23 December 1888
From a column entitled "Ideas about this Land"
But no one who knows the present condition of the labor market on most parts of Europe
(and more especially in Great Britain itself) can wonder that the poor, half-starved
wretches with whom it is overcrowded should put faith in any tale, no matter how
improbable or absurd, which gives them a hope of better days to come. I certainly saw no
trace of millennium in the course of a walk I took the other day through the district of
Whitechapel, which, thanks to the distinguished exertions of that great apostle who is now
so widely known as "the Whitechapel murderer", has lately become a place of pilgrimage for
visitors of every class from all parts of the capital. One of these enthusiasts, for some
wise purpose of his own, assumed a disguise too transparent to deceive a child, and being
mistaken by the excitable mob for the redoubtable "Jack the Ripper" himself, had such a
narrow escape from being lynched on the spot that it may be hoped he will think twice
before making a fool of himself in the same way again.
At first sight, however, this evil place almost belies its gloomy reputation, especially when approached (as it usually is) by way of the great artery that traverses all London from west to east, entering the city as the highroad from Uxbridge, and running right through the centre of it under the success aliases of bayswater road, Oxford-street, Holborn, Newgate-street, Cheapside, Cornhill, Leadenhall-street, and Whitechapel road, till it becomes at length the great Mile End road which forms the Broadway of the East End. To the continental or transatlantic visitor, who sees handsome stores and houses outstretched in endless perspectives on either side of the broad, well-kept sidewalks that flank a smooth, wide roadway, along which trim street cars glide ceaselessly to and fro, it is naturally no easy matter to convince himself that he is actually in one of the lowest, fiecest and most perilous districts of London, which has so recently become a byword thoughout the whole civilized world by a series of butcheries worthy of Dahomey or the Soudan.
But a sudden and terrible change comes over the scene the moment you leave the main thoroughfare and plunge into the gloomy cobweb of small, dingy, sinister looking houses on either side of it. The outward aspect of the people themselves is more fearfully significant than volumes of description. Every face that one sees wears a hard, battered look, as if the ceaseless blows of trouble and misery had hammered it out of shape as utterly as the worn and dinted pennies with which the poor creatures pay for their stale vegetables, poisoned beer, and wretched scraps of refuse meat such as a dog would hardly touch. In this cruel region the human coinage has been debased as well as that of the mint, and the image once stamped upon it by God is well-nigh effaced, while in not a few cases the impress of the devil is only too legible instead.
But who can wonder at their debasement after seeing the dens in which they live, or rather in which they contrive not to die? What manner of men can be produced by the overcrowded burrows of this dark, narrow, squalid court, into which neither pure air nor clear sunshine has ever penetrated between the high black walls of smoky, sooty brickwork, which, standing only a few yards apart, seem to be slowly crushing the life out of all that lies betwixt them? From those walls a few cracked, soot-begimed windows look down with the blank, unseeing stare of a blind man (only too symbolical of the darkened souls behind them) upon a fould and gloomy lane - one festering mass of filth and disease from one end to the other - where gaunt, half-clad savages, who have never been children and are already familiar with every form of crime, fight and curse all day long amid rotting garbage and uncleansed dirt.
See this tattered, red-eyed woman, (with her face still bruised and bleeding from the blows of her drunken husband) pouring into the mouth of her 3-months'-old baby the fiery liquor which is destroying herself body and soul. Yonder crippled boy, who shambles along through the mud, (one shapeless, crumpled mass of deformity from head to foot) ready to beg or steal, as chance may direct, was straight and well-made enough till the night when his mother flung him headlong down stairs in a fit of drunken fury and crippled him for life. All honor to those who strive to convert the heathen abroad; but might not some one spare a little time and money for the conversion of the heathen at home?
Most of the men look surly and defiant, as if goaded into open antagonism toward a world which will give them no chance. The women, on the other hand, wear that crushed and hopeless air which is the saddest of all expressions that can be seen on a human face - the look which comes only to those from whom all hope has passed away, to whom happiness of any kind has long since ceased to appear possible, and whose utmost wish and expectation is only to have a smaller share of misery. As for the children, one can hardly say that there are any in this dismal human jungle, for assuredly there is little sign of youth or freshness in the sharp, bony, wolfish, repulsive faces of these child-monsters, already aged with the maturity of evil, and all without exception confirmed thieves, liars, drunkards and debauchees.
But worst of all are the half-grown lads of 15 and 16 - pale, bilious, undersized, with the half-cunning, half-ferocious look of a prowling beast of prey in their sunken eyes - who hang in an aimless kind of way around every street corner, clustering more thickly than usual where the corner house happens to be a tavern. Impudent and foul-mouthed though they are, they have not even the brutal courage of their miserable class, and one resolute man might easily scatter a dozen of them with no better weapon than a stout cane; but woe to any feeble old man or unprotected woman who shall fall among these human hyenas after nightfall!