London: A Pilgrimage


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CHAPTER XV - HUMBLE INDUSTRIES

Many varieties of industry-of industry that makes millionaires, and industry that just holds body and soul together-will come under the notice of the London Pilgrim who will explore London east of the Royal Exchange. In the heart of the city there is one outward form of feverish activity. Barter, speculation, vast enterprise, the sending forth of fleets, the sinking of mines, the negotiating of loans, the laying down of leagues of railway, the buying and selling of gold and silver, occupy the well-dressed multitudes. The clerk's outward man has as prosperous a seeming as that of his employer who lives in the West, and has a duke for a next door neighbour. Behind many of the groups are very dismal shabby-genteel stories, no doubt; but nothing save prosperous, shiny broadcloth, glossy hats, and decorated button-holes are apparent in the street. Here are no pinched cheeks or ragged limbs, except when shadows from the East are slipping timorously through the golden realm, to earn a crust, or beg one, in the West. The abounding refreshment places-from the dark and greasy old gridiron chop-houses in the lanes, to the modern finery and luxury of lunch at the Palmerston, or in ancient Crosby Hall (one of the most picturesque bits of old and modern London massed and mingled in one pictures, as it struck my fellow pilgrim one busy morning)-all are packed with hurrying men, eager to eat and drink, and confident about the wherewithal. London abounds in startling contrasts. These stately arcades of the Royal Exchange-defaced, it must be admitted, by unsightly advertisements-with Her Majesty holding the centre of the Quadrangle; are but a few minutes' walk from the Market-the Exchange-of rags! Here the princes of finance buy and sell thousands with a nod of the head; or lunch while they bid , at Lloyd's, for an Australian clipper. We travel East, and at once come upon speculators of another world, merchants for whom nothing is too small, or mean, or repulsive. The violent contrasts of London life struck Addison-as still they strike every close observer. But in his day the contrasts were not so crowded together as they are now; and the poor were not in such imposing legions. Among the watchmakers and jewellers of Clerkenwell; the starveling descendants of the Spitalfields weavers; the cabinet makers and workers in wood, by the Aldersgate Street purlieus; the Teutons who bake and refine sugar in Whitechapel; the unsavoury leather workers of Bermondsey; the shoemakers of Shoreditch and Drury Lane; the potters of Lambeth; are hosts of shiftless, hopeless victims of the fierce competition and the overcrowded labour market: the slop-workers, needlewomen, street vendors, mountebanks, sharpers, beggars, and thieves, who disgrace our civilisation by their sufferings or their misdeeds.

The extremes lie close together. How many minutes' walk have we between St. Swithin's Lane, and that low gateway of the world-famed millionaire; and this humble authority in Exchanges, in materials for shoddy, in left-off clothes cast aside by the well-to-do, to be passed with due considertaion and profit to the backs of the poor? The old clothesman's children are rolling about upon his greasy treasure, while he, with his heavy silver spectacles poised upon his hooked nose, takes up each item and estimates it to a farthing.

East from the City, to the heart of Shoreditch and Whitechapel, is one of the walks which best repay the London visitor. The quaint, dirty, poverty laden, stall-lined streets are here and there relieved by marts and warehouses and emporiums, in which rich men who employ the poorest labour, are housed. It is an ancient neighbourhood, as some of the overhanging houses proclaim; and it remains a picturesque one, with the infinitely various lines and contrivances of the shops and stalls, and gaudy inns and public houses; the overhanging clothes, the mounds of vegetables, the piles of hardware, the confused heaps of fish, all cast about to catch the pence of the bonnetless dishevelled women, the heavy navvies, and the shoeless children. The German, the Jew, the Frenchman, the Lascar, the swarthy native of Spitalfields, the leering thin-handed thief, the bully of his court, the silly-Billy of the neighbourhood-on whom the neighbourhood is merciless-with endless swarms of ragged children, fill road and pavement. The Jewish butchers lounge-fat and content, in their doorways; the costermongers drive their barrows slowly by, filling the air with their hoarse voices. The West End Londoner is as completely in a strange land as any traveller from the Continent. A saunter through the extensive vegetable market of Spitalfields; a turn in Houndsditch, by Bishopsgate Church; a pause where Whitechapel joins Aldgate, under the splendid auspices of Messrs. Moses and Sons-employers of these pale work-folk who flit to and fro under our eyes-or a trip in the heavily charged atmosphere of Rosemary Lane, where the flat, stale odour of old clothes soon unnerves the too curious observer; and so out upon the tea and colonial grandees of America Square and Mincing Lane-will reveal a new world of London to many a Cockney who thought he knew the great City well. The grandest and noblest spectacles of commerce, touch the basest and most heart-breaking: the Captain of the Indiaman elbows the sweater from the clothes mart, and the Fagin of the Shadwell fence. Within sight of home-sailing fleets, the needlewoman who puts together cheap finery for the Sunday wear of the shop-boy, works her heart out. Yet throughout this neighbourhood-that is, in the open- there is a valiant cheeriness full of strength. The humours of the place are rough and coarse-as the performances in the penny gaffs and public house sing-songs testify; but there is everywhere a readiness to laugh. The vendor of old clothes, who addresses the bystanders in Houndsditch, throws jests into his address. Cheap-jack must be a humourist, let him appear where he may-in England. The gallantry of the cheap butcher who cries "buy-buy-buy" the live-long day, to customers who market with pence, is proverbial. The veriest slattern is "my dear," to him; and he recommends an indescribable pile of scraps with an airy compliment or two, not unwelcome to the shrivelled ear that receives them. The dealers on the pavement patter in the liveliest fashion, recommending pots and gridirons, strings of onions, lucifers, cabbages, whelks, oysters, and umbrellas, by lively appeals to the good humour of the passers by. The man who has a ready wit will empty his basket, while the dull vendor remains with his arms crossed.

That which most astonishes the watcher of the industries of the poor, is the fertility of invention that never slackens. In a low lodging-house by Shadwell, which we entered late one February night, in the midst of the hurly-burly, herring-frying, gambling, and singing, a poor old man was making card-board railway carriages-for sale in the streets. I remarked that this was something new.

"Yes, sir," he said, lifting the side of a carriage with his gummed pencil as he spoke-for he could not afford to lose a moment-"Yes, sir: they won't look at stage-coaches now. Yer see, the young uns don't know `em: so I've took to these 'ere; and they takes 'em readily."

The Fashion of the West ripples faintly even here, by the walls of the Docks, and at the kerb by the Standard Theatre, and along the line of old Ratcliff Highway. It has established penny ices-for which the juvenile population exhibit astonishing voracity-in all the poor districts of the Metropolis. Wherever we have travelled in crowded places of the working population, we have found the pcnny ice-man doing a brisk trade-even when his little customers were blue with the cold. The popular ice-vendor is the fashionable rival of the ginger-beer hawker-an old, familiar London figure. The ginger-beer man, in the presence of this recent competition, curses, no doubt, the uncertain whim of the public mind, as the old coachman cursed the engine driver; but the penny ice has proved too strong for the ancient ginger-beer bottle, lying in orderly rows upon the substantial stall. The ginger-beer merchant of to-day must move with the times: and this is how we saw him gesticulating and pattering one sultry morning to the thirsty crowd of the New Cut!

"The Best Drink Out!" was his perpetual cry: "the best drink out" being duly iced to meet the educated taste of his shoeless customers.

"There really isn't any knowing what we shall come to," said an intelligent New Cut dealer, who was fast disposing of immense mounds of cabbages and lettuces. "Just look how common pines have become, at a penny a slice. In my young days no such thing as a pine had been seen in any market except Covent Garden. But the worst of it is"-the man continued, following out his practical line of thought-"the worst of it is while what I call luxuries get cheaper every season, necessities-the things a man must have-get dearer. These are curious times, gentlemen; and we must keep up to them, or go to the wall. People want so many more things than they did when I was a lad. You see, as I said before, cheap luxuries and dear necessities are the cause of all the mischief. I don't know how it's to be helped: it isn't my business-but I see the mistake plain enough, when the crowds in rags are collecting round the new-fangled ginger-beer and penny-ice men."

And the philosopher filled a bonnetless woman's apron with cabbages-when she had critically felt the heart of each-deeply anxious about her utmost pennyworth.