IT is many a long year since I first began to find delight in wandering through the least-known districts of the capital, in visiting strange quarters inhabited by strange people, in penetrating dim, mysterious regions where thousands of our fellow-citizens live, cut off from the rest of the populace by a network of streets and slums into which it is nobody's business but the inhabitants to enter, and where a visitor from beyond is rarely seen.

At first my travels were undertaken solely to gratify my own curiosity. Later on, when there came to me an opportunity of exploring with a less selfish end in view, many circumstances combined to give me an insight into the life of the people which I could never have gained as a mere on looker. So it has come about that to-day I can not only survey the streets of the strange lands in the capital of King George [V], but I can enter the houses and take my notes from the cellar to the roof. I am privileged to sit around the coke fire in lodging-houses where an ordinary stranger would meet with scant courtesy; and the mysteries of "How the Poor Live " are freely unveiled to me. In the vilest of the native quarters, in the queerest of the foreign quarters, I am permitted to spend days and nights, not peeping furtively at the human comedies and tragedies in which the strange men and women are players, but made way for as one entitled to a front place in the local audience.

Of some of the things that I have seen I have written from time to time, but I have always longed for the pencil of the artist to enable the reader to realise what some of the scenes actually mean. And now my wish has been gratified. I have been able to wander off the track in London accompanied by an artist confrère, and to provide him, whenever possible, with an opportunity for making sketches on the spot.

It is four o'clock on Sunday afternoon as we come out of Aldgate Station and in a few minutes turn into Middlesex Street, littered with paper and straw and rubbish, the remains of the great Sunday morning market, which is at its highest at noon and gradually disappears as the afternoon wears on.

The scene is known to most Londoners, for the fame of Petticoat Lane, as the street was formerly called, has spread through the length and breadth of the land.

But we must pass through it to get off the track in the Ghetto, which has burst its old boundaries and now extends over a large area which until lately was a Christian quarter.

It is not till we come to Wentworth Street that the strangeness of the Sunday scene reveals itself. Here all the shops are open and the narrow thoroughfare is packed with the stalls of Jewish hawkers. We hear a little English at the top of Wentworth Street, but as we push our way through the seething crowd and get nearer to Brick Lane the English words become rarer and rarer, and presently only the German Hebrew jargon known as "Yiddish" reaches our ears.

We are in the heart of the old Ghetto. The alien immigrants, many of them fresh from the Pale of Settlement in Russia and the persecutions of Roumania, are chaffering and bargaining with their co-religionists who have been in London long enough to stock a barrow or a stall and start on the path of financial progress, which may lead their sons, if not themselves, viâ Dalston, Canonbury, Maida Vale, and Bayswater, to Kensington, and perhaps Park Lane.

Stop for a moment and gaze at the crowd. A London child seeing it for the first time would look at the faces and recall the Bible pictures. Everywhere the Oriental type predominates. The old, solemn-looking men - the poorest of the hawkers, for they have come to the Land of Promise too late to struggle out of the ruck - have the beards and features of the Patriarchs. They are calling aloud the price of their poor goods in the lachrymose sing-song of the Eastern pedlar. Pious Jews are these aged immigrants, and if you were to follow them to their synagogue you would see them swaying to and fro as they repeat their prayers in the same mournful, wailing voice with which they cry their wares.

The women are as Eastern as the men. The girls are handsome, dark-haired, dark-eyed daughters of Israel, whose type of beauty has not changed in all the thousand years of persecution and exile.

The younger women are well dressed, with a tendency to brilliant colours and the "Paris fashion" that is displayed in the gay millinery shops of the Ghetto. The children, who have been running in and out of the crowd, are neat and clean, their pinafores are white, their boots are good and well-fitting, their hair is bound with bright ribbons, and their frocks are pretty. The first thought of the poorest alien immigrant is for his children, and his pride is to see them well clad and well cared for.

The middle-aged woman and the old women are true daughters of the East. They wear coloured shawls over their heads. There is a curious monotony in the coiffure of the women of the Ghetto who have passed their first youth. The woman of thirty and the woman of seventy seem equally well supplied with a head of glossy black hair. The stranger wonders, as he looks into an old, wrinkled face, at the abundance of black hair surmounting it. If he asks the reason he will learn that many of the Russian Jewesses cut their own hair off on the day of their marriage and wear a wig for the rest of their lives. To the Oriental the glory of a woman is her hair. The Jewish bride was expected to sacrifice this attraction in order that she should not entice the eyes of men.

It is a custom of long ago and the Russian Jewesses adhere to it. Most of the older women came into the Ghetto straight from the ship that landed them in the Thames, and they rarely go beyond its boundaries. Many of them would not if they had the chance.

Here is a clothes auction in full swing. The sombre shop, the front window of which is pushed half-way up, is packed with ready-made suits. The proprietor is selling them to an eager crowd of men, who, when their bid is accepted, take trousers, coats, and waistcoats over their arm and walk away with their purchase. There is a tailor's shop close at hand where twenty cutters and a large number of hands are employed in preparing suits solely for the Sunday sale in this street.

Within a stone's-throw of this street is a great Sunday gold and diamond market. During the morning and early afternoon you may see a number of men with little wash-leather bags or velvet-lined cases displaying their glittering merchandise to one another. The jewel mart and exchange is in progress. Many hundreds of pounds' worth of jewels change hands within a few minutes. In Wentworth Street the buyer will haggle and bargain for half an hour over a few pence. In St. James's Place a transaction involving hundreds of pounds is carried out in a minute with scarcely a superfluous word. The business is conducted with perfect good-humour, but the dealers are among the keenest and cleverest men in the City of London.

But we are still only half off the track, for now and again the Gentile sightseer penetrates as far as this.

As we come out from Wentworth Street into Brick Lane, where there is no market and so no crowd, the long line of open shops and busy warehouses, the hum and bustle of trade and toil in full swing, strike us as peculiar when we remember that it is Sunday. Leaving Brick Lane with its Russian post-office, its Roumanian restaurants, and shop after shop where the young men of the Ghetto take the syrups and temperance drinks that are their principal liquid refreshment, we make our way down Commercial Street and plunge into the new Ghetto, a vast area far more foreign than the old Ghetto, and now entirely given up to the alien immigrant. In the broad main thoroughfare the shops are all open and trade is at its height. The factories are busy, the furniture shops are loading their vans, the shipping agents and bankers are taking money for remittance to relatives abroad who are to leave the Russian Pale and come to the city paved with gold, or booking passages to America and the Colonies for the immigrants who are "moving on."

Here the scene to the unaccustomed Gentile eye is only odd. Directly he turns into the small streets the stranger is filled with absolute astonishment. Many of them are still crowded with dwelling-houses of the poorest class; but where the Gentile dwelt the Jew trades. House after house has been transformed into a shop. Windows have been taken out and living rooms packed with merchandise. Every available corner is used, and one sees the proprietor sitting in a little front room so packed in with rolls of gay-coloured cloths, fancy boxes, and packages that one imagines his only way of getting out must be by a harlequin leap through the window.

You may wander through miles of streets in this quarter and see the same strange sight - the immigrant Jew who has established himself keeping open shop in a dwelling-house all the Sunday through. You may see trade in full tide at eight o'clock in the morning. When midnight has rung out from the churches which still remain as memorials of the vanished Christian population you will still see the shops open and the Rembrandtesque figure of the owner sitting among his wares, waiting for a chance customer. He is perhaps reading a Yiddish paper, printed in Hebrew characters, by the light of a candle, slowly guttering to its last flicker.

But it is not yet night, though the twilight is falling as we turn into Morgan Street, and come suddenly upon a page of the old Orient bound up in the book of modern Western life.

Here is a building which is fitly labelled "The Oriental Bazaar." You are in London, but you might be in Cairo or Mogador. The bazaar or "market" is reached from the street by deep flights of steps. It is open to the sky, and beyond it and above it is a street of houses, and a roadway along which flit now and again Eastern women with gay-coloured shawls over their heads.

The "shops" of the market are built in little recesses. In these sit silent Oriental figures - the dealers. Most of the day's business is over. There are only a few loiterers, and the men and women who keep the little shops sit silent and emotionless as the Arabs among their unsold wares. In one shop the stock has been sold out and the proprietor is sitting in the gloom playing cards with a little party of men friends.

It is a picture for Rembrandt. The only light in the arched recess which forms the shop is that of a candle. Round the candle are grouped half a dozen dark, weird-looking men, all intent upon the game.

There is one card to be played. Uttering a little guttural cry, the man who holds it brings it down on the counter with a thud. The game the men are playing is one peculiar to these people. It is called Clabber-yas. The last card played, the ninth trump, adds ten points to the score and wins the game.

And at that moment the distant church bells ring out to call the Christian worshippers to evening prayer.

But the Sabbath evening does not find the Jews undevout. The darkness has fallen now, and we make our way back to the crowded streets of the old Ghetto. Here the long lines of lighted shops are now packed with their evening customers, who are buying meat and groceries and selecting furniture, being measured for new suits, trying on smart hats and cloaks of the latest West-end fashion, and examining the pink and blue and yellow silk petticoats, which make such a gay show in the brilliantly-lighted windows of the milliners. We turn into a quiet street where the prevailing note is gloom, and, having secured the friendly escort of a Jewish clergyman's son, without whose presence we should hesitate to intrude, we pass through a dark doorway and find ourselves among a group of men whose features and whose occupations would have delighted the heart of Gustave Doré.

In the hall, or ante-room, of the building are shelves packed with ancient-looking volumes - books of Rabbinic lore and law. Gathered together in groups are a number of Jews, young and old, who are standing around a desk at which an aged man with a long grey beard is reading a well-worn volume and explaining certain passages of it to the men who crowd about him and listen intently to his words.

We are in the ante-room of a building which is known as the "Machazeke Hadass V'Shomrei Shabbas " - that is, "The Strengtheners of the Law and Guardians of the Sabbath." It is known officially as "The Spitalfields Great Synagogue." The members of it, almost all alien immigrants, comprise the ultra-orthodox section of the community. They have their own Chief Rabbi, their own Shechita Board (the Board that controls the slaughtering of animals), and their own Beth Din (the court of justice). These pious Jews are distinguished by their scrupulous observance of the Sabbath as a day of rest. They will not even carry their handkerchief on the Sabbath day because it constitutes carrying a burden. That is forbidden, so they tie it round their waist as a girdle, where it becomes part of their clothing and so allowable. They will not carry an umbrella on the Sabbath, not only because it is a burden, but also because the putting up of an umbrella is considered equivalent to the erecting of a tent over the head. And they strictly obey the injunction which says neither thou nor thy servant shall do any manner of work on the Sabbath day. For what is absolutely necessary they employ an occasional servant, who is known as the "Shobbos Goy." They never give him a direct order for the performance of a household task, but they sometimes manage to evade the injunction. For instance, if it is bitterly cold and coals are wanted on the fire, they don't say, "Put more coals on." They shiver and rub their hands and say, "It is terribly cold." Then the Shobbos Goy takes the hint and makes the fire up.

Let us linger for a moment among this strange group of devout Jews, few of whom can speak a word of English, though they are likely to pass the rest of their lives in our midst.

The pious old man who is thumbing the book is displaying his Talmudic erudition to his hearers. The Synagogue is open night and day, and this ante-room is always filled with reverent and intelligent loungers, who listen to the exposition of the Talmud and occasionally discuss the affairs of the moment, for the alien Jew has brought with him the old custom of making the Synagogue a meeting-place and a club.

In the same room a number of men are swaying to and fro and repeating their prayers in the Oriental fashion. Everywhere there is a note that is a revelation to the Gentile visitor who is privileged to look upon the scene.

The privilege is not easily gained, for these pious Jews, most of them from the lands of persecution and massacre, are still nervous and fearful. They have not yet learned the true meaning of English freedom, and the Alien Commission is to them a warning note of some new disaster that threatens.

Passing from the Talmud school into the Synagogue itself, you are startled to find the Royal Arms of England, elaborately carved and coloured, stand ing out boldly on the walls.

The mystery is solved when we learn that this was originally a Huguenot chapel, owned by the French refugees who settled in Spitalfields after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. At one time the Huguenots were under special Royal favour, which may account for the display of the Royal Arms in their place of worship. The Jews acquired the building and converted it into a synagogue about ten years ago. [1]

The Synagogue is only dimly lighted. Here and there a few worshippers are sitting in the pews repeating their prayers or reading a tattered volume. In one pew sits an old man writing by the aid of a tallow candle, which he has stuck on the little shelf in front of him. He is writing out one of the tiny scrolls which, encased in a capsule of tin or glass, forms the "Mezuzzah," the amulet which every orthodox Jew places on his doors; or perhaps the miniature manuscript is intended to be placed inside the "Tephillin " - that is, the phylacteries which are bound round the head and the left arm for the morning prayers. Remembering that the Mezuzzah and the Tephillin are direct Sinaitic ordinances, we look at the old man writing by the gleam of the candle in the gloomy synagogue with feelings of awe and reverence. Forty centuries ago the injunction was given in the far-off Eastern desert which the Hebrew exile is transcribing to-day in the heart of London.

But, weird and mystic as the scene is, we do not care to linger. Already the uninvited presence of Christian strangers has attracted considerable attention, and the efforts of our artist to sketch unobserved have brought about us a number of the pious and aged aliens, who consult together in Yiddish and eventually put forward a spokesman, who, in broken English, politely asks us what we want.

We make our explanation and assure the head of the little deputation that we have no evil intent, and then as quickly as is consistent with dignity we make our way through the Talmud room, the readers and expounders and the aged men rocking to and fro in prayer, and pass out into the darkness of the night. On the step an old man stands and looks after us. The pale light coming through the open door falls upon his face and shows a deep scar that looks like a sabre cut. The old man is one of the survivors of the massacre of Kischineff.

And now we are back again in the big trading streets, with the yellow blaze of gas and lamp oil showing up the bright costumes of young Jewesses who are on their way to balls and parties and even to theatrical performances, which are frequent Sunday features of this foreign land which is in London but not of it.

Every now and then through the packed streets dashes a carriage with a spanking pair of greys. Sunday is the day for weddings in the Ghetto. The white ribbon on the whip of the coachman catches the eye again and again, and always a little crowd turns to follow the vehicle and take up its station outside the Hall in which the marriage feast is being celebrated. These wedding carriages are to be seen making their way through the narrow streets in every direction. They are picking up the invited guests at their dwellings. As soon as one load has been deposited at the Hall, off the driver hurries in search of another.

All is merriment within, and all is good temper and good order outside. The crowd blocks the pavement to listen and to make critical remarks on the toilettes of the guests as they arrive. One sharp turn out of the gay, crowded street and the scene is changed. Here everything is gloom, and in the gloom is a little group of slouching men and slatternly women loafing at the doors of dark, forbidding-looking houses.

Slatternly women loafing at the doors of dark, forbidding-looking houses in Whitechapel. We are in a quarter that has been rendered notorious by the revelations of coroners' inquests. This is a little bit of the Ghetto that the Jews have not yet taken from the Christians. It is the street of common lodging-houses where strange murders have been done. We pass quickly by the group of loafing tramps who have come out of the lodging- house kitchens to gossip, and make our way up a narrow, tortuous passage to another street of evil fame, where lodging-houses of the lowest class still remain. Battered wrecks of lost humanity, male and female, flit to and fro in the darkness. A woman pauses under the solitary lamp and we see that her face is bruised and her eyes are blackened. The door of one lodging-house stands ajar, and the English tongue salutes our ears once more. It is not a welcome relief, for the sentiment of the words is foul and blasphemous. At the top of the court one comes again upon good buildings and light, and a sound of childish merriment. A number of little Jewish children are dancing a dance of their own in the lamplight.

We pass out into a broad main thoroughfare, and still the shops are open and doing a brisk business. Here is a little restaurant with its bill of fare in Hebrew characters. We push the door ajar and enter, for we know that it was once the haunt of the Bessarabians, the formidable gang who had a standing vendetta with the Odessians, and who fought them not long ago outside the Yiddish theatre, the fray ending in a man being stabbed to death.

The room we enter is lighted by a single jet of gas. There are only one or two young fellows sitting about and smoking cigarettes. The proprietor in his shirt sleeves stands behind the counter. At the end of the room is an opening covered with heavy curtains. Now and again a man enters, nods to the proprietor, and passes through them.

We have ordered tea, for which we pay a penny a cup. The proprietor brings it himself, looks at us curiously, and I endeavour to allay his suspicion by speaking to him in German. He replies amiably, and I try to engage him in conversation. I ask him if the Bessarabians still use the house.

His manner alters. He has heard of such people, but they never came to his establishment - never. I ask him if there is another restaurant beyond the curtain. Again he looks at me curiously.

No, there is nothing beyond but his own dwelling rooms. I want to get behind those curtains; but I have not the password, and there is no chance. Some day I hope to be more fortunate. For this café was the meeting-place of the Bessarabians, one of the most dangerous gangs in the East-end, and behind those curtains you passed to a room which was a gambling den. There the quarrel took place which led to midnight murder at the corner of the dark street.

We walk quietly away and in five minutes we are back upon the beaten track. Everywhere are closed shops and the calm of the Christian Sunday night. The householders pass on their homeward way. The sweethearts linger for a while before they part at the door, or separate to go each a different way.

And though they are within a few minutes' walk of the strange scenes we have looked upon by turning a little way off the beaten track, most of these people are as ignorant of their existence as was the great French critic who came for the first time to London and was taken to Piccadilly Circus, was told that it was the famous Whitechapel - and believed it.

[1] This building still exists, on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street, but has now been converted to a mosque. (THHOL, 1999)