London: A Pilgrimage


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CHAPTER XVIII - WHITECHAPEL AND THEREABOUTS

Forlorn men, women, and children-and a spacious township peopled with them, from cellars to attics-from the resort of the sewer rat to the nest of the sparrow in the chimney-stack-make up that realm of suffering and crime which adventurous people visit with as much ceremony and provision of protection as belated travellers across Finchley Common used, in the middle of last century.

You put yourself in communication with Scotland Yard to begin with. You adopt rough clothes. You select two or three companions who will not flinch even before the humours and horrors of Tiger Bay: and you commit yourself to the guidance of one of the intelligent and fearless heads of the detective force. He mounts the box of the cab about eight o'clock: and the horse's head is turned-east.

When we move out of Fleet Street towards Smithfield, we leave familiar London in a few minutes, and reach the lanes and byeways, dark and noisy, and swarming with poor, that come under the merciful guardianship of good Mr. Catlin's Cow Cross mission. The progress of the cab becomes slow and difficult: angry words are exchanged with the driver; groups of gossiping or quarrelling men and women block the road; the houses are black and grim, and only at the corners where the gin palaces light up their cruel splendours, can we obtain glimpses of the inhabitants. They are kith and kin of those we have seen so often skulking about amid the cobblers' stalls and bird fanciers of Newport Street, Seven Dials; ranging themselves outside the gates of casual wards, or begging their way into a night refuge. They are brothers and sisters and cousins of these hopeless waifs and strays of London life, or of country life drawn to the metropolis, by the general desire there is in the country to get "nearer the smoke."

We halt at the opening of a yard, alight, and in a few minutes are in a crowd of tattered and tired out creatures, who are being filtered into a refuge.

Surely there can be only good in this minimum of relief, offered by spontaneous charity to the houseless, in a whole city-full of poor! They pass in one by one: the father and his foot-sore boy-the mother with her whimpering babe in her arms, that are so lean they must hurt the flesh of the little imp. The superintendent is a mild, but firm, intelligent, and discerning man. He distributes the regulation lump of bread to the guests, and they pass on, by way of the bath-rigorously enforced for obvious reasons-to the dormitories set out like barracks, and warmed with a stove, which is always the centre of attraction. Here, when all are in bed, a Bible-reader reads, comforting, let us hope, many of the aching heads. The women and children have a ward apart. Some are reading: some are sewing rents in their clothes, some are darning: some have cast themselves to rest under the leather coverings and, with inexpressible weariness, are in the land of dreams. I have paced these dormitories early and late, and have been with strong men who have burst into tears, as their eyes have fallen upon the rows of sleeping mothers, some with two-some with three infants huddled to their sides for warmth, or folded in their poor arms. Young and old are here-houseless, and with babes to carry forth to-morrow into the east wind and the sleet. This story is told by the coughs that crackle like a distant running fire of musketry-all over the establishment. No wonder that many of them dread the bath upon their feeble, feverish limbs: and with chests torn to rags as many of them must be.

It is a pity that there is not connected with every refuge for the houseless, a well ordered practical labour agency; for every night deserving and willing men, women, and boys pass in, who would rejoice to be shifted from the streets; but alas! our organisers of charity are only making confusion worse confounded.

From the Refuge by Smithfield we rattled through dark lanes, across horrid, flashing highways, to the Whitechapel Police Station, to pick up the superintendent of savage London. He had some poor, wan specimens-maundering drunk-in his cells already-and it was hardly nine o'clock. We dismiss our cab: it would be useless in the strange, dark byeways, to which we are bound: byeways, the natives of which will look upon us as the Japanese looked upon the first European travellers in the streets of Jeddo. The missionary, the parish doctor, the rent collector (who must be a bold man indeed), the policeman, the detective, and the humble undertaker, are the human beings from without our Alsatia, who enter appearances in this weird and horrible Bluegate Fields; where in the open doorways lowbrowed ruffians and women who emphasize even their endearments with an oath, scowl at us in threatening groups as we pass, keeping carefully in the middle of the road. " Stick close together, gentlemen; this is a very rough part," our careful guides tell us-some walking before, others behind-the local superintendent or the Scotland Yard sergeant accosting each policeman on his beat, and now and then collecting two or three, and planting them at strategical points or openings, that cover our advance, and keep the country open behind us.

We plunge into a maze of courts and narrow streets of low houses-nearly all the doors of which are open, showing kitchen fires blazing far in the interior, and strange figures moving about. Whistles, shouts, oaths, growls, and the brazen laughter of tipsy women: sullen "good nights" to the police escort; frequent recognition of notorious rogues by the superintendent and his men; black pools of water under our feet-only a riband of violet grey sky overhead! We come to a halt at a low black door. The superintendent's knock means immediate opening. An old man in corduroy breeches and grey stockings, unbuttoned waistcoat and dirty shirt-sleeves-with low muffin cap over his eyes, is about to growl: when the "Good night, Ben," of the force, brings him to attention and respect, at once.

We advance into a low, long dark room parted into boxes, in which are packed the most rascally company any great city could show. They stare, leer, dig each other in the ribs-fold their black hands over the cards-and grunt and growl sotto voce as the superintendent reviews them with a firm and placid look of command. The place is clean, compared with the guests, thanks to the Common Lodging House Act; but it is charged with the unmistakable, overpowering damp and mouldy odour, that is in every thieves' kitchen, in every common lodging house, every ragged hotel. We pass from kitchen to kitchen and from lodging to lodging, up and down two or three lanes; threading the long passages of deal boards that separate the twopenny beds of the lodgers, and here and there coming upon heart-breaking scenes of disease and helplessness. In one box an old man is dying of asthma; in another two fine baby-boys are interlaced, sleeping till their mother brings them home some supper from the hard streets. In another-but the list would fill a chapter of biographies of London waifs and strays, and London rogues and vagabonds. They crowd upon us, with imploring or threatening eyes from under the rags hanging over the kitchen fire; from foggy corners where they are eating scraps; from benches where they are playing push-penny. Men and women, boys and girls, all quarrelling or rollicking together: the artificial flower maker with the known thief-the yet virtuous girl with the flaunting hussy of the Whitechapel Road. From low house to low house we go, picking up some fresh scrap of the history of Poverty and Crime-they must go hand in hand hereabouts-at every turn. At dark corners, lurking men keep close to the wall; and the police smile when we wonder what would become of a lonely wanderer who should find himself in these regions unprotected. "He would be stripped to his shirt"-was the candid answer-made while we threaded an extraordinary tangle of dark alleys where two men could just walk abreast, under the flickering lamps jutting from the ebon walls, to mark the corners. We were on our way to the dreadful paved court, flanked with tumble-down one storied houses, in which our old friend the Lascar opium smoker rolled upon his mattress, stirring his stifling narcotic over a lamp, and keeping his eyes-bright as burning coals-upon his latch.

We turned into one of the lowest of low lodging houses, for a direction. It was a small kitchen, with two or three hideous old hags in it-and a child begrimed with dirt, rolling upon the hearth. A bull's eye was turned upon the landlady: she was shamefaced-and tried to hide her bruised arms and cheeks. "Ah, locked up last night, I remember," said the policeman. "Very drunk." The lady confessed the soft impeachment, and seemed touched by the kind tones in which the sergeant asked her why she couldn't try to be a little more reasonable and respectable. The begrimed child had got upon its legs-and while it held one hand out mechanically towards us begging, clawed the drunken mother's apron with the other, and grinned in her sheepish face. As for our friend the Lascar, whose portrait we had taken on a previous visit-we shouldn't see him to-night: he was "in quod for a month: begging." So we went to a neighbour and rival of his, and were introduced to the room in which "Edwin Drood" opens. Upon the wreck of a four-post bedstead (the posts of which almost met overhead, and from which depended bundles of shapeless rags), upon a mattress heaped with indescribable clothes, lay, sprawling, a Lascar, dead-drunk with opium; and at the foot of the bed a woman, with a little brass lamp among the rags covering her, stirring the opium over the tiny flame. She only turned her head dreamily as we entered. She shivered under the gust of night air we had brought in, and went on warming the black mixture. It was difficult to see any humanity in that face, as the enormous grey dry lips lapped about the rough wood pipe and drew in the poison. The man looked dead. She said he had been out since four in the morning trying to get a job in the docks-and had failed.

We escaped from the opium fumes, in which a score of white mice (the woman's pets) were gambolling over the rags and dirt she called her bed: back through the tangle of courts, in one of which we were told there was not an unconvicted lodger; under the fire of invective and sarcasm from women who threw up the windows and gesticulated at us like fiends-to a certain thieves' public-house, the landlord of which is one of the most considerable receivers of stolen goods in the country. Our sergeant and superintendent hoped we should not mind if a little scuffle ensued: they had a slight job-a trifling capture-somebody whom they wanted-in their eye. It would be over in a few minutes. I and one of our partyPrince Charles Bonaparte, who, as a thoughtful and serious observer, made the tour of the East End one night (February 5, 1872), with me; accompanied by the Marquis of Bassano, and Monsieur Filon, tutor to the Prince Imperial. entered a crowded public-house-thieves, to a boy-and pushed through to a door at the back, where a young, hard-featured woman was stationed, taking money. We passed into a large room, in the corner of which was a raised piano and a little platform. The entire audience turned towards us faces-the combined effect of which I shall never forget. The music stopped, and amid a general flutter our Scotland Yard sergeant, backed by the superintendent-passed the awful array of criminal countenances in steady review. We were then invited-and we needed no second invitation-to pass out.

"Not there," said the sergeant. It would have been a tough job." Glad that there had been no tough job in our presence, we went off to the casual ward of St. George's-in-the-East, where we knocked up an old pauper who was keeping the fire alight in the deserted oakum-shed; signed our names; peeped in at the rows of vagrants sleeping, rolled up like mummies, and went home, gradually, by the flaring lights of Shadwell, looking in at the Sailors' hops in Ratcliff Highway, and carrying off the honour of having been introduced to the strongest woman in Bermondsey; who was pleased to ask, in her condescending way, whether we were good for a pint of gin.

Indeed, demands for gin assailed us on all sides. Women old and young, girls and boys in the most woful tatters; rogues of all descriptions; brazen-faced lads dancing in the flaring ball-rooms on the first-floor of the public-houses; even the Fire King who was performing before half a dozen sailors, and the pot-boy who showed the way up the steep stairs-wanted gin-nothing but gin. Some cried for a pint, others for half a pint, others for a glass: not so much because they had any hope that their prayer would be granted, as humouring a savage rebellious spirit that stirred in them to mock at us for lamenting their woe-begone condition. Rebuked by the police, who did their spiriting very gently always, they would fall back, and grimace at us, and imitate our manners, our voice, our movements.

We were to them as strange and amusing as Chinamen: and we were something more and worse. We were spies upon them; men of better luck whom they were bound to envy, and whose mere presence roused the rebel in them. A few of them, loitering about the Whitechapel Road, flung a parting sneer or oath at us, as we hailed a returning cab, and buried ourselves in it, after hours upon hours of prospecting in an Alsatia, that numbers its inhabitants by the hundred thousand.

It was two in the morning when we got clear of the East.