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The eight shillings lasted three days and four nights. After my bad
experience in the Waterloo Road* I moved eastward, and spent the next
night in a lodging-house in Pennyfields. This was a typical lodging-house,
like scores of others in London. It had accommodation for between fifty and
a hundred men, and was managed by a 'deputy'--a deputy for the owner,
that is, for these lodging-houses are profitable concerns and are owned by
rich men. We slept fifteen or twenty in a dormitory; the beds were again
cold and hard, but the sheets were not more than a week from the wash,
which was an improvement. The charge was ninepence or a shilling (in the
shilling dormitory the beds were six feet apart instead of four) and the
terms were cash down by seven in the evening or out you went.
[*It is a curious but well-known fact that bugs are much commoner
in south than north London. For some reason they have not yet crossed
the river in any great numbers.]
Downstairs there was a kitchen common to all lodgers, with free firing
and a supply of cooking-pots, tea-basins, and toasting-forks. There were
two great clinker fires, which were kept burning day and night the year
through. The work of tending the fires, sweeping the kitchen and making the
beds was done by the lodgers in rotation. One senior lodger, a fine
Norman-looking stevedore named Steve, was known as 'head of the house', and
was arbiter of disputes and unpaid chucker-out.
I liked the kitchen. It was a low-ceiled cellar deep underground, very
hot and drowsy with coke fumes, and lighted only by the fires, which cast
black velvet shadows in the comers. Ragged washing hung on strings from the
ceiling. Red-lit men, stevedores mostly, moved about the fires with
cooking-pots; some of them were quite naked, for they had been laundering
and were waiting for their clothes to dry. At night there were games of nap
and draughts, and songs--' I'm a chap what's done wrong by my parents,'
was a favourite, and so was another popular song about a shipwreck.
Sometimes late at night men would come in with a pail of winkles they had
bought cheap, and share them out. There was a general sharing of food, and
it was taken for granted to feed men who were out of work. A little pale,
wizened creature, obviously dying, referred to as 'pore Brown, bin under
the doctor and cut open three times,' was regularly fed by the others.
Two or three of the lodgers were old-age pensioners. Till meeting them
I had never realized that there are people in England who live on nothing
but the old-age pension often shillings a week. None of these old men had
any other resource whatever. One of them was talkative, and I asked him how
he managed to exist. He said:
'Well, there's ninepence a night for yer kip--that's five an'
threepence a week. Then there's threepence on Saturday for a shave--
that's five an' six. Then say you 'as a 'aircut once a month for sixpence
--that's another three'apence a week. So you 'as about four an' four-pence
for food an' bacca.'
He could imagine no other expenses. His food was bread and margarine
and tea--towards the end of the week dry bread and tea without milk--
and perhaps he got his clothes from charity. He seemed contented, valuing
his bed and fire more than food. But, with an income of ten shillings a
week, to spend money on a shave--it is awe-inspiring.
All day I loafed in the streets, east as far as Wapping, west as far
as Whitechapel. It was queer after Paris; everything was so much cleaner
and quieter and drearier. One missed the scream of the trams, and the
noisy, festering life of the back streets, and the armed men clattering
through the squares. The crowds were better dressed and the faces comelier
and milder and more alike, without that fierce individuality and malice of
the French. There was less drunkenness, and less dirt, and less
quarrelling, and more idling. Knots of men stood at all the corners,
slightly underfed, but kept going by the tea-and-two-slices which the
Londoner swallows every two hours. One seemed to breathe a less feverish
air than in Paris. It was the land of the tea urn and the Labour Exchange,
as Paris is the land of the BISTRO and the sweatshop.
It was interesting to watch the crowds. The East London women are
pretty (it is the mixture of blood, perhaps), and Limehouse was sprinkled
with Orientals--Chinamen, Ghittagonian lascars, Dravidians selling silk
scarves, even a few Sikhs, come goodness knows how. Here and there were
street meetings. In Whitechapel somebody called The Singing Evangel
undertook to save you from hell for the charge of sixpence. In the East
India Dock Road the Salvation Army were holding a service. They were
singing 'Anybody here like sneaking Judas?' to the tune of 'What's to be
done with a drunken sailor?' On Tower Hill two Mormons were trying to
address a meeting. Round their platform struggled a mob of men, shouting
and interrupting. Someone was denouncing them for polygamists. A lame,
bearded man, evidently an atheist, had heard the word God and was heckling
angrily. There was a confused uproar of voices.
'My dear friends, if you would only let us finish what we were saying
--!--That's right, give 'em a say. Don't get on the argue!--No, no,
you answer me. Can you SHOW me God? You SHOW 'im me, then I'll believe in
'im.--Oh, shut up, don't keep interrupting of 'em!--Interrupt yourself!
--polygamists!--Well, there's a lot to be said for polygamy. Take the--
women out of industry, anyway.--My dear friends, if you would just--No,
no, don't you slip out of it. 'Ave you SEEN God? 'Ave you TOUCHED 'im? 'Ave
you shook 'ANDS with 'im?--Oh, don't get on the argue, for Christ's sake
don't get on the ARGUE!' etc. etc. I listened for twenty minutes, anxious
to learn something about Mormonism, but the meeting never got beyond
shouts. It is the general fate of street meetings.
In Middlesex Street, among the crowds at the market, a draggled,
down-at-heel woman was hauling a brat of five by the arm. She brandished a
tin trumpet in its face. The brat was squalling.
'Enjoy yourself!' yelled the mother. 'What yer think I brought yer out
'ere for an' bought y' a trumpet an' all? D'ya want to go across my knee?
You little bastard, you SHALL enjoy yerself!'
Some drops of spittle fell from the trumpet. The mother and the child
disappeared, both bawling. It was all very queer after Paris.
The last night that I was in the Pennyfields lodging-house there was a
quarrel between two of the lodgers, a vile scene. One of the old-age
pensioners, a man of about seventy, naked to the waist (he had been
laundering), was violently abusing a short, thickset stevedore, who stood
with his back to the fire. I could see the old man's face in the light of
the fire, and he was almost crying with grief and rage. Evidently something
very serious had happened.
THE OLD-AGE PENSIONER:'You--!'
THE STEVEDORE: 'Shut yer mouth, you ole--, afore I set about yer!'
THE OLD-AGE PENSIONER: 'Jest you try it on, you--! I'm thirty year
older'n you, but it wouldn't take much to make me give you one as'd knock
you into a bucketful of piss!'
THE STEVEDORE: 'Ah, an' then p'raps I wouldn't smash you up after, you
Thus for five minutes. The lodgers sat round, unhappy, trying to
disregard the quarrel. The stevedore looked, sullen, but the old man was
growing more and more furious. He kept making little rushes at the other,
sticking out his face and screaming from a few inches distant like a cat on
a wall, and spitting. He was trying to nerve himself to strike a blow, and
not quite succeeding. Finally he burst out:
'A--, that's what you are, a----! Take that in your dirty gob and
suck it, you--! By--, I'll smash you afore I've done with you. A--,
that's what you are, a son of a--whore. Lick that, you--! That's what I
think of you, you--, you--, you--you BLACK BASTARD!'
Whereat he suddenly collapsed on a bench, took his face in his hands,
and began crying. The other man seeing that public feeling was against him,
Afterwards I heard Steve explaining the cause of the quarrel. It
appeared that it was all about a shilling's worth of food. In some way the
old man had lost his store of bread and margarine, and so would have
nothing to eat for the next three days, except what the others gave him in
charity. The stevedore, who was in work and well fed, had taunted him;
hence the quarrel.
When my money was down to one and fourpence I went for a night to a
lodging-house in Bow, where the charge was only eightpence. One went down
an area and through an alley-way into a deep, stifling cellar, ten feet
square. Ten men, navvies mostly, were sitting in the fierce glare of the
fire. It was midnight, but the deputy's son, a pale, sticky child of five,
was there playing on the navvies' knees. An old Irishman was whistling to a
blind bullfinch in a tiny cage. There were other songbirds there--tiny,
faded things, that had lived all their lives underground. The lodgers
habitually made water in the fire, to save going across a yard to the
lavatory. As I sat at the table I felt something stir near my feet, and,
looking down, saw a wave of black things moving slowly across the floor;
they were black-beetles.
There were six beds in the dormitory, and the sheets, marked in huge
letters 'Stolen from No.--Road', smelt loathsome. In the next bed to me
lay a very old man, a pavement artist, with some extraordinary curvature of
the spine that made him stick right out of bed, with his back a foot or two
from my face. It was bare, and marked with curious swirls of dirt, like a
marble table-top. During the night a man came in drunk and was sick on the
floor, close to my bed. There were bugs too--not so bad as in Paris, but
enough to keep one awake. It was a filthy place. Yet the deputy and his
wife were friendly people, and ready to make one a cup of tea at any hour
of the day or night.