Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - Fishing for "Jack"

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The ancient "Dragon of Ratcliff" -Tiger Bay and its many-hued inhabitants - My visit to an opium-smoking den - Johnson of the pigtail - My miserable failure as an opium smoker - Pretty Poll of Wapping, and how mercantile Jack wastes his money on her - Capering ashore - The  belle of the "Highway" at dark and at daylight - A notorious dancing saloon.

THE modern "dragon" of Ratcliff Highway is but a mere "moon-calf" compared with the ravenous beast that a few years since walked abroad by night as well as by day, seeking whom it might devour from among the men of the mercantile marine paid off; and at present ashore for a holiday spell after their last voyage.
    At the time mentioned, the stronghold of the scaly monster was the snug creeks and inlets of a locality known as Tiger Bay, but the real name of which was Brunswick Gardens, and mainly consisted of a long and sinuous thoroughfare, extending from the "Highway" to Cable Street. An innocent and harmless-looking street, with a respectable meeting-house, belonging to some religious sect, at one corner; but the foolishly confiding mariner who listened to the voice of the siren, and to her offer to convoy him for a further exploration, was in danger. From one end to the other, Tiger Bay abounded with man-traps and pitfalls, and with all manner of hole-in-corner haunts resorted to by sailors hailing from foreign shores-jet-black Africans, yellow-skinned Malay's with their nether lip make to project hideously by means of a wooden plug, copper-coloured niggers from the Indian Archipelago, and sickly saffron-hued Celestials, who hurried there the moment they were free to do so, hotly eager to enjoy the unspeakable delight of opium-smoking.
    I remember there was a dingy alley not twenty yards down Brunswick Gardens, where was to be found the most famous smoke-house that the neighbourhood could boast of. It was kept by a dirty old almond-eyed pigtailed Chinaman, who, in compliment to the country of his adoption, had taken the unmistakably English name of Johnson. I went there once, feeling curious to satisfy myself by personal experience as to the delicious sensations said to accompany the smoking of [-99-] opium, and with the result that I never felt so dreadfully sick in all my life. It was sheer foolhardiness for me to persist in the preposterous whim, after I had been a quarter of an hour in the horrible place and witnessed the preparation and the surroundings. As fresh in my mind as though it happened yesterday, is the picture of the dilapidated room, with its walls and ceiling as grimy as those of a coal-cellar. The frowsy bedstead, with an Indian mat for a counterpane, and on which squatted Johnson, like a diabolical tailor, with his lamp and his tinder-box, and his pipes and his toasting-skewers; the two awful-looking Malays he had already operated on, with their shaven heads, reposing on the greasy bolster, and their opal eyes nearly closed in swinish satiety.
    There was a Mrs. as well as a Mr. Johnson, whose complexion was that of discoloured parchment, crooning over the fire, and stirring an opium brew in an iron pot, at the same time filling the chamber with nauseating fumes. All this, I regret, proved insufficient to warn me that the best course I could adopt was to forfeit the twopence halfpenny I had already parted with. I might have pretended that I had suddenly bethought me of an urgent appointment, and so made my escape. But the obstinacy of my nature, goading me to go through with what I had begun, I waited until Mr. Johnson rolled one of his intoxicated Malay customers off the mattress, and stuck him in a sitting posture against the wall, and then I resigned myself into his hands. He seemed to be aware that I was a novice, and was tenderly solicitous to make me comfortable: he tucked up the bolster, so that my head might rest easily; he selected his choicest pipe, and gave the mouthpiece of it (it was the one the last Malay customer had sucked himself to sleep with) a wipe on his cap, taking it off his head for the purpose; he fished up a morsel of the brown abomination out of the tinder-box, and toasted it in the flame of a lamp, at the point of one of the little iron skewers, and placed it in the pipe-bowl, put the stem between my lips, and gave me a light. I don't know how many pulls I took at it, because, after the third or fourth, the opium fiend took possession of me, and I was no longer accountable for my actions. Nicotine, double distilled, seared my palate, my throat revolted, my entire internal organization rose in rebellion. I got up so suddenly that it was only by making a hasty [-100-] clutch at a bedpost that Mr. Johnson saved himself and his lamp and tinder-box from being capsized. Taking the stairs three at a time, I at length reached the street, and for many minutes did bitter penance with my forehead pressing against a brick wall.
    But Tiger Bay has ceased to be. It held its ground with tenacity, and in spite of the repeated protests of the more respectable inhabitants, and the frequent denunciations of the magistrates of the Thames Police Court, who were in great part provided with employment by the unwearying energy of the tigers and tigresses. At last came the East London Railway, and made such a clean sweep of the "Bay," and of the slums immediately adjacent, that a marauder of the period, returned from fourteen years' penal servitude, would be sorely perplexed to discover even the site of his old familiar haunt. Not is this the only change for the better that has taken place in the neighbourhood. With characteristic daring, the Christian Mission and the Temperance folk have bearded the dragon in its lair, and built harbours of refuge for Jack ashore on those very spots that in the wicked old times used to be the robbers' choicest hunting-grounds. At half a dozen establishments in Ratcliff Highway, besides at the great pile of building in Wells Street, and known as the Sailors' Home, the seafarer returned from a voyage finds a pleasant welcome, and with such a scrupulous observance of comfort and cleanliness, combined with moderate charges, as must convince Jack of how much better off he can now be, if be chooses, than when Poll of Wapping was his housekeeper, and her male and female acquaintances made merry at his expense as long as his "rhino" lasted.
    It must not be assumed, however, that the invaders are absolutely masters of the position. It is hardly to be expected they ever will be. They have been making fair headway of late, for no one can doubt that much good has resulted from their humane efforts; but as "boys will be boys," so sailors will be sailors all the world over, and, at least as regards a great number of them, tenaciously cling to their prescriptive privilege of "taking their fling" ashore after a season of seafaring. And no one grudges it them. The proverb that "all work and no play," &c., applies no less to a sailor than to every other Jack; but one would desire to see him a little less recklessly impulsive in the pursuit [-101-] of pastime that is to his peculiar taste, end a great deal less foolish as regards the extravagant price in money and in health he pays in attaining it. That he should take "t' other glass" - many such, indeed - in his delight and satisfaction at finding himself once again in the company of relatives and friends on land, is natural enough; but the most amazing part of it is, that when ashore, he should waste his hard-earned money on the sort of females, the business of whose lives is to lay wait for and prey on him.
    Jack afloat, whether naval or mercantile, is, as a rule, as shrewd and sensible a fellow as one could wish to deal with. Sea-air sharpens his wits and promotes the healthy circulation of his blood, and stimulates his manly and self-dependent instincts; but, in scores and hundred of cases, set him on terra firma, and give him a week's holiday, with ten pounds in his pocket, and his behaviour is that of the most consummate "nincom." that ever was led with an apron-string. And this is the more inexplicable, because the class of men most afflicted with the weakness in question are not long voyagers or sailors who have seen protracted service on foreign stations.
    The story is told of a party of gold-diggers in some remote part, who had been estranged from female society for a year or more, accidentally discovering a battered old bonnet, long since discarded and thrown away by its original owner. But so highly was it prized for association's sake by the bereaved diggers, that they hoisted it aloft on a pole and had a procession in its honour, and afterwards a banquet, at which the old bonnet occupied the chief seat at the head of the table. But it is different with men who are seldom or never more than three months estranged from sweethearts and wives. Again, it is not as though they found irresistible temptation in the beauty and comeliness, or at all events the fascinating manners, of the maidens of Ratcliff and Wapping. I cannot say how it was in Dibdin's time, or whether the lovely Polls, the faithful Sails, and the steadfast Mollys were really the charming and virtuous creatures the prince of nautical song writers depicted them as being. I can positively affirm, however, that if the damsels above mentioned were fairly representative of their order, matters in modern times have changed much for the worse.
    Take any twenty of the sprightly Nancy family now appearing [-102-] every evening, after dark, in the Highway, and you will not find among them three that are ordinarily pleasant-looking - not one that seems capable of a womanly sentiment or emotion, or in whose bosom could be excited for a suffering fellow-creature pity or compassion. With other women, no matter the depth of degradation to which they may be sunk, it is always possible to stir them to acts of tenderness and generosity; but the fem ales of the class indicated, and who haunt the eastern bank of the Thames, would seem to be a breed by themselves, and different from other women. It was because of the tigresses, rather than the tigers, that the shameful old "Bay" was nicknamed, and it is not too much to say that the expression of countenance, common amongst the coarse and brazen men-trappers, fairly justifies their being likened to a beast of prey. They have the stealthy gait of a prowling animal of the forest, the wary restless eyes, the close-set cruel lips (what a mouth for Jack to kiss!); and when their blood is up, which is just as often as free indulgence in fiery liquors warms it to simmering-point, then, in exact resemblance to the jungle creature, is the face of the virago wrinkled in hate, the vengeful snarl, the bared teeth ready to bite, the nervous talons ready to tear and rend.
    What glamour it is that possesses mercantile Jack, inducing him to contemplate these dreadful she's with tender regard, must appear to Jack himself; in his disenchanted moments, as inexplicable a puzzle as to any one else. An experienced metropolitan police magistrate once suggested as a novel and effective way of reducing the number of drunken and disorderly cases brought to the station-house at night-time, that each inebriate, as he made his appearance in a state of semi-collapse, helplessly limp and all awry, should be made the subject of a photograph, the same to be presented to the original when, ashamed and penitent, he was released next morning on payment of the customary five shillings. On the same principle it would not be amiss if some philanthropist, who has at heart the welfare of mercantile Jacks in general, would be at the expense of having photographed for framing, as a forecastle ornament, a Ratcliff dancing and drinking saloon when business is at its briskest, and when Jack, in company with the petticoated harpies, is just far enough gone in love and liquor to have reached that spoony and maudlin state when he is forward to [-103-] swear eternal friendship with everybody within reach of handshaking, and valiant to give proof of his sincerity by standing drinks-another fire, and another-all round, so long as there remains a shot in his locker. The said picture might, with mild sarcasm, be entitled "Capering Ashore."
    One of the most favourite sailors' dance-rooms in the Highway is not a great distance from Ship Alley. It is upstairs, and, though the place is of considerable size, to economize valuable floor space the orchestra is accommodated in a kind of hanging pen against the wall. There are tables and chairs ranged all round the dancing space, and here, when disengaged, sit the ladies of the company. Many of them are so gorgeously arrayed one might well suppose that they intended to take part in some theatrical spectacular performance, and were waiting to be "called on." Trains of brilliant velvet sweep the ground, spangles sparkle on their bodices; faces are pencilled, and ruddled, and powdered; and pearls and lace and feathers of the ostrich combine to build up a head-dress, such as seen on the head of a Fijian belle by the early explorers would have afforded subject matter for at least three pages of printed description. They are stage properties, in a manner of speaking. The plumed hats, the pink satin shoes, the sky-blue velvets and laces, even the earrings on their ears, and the rings on their fingers, are not the personal effects of those who are adorned in them. Should they be so rash as to suppose otherwise, but let them endeavour to dispose of one single article, and they will speedily find what will happen. They are borrowed, and at a handsome rate, too. They belong to the obliging landlady of the den where the wearer lodges.
    Look round the dancing-room, and you will discover here and there a hawk-eyed hag occupying an unobtrusive seat at a table, and taking no part in the proceedings other than keeping a sharp look-out for the wearing apparel, &c., they have lent on hire. It is only for the evening the things are lent. To-morrow morning-any morning-the poor flaunting creatures who wear them, as the most approved and successful bait for Jack-fishing, will cut a very different figure. They may be found in dozens gin-drinking at the bars of the public houses of the neighbourhood, dirty, blear-eyed, and hideous after their last dissipation, wearing a draggle-tail ragged gown, and with a [-104-] tattered old shawl cast hoodwise over their tangled tresses, while, in the place of the satin shoes, a pair of dilapidated old boots a cobbler would not undertake to mend.
    But fine feathers make fine birds, and Jack does not see them until they have mounted their borrowed plumage. Arrayed for the dancing-room, there they sit, each with a glass of brandy and water or some other liquid of her choice on the table before her. Dancing is meanwhile going on, and sailors of all nationalities, and almost every shade of colour between white and black, some smart and attired in their best clothes, others as though but just released from ship duty, unwashed and in their working "shacks" and guernseys, but none the less welcome on that account, so as they have money in their pockets, each sheepishly admires the splendid females, and endeavours to catch the eye of the beauty of his choice, with a view of inviting her to stand up and take a turn round the room with him. Should she kindly respond, she leaves her liquor in charge of a lady friend, and, next moment, with a face as solemn as an undertaker, Jack is waltzing with her, with his arm around her waist and his chin on her shoulder.
    The bliss is but short-lived, as the lady has to combine business with pleasure, and his dance with her is a treat that must be paid for according to its duration. The lady is soon back again to her seat and her grog; while her partner, if he is generous enough to replenish her glass, is privileged to sit next her. And if he is charmed with her company and conversation, and is willing to go on paying for more dance and more grog, she will be in no hurry to leave him, unless, indeed, some more promising customer presents himself; and then the probabilities are there will be a row between the rival mariners and a taking of sides by the shipmates of each, and such ferocious shindy that it cannot be quelled until the bully waiters in attendance, who are men of muscular might, have seized on the ringleaders and forcibly ejected them. It commonly happens on such occasions that some one turns out the gas, and that in the uproar and confusion that ensues before it can be lit again, watches and purses disappear from the pockets of the sailor as if by magic, and nobody can tell, least of all the female frequenters of the establishment, what on earth can have become of them. There is no use in making a fuss and grumbling about such trifles.
    [-105-] "It is all the better, perhaps," says Jack, who is at all times a bit of a philosopher "if my rhino had lasted longer, I might have got into worse company still. It always was a good thing for me when I had had my spree out and got to sea again, so there is no great harm done after all."
    But though his good friends the promoters of the Ratcliff Highway temperance taverns may shake their heads at such a preposterous doctrine, we may be sure that the proprietors of the dancing and drinking dens of the old type will highly approve of devil-may-care Jack's sentiments, and do their best to give him encouragement.