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WAIFS AND STRAYS.
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.