Project Canterbury

Twenty-one Years in S. George's Mission

By Charles Fuge Lowder

London: Rivingtons, 1877.

Chapter II. S. George's-in-the-East.

BEFORE we proceed further in our history, it will be well to attempt some description of the scene of our labours; for the parish of S. George's-in-the-East forms a portion of that Eastern London which is so little known to dwellers in the more favoured quarters of the metropolis. Country cousins indeed suppose that they have arrived at the far East when they have reached the Bank of England, ignorant even of Aldgate Pump, and forgetting that the Tower and the Thames Tunnel are far beyond. And yet S. George's contains one of the main supplies of London's wealth and commerce, as well as one of its most curious sights, the London Docks. The extensive basins, in which may be seen the largest ships of the world; the immense warehouses which contain the treasures of every quarter of the globe--wool, cotton, tea, coffee, tobacco, skins, ivory; the miles of vaults filled with wines and spirits; the [30/31] thousands of persons employed--clerks, customs officers, artizans, labourers, lightermen, and sailors--make the Docks a world of itself, as well as a cosmopolitan rendezvous and emporium. Those who merely catch a glimpse from a river steamer of its forest of masts can have little idea of the busy scenes which are daily to be witnessed within its high walls. Here are vessels swarming with labourers lading and unlading; powerful hydraulic cranes lifting their tons; gangers measuring and testing the wines and spirits; porters shifting hogsheads; coopers hammering; clerks busy entering the freights; the trim American clippers, the fast tea-ships from China, or the Mediterranean steamers, warped out of the river through the dock-gates into the wide basins, and taking up their berths. Then of course this commerce brings a vast amount of traffic into our streets. Waggons laden with merchandise--heavy casks of sugar or wine, bales of cotton or wool, tea-chests, bags of coffee--to be dispersed throughout the metropolis, the country, and the world; huge boilers, engines, or machinery to be shipped to the colonies or foreign countries--all this life and animation give a special character to our streets and thoroughfares. S. George's also was once busy with its sugar refineries, which employed a great number of German labourers; it still [31/32] has a large biscuit manufactory, cartage business, and coal depots in connection with the Blackwall Railway.

Ratcliff Highway, known of old for a notorious murder, runs through it from west to east, filled with public-houses and beershops, dancing-saloons and concert-rooms, sailors' boarding-houses, slop-shops, and all the attendants of a seafaring population. Here are two or three collections of foreign animals and birds, among which Mr. Jamrach's assembly of wild beasts and birds, and array of curiosities, are the most famous. In this street are to be seen the poor denizens of the neighbouring brothels flaunting their finery and their persons, and plying their hateful trade by night and day. Foreign sailors from every country--Greeks, Malays, Lascars, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Austrians--may be encountered everywhere; so that, with the German sugar-bakers, the population of the Highway is as mixed as any in the world.

The recklessness of vice, the unblushing effrontery with which it is carried on when the lowest of every country combine to add their quota to the already overflowing stock, can scarcely be conceived; The public-houses are chiefly kept by foreigners, as are very many of the lodging-houses, whilst most of them live upon the vices of the sailors; and publicans actually [32/33] keep wretched girls in their pay to entrap the poor sailor, who is soon stripped of his all when he falls into their treacherous clutches. A staff of prostitutes is in fact part of the stock-in-trade, and instances could be adduced in which brothels have been attached to the public-houses, or rented by their owners. At one time the publican interest was so powerful in the parish, that for years one at least of the churchwardens was a publican.

In the time of the commencement of the Mission the protection afforded by the police was much less than it is, happily, at present; in fact they were often afraid to interfere in disturbances where the knife was so freely used, and with characters so desperate. There is also a strong temptation to keep on good terms with the publican.

On one occasion while we lived in Wellclose Square a sailor, who had been fighting with a fellow-sailor in an adjoining lodging-house, and had stabbed him in the affray, escaped by the back wall into the kitchen of the Mission House, to the extreme terror of an old servant, and in the cellar for some time kept a body of police and others at bay, until they at last secured his knife. At midnight, when the public-houses were closed, the quarrels, fights, and disturbances were such a matter [33/34] of course that none could hope for a night's rest until they were inured by habit. There were frequent fights between foreign and English sailors about the girls with whom they were keeping company; and it was not uncommon to see most desperate encounters between the girls themselves, kicking and tearing one another's hair and biting as they rolled together in the streets, a crowd standing around, and instead of interfering, encouraging the combatants. They are indeed obliged, as we often learnt from some of the inmates of our Penitentiary, to madden themselves with drink, or they could not ply their hateful trade, with all its disgusting circumstances.

As far as the writer's own experience goes (for since the Mission in Wellclose Square was necessarily abandoned his duties do not now take him so much into the Highway), he believes that the fights are not so general as they once were; for frequently in former days he was called upon to interfere, and it was only by placing himself directly between the combatants, and resisting the attempts of the shameful spectators to renew the battle, that peace could be secured. It is now a long time since he has been called upon to interfere. As the present Rector of S. George's (the Rev. Harry Jones), in his book called East and West London, expresses the [34/35] opinion that there is not much choice between Ratcliff Highway and the Haymarket, the writer will not attempt to decide the question of pre-eminence in vice. Undoubtedly the former displays it in the more disgusting form.

Happily, however, the Highway, or, as it is now called with more dignity, S. George's Street, does not constitute the whole or even the principal part of the parish. The Commercial Road (an important and busy thoroughfare leading to Limehouse, Poplar, the East and West India Docks and Blackwall, and the streets out of which contain a very large portion of the population of 50,000 belonging to the parish,) is of a different character; and though some of the smaller streets are not immaculate, they are inhabited for the most part by an industrious people engaged about the River and Docks, or in various factories or trades. The southern portion of the parish, in which lies the new parish of S. Peter's, is south of the London Docks. S. Peter's parish, consisting of a portion of S. George's and Shadwell, is, as already stated, an island, lying entirely between the Docks and the River. A portion of S. George's lying west of S. Peter's is now attached to Wapping for spiritual purposes. The parish of S. Peter's contains probably the poorest portion of the whole parish, and [35/36] some of the most dilapidated houses and closest alleys. There are streets indeed which once contained respectable houses, with remains of handsome marble chimneypieces and carved staircases; but such as remain are now let out in small tenements, and inhabited by the working classes, and even the very poor. We have already spoken of a large soap and tallow factory, employing about 200 hands. There was a year or two ago a rice mill; there are gas and charcoal works, the latter for sugar-refining. Besides these there are the ordinary shops and stores which supply a poor population. A great nuisance with which we had formerly to contend, and which was not removed without great difficulty, was a large dustyard, which was proved to be detrimental to the public health. In the Shadwell portion of our parish there are many large warehouses and river-side wharves; but although some of them as well as the factories are used in the daytime by wealthy men of business, yet we have not one resident of any position or wealth in the parish.

Wellclose Square, in which our Mission House was situated, is a large open square, forming the meeting-point of the three parishes of S. George's, S. Mary's, Whitechapel, and S. John's, Wapping. It contained when we settled there, besides the Chapel, a large sugar [36/37] refinery, a Jewish Synagogue and Almshouses, a large boarding-house for Greek sailors, a large music-hall, which, though its original proprietor considered it a highly moral place of resort, nay, on a par with the Mission Chapel as a means of educating the people, yet doubtless gathered into and around it a very doubtful clientèle. A large and useful Sailors' Home is just outside the Square.

The poverty of the parish was very great. Beside the shopkeepers who have been already mentioned, there were a large number of small tradespeople, coster-mongers, persons engaged about the docks, lightermen, watermen, coalwhippers, dock labourers, shipwrights, coopers, &c, the poorer of whom in the winter, or when the easterly winds prevented the shipping from getting up Channel, were for weeks, sometimes months, without work, and unable to support their families; their clothes, their furniture, their bedding, all pawned, they lay on bare beds, or on the floor, only kept warm by being huddled together in one close, unventilated room. During the frost of 1861 the distress was appalling; the crowds who daily besieged the Thames Police Court clamouring for relief were largely reinforced from the courts and alleys of this large parish. The distress of course was greatly augmented by improvident habits, [37/38] and the curse of drunkenness, which prevents the labourer from bringing home to his starving family a moiety of his earnings, and makes the mothers themselves, instead of thrifty, careful housewives, noisy, gossipping, useless slatterns.

In the midst of such scenes of sin and misery the children were brought up, the school of too many the ' streets, abounding in temptation, echoing with profane and disgusting language, and forming a very atmosphere of vice; their examples at home a drunken father and mother, with brothers and sisters already deep in sin, and abroad thieves and prostitutes a little older than themselves. Thus were they early taught to thieve, to swear, to be bold and immodest in their manners and talk, and so to fall in with sins which they beheld in others at the most precocious age.

This was no exaggerated description of this parish, for it had few redeeming features, scarce any residents of education and respectability to foster a better spirit, since nearly every person of this stamp had given up his residence in the parish, that his children might not be contaminated by such sights and sounds; unless we except a few professional persons whose ties confined them to the spot.

The Church had little influence; for though the Rector [38/39] had for years consistently fulfilled his duties in the Church itself, yet it required no common energy and sanguine temperament, alone, or with the help of a curate frequently changing, to gird himself for the missionary work outside. He succeeded, moreover, to a state of things too common in the days of religious sloth. His predecessor, fonder of genial society than of parochial work, had allowed dissent, irreligion, and carelessness to grow up around him, with little attempt to check them. The parishioners (for there were many respectable residents who had not yet removed into the country) looked upon their Church as a pleasant rendezvous on Sunday, when neighbours could chat together in the Churchyard; and there was little in the service or sermon to disturb their comfort or peace of mind. What wonder, when the new Sector attempted to throw a little life into the services, and to teach the doctrines of the Church faithfully, that he should meet with opposition; and when the respectable parishioners left the parish for their suburban residences, be accused of emptying the Church? The mischief which afterwards burst forth in S. George's Biots had been already smouldering.

The Parish Church is a large, handsome, classical structure, erected in the beginning of the last century. It [39/40] was then filled with monstrous pews, and tall erections called reading-desk and pulpit, most ill-adapted to Christian worship, and specially to the wants of the poor. When the Rector wished the Mission work to commence in and around the Pariah Church, it seemed hopeless to bring the poor into such a be-pewed building. The schools, though enjoying a liberal endowment, yet, being in the hands of lay trustees, were permitted to go on in their mediocrity; and though founded with many privileges by an earnest member of the Church, yet exercised little religious influence on the children, or through them on their parents. A small Sunday School was attached to the Parish Church, and an Infant School of about seventy children was founded, as we have already mentioned, in Old Gravel Lane. There was also a proprietary chapel, which has since been consecrated, with an ecclesiastical district attached, under the name of S. Matthew, and which has good schools in connection with it. This was the whole religious machinery of the Church brought to bear upon 30,000 souls at the time of the commencement of S. George's Mission.

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