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Reno Evening Gazette
Nevada, USA
1 April 1901

A MORNING IN PETTICOAT LANE

Passing from the fashionable West End to the East End of London, one emerges into a strange city and a different civilization.

Perhaps nothing is more significant of the English social organization or illustrates better the strata characteristic of the social system then a Sunday morning gathering in Petticoat Lane.

Petticoat Lane is a side issue of Whitechapel Road, a part of that great London fester in the East End of the city, including the Stepney and Whitechapel districts etc., where the artisans and the poor and the worthless make their homes. Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Besant, Israel Zangwill, Mrs. Humphry Ward and others in their novels, the Booths and their co-laborers through sociological and Salvation Army work, have tried to picture and suggest the black horror, the sordid commonplaceness and ugliness of this side of English life. But nothing is so convincing as to see through one's own eyes how this other half lives.

Dressed very simply in dark and inconspicuous clothing, we climbed on top of a Holborn omnibus one Sunday morning late in August, and took our seats well forward so as to be near the usually loquacious omnibus driver. These drivers are said to be the shrewdest and most amusing men in London, of their kind. Sitting all day on top of the busses which lumber over London in leisurely fashion, coming in contact with all sorts of people whose questions it is their business to answer, these men certainly have a unique opportunity to study human nature from one point of view, at least. They are, as a class, a kindly, comical, sometimes coarse sort of Cockney, inclined to take a good humored view of life, and bearing none of the marks of physical fatigue and nervous distraction that American motormen and conductors acquire in assisting our people to tear through life.

On this particular occasion a tuppence for beer money melted our driver from a state of congealed taciturnity to a running stream of comment and observation as we bowled cumbersomely off Holborn Viaduct into Cheapside, past Edward VI's "yellow leggers" of Christ's Hospital, Newgate Prison, and the Church of St. Sepulchre in which the remains of Captain John Smith are said to be, almost in the shadow of the dome of gloomy St. Paul's. We soon left behind us the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, the Mansion House, contributing our mite to increase the volume of traffic and to swell the roar of might London, as we rolled off Cornhill and down toward Whitechapel Road. When we neared our destination and prepared to climb off the omnibus our driver touched his whip to his funny black-glazed waterproof hat, and as a parting injunction shouted back at us something to the effect that although we were not in Billingsgate we must be prepared to hear "language fit to hinduce hany lydy to 'ang 'er 'ead."

We found ourselves in a main thoroughfare in the heart of the East End of London, Mile End Road, and looked inquiringly about us.

Anyone entering the Whitechapel district with imagination lured with memories from "Oliver Twist" or ruddy with reminiscences of Jack the Ripper will experience a shock of relief at the superficially commonplace aspect of things. The dull gray brown morning was especially dull and brown in this section of the city. The air was heavy with dust and smoke and mist, and weighed pounds, seemingly, as we tried to breathe it in. The street, unclean as to sidewalk and paving, lined with rows of hideous brownish brick buildings forming a ragged skyline, offended the eye and all the physical senses as well. Even the sky was ugly here. The streets were more deserted than we had expected to find them. Save for the traffic caused by the omnibuses and trams passing and loaded "full up and in" with Sunday night sightseers, and for an occasional group of Cockneys here and there luxuriously loafing the Sunday by, the thoroughfare suggested almost the quiet of a village street after meeting has begun. We soon discovered the cause of this unexpected absence of the roar and rattle of traffic, of confusion and bustle caused by elbowing, squeezing and shouting crowds, and other nerve destroying accessories of what we had been led to expect made up an East End Sunday.

How to find out objective point, Petticoat Lane? Our escort finally drew the information from one more responsive and less stupid individual, who withdrew his eyes from the pavement to gaze at us moodily, and his forearm from his pocket to gesture as he imparted in terse Cockney:

"Go stright on to the top o' the street by the undergroun' stition, and then turn up the first on yer right."

We stared, but stopped to retake our bearings from a policeman, who shook his head dubiously as we mentioned Petticoat Lane.

"Better not go. Hit's a terrible bad crowd," he remarked.

Our escort's incisive and firm "Will you kindly direct us? I have been there and understand perfectly," brought the bobby to our front ranks in silent acquiescence, we following in his wake eagerly and excitedly.

For the pavements were now becoming more difficult and crowded, and in the distance we could hear a dull roar as of many voices. At a narrow opening of the thoroughfare the policeman, touching his cap respectfully, left us with the parting injunction to "keep close to heach other, and mind yer pockets, lydy - for yer see, sit, pickpockets is thicker'n hants."

We joined the crowd pouring the narrow alley way and debouching into the somewhat broader alley beyond known as Petticoat Lane. We were soon pushing and struggling with the best of them, trying to fill in turn the hole made by our leader in his progress toward the center of noise and interest, before the tide of humanity flowed in and swallowed him up. To keep him in sight required a dexterous and judicious manipulation of shoulders and elbows; although the crowd in the main appeared to be good natured and easy going, it was certainly very pushing.

The center of interest proved to be nothing more than a couple of weary looking, gesticulating and shouting east Enders, mounted on a long roughboard platform, and surrounded by old clothing in heaps, old clothing draped tastefully on strung wires and waving dejectedly in the breeze. The two men were trying to convert into purchasers the stolid crowd about, which was supposedly in a financial condition to buy bountifully at the weekend. Saturday was "pie die" as a bud driver once described it to me; he meant pay day. These two east End merchants were a psychological study. At first they appeared to me to be rivals trying to outshine, to outgesture, and to outsell each other, each waving temptingly before the crowd an especially good bargain in the way of an old coat. I soon discovered their seeming rivalry to be a profitable scheme for working upon the stupidity and cupidity of the crowd. I saw one hawker call a coat down from sixteen shillings to three bob, and finally toss it to a man in the crowd with a "sold for 'arf a crown." His companion had obstinately kept the coat he was trying to sell, seemingly no better, at four shillings. The interesting point is that the man who purchased the garment for half-crown had not bid upon the coat. He had simply looked anxious and excited, and the charlatan was quick to observe his expression and at the right moment to toss the coat, proclaiming a sale before the victim was conscious of intending to become a purchaser. I saw this trick work a dozen times. Not once did the man have the courage or the intelligence to protest. I became convinced that the purchasers were victims not altogether of bluff but of a kind of hypnotic suggestion. These street vendors live by their wits more than by their wares, and in the struggle for existence won by preying on their fellows become necessarily something of mental jugglers, hypnotists, commercial students of psychology. I was reminded of American patent medicine men, and the cure-all quack doctors so forcibly described in "David Corson."

Tiring of their "bluff" game of underselling each other, I saw these rivals turn partners. The man with the better figure would obligingly act the part of a dummy and slip coats on and off with surprising swiftness, posing, while his accomplice would dwell on points of form and figure. To think that these poor victims of birth and circumstance, knowing only the seamy side of life and seeing only its ugly sights, should think twice about the fit of a coat! Truly, here was the opportunity for a reincarnated Professor Teufelsdroeckh and a second "Sartor Resartus."

Wearying of clothes, we pushed on through the crowd to find that Petticoat Lane and its cross streets of a Sunday presented as great a range and variety of wares as does a modern department store. We found women vying with men in the sale of old shoes, dry goods, leather wares, furs; we found even a novelty counter, and an ice cream stand. All first hand materials appeared to be of the poorest quality. I wondered who the manufacturers of the ribbons, hairpins, woollen and cotton garments, pipes, furs, pins, cigars could be, and if their employees were relatively as severely sweated as the employees of West End manufacturers. The ice cream buyers interested me, although I had not the courage to become one of them. They would buy for a penny either a slab of greenish ice and eat it like a sandwich, or a spoonless and shallow glassful of the mixture, dexterously manipulating their tongues in place of spoons.

One seller of brilliantly polished watches and other resplendent ornaments announced that he had once sold a watch to the "Prince of Wiles."

I was relieved to observe that the activities of the drink shops, or "pubs," (although very frequent in this region), did not obtrude themselves on one's attention. Perhaps they were nominally closed on the English day of rest and public worship. Perhaps the Sunday morning commercial activity mercifully drew men and women into the streets. It was a relief not to see dowdy, bare armed women pushing and elbowing with the men to the bar of a public house, often presided over by a woman, leaving their babies sprawling on the sidewalk, or perhaps carrying the poor little things in too, already very sleepy, to share the mother's beer. This is a common weekday sight in all parts of London.

What bothered me especially about the women was their slatternly, dishevelled appearance, their loud, coarse manners, although in spite of our bus driver's warning we encountered no Billingsgate. So far as dirt, disorder and general appearance were concerned the women were even more unpleasant than the men. Slum women always seem to be; the same fact is to be observed in New York and elsewhere. The methods of the women vendors in comparison with the men were suggestive, but I had no time to make a study of the. From the little I observed it seemed to me that the women were not so boldly charlatan as their male competitors, relying less on their shrewdness and the gullibility of the public to consummate sales, and more on flattery, appeals to pity, deceit.

It would be wrong to convey the impression that the merchants of Petticoat Lane, of a Sunday morning, are the most interesting things there, and the most profitable people to study from a sociological point of view. It is the same mistake I made myself that morning; the vendors made more noise than anyone else, and at first, quite naturally my attention fixed itself on them. It took me only a short time to see, however, that the significant and most vitally important thing to study was not their pyrotechnical charlatanry, but the sullen, sodden crowd itself. It was chiefly masculine in its makeup. As we pushed our way about they paid but slight attention to us, suggesting either that our dress and our bearing were an artistic success and that they took us for their own kind, or that they were so absorbed in their own affairs that they had no curiosity about ours. If they recognized us as aliens, they certainly manifested no disposition to resent our curiosity. I was looking and hoping for this righteous resentment and hostility, as standing for a certain self respect.

A striking characteristic was the homogeneity of the crowd; all the men composing it were of the same kind, apparently, and possessed the same physical and mental attributes. Their faces stamped them as of the same caste; they were the dregs of the English social system, the lowest class. I saw no man who looked as though he had been born above his present station. He and his fellows formed the same stratum in English society that his and their progenitors had formed before them.

Another noteworthy characteristic was expression. In the main they appeared to be passively good natured, without expressiveness; they would josh and jostle each other and apparently enjoy it, with slight changes of their heavy impassive features. The capacity to feel and to enjoy, among normal enlightened folk, is often commensurate with the ability to express feeling. This absence of expression, other than was given by the low forehead, dull eye, heavy mouth and jaw, was uncanny. It represented not only a low type of man, mentally and physically, but it suggested to me hopelessness. There was no light in the eye, no firmness about the sullen mouth that stood for hope, aspiration, the desire and will to rise out of the slough of poverty and sordidness. And the pity of it was they did not know their own sad case.

Compare this crowd of men with a relatively similar American aggregation. Nothing can more strikingly illustrate the essential difference between the two social systems in cause and effect.

Note first the composition of a representative American crowd, such as one may happen upon in the slums of any of our large cities:

We observe heterogeneity instead of homogeneity. The individuals are not all of the same social origin. In the first place there is a large sprinkling of foreign elements. Throw these out of consideration and observe the native Americans. We see, of course, many representatives of the lowest tramp class whose faces suggest the same moral and mental attitudes as the faces of the men in Petticoat Lane. But we note also faces of men who were born in the gutter - here an unfortunate gambler, there an actor who has met misfortune or ill health, here again a bonanza king or a stock broker who has lost his all. Men from all walks of life find their way into American slums. They are not necessarily born to a slum, to live and to die in a slum as in England, unless the Fates or something equally powerful and precarious intervene.

Note again the expressions on the majority of faces. Many may be dogged, sullen, dissipated, but in the main there is a different light in the eye from what we observed in our English brethren; there is a more vigorous poise in the head, and independent shrug of the shoulder; there is hope, there is independence, there is knowledge of the opportunity to side, perchance in the eye of the lowest tramp. Men may be born in the slums in the United States, or they may fall there through mischance or misuse of opportunity - but it is not written that men must die there.

In America society is not stratified as in England. We have no "lowest class" in the English sense. Our lowest class is our poorest class, not necessarily the most meanly born as well. Our fathers derived many political ideas from England, but their ideas of social organization were unconsciously modified by the conditions of life in the new world. As a result man stands more for what he is than for what his fathers were; class, caste, is not so sharply defined, and our inherited ideas do not make it well nigh impossible for a man to rise from the lowest class to the highest. In England the social system is practically a caste system, in which there is an abyss between classes, rendering it difficult to pass from the middle strata to the upper, and almost impossible to climb from the lower stratum upward. Notwithstanding dangers arising from modern industrial development and our plutocratic tendencies, the intent in America is to remove obstructions to progress, not by reaching down and lifting up, but by giving opportunity to rise through self initiative and effort.

The genius, and however unintentionally, the intent of the English social system, an inheritance from centuries of serfdom, feudalism, conservatism, is to keep things in their place - neither to reach down, nor to lift up, nor to remove obstructions to progress. There is no social improvement because there is no opportunity. Every influence that comes to bear on the men of East London operates to hold them to the station in which they were born. The first essential to progress, as written on the faces of these men, is lacking - knowledge of opportunity, desire for it, hopefulness. My mind was not so stuffed with English Blue Book and Baedeker that summer morning, so all of these following queries did not occur to me till later:

Although not crime, but sullen indifference and dirty misery stalk the East End streets unmasked in the garish light of day - why, in spite of the work of the People's Palace, Toynbee Hall and other University settlements and charitable organizations, is pauperism on the increase, even considering the growth of London's population; of London's approximate five millions, who are over one fiftieth, or about 11,000 people, paupers?

Why, above all, is juvenile crime increasing during the last thirty years, and what pathological conditions bring this state of affairs about: that children of industrial schools, which are filled up with offspring from the dependent, defective and delinquent classes of London and the country, show the abnormally high percentage of 29 per cent presenting physical or mental defects?

Who is accountable for the fact that only about seven per cent of industrial school children have homes morally fit for a child to live in?

Why is it that in one of the largest London prisons about one half of the juvenile prison population are without either one or both parents, or are the children of parents who have either deserted them or turned them adrift in the streets?

Many juvenile offenders are members of large families, and as the children increase the older ones have to leave home to make room for the younger children. Much crime in large cities is to be traced to this fact alone. Mr. Charles Booth, analyzing the London census returns for 1891, shows that about 1,300,000, or thirty one to every hundred of London's population are too thickly crowded in their homes - two or more of this population are compelled to live in one room. This, owing to poverty and high rents a large number of young people, at a critical period in their lives, are forced into the streets or into the common lodging house infested with vicious characters. Let me give a concrete illustration, taken from the work of a contemporary sociologist:

"In one of the London suburbs a series of daring robberies occurred which had for a time baffled the efforts of the authorities. At last it was discovered that the perpetrator of these crimes adopted a very simple method of procedure. In the first place he picked up a boy in a lodging house. This boy's business was to accompany the burglar on his expeditions and knock at the doors of the houses it was intended to rob. If he got an answer he was to ask for some one whom he knew did not live there and depart. If he received no answer it was a sign that the inmates were all out or away from home. The burglar's opportunity had now arrived; the boy's part of the work was done. He disappeared, while the thief broke open the door and ransacked the premises. Before falling into the hands of the thief this youth had been a lodging house waif, and it is probable that he would not have become a criminal at all if London had contained one or two well conducted municipal shelters exclusively for the young. As it is he and hundreds of his fellows are yearly being initiated into the devices of the habitual criminal, and end by becoming members of the criminal class."

Another illustration: Children were found by two members of the Poor Law School Committee, living in a London workhouse under the following conditions: "In one room fourteen or fifteen feet square and eight or nine feet high we found six boys. There were no tables, no chairs, and they were eating their dinners on the floor. There were no books, pictures or playthings. Only six beds which, during the day are turned up on end. For washing purposes a pail was brought in. The door of the room was locked, the area outside being railed in at the top to prevent the boys from escaping. They were attended night and day by a young pauper man, who had been an inmate for two weeks, and was frequently in and out. In this room the boys live, wash, eat, sleep, sometimes three weeks, sometimes for longer. Last week there were fifteen lads there, and then the matron told us they slept three in a bed. On visiting the girls we found they shared the receiving ward with the women. In a room smaller than that occupied by the boys we found a young, desolate looking woman, still in her rags, who had just come in from the streets. Besides her there was a poor, half witted creature who had been in the receiving ward a month, because she made a bother in the body of the house. These, with others, were the companions of the remanded girls, aged twelve, nine and ten, who slept, ate, and lived in such companionship."

Mercifully, mental ignorance is no longer an inevitable accessory of poverty in these quarters, as it was before 1870. In 1869-70 30,000 children out of 40,000 living in one square mile of the East End were growing up in complete ignorance. Since the Endowed School Act of 1869 and the Elementary Education Act of 1870 educational conditions have changed somewhat for the better. But what can be said of economic and social, moral and industrial opportunities for these children of the slums? In quoting from Hobson's "Problems of Poverty" I am reminded of Professor Booker T. Washington's work toward solving the negro problem through the industrial emancipation of his race in the South:

"How," says Hobson, "How shall a child of the slums, ill fed in body and mind, brought up in the industrial and moral degradation of low city life, without a chance of learning to use hands or head and to acquire habits of steady industry, become an efficient workman? It is the bitterest portion of the lot of the poor that they are deprived of the opportunity of learning to work well. Here and there an individual may be to blame for neglected opportunities; but the poor as a class have no more chance under present conditions of acquiring efficiency than of attaining to refined artistic taste or the culminating Christian virtue of holiness."

All these things may be true, in less degree of America, perhaps, than of England; but why, I asked that gray summer morning, looking moodily at the people of East London, why this listless, sullen, hopeless indifference? It seems to me that such an ignorant, lethargic state of feeling and knowledge, permeating all members of the class, creates a fundamental difficulty in the way of the social uplifting of London, and a greater menace to the well-being of England than would positive crime and passion, rampant, create. The most dangerous diseases are the painless ones. It is easier to fight and subdue definite positive symptoms which are the effect of obvious concrete causes, than it is to combat a hidden, deep seated and painless condition which is nevertheless penetrating and destroying insidiously the very tissue of life, or of society.

As I stood reflecting that Sunday morning in Petticoat Lane, gazing at these masses of men absorbed in their own sordid pursuits, the hopelessness, the hideous inequality of it all struck me anew, and an idle thought occurred to me; what if these millions of the East End should one day come to know that they have no chance, should become conscious of the physical power, the brute force they represent - should become imbued with ideas of the rights of man and self conscious under a leader, a Jack Straw or Jack Cade who knew his business well, and should turn their masses loose on London?

ANNA H. MARTIN
Reno, Nevada, March 19, 1901.


Related pages:
  Petticoat Lane
       Press Reports: Echo - 7 August 1888