Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - Twenty-four Hours of London Streets : Night 

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[-395-]

TWENTY-FOUR HOURS OF LONDON STREETS.

NIGHT.

IT is past the hour of midnight when we wander forth, to view the solitudes of the great city, as it lies wrapt in slumber. The waning moon has risen late into the star-lighted sky, and, just glimmering above the chimney-pots, sheds now and then a feeble light upon our path. That humming, booming, surge-like sound, which all day long and late into the night tells of the active turmoil of London's wakeful existence, has subsided by degrees into a silence, settled, calm, and deep, and only broken now by the echoing footfall of some belated traveller hastening homeward, or homeless vagrant wandering drearily in search of a secret nook or hospitable shelter in which to stretch his wearied. limbs. The slightest sound is reverberated between the lofty walls of houses, and the echoes of our own footsteps, as we plod quietly along, return to us from the other side of the way, as though some invisible companion dogged our march and mimicked every movement we make. Now and then the loud discordant voices of a group of late revellers returning from their orgies, affront the solemn ear of midnight with yells of insane merriment and drunken laughter, at which the heart of genuine and innocent mirth sickens with disgust. At intervals the heavy-laden team is heard grinding its laborious way along the central causeway, on its route, with huge piles of luggage, to the out-lying railway station and the clang of the driver's whip, the trampling of the horses feet, and, the tinkling of their garniture of bells, [-396-] wake the discomfited sleeper from his first repose, who lies and listens as the disturbance dies into a lullaby, and he dreams again. But even these indications of life gradually vanish and subside, and as we enter the precincts of the old city, nought beyond the stealthy tread of the policeman on his round intrudes upon the quiet of the hour.
    It seems strange to remark that the city, which is by day the centre of life and activity - the very focus of commerce, with all its accompanying bustle and turmoil - is at night the most undisturbed and tranquil portion of the whole metropolis. A dead, sepulchral silence seems to reign in the deserted thoroughfares, where but a few hours ago the ear was distracted by every variety of sounds, blending in one confused and overwhelming murmur. A stillness so sudden and complete, amidst those lofty avenues of wealth and traffic, where now no sound or tread is distinguishable - no voice of inquiry or response is heard - has a solemn suggestiveness, and awakens a train of pensive reflections which is easier, and to some minds pleasanter, to entertain than it might be to give them a definite expression. The deep silence which broods around is explainable by the fact that this, the most populous quarter of London during business hours, is the least populous after nightfall. Of the myriads who during the day congregate here to pursue the engrossing occupations of their lives, not one-tithe remain during the night ; and the majority of those who do remain, whatever their status in society, are, for the most part, of that class who in their waking hours have paid the price of sleep sound and deep, and are now enjoying it. The times are altered since the good old citizens each barred himself in his citadel at sunset, and abandoned the causeway to knaves, swashbucklers, and plunderers, who looked upon every one as their lawful prey that ventured into the dim-lighted streets after darkness had set in. We can walk these quiet solitudes now at this hour, as safely as though the sun were [-397-] high in the sky and the busy world of London on foot around us - perhaps, indeed, more so. The modern robber is no brawling bully, but a lurking sneak, who glides about in shadow and darkness and whose design is defeated if he be seen by the vigilant eye of the police. And though it may chance that to-morrow's Times may tell of some daring and successful foray upon the hoarded stock of jeweller or banker, upon the very spot where we are now loitering, the exploit will be betrayed by no unusual or suspicious sound : perchance, if violence is to be used, it will be done under cover of a clanking cart, ingeniously loaded to produce the greatest uproar, in which the lesser noise of the wrench or the crowbar will be drowned.
    As the clock strikes one, we are on London Bridge, and, for a wonder - for such a thing is not usual even at that hour - find it apparently deserted. The forest of shipping which lines either bank, but faintly discerned in the waning moonlight, is buried in profound repose, broken only by the gurgling of the water, and the feeble far-off hiss of some late-arrived steamer, discharging her steam for the night. As we gaze down upon tile rushing stream, a boat shoots rapidly beneath the arch, in which four human forms are for a moment visible, and then lost in the gloom. They are the Thames Police, on the look-out for river pirates, who, but for their watchful guardianship, would levy terrible contributions upon the cargoes of vessels lying at anchor. On the ether side, long rows of lights, reflected in glimmering red drops in the current below, mark the track of the various bridges across the channel of the river. Nothing moves upon its surface save its own noiseless ripple.
    But let us now take such a glance as our limits will allow, of that section of London society whose lot it is to be frequently, if not always, awake while others slumber, and to earn their daily bread, or to perpetrate their follies, or suffer the woes of their cheerless lot, during the hours of night. [-398-] Whither shall we go? Here comes a night cab-man, who will drive us any where - and by his side we mount on the box. He is ready of speech, and has no secrets, and details his history as he drives along. He tells us be was a journeyman printer - a pressman - and worked at Strahan's for many years : that when there he married, but soon found that his earnings would not support his wife and rising family in the comfort she had been used to. So he expended the little money they had in the purchase of a cab and horses, by means of which, being his own proprietor, he managed by diligence, and by the use of a commodity scarce among his craft, called civility, to double his income. He has taken to night-work latterly, he says, because he wants to make a little money to apprentice his eldest boy to an engineer, on board one of the foreign steamers. He is fluent on the statistics of the cab business, and no consideration, short of absolute starvation, would induce him to drive another man's cab or to let his son do so. Whither shall he drive us ? To the printing-office, where, amidst the glare of gas and the heat and stench of an abominable atmosphere, the miles of columns which, when morning comes, are to feed the public appetite for news, are hustling and scrambling into existence - where compositors and "readers," and "grass-cutters," and makers-up, and galley-slaves and engine-men, and machine-boys and messengers, reporters and penny-a-liners, &c. &c., all dripping with perspiration and frantic with haste, are seething and steaming in one tremendous stew, the dishing-up of which will be the morning paper as it lies damp on your breakfast table? or where, in gangs of a hundred or more, men and boys are engaged in similar labours, which are to result in a blue-book for parliamentary digestion, and which is guaranteed to come forth and enlighten the world to-morrow ? It were curious to observe how thoroughly the order of nature is inverted by the race of men whose midnight is twelve at noon, who breakfast at [-399-] eight or nine in the evening, and dine at two in the morning - taking their supper and "turning in'' just as other people are turning out. In this life-long game of contrarieties, they drag at their heels a large tribe of the humblest class, who make a living by ministering to their wants.
    While we are inwardly debating whither we shall go, our driver has brought us to the verge of what still survives of the old rookery of St. Giles's, and we dismount to take a glance at this old and classic locality. A few minutes' walk, and we are in the heart of the far-famed district of dirt, and in presence of a spectacle worthy of remark, and not likely soon to fade from the remembrance. It is an hour and a half past midnight, or nearly that, as we stand in street, in which every house is a lodging-house, open for the reception of no particular number of occupants, but for all, who or whatever they may be, that can pay threepence for a bed or a penny for liberty to lie on the floor. This locality is a nightly and well-known refuge for the lowest dregs of society, whether needy or criminal, or both. It is here that the most wretched class of unfortunates of either sex, goaded by famine and exhaustion, seek oblivion of their sorrows in sleep. Hither come the ruined tradesman and the moneyless artizan for a shelter, in company with the habitual drunkard, who lives but for the gratification of his own unnatural appetite, and who wants but a congenial stye in which to kennel himself for the night. Hither come the pickpocket and the smasher, because here, under cover of darkness, they can skulk in security ; and with them comes the friendless and homeless wanderer, guiltless of all but poverty, to find temporary repose at a price which even he can pay. And here they are all, swarming in the open-air, seated on doorsteps, or supine upon the pavement - not yet daring to go to bed, though they have mostly paid the price of their lodgings. There are a thousand reasons - reasons not to be mentioned to ears polite -  why they should not turn in, after [-400-] a day so hot as the past has been, until the first streak of dawn begins to appear. Some few who can afford the expense of a candle are already fast asleep, and we see their lights blinking dimly in upper stories ; but the majority are waiting for the first appearance of day, whose rising beams will put the entomological host to flight, before they venture into their grim chamber of repose. The lane is very partially lighted, and the glass of the gas-lamps has been wantonly pelted away to the last fragment. The flame flickers in the night-breeze, and casts its fitful gleams upon every form of poverty and wretchedness and vice, here huddled together as in a common asylum. Men and boys of all ages, old women and young girls - some bareheaded and with naked feet - are crowded together in one indiscriminate mass of rags and squalor ; and all, utterly beaten and exhausted with combined hunger and weariness, await the coming of that brief oblivion which slumber confers on the hopeless and desolate.
    Leaving these London lazzaroni to the enjoyment of such solace as sleep can afford them, we pursue our way westward, and, attracted by a light at the end of a court which debouches upon a cab-stand in a main street, enter without ceremony one of those night-houses of refreshment whose doors are never closed to the public. Coffee, of a rather second-hand sort of flavour, is set before us, the discussion of which affords an opportunity of looking round upon the company. They are not very numerous, hardly a dozen in all. Four or five of them are evidently "watermen," in attendance upon the cab-stand outside, and these are sleeping, or attempting to sleep, over their empty cups and saucers. Some are jobbers in the neighbouring market, who have no regular home - at least in summer time - and who will remain here till the dawn gives them a chance of employment. A few are cab-drivers, some of whom are busy with plates of hot sausages and mugs of steaming [-401-] coffee. There is a vehement discussion, partaking very much of the nature of a monologue, going forward - the presiding genius being a nondescript figure in whom an air of reckless daring and independence is combined with every outward and visible demonstration of the most abject necessity. He is not much above thirty years of age, and is buttoned to the chin in an old surtout so closely as to leave the existence of a shirt a matter of doubt, were it not that by his violent gesticulation he discloses, through innumerable rents and slits, the fact that that indispensable item to the respectability of a gentleman is wanting. His hat has but half a rim, but his chin is shadowed by a fortnight's growth of stubble. His nether habiliments are fringed about his ankles with dirty, pendulous shreds, and his toes look out upon society through chasms in a pair of Wellingtons. He talks loudly, fluently, and correctly, if not exactly in the language of a gentleman, yet in the diction, at least, of one accustomed to educated company. Her majesty's ministers have the good fortune to merit his approbation, so far as they have acted hitherto ; but he foresees the rock upon which they will split, unless - of which he has his doubts - they be well backed by the country. He is satirical on the score of the budget; but, had he been at the chancellor's elbow, he could have whispered just the one thing which would have made it acceptable to the public. In the heat of his harangue he calls, rather pompously and parenthetically, or "coffee and two thin." The waiter or landlord, or both in one, steals out of the little dark cavern in the rear, and holds out his hand to the orator - a silent reminder of an unpaid score chalked up against the inner wall. The politician draws himself up with dignity, and gives a half-appealing, half-indignant look around upon the company. A devouring but sympathising cabman looks up from his plate and roars, "Sarve it, I'll stand treat for vonce;" and the viands are set before the starving Demosthenes, who,  [-402-] drawing off the fragment of a glove, addresses himself deliberately to their consumption. He talks on, nevertheless, perhaps in self-defence, to ward off the coarse jocularity of his entertainers, who, strangers to delicacy, and insensible themselves to the shafts of satire, are apt to administer it with a barbarous clumsiness, lacerating to the feelings of one who, though confessing that he is unfortunate, feels himself a gentleman notwithstanding. Ten minutes in the atmosphere of this midnight hostel have set us perspiring at every pore, and in spite of the charms of his rhetoric, we bid adieu to the orator in the middle of one of his finest periods.
    Our way lies still westwards, though not in the most beaten route, and we are soon on the skirts of what has always appeared to us, when viewed at this dead hour before the dawn, as the most remarkable and suggestive spectacle which London has to offer to the contemplation of the nightly wanderer. We allude to the apparently numberless and interminable rows of streets lying in the voiceless silence, and distinctly mapped out by the long and regular lines of lamps on either side of the way. There is no other spectacle that we know of that intimates so significantly the huge extent of this overgrown metropolis. The dead dumbness that reigns in these long, empty avenues appals the mind, and sends the imagination of the pedestrian wandering for ever onwards and onwards. Lost in some such reverie, we wander on unwittingly, till happening to trench upon the world of fashion, we are aroused suddenly by the consciousness that, amidst the city of the dead, there is a focus of feverish life, where pleasure holds her court while all around is hushed in tranquillity. The echoes are all at once invaded by the trampling of steeds and the rattle of chariots, which rush rapidly by us, and almost before we are aware of it we are in the presence of a score or two more, drawn up in double lines fronting the city residence of some one whose [-403-] lady has been holding a soir?e to-night, which is now on the point of breaking up. The honourable Miss So-and-so's carriage stops the way for a moment or two and then rolls off; there is a loud cry for my Lord Somebody's vehicle, which the coachman has contrived to lock between two others, to the imminent danger of two footmen in calves, who are hanging on behind. The police have some trouble in disentangling the Gordian knot, and at length my lord is gone. " Lady Dashville's carriage!" is the next sonorous utterance which makes vocal the midnight air, and her ladyship is accommodated in her turn. In the meanwhile there is a sound of music and revelry in the brilliant drawing-room above, and the assembly, falling off by degrees, will occupy yet an hour in dissolving away. We have not leisure to await the finale, but turning our face northward, and quickening our pace, soon leave the gay world of bon ton to its questionable enjoyments.
    The moon, which for the last hour has got fixed by the horns in a low cloud, now glimmers out above it, and lights us pleasantly on our path as we enter upon a district the very reverse of fashionable, where the sons of trade who keep open market for the middle and lower classes, lead their lives of anxiety and toil. It is now half-past two o'clock, and the nearest approach to complete and general silence that London ever knows, reigns around as we pursue our solitary way. Hark I what noise is that? "Bang bang!" a loud and furious knocking at doors - the startling and incessant crash of rattles - the heavy tramp of hurrying feet - the vision of dusky forms hastening to and fro, which almost appear to rise out of the earth - and the loud and reiterated cry of " Fire! fire!" Householders, leaping from their sleep, throw up their windows, and projecting themselves half out in their night-gear, ask anxiously, "Where? where?" It is round the corner ; and on coming in sight of the house we see the dense smoke issuing from the fan-[-404-]light over the entrance to the shop, and from the interstices between the shutters. The policeman is banging at the door with all his might, but no one answers. The house appeals to be empty. In a few minutes a crowd of some hundreds has collected, and the neighbours have illuminated their windows to throw light on the scene ; but as yet nothing can be done to check the conflagration. Already the long tongues of flame curl round the blistered shutters which are glowing in a red heat, and soon fall in charred fragments to the ground. Now the windows of the first-floor burst outwards with a sharp explosion, and the flame pours forth like a stream rushing upwards. Now comes the first engine, crashing and galloping over the stones with a portentous deafening din but too well known to the dwellers in London. The street is ankle-deep in water from the mains which the turncock has opened, and in a few seconds after the arrival of the firemen, a copious stream from the hose is hissing in the flames. The neighbours on each side of the burning house are with good reason alarmed, and it is interesting to watch the difference in their conduct. The one on the right begins throwing out his goods, which the crowd receive, and, carrying them across the roach, pile them up against an opposite house. The other, who appears to have confidence in the party-wall, or else in the exertions of the firemen, is seen walking about his drawing-room, carrying a candle with him, and occasionally feeling the wall with his hand - now taking down a picture or a mirror - now drawing away a piece of furniture from the hot brick-work. It is plain that he intends to risk his property, for, having sent off his family to the shelter of a neighbour's house, he follows himself, locking the door after him, and pocketing the key. The roof of the burning house falls in, and now nothing but the four walls, glowing red as an oven, remain. More engines have arrived ; and though the destruction of the dwelling is complete, they prevent the spread of the fire by [-405-] torrents of water on the houses adjoining. When the uproar has a little subsided, the voice of a female is distinguished screaming beneath the ground, when it is discovered that a very juvenile servant-girl and a baby have taken refuge in the coal-cellar, from which their egress is barred by accumulations of fallen rubbish. The firemen dig up the grating, and soon hoist them out: and then it appears that they were the only persons in the house, the master and mistress having gone off early in the evening to join a wedding party, and left the girl to wait up for them till their return. She had fallen asleep with the babe in her lap, and being awoke by the fire, which occurred she cannot tell how, had barely time to escape with the infant into the coal-cellar. This explanation is hardly furnished when up drive the master and mistress in a cab. A single glance shows the extent of the calamity from the skirts of the crowd we can discern nothing but a few gestures of alarm on the part of the husband, a few more of maternal feeling on the part of the wife ; the nurse and babe are received into the cab, and the whole freight drives off again. Day-dawn is beginning to glimmer in the east as we leave behind us the scene of this brief but eventful act in the life of a London shop-keeper.
    We are verging homewards, and are almost upon the boundary of the suburb where we dwell, when we are unexpectedly confronted by an intimation that the coming day is quarter-day. This intimation is one which we are sorry to observe is disgracefully common in London, and is nothing less than a stolen night-march, a surreptitious flitting by starlight from the threatening grasp of the landlord, by a defaulting tenant. A couple of those monster vans used for moving goods are drawn up, with their open mouths yawning towards the street door of a semi-genteel semi-villa. Both vans are loading at once, and with the aid of a dozen pair of hands, a whole auctioneer's catalogue of furniture is tumbled [-406-] into them, and in less than twenty minutes the house will be empty of both goods and tenants. When the landlord comes, as he has threatened to come, at twelve o'clock, he will find neither debtor to dun, nor property to seize. If the migratory tenant be an old systematic practitioner, it is a chance whether he even find the key, and have not to redeem possession of his own house by payment of something more than a trifling gratuity.
    The stars begin to pale in the sky ; and that cold, winter-breathing wind, the sure precursor of coming dawn, stirs the dense foliage of June, as we hasten homewards. At this hour the cats have the sole possession of the causeway, and stalk leisurely and confidently from area to area, from wall to wall, and from roof to roof; making the morning twilight vocal with their squalling serenades. These are soon thrown into the shade by the sparrows, whose unnumbered hosts wake into voice at the first blink of daylight, and with endless chirrup and twitter commence their domestic duties. At this particular season their nests are filled with unfledged young, in whose behalf they do battle fiercely with one another for the possession of those thoughtless gentry the worms and slugs, who would risk their necks if they had necks, for the sake of revelling in the fresh dew of the morning. Cock-sparrow is monarch of London during these 'small hours,' and certainly is more numerous in his generation than any other tribe, either of bipeds or quadrupeds, living above ground, located within the sound of Bow-bells. If a census could be taken of the London sparrows, we are inclined to think that the sum total would amount to five millions at least - more than doubling the human population.
    Here we put an end to our ramble. We have spent twenty-four hours in wandering through the modern Babylon, and contemplating some few of the multiplied phases of life [-407-] which her ever-shifting panorama presents to the eye. We have indulged in few reflections - not because the subject is not sufficiently suggestive, but because, on the contrary, it is so abounding in matter for the profoundest speculation, that any attempt of the kind would have led us beyond our limits, which it may be thought we have, as it is, too far exceeded. We leave our readers to manufacture their own philosophy out of the materials we have supplied. Varied, and fragmentary, and startling, and even repulsive as are some of the details in the general picture we have drawn, it has yet its bright and hopeful aspects upon which it is a pleasure to dwell ; and it must be a true picture, as far as it goes, because we have set down nothing which our own eyes have not witnessed. If we have sought sometimes to amuse, we have also had a higher object in view ; and we may be allowed to commend the reader, in revolving the subject in his mind, to adopt the spirit of one of America's poets, in whose words we close our desultory survey.

            "Not in the solitude
        Alone may man commune with heaven, or see
            Only in savage wood
        And sunny vale, the present Deity:
            Or only hear his voice
        Where the winds whisper and the waves rejoice.

            "Even here do I behold
        Thy steps, Almighty - here amidst the crowd,
            Through the great city roll'd,
        With everlasting murmur deep and loud-
            Choking the ways that wind
        'Mongst the proud piles, the work of human kind.

            "Thy golden sunshine ensues
        From the round heaven, and on their dwelling lies,
            And lights their inner homes
        For them thou fill'st with air the unbounded skies,
            And givest them the stores
        Of ocean, and the harvests of its shores.

        [-408-] Thy spirit is around,
        Quickening the restless mass that sweeps along
            And this eternal sound -
        Voices and footfalls of the numberless throng -
            Like the resounding sea,
        Or like the rainy tempest, speaks of thee.

            "And when the hours of rest
        Come, like a calm upon the mid-sea brine,
            Hushing its billowy breast -
        The quiet of that moment too is thine ;
            It breathes of him who keeps
        The vast and helpless city while it sleeps."

 

THE END.

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