BUT few of the well-to-do who live in London know how the poorest section of the poorer classes travel through life - that enormous number of unskilled labourers who were left out of Mr. Scott Russell's scheme for the social redemption of the working classes. This multitude of individuals, whose whole lives are struggles against extreme poverty, is considered unworthy the attention of our social reformers. And yet the condition of these unskilled labourers - which is hardly better than that of the recipients of parish bread - requires immediate attention. Unfortunately for them, they cannot afford to devote sixpence each week out of their scanty earnings towards the support of a organisation to protect their interests. The great struggle is to make one Saturday's pay carry them to the next without getting into debt; and but few succeed in the feat. The Saturday night, although the pay-night, brings with it greater hardship and pain than any in the week. Then the accounts with the baker and the grocer have to be squared, and meat bought for the family for Sunday's dinner - the only meat day in the week. When this is done, so little remains in the purse that it is doubtful whether the other items of family use can be provided for the beginning of the week, certainly not for the end. Before the week is out the old system of credit must be recurred to. But fortunately, there are markets in different parts of the metropolis where this class of poor can obtain their goods on Saturday night a shade cheaper than they can at the shop.
In Whitechapel Road, between the church and Mile-end Gate on this night everything is to be bought from the stalls which line the roadway, especially on the left-hand side going towards the Gate from the City. Amidst the flaming naphtha lights can be discerned toys, hatchets, crockery, carpets, oil-cloth, meat, fish, greens, second-hand boots, furniture, artificial flowers, &c. Round every stall are eager women, bartering with the salesmen. It is evident that the poor mother must husband her farthings. The meat must be bought, and so must those boots for her young son; his old ones are so worn that they cannot keep out the wet any longer. Here are women chaffering in good-humoured content because their husbands have been able to give them a shilling or two extra this week; others with difficulty restraining the tears which are welling to their eyes because the price of meat at the stalls is so high that the dear little ones at home will no be able to taste any again this week. But farther on is one worse off than even these. Groping in the slushy mud, surrounded by a crowd, is a neat little woman with unmistakeable tears running down her cheeks. She has lost half a sovereign - all her husband has earned this week; and she has bought nothing for to-morrow's dinner. But there are sympathising hearts close by. A gentleman stoops down, as if he, too, were looking in the mud, and slips something into her hand - an example that is instantly followed by two decently-dressed working men. There is no doubt of her gratitude, although protestations of it are absent.
Whitechapel-road is well furnished with a variety of entertainments, of a cheap description, and not of a refined class. "The Pavilion" theatre is the most pretentious in its bill of fare. It is the home of the melodrama, where any number of mortal combats take place in one night. Music-halls are plentiful, and almost all the public-houses have harmonic meetings on Wednesdays and Saturdays. But why is the man in that doorway jumping up and down, backwards and forwards, shifting on to one leg and then on to the other, bawling himself hoarse, while another man a few yards behind him in the passage is turning a tune out of a barrel-organ? The man who is skipping about as if he were on hot bricks is dressed like a coachman, but the breast of his coat is faced with crimson satin, trimmed with silver lace. His friend at the organ is a greater man - perhaps Lord Chesterfield himself resuscitated; although one can scarcely imagine that nobleman playing "Hop light, Loo," on such an instrument, in powdered wig, with his rapier at his side. "Hi, hi! only one penny! The Gallery of Varieties!" "Walk in! Walk in! Now exhibiting! Only one penny! The best wax works in London !" bawls the lively man in the doorway. Inside, ranged round the three sides of an oblong room are a number of figures, which the showman assures his audience are all wax, and not, as stated, made of wood. "This finger is broken off to prove it. And you will observe, on removing General Garibaldi's cap, that he is bald, on purpose to show that there is no deception; here it is, all wax," feeling his head. Notwithstanding the opinion of the Press (to which there was no name attached) ostentatiously displayed outside, we could not recognise the likeness of some of the figures. Indeed, we had reason to believe by a second visit that some of them did duty for different notorious personages, according to the exigencies of the hour. The lady who fell down dead in Whitechapel road, from the effects of tight lacing, on the first occasion, afterwards went through the same performance at the Prince of Wales's ball. "This is Benjamin West's celebrated picture of 'Christ healing the Sick' in the Temple. Originally cost 3,000l." There must be a mistake somewhere. "This is a portrait of Benjamin Lincoln, the President of the United States, painted by Benjamin West, a celebrated American artist. This is another painting by the same man. It was sold for 10,000 guineas, and exhibited in America at half-a-crown a head. It is very valuable, although it is so old that it looks like a piece of rotten canvas varnished." After having Jane Shore, Lady Jane Grey, Count Cavour, and Old Daddy, of the Lambeth Casual Ward, and many others pointed out to us, we were invited to step up stairs to the Chamber of Horrors, where, for one penny, we should see "all the celebrated murderers of many bygone years, including that beautiful piece of machinery of a man in the agonies of death." This was rather too bad; besides, as the invitation to go upstairs was given, the organ encouraged us with "Down among the dead men."
The farther the hours got into the night the busier the stalls and shops became. The Cheap Jacks and quack doctors put forth all their powers of cajolery. Certain cures for every disease flesh is heir to were to be bought remarkably cheap. The functions of the different parts of the human body were explained minutely with Latin words of "thundering sound." Youngsters were shooting away their halfpence at double-quick time for Barcelona nuts. Men and women are thronging the public houses, talkin in loud keys over their beer and gin, as if to drown their boon companions' voices at the same time they drown their own sorrows. But these persons that crowd and elbow one another to get to the bar are either of the spendthrift class or those without encumbrances. Some, no doubt, are drinking away the money which would be better spent in providing food and clothing for those at home, or for themselves. The women especially are poorly clad; their quantity and quality of clothing evidently being at the minimum.
"Clear out of the way! Hi, hi!" shouted some voices as we were absorbed in the contemplation of a quack doctor's list of medicaments, and phrenological and physiological diagrams. "Clear out of the way!" Turning round, we discovered a costermonger's barrow issuing from Green Dragon Place, towards which we had previously had our backs. Saturday night is not a favourable one for moving from one habitation to another, especially at half-past ten o'clock at night, if any idea of comfort on Sunday is entertained, but it is certain that this family will not be troubled much in arranging their furniture. Half-an-hour or so will put their things to rights. The barrow drawn by the man contains what chairs and tables there are, while the wife walks at the side with a dilapidated small doubled up mattrass under one arm, swinging a bundle of things, which are wrapped up in a bird's-eye handkerchief, from her hand, and carrying a very small washstand innocent of paint by the other.
Every Saturday night there are many shows. Mysterious creatures exhibiting in enclosed square spaces about six feet each way. Hairy men, hairless dogs, gorillas, Aztecs, and giants. Beyond the Mile-end Gate the young English giant is located. By his own account he is 7 ft. 4 in. high, and has been presented to Queen Victoria and the Royal Family. He also asserts that "the trimming which you here see all round the wainscoting of this room was round the audience chamber of Maximilian of Mexico before he was shot - a hact which will brand the name of Mexican for ever. Wishing you are all satisfied and will recommend me to your friends, I bid you good night." But it was evident all were not satisfied, for one individual had ventured to kick the giant's legs, having doubts of their genuineness. Unfortunately, he touched the wrong part, and brought down an invitation on himself to "feel that there was no deception." This tall individual was certainly very narrow, particularly about the waist, and scarcely knew how to fill his clothes out.
Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.