A DOZEN graphically-written descriptions of Whitechapel, by people who have never seen the place, but have heard as much about it as most have, would probably be as amusing in the reading, to those acquainted with the district, as the most extravagant of the fables once so frequently quoted as articles of current French belief in the matter of English manners and customs ever were to the English people themselves. A horrible black labyrinth, think many people, reeking from end to end with the vilest exhalations; its streets, mere kennels of horrent putrefaction; its every wall, its every object, slimy with the indigenous ooze of the place; swarming with human vermin, whose trade is robbery, and whose recreation is murder; the catacombs of London darker, more tortuous, and more dangerous than those of Rome, and supersaturated with foul life. Others imagine Whitechapel in a pitiful aspect. Outcast London. Black and nasty still, a wilderness of crazy dens into which pallid wastrels crawl to die; where several families lie in each fetid room, and fathers, mothers, and children watch each other starve; where bony, blear-eyed wretches, with everything beautiful, brave, and worthy crushed out of them, and nothing of the glory and nobleness and jollity of this world within the range of their crippled senses, rasp away their puny lives in the sty of the sweater. Such spots as these there certainly are in Whitechapel, and in other places, but generalities are rarely true, and when applied to a district of London so large as that comprised under the name of Whitechapel, never. For Whitechapel, as understood colloquially, goes some distance beyond the bounds set by the parish authorities of St. Mary, and includes much of Aldgate and Spitalfields, besides a not inconsiderable fragment of Mile End. Any visitor with preconceived notions of the regulation pattern, traversing the whole length of this region by the main road, from Houndsditch and the Minories to the London Hospital, is apt to be surprised. The place might be Borough High Street, except that it is wider and airier and busier. In the stretch of road mentioned are four railway stations, and the road itself forms a crowded omnibus and tramcar route. On the right, as we leave the Minories, is the Aldgate Meat Market, a row of shops used by butchers from time immemorial. Says Ralph, in Beaumont and Fletcher's "Knight of the Burning Pestle":- "Ancient, let your colours fly, but have a great care of the butchers' hooks at Whitechapel; they have been the death of many a fair ancient." Hundreds of carcases hang here in rows, and dozens of waggons loaded with hides stand in the roadway. Just along here, in the middle of the road, four days in the week the great hay market is held, and the neighbourhood is full of misplaced-looking countrymen. Nearly opposite Hill's (once Newton's) the old gabled public-house, which looks as little like a public-house and much like an office or warehouse as possible, that realistic old deceiver, De Foe, tells us he lived during the Great Plague, and watched the terrified nobility making all haste from the City away from the infection into Essex.
The line of stalls along the south side of the road is worth studying. A number of them are bookstalls in the proprietorship of misanthropic men of gloomy and grim appearance, who seem incessantly brooding over the decline in the book-stall trade of late years, since the second-hand booksellers who keep shops have increased in numbers and business shrewdness, and leave little saleable to the humble stalls. Now-a-days chances are considerably against one's finding unique first editions in the streets, and these lowly brothers of Quaritch are impelled to label "Blair's Sermons" and odd volumes of "Bell's Poets" as being "rare" and "curious," although inconsistently included in the batch marked, "all these 3d." But Whitechapel need not be ashamed of its bibliographical features, for further down the road, nearly opposite each other, are George's and Gladding's second-hand book shops, which most book-hunters know. Old Mr. Gladding's premises (old Mr. Gladding must be very old now) were specially built for the trade when people lived in Mile End who would be horrified at the suggestion of living anywhere near it now. Mr. George is known for his wholesale purchases.
There are many other evidences of the commercial respectability of Whitechapel. One of its best known establishments must be by a long period the oldest business in London - probably in England. This is Mears and Stainbank's bell foundry, established in 1570. The several other business houses in the neighbourhood, whose ages run into three figures, retire into new-fledged juvenility by comparison with the hoary seniority of the concern with day-books for three hundred and eighteen years. The sweater and vamper in Whitechapel work side by side with houses of quiet, good old English uprightness and independence. If we were in want of any piece or pieces of cabinet-work of the very best quality and most conscientious workmanship possible, we would, rather than anywhere else, go to a certain unpretending and unproclaimed old firm in Whitechapel - not in the main street either.
Many parts of this main road seem fragments of the High Street in some busy, old-fashioned country market-town, and the presence on market-days of the hay wains and their attendants heightens the illusion. The row of gabled shops on the north side, opposite the obelisk, is the most noticeable of these parts.
Down near the London Hospital, and opposite the Pavilion Theatre, is a terrace of shops called The Mount, so called for a very good and plain reason, but one that would scarcely be guessed. Indeed, some of the shopkeepers themselves might be astonished to know that upon the ground under their premises, as comparatively late as well into the last century, there stood a fort or redoubt, bearing the name of their terrace, and constructed for the defence of London.
But let us get out of the main road. Turn back toward the stalls again, but before plunging into any dirty alley, look at this grinning Italian with a white rat. With the aid of a square bit of rag, the cultured rodent is rapidly made to, assume the successive characters of an old woman, a monk, and a stiff, pink-nosed corpse. Then he is stood on a board, covered up, and made to disappear altogether, turning up, upon investigation, in the cap of the most amazed boy among the onlookers. This having been accomplished without a word, but with a great exhibition of white teeth on the part of the impresario, an expeditious evaporation of the surrounding boys is the first indication that the hat is coming round, and almost before his hand can drag it from his head, poor Giuseppe is alone. Bless you, Giuseppe, take these coppers; not given in the sacred name of charity, but in the hope that they may induce you to keep your rat, and not, at this angry moment, resort to the aid of a barrel-organ to extort that which your unobtrusive performance fails to earn! [See "An East End vicar and his work" (1895) for another reference to the nuisance of barrel-organs.]
Further along a female compatriot of Giuseppe - Marina, perhaps - very clean as to her white head-gear, and very bedraggled as to her skirts, stands by a wire cage of lovebirds, and waits for the pennies that rarely come to procure the coloured paper "fortunes" lying in the little box inside the cage. Along the gutter from Giuseppe to Marina a dozen stalls contain the most surprisingly miscellaneous assemblage of celery and comic songs, hairbrushes and fish, ribbons and roasting-jacks, door-keys and cabbages, trousers and tenpenny nails in existence.
We make a small excursion into Mansell Street, which is quiet. All about here, and in Great Ailie Street, Tenter Street, and their vicinities, the houses are old, large, of the very shabbiest-genteel aspect, and with a great appearance of being snobbishly ashamed of the odd trades to which many of their rooms are devoted. Shirt-making in buried basements, packing-case, or, perhaps, cardboard box-making, on the ground-floor; and glimpses of very dirty bald heads, bending over cobbling, or the sorting of "old clo'," through the cracked and rag-stuffed upper windows. Jewish names - Isaacs, Levy, Israel, Jacobs, Rubinsky, Moses, Aaron - wherever names appear, and frequent inscriptions in the homologous letters of Hebrew. Many of these inscriptions are on the windows of eating-houses, whose interior mysteries arc hidden by muslin curtains; and we occasionally find a shop full of Hebrew books, and showing in its window remarkable little nick-nacks appertaining to synagogue worship, amid plaited tapers of various colours.
Beyond these streets, toward the end of Leman Street, in Goodman's Fields - they were fields two hundred years ago, and old Stow, earlier still, used to buy three pints of fresh milk for a half-penny at Goodman's dairy - Goodman's Fields Theatre stood, in which Garrick made his first London appearance, and took the town by storm. "There are a dozen dukes of a night at Goodman's Fields sometimes," the poet Gray remarked in a letter to a friend describing the wonderful success which attended Garrick's early efforts.
We are tired, perhaps, of all this respectability. Petticoat Lane is before us when, in returning, we regain the corner of Mansell Street, and along Petticoat Lane we disappointedly make our way. For Petticoat Lane isn't Petticoat Lane at all, but Middlesex Street, and, this afternoon, as the dusk comes, it is very quiet, and has actually most responsible-looking offices and warehouses all along the right-hand side of its clean and regular width. As Hog Lane, with its sunny hedgerows and one or two pleasant citizens' houses; as Petticoat Lane, with its thievery and squalor and old clothes; and as Middlesex Street, with its warehouses, this thoroughfare has lived through a chequered existence. Nowadays, we fear we must reluctantly confess the most enthusiastic slummer could scarcely achieve the memorable and once proverbial feat of entering Petticoat Lane with his pocket handkerchief safely in its appointed place, and, half-way through, observing it gracefully fluttering from the door-post of a clothes shop, with its marking neatly picked out, because, even if, with patience and perseverance, he succeeded in getting it stolen, there isn't a shop where handkerchiefs of any kind hang at the door in all Petticoat Lane. But one may still enjoy the consolation of having something stolen in Petticoat Lane if a visit be made on Sunday, when the road and pavement is still put to its traditional uses.
But long may Sandys Row remain for the benefit of the disappointed pilgrim to Petticoat Lane. Why the other end of Middlesex Street is called Sandys Row we cannot imagine, unless the sprouting respectability of the former disdains association with the humble grime of the latter. For where Middlesex Street dwindles into Sandys Row, the pavement is narrow and often encroached upon by the stock of the shops, and the intrepid explorer slips and staggers on the foul, greasy slime which carpets the irregular cobble-stones of the roadway. In the murky, dusty gloom of the old clothes-shops, no patch of the walls can be seen, and all but a scant passage-way in each shop seems a solid conglomeration of unhealthy-looking stock. Jewesses of enormous circumference block these passage ways, and unclean Jews, of the very lowest class, with unkempt hair and rancid complexions, keep a sharp look-out over the articles which hang in heavy bunches in the street, occasionally smoothing or re-arranging them with their black-nailed paws. Old military stores and accoutrements, and reasty mildewed saddlery, form a large proportion of the things offered for sale, and who in the world buys them, and what they do with them when they get them, are mysteries we have never penetrated. Mangy busbies, battered lancers' helmets, and even the three-cornered hats Greenwich pensioners wore years ago - who can have any possible use for these? And there are wooden water-bottles in a state of defilement which would prevent a pig drinking from them, and odoriferous knapsacks and wallets over which no respectable slug would crawl. Then there are equally enigmatic bundles of rust-eaten bayonets, bundles of broken spurs, and hammerless pistols of the most useless character. Who in creation wants these things, and how do these shop keepers extract a living from them ?
At the end we have Artillery Lane, Gun Street, and Raven Row. Dirt, ragshops, and small beer-houses. Some times a peep down a clogged grating, or over a permanent shutter, into the contaminated breath of a sweater's lair, where poisoned human lives are spun into the apparel which clothes the bodies of wholesome men. Through White's Row, or Dorset Street, with its hideous associations, into busy Commercial Street, with its traffic, its warehouses, its early lights, and the bright spot in this unpleasant neighbourhood, Toynbee Hall and Institute, and St. Jude's Church, whose beautiful wall-mosaic of Time, Death, and Judgement has its own significance here, in the centre of the scattered spots which are the recent sites of satanic horrors.
Fashion Street, Flower and Dean Street, Thrawl Street, Wentworth Street. Through which shall we go to Brick Lane? Black and noisome, the road sticky with slime, and palsied houses, rotten from chimney to cellar, leaning together, apparently by the mere coherence of their ingrained corruption. Dark, silent, uneasy shadows passing and crossing - human vermin in this reeking sink, like goblin exhalations from all that is noxious around. Women with sunken, black-rimmed eyes, whose pallid faces appear and vanish by the light of an occasional gas-lamp, and look so like ill-covered skulls that we start at their stare. Horrible London? Yes.
Brick Lane is a comparatively cheerful, although not a patrician, thoroughfare. The Brick Lane Branch of the United Grand Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association is no longer here, and public-houses occupy the street corners. Here German-Hebrew provision shops display food of horrible aspect; greasy yellow sausages, unclean lumps of batter fried in grease; and gruesome polonies and other nondescript preparations repellant to look upon. Very pleasant, no doubt, for those who have been brought up on them, but not appetising to any person who has never enjoyed that advantage.
Some years ago, it was fashionable to "slum" - to walk gingerly about in dirty streets, with great heroism, and go back West again, with a firm conviction that "something must be done." And something must. Children must not be left in these unscoured corners. Their fathers and mothers are hopeless, and must not be allowed to rear a numerous and equally hopeless race. Light the streets better, certainly; but what use in building better houses for these poor creatures to render as foul as those that stand? The inmates may ruin the cahracter of a house, but no house can alter the character of its inmates.
by Arthur G. Morrison
Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.