IT is a popular superstition among no inconsiderable section of our countrymen that the so-called 'Continental Sunday' is an abomination which has no existence in these islands, and that it is only the diseased imagination of Radicals, Atheists, and id genus omne that can look forward with equanimity to the opening on Sundays of libraries, picture-galleries and museums, to disturb 'the blessed dulness of the British Sunday,' and to secularize the Day of Rest into the same kind of unmentionable thing as prevails amongst the wicked foreigners. We pride ourselves on being such a 'practical' people. Nevertheless, the unbiassed observer of our latter-day proccedings may sometimes come to the not wholly unreasonable conclusion that, so far from our being nationally a practical people, there could hardly be found a more illogical and muddle-headed being than the average orthodox, respectable British Philistine. From the windows of his 'blameless villa residence,' paterfamilias can take his fill of the blessed dulness of the English - or still more of the Scottish - Sunday, and retire to his newspaper or his siesta with the comfortable reflection that, whatever our faults, we are certainly not, as regards the Day of Rest, as those publicans on the Continent. But the good Briton is mistaken. There is a Continental Sunday in England, and it is to be found in Whitechapel every week. That this is not creditable to local government is true, but then local government in London, and especially in the more densely populated parts, is a very Gallio, and 'cares for none of these things.' In one of the streets turning out of the main thoroughfare of Whitechapel, there has been posted up for months past a large and conspicuous notice, to the effect that 'By Order,' no Sunday trading will be permitted there. And with serene defiance of this untruthful placard, the hawkers and vendors of all sorts of wares, from kamptulicon to roast chestnuts and broadcloth, do a roaring trade there all through Sunday morning, week after week.
The scene in the Petticoat-lane fair, held by the Jews of the locality on Sunday mornings, recalls that of a Continental town during a festa. Many picturesque 'bits' may be seen: bright-coloured head-kerchiefs and other finery, carelessly arranged; although, as seen through 'this mud-coloured atmosphere of Whitechapel,' the surroundings are more or less - chiefly more - dingy and smoke-begrimed. At about eight o'clock on Sunday morning a crop of barrows is springing up all along the kerbstone of the usually quiet Goulston and Middlesex streets - by a sort of reaction, it would seem, from the quiet of Saturday. For although the Jew trades on Sunday he yet, unlike certain Transatlantic journalists, religiously observes the Sabbath of his people as a day of rest. One of the first barrows to arrive is that of a man who sells trousers; not mere second-hand garments, but new ones, numberless pairs of different shades, neatly folded and arranged over one side of the barrow in rows. On the wall behind hang sundry other articles of apparel, including women's dresses. Enter a lady and her husband to do their day's marketing. She selects a dress bodice, and the salesman obligingly doubles it and lays it against her ample back to judge of the size. Such is, however, but a rough and ready and unsatisfactory way of ensuring a good fit; so the lady in question, with a primitive simplicity which excites no remark at all from the bystanders, doffs her own dress then and there, and tries on the new one, over a clean shirt which she has apparently borrowed from her husband for the occasion.
As the morning wears on, the scene becomes more and more animated and the crowd - many of them doubtless mere idlers from all parts of London - more and more dense. Here is a man squatting on the kerb stone, with a sack spread out in the gutter before him. On the sack is neatly arranged a stock of needles, in the small familiar packets. Further on is a man waving aloft row after row of pins set in pink paper a yard or so long. Round the corner are stalls, where you may buy a pair of boots, or a yard of calico, or a slice of bread from flat, foreign-looking loaves, smoking hot, or 'snacks' of fried fish, or a mangy-looking fur boa, or a lemon-coloured feather for your hat. A gawky-looking fellow takes one of these feathers from the barrow, sticks it in the forefront of his dirty cap, and stalks up and down, head in air, with mock-solemn countenance, the admired of himself and sundry lads. Here and there are Whitechapel housewives who have come to do their week's shopping, with a shawl over their heads and enveloping their persons, in 'the simple fashion of the slums.' Bonnets are luxuries which are seldom seen in Petticoat-lane. Here come a knot of Jewish children, with curly black heads, bright handsome faces and magnificent dark eyes - where do they get their rosy, cheeks from, in this greasy smelling court?
Every now and then the sound of a tremendous slap rises above the general din. It comes from the cart up the street where the kamptulicon man holds forth every Sunday. The rows of floor-cloth stacked up in the cart are surmounted by a sort of banner on a pole, headed 'Public Notice,' detailing the virtues of kamptulicon, and finishing with 'guaranteed to last for twenty years.' This gentleman sells by auction, and possesses enormous lung-power. The slapping sound which attracted our attention was made by his periodically banging the roll of oil-cloth frantically against the side of the cart, to show how good it is. Near him, in the midst of a crowd, stands another man, with a placard. This one contains statistics respecting the composition of 'the human body,' from which we learn that the human body contains six million five hundred thousand air cells; and that something or other - heaven knows what - weighs '7¼ tons.' The owner of this instructive placard seems to be dilating on some cure for the ills of 'the human body.' We stand on the outskirts of the silent-gazing crowd of men and lads, and see the orator furiously gesticulating in the orthodox on-the-stump fashion. 'If yer don't believe me' - is the only but truculent remark which catches our ear. Next comes a man with a barrow covered with the 'Magic Firelight,' which is 'sold for advertisement.' 'A child,' we are told, 'of two years old could make a fire with it' - and with itself too, very likely, unless East-end babies are extraordinarily precocious. But it is getting well on into the afternoon: the conjurers and cheap jacks have carried the light of their presence elsewhere till next Sunday, the trouser man is packing up his stock, the old ladies with shawls over their heads are disappearing with the zinc pail full of coke embers which they bring to keep themselves warm. Petticoat-lane fair is over for to-day.