Thursday 11 November 2010

A Victorian London Diary.


Venue: Hale Street, Deptford, 30th January 1873.

SUPPER follows naturally on tea, and I may here relate my experiences of strange company, derived from my having on one occasion fallen among thieves.T The invitation ticket was neither elaborate nor imposing. It merely set forth, on three inches by one and a half of modest pasteboard, that on Monday, the 30th of January, at six o'clock in the evening, "Ned Wright" would give a supper to boys who had been convicted of felony.

Honest boys were ineligible. A sort of committee of investigation was instituted some days before, and each case was inquired into, so as to make quite sure that the applicant for a ticket was a genuine black sheep, and not a lamb in wolf's clothing. How necessary it was to take this precaution was proved by more than one barefaced fraud that was attempted. Hale's Street, Deptford, was to be the scene of the banquet, and that neighbourhood abounds with squalor and poverty, which may account for the many ingenious devices resorted to by really honest lads to pass themselves for the sake of a meal of soup and bread, as convicted thieves. One lad had been at the pains to get himself "coached" in the most elaborate manner. He laid claim to have "served" both in Maidstone gaol and the prison at Wandsworth, knew the names of the governors and of the chief warders, the peculiarities of the work, and the food, and all the rest of it. Even Mr. Edward Wright, despite his practical experience, was nearly taken in by the honest little villain, but on cross-examination a slip of the tongue betrayed him, and he slunk away shamefaced, and let us hope not with a stern determination to make his claims beyond dispute by the time the next felon's supper was announced.

Having been assured that the guests invited to the supper were to be bona fide thieves, I must confess that I went prepared to face some sort of danger. Just imagine, a hundred of the professed "dangerous class," the young of the tribe, to be sure, but none the less to be dreaded on that account. Five score of budding burglars! A hundred robbers in training, and with not even that care for their own safety that might be naturally expected in ruffians of experience. In the midst of them, with a decent hat on one's head, a coat worth a pound on one's back, and possible shillings in one's .pocket, and no police to protect you! Terrible, indeed, was the picture the excited imagination conjured up - marvellously flat, and poor, and commonplace was the reality.

Let the reader imagine a barn-like building with whitened walls, and rows of forms-schoolboys' desks - with nothing as yet more promising in view in the way of supper than several pyramids of enormous white basins at the further end, and a heap of tin spoons piled on a table. A few ladies and gentlemen - a dozen, may be - are talking here and there, quite free and fearlessly, while by twos and threes some small boys make their appearance and take their seats in front.

They make their appearance to the number of thirty, perhaps, and there is nothing either striking or picturesque about them; they are merely poor half-starved little wretches of the gutter, ranging in age from nine to thirteen. They are not in the least abashed. They talk and laugh, and criticise the ladies and gentlemen, and make jocular remarks concerning the spoons and basins.

"When do you expect the thieves?" I venture to enquire.

"These are thieves," is the answer. "You see the little ones are bolder than the big ones, and come earlier so as to get front seats and the first of the soup."

It was so hard to believe that I got into conversation with the children, and sure enough my informant was right. There was not one of them that had not "done his bit," as they said, and more than one had tasted prison fare and picked prison oakum on three distinct occasions. They did not evince the least shame in making confession - they seemed proud of it, rather; and one young gentleman, aged eleven, who, with a haughty twist of his side locks, announced that he had been "in" five times, was at once set down by a friend, who told him that he needn't make such a jaw about it, and to bear in mind that they wasn't all convictions, but two was "marnders" (remands), and that he was both times discharged at the second hearing. One little boy told me how that he had "done three months at Maidstone" for nailin' two glasses of sweetstuff out of a shop, and had treated his companions to a peep-show with the proceeds, and was vilely betrayed by one whom he had declined to treat, and was arrested with his eye at the peep-hole, and in the midst of his enjoyment of the thrilling spectacle of the murder of Mr. O'Conner by the Mannings.

After a little while other thieves arrived, and the room began to fill - older lads these last arrivals - some of them seventeen and eighteen, I dare say, but all of precisely the same type. Downcast, hungry-looking, woefully seedy-looking, poor fellows, lively only for a feeble attempt at devil-may-care, evidently got up for the occasion. All thieves, Mr. Wright himself assured me-lads who were in and out of prison constantly, and who yet were so "hard up" as to be glad to march in there, avowing their trade, and with their faces fully revealed in the gaslight, for the sake of securing a quart of soup! We are told that periodicals of the "Jack Sheppard" and "Boy Highwayman" school sell in hundreds of thousands weekly to the youth of the nation who unhesitatingly believe in the splendour and gallantry of the heroes therein described. What a memorable lesson for the money-wasting young stupid-heads, could they for half- an-hour have contemplated that poor ramshackle starveling crew who sat so patiently waiting for the white basins to be filled!

As I gazed on the ragged rows, one behind the other - on the heads that as yet were fiercely bristling in telltale token of the recently-applied gaol scissors, on heads to which oil had been bountifully applied, in the desperate endeavour to make the growing crop "lie down," like that of honest people, and on still other heads - these the vast majority - that were thatched with a towzled mat of what was hair, but which looked like tangled wisps of dirty felt - as I contemplated the array of pinched and poverty-stricken and pale and haggard faces so eloquent of intimate acquaintance with vice and misery in their worst forms - I could not but think how very much better off the entire company would be if one and all were arrested on the spot, and carried off to prison.

No wonder that the law's worst scourge for evil-doers has no terrors for such as these! I recollect some time since inspecting a great prison; it was evening time, and in the autumn. Along with others, the van had brought with that day's batch of convicted prisoners two lads of about thirteen and fifteen years old. Outside the cell door of each were the rags they wore at the time of their capture - their dirty, tattered jackets, their trousers of many patches, and their gaping, down-trodden old shoes - each lot in a sort of cabbage-net, all ready for depositing in the steam-purifying apparatus down below. Then the cell-doors were opened, and the legitimate owners of the woefully dilapidated suits were revealed no longer dirty. Each one had had his sousing and scrubbing in a plentiful bath of warm water; their faces yet glowed, and their ears were crimson and clean. The hammocks on which they reposed were scrupulously white, the rugs that covered them warm and comfortable, and the walls and ceiling and floor of their dungeon spotless and wholesome. The lads had partaken of supper, and knew for a certainty that a warm breakfast would be got ready for them next morning. It did not in their case - which was doubtless the case of at least fifty of the young thieves now before me - seem a bit like punishment and prison. It was more like coming "home" after a season of disheartening struggling and striving. As one turned from them, cuddled comfortable and clean under their rugs, and once more glanced at the poor rags and the old boots bundled up in the cabbage-net, one could not help reflecting, "Poor wretches ! it must be a desperately hard life while you are at liberty to pursue it; but, thank Heaven! you are here well provided for for a few months, at all events."

The thieves' supper itself was a decided success. When the three enormous tin holders, of the sort that milk is brought from the country in, made their appearance, one hungry roar made the roof ring, and there was no such things as pacifying the lads until their kindhearted, black-coated friends on the platform turned back their cuffs and applied themselves to filling the quart basins. The understood terms were a "tuck out," which in Hale's Street is short and simple language for as much as can be eaten. Enough was provided - thirty-five gallons - with bread enough to allow a full pound to each guest. Little thieves and big thieves ate with a ravenous relish that was at once gratifying and painful to behold. Two quart basinfuls were a common allowance - and at least half-a-dozen exceptionally long and narrow lads were pointed out to me as having emptied four basins. One quite forgot that they were thieves-they looked so thankful.

The supper, of course, was but a preliminary to the discourse that afterwards followed. To say the least, the strange audience received it in perfect good-humour and seriousness; and, when the question was put, Would they be willing to abandon their evil courses if they found the chance? up shot their assenting hands as though let loose by the pulling of a single string. And truly, when one saw what a poor miserable lot they were, is was not at all difficult to believe them sincere.

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