Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - Lagsmanbury

[... back to menu for this book]

[-135-]

LAGSMANBURY.

    LIKE a rotten core beneath the bloom of ripe fruit - like a treacherous and villanous heart under a hypocritical aspect - like anything and everything that is evil and bad, yet clings to the semblance of decency and goodness - is Lagsmanbury. Neither Westminster, nor, indeed, all London, contains a more remarkable instance of the isolation of that supplementary order of society that sinks below classification, yet is in the very arms and close embrace of orders whose ambition al1d pretension it is to soar above it. You shall pass a hundred times within a few paces of the boundaries of the Lagsman's domain without discovering it or suspecting its existence - for it lies between two well-frequented thoroughfares of respectable and official character, and can be entered through either only by the narrow approach of a covered-way. The world to be found within, however, is worth the notice of the observant, and we shall take the liberty of making such investigations as may suffice to satisfy our curiosity.
    Three or four acres are probably the utmost extent of the whole area, and this is traversed from north to south by a narrow winding lane, at least twice the length of the distance, as the crow flies, between its termini like a long snake in a short bottle, it has to double upon itself to keep within its bounds. The sinuous course of the lane saves it from being used as a short cut by pedestrians, and thus helps to keep the company within select ; another cause conducing to the same result, is the fact that Lags Lane is rarely [-136-] passable to people of the outer world, unless at an early hour. From twenty to thirty small courts and impasses disembogue into it, and of whatever is ejected and rejected from them all it is necessarily the receptacle, gathering its deposits the whole day long. The lane itself is lined with shops of a characteristic kind, that tell plainly enough to the discriminating onlooker what is the position, and to some extent also, what are the pursuits of the surrounding inhabitants. Shop windows do not much abound ; with the exception of the baker, the grocer, anti the barber, there is hardly a trader who is troubled with the ceremony of cleaning glass or the prospect of a glazier's bill. Provisions are the chief staple of merchandise, and these are of a sort which respectability rarely sets eyes on. Vegetables, both crude and cooked, and venerable in either condition, are piled in pyramids or heaped on dishes, along with gallipots of pickled eels, saucers of pickled cabbage, little hills of boiled whelks, stacks of fried soles, sections of cocoa-nuts - and a heterogeneous collection of yesterday's unsold fish. The stock of the butcher comes to him from the market, and consists of the otherwise unsaleable refuse. For those who are not family members, there are the eating-houses - we were going to say the cook-shops, but in reality very few of them are cook-shops. Their carte, however, is not wanting in variety, and everything cooked elsewhere comes here in its last practicable, not presentable stage, to be finally finished off. Here are terribly attenuated shoulders of mutton, hams, and sirloins, the remnants of geese and turkeys, cod-fish reduced to the gills, fins, and tail - and all the disjecta, in a thousand shapes, of the cook-shop, coffee-shop, confectioner's shop, tavern and eating-house of more dainty districts ; among which tile martello-tower-looking pork-pies, which have stood guard for a month in the window, cut the most imposing figure.
    On Saturday night, and early on Sunday morning, the lane is alive from end to end, being crowded with the popu-[-137-]lation of the adjoining courts, for whom it is the only available market. At other times the crowd is not excessive save at the three gin-shops, one in the middle, and one at either entrance, unless, as too frequently happens, when some disagreement grows into a brawl, and every court sends forth its quota of sympathisers to take part in the settlement of the dispute. The population of the courts may be divided into two distinct genera - the residents anti the transitory guests, and each of these is divisible again into more species than we care to particularise. We can, for many reasons, notice but a few of them ; and of these, the residents, as they have the strongest claim, shall come first.
    There was a time, and that not very long ago, when Lagsmanbury was to modern London what Whitefriars was to the London of three centuries back - that is, a kind of thieves refuge and sanctuary, where, if offenders against the law did not defy the police openly, they could at least reckon upon eluding their search, and lying concealed among their friends till means of escape were ready. That state of things ceased with the last generation ; and there is no longer within the whole round of the capital any privileged Alsatia in which the hunted criminal may hope to find sanctuary. When such dens were scoured out, and their most secret recesses exposed to the fiery bull's-eye of the detective, they lost their reputation for safety - the criminal desperado now shunned them as the fox shuns the trap, and left them to more fortunate rogues, to whom imperious justice had not yet issued cards of invitation. The dearth of accommodations for the toiling masses in London drove a rough class of labourers to domicile where they could, and it happened in numerous instances, and must happen again, that the abandoned lair of the thief became the home of the poor labourer's family. So long as the maintenance of the sanctuary was possible, the rogues, for obvious reasons, allowed no intrusion of honest people ; but, the sanctuary at an end, it was [-138-] their policy to adopt an opposite course, and they did adopt it. Thus it happens that the resident population of Lagsmanbury, at the present moment, consists of a low class of labourers, chiefly Irish, who get an honest living by the work of their hands, and a predatory class, still lower, who never work, but live by the exercise of their wits in the prosecution of any artifice or imposture - or, their wits failing them, by any species of depredation they can find or make an opportunity to commit. The contact of these two classes is, of course, the last thing that is desirable ; but how it is to be avoided is not plain. Among the Lagsmen, what is noticeable is the determination of those who live by their honest labour, and against whom no suspicion rests, to keep themselves and their families distinct and separate from their contaminated or suspected neighbours. To do this as effectually as may be, they have taken possession of certain of the entire courts, into which they admit only those who can give a satisfactory account of themselves - and have surrendered other quarters as entirely to those who have no such account to give. All such precautions can prove but partially operative against the effects of that evil communication which corrupts good manners :  yet it is pleasant to witness the existence of the principle.
    Among the less permanent residents are a various and vagabond multitude of foreigners. Some are poor exiles, spoiled for all useful purposes by the reception of our national bounty - starving on a trumpery pittance which they ought long ago to have learned to do without, and too proud and lazy to work to increase it. Some are independent grinders of organs or pianos, or dancers and exhibiters of dogs, monkeys, wooden dolls, or white mice. Some are makers and hawkers of plaster images, roaming the street by day, and modelling their wares by night. Some are teachers of languages reduced by sickness, extravagance, or ill-fortune, to the lowest stage of poverty, and condemned to start again [-139-] from the bottom round of the ladder. Some are gamblers in ill-luck, savage with fortune and not a few are defeated and disappointed projectors, who have failed in impressing John Bull with the value of their services.
    The migratory class of vagabonds who honour Lagsmanbury with their presence at irregular and uncertain intervals, embraces the whole catalogue of poverty-stricken professional nomads that are seen in London streets. A good proportion of these are men who travel with "properties" of some kind or other, and for whom the accommodation of the common cheap lodging-houses and "kens" would not suffice. There are the acrobats and conjurors, with their gymnastic apparatus and juggling paraphernalia, their big drums, long swords, golden balls, daggers, tinsel robes, the lamplighter' s ladder, and the little donkey bound to climb to the top of it whenever the public liberality mounts to the climbing point - which it never does. There are the dog-leaders and dancers with their melancholy troops. There are the wandering bands of boy-Germans, with their burden of battered brass. There is the player on the bells, whose apparatus runs upon wheels, and has to be stabled like a beast. There are the grinders of monster organs as big as caravans. There are the Punch and Judy men with their travelling stages, and the rival proprietors of all those variations and modifications of Punch and Judy which one encounters from time to time in the public ways. There is the travelling rat-catcher and rat-fighter, with his traps and ferrets, and dogs and whiskered menageries. There is the poor pedlar with his pack the poor Jew picture-dealer, with his collection of moonlights and Dutch metal ; the belated hawker of plants, shrubs, and flowers, "all a-growing and a-blowing;" the omnium stallkeeper, with his stationary stage or rambling hand-cart ; and the travelling razor-grinder, with his rickety equipage. All these - and we have not set down a tithe of their titles -are debarred by their accompaniments from taking refuge at [-140-] night in the travellers' rests with which the slums of London abound, and in which Lagsmanbury itself is by no means wanting. Such places are too crowded for the property-men, who therefore make for "Shinders's,'' where properties of any and every kind are taken in charge for the night, and placed safe under lock and key, for a percentage proportionate to their bulk upon the price of their owner's lodging.
    "Shinders's'' is a pretty extensive caravanserai, occupying the whole area and buildings of Allsaints Court. It is said, with what truth we know not, that Shinders himself is a retired bear-leader, who formerly piped a bruin through every county in England, but who retired, when bears went out of fashion, into Lagsmanbury, and set about gaining a living by providing for others that accommodation he had often stood in need of himself. Be this as it may, he has long enjoyed the reputation of being the father of this peculiar class, and under the endearing cognomen of Daddy Shinders, is known far and wide. He is the sole householder of Allsaints, of which he has purchased the lease, converting the premises into that species of hotel of which his clients stand most in need. All a parent can do for them he does : he lodges them all at a low rent ; he boards as many as choose to sit at his table for a like consideration ; he guards their property during their repose or absence; he washes and mends for as many as need or choose to submit to that sort of service ; and the report goes, that he even doses them when they are ill.
    A peer into Shinders's on a summer's day, when his clients are, or ought to be, reaping the harvest of their year, and making the most of their opportunity, reveals a characteristic and suggestive spectacle. The sun may be shining and scorching aloft ever so hot, but the air of All-saints is cool and moist, and fragrant with the odour of damp linen, combining unmistakably with the reek of tobacco and the flavour of "entire.'' The flagstoncs of the court exude [-141-] a soapy ooze, which glistens in a deep umbrageous gloom, through which the fiery sun casts not a single ray. The reason is, that at this season of the year it is always washing-day at Shinders's, and the trophies of the tub are hanging out aloft upon innumerable lines stretched across from house to house, from poles thrust forth from the windows, and from stays and tight-ropes rigged from the roofs and chimneys on both sides of the way. The miscellaneous and dripping collection of rags and ragged costume tells its own tale. Together with a regiment of striped shirts, there hang coloured sashes and spangled vests, tight-fitting "fleshes," and gaudy mantles of the Spanish cut. There is Judy's gown and headgear, and there are the cutty kirtles of the dancing-dogs. The principal mass of the pendent napery is, however, an indescribable collection of tattered trumpery, which all the washing in the world would never cleanse. Beneath this cool and odorous shade you may watch, if you are so inclined, the progress of a species of operations ingenious and industrial, rarely offered to your inspection. Here the proprietor of a dilapidated organ has disembowelled the instrument for the hundredth time, and, with the pipes scattered in confusion around him, is painfully cobbling at the disabled bellows. There, the owner of a cornopean, doomed never to utter any sort of paean more, is endeavouring to cast out the dumb spirit by the charms of tinkering, plugging, oiling, and soldering. Yonder is a man fitting the blade of a property-sword to his own swallow, by carefully rounding its point with a file and emery-cloth, and smoothing its back and edge with a fine polish. Another fellow in the corner is training a little mongrel dog to sit on a narrow plank, and bark and bite, without change of posture, at the proboscis of Mr. Punch. Within doors there are sounds of hammer and saw, and the tinkle of small tools, and the babble of voices - and half-clad figures walk in and out, or lounge about the court in attitudes half swaggering, [-142-] half graceful, indicative of their professional habits. You have more than a suspicion, as you glance at the defalcations of their outer covering, that they are very much in the predicament of Beau Tibbs, when his " twa shirts" were gone to the wash, and that they are loitering here at home for lack of the indispensable habiliments in which to present themselves to the public.
    In the rear of Shinders's is Coster's Mews. The idea of establishing a mews and stabling a stud of horses, in such a locality as Lagsmanbury, probably never entered the brain of the original founder of the settlement, whoever he was : at any rate he made no provision for anything of the kind. What now constitutes the Mews is nothing but a row of wretched cottages flanking a piece of unpaved ground. What were once the sitting-rooms of the tenants are now the stalls of the beasts - the flooring having been ripped up and used for barriers and fittings. The bedrooms have been converted into lofts for hay and straw, a transformation, however, which does not hinder them from being still used as sleeping-rooms when Lagsmanbury is crowded, and beds are at a premium. Where the horses, and the asses which fully equal them in number, that domicile in Coster's Mews come from, and to what class of the community they belong, is more than we can determine but the Mews is crowded all the year round; and such is the demand for the accommodation it affords, that twice within the last three years it has been rendered capable of stalling an increased number of animals, and that without adding an inch to its original area - simply by narrowing the stalls. The mews are under the management of Mr. Thady Brill, whose name figures on a sign-board at the entrance ; but there are reasous for supposing that Thady is a man of straw in more senses than one, and that old Daddy Shinders is their veritable proprietor.
    Opposite the entrance to the Mews is the inlet to the [-143-] Creek  - a court which is also a cul-de-sac, so narrow that it is possible for the opposite neighbours to shake hands across the space that separates them. The lower floors of the houses are so dark, that the use of them by daylight is impossible and in the Creek the order of things is inverted - the householders living in the upper floors, and letting the lower rooms for lodgings. It is in the Creek that typhus and cholera always made their first appearance, when these scourges come round. It is here that the most reckless and debased of the Lagsmen are to be found - the psalm-chanter, the "ruined tradesman," the starved weaver with five children in clean white pinafores, the dolorous dodger, and the smasher. Here infants are to be hired, trained to put on melancholy faces to excite compassion ; and hence children hardly above the age of infancy are sent forth to prey upon the public by imposture or theft, and starved or tortured into accomplished pickpockets and cadgers. We said the Creek was an impasse; and so to the uninitiated public it is ; but a clansman can find a way through it into Crack Alley, and take refuge for a time, if pursued, in Scamp's Castle, where he can be captured only by a police force. The castle is nothing more than a number of dingy tenements, standing back to back, perforated and pierced into one vast labyrinth, and its only defences are its own evil character. It is comparatively empty during summer, by which we mean that it lodges at that time not many more inmates than it can decently accommodate hut towards November, when the cracksmen and lags crowd into town from their provincial tours, and resume their winter-quarters, it begins to swarm like a hive. It is hither the detective comes in search of a practitioner who is "wanted," routing him out with bull's-eye and truncheon, in the dead of the night, from a score of comrades all huddled together on the same floor, not a man of whom dreams of resistance. It is here rogues in feather hold their nocturnal orgies, until drinking, feasting, and gambling have [-144-] plucked them bare again to their last coin, and driven them forth to new adventures. It is hither the belated votary of Bacchus, who has lost his wits and his way, is sometimes beguiled by an accidental friend, and submitted to that searching and refrigerating process which ends by his waking up sad, solitary, sober, shivering, and stripped to his waistcoat and pantaloons, on a dung-heap in Coster's Mews, or in the moist kennel of Lags Lane. Whoever looks for Scamps' Castle, in the expectation of any outward and visible sign of its inner and various capabilities, will be disappointed. He will see but a block of grimy brick buildings, with ever-open doors, gaping, jagged windows, and a few half-illegible sign-boards, promising "good accommodation for travellers."
    We have not surveyed a third of the area of Lagsmanbury; but there is no necessity for continuing the survey. What should we discover by prosecuting the investigation ? Nothing more than idem, eadem, idem - more courts, more impasses, more creeks, more travellers' lodges - and all with the same dirty face, the same mixed population, the same undelightful fragrance. We have had enough of it by this time, and we quit without reluctance this delicious nursery-ground of freeborn patriots and members of the society which prides itself on its growing enlightenment and Christian philanthropy.

source: Charles Manby Smith, The Little World of London, 1857