In every essential particular can I corroborate the above
account. There are few worse places in London than certain parts of Cow Cross,
especially that part of it anciently known as Jack Ketch’s Warren, or
“Little Hell” as the inhabitants more commonly designate it, on account of
the number of subjects it produced for the operations of the common hangman.
Only that the law is more merciful than of yore, there is little doubt that the
vile nests in question, including “Bit Alley,” and “Broad Yard,” and
“Frying Pan Alley,” would still make good its claim to the distinguishing
title conferred on it. The place indicated swarms with thieves of every degree,
from the seven-year old little robber who snatches petty articles from stalls
and shop-fronts, to the old and experienced burglar with a wide experience of
convict treatment, British and foreign. Yet, accompanied by a city missionary
well known to them, I have many a time gone amongst them, feeling as safe as
though I was walking along Cheapside. I can give testimony even beyond that of
the writer last quoted. “I never asked questions about their affairs, or
meddled with things that did not concern me,” says the gentleman in question.
I can answer for it that my pastor friend of the Cow Cross Mission was less
forbearing. With seasoned, middle-aged scoundrels he seldom had any
conversation, but he never lost a chance of tackling young men and lads on the
evil of their ways, and to a purpose. Nor was it his soft speech or polished
eloquence that prevailed with them. He was by no means a gloomy preacher against
crime and its consequences; he had a cheerful hopeful way with him that much
better answered the purpose. He went about his Christian work humming snatches
of hymns in the liveliest manner. One day while I was with him, we saw skulking
along before us a villanous figure, ragged and dirty, and with a pair of
shoulders broad enough to carry sacks of coal.
“This,” whispered my missionary friend, “is about the very worst character we have. He is as strong as a tiger, and almost as ferocious. “Old Bull” they call him.
I thought it likely we would pass without recognising so dangerous an animal, but my friend was not so minded. With a hearty slap on his shoulder, the fearless missionary accosted him.
‘Well, Old Bull!”
“Ha! ‘ow do, Mr. Catlin, sir?”
“As well as I should like to see you, my friend. How are you getting along, Bull?”
“Oh, werry dicky, Mr. Catlin.” And Bull hung his ears and pawed uncomfortably in a puddle, with one slip-shod foot, as though in his heart resenting being “pinned” after this fashion.
“You find matters going worse and worse with you, ah!”
“They can’t be no worser than they is, that’s one blessin’!”
“Ah, now there’s where you are mistaken, Bull. They can be worse a thousand times, and they will, unless you turn over a fresh leaf. Why not, Bull? See what a tattered, filthy old leaf the old one is!”
(Bull, with an uneasy glance towards the outlet of the alley, but still speaking with all respect,) “Ah! it’s all that, guv’nor.”
“Well then, since you must begin on a fresh leaf, why not try the right leaf—the honest one, eh, Bull. Just to see how you like it.”
“All right, Mister Catlin. I’ll think about it.”
“I wish to the Lord you would, Bull. There’s not much to laugh at, take my word for that.”
“All right, guv’nor, I ain’t a larfin. I means to be a reg’lar model Some day—when I get time. Morning, Mister Catlin, sir.”
And away went “Old Bull,” with a queer sort of grin on his repulsive countenance evidently no better or worse for the brief encounter with his honest adviser, but very thankful indeed to escape.
“I’ve been up into that man’s room,” said my tough little, cheerful missionary, “and rescued his wife out of his great cruel hands, when three policemen stood on the stairs afraid to advance another step.”
He would do more than in his blunt, rough-and-ready way point out to them what a shameful waste of their lives it was to be skulking in a filthy court all day without the courage to go out and seek their wretched living till the darkness of night. He would offer to find them a job; he made many friends, and was enabled to do so, earnestly exhorting them to try honest work just for a month, to find out what it was like, and the sweets of it. And many have tried it; some as a joke—as a whimsical feat worth engaging in for the privilege of afterwards being able to brag of it, and returned to their old practice in a day or two; others have tried it, and, to their credit be it spoken, stuck to it. In my own mind I feel quite convinced that if such men as Mr. C., of the Cow Cross Mission, who holds the keys not only of the houses in which thieves dwell, but, to a large extent, also, a key to the character and peculiarities of the thieves themselves, were empowered with proper facilities, the amount of good they are capable of performing would very much astonish us.
[click here for full text of The Seven Curses of London]
James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869
see also Greenwood in In Strange Company - click here