THE tintinnabulation of the church bells fill the quiet City streets with melody this fine frosty morning of Sunday, the eleventh of March. Bow bells fling their ding-dong-dinging peals up deserted Cheapside. St. Michael's and St. Peter's, Cornhill, catch up the cheerful chorus, and speed it on to the grey steeple of St. Mary Axe in Leadenhall-street; and the echoes of the bells clang out with a deeper diapason from St. Botolph's, Bishopsgate. The crisp air is flooded with the music of the Sabbath bells - rich sonorous tones mingling with clear silvery chimes in rare harmony for awhile, until the ringers seem to tire, and the melodic ding-dong dies away into solemn tolling, calling Mr. and Mrs. John Gilpin and the little Gilpins, spruce young men and sprucer young women who labour within sound of Bow bells, to Sunday morning service, and even brightening up Cornhill with a glowing bit of Civic pageantry in the shape of a procession of Lord Mayor Sir Thomas White and the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex in their gorgeous state coaches to St. Peter's, whither they are awaited by the City Marshal and the Committee of the Charity which the grandees have come to benefit. My Lord Mayor is accompanied by the Lady Mayoress and his sword and mace bearer; and as he alights at the church porch his grandiose footmen, in green velvet and gold-braided liveries, form line with the equally brilliant flunkies of the Sheriffs to receive his Lordship, who (if I read his homely face aright) must inly have a wholesome contempt for the empty pomp and vanity he is bound by custom to put up with.
Though sorely tempted to enter St. Peter's likewise, and - in the napping intervals, of course - muse over a modern illustration of Hogarth's picture of the culminating point in the Industrious Apprentice's virtuous career, I fain must turn away, and beg you to accompany me to a far different scene.
Down Bishopsgate-street - calm as it is noisy on a week day at this hour - until your attention is arrested by the bow windows and carved panels of that quaint wooden-fronted hostelry of old London, the Sir Paul Pindar, over on the left-hand side of the way, facing the degenerate architecture of "Dirty Dick's." A few steps further bring us to Artillery-lane, at the end of which Petticoat-lane begins.
Ned Corduroy - navvy, mason, what you will - is bound in the same direction. His home, maybe, a squalid court, with the consequent misery of a squalid wife and squalid children, Ned may be excused for seeking relaxation in the life and bustle of Petticoat-lane on Sunday morning. Where else can he go? True, there is within easy walking distance an institution especially dedicated to the People, and an institution which the People have well shown they can appreciate - Bethnal-green Museum. But it is also true that on the very day when Ned Corduroy has leisure to inspect the rare paintings and works of art treasured therein a paternal Government shuts the doors in his face. Is it to be wondered at, then, that Ned Corduroy and his mates in no small numbers hie to Petticoat-lane on a Sunday for recreation?"
What a din! The narrow lane where Hebrews most do congregate is seething with life. Petticoat-lane well-nigh stretches from Bishopsgate to Whitechapel; and almost every inch of the road you have to push your way through the crowd. Good temper and good humour reign. There is no obtrusive touting. But what keen chaffering and bargaining is going on "all along the line!"
"Who'll buy?" is a general cry from shop and truck alike.
"All the new songs! Honly a panny! " shouts a loud-tongued, lanky youth, holding out a handful of flimsy song-sheets.
"Who'll buy a 'at for two bob - worth five bob, s'elp my bob!" calls out a black-haired, black-eyed young son of Israel, his thick, red lips dwelling with fond emphasis on the Petticoat-lane equivalent for a shilling, as he uplifts a pile of "billycocks," the topmost one decked with tall peacock feathers.
Are you in want of a silk or cotton handkerchief brilliant in hue as the colours of a prize-fighter or a champion oarsman? There's a sheaf of them pendent from this wardrobe shop, the presiding divinity whereof is a buxom Madame Rachel. Do you need a scarlet uniform and cocked hat for the next Levee? A dress suit for the Lord Mayor's ball? Half a dozen stockings cheap? Madame Rachel can oblige you with all. For Madame Rachel is in an obliging mood: her litte Benjamin, you see, has just given a customer change, and has playfully kept the shilling - an instance of filial shrewdness that touches in the mother's heart, you may be sure, despite her mild tone of coaxing rebuke, evidently not seconded by the twinkle of her lustrous eyes.
Abraham and Solomon were, if my memory serves me rightly, very much married; and, if names go for anything, they number not a few descendents in Petticoat-lane. Solomon and Abrahams, as well as Isaacs, Jacobs, Levy, and Cohen are common names here; and their owners, with their belongings, form as motley a community as you will meet anywhere in London.
Nathan will. He has already donned a "two bob" hat, and has, doubtless, gained an allowance for his old one. Nathan now wants a Sunday coat. There is no false pride about him. He sees the very thing to suit him in a black-check cut-away coat temptingly displayed to the best advantage on the truck of a peripatetic clothier. Off is he with his old love and on with the new in a minute.
"Turn raound!" says Moses. "A beeautiful fit! Fits yer like a glove!" And the bargain is concluded.
The pressure of the crowd increases. It is no easy matter to squeeze one's way through. The thronged pavement is but narrow, and the few feet of the roadway are occupied by a continuous string of stalls and trucks, each attractive from some specialty - an array of cheap jewellery, cheap tools, cheap crockery, cheap clothes, cheap hats, cheap cakes, cheap hot liquor of a crimson hue, sold in small glasses - cheap everything, in fine.
A momentary block ahead! Ned Corduroy is bargaining for a saw, screwdriver, hammer, or some other implement of his craft at one of the overflowing tool-shops, which appear to be amongst the most flourishing trades in the lane. So here I am wedged in for a while, shoulder to shoulder with smiling Jack Bunting, in front of the windowless shop of a Hebrew jeweller, who weighs some ring or trinket offered for sale as calmly as if the great bulk of his stock were not exposed within easy reach of any light-fingered person looking on. There is, I believe, a noble Lord who is an incurable "kleptomaniac," and who cannot rid himself of the unfortunate habit of unconsciously pocketing any silver or gold spoons or forks that may be near him at the dinner-table. Were his Lordship my companion at this moment I should tremble for him. Watch upon watch would be within his grasp, and would be conveyed, I fear, to his capacious coat-tail pocket. Then the yellow-faced Hebrew would - still without moving a muscle - quietly drop his scales, stretch forth his ring-circled fingers, and grasp the collar of the noble "kleptomaniac" (who, by-the-way, should make a good Home Secretary: he would be so merciful to his fellow sinners). But it is only an honest sailor - not the noble Lord - by my side; and he may, for all I know, be wondering to himself whether, the watch he may have lost last night down Ratcliffe-highway is among this store of chronometers which seem to trouble the ancient Jew so little that he looks back now and again to exchange a word with his family circle in the room behind the shop.
Circulation is possible again now. One advances once more with the multifarious mass of swarthy, bright-eyed Jewesses, dapper young Jews, and East-End artisans, commingled with a number of idlers who find pleasure in the noise and bustling of the place. Every step brings something fresh.
"Hi! hi!" bawls a mountebank, standing in a doorway and tapping with his cane a coloured cloth attached to the shutters, and having painted on it a human salamander swallowing fire with as much relish as if 't were his dinner. "Hi! hi! The strongest man in the world! Can break a bar o' hiron on his knee! On'y just arrived from Liverpool! Admission, one panny!"
Another showman offers similar inducements for the curious to "step inside" further up the lane; and it is a wonder that one escapes, as I do, from Petticoat-lane (or Middlesex-street, as it is politely called in Whitechapel) without having been persuaded to buy a single article therein - not even "All the new songs! Honly a panny!" as I hear another customer of Catnach sing out in quitting the long lane, whose turning I at length find, and simultaneously find myself breathing freely in the broad thoroughfare of Whitechapel-road.
Strolling homewards by way of Houndsditch I stray into the Old Clo' Market. Here also a good bit of trade is done on Sunday morning; and, here in this covered mart of renovated old clothes, it must be confessed there is touting of the most direct nature. A hand is laid on my arm, and an oily voice persuasively says, "Won't be offended at my speaking to you, will you, Sir? Like a nice frock coat? Do step inside; and look round, Sir!" Ere I have half traversed the stuffy alleys of the Old Clo' Market, and have hurriedly regained Houndsditch, I become conscious that there may be only too good a reason this Sunday morning for besieging me with questions such as these:-
"Noice 'at, Sir, very shepe?" "Vant a good Hulster, Sir? I've one that'll fit you noicely. Try it on?" "Noice frock-coat, Sir?" "Neat pair of trousers, Sir? Fit you in a minute, Sir?" "Like a pair of boots, Sir, to-day - good as new?"