IF St. George in the East has not slain the local dragon he has at least so maimed and crippled the monster that it crawls about to-day in a shame-faced manner. The fire that it breathes from its nostrils is but a pale flicker compared with the lurid flames of the day when the now quiet St. George's Street was riotous Ratcliff Highway. Then the crimps did a roaring trade in its pestilent purlieus, and the sailors of the world reeled along the notorious thoroughfare from drinking-bar to dancing-room, and from dancing-room to back courts and alleys, where they were always robbed, frequently injured, and occasionally murdered.
To wander about St. George in the East with a proper appreciation of its present you must know something of its past. For it claims to be in many ways quite a reformed character, and is naturally indignant when it is represented by traffickers in the sensational as still clinging to its old disreputable ways.
Who has not heard of "Paddy's Goose?" In the old days this house was typical of the Highway of Infamy. The "White Swan " - the origin of "Paddy's Goose" is obvious - was the most notorious drinking and dancing den for sailors in the world. It was larger and more "classy " - if one may use the expression in such a connection - than the dancing dram shops of Tiger's Bay, an infamous district just off the Highway. Daring explorers from the West anxious to see "life" sometimes ventured themselves within the wicked walls of "The Goose," but the land-sharks, male and female, who preyed upon poor Jack made it their hunting ground, and the scenes that were recorded as taking place nightly at last shocked the public conscience.
I remember "Paddy's Goose" in the bad old times, and I can imagine no greater contrast than the scene that the old "White Swan" looked down upon then and the scene that she surveys to-day.
The Swan, white and wondering, is still perched aloft. The house is still there, the doors are still open, and the windows are still lighted up at night. But through these windows one looks into a big square room, on the walls of which are Bible pictures and texts, and in bold letters on the boards that screen the lower part of the windows the passer-by is informed that "Paddy's Goose" is now the meeting-house of a Wesleyan mission.
Look at the little crowd in the street and by the doors. There are no sailors with their pockets full of gold. There are no tigresses from Tiger's Bay in gaudy raiment. No scraping fiddle is heard from the big room beyond the bar. No hoarse laughter rings out upon the night. No roistering seamen roll along the pavement shouting the chorus of a drinking song.
An aged travelling tinker, a quaint industrial survival of a bygone day, shuffles past silently, mournfully. Lounging about on the pavement are a few Irish dock labourers and hawkers, and little groups of Irishwomen, factory girls or sack and tarpaulin hands most of them. Their heads are bare and ornamented with a wealth of curling-pins. The curling-pin coiffure is the Irish note of the Highway. You will find it emphasised in Cable Street, one end of which is Jewish and the other Irish, while the middle may be said to be English. If you go to the Jewish end of Cable Street you will not see a single curling-pin. The young alien Jewess dresses her hair very much as the work-girl of Paris does. It is neatly and artistically arranged, and it frequently boasts an ornamental comb, which, though cheap, is effective and picturesque.
The contrast between the two ends of Cable Street is remarkable. At one end you see poorly. dressed women and ragged children. Here are barefooted, ragged, capless, coatless little Irish lads playing about the streets. Sometimes you may see a white-faced, bare-limbed little mite peering anxiously out of a court, waiting for a glimpse of mother, who has left him so long alone that he has wandered out in search of her.
At the other end, the Jewish end, there may be poverty among the immigrants who have not been long in our land of liberty, you may see squalor and misery, but you see no barefooted little boys, you see no little girls in rags and tatters. All the Jewish children are well shod and comfortably clad. And yet their fathers and mothers come here to begin the struggle for life in a strange land with no capital, and the prospect of an income no better than the poor Irish populace of the other end can earn.
Look at this group of immigrants making their way from the docks to the Jewish shelter in Leman Street.
They have just come from one of the Pales of Settlement in the land of persecution. It has been a desperate effort to raise the passage-money, and they have probably been robbed and cheated by the way.
But, poor as they are, miserable as they are - the anxious, hunted look in the faces of some of these refugees is a thing that once seen you never forget - they will make a bold fight with fortune, and presently they will be prospering and saving money, and some of them will be laying the foundation of a fortune for their children.
They are poverty-stricken enough in their surroundings at the beginning. In some of the lodging-houses that we shall visit before we quit the neighbourhood we shall find something akin to misery perhaps, but we shall never find a Jewish child ragged or barefooted or neglected.
The immigrants who pass us to-day are of more prosperous-looking type than the generality of those who land from the Thames. The high boots and the astrachan caps give them a picturesque appearance to the English eye, which tones down the look of patient suffering in their faces. But all of them are gaunt and hungry-looking enough, and all their worldly goods are carried in a little bundle.
To-day they are nervous, anxious. Some have a journey of thousands of miles yet before them. They are making their way to America, or to some far-off Jewish colony. But some will remain, as the immigrants who have made a Jewish colony of a portion of St. George's remained. And the Jewish half will always be a distinct contrast to the Irish half so far as the children are concerned.
The immigrant Jews are not the only foreign element to be found in St. George's to-day. There are Swedes, Norwegians, Belgians, Russians, Dutchmen, and Danes, and there is a small colony of Catholic Poles. One or two courts are given up almost entirely to them. The courts that run off the Highway are many of them inhabited exclusively by a class. In one court you find the sailor element; everyone has followed the sea in some shape or form. In another you find Catholic Poles, in another Germans, and quite a number have only Irish in them. There are many courts given up to the Jews, and others occupied entirely by waterside labourers.
One or two houses let out in floors in the district are inhabited by Germans. Going over them I found a large number of German "unemployed." In one of these German houses everybody seemed to be out of work, but they had all managed to keep their furniture.
But in the top room of the house an Irish dock labourer had been less fortunate. He had parted with everything, and had only the bare floor for himself and his wife and the children to rest on.
The window of his garret looked out upon a parapet; on the parapet was one note of colour to relieve the grey gloom of his despair.
Someone had dropped a button-hole of flowers - two roses bound to a little fern leaf with wire. These roses the man had picked up in the gutter, and his wife had put them in a little gallipot filled with water. She 'had placed them outside her garret window and loved them and tended them. When the night came on and she could see the faded flowers no longer, she had to lie down on the bare floor and sleep the darkness through, for the Irish labourer and his wife had no money to spare for fire and light.
Before we leave the Highway, which is the centre of the district, we get a momentary glimpse of Jack ashore in the high spirits that in the old days were typical of the place.
St. George's to-day has changed for the better. One is bound to admit that, and in admitting it give credit to the good men and women who have helped to bring the change about. But there are certain factors in the transformation which must not be ignored.
The trade of the Port of London has decreased considerably. The old wind-jammers that brought hundreds of sailors all the year round to the docks have been replaced by steamers which discharge their cargoes elsewhere. The sailors' boarding houses of St. George's are never full, and the Sailors' Rests are largely given up to waterside labourers. There are not sufficient sailors to make things lively in the old fashion, even if "Paddy's Goose" and the Mahogany Bar and the dens of Tiger's Bay were run on the old lines.
But there are sailors still and there are ships in the docks, and so you may now and again get a fair idea of what the Highway looked like in the days of its bustle and movement.
Outside a public-house at the corner of a street of foreign lodging-houses are a number of sea-going folk - engineers, stokers, and cattlemen. Most of them are foreigners and one or two are Americans. An old Scotch street-performer is giving a selection on the bagpipes and a Highland fling in the middle of the roadway, and the sea-faring aliens find an opportunity for a little rough horse-play.
One of them, while the Scotchman is going round with his cap, picks up his coat and hands it to a companion, who makes off with it up a court which was once famous for its "crimps' houses," and is said still to contain one or two.
There is no intention of stealing the coat. The rough, boisterous sailor-folk are simply having "fun" with the Scotch "busker," who has laid himself open to practical retaliation by the caustic remarks he has addressed to the crowd on the smallness of the sum with which they have rewarded his attempt to take up a collection.
One or two loafers of both sexes have come out of the public-house to look on, but they take no active part in the proceedings. The moving spirit of the "spree" is a typical American "cattleman" - long and lean, hatchet-faced, and bronzed, with ear-rings in his ears, and a slouch hat on his head that causes his nationality to "leap to the eyes."
A little way from the scene of the sailors' frolic, lies Prince's Square. It is a picturesque old place still, with its quaint Swedish church in the centre, and its old eighteenth-century houses standing cheek by jowl with glaring examples of twentieth-century "improvement." As we turn into it the note of strangeness which dominates it is emphasized by the fact that against the railings of the square a number of little Iceland ponies are standing, surrounded by a group of admiring boys. The connection between the Swedish church and the Icelandic ponies is not obvious, and the spectacle startles us, until we remember that one of the depôts of the famous Jamrach is close by. Then the situation is at once explained. These ponies have been imported by Jamrach, and it being a fine day, they are taking the air in Prince's Square.
Wonderfully interesting is another old-world spot, Wellclose Square, which is little known, and concerning which the guide books have scarcely anything to say. At the old Well House, which still stands, the well-keeper was, at one time, Bo'sun Smith, and Bo'sun Smith was a pioneer of free education for the masses.
Every day the Bo'sun, who had sailed the seas and seen the world, would gather about him the children of the sailors who lived in the neighbourhood, and tell them of the wonders he had seen. Having fired their imagination with his tales of travel and adventure, he would tell them that there were still more wonderful things to be read about in books.
The children, appreciating the advantages of being able to read even more wonderful yarns than Bo'sun Smith could spin, were eager to know how this gift was to be acquired, and readily allowed themselves to be taught reading and writing by the old sailor who kept the Well.
A few of the houses in Wellclose Square are still in private occupation, but most of them are lodging-houses, or let out in floors, or as business premises.
No. 36, where lived Thomas Day, the author of the immortal "Sandford and Merton," is now a Mission to the Jews, and where the High Court of the Liberties of the Tower stood, a furniture dealer displays his wares.
Round the corner, in Neptune Street, is a public- house, the "King's Arms," the proprietor of which has a prison on his premises. Hidden away from the passing throng, unknown, I imagine, to the majority of Londoners, there are the cells and the plank beds - aye, even the fetters and the strait jackets of the days when the poor prisoner was poor indeed, the cells in which, some of the Peninsular prisoners pined, and where many a famous felon languished.
The landlord of the house is amiable, and permits us to see the grim remains of a bygone day and an obsolete prison system.
He takes his keys, and we pass through a side door into a hall. From the hall a fine old staircase leads to the court-house. But the cells are below. We pass down a narrow, dark stairway, through a brick kitchen, and across a paved yard, and presently we are in the cells.
Here they are, as they were two hundred years ago. The door has to be unlocked with heavy keys, the massive bolts have to be unshot, and thick, black, forbidding doors have to be forced back upon their hinges before we can enter the dungeons.
The old prison was known as the Sly House, because people who were seen to enter it were rarely seen coming out again. There was a subterranean passage that led from this prison to the Tower, and to the docks; and it was along this subterranean way that prisoners passed on their way to the "Success," the famous convict ship.
Standing in one of the cells with its plank bed, the heavy fetters stapled to the wall, the grating of the little window closed, and the candle lighted, we people the dismal dungeon with forms that have long since passed away.
Many of the prisoners handed their names down to posterity by carving them on the woodwork. There are foreign names and Irish names and English names. One inscription is that of Mr. Stockley, the gentleman who had the doubtful honour of being the inventor of the pitch plaster. This was clapped over the mouth of the victim to prevent him drawing public attention to the fact that he was being assaulted and robbed.
Another poor prisoner dropped into poetry and carved a significant verse upon the wooden wall:
"The cupboard is empty,
To our sorrow;
Let's hope it will
Be full to-morrow."
The fact that our forefathers had to put up with dungeon life for being poor is illustrated by the inscription: "Please to remember the poor debtors. 1758."
It is a strange experience to grope your way through these gloomy cells, to come out through a bar in which a group of waterside loafers are discussing the free feeding of poor school children, and pass thence into the sunshine of the square, with its Mission to the Jews, its lodging-houses for alien immigrants, its modern warehouses and work-rooms, and a group of lads absorbed in the latest cricket scores as set out in the 3.30 edition of a halfpenny paper.
But over all these things floats a sound that takes one back to the days when the square was called Marine Square, and the captains and mates lounged about it, while the prisoners of war lay in the dungeons. It is the hoot of an ocean-going steamer working up the river to its anchorage in the docks.
The captains have gone - there may, perhaps, be a lighterman and a barge-owner in one or two of the private houses - and the alien immigrant has brought trades of his own to the once eminently British square - the square in which once stood the Royalty Theatre founded by John Palmer, the actor, who fell dead upon the stage after uttering, in the part of "The Stranger," the words, "There is another and a better world."
Let us enter one or two of the Jewish houses in the square and see what is going on. Here in a room below the level of the street, and lighted by a grating, are a dozen men making boots. We pass the open door of the bootmakers' room and go out into the yard, and here are great piles of British military uniforms, mostly khaki, for the" deal" has been in "South Africans."
A couple of Russian Jews are scrubbing the old uniforms vigorously with soap and water, and presently they will be baked in a little shed hard by. The wet paving of the yard is strewn with the shoulder-tabs identifying the regiments. Here, trampled under foot by the Russians, are the Royal Horse Artillery, the Royal Dragoons, and other famous regiments.
We go into another house, descend the steps, and find ourselves in a yard packed to the top of the walls with sacks of rags. Here again the Russian Jews are the proprietors of the business. But the sorting of the rags is not done by Jewish girls. A Jewish girl does not care for that sort of employment. The work is being carried on in a large shed at the back of the yard. Half a dozen women, some young, some old, are sorting the rags into heaps with a rapidity which is marvellous. They are all Irish. In the rag trade, as in several other trades in this district, the Irish are employed by the Jews to do the rougher class of work.
Sack-making and tarpaulin-making are local industries which employ a large number of Irish- women, but these trades are mainly in the hands of old-established English firms.
Sack-making is done largely in the home or rather outside the home. If we pass through a certain court we shall see a piece of sacking fastened to the wall outside almost every house, and a young Irish girl busily engaged on it. As the girls work they chatter with each other and exchange compliments across the way. Occasionally a young man may be observed lolling against a vacant piece of wall, and watching a girl work while he smokes his pipe or his cigarette. Even among the Irish the cigarette is taking the place of the dhudeen.
Climbing a steep hill of houses and back courts, that carry one to the days of the press gang, and the Jack ashore of the Dibdin songs, we come again into Cable Street and the district once known as "Nockfergus," a name which was applied to the whole of St. George's on the map prepared for Napoleon when he contemplated the invasion of England. Here are the Town Hall and the Public Library, and all the modern inventions for making people happy and orderly. The Public Library is a fine building and well patronized. Here in the afternoon come any number of well-dressed, intelligent little boys and girls, keeping the librarians busy and showing the brighter and better side of St. George's. And when the day's work is done the spacious reading-rooms are packed with the sons of toil who want a change of world.
Behind the Library lies one of the prettiest public gardens in London. It is the old Wesleyan burial-ground "converted." There is much material here both for the study of Nature and the study of Humanity. All sorts and conditions of men and women pass through the grounds or sit about on the seats. The dark-haired, black-eyed Russian Jewess; the Englishwoman, whose black eyes are of a different character; the Irish factory girl, the dock labourer, the artisan, the Jew dealer, the captain, the stevedore and the foreign sailor, and the nondescripts who may be waiting for work or mischief.
You pass through a gate in the gardens and you are in the churchyard of St. George's, one corner of which, the old mortuary, is given up to an admirably arranged, little Natural History Museum. The first thing that arrests your attention is the monument to the Marrs, the unhappy draper and his wife and child, who were murdered late on the night of December 7th, 1811, in a little shop in the Ratcliff Highway. The crime sent a thrill of horror through England, and moved De Quincey to write his immortal essay on "Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts."
The local terror caused by this murder was so great that everyone bought a rattle and prepared for the worst. It was expected that the brutal assassin would repeat his crime, and singularly enough, a few nights later he did. In Old Gravel Lane, only a few yards from the scene of the Marr tragedy, he murdered a publican and his family. A man named John Williams was arrested shortly afterwards in a sailors' lodging-house. There was a good deal of circumstantial evidence, and Williams was held to be guilty. He avoided further publicity by immediately committing suicide. His body was buried at four cross roads, the exact spot being at the corner of Cannon Street Road and Cable Street.
Williams would probably have been found guilty, but it is exceedingly doubtful if he committed the crime - at any rate, the second one. A young man who escaped from the house while the Gravel Lane family was being butchered saw the murderer and gave a description of him. Williams did not answer this description in a single particular.
The docks were the life of St. George's in the old days. It is because the docks are no longer busy that life in St. George's has become quieter. It is more respectable and more monotonous. Even about the men waiting at the dock gates there is an air of resignation. You can see a crowd of them at most hours of the day hanging about Pennington Street, a fine row of picturesque eighteenth-century houses, which form an admirable background to the waiting "dockers." Most of the men here are Irish. The population on the south side of St. George's to the river are nearly all from the land of poetry, politics, and potheen.
The Bridge of Sighs, the swing bridge in Old Gravel Lane, still remains, and still looks into the same dirty water as it did when Charles Dickens described it. It was for long a favourite place for suicides, and hence its name! But to-day there is a constable on duty night and day, and he keeps a watchful eye on all who cross it to enter or leave "The Island of Wapping."
A ramble through St. George's is interesting to those who know where to wander off the track and where to look behind the scenes. But to the stranger, after the first plunge into the foreign-looking end of Cable Street, it is dispiriting.
There is movement in the Watney Street market, there are brightness and beauty in the public gardens, there is comfort in the contemplation of the number of missions and rests and homes, in which the religious and philanthropic workers never grow weary of well-doing. But over all is the note of receding tide, of the day that is done, of the port to which no longer favourite gales waft golden argosies.
But the grass is not likely to grow in the streets for many a long day to come. St. George's has this year given a record birth-rate to the world, and the St. Georgian's, fully recognising that theirs is a district "with a past," find comfort in its well-ordered present and have the brightest hope for its future.