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 Continue reading

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