I DIP my pen to write the first line of this book with a consciousness that it must be rather egoistic if written at all.
It is a rough impression of my own experience and opinions; and, do what I will, I cannot help using a large number of capital I's in its compilation. The subject is one which ought especially to interest Londoners; and as I have been repeatedly asked about it by friends, I fancy that some others may care to read what is at least an honest record of personal observation.
Circumstances led me some two years ago to move from a populous Western district of which I had long had charge - that of St. Luke's, Berwick Street, in St. James's, Westminster - to St. George's in the East, a large parish lying a little beyond the Tower, and containing the London Docks.
Thus I have the opportunity of bringing the experience of many years in the West to the observation of the East.
The result hitherto has been the correction of much of my own ignorance and the dissipation of some prejudice. As soon as I came I began in an aimless sort of way, sometimes even as I walked along the street, jotting down impressions on scraps of paper, just as they occurred, without any order or connection, and stuffing them into a large envelope. This has now grown ready to burst, and after emptying the heap of pencil notes upon my study table I have tried to assimilate and reproduce them. I cannot, however, transform this papery jumble into a severely connected record. Thus, if any one cares to be my reader, I must ask him to forgive me for the discursive and colloquial shape of my attempt; for, after all, I must offer the fruit of my observation much as it was gathered.
My first impression was, perhaps, of the nearness of the East of London to the West. The East is, to many who dwell in the West, an unknown distant land. Anything beyond the City is indefinitely remote. I lived close to the Langham Hotel, and on the occasion of my first taking Sunday duty at St. George's I hailed a crawling cab in Portland Place and drove there. To my surprise it landed me at the gate of my new church in twenty-eight minutes. Of course, it being Sunday, the streets were clear, but I had not urged the driver to any special speed. The next week I got the jailor at the Marlborough Street police-court to go over my course with the fatal wheel which decides the disputes between cabmen and their 'fares.' The distance from the Oxford Street Circus to the iron gate of the church at St. George's in the East turned out to be something under four miles - a verdict which several cabmen have since heard with much professional affectation of scepticism; but on my informing them of my authority they have shown by their acquiescence that they had drawn upon their faith in the vaguely exaggerated public conceptions of the remoteness of the East in attempting to decline half-a-crown for the journey.
It is not, however, the actual distance so much as the throng in the City which divides the East of London from the West.
By day Westminster and Whitechapel are, so to speak, on the opposite sides of a thick wood; but at night, or when the road is clear, they are easily joined by a half-hour's drive. The railways, from whichever side they approach it, as yet only empty themselves into the rim round the centre of London; and thus they have hitherto done little toward bringing the suburbs together. Wherever you alight there is the same dense core to be penetrated and passed through before an opposite terminus can be reached. Presently, however, there will be one connecting line between at least the East and West.
The East London Railway, which runs through the old Thames Tunnel and is burrowing under the London Docks, will, by striking into the Great Eastern Low Level, meet the extension of the Metropolitan at Liverpool Street, and thus provide a new way through part of the parishes of Bethnal Green, Stepney, and St. George's in the East, from Paddington to the Sydenham district, and so on to Brighton. This will of course immensely benefit us Easterners. Now we have no wholly unimpeded road westward but the river. This in summer-time provides a cheap and pleasant access to Westminster by the Greenwich boats which call at various piers above the Tower.
After all, however, the East is very much farther from the West than the West is from the East.
When I lived near the line of Regent Street, I intended for years to make an expedition to the Ratcliff Highway; but I was deterred, I imagine, chiefly by the supposed length of the trip. Now that I live near the Highway I find that I can get easily, by three or four routes, to my old neighbourhood in from half an hour to forty-five minutes.
The second general impression I received of the East of London was in respect to its spaciousness. Anyone may perceive this who penetrates and then traverses the City from the West, and after passing the 'Butcher's Row' at Aldgate enters on either of the broad thoroughfares, traversed by trains, which are called the Commercial Road or the Mile End Road. These, shortly after leaving the City, become two of the widest streets in London, and the pavement in the Mile End Road in particular is proportionately as wide as the roadway.
They are characteristic of the East, and branching off from them on either side may be seen long tributaries of modest houses, many, I may say most of them, only two stories high, in which rent is low and where the tenants get plenty of elbow-room.
The Mile End Road dies out into the country - which, by the way, involves Epping Forest - with a growing fringe of villas; and the Commercial Road justifies its name more and more as it goes on and reveals, by the masts of the ships in the docks, its connection with the maritime commerce of London.
To recur to that part of the East which is daily before me, and which lies immediately on the right of the Commercial Road after passing Whitechapel. It eminently impresses me with the sense of spaciousness. In this my present parish presents a remarkable contrast to the district in which I had worked for some years. There my church was jammed up so tightly in the centre of a crowd of courts that a stranger walking down Berwick Street, at the bottom of which it was placed, might traverse nearly the whole street and come away without suspecting that it contained a church at all.
Here the church dominates - in a material sense - the whole parish, and has a disused church yard of some three acres at its foot, or, rather, heel. There, at St. Luke's, we had a densely crowded population. That of the Berwick Street division of St. James's, Westminster, has been stated in published statistics to be the most crowded in the metropolis. My reader may believe me or not, but I am speaking the truth when I tell him that we had 10,000 people in 300 yards square. Here the streets are wider, the houses are less closely packed together, and poor people especially have more room. There, an artisan in the receipt of good wages is frequently obliged to content himself with one apartment, which serves for all purposes, and for which he pays some five or six shillings a-week. Here he can get a whole house of four rooms, with a commodious yard at its back, for about the same sum.
Many people entertain a vaguely erroneous idea of the crowded 'slums' of the East. For the worst or most frequent specimens of 'slums' they should go to some parts of central London, or even some portions of St. James's, Westminster, and its contiguous parishes. Of course there are not a few vile corners and courts in the East; but, on the whole, the working classes are much better lodged here at St. George's than in those parts of the West of which I know most. And our neighbouring parishes of Stepney and Limehouse have fewer crowded corners than we have. Then, too - I speak of the districts which skirt the river - an enormous sense of space is afforded by the docks. These give us, moreover, something beyond a sense of space - a touch of catholicity or cosmopolitanism which is hard to be defined, though very real. It was a new sensation to me when walking down a street to see its whole width gradually filled up by, say, a full-rigged tea-ship from China, which, after months of plunging in tropical seas, was now creeping through the last few yards of its progress to some calmest nook within the docks, and, like a monster vessel in a play, crossed the stage silently with even keel.
All sorts of ships thus traverse St. George's, and, as may be supposed, contribute to the stream in its streets as well as to the crowd in its waters. You hear many languages on its pavements, and see men in all colours of skin and dress. This passing contact and contrast of races, this mixture of land and water, of homely trucks and foreign traders, of horse-vans and steam-vessels; the tier of huge ocean-going ships, brought so close to the shore that can touch their long black sides you with your stick or umbrella as you pace the edge of the docks, produces that sentiment of proximity to the ends of the world of which I have spoken, and which adds to the sense of space that characterises this part of the East of London. And I must remark, in passing, that this evidence of relationship with other parts of the earth seems to me to have its effect on the wits of the residents in St. George's.
Education has been somewhat neglected here - more of this presently - but the people are, it strikes me, eminently shrewd and colloquially intelligent. Their acquaintance with distant commerce must, I think, account for a certain freedom from that local exclusiveness of sentiment and information which characterises many dense communities. Fresh points are given to the many-sided sharpness of London life by familiarity with distant interests.
Another phase of spaciousness appears in the interest which many of the working classes here take in the keeping of animals. I do not now refer to Mr. Jamrach, whose beasts are my parishioners - though the fact of St. George's being notoriously the central market of the world for lions, bears, tigers, elephants, monkeys, and parrots, must create a sentiment of cosmopolitanism among those who can hear them howl and chatter - but to tamer tastes, exhibited in the possession of pigeons, fowls, and dogs. I appreciated the opportunities for this myself, and, being fond of most live things, soon had a company of cocks and hens, which resulted in abundance of fresh eggs throughout the year...
[There's a lengthy digression here about the Rev. Jones' fowls and dogs which has been omitted.]
There is a sentiment of elbow-room and manifold life at St. George's which is felt and reflected by its natives. Not that they do not work, and work hard. No one can live in the East without perceiving this. Life has a very severe and importunate side in these parts. The air is heavily charged with the sentiment of toil, and there is little to stir it. We seem not only to be always at work, but we hardly ever have a glimpse of the unoccupied side of London life. Every one appears either to have something to do or to be seeking work. I except, of course, the phase of relaxation, often grossly offensive, exhibited by sailors ashore, who crowd as much coarse indulgence as possible into the few hours at their disposal. Otherwise, all are obviously about some business. No one dreams of a carriage airing in this part of the East. Here I have never seen a coachman in a wig, or a footman in powder. I have never met a lady on horseback, or a 'Victoria;' and, though we go much about on foot, such a luxury as a crossing-sweeper is unknown. I tax my memory but I do not recollect ever to have seen a 'Punch' at St. George's. As I think about it I perceive that here the strain of work and sentiment of toil is continuous. It is unbroken by the exhibition of equipages and pleasure seekers that marks the 'London Season.' Here our only 'seasons' are summer and winter. We are hot or cold, but we are always at work. September is marked by no difference in the aspect of our streets. We have no fixed busy time, for all times are the same. We do not know when London is 'full' or 'empty,' When Parliament meets or disperses. The only annual event which makes a distinct impression on the neighbourhood is the Cambridge and Oxford boat-race. Then the smallest little draper's shop down the loneliest and dullest street breaks out in blue ribands, and the van horses toiling up Old Gravel Lane from the Docks wear their colour. The papers tell those who please to read such information, of Gun Clubs, Polo Clubs, Four-in Hand Gatherings, Lord's Cricket-matches, Garden Parties, Annual Exhibitions, and all the machinery of pleasure and play, whose wheels are set going from Easter till August, but no echo of this yearly stir reaches us here.
We live much from hand to mouth. Every farthing has to be earned, and a sixpence is severely perceived to be worth six pennies. True there is some pretext for relaxation associated with Victoria Park and the Bethnal Green Museum, but here we sorely want some mollifying influence, some commentary of ornament. The strain of toil is too importunate. An illustration of the general acceptance of the prevailing necessity of work in these parts appears in the use that is made of the big bell of our church - a use of it which, I fancy, would not be tolerated in the West of London.
The parish is proud of its peal of bells. There are eight of them, and at a little distance, or on Sunday before service, they sound well; though practices and rehearsals fill every room, within the radius of some hundred yards or so, with a tremendous din. We have, too, a sonorous clock, which chimes the quarters and strikes the hours with a will. Besides ordinary marking of time by the clock, the curfew is regularly rung; and so is the morning alarum.
St. George's is the only place I know of in which the curfew fulfils some of its original purpose. Directly the clock has done striking eight it tolls for a quarter of an hour; and I am informed that it gives the signal for the cessation of work and the turning-off of the gas in divers workshops.
But the tolling of the day is preeminently in the morning. Then the big bell is rung for fifteen minutes before six, with irregular clang. Sometimes a few strokes are less vigorous than others, but they are never equidistant, and they are always strong. The purpose of this peal or metal monologue is not so much to herald the hour at which work should begin as to awaken the workers, and as it has been so rung for years by the same man he has become an expert in the business. The sleeping ear might survive an even unvarying sound, such as the striking of a clock, but it could hardly outsleep the strain of our alarum.
Did Mr. Fleming, our awakener, toll the bell with the same regularity and force as that which announces the hour, I believe that many might sleep through the summons, though he sounded it for a quarter of an hour. It is remarkable how soon the ear learns to accommodate itself to a recurrent sound, when it is simply and evenly repeated. But Mr. Fleming knows better than merely to reproduce his message. He never precisely repeats his morning performance; sometimes he tolls rapidly and loudly for a minute, then pausing for some fifty seconds, he gives a couple of clangs which seem to discharge an accumulated store of sound. Then, after another silence, he lets off an other big bang; to wait again during a parenthesis which is broken by a score of strokes, that increase in loudness, and crowd so closely on each other, that one wonders how he can get the heavy clapper to obey his tugs with sufficient rapidity. But his great and expiring effort arrives when the chimes begin to precede the striking of six o'clock. Then, stimulated by the additional perception that he can produce a discord as well as a noise, he pulls with a will, and produces a tocsin so complicated and vehement, that if the sleeper has outslept even the summons of the previous fifteen minutes, he must awake, at least if he lives anywhere near the church. My house adjoins it. Its tower is so close that I can hear the rattle of the rope and the groan of the wheel before each metal 'boom.' And when the last stroke of six has been struck in a storm of accompanying clangour from the heavy alarum bell, the air long remains filled with an angry hum, as if the emperor of all the hornets was flying around the room.
And this is done summer and winter, wet and dry. No wonder, if I have not finally contracted a habit of early rising, that I frequently find myself in my study at six o'clock.
Here, in this tocsin, this alarum, which is meant to be intolerable, and so borne with, we have remarkable witness to the general acceptance of the necessity of work in these parts. A great feature of the business here is cartage. The goods brought into dock from over the seas are incessantly being dispersed by wheel and axle. When the tocsin ceases you presently begin to hear a dull, distant rumble of wheels as the vans start for their day's work.
Barring the bells, however, which really represent 'noise' only to those who live close to them, this, though a populous and busy part of London, is tolerably quiet. The rectory, which stands a little off the street, is remarkably free from the usual London noises. Though I can discern the dull grind of wheels down Cannon Street Road, most of our vehicles move slowly. They are heavily laden. There is hardly any of the sharp penetrating rattle which is made by swift carriages and cabs; and the disturbance, lasting into the small hours of the morning, created by a contiguous late 'party' in the season is, of course, unknown.
The route of the Blackwall Railway, which traverses the parish, is distantly indicated by its whistles, but I hear little of the trains. Late at night, when the public-houses are emptied, there is an accession of shouts and singing, mostly from sailors abusing their liberty ashore by getting more or less drunk. But, curiously enough, to us this clamour seems to come from the church, which ' corners' on the rectory. The west front of its tower catches and reflects the noises that arise from the street. When I first heard these I fancied that some riotous party had made its way into the churchyard, but I soon found that they were strictly the echoes of that nocturnal dissipation \vhich may be heard everywhere in the neighbourhood of publicans, especially when they turn their customers out of doors. There is another sound, too, which is more constant in the evenings, and which for a long time I could not make out. I thought several times that somebody had upset a chair or table in the next room but one. It was as if a visitor was announcing his call by kicking intermittently at the outer gate with his shoes off. At last I found that these dull thuds came from a covered skittle-alley some fifty yards off. What I heard was that from the successful shots of the players. The sounds we hear are, however, altogether less than what one might expect from Ratcliff Highway. Most of the other streets are usually quiet enough, the liquor houses being chiefly congregated in our main thoroughfares.
As to the street organs and bands which plague the West End, I cannot say that I have heard one while sitting indoors at St. George's. There are a few to be met with sometimes, but very few. I seem never to hear them. Nor is there anything like the commercial row which costermongers used to make under my windows a few yards from Portland Place. There they incessantly proceeded, two to a barrow, day after day, offering onions, rhubarb, what not, in a yell, hour after hour, without ever, as far as I could perceive, meeting with any response to their tremendous proposals. Here, too, we have no roaring liars or frozen-out gardeners.
Indeed, barring the bells, our chief household noises arise from our own cocks and hens, which - record their domestic events with more cackling than I ever heard in connection with them. The vividness with which these are heard says much for the general quiet of our surroundings. When I am saying the daily morning service in the church hard by, I can distinctly note the advertisement of another egg...
[Another digression about his dogs follows and has been omitted.]