Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Unsentimental Journeys; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, by James Greenwood, 1867


    THE London-bred man, escorting his cousin from Shropshire through the metropolis, pauses in the middle of handsome New Oxford Street or Endell Street, the broad and long, and observes, as he points out the six inches of glittering watchchain and the bunch of seals pendent from his friend's fob, "Ah, John! you wouldn't have found it so easy to step along here with that dangling before people's eyes twenty years ago. We are in Saint Giles's, John; on the very ground where one time o' day existed nothing but thieves' dens and beggars' haunts, and where a man with a pound in his purse would no more dare venture after dark than he would, unattended, perambulate the depths of an Indian tiger jungle. It's all over now, however. St. Giles is knocked on the head and dead and buried, and, instead, we have the broad and handsome thoroughfares you see before you."
   Innocent relative of the Shropshire man! St. Giles is still alive, dwindled by old age certainly, but still in the flesh, kicking up his heels and crowing lustily. Alive is St. Giles as when the wife of Henry I., the good Queen Maud, pitying the many lepers that were shunned and hounded through her husband's dominions, caused to be built, " nigh Bleman's ditch, to the west of London," a sanctuary for the accommodation and maintenance of forty of the stricken wretches, dedicating the building to "the Athenian Saint Giles." Where the parish church now stands then stood the pesthouse, isolated and all alone, on forest land, bleak and boggy, as is evident from the prevalence of ditches and brooks or "bournes"-Old-bourne (the modern Holborn), Woe-bourne, West- bourne, Tye-bourne, &c., &c.
   Whatever obligation we may lie under to saints as a community, we certainly have small cause to be grateful particularly to Saint Giles. More than two-thirds of a thousand years has he sojourned amongst us, and ever has the parish under his special control been a blot and a plague-spot on the face of the city. When, in 1413, the gallows standing at " the elms in Smithfield " was thought too ugly an object to exist so near the city, it was taken up and transplanted at the north corner of St. Giles's Hospital wall, between the termination of the High Street and what was then Hog Lane, and is now Crown Street. At that period originated the "St. Giles's Bowl." A bowl of ale was provided by the master of the Leper Hospital, and the man about to be hanged halted at the great gate and quaffed his last refreshment. When the gallows was removed to Tyburn the presentation of the bowl was not discontinued; it was upheld as long as the Leper Hospital stood, which was till 1547, and then a neighbouring innkeeper, that so good a custom might not become extinct, undertook to have ready the ale-bowl whenever the hangman's cart might halt at his door. It was on this gallows of St. Giles of the Lepers Lord Cobham was hanged.
   To St. Giles's parish attaches the melancholy celebrity of originating the Great Plague of 1665, two Frenchmen residing at the upper end of Drury Lane first dying of it. Another plague likewise dates from this ill-favoured locality--viz., the plague of toll-gates. In 1346 King Edward III. granted a commission to the master of the Leper Hospital and to John de Holborne, empowering them to levy tolls at the rate of a penny in the pound on their value on all cattle, and the merchandise drawn by the same, to defray the expense of keeping the roads in proper repair. It would seem, however, that the revenue derived from this source was insufficient for the purpose, for so long as two hundred years afterwards Stow writes -" High Oldburn, leading from the bars towards St. Giles's, is very full of pits and sloughs, and perilous and noisome to all that repair and pass that way, as well on foot as on horseback."
   The Seven Dials-the core of the evil apple that has been so repeatedly pared-remains still intact. It was a villanous place long before the "Dials" were erected, and was known as " Cock and Pye Fields," and as the constant resort of all sorts of blackguardism, from duelling to dog-fighting. At length, however, at the latter end of the seventeenth century, the land was purchased for building purposes, and, says Evelyn in his " Diary," under the date of the 5th of October, 1694, "I went to see the buildings near Saint Gyles's, where Seven Dials make a star from a Doric pillar placed in the middle of a circular area." Then began the most respectable period of St. Giles's existence. Monmouth Street was built and christened after the earl of that name, who resided in Soho Square. Dudley Court contained the mansion of the Duchess Dudley, and in Lloyd's Court Lord Wharton and Lord Lisle took up their abodes. Compton Street was built and christened after Sir Francis Compton, who there resided. Sir John Brownlow, Sir Lewis Lewkner, and other celebrities, likewise occupied houses in streets branching from the Seven Dials.
   How the neighbourhood fell from its high estate, how it passed so completely into the hands of the Irish, history sayeth not. The thousands of French Protestants who on the revocation of the edict of Nantes passed over to this country, and took up their residence in places where house-rent was cheap, may perhaps account for such places as Seven Dials growing less respectable, but it certainly does not dispose of the Irish question. It is, of course, an extremely foolish idea; but when one sees nobody but Irish people, never Scotch, never Welsh, the sole inhabitants of localities given over to filth and squalor, one is almost brought to entertain the question-is it the Irish that make wretchedness and depravity, or is it wretchedness and depravity that make people Irish ? Let it be how it may, one thing is certain, the Irish have got hold of Seven Dials beyond redemption. St. Giles's and the Irish are identical, and I seriously believe it to be the popular impression that the saint in question as properly belongs to Ireland as does St. Patrick himself, and at present there is little reason to suppose that the memory of the one will die out a day before the other. St. Giles die, indeed! Not he. Assailed as he has been for seven hundred and fifty years by leprosy, by plague, by fire, oppressed by the weight of the gallows, and stripped and routed by the officers of the law, and the Sanitary Commissioners and the Board of Works, he is as cheerful as ever. He is like an eel, and has been treated as one-beheaded, and chopped into little bits, but every bit is still full of life, and leaping.
   There is one particular bit of this loathsome eel-a very little bit it is-lying between Earl Street and Castle Street, and known as Neale's Passage (Neale was the individual who set up the Doric pillar that Evelyn saw). It was broad noon when I paused at the mouth of the passage, and, attracted by the sound of music and rejoicing, looked down. Midway in the grimy thoroughfare (which contained about twenty tall houses), and reclining on a costermonger's barrow, were two Irish pipers-real Irish pipers, such as never in my life before have I seen in London-with genuine long-tailed coats, and tall, jauntily-cocked hats, piping an inspiring tune, while swarming the road and pathway were a great number of the female sex, some dancers, some lookers-on. Some of the females were hideous, yellow-tanged, and smoke-dried hags, wearing nightcaps with full and flapping borders; some were muscular creatures, brawny-limbed, and middle-aged, with a manly expression of countenance, and with their hair first twisted into a wisp about as smooth, and certainly as thick as a hayband, and then bundled up and secured by a substantial knot behind; some very little, old, slovenly-bosomed, draggle-tailed women of sixteen; while others again, were straight-limbed, comely damsels, with teeth defiant of neglect, and with rosiness of a strength superior to all opposition. These latter, for the most part, wore handkerchiefs over their heads and tied under the chin.
   From almost every half-glazed, rag-stuffed window in the face of the tall houses protruded a head, sometimes two heads, more or less hideous, the lips, as a rule, bearing a filthy little pipe. Equally as a rule were the upper windows garnished with reeking rags, suspended to dry on the thrust-forth clothes-prop, or with ropes of onions, or with shreds of dried cod, or some other such dainty, the outer wall being the only place beyond the reach of the picking and stealing digits of little children, hungry as wolves in mid-winter. Some of the down-looking heads were haggard and wan, and nightcapped, engendering a suspicion that the unseen bodies were lying abed helplessly; while other lookers-out, bright-eyed and eager, and strumming on the window-sills the tune the pipers are playing, looked as if they would willingly have joined the merry party below if they had aught else to cover their shoulders than the scrap of blanket or bed-quilt that now adorns them.
   Only two of the dancers-there were ten or a dozen of them-danced at one time, while the rest squatted on the thresholds of the wide-open doors, or leaned cross-legged against the walls, or sat on the kerb and regained their spent breath, while at the same time they cooled their slipshod feet in the gutter. With the exception of the pipers there were no men present, which went far to show that it was neither wake, wedding, nor extraordinary merrymaking, but merely an ordinary afternoon's piping by the ordinary St. Giles's pipers, whose Christian names were familiar in the mouths of the dancers, who ordered Barney to play "fashter," and rebuked " Mike Sullivan, bad luck to yez !" for keeping incorrect time.
   Being within a stone's cast of Monmouth Court, it occurred to me to go and see how fared the prince of ballad-mongers, the dying-speech merchant-printer, John Catnach. Narrow is Monmouth Court-scarcely so wide as an ordinary chamber doorway-and so low at the arched entrance that the tall policeman who emerged as I entered, slackened at the knees involuntarily. It astonished me but little to find the great publisher in such dismal quarters-great firms seldom court publicity, and, although it had passed from the hands of the original founder, that the firm-was still great, was evident from the existence of a board at the entrance, announcing "Thomas Fortey, late William Ryle, sole successor to J. Catnach."
   Alas! a cruel surprise awaited me. Instead of the extensive premises, instead of the creaking of the "crane," the tick-tack of the packers for exportation, and the heads of the ledger-clerks visible above the opaque bottom row of counting-house windows, I found the renowned Catnach printing and publishing establishment to be as dismal-looking a little den as it is possible to conceive. Of the decline of the dying-speech business I was already aware, but to find it as completely all over with halfpenny ballads one was hardly prepared. So it is, however; at least judging from the samples of "stock" exhibited behind the grimy little panes with which is glazed the shop of the successor of the immortal Catnach. The singing public has kept pace with the reading public; and two songs, or two and a half, even though they be of the most pathetic character, printed on seven inches by five of dirty white tissue-paper, could hardly hope to realise a halfpenny while five-and-twenty square feet of politics and police news can be had, hot from the press, for a penny. No! The singing public has burst the chains' that bound it to the flimsy half-penny ballad, and will be pacified with nothing less for a penny than a "Giant Warbler," or a "Doodah Songster," or a " Concert Companion," sixteen pages at least, and with a coloured illustration. Not to be behind the times, these Mr. Fortey provides (there is an entire row of specimens in his window, together with farthing "Cock Robins," and "Goody Twoshoes," and penny "Norwood Gipsies "); but if he has, as he must have, any considerable number of the shabby little ballads by him, he will do well to take my advice, and refrain from disposing of them at a sacrifice on the speculation that they may one day again come into fashion. Why not ?
   When I was a very little boy the current cheap literature of the day consisted of " Varney, the Vampire," " Claude Duval, the Dashing Highwayman," "The Patch of Gore," &c. Gradually, however, there grew an army of wholesome periodicals that did battle with the vampires and the dashing highwaymen, and routed the miscreants, and ruled in their stead. Vampire literature came to be regarded as a curiosity belonging to a past and barbarous age, and, whenever an odd volume of the kind was discovered in the fourpenny box at a bookstall, was bought as such, to be laughed at and ridiculed. Will Claude Duval ever more hold his weekly levees? Will the people ever again consent to assist at the Vampire's "feast of blood?" Ha! ha! preposterous! Wil tinder-boxes again come into fashion ? Will folks believe in witchcraft, or the broth of a boiled mouse ever again be looked on as an infallible remedy for whooping-cough ? If the question had been asked me ten years ago I should have replied, "Certainly not; " but when, in the year 1861, I see Women with Yellow Hair, and Blue Dwarfs, and Modern Jack Shepherds, vigorously rearing their ugly heads, I decline altogether to hazard an opinion on the subject.
   From Monmouth Court to Monmouth Street, the atmosphere of which is thickened and soured perpetually by the exhalations emitted from great stores of mildewed shoe-leather and ancient clothing, passive and disturbed by renovating processes. The houses in Monmouth Street are tall and spacious, but from the last-mentioned cause the uppermost chambers are as murky as basement floors in salubrious localities. Below the hazy attics are two and even three floors, then the shop, and beneath, so deep that a flight of fifteen wide-apart steps barely reach from the street pavement to the bottom, are the cellars-mere black pits-swarming with inhabitants, not chickens nor rabbits, nor.rats or other sort of vermin, but human beings -babies and grandmothers, and broad-shouldered men, and hoary-headed men, and little old women, and matronly dames.
   It should be distinctly understood that when I speak of these underground dwellings (several feet below the sewers) as cellars I apply to them no other than their proper and recognised appellation. They have just the ordinary double flap one sees closing the entrance to the beer-cellar of a public-house, and when one becomes vacant, " This cellar to let" will be chalked on the said flap. It would seem that we are indebted to St. Giles for this amongst other eyesores, for the books pertaining to the affairs of his parish bear the earliest record of cellar-dwellers. "To prevent the great influx of poor people into this parish," says an entry dated 1637, " ordered that the beadles do present every fortnight, on the Sunday, the names of all new comers, under-setters, and persons that have families in cellars, and other abuses." For more than two hundred years then has the doctor scrambled down those cellar-steps to let more life into the world, and the undertaker has grasped the muddy rail, shouldered out of the deep hole the coffined dead to lay it nearer the earth's surface than ever it was -for any length of time-while in life. As I looked down at broad afternoon there burned (as I suppose ever has burned) the flickering yellow-flamed candle, and there, bent by labour and age to the shape of a beast, squatted the lank-haired tailor (as I suppose he has ever squatted), plucking the needle from the seam as though a life depended on each stitch, whilst his wife was suckling the baby, and sewing the buttons to a pair of trousers, and toasting a herring for the tailor's tea; while from the far depths of the cellar's gloom came the hilarious voices of the tailor's many children; and ever and again their half-naked forms might be dimly distinguished flitting, goblin-like, round the turn-up bedstead, the many hangings of which waved feebly in the breeze they created.
   Through White Lion Street and into Great St. Andrew's, where the bird market is, and to see which was the prime object of my visit to St. Giles's. Such a babel of bird music! In an atmosphere composed chiefly of pestiferous exhalations and the choking steams that rose from the rank pans of the Jew fish-fryers, there they were, with their cages closely packed on each other-starlings, and blackbirds, and thrushes, and finches of the " chaff," and the " gold," and the " bull" kind; and English larks, and foreign canaries, fiercely yelling out their music, as though they had all gone stark mad. Perhaps they had. I almost hope so. Bird music is so intimately associated with hedges, and orchards, and cornfields-the little feathered songsters have credit for such elevated sentiments-that to discover, after all, that a lark will sing as well in a fried-fish shop as when sailing in the sun over a clover- meadow would be unpleasant. No! The birds of St. Andrew's must be insane, every lark and finch of them. Birds of song were not the only sort vended in St. Andrew's-street. There were in big wicker-cages Aylesbury ducks and Spanish hens, and bantams, and suspicious-looking cock birds, sleek and small of breast and spiky of spur, and geese and pigeons of every size and shape, and ravens, and parrots. Then there were houses for song-birds, from the threepenny wire-and-deal edifice to the magnificent pagoda-cage with mandarin-bell, for genteel canaries. Bird-food, too: " German paste," hampers full of snails, and many-legged meal-worms animating horribly the measure of bran in which they were kept.
   The bird-merchants dealt likewise in rats and dogs. "Rats bought and sold " was advertised on boards hung against the door-posts; and, if you peeped within the stinking little shops, there you saw scores of rats in iron cages, clambering over each other, and hurrying ceaselessly round and round, nosing at every interstice, in hopes to find one wide enough to squeeze their bodies through; while slim-waisted terriers, with jaws agape and straining at their tethers, fiercely barked their earnest desire that the vermin might presently be successful. There were other dogs besides the ratters-dogs for the "lap," great spotted dogs, stupid and flunkey-looking, for the carriage, and great surly hounds with pink eyes and hanging lips, faithful watch-dogs, and with sharp teeth for the calves of the midnight burglar. Every now and then, rising above the mad bird-music and the jabbering of the starlings, and the clucking of the cocks and hens, and the melancholy cooing of the pigeons, came the sharp howl of a dog in pain. I wonder what ailed him ? Outside one of the shops was the picture of a terrier with a pair of big shears straddled over him, and the legend, " Dogs trimmed, eightpence," underneath. Was the poor howling wretch undergoing the trimming torture ? I hurried from the dreadful place, followed by the fitful yelps, and almost fancying I could hear the horrid blades snipping off its poor little ears.