PEOPLE often ask, how do the poor live in London. This a question I don't intend answering on the present occasion. But if you ask how they clothe themselves, my answer is, at Rag Fair. Do my readers remember Dickens's sketch of Field-lane? In "Oliver Twist," he writes, "Near to the spot at which Snow-hill and Holborn meet there opens, on the right hand as you come out of the city, a dark and dismal alley, leading to Saffron-hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of pocket handkerchiefs of all sizes and patterns, for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets; hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows, or flaunting from the door-posts, and the shelves within are filled with them. Confined as the limits of Field-lane are, it has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer shop, and its fried fish warehouse. It is a commercial colony of itself - the emporium of petty larceny, visited at early morning and setting in of dusk by silent merchants, who traffic in dark back parlours, and go as strangely as they come. Here the clothes-man, the shoe vamper, and the rag merchant display their goods as signboards to the petty thief, and stores of old iron and bones, and heaps of mildewy fragments of woollen, stuff, and linen rust and rot in the grimy cellars." Expand this picture. Instead of one street have several - make it the resort of all the dealers' in old clo', old iron, old rags, old tools, old bones, old anything that a human creature can sell or buy; fill it with a miscellaneous crowd of Jews, Irish, navvies, artisans, pickpockets, and thieves, bargaining with all the energy of which their natures are susceptible; make it damp and warm with their vapour, and a very Babel with their discordant sounds, and you get a dim idea of Rag Fair and its guests, unwashed as they appear every day from twelve to two, but especially on a Sunday, to the great scandal of the devout and respectable in that locality, who are too apt to quarrel with the effect and forget the cause.
Let us enter Houndsditch, a place where the Jews collected together long before the royal house of Guelph occupied its present pleasant position on the English throne. Poverty and wretchedness, it may be, are bashful at the West End, but they are not so here,
"Where no contiguous palace rears its head,
To mark the meanness of their humble shed."
In a little court on our left, a little way down, we come to a building known as the Old Clothes Exchange. The building was erected some dozen years ago by one of the leading merchants in the old clothes line. A small entrance fee is demanded. You had better pay, as otherwise admission will be denied you. You had better not attempt to pass in without paying, as the toll-collector is an ex-prize-fighter; and the chances are, in a set-to, you would come off second best. If it be Sunday you had better not, especially if the weather be warm, attempt a passage at all. The scrambling, and wedging, and pushing, and driving are dreadful. A man must have some nerve who forces his way in. In the week day, and you are a seller, you are soon pounced on by the Jews hungering and thirsting after bargains. In that peculiar dialect affected by the ancient people you have the most magnificent offers made. "My coot friend, have you cot any preakage?" says one. "Cot any old boots?" says another. "I alvays gives a coot prishe," says a third. And the seller is surrounded by an eager crowd, as if he had the Koh-i-noor, and was going to part with it dirt cheap. If you are a buyer, you are quite as quickly attacked. "Want a new hat?" says one. "Shall I sell you a coot coat?" says an other; and whichever way you turn, you see the same buying and selling. The cheap jewellery, the china ornaments, the general wares, are not of the most recherché, but of the most popular character. You may buy a stock close by that will set up all the fairs in England. Here a seller of crockery ware has come back, and is disposing of the treasures he has acquired in the course of his travels. There a woman is discharging a similar miscellaneous cargo. All round are buyers, examining their goods. Every thing here will be made useful. That bit of old iron will become new; those boots, ruined, as you deemed them, will be vamped up, and shall dance merrily to accompanying shillalaghs at Donnybrook fair; that resplendent vest, once the delight of Belgravia, in a few weeks will adorn Quashie as he serenades his Mary Blane beneath West Indian moons. Even those bits of waste leather will be carefully treasured up and converted into a dye that may tint the rich man's costly robe. Now, you need not wonder why you find suspicious-looking men and women bargaining with your servants for left-off clothes, or rags, or plunder of any kind, and you are not surprised when you hear even out of this dirty trade riches are made, and the gains are great.
A wit was once asked what he thought of Ireland. "Why," was his answer, "I never knew before what the people of England did with their cast-off clothes." A similar remark might be made with regard to Rag Fair. But we have not yet described the locality. Very dark and very dismal, but very much inclined to do business, the Exchange, as it is termed, is not a building of a very gorgeous style of architecture. In its erection the useful and the economical evidently was considered more than the beautiful. It seems destitute alike of shape and substance. Mr. Mayhew says it consists of a plot of ground about an acre in extent; but Mr. Mayhew has certainly fallen into error here. The place is scarcely fenced in; and here and there you come to a hoarding, in the inside of which are some stalls and benches, scarce covered from the rain - others not so. Some of these benches, all looking very dirty and greasy, are ranged back to back, and here sit the sellers of old clothes, with their unsightly and unsavoury store of garments strewn or piled on the ground at their feet, while between the rows of petty dealers pass the merchant buyers on the look-out for bargains, or the workman, equally inclined to get as much as possible for his penny. But the curious spectator must not stop here. Near is the "City Clothes Emporium," and all the streets and alleys in the neighbourhood are similarly occupied. The place has the appearance of a foreign colony. They are not Saxon names you see, nor Saxon eyes that look wistfully at you, nor Saxon dialects you hear, but Hebrew. Every street around is part and parcel of the fair, the bazaar is but one section of the immense market which is here carried on; but let the anxious inquirer not be too curious or too lost in wonder, else some prying hand may be inserted into his pocket, and the loss of a handkerchief, or even of something else more valuable, may be the result of a visit to Rag Fair, a place unparalleled in this vast city for rags, and dirt, and seeming wretchedness. It is true that part of the nuisance is done away with. The police keep a close look-out on a Sunday, and a great portion of the traffic on that day is very properly stopped. But there are greater nuisances in the neighbourhood on the Sabbath which the police do not look after, but which they might.