Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - Curiosities of "Alley" Life

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(* "London Courts and Alleys." - Standard, August, 1875.)

DEVONSHIRE-PLACE, Old Nichol-street, Spitalfields, is a little court consisting of perhaps a dozen houses, six on either side, with a strip of broken pavement between. Precisely of the same type as those already described are these domiciles - mere hutches as regards size - a tiny room above and below, with broken floors and blackened walls and ceilings so shattered that every step overhead causes the rotten plaster to crumble and fall, further exposing the bare ribs of lath. In almost every case there are, upstairs as well as downstairs, lodgers, and the parlour, which is likewise the bedroom, opens on to a few square feet of space, where in one corner is a reeking heap of all manner of decaying vegetable matter and fireplace refuse, and in another corner the closet. In Devonshire-place I was made aware of a phase of the social economy of the Spitalfield slums which was new to me.
    In one house I found the "parlour," as I first thought tenantless. There was a bedstead in the room, three-parts filling it, and a bed which I will not attempt to describe, with a heap of ragged female attire, by way of bedclothing. The terrible-looking old wooden bedstead was in such a shaky condition that it had been found necessary to tie it up with bits of rope, but even this could not induce it to stand upright on its four legs, and in the midst of the unsightly wreck was a baby of a few months old, peacefully asleep. Hearing me come in, the [-129-] upstairs lodger came down, and informed me that the baby's mother was out at work.
    "And what may be the rent of this little place ?" I asked. "3s. 9d. a week."
    " For the house, of course?"
    "Oh, dear, no - for each room."
    "3s. 9d. a week for this room ?" I repeated in amazement.
    "Well, you see, sir, it is let already furnished," explained the upstairs lodger.
    "But where is the furniture ?"
    "There it is," said she, pointing to the dreadful bedstead and to the one wooden chair which, without the slightest reservation, formed the whole of the furniture of the carpetless, fenderless hovel.
    "That's what's called a furnished room down here, sir, and the rent is 3s. 9d. a week, leastways, if you are weekly ; if you are nightly, it's 9d. There's lots of the houses about here let like that. Some of them charge 9d. a night, though you go on stopping reg'ler, and come for the rent every day. If they trusted a whole week they wouldn't get it at all, p'raps, so they collects it daily."
    Seven shillings a week for shelter in a tenement which at its pulling-down value would scarcely realise a five-pound note, and the use of two bedsteads and a few rags and flock to lie on! It seemed so preposterous that I could not believe it, but on referring the matter to a visiting clergyman of the district, he assured me that what the woman had told me was correct In every particular.
    Immediately opposite is a narrow-mouthed alley known as Shepherd's-court, an irregular cluster of human habitations, the sight and smell of which are enough on an August afternoon to make one gasp for breath. There are houses behind houses, with no rearward yard or space for privacy or decency, and one and all are in a dilapidated state from cellar to roof and quite [-130-] unfit to live in. There is no kind of arrangement as regards the buildings they are erected "higgledy-piggledy;" backs to fronts, anyhow, with narrow passages between.  
    Possibly the main reason why continually fever is not raging in every alley in Old Nichol-street may be found in the fact that the water supply is uninterrupted and unlimited. This, however, has only been so since some ingenious person invented an apparatus by means of which this essential to existence may be provided with certainty. Old Nichol-street is not a particularly honest neighbourhood. There may probably be found within its limits a greater number of thieves - petty and other - than a square mile of any other parish could produce. Metal taps and leaden water-pipes and ball-cocks used to vanish as soon almost as they were fixed, and even iron piping which would realise at the shop of the marine store dealer but a few halfpence was not safe from dishonest hands. Zinc and iron tanks, more than one man could lift, have before now in that light-fingered region disappeared between dark and daylight, as though they were mere portable articles that might be doubled up and stowed in a coat pocket. A remedy, however, has been found for this uncomfortable condition of affairs. An iron locker, about eighteen inches square, solid on all sides, and prodigiously heavy, is supported on a firm basis. There is a spout at the bottom of the receptacle, and at the side a massive iron knob, the turning of which sets the water flowing. One of these contrivances is to be found in almost every alley, and where it is not found one need only follow his nose to discover.
    The houses of Shepherd's-court are of a pattern with those of Devonshire-place - a room up and a room down, each affording refuge for a family, great and small, and at least three-fourths of the wretched tenants earn their bread at home. Match-box making seems to give employment to hundreds of hands in this squalid neighbourhood, every member of the [-131-] family, down to the little child four or five years old, lending a hand as they squat in a ring on the filthy, uncarpeted floor. They receive twopence halfpenny for making twelve dozen boxes, and out of this have to provide paste. By working very hard and without reference to the clock, a woman and three or four children so employed may earn fifteenpence a day, and out of this the produce of two whole days' labour out of the six must go to pay the rent of the miserable one room, which is a heated and unwholesome factory from morning until night, and a bedchamber from night until morning.
    If nothing else is done it is high time that the same humane inspection that is vouchsafed to the common lodging-house occupant should be extended to these private abodes of squalor and wretchedness.
    There is an establishment of the kind alluded to in Old Nichol-street, not a nice place, certainly, but cleanliness is compulsory there, and any attempted evasion of the Common Lodging-house Act is very speedily exposed by the bull's-eye of Mr. Inspector, who has an artful way of making his dead-of-night visits as unexpected as possible. Though, however, the proceedings may be strictly in accordance with the requirements of the legislature they do not care to see strangers at these places. At the Old Nichol-street abode, for instance, there is a printed notice conspicuous to every one who enters at the door of the common kitchen, to the effect that, "Persons who don't lodge here are not welcome." They keep the best possible order at this refuge for the dissipated and poverty-stricken.
    Included in the notice above alluded to is an intimation that pelting each other with pillows and bolsters is strictly prohibited, and that individuals who insist on adopting such an outlet for their superabundant animal spirits will be at once expelled the premises. The rules and regulations conclude with a hint - as delicately conveyed as possible - as to the rashness of too [-132-] implicitly confiding in the proverb that there is honour amongst all classes. " Beware of the cat who steals the meat ; I wish that I could catch him," says rule the last, to which the proprietor significantly signs his name.
    Two in a bed, however, is an indecency which is not for a single hour tolerated in places where tramps and cadgers congregate, but in these "homes" of the people four times two may so sheep and no one interfere. I ventured into one house in Shepherd's-court and went upstairs. There was but one bedstead in the room-a mite of a place; I measured it with my walking-stick and found that it was three and a half one way and four sticks the other, and yet it was made to accommodate mother, father, and eight children; some of course would have to lie on the bare boards, the bedstead, which was barely of the ordinary size, could not have contained them all. The room was in a shocking condition, with holes in the rotten floor and damp patches on the walls and ceiling. For this the weekly rent was two-and-ninepence. But, bad as was this up. stairs room, I would rather, if doomed to the terrible alternative, have lived there than in the room below, and which comprised the remaining half of the habitation.
    To be sure in this last-mentioned case there were but six children, but then their father was a cabinet-maker by trade and worked at home, and in addition to the apartment serving as a living and sleeping room for the eight individuals who contributed towards the unclean Shepherd's flock, it was made to do duty as a carpenter's shop as well. It was an uglier place than the rest, by reason of its floor being several feet below the outside mire, while the ceiling was so how that one might lay the flat of his hand against it, and like the upstairs room, it measured three-and-a-half walking-sticks by four. There were pieces of mahogany in course of shaping and others in the rough, and a large number of tools and a bench, and the floor was ankle-deep in shavings.
[-133-] There was, as usual, but one bedstead, and the bench came so close upon it, helping to fill the narrow space, that it was difficult to conceive how the mother - who was a stoutish woman, and at present employed at the wash-tub in the open alley - contrived to get near the fireplace for domestic purposes without her husband first vacating the premises. She could not climb over the bedstead, because that was already occupied by several articles not pertaining to repose.
"It is warm work down here, sir," remarked the little old cabinet-maker cheerily, "but you see I'm 'bliged to keep up a good fire, howsomever hot the weather may be, cos of my glue."
    Yes, reeking hot as it was, even out in the open court, there was a fire in the grate bright and brisk enough to roast a sucking pig, and the frowsy bedstead came to within a yard of it, and the intervening space was strewn ankle deep in mahogany chips and shavings as dry as tinder. Just image a smouldering ember igniting that combustible heap, just when the weary eight were deep in their first sleep. Eight! Eighteen in all, counting the general dealer and his wife and their eight children overhead, and with only a cracked ceiling and a touchwood floor between. But the little old cabinet-maker appeared to be not in the least alive to the possibility of such a catastrophe. He grumbled at having to pay so high a rent, but otherwise was evidently of opinion that Shepherd's-court was an eligible locality for a family residence, and one where a man might, if he tried, make himself very comfortable. The old cabinet-maker had tried, and with some show pf success. He had gone in for floriculture. There were garden-pots on his window-sill, and the presence of a small glass globe suspended amongst them betrayed that he had even aspired to gold fish as well; but the great fire which was so necessary for the glue had probably disagreed with them, and for the present, at all events, the globe was empty. But the garden was not so much on the window-[-134-]sill as on the opposite side of the way. Facing the window- within a yard and a half of it, in fact-there was a blank wall, and to this the cabinet-maker had affixed two long narrow boxes, and given his attention to the cultivation of Indian corn and sunflowers in the one case, and "creeping Jennies," and, I think, a few balsams in the other. The latter, however, were in a state of health that occasioned him some apprehension and anxiety.
    But there are plants seemingly as there are human creatures, which are exempt from what are called the laws of nature. In this close, pent-up place, where every respiration was an offence to the nostrils, the Indian corn was flourishing favourably, while the sun-flowers bloomed with a blowsy luxuriance as though their evil surroundings had quite corrupted their natural goodness, and they had acquired a taste for tainted air, and liked it. In the same foul alley, in an old butter tub, lashed to an upper window sill, there was a plant of rhubarb bristling with stout stems, and with leaves large nearly as dinner plates.
    But these instances were quite exceptional, and as a rule the only green things visible were the verdant rime with which damp had blotched the rotten walls and the stagnant pools in the gutter. The alley-dwellers of this part are a terribly dirty race, and in the fastnesses of their slums seem to have deteriorated from civilisation, and gone a long way back on the road to savagery. It would, indeed, in one respect be rather an improvement if they would do so entirely and substitute a cheerful coating of woad or ochre for the grim dark grey that comes of long abstinence from soap and water. But how is it possible that cleanly habits can be cultivated in the midst of such foulness? A new comer who resolved to set a shining example and appear with a clean face and hands would soon grow discouraged. Nor would it be of the least use to endeavour to improve the inhabitants as they are at present domiciled.
[-135-] Efforts have been made in this direction in one of the vilest parts of Spitalfields. It was conceived to be worth while to set up a public nursery for young children, where, instead of lying about in the alley gutters while their mothers were out at work or selling things in the street, they might he well cared for, and properly cleansed, and tended, and fed.
    A home of this kind has been established in Quaker-street. A kind and capable nurse has been appointed; there is a nice playground for fine weather, and an admirably fitted play-room for wet weather; neat cots for the little ones to sleep in when they are unwell, toys, clean pinafores (on loan, of course), and warm boots; plenty of wholesome food, and all for the very small sum of fourpence per day. But the response on the part of working mothers is not hearty. Whether they resent the warm bath and its changeful effects on their progeny, or whether they find it cheaper to keep their children at home, I cannot say, but at present there have never at any time been more than seven small customers in one day at this admirable home, and the number when I visited it was only five.
    If the Artisans' Dwellings Act prove efficacious in remedying the shameful state of things which exists in and about Old Nichol-street there is hope for every district in London. For many reasons one cannot but feel anxious to see what will result from the act in question in this neighbourhood. It is a fact, as I was informed on authority, that a very considerable portion of court and alley property of the kind I have endeavoured to describe belongs to gentlemen who, in some way or other, are included in the list of "local authorities." I was shown an awful place, consisting, I think, of eight tenements, in a secluded crevice between the front Street houses, and known as 4and 5 Half Nichol-street. The entrance is scarcely as wide as the passage of an ordinary house, and the residences in question have evidently been erected in what was once the back-yard of one of the large houses. The lower rooms of [-136-] these delectable dwellings are so low down beneath the pavement that they are little better than cellars, with nothing tn prevent the rain pouring into them in times of storm. These are hovels of the worst kind, ruinous, ill-drained, and evil smelling, with a kennel of foul water in the yard-wide path which divides the double "row." It is a marvel how the tenants escape with their hives in such a noisome den; and yet this is the property of a vestryman, who derives a considerable income from the exorbitant rent exacted of the lodgers.
    In Great Arthur Street, St. Luke's, there is a court called Thomas's Court, an old place, with an iron tablet at its entrance stating its age. The houses in Thomas's Court - which is a broad, stone-paved place, about twenty feet wide between the dwellings, and sixty yards from end to end-have during the last three months, been declared to be uninhabitable, and tenants turned out. We found two workmen in the court, and one of them had just prised up from the flagway in the middle a heavy wooden trap-door, which had been cemented down, and the opening disclosed a gulf of at least twelve feet deep, and extending, the men informed us, beneath the whole space and under the houses on either side, walled in and with this only outlet. In ancient times, it seems, the place was part of a brewery, and here beer barrels were stored; but, strangely enough, my guide, who had known the court and its inhabitants for fifteen years, had never heard of the existence of the vast vault, nor, to his knowledge, were the inhabitants aware of it. I looked down into it, and by all appearance it was an innocent place enough, but I could not help thinking to what strange purposes it might have been put in such a neighbourhood, had evil-disposed persons discovered it. I remarked as much to the bricklayer, but he laughed at the idea.
    "God bless you, sir, said he ; "if they'd known it they would not have ventured into it I They was a awful supersti-[-137-]tious lot that lived down here. It has been always thought that the court was haunted."
    "But why ?"
    "Well, there 'ave been suicides. A man hung himself from that lamp-iron, and another hung himself in the parlour at that end house -" and just at that moment, with a startling sort of "Jack-in-the-box" movement, a door was flung open within a yard or so, and opposite the ruined "parlour" in question, an old woman made her appearance, chuckling with glee at what she had overheard.
    "Hallo !" exclaimed my missionary companion - they all know him in that region - "are you here still? I thought you cleared out with the rest?"
    "Not me," replied the merry old soul, whose age must have been at least seventy; "hauntin' and ghosts don't frighten me, I don't mind 'em; let em come if they like, I shan't go until they turn me out," and she retired again to her snuggery, crowing triumphantly. And a brave old woman she must be, to be able to lay her head down unconcernedly of nights the only inhabitant of a ruined, out-of-the-way alley, mysteriously undermined, and with ample excuse for being haunted, if it is not.
    Strange trades are carried on in these slums, and occupations are followed which in civilised parts are never dreamt of:, except it be in exceptionally bad dreams. One does not like even to hint at the way in which scores of poor wretches in the locality pick up a living, nor would I myself have believed it had I not been told it as a fact, by a gentleman whose veracity is unimpeachable. There is an awful little alley, for instance, in the neighbourhood of Hales's tallow factory, consisting of about twenty houses, inhabited almost entirely by folk who collect the ordure of dogs, which is used for tanning purposes. I say that the alley in question is occupied almost entirely by this [-138-] class, and, repulsive as the trade is, it is preferable to that of the dreadful exceptions. There are but few left there now, I am informed, but not very long since the residents of this delectable spot consisted chiefly of "cat-flayers" - whose sole means of living was to go out at night with their sacks and sticks, hunting for cats to ha slaughtered for the sake of their skins. It is a business at which money may be made, since the furriers will give 12s. a dozen for big and little cat-skins, as many as may be brought them. It is unfortunate, however, that to be saleable the hide must be taken from the body of the animal while it is in existence, and still more so that the villainous cat-flayers are not deterred by this difficulty. I was further informed that the neighbourhood used to be scandalised by the presence of the flayed carcases of poor grimalkins lying about, but that now that indecency is avoided by an economical arrangement on the part of the flayer. He now puts his dead cats in the copper, and makes further capital of their bones and fat.