Story Of London

The Poor Man’s Saturday Night in London: I

We have already recorded Henry Mayhew’s description of the costermongers’ Saturday night out buying their Sunday dinner in 1851. Now we present the first of a short series of articles on more or less the same subject from the reports in “The Leisure Hour – A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation” which appeared in issue numbers 61 and 62 on February 24 and March 3 1853. This first part sets the scene and introduces us to John and Mary Jones. The remaining chapters will appear on Saturday evenings between now and Christmas. Not only do the articles provide a vivid picture of Saturday night in the New-cut, they also give a very particular insight into the daily lives of the Victorian poor.

CHAPTER ONEWe purpose to take a stroll among the haunts of the poor and labouring classes when Saturday night releases them from the toil of the week, and lets them loose in the streets of London, with money in their pockets and freedom from labour at lest till Monday morning.We cannot select a better locality for our visit than the long, populous, and trafficking thoroughfare leading from the Blackfriars Road to the Westminster Bridge Road, and which is known of the New-Cut, and its continuation, the Lambeth-marsh, as far as where the Marsh gate once stood.this locality, always the focus and centre of a very peculiar description of commerce, is seen in its greatest glory on a fine Saturday night. It is then the especial resort of working men and their wives and families, who, in crowds, bend their steps thither as to a mart where everything can be purchased which they can possibly require, and where anything is to be had for almost any amount of money they can afford to give for it.The southern side of the New-cut is moreover, the El Dorado of the bargain-hunter, and furnishes him not merely with the necessaries but the luxuries of life, as well as with an almost infinite variety of things which are neither the one nor the other, at the lowest imaginable price.Before we commence our Saturday evening stroll, we must briefly describe one or two of the distinguishing features of the district, for the benefit of those among our numerous readers who have never had the opportunity of visiting one of the not lest remarkable spectacles of this busy metropolis.Find New-cut (now The Cut) on the mapEntering the New-cut from the Blackfriars-road, and keeping on the left hand side, we first pass some common-place looking private dwellings and ordinary shops and, then come to a series of shops of rather singular class and pretension. Unlike the shopkeepers in the first-class business thoroughfares of London, who delight in needless displays of plate-glass and burnished brass, the proprietors of these places tear away the whole window-front and abolish it altogether. The entire frontage of every house is open from the first-floor to the ground, the wall of the mansion being supported by iron pillars.
A good proportion of the dealers are furniture-brokers, who pile their wares in heterogeneous confusion, and push, in fine weather, a good proportion of them into the street. These wares are not warranted to last longer than the national debt, and if we say that they are as good as can be manufactured for the money that will be taken for them, we give them their full meed of praise and something over.But besides the furniture shops, there are others of a very characteristic description, which have been in existence some of them for a quarter of a century, and have conferred upon the New-cut the reputation it enjoys as the depository of everything which has a name or a use, or which may want both, and yet be in a condition to figure as a bargain.These omnium-gatherum shops will repay the spectator the trouble of a momentary scrutiny. Upon a series of benches, or little platforms rising one above the other, are thrown a strange compound of multitudinous wares in a medley of most admired confusion and disorder. It would be hardly possible to fix upon a single portable commodity of which a specimen may not be from time to time be found among these wares, inasmuch as everything than can be purchased elsewhere, as well as a vast quantity of articles which no one else would think of exhibiting for sale, are occasionally to be found here, from a grand pianoforte afflicted with bronchitis to a cartwheel, whose felloe has foundered upon the road, or “from a flat-iron to a diamond-ring,” as the owners phrase it.Upon one shelf you will see a microscope elbowing a stone-filter – a German-flute cheek-by-jowl with a brace of pistols – a medicine-chest and a Kentucky bowie-knife – a pair of spectacles and a pair of boxing-gloves – a rolling-pin and a wooden leg – a warming pan and a patent refrigerator. Upon another crazy board, fenders, gridirons and roasting-jacks are beheld sprawling harmlessly among cheap specimens of tawdry crockery and stopper-less decanters; and upon a third there are spades, pickaxes, and shovels, together with the hymn-books of Watts and Wesley, prayer-books and church services.A card of gold breast-pins leans against a cast from the Elgin marbles; there are bottles of physic and packets of patent medicines jumbled together with bottles of mouldy pickles of anchovies, and Day and Martin’s blacking; there are lustres, have of whose crystal drops have dropped off, and lutes minus their strings, and logs of rosewood and mahogany rough from the timber stores. There are clogs and pattens, and drawings in water-colour, and artificial flowers; inkstands and painted flower-pots, and a multitude of indescribables besides, appealing to every eye and every pocket, however scantily furnished.The general aspect of these wares is very much modified by demands which arise at particular seasons of the year. When the angling mania commences – an insanity which seizes the youth of Cockaigne every recurring spring – forth comes a forest of fishing-rods of all lengths and all prices, from five feet in longitude to five-and-twenty, and from sixpence to a guinea. When the winter’s frost has set in, and the ice in the parks is strong enough to bear the sign-board marked “dangerous~” – which the Londoner seems to regard as an invitation to disport himself on the ice – then the whole shop bursts into the causeway surcharged with a plethora of skates.If, lost in admiration at the discordant variety of merchandise, you cast your eyes to the ceiling, you may chance to find it festooned with second-hand fiddles, while the walls are hung with home-made Raphaels, Rembrandts, and Corregios at seven-and-sixpence per pair. If you edge your way, as you may easily do if you like, through the narrow side passage into the rear of this astonishing display, you may come upon a library of old books heaped in solid stacks, and stifled in dust, where if you have no particular objection to dirt, you may rummage among the limber of a by-gone literature, till you look like a mummy rotting in a pyramid.Tools of every imaginable description, blocks of marble, lumps of metal, old copper-plates, fragments of machines of every various sorts, coffee-mills and grind-stones, furniture old and new, and musical instruments of all dates and in all stages of dilapidation, lie about on all sides in most admired disorder.On Saturday night, these tempting museums are lighted up both within and without by flaring gas-burners, and it is then that they are specially haunted by working mechanics and artisans in search of some cheap tool, or perhaps of a musical instrument, or a book, or some domestic luxury or ornament within reach of their slender funds. These omnium-gatherum bazaars, interspersed with the shops of the furniture-brokers, extend a considerable way on the south of the New-cut.Crossing the Waterloo-road, we enter upon Lambeth-marsh, a somewhat narrower thoroughfare, abounding in shops of unpretentious aspect, but well stocked with every variety of wares suitable for the class of customer mostly frequenting the neighbourhood. Here, throughout the week, there is nothing very remarkable to be seen; but on the Saturday night, the five or six feet of soil next the kerb-stone on both sides of the way, and for nearly the whole length of the road, is metamorphosed into the Poor Man’s Market for Provisions.The dealers, a good many of them Irish-women, pitch their temporary stalls, hand-carts, and baskets, close to the edge of the pavement. They drive a commerce of very various character. The women sell fish, fresh (?) or salt – cod, haddocks, salmon, Yarmouth bloaters, mackerel and herrings, with sometimes shrimps or sprats; but the grand staple of their trade is vegetables, which they purchase at a low price at Covent-garden market at a late hour of the day, clearing off what the more respectable buyers have rejected.Close to a stall of vegetables, perhaps, you will see the shining stock-in-trade of a working tinman, glittering upon the ground, and consisting of saucepans and kettles of every capacity; together with Dutch-ovens, grates, cullenders, and roasting jacks, which the presiding owner assures you were all manufactured by his own hands, of the best material. Next to him stands a tall fellow, steadying a monster umbrella inverted, in the hollow cavity of which he has spread some hundreds of copper-plate engravings, from which you may select any number you like, for the small charge of one farthing each.Then comes a stand of crockery; then one of oysters or whelks, or pickled eels and salmon; and then a handbarrow piled with sweet-smelling flowers at a halfpenny a bunch. Here an industrious fellow sits on the ground weaving toasting-forks from brass and iron wire by the light of a single candle; and there another carves ornamental fire-screens from a plank of pine with a rapidity puzzling to comprehend.Besides these and other privileged squatters who regularly occupy the ground, there are a host of peripatetic merchants loaded with portable commodities, and plying for customers among the gathering crowd. Boys of not ten years assail you to buy their last bunch of onions for two-pence; these urchins are always selling their last bunch, as they have but capital enough to purchase one at a time; when they sell a lot they realize a halfpenny towards the Sunday’s dinner, and immediately purchase another from Irish Moll at the corner. Others are bawling gridirons at a penny apiece, and others again are playing lively tunes upon tin whistles, which they retail to aspiring musicians at the same price.Retracing our steps, and returning up the north side of the New-cut, we enter upon a new variety of the Saturday night’s commerce. The south side is very much devoted to the luxuries of life, specious and crippled and second-hand luxuries though they be, some of them; the north side is almost exclusively engrossed by the indispensable necessaries of the human lot. Though men and women may at a pinch do without books and pictures, and, when the pinch grows very severe, even without chairs and tables, fenders and fire-irons, they yet cannot do without “pantaloons and bodices,” and hats or caps, and boots or shoes.In this quarter of the New-cut all such requisites are to be found, as well, too, as all such savoury and saccharine ingredients as furnish the breakfast board, or the dinner table. Together with the grocer, and the butcher, here we find the slopseller, and the ready-made and already worn-out shoe-seller. Here are coats, and vests, and leggings for gentlemen, and spectral gowns with outstretched arms for the ladies.At the first view all these wares appear in a manner mingled together under one long tent. This appearance is due to the custom prevailing among the shopkeepers of thrusting their goods into the street. With the exception of the provision dealers, all do this; and as their merchandise would suffer irreparable damage from rain, it is all covered in by ample awnings of canvass, which protect it alike from the rays of the sun and the peltings of the storm. We need hardly say that there are gin-shops, and public-houses in very sufficient abundance scattered throughout the whole district, as well as their inseparable companions and coadjutors, the pawnbrokers.Let the above suffice for a glance at the neighbourhood and its commerce; we propose now to follow the poor man and his wife into the market when it is at its height, and to keep an eye on the proceedings. John and Mary Jones are a youthful couple who have been married just three months. Both are born Londoners, and well enough acquainted with life to drive a bargain in a London market. They are fond of each other, and, for aught we know, have no reason to be otherwise. John is a good workman and Mary as good manager; if there is but little sentiment between them, it may be the fault of their education and of their surroundings, which have not been calculated to foster sentiment.