Project Canterbury

The Streets and Lanes of the City

By Mary Eleanor Benson

With a brief memoir by her father [E. W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury].

London: Privately printed, 1891.

Transcribed by S. R. Holman, Center for Poverty Studies, 2006

Chapter 1. The Amusements of the Very Respectable


The following chapters lay claim to attention only on the ground of being true. They are not written to support a social or religious theory, nor to put forward a remedy for any of the evils and sorrows described in them. Such theories need the experience of a lifetime for their support; as to remedies we are no doubt in some measure already on the right lines; and for the rest let those speak who can with authority.

What follows claims only to be a truthful representation of the modes of life and facts of life that have come under the eye of one individual in the space of half a mile radius during the lapse of five years. If they should bring before any minds more vividly the conditions, needs, loveableness, and nobility of the life of a fraction of the working classes, by giving bona fide instances of real events, they will have done all they claim to do.



We would not now speak of any amusements except those which are shared in by the completely respectable. No one would deny that those in London who wish for dissipation and for amusements better left alone, can have what they wish however poor they are. But it seems sometimes as if the lives of the respectable and self-respecting poor, who have a high and a rigid standard of propriety, and no width of cultivated, intellectual enjoyments and interests, have a terribly monotonous time of it.

Take, for example, the life of such a girl as the daughter of that Mrs. Ballard--whom a chapter called "A Troubled Soul" will presently describe--the child of a respectable and superior house. The girl spent her week from morning to night in domestic work. On Sundays she went to church and to class, and on one evening in the week to the girls' club. She literally attended no other kind of amusement or social gathering, except now and then a tea; and once in the year a day in the country.

At eighteen years old, with good spirits, clever wit and a very merry mind, this may at first sight seem a terribly cramped life.

But the element that one is liable to forget in reckoning the amusements and pleasures of the London working classes, is the constant variety and distraction of the daily life round them.

When people live so close to each other, where every few square feet hold a whole family, where every street and alley swarms with life, there are endless tragedies and comedies acting themselves out every day before even the most retiring and least inquisitive members of the audience. Death, birth, marriage, accidents, street rows, all combinations of chance and will of the closely packed human lives take place, one would almost say, in public. And that this becomes to the Londoner the very marrow and stimulus of life is plainly shown by their unwillingness to move into the country and their loneliness if they have to go.

For example, there was a family where the children were dying from London air. The family were cramped in one small room and badly off. The mother was devoted to them, and so she accepted, though not without a struggle, an offer that the family should move to a quiet country village. They moved down. But the mother spent two days in tears merely because it was so quiet, and there was only one post a day. Again, I have heard girls pity a lady who lived in a house looking on her garden and not on the street: "I wouldn't live there for anything; it must be so dreadfully quiet."

But one learns to understand it when one considers such distractions as that of the weekly Saturday market. The evening towards ten o'clock is the time to see it at its height. The street is crowded with a dense, slowly moving mass. No one walks quickly for everyone wants to see all there is to see. The place is full of diffused light, from the lights of gin-palaces and the shop lamps down to the flaming naphtha flames that light up the hand-carts which stand crowded with their wares down each side of the street.
Here is a shooting gallery with a flashy-looking girl in shabby finery, and a hat with huge feathers and pendants in her ears inciting passing "gentlemen" to try their luck at the hideous brilliant dolls, in a loud, coarse voice and vulgar terms. They have the hope of a prize of coconuts, or pipes, or whatnots. There is much talking and laughing among the standers-by.

Then come two or three hand-barrows, one containing cabbages of a portentious size at a minute price, which is bawled out by a vociferous child. One, cottons and reels, tapes and tuckers and buttons, earrings and rings, and bracelets and brooches, solitaires of amazing brilliancy at 312d., and massive gold brooches at 6d. The stall is kept by a blear-eyed old woman, very persuasive. Then comes a stall of old books, whose owner leans chatting against the wall to his mates. Old books, some utter rubbish, some really valuable, if one manages to hit on them, old school books, books of sermons, books of travel, defective cyclopaedias, dirty novels, perhaps a Family bible in parts, a Greek Testament, torn editions of the Classics, sometimes valuable or beautiful editions, books on medicine, antiquated songs, and stray numbers of magazines. The prices vary from 1d. upwards, or one may see the placard, "All these 12d. each, but you must take two." The customers at these stalls are worth looking at; sometimes they are middle-aged men with quaint, shy faces, telling tales of lives; more often growing boys or weary, eager young men.

Then comes a stall where lighter tastes are consulted, where Mr. Gladstone in a magenta jacket cuts down a forest tree with a magenta stem--the whole in tin for the sum of one penny; or a cardboard ship stands brilliant in sparkling crystals with remarkable rigging and still more remarkable pink paper sails; a monkey climbs up a stick for only a a'penny, or a photograph album with twenty-four pages for cartes de visite, each page with a floral design, a padded maroon leather paper cover and a brass clasp, cover also stamped with a floral design and a motto, may be bought for 1-3/4d.; while a doll's teaset, or complete bedroom suite, or a chair with bead legs and back, or a locomotive, or a hansom cab in yellow tin may be purchased, all at the cost of that remarkable coin the penny.

Here comes a staid and dignified stall--a "superior" cart, on which stand, built up into a chaste pyramid, boxes of pills and boxes of ointment, and round its base a fringe of bottles of medicine, whose properties the stallkeeper, a boy in a jacket of "superior" cut, shouts out in a loud monotone, as he forces on the passer-by paper bills setting forth their merits at great length with remarkable copies of testimonials. It gives one a little shudder. Even in these days of doctors in gilt coaches with brass bands, one has not quite got over a prejudice against wholesale medicines sold as infallible remedies regardless of the nature of the particular disease.
But here the gathering crowd filling the footway and the street announce that something of greater interest is proceeding at its centre, and looking over shoulders in dingy shawls and dirty coats, and round babies' heads, one becomes aware that an auction of old clothes is proceeding. It is curious how dejected the crowd look; it consists mostly of middle-aged women with dingy, dispirited faces, who finger the garments silently and slowly; one may hear the pence clink in their closed hands.

The seller is lively enough. She is a middle-aged woman too, but her cheeks are plum and her colour high, and her bonnet smart in crimson velvet and feathers. And she is facetious. A baby suddenly wakes to cheerfulness, and makes a loud and incoherent remark to the company with a leap that nearly looses his mother's hold and launches him on the heap of clothes in front of him. "Want a dolly, do yer, my beauty?" says the lively saleswoman. "Ah and you shall have it." And with a skillful movement she transforms a baby's blue velvet-trimmed pelisse, filthy and faded, into a very fair likeness of a rag doll and dances it on her arm. But the impassive faces round are impassive still; hardly a smile is raised.

Perhaps the gayer spirits have sought the rival auction at the west of that little narrow street running up to the left. For there the salesman, a flashy-looking young fellow, stands inside his own donkey-cart and displays his goods at greater advantage above the heads of his clients.

"A gentleman's tail-coat. There ye are, at ninepence. Look at it now, linings good." He turns the sleeve inside out with a dexterous swiftness. "Fit for any gentleman as I see around me. Jacket complete, buttons and braid, scarcely worn, at ninepence. It's a loss, but you may have it. No one more?--Tenpence?--I thought so."

The bidding slowly mounts. Finally the jacket is knocked down at the high value of fourteenpence.

But here on the pavement comes a strange group. A man and woman are seated with their backs to the wall, their eyes bent down, neatly dressed, and perfectly silent. In front of them their four children, also neatly dressed, two girls and two boys, are playing solemnly at a game of School. The spectators watch them with great interest, and every now and then when the girl gets up and carries a shell round, she receives a good supply of coppers--such, indeed, as afford a livelihood to the whole family.
Then comes a pretty sight. Six little green parroquets sitting on the top of their own cage regarding the crowd demurely, and yet perfectly obedient to the bidding of their mistress--a dark-skinned woman in Italian costume. She makes them go through their simple tricks, to the ready applause of the crowd, who chiefly number children from three years old upwards, looking with large eyes of wonder.

But here we are brought to a stop, close to the door of a glaring gin palace. The lights are bright inside, and the bar crowded, but there comes the sound of angry voices and of scuffling, and presently a way breaks through the crowd and a man comes out half-drunk with a bruised and swollen face, and furious anger on every feature--after him a draggled, miserable woman crying. Then the crowd closes in, and one hears versions of the story, questions, and answers on all sides.

Here up a little side street is a Socialist haranguing. He has banners with various mottoes, held by two or three friends, and the crowd listens quietly enough to his impassioned speaking. Tomorrow he will be here again, but then he will only share the ground with more religious preachers of various denominations.

Back into the main street again with its glare and noise. Here is one of the oddest booths of all, standing side by side with an umbrella stand--umbrellas range from sixpence upwards--a booth of false hair. Its lath sides are hung with brown plaits, and black plaits, and yellow plaits, and tresses of all colours, and a good handful of rather gruesome individuals are fingering them. They are within the reach even of the indigent, for they range from twopence upwards.

So much for the Booths. But the Shops force themselves on one's notice. Butchers' shops predominate--a cheering sign. They blaze with red and white joints, and trays containing pieces of various sizes from 4d. a pound upwards. The butcher himself moves about in front of his shop, giving vent to a continuous loud harangue.

"Now then, my dear--Come along here, lady--Here's the meat for you--the Princess Christian was down here only last week, and said this was the shop for mutton chops and good joints--Here you are at 6d. a pound--Here you are at 8d.," and so on and so on.
Or the draper's, milliner's and dressmaker's; what surprises meet one there! Here are prints at 1--3/4d. the yard, widows' bonnets with crape streamers a yard long, and a whole shrubbery of black crape fruits and flowers in front, at 1s. 11d. Here are stockings, men's size, at 2--3/4d. a pair; children's at 1--3/4d.; children's shoes from 4d.; untrimmed hats from 1d., and sometimes 12d.; trimmed hats from 6d. upwards; artificial flowers from 2d. the bunch, gloves at 2--3/4d., jackets from 2s. 11d., broad satin ribbons at 2d. a yard, mackintoshes at 3s. 11d.; dresses, cashmere with rich plush panels, at 7s. 11d. complete; pinafores, aprons, under-clothing, all to match.

And here, among more sober delights, comes the door of a Show. There is a remarkable canvas above it representing a tropical forest, with something between a tent and a wigwam in the distance, and the showman stands in front loudly vociferating.

"The original untamable savage--the same as was on view last week at the Westminster Aquarium for 1s. a head--can be seen here for the low fee of one penny. And surely what was worth 1s. in Westminster is worth 1d. in Burney Row. Walk in, ladies and gentlemen, walk in."

And so we walk on--past the entrance of a music hall, past a gin palace--noise and talk and street-calls on every side.

Of course, viewed in one light it is sordid and miserable, and wretched. And from the point of view of the philanthropist and moralist, it is full of horrors; the evil language, the fights, the lavish waste in the midst of pinching poverty, the drunkenness, and worse. All these are very black.

But we should be ignoring a real side of human nature if we did not see it in its exciting and entertaining light; if we did not value the intense amusement and interest of the human drama, the absorbingness of such sights and scenes. And such as these form a regular part of the life of the respectable working class. They do not take part in its evils; but they fully enjoy its brighter side. Among such scenes they do their marketing and carry on the business of life. And we must reckon it in, if we would judge rightly of the monotony or variety of their lives.

But--what is at once a reproach and a stimulus to the better educated--it is wonderful to see how little vitiated the tastes of this large mass of the working class still are. The purest and sweetest pleasures afford them the purest and keenest delight. There is nothing to them like a day in the country or by the seaside. Flowers and trees, a blue sky, and cows and dogs and ducks and chickens and haystacks and blackberries, and all such elementary beauties and pleasures of nature yield them the highest enjoyment for the space of a day or a week or two, though they could not be happy permanently out of town. So do pictures, and places of historical interest, and music of a really good kind.

Only, at present, they often need to be shown their way to such pleasures. They are used to a contained, circumscribed way of life, and do not go out to look for enjoyment except upon the beaten tracks. And in the case of pictures and historical places, the pleasures and interest are doubled by a little explanation. And such things go farther than one would imagine in the way of a little comfort. A touching example of this was the exclamation of a small boy at the Zoological Gardens, Jack Ballard, of whom more anon. He was fourteen years old, and hard at work all day with his father; his mother was in an Inebriate Home, after causing them all such trouble and wretchedness as cannot be described. The father was depressed and out of health; the home ill tended by the overworked elder sister. But as he stood in the parrot house, and observed a brilliant green and red parrot slowly catch hold of the perch with its beak, and swing itself round, with a watchful eye on us, and fiendish gurgle in its throat, he exclaimed involuntarily, "Oh, Miss -----, what a lot o' things God do make to make us happy."

Perhaps it may not be amiss before leaving the subject to say a word or two as to the respectability of the theatrical and other places of entertainment.

Music halls are not often resorted to by the really respectable--and theatres often not. There is a tradition that all such places are wicked among a large respectable class.

Notwithstanding this there are "a good few of" theatres and entertainment halls which are as respectable as half the theatres of good repute in the west.

The following will serve as an example of a respectable Variety entertainment. It began with a comic song sung by two men, one dressed up as a woman. Only men and boys acted at this special theatre. The name of one was supposed to be Maria and of the other Obadiah. These names formed part of a highly appreciated refrain which was received with roars of laughter at each repetition of it. It consisted of:



"Verileè, Verilì, Verilùm."

and was sung after the alternate solo verses, which were merely innocent nonsense, in which Obadiah proposed to Maria and was accepted without vulgarity.

Then came a change--Obadiah sang, putting an enormous hand in a white kit glove to hide his blushing face,

"I must confess."

"So must Oi." sang Maria in a hoarse man's voice.

But all they had to confess was that each of them had once waltzed with someone else, he with his dancing mistress, she with her dancing master. They forgave each other and concluded in harmony,



"Verileè, Verilì, Verilùm."

Not perhaps elevating; but not degrading. That was the end of the piece, which was encored.

Then came a more elaborate performance. The curtain drew up on a railway line with a signal box, the whole in moonlight. Signalman on the line.

Enter a lady in large boots, with a masculine voice, and many bandboxes. She has a colloquy with the signalman and tells him she has run away from her young man--result, that he offers her his box for the night and she retires into it, but puts her head out of the window to ask,

"I say--have you got 3d. anywhere about you?" And again --

"I say--could you oblige me with four pounds of beefsteak?"

These sallies were received with roars of laughter by the audience.

She shuts the window; and the signalman goes away. Two ruffians come in, dragging a struggling victim; and with the victim's obvious assistance they proceed to tie him on to the line. There is an ominous silence, a crisis is approaching. Suddenly from one side there bursts on to the line with hideous din a locomotive. It rushes on to the fettered man--when--bang--crash--the whole engine breaks up into pieces, and in the midst of its wreck stands a placard on which is visible the inscription, "Made in Germany."
The characteristics of the respectable theatre are much the same. A sound moral tone rules everywhere. The villain, however well he acts, is hissed and hooted when he makes his bow before the curtain, and the veriest stick of a worthy character is cheered and clapped to the echo. Virtue is always triumphant and vice severely punished. Both are represented in their plain aspects. There are no subtle disguises.

The virtuous wife and child are always unselfish and loving, while the villains think nothing of arranging for three murders in a conversation of five minutes. They show their habit of mind by the fact that the most covert way in which they allude to an intended murder is as follows:

Grayhaired Villain--"We must get Jones out o' the way."

Youthful Villain--"Yes--ah!"

G.V.--"Suicide, you know--eh?" gives youthful villain a dig in the ribs.


They fiendishly chuckle together.

Jokes are always made very plain; this youthful villain meets a virtuous young lady out walking and says to her,

"You get out o' this. The police have orders to take up suspicious characters."

To which she replies, with a meaningful look,"Then they haven't done their duty."

The orchestra stalls "take" this joke, and laugh, but balcony and gallery remain unmoved.

So the villain, wishing to include everybody in the entertainment he is affording, says, "Why?"

And the worthy young lady responds with spirit,

"Because you wouldn't be at large if they had."

House comes down.

But acting and scenery are all on a very fair level. A four-post bedstead looks rather more like a shower-bath than it should; and there is a scantiness of furniture in the rich villain's front drawing-room. But such are minor defects.

The audience at such respectable theatres are polite and quiet and well behaved. Whole families, father and mother and children perhaps, go together, or father and daughter, more often of course groups of young people; and as places range from 2s. 6d. for the best orchestra stalls, to 3d. or 4d. for the gallery, many ranks are represented. Between the acts beer passes round and other refreshments, and there is generally a public next door to which those who like to move about can repair, but there is as a rule no excess.

It seems worth while to give these examples at length. Of course such places when bad are very bad indeed. But unless one has special knowledge of the particular place, it is safer, perhaps, neither to dissuade nor to persuade, when years of discretion are reached, and there is no visible harm done. Amusements of the kind there must and ought to be, and it is better to reform than to abolish, to foster the perceptions that will discriminate rather than to draw hard and fast lines. And in many cases it is merely hearty, healthy nonsense that is listened to, and sound, if elementary, moral truths that are insisted upon dramatically.

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