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Story Of London

The Poor Man’s Saturday Night in London: V


In our final instalment of the Saturday Night’s excitements in the New-cut we enter one of Victorian London’s famous, if not notorious, Gin Palaces. Our reporter now assumes a very high moral stance and paints a horrific picture of the degradation he sees everywhere around him. On emerging he is at once swamped by the crowd of lads emerging from their evening’s entertainment at The Vic Gallery in the Coburg Theatre, which does nothing to mollify his sense of outrage. He concludes the piece by identifying the single reform that would rescue the London poor from the traps and temptations that beset them.

CHAPTER FIVEThe interior is glittering aloft with crystal and burnished brass, while it is crammed below with rags, vice and demoralization. Here in a corner, a drunkard without a shirt, a mere snoring mass of filth and squalor, is sleeping himself sober after a debauch; wretched women, begrimed with dirt and tawdry with finery, are clamorous for the intoxicating draught that drowns reflection. Fighting Irishmen are groaning out ribald jokes, and, already half inebriated, are anticipating the delights of a fray.Working men’s wives, with their provision-laden baskets on their arms, are luxuriating – alas! that it should be so – over their weekly dram, the price of which they have rescued from the spare allowance of market-money by vociferous haggling with the dealers. Old men are anxiously watching the replenishing of their darling black bottles which, in conjunction with the democratic Sunday newspaper, are to supply the customary sedative recreation of the morrow afternoon and evening.Thieves and pickpockets, to whom this temple of ruin and debauch is common ground, here liquidate their ill-gotten cash, and rub shoulders with ill-advised but honest poverty, or weary and ill-requited labour, seeking a solace for sorrow in the illusory excitement of alcohol. Every now and then, when the uproar becomes explosive and angry, the glazed crown of the policeman is seen glimmering in the doorway, and a monition from his authoritative voice warns the riotous company that there must be a limit to their indulgence.Though the doors are never closed for an instant, the place is reeking hot an nauseous with the fumes of spirits; he drawers on the other side of the spirit-sodden counter are perspiring in their shirt-sleeves, and longing for the welcome stroke of midnight, which shall release them from a toil as unhealthy as to a well-constituted mind it would be repulsive and disgusting. It is but a short relief, however, which they will enjoy; at one o’clock on the morrow the doors must be opened again to the drunkard , and the thirsty wretches will flock in to consummate the holiday of the Sabbath with intoxication – an arrangement which is in accordance with the law of the land, though opposed to every law that can benefit mankind.The Coburg TheatreWe leave the steaming precinct of the gin-shop, the gate of misery, disease. Destitution, crime and hell. It is now a quarter of an hour to twelve o’clock, when there is a sudden and uproarious disgorgement from some of the theatres. An exciting and demoralizing drama has been performed for the last five hours for the especial delectation of the lower and middle-class youth of the neighbourhood, who now in dense swarms are streaming forth and rushing with eager haste to the gin-shop and public-house, in the hope of quenching their burning thirst ere the doors are closed against them.In effecting this object they have no great difficulty; there are places enough in the district to afford a refuge to them all, and once within the doors they will hardly quit the premises till their wants are satisfied. Here we must leave them – not without a wish that the time may come, and that speedily, when they may awake to a better sense of the value of their leisure.From the above discursive sketches of one of the peculiar phases of London life the reader may derive some idea of the experiences which operate in the formation of character among the masses. If we would acquire a practical knowledge of any class we must follow them into their daily haunts, and study them in the circles in which they habitually revolve. It is there only that they appear in their true colours, and that their virtues and their vices are to be seen in their just and relative proportions.The observer who will take the trouble to investigate human nature, under the influences and necessities and temptations to which it is subjected through the constraint of narrow means, will probably find that the industrial character comes forth from the alembic of his closest scrutiny, upon the whole, better than he could have expected. The temptations that lie in wait for the labouring man on all sides – the ten thousand traps so artfully set for his earning and his savings – the villainous pretences and impostures which lay claim to his benevolence and generosity – the delicious poisons, that are prepared for the gratification of his palate, and the enticing literary garbage by which unprincipled scribblers seek to pander to his worst passions, and to pervert corrupt his intellect – all these are so many and so powerful hindrances to the safety and prosperity of his career, that the wonder is, not that so many succumb to the oppositions that beset them, but rather that so many escape. The truth is, that there is in the working mind a substratum of practical good sense coupled with an amount of good principle, not always to be easily lured into folly and error; and herein lies the hope of the philanthropist who labours for the emancipation of his humbler brethren from the thraldom of their lot.The scene we have above so imperfectly described, melancholy as it must be to a Christian mind, is but one of very many that are to be met with in various quarters of the metropolis. How different the Saturday night of the laborious London is from that of the Scottish cotter, we need not remark. We may observe, however, that it is too often by necessity, and not by choice, that he and his wife are driven to the midnight market. The exactions of business are at the root of the evil, and from these he is in no condition to escape.What we should like to see, and what all the sons of labour have a right to expect, would be the release from toil of the entire band of the industrial host at an early hour in the Saturday afternoon. The Saturday-night’s market would then wonderfully improve in character, and the Sunday-morning market, an abomination of infinitely greater magnitude, which legislation has been trying for two hundred years in vain to suppress, would die out of its own accord. We shall have a higher standard of morality among the labouring classes when employers improve their own, and give their working hands an opportunity at least of enjoying and cultivating the endearments of domestic life.The “virtuous populace” the poet speaks of must be reared, if reared at all, where the social and domestic virtues are practised, and where the parents have the leisure to enforce by example and by “admonition due” the observance of them. Of this leisure the present headlong pursuit of business deprives them – and we look to a reform, in this particular, as one of the first steps towards the improvement of the masses in our large towns, and in the metropolis especially. Let the Christian church see to this. With Saturday nights like that which we have described it is vain to expect sanctified Sabbaths.