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A LONDON SLAVE MARKET.
THERE is a story called "Travellers' Wonders" in that volume which used to be the delight of our childhood, when the rising generation was more easily amused and not quite so wide-awake as at present. The point of the narrative is, that a facetious old gentleman named Captain Compass beguiles a group of juveniles - who must have been singularly gullible even for those early days - by describing in mysterious and alien-sounding terms the commonest home objects, such as coals, cheese, butter, and so on. It would almost seem as though Hood must have been perpetrating a kindred joke upon grown-up children when he wrote the lines-
It's O to be a slave
Along with the barbarous Turk,
Where woman has never a soul to save,
If this is Christian Work!
Was he aware that here, in the heart of Christian
London, without going farther east than Bethnal
Green, there had existed from time immemorial, as
there exists still, a genuine Slave Market? Such
there is, and actually so named; less romantic, indeed,
than that we read of in " Don Juan," or used to
see on the Adelphi boards in the drama of the
" Octoroon" - but still interesting in its way to those
who have a penchant for that grotesque side of London
life where the sublime and the ridiculous sometimes
blend so curiously.
With only the vague address of Bethnal Green and the date of Tuesday morning to guide me, I set out for Worship Street Police Court, thinking it possible to gain some further particulars from the police. I found those functionaries civil, indeed, but disposed to observe even more than official reticence about the Slave Market. They told me the locality precisely enough, but were even more vague as to the hour than my own impressions. In fact, the sum of what I could gain from them was, in slightly Hibernian language, that there was nothing to see, and I could see it any time on a Tuesday morning when I chose to go down White Street, Bethnal Green. Leaving the Court and inquiring my route to White Street, I found that it ran off to the right some way down the Bethnal Green Road from Shoreditch Station. Having turned out of the main thoroughfare, you proceed down one of those characteristic East End streets where every small householder lives behind an elaborate bright green door with portentous knocker, going on until an arch of the Great Eastern Railway spans the road. Arriving at this point any time between the hours of eight and half-past nine on a Monday or Tuesday morning, you have no need to be told that [-69-] - this is the East London Slave Market-supposing you knew such a thing as a slave market was to be seen in East London at all.
There was, indeed, nothing resembling Byron's graphic description in "Don Juan." Our English slaves were all apparently of one nation, and there were no slave merchants. The hundred young ladies and gentlemen, of all ages from seven to seventeen, were, as they would have expressed it, "on their own hook." Ranged under the dead brick wall of the railway arch, there was a generally mouldy appearance about them. Instead of a picturesque difference of colour, there was on every visage simply a greater or less degree of that peculiar neutral tint, the unmistakable unlovely hue of London dirt. In this respect, too, they differed from the fresh country lads and lasses one sees at a hiring in the North. They were simply male and female City Arabs, with that superabundant power of combining business and pleasure which characterizes their race. The young gentlemen, in the intervals of business - and it seemed to be all interval and no business - devoted themselves to games at buttons. Each of the young ladies - I am afraid to say how young - had her cavalier, and applied herself to very pronounced flirtation. The language of one and all certainly fulfilled the baptismal promise of their sponsors, if the poor little waifs ever had any-for it was very "vulgar tongue" indeed ; and there was lots of it. The great sensation [-70-] of the morning was a broken window in an unoffending tradesman's shop-a far from unusual occurrence, as I learnt from the sufferer. This led to a slave hunt on the part of the single policeman who occasionally showed himself to keep as quiet as might be the seething mass of humanity; and the young lady or gentleman who was guilty of the damage was "off market" for the morning - while the suffering tradesman was assailed with a volley of abuse, couched in strongest Saxon, for meekly protesting against the demolition of his window-pane.
The scene was most characteristic - very unlike the genteel West End Servants' Registry, where young ladies and gentlemen's gentlemen saunter in to find places with high wages and the work "put out." It was on Tuesday morning, and a little late in the day, that I timed my visit; and I was informed that the Market was somewhat flat. Certainly, one could not apply to it the technicalities of the Stock Exchange, and say that little boys were "dull," or girls, big or little, "inactive;" but early on a Monday morning is, it appears, the time to see the Slave Market in full swing. Strangely enough, so far as I could judge, it was all slaves and no buyers - or, rather, hirers. I did not see the symptom of a bargain being struck, though I was informed that a good many small tradesmen do patronize the Market, for shop-boys, nursegirls, or household drudges. I do not know whether my appearance was particularly attractive; but the [-71-] number of offers I received from domestics of all kinds would have sufficed to stock half-a-dozen establishments. "Want a boy, sir?" " "A girl for the childer, sir?" said the juveniles, while the offers of the adult ladies were more emphatic and less quotable. All, of course, was mere badinage, or, as they would have called it, "chaff," and it was meant good-humouredly enough; though, had I been a legitimate hirer, I do not know that I should have been tempted to add to my household from this source. Indeed, there were some not exactly pleasant reflections cast on the Slave Market by those whom I consulted as to its merits. It was not unusual, I was told, for slaves who were hired on a Monday to turn up again on Tuesday morning, either from incompatibility of temper on the part of domestic and superior, or from other causes unexplained. Tuesday morning is, in fact, to a large extent, the mere residuum either of Monday's unhired incapables, or of "returns." And yet, as I looked around, I saw - as where does one not see? - some fair young faces ; girls who might have played with one's little children all the better because they were so nearly children themselves ; and boys of preternatural quickness, up to any job, and capable of being useful - ay, and even ornamental - members of society, if only that dreadful Bethnal Green twang could have been eradicated. The abuse of the mother-tongue on the part even of these children was simply frightful. If this were so in their playful moods, what-one [-72-] could not help thinking-would it be if any dispute arose on a contested point of domestic economy : as, for instance, the too rapid disappearance of the cold mutton, or sudden absence of master's boots?
There was a garrulous cobbler whose stall bordered on the Market, and his panacea for all the evils the Slave Market brought with it was the London School Board. "Why don't the officers come down and collar some o' them youngsters, sir?" Why, indeed? At present the Slave Market is undoubtedly a nuisance; but there is no reason why, under proper police supervision, it should not become a local convenience. The ways of East London differ in all respects from those of the West, and Servants' Registries would not pay. Masters and servants are alike too poor to advertise ; and there seems to be no reason why the Slave Market, under a changed name, and with improved regulations, may not as really supply a want as the country "hirings" do. The Arab, at present, is not to be trusted with too much liberty. Both male and female have odd Bedouin ways of their own, requiring considerable and judicious manipulation to mould them to the customs of civilized society. The respectable residents, tired of the existing state of things, look not unreasonably, as ratepayers, to the School Board to thin down the children, and the police to keep the adults in order. Under such conditions, the Bethnal Green Slave Market may yet become a useful institution.