London has always been a noisy place. Amongst the cachophony of sound in the Victorian streets was the chanting of the “Patterers”, either moving or stationary. In his London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew devoted an entire chapter to an investigation of the artistry, lives and habits of these Londoners. An extensive section of the chapter gives us a very detailed description of the lifestyle and con tricks of the pattering class. In our sixth instalment we investigate “THE FILTH, DISHONESTY, AND IMMORALITY OF LOW LODGING- HOUSES.” Not for the squeamish!
In my former and my present inquiries, I received many statements on this subject. Some details, given by coarse men and boys in the grossest language, are too gross to be more than alluded to, but the full truth must be manifested, if not detailed. It was remarked when my prior account appeared, that the records of gross profligacy on the part of some of the most licentious of the rich (such as the late Marquis of Hertford and other worthies of the same depraved habits) were equalled, or nearly equalled, by the account of the orgies of the lowest lodging houses. Sin, in any rank of life, shows the same features.And first, as to the want of cleanliness, comfort, and decency:”Why, sir,”
said one man, who had filled a commercial situation of no little importance, but had, through intemperance, been reduced to utter want,
“I myself have slept in the top room of a house not far from Drury- lane, and you could study the stars, if you were so minded, through the holes left by the slates having been blown off the roof. It was a fine summer’s night, and the openings in the roof were then rather an advantage, for they admitted air, and the room wasn’t so foul as it might have been without them. I never went there again, but you may judge what thoughts went through a man’s mind – a man who had seen prosperous days – as he lay in a place like that, without being able to sleep, watching the sky.”The same man told me (and I received abundant corroboration of his statement, besides that incidental mention of the subject occurs elsewhere), that he had scraped together a handful of bugs from the bed- clothes, and crushed them under a candlestick, and had done that many a time, when he could only resort to the lowest places. He had slept in rooms so crammed with sleepers – he believed there were 30 where 12 would have been a proper number – that their breaths in the dead of night and in the unventilated chamber, rose (I use his own words) “in one foul, choking steam of stench.” This was the case most frequently a day or two prior to Greenwich Fair or Epsom Races, when the congregation of the wandering classes, who are the supporters of the low lodging houses, was the thickest. It was not only that two or even three persons jammed themselves into a bed not too large for one full sized man; but between the beds – and their partition one from another admitted little more than the passage of a lodger – were placed shakes-down, or temporary accommodation for nightly slumber. In the better lodging- houses the shake-downs are small palliasses or mattresses; in the worst, they are bundles of rags of any kind; but loose straw is used only in the country for shake-downs. One informant saw a traveller, who had arrived late, eye his shake-down in one of the worst houses with anything but a pleased expression of countenance; and a surly deputy, observing this, told the customer he had his choice, “which,” the deputy added, “it’s not all men as has, or I shouldn’t have been waiting here on you. But you has your choice, I tell you; – sleep there on that shake-down, or turn out and be d -; that’s fair.”At some of the busiest periods, numbers sleep on the kitchen floor, all huddled together, men and women (when indecencies are common enough), and without bedding or anything but their scanty clothes to soften the hardness of the stone or brick floor. A penny is saved to the lodger by this means. More than 200 have been accommodated in this way in a large house. The Irish, at harvest time, very often resort to this mode of passing the night.I heard from several parties, of the surprise, and even fear or horror, with which a decent mechanic – more especially if he were accompanied by his wife – regarded one of these foul dens, when destitution had driven him there for the first time in his life. Sometimes such a man was seen to leave the place abruptly, though perhaps he had pre-paid his last halfpenny for the refreshment of a night’s repose. Sometimes he was seized with sickness. I heard also from some educated persons who had “seen better days,” of the disgust with themselves and with the world, which they felt on first entering such places.”And I have some reason to believe,”
said one man,
“that a person, once well off, who has sunk into the very depths of poverty, often makes his first appearance in one of the worst of those places. Perhaps it is because he keeps away from them as long as he can, and then, in a sort of desperation fit, goes into the cheapest he meets with; or if he knows it’s a vile place, he very likely says to himself – I did – ‘I may as well know the worst at once.’ “Another man who had moved in good society, said, when asked about his resorting to a low lodging- house: “When a man’s lost caste in society, he may as well go the whole hog, bristles and all, and a low lodging- house is the entire pig.” Notwithstanding many abominations, I am assured that the lodgers, in even the worst of these habitations, for the most part sleep soundly. But they have, in all probability, been out in the open air the whole of the day, and all of them may go to their couches, after having walked, perhaps, many miles, exceedingly fatigued, and some of them half-drunk.”Why, in course, sir,” said a “traveller,” whom I spoke to on this subject, “if you is in a country town or village, where there’s only one lodging house, perhaps, and that a bad one – an old hand can always suit his-self in London – you must get half-drunk, or your money for your bed is wasted. There’s so much rest owing to you, after a hard day; and bugs and bad air’ll prevent its being paid, if you don’t lay in some stock of beer, or liquor of some sort, to sleep on. It’s a duty you owes yourself; but, if you haven’t the browns, why, then, in course, you can’t pay it.”I have before remarked, and, indeed, have given instances, of the odd and sometimes original manner in which an intelligent patterer, for example, will express himself.The information I obtained in the course of this inquiry into the condition of low lodging houses, afforded a most ample corroboration of the truth of a remark I have more than once found it necessary to make before – that persons of the vagrant class will sacrifice almost anything for warmth, not to say heat. Otherwise, to sleep, or even sit, in some of the apartments of these establishments would be intolerable.From the frequent state of weariness to which I have alluded, there is generally less conversation among the frequenters of the low lodging houses than might be expected. Some are busy cooking, some (in the better houses) are reading, many are drowsy and nodding, and many are smoking. In perhaps a dozen places of the worst and filthiest class, indeed, smoking is permitted even in the sleeping- rooms; but it is far less common than it was even half-a-dozen years back, and becomes still less common yearly. Notwithstanding so dangerous a practice, fires are and have been very unfrequent in these places. There is always some one awake, which is one reason. The lack of conversation, I ought to add, and the weariness and drowsiness, are less observable in the lodging houses patronised by thieves and women of abandoned character, whose lives are comparatively idle, and whose labour a mere nothing. In their houses, if the conversation be at all general, it is often of the most unclean character. At other times it is carried on in groups, with abundance of whispers, shrugs, and slang, by the members of the respective schools of thieves or lurkers.I have now to speak of the habitual violation of all the injunctions of law, of all the obligations of morality, and of all the restraints of decency, seen continually in the vilest of the lodging houses. I need but cite a few facts, for to detail minutely might be to disgust. In some of these lodging houses, the proprietor – or, I am told, it might be more correct to say, the proprietress, as there are more women than men engaged in the nefarious traffic carried on in these houses – are “fences,” or receivers of stolen goods in a small way. Their “fencing,” unless as the very exception, does not extend to any plate, or jewellery, or articles of value, but is chiefly confined to provisions, and most of all to those which are of ready sale to the lodgers.Of very ready sale are “fish got from the gate” (stolen from Billingsgate); “sawney” (thieved bacon), and “flesh found in Leadenhall” (butcher’s meat stolen from that market). I was told by one of the most respectable tradesmen in Leadenhall market, that it was infested – but not now to so great an extent as it was – with lads and young men, known there as “finders.” They carry bags round their necks, and pick up bones, or offal, or pieces of string, or bits of papers, or “anything, sir, please, that a poor lad, that has neither father nor mother, and is werry hungry, can make a ha’penny by to get him a bit of bread, please, sir.” This is often but a cover for stealing pieces of meat, and the finders, with their proximate market for disposal of their meat in the lowest lodging houses in Whitechapel, go boldly about their work, for the butchers, if the “finder” be detected, “won’t,” I was told by a sharp youth who then was at a low lodging house in Keate street, “go bothering theirselves to a beak, but gives you a scruff of the neck and a kick and lets you go. But some of them kicks werry hard.” The tone and manner of this boy – and it is a common case enough with the “prigs” – showed that he regarded hard kicking merely as one of the inconveniences to which his business pursuits were unavoidably subjected; just as a struggling housekeeper might complain of the unwelcome calls of the tax gatherers. These depredations are more frequent in Leadenhall market than in any of the others, on account of its vicinity to Whitechapel. Even the Whitechapel meat market is less the scene of prey, for it is a series of shops, while Leadenhall presents many stalls, and the finders seem loath to enter shops without some plausible pretext.Groceries, tea especially, stolen from the docks, warehouses, or shops, are things in excellent demand among the customers of a lodging house fence. Tea, known or believed to have been stolen “genuine” from any dock, is bought and sold very readily; 1s. 6d., however, is a not unfrequent price for what is known as 5s. tea. Sugar, spices, and other descriptions of stolen grocery, are in much smaller request.Wearing- apparel is rarely bought by the fences I am treating of; but the stealers of it can and do offer their wares to the lodgers, who will often, before buying, depreciate the garment, and say “It’s never been nothing better nor a Moses.””Hens and chickens” are a favourite theft, and “go at once to the pot,” but in no culinary sense. The hens and chickens of the roguish low lodging houses are the publicans’ pewter measures; the bigger vessels are “hens;” the smaller are “chickens.” Facilities are provided for the melting of these stolen vessels, and the metal is sold by the thief – very rarely if ever, by the lodging house keeper, who prefers dealing with the known customers of the establishment – to marine store buyers.A man who at one time was a frequenter of a thieves’ lodging house, related to me a conversation which he chanced to overhear – he himself being then in what his class would consider a much superior line of business – between a sharp lad, apparently of twelve or thirteen years of age, and a lodging house (female) fence. But it occurred some three or four years back. The lad had “found” a piece of Christmas beef, which he offered for sale to his landlady, averring that it weighed 6 lbs. The fence said and swore that it wouldn’t weigh 3 lbs., but she would give him 5d. for it. It probably weighed above 4 lbs. “Fippence!” exclaimed the lad, indignantly; “you haven’t no fairness. Vy, its sixpun’ and Christmas time. Fippence! A tanner and a flag (a sixpence and a four-penny piece) is the werry lowest terms.” There was then a rapid and interrupted colloquy, in which the most frequent words were: “Go to blazes!” with retorts of “You go to blazes!” and after strong and oathful imputations of dishonest endeavours on the part of each contracting party, to over-reach the other, the meat was sold to the woman for 6d.Some of the “fences” board, lodge, and clothe, two or three boys or girls, and send them out regularly to thieve, the fence usually taking all the proceeds, and if it be the young thief has been successful, he is rewarded with a trifle of pocket money, and is allowed plenty of beer and tobacco.One man, who keeps three low lodging houses (one of which is a beer- shop), not long ago received from a lodger a valuable greatcoat, which the man said he had taken from a gig. The fence (who was in a larger way of business than others of his class, and is reputed rich,) gave 10s. for the garment, asking at the same time, “Who was minding the gig?” “A charity kid,” was the answer. “Give him a deuce” (2d.), “and stall him off” (send him an errand), said the fence, “and bring the horse and gig, and I’ll buy it.” It was done, and the property was traced in two hours, but only as regarded the gig, which had already had a new pair of wheels attached to it, and was so metamorphosed, that the owner, a medical gentleman, though he had no moral doubt on the subject, could not swear to his own vehicle. The thief received only £4 for gig and horse; the horse was never traced.The licentiousness of the frequenters, and more especially of the juvenile frequenters, of the low lodging houses, must be even more briefly alluded to. In some of these establishments, men and women, boys and girls, – but perhaps in no case, or in very rare cases, unless they are themselves consenting parties, herd together promiscuously. The information which I have given from a reverend informant indicates the nature of the proceedings, when the sexes are herded indiscriminately, and it is impossible to present to the reader, in full particularity, the records of the vice practised.Boys have boastfully carried on loud conversations, and from distant parts of the room, of their triumphs over the virtue of girls, and girls have laughed at and encouraged the recital. Three, four, five, six, and even more boys and girls have been packed, head and feet, into one small bed; some of them perhaps never met before. On such occasions any clothing seems often enough to be regarded as merely an incumbrance. Sometimes there are loud quarrels and revilings from the jealousy of boys and girls, and more especially of girls whose “chaps” have deserted or been inveigled from them. At others, there is an amicable interchange of partners, and next day a resumption of their former companionship.One girl, then fifteen or sixteen, who had been leading this vicious kind of life for nearly three years, and had been repeatedly in prison, and twice in hospitals – and who expressed a strong desire to “get out of the life” by emigration – said: “Whatever that’s bad and wicked, that any one can fancy could be done in such places among boys and girls that’s never been taught, or won’t be taught, better, is done, and night after night.” In these haunts of low iniquity, or rather in the room into which the children are put, there are seldom persons above twenty. The younger lodgers in such places live by thieving and pocket-picking, or by prositution. The charge for a night’s lodging is generally 2d., but smaller children have often been admitted for 1d. If a boy or girl resort to one of these dens at night without the means of defraying the charge for accommodation, the “mot of the ken” (mistress of the house) will pack them off, telling them plainly that it will be no use their returning until they have stolen something worth 2d. If a boy or girl do not return in the evening, and have not been heard to express their intention of going elsewhere, the first conclusion arrived at by their mates is that they have “got into trouble” (prison).The indiscriminate admixture of the sexes among adults, in many of these places, is another evil. Even in some houses considered of the better sort, men and women, husbands and wives, old and young, strangers and acquaintances, sleep in the same apartment, and if they choose, in the same bed. Any remonstrance at some act of gross depravity, or impropriety on the part of a woman not so utterly hardened as the others, is met with abuse and derision. One man who described these scenes to me, and had long witnessed them, said that almost the only women who ever hid their faces or manifested dislike of the proceedings they could not but notice (as far as he saw), were poor Irishwomen, generally those who live by begging: “But for all that,” the man added, “an Irishman or Irishwoman of that sort will sleep anywhere, in any mess, to save a halfpenny, though they may have often a few shillings, or a good many, hidden about them.”There is no provision for purposes of decency in some of the places I have been describing, into which the sexes are herded indiscriminately; but to this matter I can only allude. A policeman, whose duty sometimes called him to enter one of those houses at night, told me that he never entered it without feeling sick.There are now fewer of such filthy receptacles than there were. Some have been pulled down – especially for the building of Commercial street, in Whitechapel, and of New Oxford street – and some have fallen into fresh and improved management. Of those of the worst class, however, there may now be at least thirty in London; while the low lodgings of all descriptions, good or bad, are more frequented than they were a few years back. A few new lodging houses, perhaps half a dozen, have been recently opened, in expectation of a great influx of “travellers” and vagrants at the opening of the Great Exhibition.