Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter VIII - A London Slave Market

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THERE is a story called "Travellers' Wonders" in that  volume which used to be the delight of our childhood,  when the rising generation was more easily amused  and not quite so wide-awake as at present. The point  of the narrative is, that a facetious old gentleman  named Captain Compass beguiles a group of juveniles -  who must have been singularly gullible even  for those early days - by describing in mysterious and  alien-sounding terms the commonest home objects,  such as coals, cheese, butter, and so on. It would  almost seem as though Hood must have been perpetrating  a kindred joke upon grown-up children when  he wrote the lines-

It's O to be a slave
Along with the barbarous Turk,
Where woman has never a soul to save,
If this is Christian Work!

Was he aware that here, in the heart of Christian  London, without going farther east than Bethnal  Green, there had existed from time immemorial, as  there exists still, a genuine Slave Market? Such  there is, and actually so named; less romantic, indeed,  than that we read of in " Don Juan," or used to [-68-] see on the Adelphi boards in the drama of the " Octoroon" - but still interesting in its way to those  who have a penchant for that grotesque side of London  life where the sublime and the ridiculous sometimes  blend so curiously.
    With only the vague address of Bethnal Green and  the date of Tuesday morning to guide me, I set out  for Worship Street Police Court, thinking it possible  to gain some further particulars from the police. I  found those functionaries civil, indeed, but disposed to  observe even more than official reticence about the  Slave Market. They told me the locality precisely  enough, but were even more vague as to the hour  than my own impressions. In fact, the sum of what  I could gain from them was, in slightly Hibernian  language, that there was nothing to see, and I could  see it any time on a Tuesday morning when I chose  to go down White Street, Bethnal Green. Leaving  the Court and inquiring my route to White Street, I  found that it ran off to the right some way down the  Bethnal Green Road from Shoreditch Station. Having  turned out of the main thoroughfare, you proceed  down one of those characteristic East End streets  where every small householder lives behind an elaborate  bright green door with portentous knocker, going  on until an arch of the Great Eastern Railway spans  the road. Arriving at this point any time between  the hours of eight and half-past nine on a Monday or  Tuesday morning, you have no need to be told that [-69-] -  this is the East London Slave Market-supposing  you knew such a thing as a slave market was to be  seen in East London at all.
    There was, indeed, nothing resembling Byron's graphic description in "Don Juan." Our English slaves were all apparently of one nation, and there  were no slave merchants. The hundred young ladies  and gentlemen, of all ages from seven to seventeen,  were, as they would have expressed it, "on their own  hook." Ranged under the dead brick wall of the  railway arch, there was a generally mouldy appearance  about them. Instead of a picturesque difference  of colour, there was on every visage simply a greater  or less degree of that peculiar neutral tint, the unmistakable  unlovely hue of London dirt. In this respect,  too, they differed from the fresh country lads  and lasses one sees at a hiring in the North. They  were simply male and female City Arabs, with that  superabundant power of combining business and pleasure  which characterizes their race. The young gentlemen,  in the intervals of business - and it seemed to  be all interval and no business - devoted themselves  to games at buttons. Each of the young ladies - I  am afraid to say how young - had her cavalier, and  applied herself to very pronounced flirtation. The  language of one and all certainly fulfilled the baptismal  promise of their sponsors, if the poor little  waifs ever had any-for it was very "vulgar tongue"  indeed ; and there was lots of it. The great sensation [-70-] of the morning was a broken window in an unoffending  tradesman's shop-a far from unusual occurrence,  as I learnt from the sufferer. This led to a slave  hunt on the part of the single policeman who occasionally  showed himself to keep as quiet as might be  the seething mass of humanity; and the young lady  or gentleman who was guilty of the damage was "off  market" for the morning - while the suffering tradesman  was assailed with a volley of abuse, couched in  strongest Saxon, for meekly protesting against the  demolition of his window-pane.
    The scene was most characteristic - very unlike the  genteel West End Servants' Registry, where young  ladies and gentlemen's gentlemen saunter in to find  places with high wages and the work "put out." It  was on Tuesday morning, and a little late in the day,  that I timed my visit; and I was informed that the  Market was somewhat flat. Certainly, one could not  apply to it the technicalities of the Stock Exchange,  and say that little boys were "dull," or girls, big or  little, "inactive;" but early on a Monday morning is,  it appears, the time to see the Slave Market in full  swing. Strangely enough, so far as I could judge, it  was all slaves and no buyers - or, rather, hirers. I  did not see the symptom of a bargain being struck,  though I was informed that a good many small tradesmen  do patronize the Market, for shop-boys, nursegirls,  or household drudges. I do not know whether  my appearance was particularly attractive; but the [-71-] number of offers I received from domestics of all kinds  would have sufficed to stock half-a-dozen establishments. "Want a boy, sir?" " "A girl for the childer, sir?" said the juveniles, while the offers of the adult  ladies were more emphatic and less quotable. All, of  course, was mere badinage, or, as they would have  called it, "chaff," and it was meant good-humouredly  enough; though, had I been a legitimate hirer, I do  not know that I should have been tempted to add to  my household from this source. Indeed, there were  some not exactly pleasant reflections cast on the Slave  Market by those whom I consulted as to its merits.  It was not unusual, I was told, for slaves who were  hired on a Monday to turn up again on Tuesday  morning, either from incompatibility of temper on the  part of domestic and superior, or from other causes  unexplained. Tuesday morning is, in fact, to a large  extent, the mere residuum either of Monday's unhired  incapables, or of "returns." And yet, as I looked  around, I saw - as where does one not see? - some fair  young faces ; girls who might have played with one's  little children all the better because they were so  nearly children themselves ; and boys of preternatural  quickness, up to any job, and capable of being useful  - ay, and even ornamental - members of society, if  only that dreadful Bethnal Green twang could have  been eradicated. The abuse of the mother-tongue on  the part even of these children was simply frightful.  If this were so in their playful moods, what-one [-72-] could not help thinking-would it be if any dispute  arose on a contested point of domestic economy : as,  for instance, the too rapid disappearance of the cold  mutton, or sudden absence of master's boots?
    There was a garrulous cobbler whose stall bordered  on the Market, and his panacea for all the evils the  Slave Market brought with it was the London School  Board. "Why don't the officers come down and  collar some o' them youngsters, sir?" Why, indeed?  At present the Slave Market is undoubtedly a  nuisance; but there is no reason why, under proper  police supervision, it should not become a local convenience.  The ways of East London differ in all  respects from those of the West, and Servants' Registries  would not pay. Masters and servants are alike  too poor to advertise ; and there seems to be no reason  why the Slave Market, under a changed name, and  with improved regulations, may not as really supply  a want as the country "hirings" do. The Arab, at  present, is not to be trusted with too much liberty.  Both male and female have odd Bedouin ways of their  own, requiring considerable and judicious manipulation  to mould them to the customs of civilized society.  The respectable residents, tired of the existing state  of things, look not unreasonably, as ratepayers, to the  School Board to thin down the children, and the  police to keep the adults in order. Under such conditions,  the Bethnal Green Slave Market may yet  become a useful institution.

source: Charles Maurice Davies, Mystic London, 1875