Lambeth Women Speak (originally Streets and Lanes of the City) by Nellie Benson, 1890
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STREETS AND LANES OF THE CITY- AS NELLIE BEGINS THE BOOK:
The following chapters lay claim to attention only on the ground of being true. They are not written to support a social or religious theory, nor to put forward a remedy for any of the evils and sorrows described in them. Such theories need the experience of a lifetime for their support; as to remedies we are no doubt in some measure already on the right lines; and for the rest let those speak who can with authority.
What follows claims only to be a truthful representation of the modes of life and facts of life that have come under the eye of one individual in the space of half a mile radius during the lapse of five years. If they should bring before any minds more vividly the conditions, needs, loveableness, and nobility of the life of a fraction of the working classes, by giving bona fide instances of real events, they will have done all they claim to do.
THE AMUSEMENTS OF THE VERY RESPECTABLE
We would not now speak of any amusements except those which are shared in
by the completely respectable. No one would deny that those in London who wish
for dissipation and for amusements better left alone, can have what they wish
however poor they are. But it seems sometimes as if the lives of the respectable
and self-respecting poor, who have a high and a rigid standard of propriety,
and no width of cultivated, intellectual enjoyments and interests, have a terribly
monotonous time of it.
Take, for example, the life of such a girl as the daughter of that Mrs. Ballardwhom
a chapter called "A Troubled Soul" will presently describe the
child of a respectable and superior house. The girl spent her week from morning
to night in domestic work. On Sundays she went to church and to class, and on
one evening in the week to the girls' club. She literally attended no other
kind of amusement or social gathering, except now and then a tea; and once in
the year a day in the country.
At eighteen years old, with good spirits, clever wit and a very merry mind,
this may at first sight seem a terribly cramped life.
But the element that one is liable to forget in reckoning the amusements and pleasures of the London working classes, is the constant variety and distraction of the daily life round them.
When people live so close to each other, where every few square feet hold a
whole family, where every street and alley swarms with life, there are endless
tragedies and comedies acting themselves out every day before even the most
retiring and least inquisitive members of the audience. Death, birth, marriage,
accidents, street rows, all combinations of chance and will of the closely packed
human lives take place, one would almost say, in public. And that this becomes
to the Londoner the very marrow and stimulus of life is plainly shown by their
unwillingness to move into the country and their loneliness if they have to
For example, there was a family where the children were dying from London air.
The family were cramped in one small room and badly off. The mother was devoted
to them, and so she accepted, though not without a struggle, an offer that the
family should move to a quiet country village. They moved down. But the mother
spent two days in tears merely because it was so quiet, and there was only one
post a day. Again, I have heard girls pity a lady who lived in a house looking
on her garden and not on the street: "I wouldn't live there for anything;
it must be so dreadfully quiet."
But one learns to understand it when one considers such distractions as that
of the weekly Saturday market. The evening towards ten o'clock is the time to
see it at its height. The street is crowded with a dense, slowly moving mass.
No one walks quickly for everyone wants to see all there is to see. The place
is full of diffused light, from the lights of gin-palaces and the shop lamps
down to the flaming naphtha flames that light up the hand-carts which stand
crowded with their wares down each side of the street.
Here is a shooting gallery with a flashy-looking girl in shabby finery, and a hat with huge feathers and pendants in her ears inciting passing "gentlemen" to try their luck at the hideous brilliant dolls, in a loud, coarse voice and vulgar terms. They have the hope of a prize of coconuts, or pipes, or whatnots. There is much talking and laughing among the standers-by.
Then come two or three hand-barrows, one containing cabbages of a portentious
size at a minute price, which is bawled out by a vociferous child. One, cottons
and reels, tapes and tuckers and buttons, earrings and rings, and bracelets
and brooches, solitaires of amazing brilliancy at 3½d., and massive gold
brooches at 6d (1). The stall is kept by a blear-eyed old woman, very persuasive.
Then comes a stall of old books, whose owner leans chatting against the wall
to his mates. Old books, some utter rubbish, some really valuable, if one manages
to hit on them, old school books, books of sermons, books of travel, defective
cyclopaedias, dirty novels, perhaps a Family bible in parts, a Greek Testament,
torn editions of the Classics, sometimes valuable or beautiful editions, books
on medicine, antiquated songs, and stray numbers of magazines. The prices vary
from 1d. upwards, or one may see the placard, "All these ½d. each,
but you must take two." The customers at these stalls are worth looking
at; sometimes they are middle-aged men with quaint, shy faces, telling tales
of lives; more often growing boys or weary, eager young men.
Then comes a stall where lighter tastes are consulted, where Mr. Gladstone
in a magenta jacket cuts down a forest tree with a magenta stemthe whole
in tin for the sum of one penny; or a cardboard ship stands brilliant in sparkling
crystals with remarkable rigging and still more remarkable pink paper sails;
a monkey climbs up a stick for only a a'penny, or a photograph album with twenty-four
pages for cartes de visite, each page with a floral design, a padded maroon
leather paper cover and a brass clasp, cover also stamped with a floral design
and a motto, may be bought for 1-3/4d.; while a doll's teaset, or complete bedroom
suite, or a chair with bead legs and back, or a locomotive, or a hansom cab
in yellow tin may be purchased, all at the cost of that remarkable coin the
Here comes a staid and dignified stalla "superior" cart, on
which stand, built up into a chaste pyramid, boxes of pills and boxes of ointment,
and round its base a fringe of bottles of medicine, whose properties the stallkeeper,
a boy in a jacket of "superior" cut, shouts out in a loud monotone,
as he forces on the passer-by paper bills setting forth their merits at great
length with remarkable copies of testimonials. It gives one a little shudder.
Even in these days of doctors in gilt coaches with brass bands, one has not
quite got over a prejudice against wholesale medicines sold as infallible remedies
regardless of the nature of the particular disease.
But here the gathering crowd filling the footway and the street announce that something of greater interest is proceeding at its centre, and looking over shoulders in dingy shawls and dirty coats, and round babies' heads, one becomes aware that an auction of old clothes is proceeding. It is curious how dejected the crowd look; it consists mostly of middle-aged women with dingy, dispirited faces, who finger the garments silently and slowly; one may hear the pence clink in their closed hands.
The seller is lively enough. She is a middle-aged woman too, but her cheeks
are plum and her colour high, and her bonnet smart in crimson velvet and feathers.
And she is facetious. A baby suddenly wakes to cheerfulness, and makes a loud
and incoherent remark to the company with a leap that nearly looses his mother's
hold and launches him on the heap of clothes in front of him. "Want a dolly,
do yer, my beauty?" says the lively saleswoman. "Ah and you shall
have it." And with a skillful movement she transforms a baby's blue velvet-trimmed
pelisse, filthy and faded, into a very fair likeness of a rag doll and dances
it on her arm. But the impassive faces round are impassive still; hardly a smile
Perhaps the gayer spirits have sought the rival auction at the west of that
little narrow street running up to the left. For there the salesman, a flashy-looking
young fellow, stands inside his own donkey-cart and displays his goods at greater
advantage above the heads of his clients.
"A gentleman's tail-coat. There ye are, at ninepence. Look at it now,
linings good." He turns the sleeve inside out with a dexterous swiftness.
"Fit for any gentleman as I see around me. Jacket complete, buttons and
braid, scarcely worn, at ninepence. It's a loss, but you may have it. No one
more?Tenpence?I thought so."
The bidding slowly mounts. Finally the jacket is knocked down at the high value
But here on the pavement comes a strange group. A man and woman are seated
with their backs to the wall, their eyes bent down, neatly dressed, and perfectly
silent. In front of them their four children, also neatly dressed, two girls
and two boys, are playing solemnly at a game of School. The spectators watch
them with great interest, and every now and then when the girl gets up and carries
a shell round, she receives a good supply of copperssuch, indeed, as afford
a livelihood to the whole family.
Then comes a pretty sight. Six little green parroquets sitting on the top of their own cage regarding the crowd demurely, and yet perfectly obedient to the bidding of their mistressa dark-skinned woman in Italian costume. She makes them go through their simple tricks, to the ready applause of the crowd, who chiefly number children from three years old upwards, looking with large eyes of wonder.
But here we are brought to a stop, close to the door of a glaring gin palace.
The lights are bright inside, and the bar crowded, but there comes the sound
of angry voices and of scuffling, and presently a way breaks through the crowd
and a man comes out half-drunk with a bruised and swollen face, and furious
anger on every featureafter him a draggled, miserable woman crying. Then
the crowd closes in, and one hears versions of the story, questions, and answers
on all sides.
Here up a little side street is a Socialist haranguing. He has banners with
various mottoes, held by two or three friends, and the crowd listens quietly
enough to his impassioned speaking. Tomorrow he will be here again, but then
he will only share the ground with more religious preachers of various denominations.
Back into the main street again with its glare and noise. Here is one of the
oddest booths of all, standing side by side with an umbrella standumbrellas
range from sixpence upwardsa booth of false hair. Its lath sides are hung
with brown plaits, and black plaits, and yellow plaits, and tresses of all colours,
and a good handful of rather gruesome individuals are fingering them. They are
within the reach even of the indigent, for they range from twopence upwards.
So much for the Booths. But the Shops force themselves on one's notice. Butchers'
shops predominatea cheering sign. They blaze with red and white joints,
and trays containing pieces of various sizes from 4d. a pound upwards. The butcher
himself moves about in front of his shop, giving vent to a continuous loud harangue.
"Now then, my dearCome along here, ladyHere's the meat for
youthe Princess Christian was down here only last week, and said this
was the shop for mutton chops and good jointsHere you are at 6d. a poundHere
you are at 8d.," and so on and so on.
Or the draper's, milliner's and dressmaker's; what surprises meet one there! Here are prints at 13/4d. the yard, widows' bonnets with crape streamers a yard long, and a whole shrubbery of black crape fruits and flowers in front, at 1s. 11d. Here are stockings, men's size, at 23/4d. a pair; children's at 13/4d.; children's shoes from 4d.; untrimmed hats from 1d., and sometimes ½d.; trimmed hats from 6d. upwards; artificial flowers from 2d. the bunch, gloves at 23/4d., jackets from 2s. 11d., broad satin ribbons at 2d. a yard, mackintoshes at 3s. 11d.; dresses, cashmere with rich plush panels, at 7s. 11d. complete; pinafores, aprons, under-clothing, all to match.
And here, among more sober delights, comes the door of a Show. There is a remarkable
canvas above it representing a tropical forest, with something between a tent
and a wigwam in the distance, and the showman stands in front loudly vociferating.
"The original untamable savagethe same as was on view last week
at the Westminster Aquarium for 1s. a headcan be seen here for the low
fee of one penny. And surely what was worth 1s. in Westminster is worth 1d.
in Burney Row. Walk in, ladies and gentlemen, walk in."
And so we walk onpast the entrance of a music hall, past a gin palacenoise and talk and street-calls on every side.
Of course, viewed in one light it is sordid and miserable, and wretched. And
from the point of view of the philanthropist and moralist, it is full of horrors;
the evil language, the fights, the lavish waste in the midst of pinching poverty,
the drunkenness, and worse. All these are very black.
But we should be ignoring a real side of human nature if we did not see it
in its exciting and entertaining light; if we did not value the intense amusement
and interest of the human drama, the absorbingness of such sights and scenes.
And such as these form a regular part of the life of the respectable working
class. They do not take part in its evils; but they fully enjoy its brighter
side. Among such scenes they do their marketing and carry on the business of
life. And we must reckon it in, if we would judge rightly of the monotony or
variety of their lives.
Butwhat is at once a reproach and a stimulus to the better educatedit
is wonderful to see how little vitiated the tastes of this large mass of the
working class still are. The purest and sweetest pleasures afford them the purest
and keenest delight. There is nothing to them like a day in the country or by
the seaside. Flowers and trees, a blue sky, and cows and dogs and ducks and
chickens and haystacks and blackberries, and all such elementary beauties and
pleasures of nature yield them the highest enjoyment for the space of a day
or a week or two, though they could not be happy permanently out of town. So
do pictures, and places of historical interest, and music of a really good kind.
Only, at present, they often need to be shown their way to such pleasures.
They are used to a contained, circumscribed way of life, and do not go out to
look for enjoyment except upon the beaten tracks. And in the case of pictures
and historical places, the pleasures and interest are doubled by a little explanation.
And such things go farther than one would imagine in the way of a little comfort.
A touching example of this was the exclamation of a small boy at the Zoological
Gardens, Jack Ballard, of whom more anon. He was fourteen years old, and hard
at work all day with his father; his mother was in an Inebriate Home, after
causing them all such trouble and wretchedness as cannot be described. The father
was depressed and out of health; the home ill tended by the overworked elder
sister. But as he stood in the parrot house, and observed a brilliant green
and red parrot slowly catch hold of the perch with its beak, and swing itself
round, with a watchful eye on us, and fiendish gurgle in its throat, he exclaimed
"Oh, Miss _____, what a lot o' things God do make to make us happy."
Perhaps it may not be amiss before leaving the subject to say a word or two
as to the respectability of the theatrical and other places of entertainment.
Music halls are not often resorted to by the really respectableand theatres
often not. There is a tradition that all such places are wicked among a large
Notwithstanding this there are "a good few of" theatres and entertainment
halls which are as respectable as half the theatres of good repute in the west.
The following will serve as an example of a respectable Variety entertainment.
It began with a comic song sung by two men, one dressed up as a woman. Only
men and boys acted at this special theatre. The name of one was supposed to
be Maria and of the other Obadiah. These names formed part of a highly appreciated
refrain which was received with roars of laughter at each repetition of it.
It consisted of:
"Verileè, Verilì, Verilùm."
and was sung after the alternate solo verses, which were merely innocent nonsense,
in which Obadiah proposed to Maria and was accepted without vulgarity.
Then came a changeObadiah sang, putting an enormous hand in a white kit
glove to hide his blushing face,
"I must confess."
"So must Oi." sang Maria in a hoarse man's voice.
But all they had to confess was that each of them had once waltzed with someone
else, he with his dancing mistress, she with her dancing master. They forgave
each other and concluded in harmony,
"Verileè, Verilì, Verilùm."
Not perhaps elevating; but not degrading. That was the end of the piece, which
Then came a more elaborate performance. The curtain drew up on a railway line
with a signal box, the whole in moonlight. Signalman on the line.
Enter a lady in large boots, with a masculine voice, and many bandboxes. She
has a colloquy with the signalman and tells him she has run away from her young
manresult, that he offers her his box for the night and she retires into
it, but puts her head out of the window to ask,
"I sayhave you got 3d. anywhere about you?" And again
"I saycould you oblige me with four pounds of beefsteak?"
These sallies were received with roars of laughter by the audience.
She shuts the window; and the signalman goes away. Two ruffians come in, dragging
a struggling victim; and with the victim's obvious assistance they proceed to
tie him on to the line. There is an ominous silence, a crisis is approaching.
Suddenly from one side there bursts on to the line with hideous din a locomotive.
It rushes on to the fettered manwhenbangcrashthe whole
engine breaks up into pieces, and in the midst of its wreck stands a placard
on which is visible the inscription, "Made in Germany."
The characteristics of the respectable theatre are much the same. A sound moral tone rules everywhere. The villain, however well he acts, is hissed and hooted when he makes his bow before the curtain, and the veriest stick of a worthy character is cheered and clapped to the echo. Virtue is always triumphant and vice severely punished. Both are represented in their plain aspects. There are no subtle disguises.
The virtuous wife and child are always unselfish and loving, while the villains
think nothing of arranging for three murders in a conversation of five minutes.
They show their habit of mind by the fact that the most covert way in which
they allude to an intended murder is as follows:
Grayhaired Villain"We must get Jones out o' the way."
G.V."Suicide, you knoweh?" gives youthful villain a dig
in the ribs.
They fiendishly chuckle together.
Jokes are always made very plain; this youthful villain meets a virtuous young
lady out walking and says to her,
"You get out o' this. The police have orders to take up suspicious characters."
To which she replies, with a meaningful look,"Then they haven't done their
The orchestra stalls "take" this joke, and laugh, but balcony and
gallery remain unmoved.
So the villain, wishing to include everybody in the entertainment he is affording,
And the worthy young lady responds with spirit,
"Because you wouldn't be at large if they had."
House comes down.
But acting and scenery are all on a very fair level. A four-post bedstead
looks rather more like a shower-bath than it should; and there is a scantiness
of furniture in the rich villain's front drawing-room. But such are minor defects.
The audience at such respectable theatres are polite and quiet and well behaved. Whole families, father and mother and children perhaps, go together, or father and daughter, more often of course groups of young people; and as places range from 2s. 6d. for the best orchestra stalls, to 3d. or 4d. for the gallery, many ranks are represented. Between the acts beer passes round and other refreshments, and there is generally a public next door to which those who like to move about can repair, but there is as a rule no excess.
It seems worth while to give these examples at length. Of course such places
when bad are very bad indeed. But unless one has special knowledge of the particular
place, it is safer, perhaps, neither to dissuade nor to persuade, when years
of discretion are reached, and there is no visible harm done. Amusements of
the kind there must and ought to be, and it is better to reform than to abolish,
to foster the perceptions that will discriminate rather than to draw hard and
fast lines. And in many cases it is merely hearty, healthy nonsense that is
listened to, and sound, if elementary, moral truths that are insisted upon dramatically.
go to next chapter
1. In the monetary system of Nellie's day, there were 12 pence (d.) to a shilling (s.), and 20 shillings, or 240 pence, to a pound (£). The smallest coin was a farthing, worth one-fourth of a penny. -ed.