London’s Underworld Part 2

London streets during the hours of trade:

‘The pavement and the road are crowded with purchasers and street-sellers. The housewife in her thick shawl, with the market-basket on her arm, walks slowly on, stopping now to look at the stall of caps, and now to cheapen a bunch of greens. Little boys, holding three or four onions in their hand, creep between the people, wriggling their way through every interstice, and asking for custom in whining tones, as if seeking charity. Then the tumult of the thousand different cries of the eager dealers, all shouting at the top of their voices, at one and the same time, is almost bewildering. “So-old again,” roars one. “Chestnuts all‘ot, a penny a score,” bawls another. “An ‘aypenny a skin, blacking,” squeaks a boy. “Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy– bu-u-uy!” cries the butcher. “Half-quire of paper for a penny,” bellows the street stationer. “An ‘aypenny a lot ing-uns.” “Twopence a pound grapes.” “Three a penny Yarmouth bloaters.” “Who‘ll buy a bonnet for fourpence?” “Pick ‘em out cheap here! three pair for a halfpenny, bootlaces.” “Now‘s your time! beautiful whelks, a penny a lot.” “Here‘s ha‘p‘orths,” shouts the perambulating confectioner. “Come and look at ‘em! here‘s toasters!” bellows one with a Yarmouth bloater stuck on a toasting-fork. “Penny a lot, fine russets,” calls the apple woman: and so the Babel goes on.’ Henry Mayhew.

London’s Streets in the late Victorian were hell for the poor and destitute, nowadays we have the National Health Service and a benefits system to help, it’s not brilliant but it does do what it says. Of course it is a political football and of course our current government would gladly do away with it leaving the poor to return to this state:

Horrible speech and strange tongues are heard in it, accents of sorrow and bursts of angry sound prevail in it.

Drunkenness, debauchery, crime and ignorance are never absent; and in it men and women grown old in sin and crime spend their last evil days. The whining voice of the professional mendicant* is ever heard in its streets, for its poverty-stricken inhabitants readily respond to every appeal for help.

A mendicant is a professional begger, that is someone who relies on alms giving or charity as a way of life and we still appear to have plenty of those around.

And yet within the drunkenness and debauchery warmth is noted:

The prattle of little children and the voice of maternal love make sweet music in its doleful streets, and glorious devotion dignifies and illumines the poorest homes.

But Holmes continues:

Let us stand and watch!

Here comes a poor, smitten, wretched old man; see how he hugs the rags of his respectability; his old frayed frock-coat is buttoned tightly around him, and his outstretched hands tell that he is eager for the least boon that pity can bestow. He has found that the way of the transgressor is hard; he has kissed the bloom of pleasure’s painted lips, he has found them pale as death!

But others follow, and hurry by. And a motley lot they are; figure and speech, complexion and dress all combine to create dismay; but they have all one common characteristic. They want money! and are not particular about the means of getting it. Now issue forth an innumerable band who during the day have been sleeping off the effects of last night’s debauch. With eager steps, droughty throats and keen desire they seek the wine cup yet again.

Once again alcohol is the escape from a very derelict way of living but not for all:

Surely it is a strange and heterogeneous procession that issues evening by evening from the caves and dens of London’s underworld. But notice there is also a returning procession! For as the sun sinks to rest, sad-faced men seek some cover where they may lie down and rest their weary bones; where perchance they may sleep and regain some degree of passive courage that will enable them, at the first streak of morning light, to rise and begin again a disheartening round of tramp, tramp, searching for work that is everlastingly denied them. Hungry and footsore, their souls fainting within them, they seek the homes where wives and children await their return with patient but hopeless resignation.

Take notice if you will of the places they enter, for surely the beautiful word “home” is desecrated if applied to most of their habitations. Horrid places within and without, back to back and face to face they stand.

At their doorway death stands ready to strike. In the murky light of little rooms filled with thick air child-life has struggled into existence; up and down their narrow stairs patient endurance and passive hopelessness ever pass and repass.

Small wonder that the filthy waters of a neighbouring canal woo and receive so many broken hearts and emaciated bodies.

Widows who would return to the their lodgings having earned their two shilling with:

A loaf, a pennyworth of margarine, a pennyworth of tea, a bundle of firewood, half a pound of sugar, a pint of lamp-oil exhaust their list of purchases, for the major part of their earnings is required for the rent.

So they climb their stairs, they feed the children, put them unwashed to bed, do some necessary household work, and then settle down themselves in some shape, without change of attire, that they may rest and be ready for the duties of the ensuing day. Perhaps sweet oblivion will come even to them. “Blessings on the man who invented sleep,” cried Sancho Panza, and there is a world of truth in his ecstatic exclamation, “it wraps him round like a garment.”

Aye, that it does, for what would the poor weary women and men of London’s underworld do without it? What would the sick and suffering be without it? In tiny rooms where darkness is made visible by penny-worths of oil burned in cheap and nasty lamps, there is no lack of pain and suffering, and no lack of patient endurance and passive heroism.

As night closes in and semi-darkness reigns around, when the streets are comparatively silent, when children’s voices are no longer heard, come with me and explore!

To be continued in part 3


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