London’s Underworld Part 1

There are quite a few films and Novels that show the seedy side of Victorian London.

Dickens recognised it with characters like Fagin, The Artful Dodger and Bill Sykes.

Back 1912 by Thomas Holmes called London’s Underworld and he writes about the 25 years since 1887, late Victorian, that he has known the people and describes them thus:

The odds and ends of humanity, so plentiful in London’s great city, have for many years largely constituted my circle of friends and acquaintances.

They are strange people, for each of them is, or was, possessed of some dominating vice, passion, whim or weakness which made him incapable of fulfilling the ordinary duties of respectable citizenship.

They had all descended from the Upper World, to live out strange lives, or die early deaths in the mysterious but all pervading world below the line.

But our acquaintance was of sufficient duration to allow me to acquire some knowledge, and to gain some experience of lives more than strange, and of characters far removed from the ordinary.

But with others I spent many hours, months, or years as circumstances warranted, or as opportunities permitted. Some of them became my intimates; and though seven long years have passed since I gave up police-court duties, our friendship bears the test of time, for they remain my friends and acquaintances still.

But some have passed away, and others are passing; one by one my list of friends grows less, and were it not that I, even now, pick up a new friend or two, I should run the risk of being a lonely old man.

Quite how Mr Holmes ended up in this way I am not so sure but he spreads some invaluable light into the plight of the poor and impoverishment of the downcast and destitute.

It certainly seems that not all the underclass were ill-educated or ill-bred and that I guess some may say that about our burgeoning underclass today. Holmes certainly describes his friends as:

Others were intelligent, clever and even industrious, quite capable of holding their own with respectable men, still they were helpless. Others were fastidiously honest in some things, yet they were Others had known and appreciated the comforts of refined life, yet they were happy and content amidst the horror and dirt of a common lodging-house! Why was it that these fellows failed, and were content to fail in life?persistent rogues who could not see the wrong or folly of dishonesty; many of them were clear-headed in ninety-nine directions, but in the hundredth they were muddled if not mentally blind.

As with today many of the homeless that adorn London’ dark streets have mental issues or learning disabilities. Certainly Holmes wondered why:

What is that little undiscovered something that determines their lives and drives them from respectable society? What compensations do they get for all the suffering and privations they undergo? I don’t know! I wish that I did! but these things I have never been able to discover.

They do not realise that in reality they do differ from ordinary citizens; I realise the difference, but can find no reason for it.

No! it is not drink, although a few of them were dipsomaniacs, for generally they were sober men.

Certainly alcohol played a part in many of he lives in the underworld but it seems that Mr Holmes had discarded that through experience if nothing else.

Indeed Mr Holmes speaks of his time with them as:

Sad and weary many of those years have been but always full of absorbing interest. Yet I have found much that gave me pleasure, and it is no exaggeration when I say that some of my happiest hours have been spent among the poorest inhabitants of the great underworld.

But goes onto say:

But whether happy or sorrowful, I was always interested, for the Poverty and London is one huge subject with many different stories and aspects that I expect we will return too. This example shows the power of alcohol in lives, and is still the same  today for some. strange contrasts and the ever-varying characteristics and lives of the inhabitants always compelled attention, interest and thought. There is much in this underworld to terrorise, but there is also much to inspire.

I was hurrying down crowded Bishopsgate at lunch time, lost in thought, when I felt my hand grasped and a well-known voice say, “Why! Mr. Holmes, don’t you know me?”

Know him! I should think I do know him; I am proud to know him, for I venerate him. He is only a french polisher and by no means handsome, his face is furrowed and seamed by care and sorrow, his hands and clothing are stained with varnish. Truly he is not much to look at, but if any one wants an embodiment of pluck and devotion, of never-failing patience and magnificent love, in my friend you shall find it!

Born in the slums, he sold matches at seven years of age; at eight he was in an industrial school; his father was dead, his mother a drunkard; home he had none!

Leaving school at sixteen he became first a gardener’s assistant, then a gentleman’s servant; in this occupation he saved some money with which he apprenticed himself to french polishing. From apprentice to journeyman, from journeyman to business on his own account, were successive steps; he married, and that brought him among my many acquaintances.

He had a nice home, and two beautiful children, and then that great destroyer of home life, drink! had to be reckoned with. So he came to consult me. She was a beautiful and cultured woman and full of remorse.

The stained hands of the french polisher trembled as he signed a document by which he agreed to pay L1 per week for his wife’s maintenance in an inebriate home for twelve months where she might have her babe with her. Bravely he did his part, and at the end of the year he brought her back to a new and better home, where the neighbours knew nothing of her past.

For twelve months there was joy in the home, and then a new life came into it; but with the babe came a relapse; the varnish-stained man was again at his wits’ end. Once more she entered a home, for another year he worked and toiled to pay the charges, and again he provided a new home. And she came back to a house that he had bought for her in a new neighbourhood; they now lived close to me, and my house was open to them. The story of the following years cannot be told, for she almost ruined him. Night after night after putting the children to bed, he searched the streets and public-houses for her; sometimes I went with him. She pawned his clothes, the children’s clothing, and even the boy’s fiddle. He cleaned the house, he cooked the food, he cared for the children, he even washed and ironed their clothing on Saturday evening for the coming Sunday. He marked all the clothing, he warned all the pawnbrokers. At length he obtained a separation order, but tearing it up he again took her home with him. She went from bad to worse; even down to the deepest depths and thence to a rescue home. He fetched her out, and they disappeared from my neighbourhood.

Holmes wondered what happened to them and bumped into them:

Today he was smiling; he had with him a youth of twenty, a scholarship boy, the violinist. He said, “I am just going to pay for his passage to Canada; he is going to be the pioneer, and perhaps we shall all join him, she will do better in a new country!” On further inquiry I found that she was trying hard, and doing better than when I lost them.

So not all was lost but this example had a happy ending, many others didn’t.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s