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

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HISTORY OF STRAWBERRY STREET.

    STRAWBERRY STREET presents nothing very remarkable to the view, and in its present condition would be considered the reverse of captivating by the lovers of the picturesque. But the street has a history, with which it has been our fortune to become intimately acquainted - a history so like that of many a human lot, with its ups and downs in the world, and so interwoven with the destinies of men, that we have made up our minds to record it. Strawberry Street stands, and has stood for nearly thirty years, in a district once known as Strawberry Fields, and still spoken of under that appellation by a small section of our older citizens, who can recollect when the grass grew on its site, and the cows of a small dairy-farm famous for its custards, cheese-cakes, and curds and whey, chewed the cud in peace, unconscious of Smithfield.
    When Strawberry Street first rose into being, which it did very gradually - taking between two and three years to complete its double row of two-storied dwellings - it was, to all intents and purposes, a suburb of London, and like other suburbs, shrank from being swallowed up in Babylon's bosom, and clung with considerable tenacity to rural associations and characteristics. It retained for some years a strip of grass between the footpath and roadway, and boasted a tree or two, almost amounting to a row, on the eastern side. In lieu of pavement, the footpath was laid down with gravel, and the roadway was neatly macadamised; and, as all the front-parlours were fenced off from curious eyes by iron [-268-] railings four feet at least from the windows, the street wore an undeniably neat and respectable appearance.
    There being nowhere any indication of a shop, the street naturally bore the reputation of being what is called a genteel street. And genteel it undoubtedly was - for a time. It became very early the abode of professional ladies and gentlemen, whose neat brass-plates informed you that they taught drawing and painting, and japanning, and French, Italian, and German, and the painoforte and singing, and the practice of all kinds of musical instruments. Then there were clerks, managers, and responsible persons employed in the city, who came home to their families in Strawberry Street, as regular as the clock, about seven in the evening ; and, besides these, a number of persons of independent property, of the staid and sober sort - mostly annuitants we fancy, who had ensconced themselves in this comfortable quarter to spite the assurance-offices by living to the age of Old Parr if they could. 
    The most remarkable man among the early settlers was Mr. Pottinger, whom we knew well, and whom, to look at, you would have accounted the model of a gentleman of threescore. He wore his hair powdered, and on Sundays went to church in tights and Hessians and you might look in vain, Sundays or week-days, for a spot on his broadcloth or a flaw in his linen. He was a man famous for his conversation, and was the oracle of the parlour at the Fox and Salutation round the corner, where he regularly took his night-cap in the evening. He was great in politics ; and in '29, when we had the privilege of a first-floor in Strawberry Street, predicted the triumph of the opposition and the certainty of Reform, which both came to pass in due time ; but he was greater still in aristocratic genealogy, and if he had learned the peerage by heart, could not have been better informed than he was ; and, more than that, he knew the length of every nobleman's purse, and would dilate on [-269-] the pecuniary difficulties of lords and landholders in a way that astonished his hearers. In his most communicative moments, Pottinger never said a word about himself; and there was a mystery about him which the whole street had tried its skill in fathoming, but to no purpose.
    Pottinger, who seemed never to have any business on his hands, was a favourite with most of his neighbours, and with the children especially, to whom he was gentle and patronising, and liberal in the small toys and dainties children love. Miss Montgomery, who lived at No. 10, was the only person in Strawberry Street who did not concur in the general reverence for Mr. Pottinger. She was a maiden lady on the further side of fifty, who kept, in addition to a maid-of-all-work, a page, and a poodle, and no other society, save at periodical intervals, few and far between, when a carriage would drive up to her door, and a posse of young lathes, with their mamma, wearing the Montgomery face, only twice as large, would alight and thunder at the knocker, and be let in by the page, all spick and span for the occasion, and half an hour afterwards would be let out again, and drive off amid demonstrations equally noisy. Mr. Pottinger departed this life, as his tombstone informs us, at the age of sixty-three; and all Strawberry Street was thrown into a state of perfect amazement by the grandeur of his funeral, which was performed by a west-end undertaker on the most imposing and expensive scale. Besides the hearse and mourning-coaches, there were three private carriages, empty to be sure, but yet bearing heraldic insignia on their panels, sent to follow the good man to his grave. Pottinger dead was even more mysterious than he had been when living ; but when all was over the mystery was cleared up. Miss Montgomery, who was too much of a gentlewoman to give a handle to gossip during the life of Mr. Pottinger, now felt herself at liberty to justify the pertinacity with which she had in a manner ignored his existence ; and she [-270-] suffered it to ooze out through Jemima, her maid-servant, that Isaac Pottinger had passed much of his life as gentleman's gentleman to Sir Bullfig Browning, at whose townhouse she had often seen him in days gone by, when she visited at the baronet's. Of course, it was out of the question that she could acknowledge his civilities in Strawberry Street.
    The year after Pottinger's death, Miss Montgomery left the street ; the carriage came one day, bringing the periodical visitors clad in deep mourning, and when it went away, bore Miss Montgomery off. Her page, poodle, and hand-maid followed a few days later with her goods, and No. 10 was to let. With her departed the exclusively genteel era of Strawberry Street. Her house was taken by the two Misses Filkins, who turned it into a young ladies' seminary, and clapped a brass-plate nearly a yard wide on the little front-gate. The young ladies who flocked hither for instruction comprised all that could be got together by the most diligent canvassing, and included - we hope the classification is not very unnatural - a dozen at least of small petticoated masculines. This gave a new aspect to the street, which now lost its accustomed quietness ; and regularly, at the hours of nine and twelve, of two and four, reverberated with the prattle and squalling of infant voices, or their joyous outburst when released from school. The Misses Filkins may have been very useful in their vocation, but they were not what is termed "select" in their choice of pupils, and they pursued an active kind of treatment, the result of which was frequently too audible out of doors. They were a pair of loud-voiced spinsters, given to white dimity dresses of astonishing amplitude, to taking in green-groceries at the school-room window, and to borrowing a neighbour's washing-tub on Saturday afternoons. We do not assert that they were not genteel, but their gentility differed exceedingly from Miss Montgomery's. 
    [-271-] The palmy days of Strawberry Street were now passing away, and its pretensions were evidently on the decline. The professional ladies and gentlemen moved by degrees further north, and their places were supplied by a new class - by tradesmen's clerks, by foremen and overseers of workshops, men of a hundred a year and no leisure, who came home at all hours of the night, and lot themselves out in the dark mornings of winter long before sunrising, and who let lodgings to help to pay the rent. Here and there the muslin-blind disappeared from the front-parlour window, and revealed such things as a Wellington boot beautifully "treed" and polished ; a last covered with a little Switzerland of bunions ; a set of milkwhite ivory piano-keys ; a case of brilliant razors ; or a few small panels exquisitely painted in imitation of oak, mahogany, or sandal-wood all so many indications that the dwellers within lived by the labour of their hands, and would be happy to take your orders. These were but the signs of a further change that was coming. Already a tall brick chimney, only a few score yards from the southern end of the street, had risen so high in the air as to overlook its whole area, and was daily mounting higher and already men in splashed aprons and shirt-sleeves would be occasionally met strolling in bands through Strawberry Street on their way home from work. And now long ranks of cottages, not twenty feet apart, sprung up like mushrooms in the waste ground on the eastern side. These were inhabited almost as soon as built, by a class who did not trouble their heads about gentility at all, but who speedily found out the Fox and Salutation, whose landlord turned the large parlour into a taproom for their accommodation, to the hearty indignation and disgust of his old customers.
    Suddenly, one winter's morning, the tall chimney, from which the scaffolding had disappeared a few days before, began sending forth a volume of black smoke, which dark-[-272-]ened the whole neighbourhood, and set all the world, and Strawberry Street in particular, complaining of the nuisance, and talking of lawsuits and indictments against the proprietor. This disagreeable surprise was followed by another hardly loss welcome to the remnant of exclusives who were still dwellers in the street. For some days, alterations had been going on in the house that once was Mr. Pottinger's, under cover of a tall hoarding, which being at length taken down, displayed the broad front of what is called a "general-shop,'' surmounted by the name, painted under the cornice in letters a foot long, of Mrs. Murgatroyd. This lady, whose touching habit it was to describe herself as a lone woman, was a strapping creature of five feet nine, and of corresponding circumference, but active and pushing withal, and experienced in the ways of the world. Her shop, which contained every thing that a man who wore a leathern apron, or the wife and family of such a man, could possibly want, immediately because the resort of the whole of the "hand to mouth" class of the  neighbourhood, and the focus of more gossip than had ever emanated from that part of the world before. Mrs. Murgatroyd gave credit, on a principle of her own, to those who, from temporary loss of employment, or misfortune, stood in need of it ; and thus secured in prosperous times the gratitude and patronage of those whom she assisted in adversity. It may be that she had her losses ; but we have a notion that they were few, and compensated on her peculiar principle, and, on the whole, she throve. At her outset in business she was dragged into a terrible dispute with the Misses Filkins, who at first dealt with her, and then basely slandered her souchong. The quarrel was deadly and fierce - nothing less than war to the knife - and in the end the Filkinses lost the day, and what was worse, lost their pupils, and had to take flight and settle somewhere else. 
    Mrs. Murgatroyd's example was by and by followed by [-273-] other enterprising spirits who are sure to spring up wherever there is a chance of doing business. A greengrocer was the next to make his appearance, and he combined a coal-shed with his potatoes and cabbages, dispensing at once the viands and the materials for cooking them. Then came a carpenter and joiner ; then a vender of sweet-stuffs, who, defiant of Mrs. Murgatroyd, dared to sell peg-tops, marbles, paper-kites, and hoops for the boys ; then a cooper, and then a slopseller. In short, in less than a couple of years from the erection of the tall chimney, the whole street on both sides of the way, with the exception of a very few houses was transformed into a third-rate business street, and had lost all trace of its original neatness. As every man had constructed his shop on his own plan, and the last-corners had vied with each other in encroaching as far as possible on the footpath, the ranks of shops showed a beautiful irregularity in their fronts, and imparted to the straight street a tortuous aspect which it retains to the present hour. The tall chimney above referred to belongs to a saw-mill, which has prospered from the hour when it first took up its position in the neighbourhood, and which has not only increased its own establishment to three times its original extent, but has gathered round it a host of industrial professors, all more or less dependent upon the services of a saw-mill for the prosecution of their labour. These hosts have invaded Strawberry Street, and have taken possession of its every floor, to the final dispersion of the votaries of gentility, who have abandoned it in despair.
    If you go into Strawberry Street now and look for No. 10, where once, beneath an arch of red damask curtains, Miss Montgomery's famous campanula drew admiring glances from the passers-by, you will find that rigid maidens parlour, once an impenetrable sanctum to everything masculine, save the pale-faced page and his breast of golden buttons, transformed into a barber's shop. The pole, with its bunchy top, [-274-] sticks diagonally at the side of the doorway, like a monster rocket ready to be fired over the opposite houses ; and within, where once not so much as a thought of a beard was suffered to intrude, beards are now seen to wag with equivocal jokes, and are dealt with by the gross whenever Saturday-night comes round. No. 9, to the right of barber Suddles, has long since been turned into a beer-shop, and is celebrated far and wide for the flavour of its treble X, at "3d. a pot in your own jugs," and which may be drunk on the premises at 4d. It mounts, as a sign, the Circular Saw, and is already a powerful rival to the Fox and Salutation; and when the landlord has obtained his spirit-licence, for which he has applied three times already, and makes sure of getting it when the magistrates meet again, Strawberry Street will be blessed with a gin -shop - that modern climax of civilisation. A little lower down, on the other side of the way, stands Punter's coffee-shop, known as the early breakfast-house. Punter's is open at five o'clock in the morning all the year through, and hot coffee and thick slices are to be had at any time between that hour and twelve at midnight. Punter never gets above four hours' sleep in his bed ; but he makes up for that deficiency, in good part, by a two hours' stretch on the bench in the afternoon, and such other occasional winks as he can catch, with the connivance of Mrs. Punter, during the day. The purlieus of Strawberry Street are now alive with work-shops and work-yards, from which, whenever there is an interval from labour, there is an influx of labourers and apprentices into Punter's. The attractions of the place are not very great, consisting, besides the coffee and slices, of a couple of weekly papers, an occasional second-bench copy of the Times cut up into single leaves for distribution, a few cheap illustrated serials, and unlimited dominoes. When the evenings are wet and muddy, Punter's place is crammed, not so much from the force of its attractions, as from the necessity his customers [-275-] are under of going somewhere, and the fact that they have nowhere else to go save to the public-house or to bed.
    Thirty years, which are nothing in the life of some streets, have changed Strawberry Street from the abode of quiet and ease-loving competence to that of the toiling and struggling mass, and within the period of an average lifetime hurried it through all those changes which generally require centuries for their operation. In its present condition - its grass and trees all gone, for the former has been trodden out, and the latter cut down for firewood by the inhabitants - with its footways choked with shavings, stale cabbage-leaves, empty pewter-pots, coal-sacks, barrels of sodden cranberries, and tubs of red herrings - with its roadway half blocked up with trucks, barrows, and hand-carts, and worn into ruts by waggon-wheels - with its upper windows bristling with drying-poles adorned with the dangling shapes of female costume - with its wide open doors left eternally gaping for the convenience of unnumbered lodgers, and revealing the stained and tattered walls of the interiors, and flights of dusty stairs ; in its present condition, we say, we fail to recognise a single feature of the Strawberry Street of old ; and it is a fact that on searching for it lately, after the lapse of many years, we walked twice through its whole length without recognising our quondam suburban retreat. If, however, the subject of our remarks has lost in the article of respectability - a word, by the way, which is much misapplied - it has gained immensely in usefulness and populousness. For every head it sheltered in its genteel infancy, when it glittered in all the glory of paint and polish, it now accommodates ten at the least; and if in its youthful days it could boast of spending a deal of money, it may now solace itself with the reflection that it earns a still greater amount. Its dense population are all doers and workers, with hardly a single exception ; and it stands noted in the registrar's report that they add to the aggregate of the [-276-] births of London in a ratio considerably greater than the general proportion ; while, on the other hand, although funerals are performed by the Messrs. Earthworm in the next street, "on a scale unprecedentedly low," the inhabitants still refuse to die in anything like encouraging numbers to reward the speculation of those enterprising tradesmen. The fact would appear to be that Strawberry Street is a healthy locality, in spite of its indifferent drainage, which is perhaps balanced by its standing on a gentle declivity; and in spite of its want of paving, for it has never been paved, unless a single line of flag-stones down the centre of the footways is to be called paving. Perhaps the mud of the rainy season is somewhat mitigated by the flocks of pet ducks which pick a living out of it somehow along with a battalion of scrubby cockney fowls, much abbreviated in the articles of wing and tail, whose clucking and crowing, mingled with the barking of a band of ragged terriers, the clink and thump of tools, and the bawling, shouting, and laughter of innumerable weather-proof children, make up the music of the place. Perhaps the street is healthy because labour is healthy ; and hard work for ten hours a day is the lot of most of its inhabitants, who, for the most part, do not look for any other.
    We said at the outset that the history of Strawberry Street was like that of many a human subject. Have we not shown it to be so ? Does not many a pretentious spark, who comes to London purposing to gratify all manner of ambitions, get shifted by fortune down, and down, and down the ladder of loftiness, step by step, until he feels a firm footing at last, it may be very near the lowest round, and finds his vocation where nature designed it for him, in doing what he is best fitted for? Yea, verily, for we have witnessed this descent a hundred times, and generations unborn shall witness it after us. Another point of resemblance : ask for Strawberry Street now, and you shall be told you mean [-277-] Strawby Street. Familiarity has knocked off a syllable from the designation. If Miss Montgomery had remained at No. 10 till this time, it is our opinion she had been lopped down to Gumry. So it is that, if you inquire for Mr. Robert Fitzwilliams, who came to town in '34, intending to be one day developed into a city alderman, you may chance to find him doing duty as "Bob Wills," on a policeman's beat, and shining only in a glazed hat.