it up to ridicule, or to make light of what to them was a very serious business, but simply to show the sort of thing which is of [-81-] constant occurrence in these places, and which must be frequent as long as foulness and distress exist, such as cannot fail to feed and nourish the worst and most depraved passions of erring human nature.
I had been inside but a few moments when the commotion commenced. A man and his wife, who had been quarrelling in the street, entered the room, and continued their altercation there. The man, it appeared, had been away from town all the week, and on his return had received information respecting his wife which appeared to reflect upon her conjugal fidelity. The woman had denied the accusation made against her with sobs and shrieks, and her worse half appeared satisfied with her protestations of innocence. But when they entered the "kitchen" their quarrel turned upon another point. The man wanted to go to bed, said he was tired, had been working hard all the week, and wanted rest. His wife would by no means consent to retire to her couch, "Might she be struck paralyzed dead and blind if she would!" but vented a storm of vehement abuse at her unfortunate spouse. "You've been drinkin' at the Queen's 'Ead and the Princess Alice!" she shrieked. "You've been treatin' yer flash girls, an' you never offered me a drop. An' I won't go to bed. An' you sha'n't go to bed. You thief! You son of a thief! Give me some money, and let me have summat to drink!" "Drink," retorted the husband. "You've 'ad more'n a drop too much already" - a statement which certainly admitted of no contradiction. But it only served to further exasperate the already terribly [-82-] enraged woman, who poured forth curses and lamentations without number, calling her husband every foul name, and accusing him of every loathsome crime. "You'll make me do you a mischief," he said, biting his lips. "Do me a mischief! Do it, you murderer! You murderin' thief! You villain! You know you're a-murderin' me. I'm pinin' away like my poor baby, and it's all along o' you, you brute!" "Are you comin' to bed?" was the reply, "or I shall drag yer upstairs." "Drag me upstairs! You can't! You daren't lay a finger on me; an' I'll knife yer! I'll swing for you yet, you wretch!" The husband, by dint of a strong effort, maintained his self-control, and started upstairs by himself. But scarcely had he left the room when his spouse commenced another quarrel with a girl who was sitting quietly enough smoking a short clay pipe. The girl was repulsively ugly. She was dressed in a frock that reached little below her knees, and her hideous calling was proclaimed by the traces of dissipation in her face, even if she herself had not ostentatiously declared it. Upon her turned the infuriated termagant, shouting at the top of her shrill voice, "And you, you drab, what did you say about me last week?" "I dunno as I said anythin'," replied the girl, still puffing away at the pipe, but evidently astonished and a little dismayed at the suddenness and violence of the woman's attack upon her. "Yes, you did, you know you did, but I've got it laid up 'ere for you" (pointing to her breast) - "I've got it laid up 'ere, and some day I'll pay you out. I'll kill you yet! [-83-] I'll tear your heart out for you !" " Ah," cried the girl, bursting into tears, which were, however, neither of rage nor grief, but of maudlin inebriety- "ah, but you must be a wicked woman to bear 'mosity against a poor wretch like me as is 'bliged to get 'er livin' on the streets, w'en you've got a man to stick up for yer an' take care on yer." This appeal failed to achieve its purpose; and the woman, whose demoniac rage was, to me at any rate, something awful to contemplate, raved and cursed until the noise brought her husband downstairs. Then it all began de novo. The terrible temper of the woman, who had evidently once been respectable, for there were traces of education even amongst her half-inarticulate execrations, vented itself first in curses, then in tears, now in frantic appeals to the Deity to strike her dead, now in violent assertions that she would take her own life and that of the poor girl, who was half-dazed by the intensity of her antagonist's passion and by her own semi-intoxication. At last a hysterical outburst of sobs ended the painful scene, and the woman followed her husband up to bed - only, however, as we could hear from her shrieks and curses, to recommence the quarrel above stairs. During the whole time the man had been, considering all the circumstances, wonderfully forbearing. The provocation he received was enormous. The fearful abuse, the passionate denunciations, the horrible accusations levelled at him were enough to cause and almost to excuse violence on his part. But though evidently goaded, at times, almost to desperation, he contrived [-84-] to restrain himself, and the consequences which, more than once during the progress of the vehement quarrel, I saw reason to fear, were averted.
Strange to say, while all this disturbance was agitating my mind with apprehensions as to the probability of actual personal violence, the other folks in the "kitchen" manifested but little interest and no concern in the matter. Some of them went on eating their suppers of whelks or "'addicks;" others sat moodily staring at the disputants; but not one of them seemed to care the proverbial two straws whether the man split his wife's head open, or whether the latter executed her threat of "knifing" either or both of the objects of her rage. That they had keenly, if indifferently, watched the squabble, was evidenced by the fact that, as soon as the quarrelsome couple had left the "kitchen," they all gathered together to discuss the merits of the case. The opinion generally prevalent was that the woman only was in fault. It was said that she was always equally passionate and vengeful, that her husband was a decent, hard-working man, and very fond of her, but that she "led 'im a dreadful life," and that he went in positive fear of her. It was believed that both of them had "come down in the world a bit," and that this was largely attributable to the woman's intemperate habits. The wiseacres of the "doss-'ouse" cackled, shook their heads, and uttered sententious scraps of wisdom, much as do their better-to-do brothers and sisters in similar circumstances; and when the subject had lost the charm of novelty, all of [-85-] them, with the exception of "old death's 'ead" and two folks who were finishing their suppers at the upper end of the room, went out to witness one or other of the fights that were taking place in different parts of the street.
The couple who were regaling themselves were sufficiently noticeable. The woman - or rather the girl, for she could not have been more than seventeen or eighteen - was ghastly pale and very, very thin. Her dress was torn to tatters, and she looked terribly ill and destitute. But she had a pleasant smile, and though her conversation was always unrefined and generally blasphemous, it was at least good-humoured. Her companion was little older than herself, a thin, pale, and apparently consumptive youth. His eyes presented a most unpleasant spectacle, and evidently caused him acute pain, for he had, he said, "the blight." The girl bathed them, applied a lotion, and bandaged them with the tenderest and most solicitous care. She was evidently very fond of him, and, though she wore no wedding-ring, was as gentle, as careful, and as desirous to alleviate his pain, as the most loving wife could have been. Probably - judging from her appearance, almost certainly - she had never known another life than one of grinding, biting poverty; another home than a foetid, stenchful "kip'ouse;" another protector than the stripling on whom she was lavishing her care, and who was, in his impatience, cursing her heartily for her pains. If so, the more merit hers. There is nothing more pleasant, and at the same time more [-86-] pitiful, to see, than the kindness of these poor creatures one to another. Their lives are dark enough. It is indeed a blessing if the light of love - even of illicit and unhallowed love - shine in upon them now and then when all else is so very black and gloomy.
Their supper being finished, they left the room, and went to bed. The blear-eyed old woman who acted as deputy went away for a few minutes to take the money she had received to her employer-who rejoiced, I heard, in the euphonious but not altogether unique name of Smith; and I was thus the only remaining "dosser" in the kitchen. It was an excellent opportunity for taking stock of the place, and I naturally availed myself of it. It was incomparably the very filthiest I had ever seen. The humid walls were dripping with moisture, induced by the intense and overpowering heat. The floor was strewn with odds and ends of all kinds, and enormous cockroaches were crawling over it in every direction, while swarms of flies settled on the scraps of food that lay putrifying on the tables. The stench was horrible, for there was little or no ventilation. The whole place was abominable. It was intolerable to think that such dens were intended to be the habitation of human beings; and worse still to remember that the law, by "regulating" such lodging-houses and allowing these evils to exist under its regulations, should give a sort of back-handed sanction to their continuance.
On one side of the bare discoloured walls was a portrait of Sir Moses Montefiore, cut from an illus-[-87-]trated paper. The venerable philanthropist had probably never been in worse company. Opposite his counterfeit presentment, however, was another evidence of the fact which is the only pleasant one in connection with my visit to the "Little Wonder," namely, that brutalized as all these people are and must be, their surroundings, their poverty, and the squalor and filth amidst which they live, have not altogether obliterated those traces of kindly and sympathetic feeling for an afflicted companion which constitute the main - perhaps the only - redeeming feature in the character of the ordinary dosser. It was a roughly-printed, black-edged card, headed by an uncouth, ungrammatical rhyme:
"When death steps in how much we need each other's kindly aid,
To help the mourning friends that's left to place them in the grave;
'Tis for this I now appeal to those who round me stand,
So forward come in trial's hour and lend a helping hand."
The prose portion set forth that "a friendly meeting will take place at Mr. Lovesey's, The Seven Stars, Brick Lane, Spitalfields, on Saturday, July 3rd, 1886, for the benefit of John Murphy, to help to defray the funeral expenses of his sister, Julis Sullivan, better known as Julis Murphy." Then followed the list of "gentlemen" who had promised to assist in the achievement of this laudable object. Poor Julis Sullivan, when she lived, was probably no better than she should have been. Those to whom the [-88-] appeal on her brother's behalf was addressed were certainly, in many respects, the reverse of amiable or estimable characters. But kindly and sympathetic hearts beat, thank Heaven! under dirty skins, and I felt right glad to see this evidenced by the ill-printed card of invitation, and heartily hoped that the collection was a good one, and that John Murphy's sister was decently laid to rest.
But the train of pleasant thought into which the invitation to the "friendly meeting" had led me, was abruptly changed by the entrance of the old woman who acted in lieu of deputy. She was a little more drunk than when she went out, and she smelt horribly of liquor. Her bleared old eyes rolled wildly, and altogether she looked a particularly repulsive and disgusting object. The room, too, was so horribly close and malodorous, that, believing it could not possibly be worse upstairs, I approached the ministering angel of the "Little Wonder," and hinted that I would like to seek repose. With a drunken leer, she commended me to the care of a rather tall and exceedingly dirty gentleman, who, grumbling very much at the nuisance of "'avin' a lot of bloomin' coves as wanted to be shown about like so many babbies," motioned me to follow him.
The passage was pitch-dark. So were the stairs, and creaky and rickety to boot; and my shins were barked "more'n a bit," as my friend Bluegown would have phrased it, before I reached the top.
There it was as usual, a low-roofed, ill-ventilated room, crowded with beds, on which drunken men lay [-89-] snoring and grunting in every conceivable attitude. The horrible stench superadded to the heat and tumult I had experienced downstairs were, for once, too much for me, and I sank down on one of the beds "all in a heap". "Put yer 'ead out o' winder, man, an get some fresh air," said my conductor, the whole surliness of his manner changing as he perceived that I was really ill. I put my head out, but there was no fresh air. After a few minutes I came round again, and was enabled to go to bed. I have described lodging-house beds so often that it is only necessary to say that these were a trifle dirtier, and the vermin a trifle larger and livelier than usual. I thought that I should be able, as I had been so often previously, to lie awake and long for the arrival of morning; but this time I was baffled. I had managed to endure stench and dirt, but not such stench and dirt as these. As long as I could possibly bear it, I lay there; but at last the atmosphere became so positively overpowering that, as I had no desire to see if my companions could "bring round" a person who had fainted, I huddled on my clothes, and having, for one moment, again, "'eld my end out o' winder," groped down the stairs and passed into the streets, not by any means ill-pleased to have seen the last of the "Little Wonder."