It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.
-- Arthur Conan Doyle 1892
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In 1877 Adolphe Smith and J Thomson followed Mayhew's footsteps onto the streets of London with the intention of updating his material. Taking advantage of advances in technology they "sought to portray these harder phases of life, bringing to bear the precision of photography in illustration of our subject". They concentrated on the street characters who were most seen on the crowded streets and took quite a different line to that of Mayhew. On one of their forays they visited the second-hand clothes market at St Giles in the Fields. They also let us into the surprising secret of the fate of the clothes that are not fit even for the most abject beggar in nineteenth century Europe!
But few articles change owners more frequently than clothes. They travel downwards from grade to-grade in the social scale with remarkable regularity; and then, strange to say, spring up once more with new life, to be worn again by the wealthy. A coat, for instance, after it has been well worn, comes into the hands of an individual known in technical parlance as the "clobberer." This person is a master in the art of patching. He has cunning admixtures of ammonia and other chemicals, which remove the grease stains, he can sew with such skill that the rents and tears are concealed with remarkable success, and thus old garments are made to look quite new.
Ultimately, however, a stage is reached when the most skilful manipulation fails to redeem the tattered coat; and it is at this moment that the offices of the "translator" are requisitioned. This gentleman is skilled in the art of amputation. A coat in his hands may be put to many uses. The skirts, being the least worn, are readily converted into waistcoats or small jackets for children. From the other portions of the cloth pieces are selected, turned, and cut to make the caps sold to foreign workmen, and exported in great numbers.
Nevertheless, and notwithstanding all these conversions, the original piece of cloth gradually wears out so completely as to become absolutely unfit for use by even the most ragged among the poor of Europe, and then it is that the hour of regeneration is near at hand. Merchant-princes now become the eager purchasers of these disgusting rags. They constitute the "devil's dust" of the Yorkshire woollen manufacturer. The cast-off clothes of all Europe are imported to supply food for the mills of Leeds, Dewsbury, Batley, and other great industrial centres. Here they are torn into shreds by toothed wheels, animated with all the power of steam, till they are reduced to the condition of wool. They may then be mixed with a certain amount of new wool, and finally reappear as new cloth, woven according to the latest pattern, and resplendent in the dye of the most fashionable colours. Thus the cloth of our newest coat is, after all, probably made from the cast-off garment of some street beggar! Sometimes, however, we escape wearing other people's old clothes, but then we drink them instead. That is to say, hops of a certain description flourish best when manured with old woollen rags, and thus are old clothes converted into foaming beer!
The accompanying photograph represents a second-hand clothes shop in a narrow thoroughfare of St. Giles, appropriately called Lumber Court, where several similar tradesmen are grouped together, all dealing in old clothes and furniture of a most varied and dilapidated description. It is here that the poorest inhabitants of a district, renowned for its poverty, both buy and sell their clothes. During the time I was prosecuting my inquiries in the court, I noticed, however, a greater disposition on the part of its frequenters to sell than to buy.
First, one woman came to dispose of her husband's tools, than another wanted to sell her children's clothes, and a third sought to raise money on a couple of nickel forks. These offers were for the most part refused by the dealer, who with stolid countenance announced that she was "not buying anything to-day;" thereupon, the articles were proffered at a great reduction, but, being of little value, were generally refused. Sometimes, amid the rubbish accumulated in these shops, some rare articles of virtue may be found; the dealers themselves often ignoring the worth of the treasure which has accidentally fallen into their hands. Connoisseurs are therefore constantly sauntering past for the purpose of discovering objects of this description.
As a rule, however, the bulk of the business transacted, relates to the sale of clothes, and it is at such shops that the majority of those individuals who earn a promiscuous livelihood in the streets of London, succeed in clothing themselves for a minimum outlay. Few persons have a better insight into the hard side of life than the dealers in old clothes; for it is to them that are brought the refuse apparel which has been rejected by the pawnbrokers as unsuitable guarantee for even the smallest loan. Indeed, the influx of rubbish to these shops is so considerable, that it has been worth while to organize a regular system for sorting and removing such refuse. Thus, two or three times in a week, a man comes to Lumber Court, and purchases from the shops all the old tin they have been able to collect. Worn-out tin kettles and coal-scuttles are still of use. The best pieces can be cut out, covered with cheap black varnish, and sold to trunk-makers to protect the edges and corners of trunks. If the tin is not strong enough for any mechanical purpose, the chemist can combine it with other substances, and thus form salts that are of great value to the dyer and ink-maker.
There are also men who collect surplus stock of old clothes, which are sold again for manufacturing purposes, as I have already described, or are sometimes taken to Petticoat Lane. The fact, however, that these objects pass through so many hands, each dealer making his profit on them, suggests that the poor person who is reduced to the necessity of parting with a portion of her clothes, can get but very little for them.
Hats are also a favourite article of trade. It is perfectly astounding how the oldest hat may be renovated. The lower and greasy portion is cut off; and a second-hand silk hat may generally be recognized by the shortness of the crown. Then, by dint of Ironing, brushing, and combing what remains of the silk, it is made to lay smooth and sleek; while ink, glue, gum, paint, silk, and brown paper, cover, hide or fill up the breaches which time and wear have achieved. Thus, for two or three shillings, a hat is sold which really looks as if it were new. But let the wearer beware of the first shower. His umbrella must be stout, and held with a steady hand, if he would prevent the disclosure of all the deception practised in the renovation of his second-hand hat.
The dealer whose portrait is before the reader cannot boast of a large business. She had been unfortunate in previous speculations, and illness had also crippled her resources, so that her stock is limited, and her purchasing power still more restricted. Under these circumstances she declared that on an average she was unable to make more than thirty shillings a week net profit, which is a very low estimate for persons engaged in this business. I could not help concluding, however, that ignorance was to some extent a bar to greater success. Her knowledge of the value of some old books and some wretched oil paintings was of the vaguest description, and she confessed to having sold a quarto law book, published during the reign of James I., for half-a-crown, which she afterwards discovered could not be bought back for less than two guineas.
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Such mistakes on the part of dealers are of frequent occurrences and the opposite extreme may also be noted. It often happens that they ignorantly assume that some ornament is more scarce or has a far higher value than is really the case; and, therefore, it was with some bitterness of feeling that the dealer in question remarked, "There are such a number of persons about who know the value of things." Nevertheless, it would not be fair on my part to conclude this criticism without adding, that if the dealer was ignorant in matters relating to literature and fine arts, she was at least master in the art of keeping her home clean, even under the most difficult circumstances.
As a rule, second-hand clothes shops are far from distinguished for their cleanliness, and are often the fruitful medium for the propagation of fever, smallpox, etc. In this case, however, the floor was well washed, the shop carefully dusted, the goods kept in order of merit, and the grate resplendent in all the glory of unstinted black lead. A door at the back admitted a thorough current of air, and the presiding genius of all this adroit organization seemed fully alive to the importance of good ventilation. Perhaps these rare qualities explain the fact that trade is slack with her. Cleanliness is essentially distasteful to, and is even considered "stuck up," by a large section of the population.
Note: Smith's complete text and all of Thomson's photographs can be viewed on-line in the Victorian Dictionary.
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