Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pauper, The Thief and the Convict, by Thomas Archer, 1865 - Chapter 5 - Land Rats and Water Rats

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    It is a blazing hot afternoon and the stones on Tower Hill are baking in the sun, while the effigy of an able-bodied seaman, which stands attired in a full suit of nautical garments at the outfitter's door, looks quite natural, as though his painted wooden cheeks were burning with a tropical glow, and his widely staring eyes had caught sight of a green coast somewhere beyond Katharine Steam Wharf or in the far regions of Shad Thames. 
    Very different indeed is the appearance of the real sailor who, with only one shoe and a broad isthmus of flannel shirt between his canvas trousers and his short jacket, has just been turned out of the tavern where some of his more peaceable companions are lounging on the rough wooden settles, and smoking pipefuls of "hard" which they cut from a flat cake with their clasp-knives. The mariner who has just been ejected is of a dark mahogany colour, and as I pass, he follows me for a moment with his lustreless eyes demanding, not without imprecations, what I have to say to him. In truth I have nothing to say to him, and so he leans shoeless against a neighbouring post till two of his companions come out and lead him away. 
    It is so warm that the herbalist at the corner has retired from his open stall in the street where he advertises pills and extract of sarsaparilla, and sits at the moment beneath a powerfully odorous bower of dried camomiles, wormwood, [- 84-] and featherfew; the unctuous raspberry puffs frizzle on the tin outside the pastrycook's door, the ginger beer bottles are too hot to touch without a cloth, and even the touter at the photographic establishment stands under the shade of a neighbouring awning, as he reflects jack-o'-lanterns up and down the pavement from the specimen portraits in his hand. 
    One or two vendors of Persian sherbet drive a very fair trade on the hill, but the hawkers of combs and caps, the dealer in razor paste, and the merchant who for a penny disposes of "the gold wedding ring, the broad belcher ring, the scarf pin, the something funny and something curious, the sheet of songs, the little bit of magic by Doctor Bokanky, and to make the lot complete the model farthing with a complete set of teaspoons inside," can find few passengers to listen to him. 
    The file of soldiers exercising in the Tower ditch, must wish themselves in the place of those other soldiers, open-throated and unbraced, who are just now busy receiving stores. 
    Red faced men coming out of the Saint Katharine Docks where they have been with tasting orders, pause for a minute or two in the dim twilight of the great office at the entrance, and catching sight of the blazing strip of sunlight revealed by the half-opened door, wish they could have stayed in the cellars to witness the overdrawing of the last cask. 
    But one suggestion of coolness is discernible in the whole stony area and that is the pump in Postern Row, at which an arid charity boy has just performed a hasty ablution, using his cap for a towel, and filling his half boots before he goes on his way.     
    Up by America Square there is a brisk business going [- 85-] on at the sailors' shipping office, however, and round the door stand smart, sunburnt, white-shirted mates, in new blue jackets and light deck pumps; greasy, red shirted, loose jointed mulattos, who grin till the light radiates from their white teeth; swarthy Portuguese with shining hair and gold earings; yellow-haired lumbering Swedes with silver rings upon their fore-fingers; and lowering roughly-clad Yankees with a great display of rusty Wellington boots, and sheath knife. 
    Up in the close unfurnished office on the first floor, the captains are busy taking down names and settling questions of wages. Most of the men who stroll in and out as it comes to their turn, or lounge against the walls and expectorate across the pavement, mean business. Some of them have just come from visiting their friends; others, with a strong family likeness to my one-shoed friend in the next street, have "had their spree out" ashore, and after a three weeks debauch come here with so few clothes as they stand in, even these garments having with difficulty been saved from the crimp and the bully at that brothel in "Tiger Bay" where they have almost lost count of time, and from which they were turned, half-naked, into the street two nights ago. 
    It is doubtful whether any prize money is now devoted to those amusements which are said to have been at one time so prevalent amongst the "jolly Jack tars" returning from a cruise on Her Majesty's Service, that is to say, in the frying of watches or the eating of bank notes between bread and butter. It is doubtful whether in London at all events, the navy men are so much given to ordering "a hackney coach, a lass, and a fiddler" directly they set foot on shore; but as I stand here at the street corner, I am led to believe that the men of our mercantile marine, fling [- 86-] away their hardly earned wages in a way scarcely less sensible, and quite as brutalizing. All honour to those who have instituted and still promote the establishment of Sailors' Homes, for they have effected incalculable benefits, but much remains to be done for the protection of those poor fellows who coming from the long monotony and hardship of a sea-voyage, are ready to accept any dishonest hand, and to hear with unconcealed pleasure the lying salutations of the "runner," and to fall at once into the trap of the procuress and her myrmidons. 
    Having nobody else to ask, I am led just now to inquire of myself whether we do not all take it for granted that Jack likes this low dissipation, and would resent any attempt to interfere with it;- that he goes into the Highway, and haunts the purlieus of St. George's-in-the-East, with a complete knowledge of what he is about; whether, in fact, this kind of life is not what he has been looking forward to with pleasant anticipations as he sweltered in some slow craft under a tropical sky for long months, or shivered in a "wet ship" during the nights of a wintry voyage; whether, in fact, the close, filthy dens of Bluegate Fields and Gravel Lane, with their associations of brazen, foul-mouthed women and skulking men; the gas. lighted, sanded-floored rooms of reeking pothouses, where gaudy strumpets dance before him as he bemuddles himself with drugged drink, have not come with some sort of solace to his imagination as he lay out upon the yard in a driving rain, and tried to hold a frozen sail with frost-bitten fingers? The truth seems to me to be that the sailor, coming home after a weary voyage, finds himself cast loose on London with all the strangeness of a schoolboy in holiday time, but with the disadvantage of having quite the wrong people to look after his boxes; [- 87-] people who hail the return of the prodigal to prodigality, and make him pay handsomely for a very small slice of the fatted calf with which they reward his easy good-nature. He knows all this, and often resents it in rough language; but they soon know how to quiet him, and struggle as he may-he is carried off to within a mile of the very place where he first sets foot on shore, and takes his pleasure amidst the vilest company of the vilest part of London. 
    He knows it all: knows it so well that if I should be so foolish as to go over at this moment to that redeyed, ragged-haired fellow who is just now listlessly regarding his last twopence with half an eye on the trolloping wench who has left him at the corner; if I should go over to him and speak of his folly, he would condemn the principal part of my anatomy, and ask me what business it was of mine. Then, relenting, he would say that I might mean well, and referring to his own eyes with the same imprecation, ask, How the (strong language) he was to help it? Yes, yes, they know it; and instead of regarding their life ashore in a rose-coloured medium while they are slaving away at sea, their bitter recollections of it survive in the old fo'c'sle song, the melancholy burden of which seems to sound in my ears with a hum like that of a worn-out and dissipated bee. 

"It's now three years that we've been out, 
I think it's time we tacked about, 
And when old England's shores we see, 
Oh won't we have a jolly, jolly, spree, 
    For we are homeward bo-o-ound, 
    For we are homeward bound. 

"And when we get to the London Docks, 
There we shall see the girls in flocks, 
[- 88-]  One to another they will say, 
'Welcome Jack with his three years' pay,' 
    For he is homeward bound. 

"And then we go to the Lamb and Bell, 
Where very good liquor they do sell; 
In comes the landlord with a smile, 
Saying 'Sit down, Jack, it's worth your while,' 
    For you are homeward bound. 

"But when your money is all spent, 
And there's nothing to be borrowed, and nothing to be lent, 
In comes the landlord with a frown, 
Saying 'Get up, Jack, let John sit down,' 
    For you are outward bound. 

"And so poor Jack, without a crown, 
And scarce a place to sit him down, 
Is quite cleared out of all his store, 
So goes to sea to work for more, 
    For he is outward bound."

    While I am thinking of songs, it occurs to me that Jack is also aware that the "lasses" who are, under favorable circumstances, so willing to have it believed that they are amongst those "who love a sailor," are by no means disinterested in their affection, but are, in his bitter experiences, wretched harpies to whom he is consigned, for the sake of plunder. How it should happen that he represents himself as faring better in this respect in another latitude I am at present unable to determine, but he certainly sings of his fair companions at Valparaiso, not only that 

    "They far exceed your English girls in fine heads of hair,"

but also that 

    "They are not like your English girls, who will on you impose, 
    And when your money is all spent, will go and pawn your clothes."

    [- 89-] Yes, the land rats are always hungry and are always waiting for Jack. Once off the deck, and even before he steps on the quay, he is eyed by artful crimps, who will take him where he may get a fresh rig out, will introduce him to a lodging and a lodging-house keeper, who thereupon fastens upon him until he is penniless and almost shoeless; for her house is a brothel, and her other lodgers are supplied with those gaudy wardrobes which dazzle Jack at the "London Docks," or their vicinity. When the crimp and "the young women," and the "good old soul," who will make him comfortable, fail to "clear out his store," the "runner" lies in wait for him, and, under the promise of getting him a ship, takes his last rag and his last penny, or, as things have gone lately, persuades him to desert from our own navy, or snaps him up for the American Federal service; perhaps for the Confederate service, for it is pretty openly rumoured in "the Highway," by which I mean Ratcliffe Highway, that the crew of the Alabama were most of them known to hail from the neighbourhood of Wellclose Square. 
    Am I not almost within sight of the house of one who is now on his trial for enlisting sailors for the American navy? A house in which numbers of men sleep crowded into hutches little better than the "bunks" that they have just left. A house into which the police have scarcely dared to venture, lest they might find themselves subject to "a hurried gash with a hasty knife," as they went up the narrow stairs, or stood in the midst of threatening desperadoes on the landings? 
    But the last man, or rather boy (for a pudding-faced tow-haired youth he is), has just left the office, and I turn away to follow Jack to those holes where land rats and water rats are waiting to gnaw at him.
    [- 90-] Rosemary Lane is, perhaps, little more savoury for having become known as Royal Mint Street; but I miss to-day one of its usual concomitants of unsavoriness. There are the emporiums for rough seafaring clothes, duck trousers, sailor's slops, and Guernsey shirts, where sharp Jewish boys catch my wandering eye, and thinking that I can be looking for nothing in the world but a garment of hairy pilot cloth lined with plaid flannel, as an appropriate costume for the time of year, call for assistance to take it down, and dodge round me in an almost successful endeavour to land me in the shadow of a tarpauline tabernacle in the back premises. 
    There are the low-browed shutterless shops, where the same sort of clothes-many of them patched and mended, and white in the seams, and stained and tarry,- are for sale second-hand, leading me again to think of poor Jack, whose store has been cleared out; and of some other poor Jack, reduced to a similar condition, but yet outward bound, and with a little cash advanced for a miserable threadbare outfit. There are the "marine store" shops, with a rusty, dusty, fusty collection of odds and ends, heaped together on a dirty board in front of the pavement, including tools long past use, hundreds of keys which will turn in no lock, and a like number of locks in which no key will turn; there are the greengrocers, with flabby, decaying cabbages, and the offscourings of potatoes; there is the little, beetling den, where saveloys and sheep's livers, thin dark-coloured tripe, and yellowish cow-heels, alternate with fried fish, briny cod, and salted cucumbers; there are the high windows, where stale fly-blown cakes and tarts, and a few unwholesome looking pies, occupy the side which is not devoted to a peculiar loaf, known, I should think, only to this locality, and perhaps invented [- 91-] originally as a substitute for Christmas pudding,- a square loaf, studded with large raisins at considerable intervals. There are all these, and there are the barbers, with frowsy collections of small wares displayed without ostentation; and there are the two or three dingy taverns, where I have seldom seen anybody stay to drink for a longer time than is consumed in dispatching the third of a quarter of gin. "They don't stay long, but they come often," I am informed, and one of the customers is now emerging, in the shape of an Irish dealer in firewood, who is red and tangled as to his hair, open as to his throat, bleared in the eyes, and regardless of the fact that he is walking about in a pair of white cotton stockings, and only one carpet slipper. Two or three women, shrill and voluble, hail him as he crosses the road, and after a few words, which seem likely to end in a quarrel, they all adjourn together to another tavern a little further on, whence one of the party presently comes out again, with her hair all over her face, and a bleeding lip, for which she is vowing vengeance. This distracts my attention, but I am still conscious of a want. Where are the casks and barrels of pork which I have seen so often standing here in the open street-the heads knocked out,- and the wet flabby chaps, and inferior segments of pigs overflowing into the street; the yellowish-brown fat and black lean, half floating in discoloured brine? These are some of the familiar accessories of Royal Mint Street, and I wonder whether their absence is to be attributed to the rise in provisions through the American war, or to a deficiency of returned barrack and old ship stores from the contractors? From whatever cause the scarcity may arise, I cannot help believing that the absence of such quantities of this provender as are usually found here, must seriously reduce the consumption [- 92-] of meat in the neighbourhood, and may perhaps also reduce the Registrar's returns by a few official items during the bad weather. 
    The bluebottles seem to miss these oozy casks too, for they assemble in inconvenient numbers on the wooden trays where the other meaty dainties of the district are displayed, and a stray fly paper hanging here and there, seems to have as little influence to deter them as this great printed bill, posted under the railway arch, and referring to a recent murder, has upon the criminal population. 
    The railway here, as elsewhere, has cut through the very centre of the neighbourhood, sweeping before it a number of foul streets and blind alleys, of the existence of which few people had any knowledge until they were laid bare, and some few glimpses of their wretchedness were obtained during a journey which commences amidst second-floor windows, and reveals a hideous series of back yards and ruinous tenements without yards at all. It is often attributed to railway works in the metropolis, as an offset in their favour against the fact of their making their own bye-laws, and not keeping them, that they clear out the low neighbourhoods, and make a clean sweep of the vice and crime which finds a haunt there. It would be well, perhaps, to consider where the vice and crime is swept to, and whether, when it is really cleared out, it does not gain a greater immunity by being scattered, than it can command by being under a direct supervision. Apart from this, however, there are but few instances where so clean a sweep is actually made. Behind some of the great houses- the law courts and the public buildings towards the western end of London; beyond the mews, and a little away from the small shopkeepers, lie some of [- 93-] the worst and most dangerous dens of the metropolis; and similarly, when the railway arch spans a broad thoroughfare, and stretches its bare face of brick and mortar into adjoining streets, casual passengers, seeing the broader space, and hearing the puff and scream of the passing train, believe that the neighbourhood has been altered both in its physical and moral aspects. Let any one take the trouble to find out the second or third arch, and he will see how the miserable tenements have refused to be shouldered out of the way; how blind alleys have become blinder by being built in under the deep shadows of the dead walls, and how the very opening which has made more room for ordinary traffic, has also shut out from the casual gaze all the savage wretchedness which cowers behind the ramparts of civilization. 
    I can see it now, although the evening has fallen, and the few lamps have begun to be lighted. It is here, in groups of women sitting on the flagstones, at the doors, or lounging together at the street corners, and staring at me as I pass; in the half-naked and wholly filthy children still scrambling in the gutters; in the unshorn shockheaded men who echo the shrill laugh of the women with an oath; in the pinched, careworn look of poverty which comes in with an empty basket, and tries its hardest to keep apart from the vice and crime that everywhere surrounds it; in the vegetable and other refuse in streets apparently unvisited by the scavenger, as I should think they were by the officer of health, if such a functionary is known hereabout; above all, in the two or three dimly lighted, silent spaces where a few half-ruined hovels are built round a few yards of stone area, and the only sound to be heard, is the low whistle which from some dark nook heralds my approach, or the sudden shutting [- 94-] of a door, as some slinking figure glides within its shadow. 
    There is little to excite curiosity within the houses, as far as their furniture is concerned; the dirty, broken stair, the crumbling plaster on the walls, the ceilings black and cracked, the windows pieced out with rags and newspapers, have the usual family likeness to all such dwellings. 
    Many, perhaps most, of these tenements are inhabited by the Irish, and the furniture consists of a few coarse substitutes for bedding, seldom accompanied with a bedstead, while the one room in which a whole family, perhaps with an occasional lodger, will live and sleep, contains but a couple of rickety chairs, a few articles of broken crockery, an old deal table, a battered kettle, and an iron pot, in which the meals are cooked upon four bricks which answer the purpose of a stove in the bare fire-place. It would be difficult to learn what occupation most of the people follow, but many of the men are employed at the docks in casual labour, and the families alternate between their present mode of living and pauperism, or vagrancy. In other cases, Irish Mike carries a hod, while his wife sits behind a fruit-stall at some street corner, and between them they make a better income than many a decent mechanic, for a tolerably pitched street stall is often worth 1 a week. This class of Irish people are more seldom found here, however, than about Tooley Street, and in the streets leading from the Borough, while more of them live in Spitalfields. The children, who are mostly left all day to shift how they can, are made use of by being sent out, even at the tenderest age, to sell cigar-lights, or bunches of flowers, or on Saturday nights in crowded thoroughfares, like Shoreditch and [- 95-] Whitechapel, to dispose of bunches of onions and potherbs. These children infest London streets to the annoyance of the police, who cannot take them in custody in consequence of their being mere infants, while any interference is often resented on the part of benevolent passengers, who see no reason why the poor little creatures should not earn an honest living. 
    The crossing-sweepers, bare-footed and half-naked, who on week-day splash the mud from side to side with the stump of an old broom, and fight and quarrel and whine for half-pence; the young vagabonds who turn somersaults on the pavements; the little children who follow you with cigar-lights or lucifers, and dodge in front of your feet till you are glad to get rid of them and a loose penny at the same time; the poor half-starved ownerless little ones who hang about the markets and pick out everything eatable and saleable from the refuse-all these have amongst them representatives of the families of the Irish labourer, or of the regular London cadger, whose nationality is merged into a cosmopolitan spirit of idleness. 
    Anybody who has had the curiosity to watch these miserable little hucksters about the railway stations, and especially in the city streets, will have had some reason to believe that their "honest living" had better, for the interests of the community, be transferred to some other direction. Standing by the terminus of the North London Railway, for instance, you may witness the periodical visits of slinking and bedraggled women-weedy as to their apparel, and with the attenuation and pallid hue of much gin in their faces- who come to take of one or other of these poor little wretches the money that they have "picked up" during the day. Any one of these women may be the mother of one or more of the children, or may [- 96-] merely employ them at the trade of cadging, but the result is the same in most instances. Sometimes she brings them slices of coarse bread and butter wrapped in a dingy handkerchief; occasionally a heavy-eyed, sodden-looking man will wait for her at the nearest street corner, or, in her absence may himself secure the few coppers which he extorts from the child, with an anxious glance round him lest he should be observed; both he and the woman, should they catch the eye of a passenger during their operations, will assume an expression of demure, povertystricken resignation, and affect to wipe away a tear as they contrive to display, by well-affected accident, the bread and butter that they have "gone without themselves" to bring to the "poor hungry things." Mostly, however, they will avoid observation by returning beneath doorways, or stealthily pushing the child before them into some bye-place where there is nobody to interrupt them. What wonder that these miserable juveniles soon try to "go on their own hook," and when they cannot start with a box or two of vesuvians take to pilfering from shop-doors, or laden waggons, steal old iron from the carts about the wharves at Bankside, extract mussels or chestnuts from the porters' loads as they come up from the ships at Billingsgate, and become a pest with which society and the law find it difficult to deal. What are the police to do with prisoners "whose heads," as the reporters say, "scarcely reach to the top of the dock?" Some of their heads are scarcely higher than one's knee, and all that can be done with such infantile offenders is to take them to the office and confront them with the Inspector, who frightens them a little before he lets them run away. Who is their father? Michael Murphy, or Dick, or Old Sam, or they don't know, they don't; but they won't do it any more. 
    [- 97-]  Mother! why she's at home in George's Yard, or Bull's Rents; or "she's bad in the hospital," or "she's somewhere a waiting" for them, and she'll beat em; and they "haven't had any dinner, and only a bit o bread since yesterday morning." Police officers and inspectors have hearts, and many of them have wives and children at home. "God help the little rascals" they think, "for nobody here seems likely to;" and so they go out buttoning their coats and wishing- not unrighteously- that the slinking woman who is waiting at the very street corner would do something to bring her under the power of the law; for the children had better be in prison, aye, had better even be in the worst workhouse than thrown as they are upon the streets. For what becomes of scores of these? They are the raw materials of which thieves and convicts are made. Their training commences with the first whine which they are taught to sound at the elbow of the street passenger who looks down at the wistful face of the brat who has followed him so far. 
    Those who have had a long acquaintance with London streets, and have been given to observe these things, will have been able to identify some of these baby faces, to girlhood, boyhood, womanhood,- through all the gradations of vesuvians, bundles of flowers, crossing-sweeping, begging, and combs. Heaven forbid that I should say of all the poor street-sellers who try to gain their daily bread by vending toys, tools, tapes, pencils, pocket-books, and the like, in this great city, are either dishonest, or of bad repute. They are not the parents of these children. I am speaking of the young Arabs of the London streets, whose destiny is to become artful thieves, and the mistresses of thieves, or to develop into the lowest ruffianism, and the most hopeless prostitution. The girls, especially, [- 98-] begin very early to show the evil fruits of such a training. It is curious to discover how they can discriminate between likely and unlikely customers. Upon the man (they scarcely ever notice women) whose face is familiar to them they will merely bestow an inquiring look and a half impudent gesture, on the chance of his throwing them a penny; but watch them scud across the road after a provincial visitor, a foreigner, or a sailor; see them hang about the doorways of city offices, where merchant captains and foreign mates have business. Listen, if you can, to the wheedling tone and evil leers with which they offer combs or other wares; and to the sudden burst of half-whispered indecency with which they close their appeals, especially if they are unsuccessful. Many of these girls are as well known in the city as the Lord Mayor himself, and some of them alternate between the prison and the streets, until they are lost in the tide which sweeps them into the broad stream of crime, and takes them from the common lodging-house to the common brothel, many intermediate steps towards which have been expedited by old debauchees whom they have met accidentally, and to whom their indecent language and abandoned indifference to modesty have been a fresh stimulus and a piquant gratification. 
    The opponents of a State education, as they look at these poor neglected children, from their very earliest infancy the prey of dissolute parents, or the property of mercenary wretches who live upon their misery would do well to reflect, whether to be taught thus early, even without a creed and without the whisper of a doctrine, would not be a better training for good, than that merely superficial instruction which they will be compelled to undergo in the schoolroom of the gaol, or that [- 99-] course of private reading which they will at last obtain in the convict's cell. 
    Deeply pondering these things as I turn away, I am reminded of a boy who once attracted my attention on a visit to a Ragged School. His attendance at that institution was, I have reason to believe, precarious; and, on the occasion to which I refer, he presented a remarkably lively and sharp appearance, in consequence of the extreme shortness of his hair, a circumstance which elicited much jocularity from his companions. In the course of the evening's instruction, I remarked that he possessed a considerable acquaintance with the Scriptures, and could even continue the quotations which were commenced by the teacher with perfect facility. 
    Venturing to refer to this proficiency with some little surprise, his sharp gray eyes looked into my face with a half impudent, half listless expression as he replied- 
    "Well, you see, sir, we haven't got anything else to read where I come from." 
    Foolishly, as 1 think now, I made the common-place remark that he should have endeavoured to profit more by such an acquaintance with Holy Writ. 
    "Yes, sir," he said, "we all ought to do that; but, somehow, you see we don't - it's our wickedness - that's just it, isn't it?" 

[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.- --]