[Shoreditch, it should be noted, is not in the modern borough of Tower Hamlets. It neighboured Bethnal Green and now forms part of the London Borough of Hackney. Penny gaffs, however, were a feature of East End life and I could not resist this article, so I've ignored my self-imposed boundaries and posted it here regardless. THHOL]
Do my readers know Shoreditch? I do not mean the Eastern Counties Railway Station, but the regions dark and dolorous lying beyond. In an old map of London, by my side, dated 1560, I see it marked as a street with but one row of houses on each side, and the five windmills in Finsbury Fields not far off. Here stood the Curtain Theatre. In Stowe's time there were in Shoreditch "two publique houses for the acting and shewe of comedies, tragedies, and histories for recreation." Here, according to the learned and indefatigable Mr. Timbs, "at the Blue Last public-house, porter was first sold, about 1730." And here still, if I may judge from the immense number of public-houses all round, the consumption of porter and other intoxicating liquors is still carried on on a somewhat extensive scale. Hard working and businesslike as Shoreditch is by day, with its clothes marts and extensive shoe depôts, by night it is a great place for amusement. Here are theatres where melodrama reigns supreme. Close by is the renowned Britannia Saloon. And here concerts exist where, over their beer, the listeners are regaled with the sentimental and comic songs of a generation long gathered to its fathers. To me I confess there is somewhat of pathos in these places. What tales cannot that ancient landlord tell! The young, the beautiful, the brave he has outlived, where are they?
But let us pass on to the penny theatre, a place not hard to find in this region of shell-fish and fruit-pie shops, those sure indications of a neighbourhood rather poor and very wild. We pay our money at the door, and then follow the direction given us by the businesslike young woman who takes the fee, "First turn to the left, and then to the right." But instead of being allowed to enter at once, we have to wait with several others, chiefly boys, very dirty, who regard us apparently with no very favourable eye, till a fresh house is formed. Our new acquaintances are not talkative, and we are not sorry when our turn comes to enter the dirty hole set apart for the entertainment of the Shoreditch youth. We climb up a primitive staircase, and find ourselves in a gallery of the rudest description, a privilege for which we have to pay a penny extra. Here we have an ample view of the stage and the pit, the latter chiefly filled with boys, very dirty, and full of fun, with the usual proportion of mothers with excited babies. The performance commences with a panorama of American scenery, with some very stale American criticisms, about the man who was so tall that he had to go up a ladder to shave himself, and so on; all, however, exciting much mirth amongst the youthful and apple-eating audience. Then a young lady, with very short petticoats and very thick ancles, dances, and takes all hearts by storm. To her succeeds one who sings about true love, but not in a manner which the Shoreditch youthdom affects. Then a fool comes upon the stage, and keeps the pit in a roar, especially when he directs his wit to the three musicians who form the orchestra, and says ironically to one of them, "You could not drink a quartern of gin, could you?" and the way in which the allusion was received evidently implied that the enlightened but juvenile audience around me evidently had a very low opinion of a man who could not toss off his quartern of gin. Then we had the everlasting niggers, with the bones, and curiously-wrought long coats, and doubtful dialect and perpetual laughter, which the excited pit copiously rewarded. One boy tossed a button on the stage, another a copper, and another an apple; and so pleasing was this liberality to the supposed young men of African descent, that they did not think it beneath them, or inconsistent with their dignity as professionals, to encourage it in every possible way. And well they might. Those gay blacks very likely had little white faces at home dependent on the liberality of the house for next day's crust. But the treat of the evening was a screaming farce, in one act, in which the old tale of "Taming the Shrew" was set forth in the most approved Shoreditch fashion. A husband comes upon the stage, whose wife - I would not be ungallant, but conscientious regard to truth compels me sorrowfully to declare - is an unmitigated shrew. She lords it over her husband as no good woman ever did or wishes to do. The poor man obeys till he can stand it no longer. At length all his manhood is aroused. Armed with what he calls a persuader - a cudgel of most formidable pretensions - he astonishes his wife with his unexpected resistance. She tries to regain the mastery, but in vain; and great is the delight of all as the husband, holding his formidable instrument over his cowed and trembling wife, compels her to obey his every word. All the unwashed little urchins around me were furious with delight. There was no need for the husband to tell the audience, as he did, as the moral of the piece, that the best remedy for a bad wife was to get such another cudgel for her as that he held in his hand. It was quite clear the little Britons around me had resolved how they would act; and I fear, as they passed out to the number of about 200, few of them did not resolve, as soon as they had the chance, to drink their quartern of gin and to whop their wives.
On another occasion it chanced to me to visit a penny gaff in that dark and dolorous region, the New Cut. There the company and the entertainment were of a much lower character. A great part of the proceedings were indecent and disgusting, yet very satisfactory to the half grown girls and boys present. In the time of the earlier Georges we read much of the brutality of the lower orders. If we may believe cotemporary writers on men and manners, never was the theatre so full - never was the audience so excited - never did the scum and refuse of the streets so liberally patronise the entertainment as when deeds of violence and blood were the order of the night. This old savage spirit is dying out, but in the New Cut I fear it has not given way to a better one.