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

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CROCODILE COURT.

CROCODILE COURT is a second-rate court, debouching at the end in a third-rate street, which, on Saturday nights is a fourth-rate market, and at the other in a lane. The lane leads to nowhere particular, unless it be to the gin-shop at the end, one side of which sends its flashing illumination at night-time far down the darksome labyrinth, whose squalor and misery crouch from public view, while the other turns a magnificent and hilarious face upon a splendid street, as if utterly unconscious that there are such things as squalor and misery in the world. The court itself may be about a furlong in length, and averages some nine or ten feet in width, and its area, until it comes to the entrance of the lane, where you suddenly turn a corner, is supposed to be paved over the entire surface, with the exceptions, of course, of the little gratings which give light to the cellars below. We say "supposed,'' because a good number of the flags have mysteriously disappeared, leaving little square patches of moist earth, which agreeably chequer the ground, chess-board fashion, and are moreover exceedingly convenient in affording material for the development of the fictile genius of a limited band of urchins, playfully denominated the young crocodiles, the aborigines of the locality. The readiness with which, after a shower of rain, these little Pre-Raphaelites will get up a batch of mud-pies - transform the whole into a Malakoff - make a redoubt out of a broken dish, and bombard the "Roushins" with pellets of clay, is striking to behold ; and the spectacle of their  patriotism might warm the heart of the [-219-] war minister, if the sight of their hapless filth and friendliness did not send a chill through the official cartilage.
    The aspect of the court is not fascinating to a casual visitor. Like many other valuable subjects of study, it only surrenders its treasures to the man of patient observation, who will take the pains to penetrate beneath its unpromising surface. On entering it from the street, you have to pass through a covered way, which is flanked on one aisle by a gin-shop and on the other by a pawnbroker's window, and a pawnbroker's side-door which admits the hypothecative philosopher into a box, which is emphatically not a witness-box, where, with the aid of another philosopher skilled in the logic of a peculiar school, he may solve the problem his poverty propounds. We cannot pause to investigate what connexion there may be between the bottle-department on our right and the three golden balls on our left, especially as we have to elbow our way through a dozen or so of the inhabitants of the court, to whom the shelter of the covered entrance, fragrant as it is with the alcoholic odours of the gin-shop, seems a favourite rendezvous, where they meet to gossip and look out upon the world at large.
    The architecture of Crocodile Court, when you get into it, strikes you as decidedly of the mixed order. It is plain that a number of builders combined a variety of talents in its construction - that each built as high as he could, and stopped when he had no money to carry him higher. The brick walls would be brown if they were not black ; the windows would be of glass if they were not half of them of brown paper varied with rags of no colour at all ; and the woodwork would yet wear a coat of white paint, had not the rain without and the worm within - the wet -rot and the dry-rot - crumbled it and sluiced it and stripped it of every vestige of its original hue. Yet here and there, amidst the general mass of decay and disrepair, you may discern the individual evidences of neatness and attempts at comfort and even [-220-] decency, not to say respectability of appearance. Here a tenant of a first-floor has painted his sash, and, in spite of surrounding example, luxuriates in whole squares of glass and a dweller in a front parlour actually cleans her windows, and parades a bit of muslin blind as a fence against popular curiosity. Such indications of gentility are, however, but few, and it is possible they are looked upon with a jealous eye by the aggregate crocodiles, and only tolerated in consideration of ancient privilege and long standing on the part of the owners. Let us look around now, and make acquaintance with some of the component parts of this characteristic microcosm, and see what is to be got out of them.
    "The first and foremost man of all the world" - the world of Crocodile Court - and the most formidable crocodile of the whole brood, is undoubtedly, Mr. Brassy, the marine-store-man. Brassy is a man who has seen nearly three-score summers, during the whole of which time he and his unhappy parent (who in '41 went to Australia, and there died) have kept the rubbishy shop in which he is content to sit from morning to night, waiting the arrival of customers who come to buy and to sell. Brassy's shop is a museum of everything that is worth little or nothing - of old iron, old copper, old brass, old tools, old panels of oak and mahogany, old cranks and cogwheels and fragments of incomprehensible machines, to which you may add the rusty keys of forty thousand perished locks, and coils of rope and shreds of broadcloth strung together in huge mops upon wires. Nobody would imagine, from the contemplation of Brassy's stock, or from his face, which is just as hard and impenetrable and rusty, or from his garb, for which Monmouth Street would hardly make room - that he could possibly do anything better than live from dirty hand to dirtier mouth, without being able to afford the luxury of soap. And yet the fact is, that Brassy is a man of substance, the owner of half the houses in the court which are worth having and in [-221-] decent repair. It is whispered by those who dare not speak out, that he has an extensive connexion among that class of society who excel in secret appropriation, among whom he bears the soubriquet of captain of the fencibles - and that the police always have their eye upon him. If so, we can only say that the police do not enjoy a very pleasant prospect, for Brassy is an ill-looking fellow, and, as if conscious of the fact, loves to lurk unseen in the darkest recess of his den. There is no Mrs. Brassy, which perhaps is not to be regretted, and there are no young Brassys, a thing also not to be regretted ; but there is a ferocious wall-eyed bull-terrier, who sometimes keeps shop  -and we should say keeps it effectually - while his master is absent or engaged with blow-pipe and crucible below stairs.
    Next door to the marine-store is the rag and bone shop - the moist and mouldy, and a trifle marrowy, abode of Bridget McFinn, a sister of the sister isle, who addresses all whom it may concern with the polite appeal, " Plees to rekleck! at this shop you gets 2d., for seven poun of bones, and 3d. a poun for best linning rags;" to which she appends a delicate allusion to dripping and kitchen-stuff, which we shall not quote literatim. Bridget's shop-window is stuffed up, to the utter exclusion of such daylight as the narrow court would afford, with a conglomerate of clouts and rags, and the concave bottoms of phials and bottles, among which are distinguishable, here and there, odd remnants of decayed finery, such as scraps of ragged lace and trimming, crushed and crumbled ends of ribbon, a cracked cameo torn from its setting, or an old hair bracelet wanting the snap. Her patrons are the abigails and cooks and scullions of a pretty extensive district, among whom she is a bit of a favourite, being an accomplished gossip and not given to haggle for trifles. In addition to her shopkeeping, Bridget drives another trade as a landlady - the upper part of her house being the refuge of her wandering countrymen, whom she will [-222-] receive in any numbers and for any consideration they can afford to pay, or, for the matter of that, for no consideration at all, rather than turn them, as she has been heard to phrase it, "to the windy side o' the door bekase there was no money to the fore.'' Whether Mrs. McFinn unites her two professions in one speculation - whether the rags and bones and dripping of the London kitchens go to solace the stomachs and backs of the Irish immigrants, is a question which we are in no condition to solve, not thinking ourselves bound to push inquiry in that direction. But she is a thrifty dame, and has thriven to the extent of seventeen stone at least.
    If you were to peep over the bit of white muslin curtain mentioned above, it is more than probable that you would get a glimpse of Betsy Spiller, sitting at a table covered with scarlet, violet, or almond-coloured silk, just fresh from the loom, the gorgeous hues of which are quite out of keeping with everything around. Miss Spiller is a character in her way : she is a determined and active little body, bound up in a dress so tight that you might almost imagine she kept herself packed ready for carriage by the Parcels Delivery, and so defiant of present fashions that you would have to go back thirty or forty years to find anything like it in the never-ending mutations of female costume. There is a mystery about her which the curiosity of the court has given up the attempt to fathom : all they know of her is,  that she has seen better days - a fact of which they are certain because she "talks dictionary,'' and resents in a dignified way any grossness or familiar impertinence. Miss Spiller, as the neat card in her window informs you, gets her living by straining silk fronts for cabinet and cottage piano-fortes. In this ingenious branch of industry, which is not usually performed entirely by females, she is known to excel, and in consequence she is rarely idle. If she be not gathering up the silk in fanciful folds or starry rays with her needle, you are pretty sure to hear the tap-tap of her little hammer driving the [-223-] tacks into the wooden frame and if she is doing neither, it is because she has locked up her room and is off to the piano-forte makers to carry home her work and fetch more. Her neat hand is so well known in the trade, that a dealer will tell her work at a glance. Poor Betsy lives all alone. She has no personal charms to boast they have vanished behind the veil of fifty years, and she knows that perfectly well. What is that life-history which has vanished with them ? whose were the familiar faces that. smiled upon her infancy and childhood ? what were the buoyant hopes and loves of her "youth's age,'' and in what grave do they lie buried ? and from whence came the shafts of calamity which cast her from her proud position, and landed her, lone and friendless, in Crocodile Court ? Betsy Spiller will work her fingers to the bone - will ply needle and thread and hammer and tacks to the last - but she would not respond to these inquiries.
    A little farther on, past the potato and coal shed, well known to the Irish labourer, who for twopence can get three pounds of "murphies," and for a penny more buys seven pounds of coals to cook them with - past the broker's, whose goods have been broken fifty times and as often mended - past the "MANGLING DONE HERE" of Mrs. Grinder, whose vast machine, "its bowels filled with stones," is constantly groaning and thumping and creaking under her vigorous hands-and we come upon the establishment of dapper little Dennison, who keeps the "halfpenny shaving shop." A half-penny is the standard price for a shave in Crocodile Court, and no one wearing a beard would think of paying more ; and, what is worse for Denny, there is not a single beard among his customers that submits to the operation more than once a week - on Saturday night, that is, or on early Sunday morning. The population of the court includes, it is probable, above two hundred beards, and with very few exceptions, Denny has the handling of the lot and, moreover, [-224-] there are the dwellers in the lane, who patroinse him to a certain extent, so that between five o'clock on the Saturday and noon on the Sunday (for in Crocodile Court no day of rest dawns), upon a moderate estimate he lathers and reaps three hundred chins. He is an active little man, and so he had need be to get through his grand field-day in creditable style. Of course, he does them in bulk, lathering four or five in succession, and leaving the first lathered to soften in the saponaceous cream while he proceeds with the rest. He is rich in a peculiar kind of experience - talks learnedly of the Irish epidermis, and of the deadly effect upon razors of the grit that gets into bricklayers' chins. He chooses his blades, he will tell you, for their substance, preferring at least a third of an inch in the back - "you can't shave a dustman with a thin blade - for why ? the edge will be sure to turn up wiry."
    Denny's shop, at any time between six and twelve on the Saturday night, presents a characteristic spectacle. Denny himself is a voluble talker, and, being in addition a practical politician and a radical of the extreme school, and making it a point of duty to be up in all the news of the day, his hebdomadal synods are never dumbfoundered for want of a subject of discussion. There you may see grave beards, lathered and unlathered, wagging on grave matters with an orderly decorum that might be imitated with advantage in "another place;" and if Denny should stop the peroration of an orator by suddenly seizing him by the nose, 'tis all in the way of business, and no one dreams of offence. We can assure our readers that the war question is well understood at the halfpenny shaving shop, where it is discussed with becoming temper, and with most unanimous concurrence in the policy of paying its cost with an income-tax. What the halfpenny shaver does with himself all the rest of the week does not appear. He can't keep birds, as many barbers do, for the birds have taken a prejudice against living in Crocodile Court, and if you bring them there they die. There is [-225-] but little hair-cutting in his domain, and not much to be got by the dressing of ladies' fronts where the ladies are in the habit of carrying fruit, fish, and vegetables on their heads - and he is not skilful in the manufacture of wigs. We have a notion that he spends the bulk of his time in spelling over every newspaper he can lay hold of, and in honing and strapping his stock of razors for the weekly harvest of beards.
    Right opposite to little Dennison's is Brimmer's lodging- house, where "good accommodation for travellers," if Mr. Primmer is to be believed, is to he had for threepence a night - and no trust. The character of the accommodation is not so good, we fear, as to challenge criticism. The travellers who take up their abode there, are of a very various kind - chiefly travellers by day through London streets, and of that multitudinous class who rise in the morning without knowing, or much caring, where they shall lay their heads at night. Brimmer lives, and drinks from a black bottle, in the front parlour, and sits there at night with the door open to levy the oboli from all who pass in. He professes clean sheets once a month, and an annual entomological battue ; but, in a candid mood, he will advise an unseasoned visitor that his rest will be best secured by burning a candle all night.
    Close to Brimmer's there sits a spectral cobbler, in a little open shed, pounding away at the heel of a patched blucher, to which he is fitting an iron shield. In front of him, on a narrow board, are a selection of shoes for both sexes, glimmering with black-lead, and gaping with cracks. The whole look as though they had been rescued from the dust-box and vamped up for sale, and such is probably their history. It is plain that the cobbler is half ashamed of them, and it is but charity to suppose that he exhibits them rather as emblems of his craft than as saleable merchandise.
    Next to the cobbler is a cobbling bookbinder, whom we [-226-] chance to catch in the very act of sawing a score of notches in the back of a great folio bible, and letting in shreds of twine with glue to hold the leaves together, to save himself an hour's labour in honestly sewing the book. We could reprove the knave for his irreverent chicanery, and feel half inclined to do it ; but his bloated face and rubicund nose turn up fiercely at the remonstrance we throw him, and we quicken our pace to escape from a torrent of vehement abuse that comes thundering from his mouth.
    Towards the end of the court we hear the whirring of a lathe, and come upon a turner and his boy up to their chins in shavings, and engaged in the operation of transforming a bundle of old mopsticks, silk-rollers, and what not, into so many gross of pill-boxes, to which the boy is fitting the lids, working the treddle the while, as fast as they are whirled off.
    Then we are suddenly charmed with a delicate group of wax flowers, cunningly modelled by a poor cripple, who exhibits them beneath a bell-glass in a little window that looks towards the lane. His productions are sold by his mother to the shop-keepers for what they will fetch, and sometimes to the ladies in whose dwellings she periodically officiates as char-woman. 
    Besides the professionals above mentioned, the court has its tinker, who departs on his rounds regularly in the morning and comes back in the gloaming, when he is too often seen staggering homewards under a burden heavier than his pots and soldiering-iron and extinguished fire and is apt, once in the court, to pitch himself clown at anybody's door to sleep off his potations. Then there is the blind fiddler and his amazonian wife, well fitted to fight her sightless husband's battles, This pair are absent sometimes in summer for weeks and months together, patrolling the country far and wide ; and the return from these excursions is usually celebrated in the court by a gratuitous concert. [-227-] Then there is lone Widow Green, the glove-cleaner and bonnet bleacher, who is half bleached herself by the fumes of sulphur, and half sick with the smell of turpentine, and who dwells in a topmost garret, and only emerges like a pale phantom at night, to communicate with her patrons or to do her indispensable marketing.
    But enough of the professionals : it is possible that we have not enumerated one half of them; yet, taken all together, they would not make a tithe of the whole population, who swarm in Crocodile Court as thick as bees in a hive. In every room there is a family, save in those where there are two or more : when the weather is fine, the windows aloft are choked with feminine busts and fat folded arms, and hundreds of glib tongues keep up a flying conversation, not always over complimentary, from side to side and from ground-floor to garret. And in addition to all these there is that migratory host to whom the hospitality of Brimmer and Mrs. McFinn, and one or two other less pretentious caravanseries, offer a fortuitous shelter on their wanderings. The most effectual way of obtaining an adequate idea of the whole population would be, perhaps, to visit the court on a washing-day then the natural gloom of the place is deepened by the display aloft of unnumbered banners formed of every imaginable species of feminine and infantine attire, and of tattered domestic napery a whole forest, among which are beheld struggling in air no inconsiderable number of those bifurcated appendages quae maribus tribuuntur. Then it is that Crocodile Court is under a cloud - that a warm and somnolent reek issues from a thousand broken panes and open windows - that the covered gallery of observation is more than usually crowded and the gin-shop at the corner more than usually busy. The court itself, and the door-ways of each house especially, are thronged with the lords of the creation, driven forth by the steaming suds, and there they stand or lounge in their shirt-sleeves, [-220-] smoking their short pipes. and bandying talk with one another, while the children, barefooted, unkempt, and dirty-faced, roar and squeal, and squabble and riot, and play and grovel in the dust at their feet. "Is it possible," you ask yourself, "that all this throng has its home within these dingy walls ?"
    But who is this meagre starveling of a boy, lean, lanky, and leaden-eyed, whose yellow skin is stranger to a shirt, whose swollen ankles emerge from the wrecks of a pair of cut-down man's boots - whose jacket and trousers are one mass of tatters, and whose matted black hair trails like the mythological snakes of the Gorgon on his fleshless neck?
    "Halloa, Shanks!" bawls a voice in greeting.
    The juvenile anatomy turns half round, and, without taking his hands from his pockets, glares with his large grey eye upon the speaker, an Irish labourer.
    "Got anything to eat, Shanks ?"
    "No," says the poor boy, qualifying the answer with an ejaculation we shall not repeat - "give us something.''
    "'I'm hard up meself,'' says the man. " Ax mother McFinn."
    "She give me a dinner isterday,'' says Shanks, "for clean-in' out the cellar."
    "Give Brassy a chance, then.''
    "No I shan't; Brassy sets the dog on me."
    "The thief o' the wurruld! But you had a real dinner yesterday, Shanks.''
    "Ah, I did,'' replies Shanks - "and I can wait, I spose, till I git a job."
    This colloquy takes place in front of the little parlour window of Betsy Spiller. Anon, the bit of muslin blind is seen to flutter and shake, and then the sash flies up with a sudden jerk, and Betsy's thin white lady's hand is thrust forth with a penny between the finger and thumb, and her thready voice is heard calling to Shanks:-
    [-229-] "Go and buy bread, poor boy," she says; and as Shanks snatches the coin, and pulls an acknowledgment at his thatch of hair, the window falls again, and Betsey is no more seen.
    "Shanks,'' says the Irishman, "you're in for a buster this time, anyhow ; long life to the lady ; sure the gentle blood's the thing."
    Shanks disappears in the direction of the baker's who lives round the corner and while he is gone we may wind up our sketch with a. brief recital of his biography.
    Poor Shanks is a waif of Crocodile Court. In the court he was born some twelve years ago. The cholera of 1849, which made awful work among the crocodiles, carried off both his parents, and left him to the mercy of strangers. The poor woman who shared the one room of the dead father and mother, took charge of the boy, and for two years maintained him from the proceeds of a fruit-stall. She was ignorant or criminal enough to barter fruit for stolen goods, was tried for felony, and transported. The boy was then taken to the workhouse by the parish authorities, and entered under the name of Shanks, a soubriquet conferred on him by the court, in allusion to the length of his legs. Shanks justified the cognomen by running away, and returning to his old haunt, where he has lived, or rather starved, ever since. How he keeps life in him is not easily explained. All we know is, that he is always ready to do anything for anybody, for any reward, however small. He will lug the drunken tinker to his lair - he will turn Mrs. Grinder's mangle and wheel out her barrow - he will scrub stairs and swill cellars - he will lead the blind fiddler on his rounds when the wife is too ill, or too something else, to do it - and sometimes he will don a clean apron which Betsy Spiller keeps for the purpose, and carry home her handiwork for her to the warehouse or shop. He has no enemy in the court, unless it be Brassy - and the fact of this mans dislike [-230-] to him, we have a suspicion, tells more in the boy's favour than against him. May circumstances be propitious to poor  Shanks!
    "But where," says the curious and compassionate reader - "where is Crocodile Court? I cannot find it in the map, and it is not down in the Directory."
    No, my worthy and comfortable friend, it is not down in the map, and the authority of the Directory will not guide you to it. We will give you a plainer direction than either of these - a direction often proffered but rarely accepted - and which in all likelihood you will not accept from us. Here it is, however, at a venture. Follow your nose. Now you know you never do follow your nose when it affords you any disagreeable premonitions, but you turn off in a contrary direction. So long as you persist in doing that, you will never see Crocodile Court, and must. be content to take your information of such places at second hand - from the city missionary, who fearlessly proceeds wherever his duty leads him - from the sanitary commissioner, who does the same - and from such humble scribblers as we are, who do not disdain to imitate their example. In answer to the question, Where is Crocodile Court ? we will ask, Where is it not? that is, in what quarter of London, inhabited by the labouring and struggling masses, is it not to be found ? To be serious, it is a reproach to our metropolis, that so many Crocodile Courts should exist in the vicinity of respectable streets, without the inhabitants of the latter aiming to bring to bear upon them the ameliorating agencies of sanitary improvement and moral and religions instruction.

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