Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter IV - Waifs and Strays

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    AMONG the various qualifications for the festivities of  Christmastide and New Year, there is one which is  perhaps, not so generally recognised as it might be.  Some of us are welcomed to the bright fireside or the  groaning table on the score of our social and conversational  qualities. At many and many a cheery  board, poverty is the only stipulation that is made. I  mean not now that the guests shall occupy the unenviable  position of "poor relations," but, in the large.  hearted charity that so widely prevails at that festive  season, the need of a dinner is being generally accepted  as a title to that staple requirement of existence.  Neither of these, however, is the distinction  required in order to entitle those who bear it to the  hospitality of Mr. Edward Wright, better known  under the abbreviated title of "Ned," and without  the prefatory "Mr " That one social quality, without  which a seat at Ned Wright's festive board cannot  be compassed, is Felony. A little rakish-looking  green ticket was circulated a few days previously  among the members of Mr. Wright's former fraternity,  bidding them to a "Great Supper" in St. John's [-30-] Chapel, Penrose Street (late West Street), Walworth, got up under the auspices of the South-East London Mission. The invitation ran as follows :-
    "This ticket is only available for a male person who has been convicted at least once for felony, and  is not transferable. We purpose providing a good  supper of bread and soup, after which an address will  be given. At the close of the meeting a parcel of  provisions will be given to each man. Supper will be  provided in the lower part of the chapel. Boys not  admitted this time.-Your friend, for Christ's sake,
    why juvenile felons should be excluded "this  time," and whether the fact of having been convicted  more than once would confer any additional privileges,  did not appear at first sight. So it was, however;  adult felonious Walworth was bidden to the  supper, and to the supper it came. Among the  attractions held out to spectators of the proceedings  was the announcement that a magistrate was to take  part in them - a fact that possibly was not made  generally known among the guests, in whose regard  it is very questionable whether the presence of the  dreaded "beak" might not have proved the reverse of  a "draw." However, they came, possibly in happy  ignorance of the potentate who was awaiting them,  and than whom there is one only creation of civilized [-31-] life considered by the London cadger his more natural enemy, that is the policeman.
    Six o'clock was the hour appointed for the repast,  and there was no need for the wanderer in Walworth  Road to inquire which was Penrose Street.  Little groups of shambling fellows hulked about the  corner waiting for some one to lead the way to the  unaccustomed chapel. Group after group, however,  melted away into the dingy building where Ned was  ready to welcome them. With him I found, not  one magistrate, but two; one the expected magnate  from the country, the other a well-known occupant of  the London bench, with whom, I fancy, many of the  guests could boast a previous acquaintance of a character  the reverse of desirable. Penrose Street Chapel  had been formerly occupied by the Unitarians, but  was then taken permanently by Ned Wright at a  rental of between 60l. and 70l. per annum, and formed  the third of his "centres," the others being under a  railway arch in the New Kent Road, and the Mission  Hall, Deptford. As row by row filled with squalid  occupants, I could but scan from my vantage-ground  in the gallery the various physiognomies. I am bound  to say the typical gaol-bird was but feebly represented.  The visitors looked like hard-working men - a little  pinched and hungry, perhaps, and in many cases  obviously dejected and ashamed of the qualification  which gave them their seat. One or two, mostly of  the younger, came in with a swagger and a rough  [-32-] joke ; but Ned and his guests knew one another, and  he quickly removed the lively young gentleman to a  quiet corner out of harm's way. A fringe of spectators,  mostly female, occupied the front seat in the  gallery when proceedings commenced, which they did  with a hymn, composed by Ned Wright himself. The  ladies' voices proved very useful in this respect ; but  most of the men took the printed copies of the hymns,  which were handed round, and looked as if they could  read them, not a few proving they could by singing  full-voiced. After the hymn, Wright announced that  he had ordered eighty gallons of soup-some facetious  gentleman suggesting, "That's about a gallon apiece" -  and he hoped all would get enough. Probably  about 100 guests had by this time assembled,  and each was provided with a white basin, which was  filled by Ned and his assistants, with soup from a  washing jug. A paper bag containing half a quartern  loaf was also given to each, and the contents rapidly  disappeared. As the fragrant steam mounted provokingly  from the soup-basins up to the gallery, Mr.  Wright took occasion to mention that at the last  supper Mr. Clark, of the New Cut, furnished the  soup gratuitously - a fact which he thought deserved  to be placed on record.
    In the intervals of the banquet, the host informed  me that he had already witnessed forty genuine  "conversions" as the results of these gatherings. He  had, as usual, to contend with certain obtrusive gen-[-33-]tlemen who "assumed the virtue" of felony, "though  they had it not," and were summarily dismissed with  the assurance that he "didn't want no tramps."  One mysterious young man came in and sat down on  a front row, but did not remain two minutes before a  thought seemed to strike him, and he beat a hasty  retreat. Whether he was possessed with the idea I  had to combat on a previous occasion of the same  kind, that I was a policeman, I cannot tell, but he  never reappeared. I hope I was not the innocent  cause of his losing his supper. The only "felonious"  trait I observed was a furtive glance every now and  then cast around, and especially up to the gallery.  Beyond this there really was little to distinguish the  gathering from a meeting of artisans a little bit  "down on their luck," or out on strike, or under  some cloud of that sort.
    As supper progressed, the number of spectators in  the gallery increased ; and, with all due deference to  Ned Wright's good intentions, it may be open to  question whether this presence of spectators in the  gallery is wise. It gives a sort of spurious dash and  bravado to the calling of a felon to be supping in  public, and have ladies looking on, just like the  "swells" at a public dinner. I am sure some of the  younger men felt this, and swaggered through their  supper accordingly. There certainly was not a symptom  of shame on the face of a single guest, or any  evidences of dejection, when once the pea-soup had  [-34-] done its work. Some of the very lively gentlemen  in the front row even devoted themselves to making  critical remarks on the occupants of the gallery. As  a rule, and considering the antecedents of the men,  the assembly was an orderly one; and would, I think,  have been more so, but for the presence of the fair  sex in the upper regions, many of whom, it is but  justice to say, were enjoying the small talk of certain  oily-haired young missionaries, and quite unconscious  of being the objects of admiring glances from below.  Supper took exactly an hour, and then came another  hymn, Ned Wright telling his guests that the tune  was somewhat difficult, but that the gallery would  sing it for them first, and then they would be able to  do it for themselves. Decidedly, Mr. Wright is  getting "aesthetic." This hymn was, in fact, monopolized  by the gallery, the men listening and evidently  occupied in digesting their supper. One would rather  have heard something in which they could join.  However, it was a lively march-tune, and they evidently  liked it, and kept time to it with their feet,  after the custom of the gods on Boxing Night. At  this point Ned and five others mounted the little  railed platform, Bible in hand, and the host read what  he termed "a portion out of the Good Old Book,"  choosing appropriately Luke xv., which tells of the  joy among angels over one sinner that repenteth, and  the exquisite allegory of the Prodigal Son, which Ned  read with a good deal of genuine pathos. It reminded [-35-] him, he said, of old times. He himself was one of  the first prisoners at Wandsworth when " old Brixton"  was shut up. He had "done" three calendar months,  and when he came out he saw an old grey-headed  man, with a bundle. " That," said Ned, "was my  godly old father, and the bundle was new clothes in  place of my old rags."
    The country magistrate then came forward, and  drew an ironical contrast between the " respectable"  people in the gallery and the "thieves" down below.  " God says we have all 'robbed Him.' All are equal  in God's sight. But some of us are pardoned thieves."  At this point the discourse became theological, and  fired over the heads of the people down below. They  listened much as they listen to a magisterial remark  from the bench ; but it was not their own language,  such as Ned speaks. It was the "beak," not the old  "pal." It was not their vernacular. It did for the  gallery - interested the ladies and the missionaries  vastly, but not the thieves. It was wonderful that  they bore it as well as they did. The magisterial  dignity evidently overawed them; but they soon got  used to it, and yawned or sat listlessly. Some leant  their heads on the rail in front and slept. The latest  arrivals left earliest. They had come to supper, not  to sermon.
    Another of Ned Wright's hymns was then sung -  Mr. Wright's muse having been apparently prolific in  the past year, no less than six hymns on the list [-36-] being written by himself during those twelve months. It is much to be hoped that these poetical and  aesthetical proclivities will not deaden his practical  energies. This hymn was pitched distressingly high,  and above the powers of all but the "gallery" and a  very few indeed of the guests ; but most of them put in  a final " Glory, Hallelujah," at the end of each stanza.  Mr. Wright's tunes are bright and cheerful in the extreme,  without being vulgar or offensively secular.
    The host himself then spoke a few words on the  moral of the Sermon on the Mount: "Seek ye first  the kingdom of God and His righteousness." He  claimed many of those before him as old pals who had  "drunk out of the same pot and shuffled the same  pack of cards," and contrasted his present state with  theirs. Then they listened, open-mouthed and eager-eyed,  though they had been sitting two full hours.  He pictured the life of Christ, and His love for poor  men. "Christ died for you," he said, "as well as for  the 'big people.' Who is that on the cross beside  the Son of God?" he asked in an eloquent apostrophe.  " It is a thief. Come to Christ, and say, 'I've no  character. I'm branded as a felon. I'm hunted about  the streets of London. He will accept you."' He  drew a vivid picture of the number of friends he had  when he rowed for Dogget's Coat and Badge. He  met with an accident midway; "and when I got to  the Swan at Chelsea," he said, "I had no friends left.  I was a losing man. Christ will never treat you like [-37-] that. He has never let me want in the nine years since I have been converted." After a prayer the  assembly broke up, only those being requested to  remain who required advice. The prayer was characteristic,  being interspersed with groans from the  gallery; and then a paper bag, containing bread and  cakes, was given to each, Ned observing, "There, the  devil don't give you that. He gives you toke and  skilly." Being desired to go quietly, one gentleman  expressed a hope that there was no policeman; another  adding, " We don't want to get lagged." Ned  had to reassure them on my score once more, and  then nearly all disappeared - some ingenious guests  managing to get two and three bags by going out and  coming in again, until some one in the gallery meanly  peached!
    Only some half-dozen out of the hundred remained,  and Ned Wright kneeling at one of the benches  prayed fervently, and entered into conversation with  them one by one. Two or three others dropped in,  and there was much praying and groaning, but evidently  much sincerity. And so with at least some  new impressions for good, some cheering hopeful words  to take them on in the New Year, those few waifs and  strays passed out into the darkness, to retain, let it  be hoped, some at least of the better influences which  were brought to bear upon them in that brighter  epoch in their darkened lives when Ned Wright's invitation  gathered them to the Thieves' Supper.

source: Charles Maurice Davies, Mystic London, 1875