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THE LOW HAUNTS OF LONDON.
their operation has been remarkable; but the Childs’ Asylum Committee has hitherto acted, and still acts, as a court of inquiry on the cases of delinquent children, dealing with them according to circumstances, and sending such of them as were suitable to the Industrial Schools as houses of correction and reformation, for which they have proved infinitely more effective than either the whipping-post or the prison. Now, abolish the functions exercised by the Committee, and shut up the schools, and what would be the result ? An immediate return to all the juvenile vagrancy and juvenile delinquency which formerly afflicted us, from which we are happily delivered, but which neither the police nor the prison could either abate or remove. It is therefore most reasonable that the efforts of some hundred private individuals should be aided and encouraged by general public support, espe. cially by those bodies whose sole existence is for diminishing pauperism and preventing crime.
THE LOW HAUNTS OF LONDON. Much has been written of late years about the low haunts of London, and appalling disclosures have been made. We have been startled to learn, that boundless opulence, and wretchedness the most extreme, dwell side by side, and that in the immediate neighbourhood of aristocratic and fashionable residences, are to be found the loathsome dens of poverty, profligacy, and crime. Such discoveries are at once painful and alarming, but if they be realities, it is essential that they be widely known. The full extent of the evil must be ascertained before any adequate remedy can be prescribed, and for such a disclosure the testimony of many witnesses is necessary.
These considerations induced us, on occasion of a recent visit to London, to inquire whether it would not be possible to explore some of the lower parts of the great metropolis, and judge of their state for ourselves. We had already accompanied a devoted Christian labourer in daylight through a district of St. Pancras, and had then enjoyed the opportunity of ascertaining something of the condition of the more careless artizans and small traders of the metropolis, and of comparing it with that of the corresponding classes at home. But we were anxious to get to the very bottom of the social fabric, to explore the lowest depths where human beings are to be found. Without the protection of the police such an enterprise would of course have been impossible ; but on presenting a letter which we had brought from Scotland, we found the authorities ready to afford every facility, and as the best method of accomplishing our object, we were intrusted to the guidance of J. H. Sanders, an officer of the detective force. It would perhaps have been impossible to obtain a better guide. We were expeditiously carried through the very
districts we desired to explore; and we were soon satisfied that our guide was admirably qualified, by acuteness, sagacity, and thorough knowledge of human nature, to form one of that small band whose celebrity is so widely known—the detective force of London.
The afternoon had been wet, and the evening was showery. A heavy fall of rain about eight o'clock, which involved a thorough drenching, made us hesitate regarding our subsequent movements, but it cleared, and we determined
to proceed. At nine, our party, which consisted of three gentlemen from Edinburgh,
including the Editor of this Magazine, rendezvoused at the Police Office in Scotland Yard, where we found Sanders awaiting us. We immediately proceeded to the notorious district of St. Giles's. We passed the Seven Dials,” a well-known central point of villany, just about the hour when the thieves disperse for their evening's work. Within a few minutes some fifteen or twenty known thieves were pointed out, most of them in groups of two or three, smoking their pipes, and apparently arranging their plans. We observed a couple of them recognise the detective officer. An almost imperceptible movement indicated that they were aware of an enemy's presence, but nothing was said, and they passed on. We found the
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cells at St. Giles's police-station quite empty; an hour or two later it would probably have been otherwise, but we were glad to learn from the serjeant and others that now they are never so crowded as they used to be ten or fifteen years ago. Everywhere we met with ample demonstration of the thorough efficiency of the police force of London. The organization of that force is one of the chief public services of the late Sir Robert Peel. The greatest wonder of the great metropolis is the admirable order that prevails, even in the most crowded thoroughfares, and amid a very Babel of noise. It is needless to say in how great a degree this must be owing to the admirable efficiency of the police.
Accompanied by some of the officers of the St. Giles's district, we proceeded upon our exploration, and after traversing a few streets of the lowest character, we found ourselves in front of a cellar of considerable notoriety. It required some nerve to descend into “Rat's Castle,” a vault half underground, and a known haunt of robbers ; but our guides showed no fear, and we followed them. In a minute we were in a good-sized cellar, filled with some thirty or five-and-thirty men, who had apparently returned from their day's work. Some were seated on benches, and others on a long table which occupied the middle of the room. The place was heated to suffocation, and a blazing fire made it almost insupportable. This, however, if it added to the intensity of the heat, in some measure promoted ventilation. In a moment the inmates detected that our conductors had not come on business, and we were received with cheerfulness and good humour. They chatted freely. One of them, for the general benefit, sung a song of considerable humour, quite free from offensive or objectionable matter, and after a short conversation we left them; and yet they were a company of thorough blackguards, who, but for the presence of Sanders and his two allies, would have plundered us to the last farthing, and probably would not have felt very nervous about burying us beneath the floor of their own cellar. What a tribute to the efficiency of the London police! and what an evidence that thoroughly organized authority is more than a match for physical force and rascality united!
We next visited some of the low lodging-houses in the same district. The first was a small, dirty, loathsome place, a stranger alike to fresh air and fresh water, without a single mattress or respectable piece of furniture, and where the atmosphere was loaded with the foulest exhalations. Upon the floor of this place, night after night, herds of human beings, of all ages and of both sexes, lie down to sleep as they best can. As it was yet early, the place was but partially occupied, but we saw enough to make us tremble. In a corner of the room a woman sat half naked on the floor.
“How many will sleep there to-night,” said we to her, pointing to a small angle, some seven feet every. way.
“ Two families, sir.” Yes, in that corner, nine or ten human beings were to lie wedged for the night. And this place is not peculiar—other rooms which we saw were much the same. The very next we entered was as loathsome and still more crowded than the other. Eight families were to be put up in it for the night. In one corner, indeed, there was a solitary mattress where the superintendent slept, but any satisfaction which this might create was counteracted by the intelligence that at present it was occupied by a child ill with small-pox.
A few nights before, Inspector Field and our friend Sanders had conducted Charles Dickens over the scenes where we now were, and in his usual lively way, Dickens has given the public an account of what he saw, in a recent number of the Household Words. His description of the hovel where we now were will be a lively episode to our more sober narrative :
“ Ten, twenty, thirty-who can count them! Men, women, children, for the most part naked, heaped upon the floor like maggots in a cheese! Ho! in that dark corner yonder! Does anybody lie there? Me, sir, Irish me, a widder with six children. And yonder Me, sir, with me wife and eight poor babes. And to the left there? Me, sir, Irish me, along with
THE LOW HAUNTS OF LONDON.
two more boys, as is me friends. And to the right there? Me, sir, and the Murphy family, numbering five blessed souls. And what's this, coiling now about my foot ? Another Irish me, pitifully in want of shaving, whom I have awakened from sleep-and across my other foot lies his wife-and by the shoes of Inspector Field lie their three eldest; and their three youngest are at present squeezed between the open door and the wall. And why is there no one on that little mat before the sullen fire ? Because O'Donovan, with wife and daughter, is not come in get from selling lucifers ! Nor on the bit of sackin in the nearest corner ? Bad luck! Because that Irish family is late to-night, acadging in the streets !”
Our readers must not suppose that such places are rare. A shilling or two to obtain a comfortable cup of coffee for the inmates in the morning, we of course left with the superintendents of these hovels—and the intelligence having got wind, we were literally besieged by hosts of ragged and filthy men and women, as we passed along, all eager to exhibit to us the horrors of their dens. And who are the wretches doomed to so dreadful a fate? Not our condemned criminals. They are lodged in spacious penitentiaries, where they have fresh air to breathe, wholesome food, regular attendance, books, writing materials-certainly all the comforts, and not a few of the luxuries of life. Only the day before, we had visited the famous Model Prison of Pentonville, and with its shining and spacious corridors fresh in our recollection, the contrast of these hovels was all the more striking. Nor is it the professional thieves--for the low houses we have been describing last are not their sleeping-places. The inmates of these dens belong chiefly to a more respectable class, poor, but honest people, or at least comparatively honest, who strive hard, by the sale of penny prints and halfpenny songs to raise enough to pay for a night's covering; and who, so long as they continue honest, can have no higher hope than to live or rather to die in the midst of this squalid wretchedness! We remembered Carlyle's graphic description of "poor dark tradeshops, with red herrings and tobacco pipes crossed in the windows, struggling to keep the Devil out of doors, and not enlist with him.” In this case, a striking enough indication that the inmates had not enlisted in the “ Devil's regiments of the line" caught our eye. Among the rafters of the most crowded of the lodgings, where the atmosphere smelled like death, and the very thought of the vermin made us creep, we observed a basket of large size.“ What's in the basket?” we asked. “Oh, cabbages, cabbages, sir, to be sold to-morrow morning.” The poor creature had procured
a stock for the morrow's trading, and there they were destined to be fumigated for the next eight or ten hours in that most awful atmosphere. Crime is easy enough under any circumstances. Even the dread of punishment often fails to deter men from it, and when the commission of it transfers them from misery to comfort, is it strange that so many pass from the class of beggars to that of criminals ? Philanthropy has long looked too exclusively upon suffering crime. Our common safety requires that its hand should now be extended to help those who are honestly trying to help themselves.
Having completed our survey of St. Giles's, a rapid drive brought us to the heart of Southwark, on the opposite side of the Thames. We passed the spot where the Mannings were executed, and as our guide was familiar with the details of their apprehension, the conversation naturally turned on the dreadful tragedy in which these wicked beings were so prominent. We are now amidst dens of thieves, and strange sights we saw. There was less of the appearance of wretchedness than in St. Giles's, and much more intelligence. The majority whom we met were of the male sex. They were mostly young, and all of them singularly acute. In the course of the evening we must have met with several hundreds of thieves, most of them in the very lowest scale of degradation, yet we did not detect a single case of intoxication. When a London thief becomes a drunkard, he is a ruined man. In one house we
THE LOW HAUNTS OF LONDON.
found a good many gathered around one of their number who was reading aloud, and our friend Sanders called for a specimen of his elocution. In such a house a police-officer's wish is powerful as the sentence of a judge; but the reader hesitated, and it was only after several refusals, and being laughed at by all the company, that he summoned courage to make the attempt. The paper from which he read was one of those low penny prints that abound with narratives of infamy and crime. In many of the places where we went we observed some such publications, and frequently one or more were reading them. In another den we were struck with the sagacity of the inmates. The moment we entered, a slight start indicated their alarm at the approach of the police, but a glance having satisfied them that no duty was to be performed, they recovered their composure, and acted their different parts to the life. A
negro stood by the fire smoking his pipe with an air of the most simple, stupid innocence; and had we not known him to be a consummate scoundrel, we would have supposed him to be an honest soft-headed simpleton. "Well, Blacky, said Sanders, at parting, “if these gentlemen were to leave a shilling, would you have a jug of porter in the morning P” “ Thank replied Blacky, very meekly, but I would rather not." "Perhaps," said one of the party, “you would prefer a glass of gin?” “ Oh no, sir,” he answered, with innocent simplicity, “I don't incline that way at all.” The shilling was left, notwithstanding, and our only fear was, that before we reached the next street, there would be a battle royal regarding the appropriation of the “stout,” in which, without doubt, the negro would hold his
In another house we were much struck with the sang froid of the inmates. Here we experienced some little difficulty in effecting an entrance, in consequence of a wild-looking dame, who presided over the place, protesting against the unseasonable hour of our visit; but the serjeant, who knew well how to combine authority and persuasion, soon removed the barrier. In a few moments we found ourselves in a long room filled with thieves. The majority were males, but there were a few females. Most of them were young, active, and intelligent. At one end of the room they were playing at cards, others were lounging idly through the room ; whilst at a blazing fire stood an unwashed and uncombed monster, whose countenance suggested the thought of worse crimes than robbery. They chatted readily with their visitors. “Just enjoying a rational social hour," said one of them, “after the day's work, and when eleven strikes we go to bed.” “You have come on a bad night,” said another, “ there are few of us here to-night.” “ Where are the rest!" “All at Ascot, sir.” (It was the day of the Ascot races.) “And what has been going on at Ascot to-day?”. “Admirable running, sir, but nothing doing in our way at all-no ng.” Possibly this was meant for the ear of the detective. They did not seem reluctant, however, to acknowledge the nature of their daily and nightly pursuits. Whilst we were conversing, the presiding female genius somewhat abruptly extinguished one of the lights. Keeping in mind her rudeness when we entered, and knowing well the character of the place, we did feel some dread lest the other solitary gas-jet should also disappear, and then, in total darkness, we would have been much at the mercy of the gambling thieves, to say nothing of the uncombed gentleman at the fire-place. But we made good our retreat in safety.
In one of these abodes of crime sat a young woman, with a beautiful, gentlelooking child in her lap. There was something peculiarly painful in the sight of an infant in such a den. How was the poor innocent babe to be brought up and trained ? who were to be its guardians in the ways of integrity and piety? Charity suggested the hope that the mother's presence there might be accidental ; that she should not be inured to the hardened villany of the place; and that that infant would have a better training than such a den could promise. So thought Dickens too, but he was wrong. “Is that modest, gentle-looking young woman as bad as the rest, I wonder ? Inspec
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torial experience does not engender a belief contrariwise, but prompts the answer,-not a ha’porth of difference !”
In such houses as these-most of them gin-shops of disreputable character -dwell the professional thieves of London. There they have the comforts which they relish most, their beer and tobacco, their blazing fire, their packs of cards, and the company which is congenial to their tastes. Their haunts are well known. The police could name every such den in London, and could guide you through the secret recesses of the interior as easily as they could point out the exterior.
Recrossing the Thames, we drove towards the far east of the metropolis, the neighbourhood of the docks—to examine another aspect of social degradation. We were now amidst dancing-saloons of the lowest type, frequented by sailors and female profligates. From the late hour of our visit we saw comparatively little, but enough to make the heart sick. In the first house we entered we were ushered into a spacious and well-lighted room, with a small orchestra at the extremity: The dancing had ceased; but round the walls sat numbers of sailors, resting from the exertions of the evening, and effectually ensnared by the vilest frequenters of the street. In another, the whirl was still in progress, and an elegant polka was being performed—may. hap not so gracefully, but at least as vigorously, as in the drawing-rooms of the west end. A third was a singing saloon; and there, gaily and immodestly attired, were two males and a female amusing the surrounding profligates, amidst occasional showers of halfpence. .
The evils of these demoralizing haunts are apparent. When a ship reaches London, the sailors are freed from duty, and sent ashore with heavy purses. Open-hearted and open-handed, poor fack is an easy victim for the designing. Degraded females seize upon him, carry him off to the saloons, stimulate his passions, and secure him for their prey. Of course he is thoroughly fleeced. His earnings become the property of the abandoned ; and we were assured by the police that these women find the sailors so profitable, that should they be beggared before commencing another cruise, the women will sustain them on the wages of their own iniquity, in order to secure them more easily on their next return to London. All who know anything of the British tar must be aware, that to cast him without a home and without a counsellor upon the profligates of London, is to plunge him into a bottomless gulf of iniquity; but no one who has not spent a night in wandering through the haunts which we are now describing, can imagine the extent of the mischief. And yet, even here the influence of the law is felt. No door was closed against our guides ; and a single word from Mr. Sanders lighted up darkened rooms, and made the only drunken landlord we met with civil and obsequious. Undoubtedly these saloons are fruitful hotbeds of sin; passions are inflamed, and most probably crimes are planned; but within their walls no vile passion can be gratified, and no crime can be perpetrated. Were one of these houses to pass the forbidden line, and thereby to become amenable to the law, the iron hand of authority would close on it, and crush it at once.
We were leaving this district with sad thoughts, when our attention was directed to a pleasing object. It was a large building, founded by Prince Albert, and named the “ Sailors' Home.” The hour being late it was closed for the night, and consequently inspection was impossible ; but we were assured that it is conducted on the most admirable principles, and that all the comforts of home are provided.
Probably our readers may be satisfied with the details we have given; but we have still to request their attention to nother topic. On leaving the saloons, we were conducted to some of the lodging-houses of the far east. Accompanied by Sanders and an officer of the district, and guarded by two constables, we found ourselves, at a late hour of the night, or rather an early hour of the morning, in front of a low, dirty, and miserable abode. The police knocked loudly at the door, but for some time they knocked in vain. At last a grumbling reply was given; but little readiness was shown to*admit