New Jersey, USA
8 April 1895
Saturday Night in London's Great East End Thoroughfare
London, April 1.
Whitechapel road begins at High street, Aldgate, and ends at Mile End gate. I should judge it to be about a mile and a quarter in length. I sauntered along it last night taking in its sights. I tried to liken it to the Bowery, New York, on a Saturday night, but failed utterly. I missed the great rumble and roar of the elevated trains and the breathless hurrying along of the people. The Londoners are a much easier people from high to low than we are. They seem to have more regard for themselves and less regard for the value of time.
It was in some of the small bystreets and courts which run off from this road where the terrible murders were committed some years ago. This was Jack the Ripper's stamping ground. I explored two or three of the courts last night and found them ugly, squalid and horrible. A queer feeling came over me in one of them. I thought of it as a place in which some awful human monstrosity might indeed be bred, something slimy, octopuslike and destroying. I shivered and half expected to see such a thing creeping toward me. The night was gloomy with fog and I had been thinking of the murders.
I care not what any one says or writes, there is no part of New York so awful looking at night time as the back alley courts and bystreets of this part of London. The squalor is hardly describable. It is a misty, weird, damp, menacing squalor. You feel that around and about you things are foul and rotten, that not all the cleaning in the world could really remove the inherent filth. Last night I thought of the grewsome, dim hells of Dante.
But out in the main road, Whitechapel road, things are different. Low London was enjoying itself, spending its Saturday's wages. There were all sorts of ways and devices for the luring and capturing of the nimble penny. Here was the thumping machine "three thumps a penny", where young London could develop its hitting powers. This machine was patronized mainly by urchins from 10 to 15 years old. The man who owned it went into the public house facing him to get refreshment, I presume. He left a small boy in charge. As soon as his back was turned the fun began. The other boys tried to thump the machine without paying. But the diminutive sentry was loyal and plucky. He hit one of them in the jaw, another in the nose and another in the eye. He must have practiced long and faithfully upon the machine himself. Just as the scrimmage was assuming big proportions the refreshed man came back, restored order and gave the sentry twopence.
There were small show tents, where you could see the most wonderful things that were ever allowed to exist for a penny. You felt, on listening to the showmen in front of them, that many great orators were lost to the nation. Some of them were really most eloquent and interesting, and if they dropped their h's in one place they picked them up in another, thus giving the queen's English all that was coming to it. I talked to one of them during a lull in business, and he told me that he had been in the United States and liked it, but that the English people were easier to gull. Another of them, a surprisingly intelligent African, was telling the crowd how much fire he would eat providing he could get eighteen pence. The strong man and the fat woman were also in evidence.
A man and his wife were selling kippers at a stall just on the corner of Mile End gate. I stopped for a while to watch them. Two for a penny was the price the herrings were going at.
"'Errins, two a penny," the man would call out. Then his wife would call out in turn, and then they would both call out together. Business was slack for a moment or so till another man and his wife came along. They bought four of the "kipper" and were going off with them when suddenly the man turned back and asked where the herrings had been caught, where they were cured and if they were really as good as he had been told. The man who was selling the herrings gravely assured him that they were of the finest quality; that they had been caught in Norway and cured in Yarmouth. "'Ow do you know?" asked the other. "Becas I was a fisherman," was the reply. "Why, I can tell 'errins a mile off." At this juncture some one interrupted and suggested to him that he fasten a pedigree in the tails of all his herrings.
I must say that I have a great deal of respect for the assurance and talent of the London fakir. He chaffs the crowd, and the crowds chaff him, and both chaff together. He shows up at his best in the selling of medicine. One of them last night was selling medicine at fourpence a bottle that would cure anything and everything. His face was very red and his nose showed signs of gin house cultivation. He was very convincing. "If it was the last fourpence you 'ad in the world," he said, "you ought to give it for this bottle." "You'd give you last fourpence for a 'ot rum," some one in the crowd retorted. "If I 'ad to get the fourpence by pawning all your clothes, I'd 'ave to do without it," replied the fakir.
In the entrance way of some of the public houses there are frescoes on the walls representing scenes from English history. One of them attracted me particularly. In it a man was being attacked by women armed with hatchets and hammers. They had evidently pulled him from off the death cart, and the guards were trying to rescue him. Beneath the fresco was this inscription: "Burton, lynched by the women of Whitechapel for the murder and robbery of his foster mother, 1428."
To show you that the London fakirs have the keenest sort of knowledge of human nature I will tell you of a game that one of them had in progress. On a line he had several bottles hanging by the neck from strings and at the back them a canvas sheet.
For three shots a penny he allowed the boys to fire hard wooden balls at these bottles from a distance of about ten feet. Whenever one was broken he would replace it with another. This game was the most popular one of all. It appealed to the boys' love for driving balls through windows and other forbidden places. I think this game would go well with the youth of America.
At the butchers' shops the women were bargaining for pieces of meat for their Sunday dinner. I noticed that the meat was very much dearer than it is in America. The women had to pay sevenpence or eightpence a pound, 14 to 16 cents, for meat they would have to pay but 8 or 10 cents a pound for at home. They say that the quality of the meat in England is better, but that is a ghost story as far as the poor people are concerned - for the English butchers import mostly from America and sell it at the higher English rates. The meat sold in this part of town in pretty nearly all American.