Charles Dickens.

The works of Charles Dickens (Volume 26) online

. (page 18 of 31)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 26) → online text (page 18 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

mighty city.

We will endeavour to sketch the bar of a large gin-shop,
and its ordinary customers, for the edification of such of our
readers as may not have had opportunities of observing such
scenes ; and on the chance of finding one well suited to our
purpose, we will make for Drury-lane, through the narrow
streets and dirty courts which divide it from Oxford-street,
and that classical spot adjoining the brewery at the bottom
of Tottenham-court-road, best known to the initiated as the
" Rookery."

The filthy and miserable appearance of this part of London
can hardly be imagined by those (and there are many such)
who have not witnessed it. Wretched houses with broken
windows patched with rags and paper : every room let out to
a different family, and in many instances to two or even three


fruit and " sweet-stuff" manufacturers in the cellars, barbers
and red-herring vendors in the front parlours, cobblers in
the back ; a bird-fancier in the first floor, three families on
the second, starvation in the attics, Irishmen in the passage,
a " musician " in the front kitchen, and a charwoman and five
hungry children in the back one filth everywhere a gutter
before the houses and a drain behind clothes drying and
slops emptying, from the windows ; girls of fourteen or
fifteen, with matted hair, walking about barefoot, and in
white great-coats, almost their only covering ; boys of all ages,
in coats of all sizes and no Coats at all ; men and women, in
every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding,
drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.

You turn the corner. What a change ! All is light and
brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid
gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets
opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically orna-
mented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows
surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights
in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted
with the darkness and dirt we have just left. The interior
is even gayer than the exterior. A bar of French-polished
mahogany, elegantly carved, extends the whole width of the
place ; and there are two side-aisles of great casks, painted
green and gold, enclosed within a light brass rail, and bearing
such inscriptions, as " Old Tom, 549 ; " " Young Tom, 360 ; "
" Samson, 1421 " the figures agreeing, we presume, with
" gallons," understand. Beyond the bar is a lofty and spacious
saloon, full of the same enticing vessels, with a gallery
running round it, equally well furnished. On the counter,
in addition to the usual spirit apparatus, are two or three
little baskets of cakes and biscuits, which are carefully secured
at top with wicker-work, to prevent their contents being
unlawfully abstracted. Behind it, are two showily-dressed
damsels with large necklaces, dispensing the spirits and " com-
pounds." They are assisted by the ostensible proprietor of


the concern, a stout coarse fellow in a fur cap, put on very
much on one side to give him a knowing air, and to display
his sandy whiskers to the best advantage.

The two old washerwomen, who are seated on the little
bench to the left of the bar, are rather overcome by the head-
dresses and haughty demeanour of the young ladies who
officiate. They receive their half-quartern of gin and pepper-
mint, with considerable deference, prefacing a request for
"one of them soft biscuits," with a " Jist be good enough,
ma'am." They are quite astonished at the impudent air of
the young fellow in a brown coat and bright buttons, who,
ushering in his two companions, and walking up to the bar
in as careless a manner as if he had been used to green and
gold ornaments all his life, winks at one of the young ladies
with singular coolness, and calls for a " kervorten and a
three-out-glass," just as if the place were his own. " Gin for
you, sir ? " says the young lady when she has drawn it : care-
fully looking every way but the right one, to show that the
wink had no effect upon her. "For me, Mary, my dear,"
replies the gentleman in brown. "My name aiVt Mary as it
happens," says the young girl, rather relaxing as she delivers
the change. " Well, if it an't, it ought to be," responds the
irresistible one ; " all the Marys as ever / see, was handsome
gals." Here the young lady, not precisely remembering how
blushes are managed in such cases, abruptly ends the flirtation
by addressing the female in the faded feathers who has just
entered, and who, after stating explicitly, to prevent any
subsequent misunderstanding, that "this gentleman pays,"'
calls for " a glass of port wine and a bit of sugar."

Those two old men who came in "just to have a drain,"
finished their third quartern a few seconds ago : they have
made themselves crying drunk ; and the fat comfortable-
looking elderly women, who had "a glass of rum-srub" each,
having chimed in with their complaints on the hardness of the
times, one of the women has agreed to stand a glass round,
jocularly observing that "grief never mended no broken


bones, and as good people's wery scarce, what I says is, make
the most on 'em, and that's all .about it ! " a sentiment which
appears to afford unlimited satisfaction to those who have
nothing to pay.

It is growing late, and the throng of men, women, and
children, who have been constantly going in and out, dwindles
down to two or three occasional stragglers cold, wretched-
looking creatures, in the last stage of emaciation and disease.
The knot of Irish labourers at the lower end of the place,
who have been alternately shaking hands with, and threaten-
ing the life of each other, for the last hour, become furious
in their disputes, and finding it impossible to silence one
man, who is particularly anxious to adjust the difference,
they resort to the expedient of knocking him down and
jumping on him afterwards. The man in the fur cap, and
the potboy rush out ; a scene of riot and confusion ensues ;
half the Irishmen get shut out, and the other half get shut
in ; the potboy is knocked among the tubs in no time ; the
landlord hits everybody, and everybody hits the landlord;
the barmaids scream; the police come in; the rest is a
confused mixture of arms, legs, staves, torn coats, shouting,
a.nd struggling. Some of the party are borne off to the
station-house, and the remainder slink home to beat their
wives for complaining, and kick the children for daring to
be hungry.

We have sketched this subject very slightly, not only
because our limits compel us to do so, but because, if it were
pursued farther, it would be painful and repulsive. Well-
disposed gentlemen, and charitable ladies, would alike turn
with coldness and disgust from a description of the drunken
besotted men, and wretched broken-down miserable women,
who form no inconsiderable portion of the frequenters of
these haunts ; forgetting, in the pleasant consciousness of their
own rectitude, the poverty of the one, and the temptation
of the other. Gin-drinking is a great vice in England, but
wretchedness and dirt are a greater ; and until you improve


the homes of the poor, or persuade a half-famished wretch
not to seek relief in the temporary oblivion of his own misery,
with the pittance which, divided among his family, would
furnish a morsel of bread for each, gin-shops will increase
in number and splendour. If Temperance Societies would
suggest an antidote against hunger, filth, and foul air, or
couid establish dispensaries for the gratuitous distribution of
bottles of Lethe-water, gin-palaces would be numbered among
the things that were.



OF the numerous receptacles for misery and distress with
which the streets of London unhappily abound, there are,
perhaps, none which present such striking scenes as the
pawnbrokers' shops. The very nature and description of
these places occasions their being but little known, except to
the unfortunate beings whose profligacy or misfortune drives
them to seek the temporary relief they offer. The subject
may appear, at first sight, to be anything but an inviting
one, but we venture on it nevertheless, in the hope that, as
far as the limits of our present paper are concerned, it will
present nothing to disgust even the most fastidious reader.

There are some pawnbrokers' shops of a very superior
description. There are grades in pawning as in everything
else, and distinctions must be observed even in poverty. The
aristocratic Spanish cloak and the plebeian calico shirt, the
silver fork and the flat iron, the mus-lin cravat and the Belcher
neckerchief, would but ill assort together; so, the better sort
of pawnbroker calls himself a silversmith, and decorates his
shop with handsome trinkets and expensive jewellery, while
the more humble money-lender boldly advertises his calling,
and invites observation. It is with pawnbrokers' shops of the
latter class, that we have to do. We have selected one for
our purpose, and will endeavour to describe it.

The pawnbroker's shop is situated near Drury-lane, at the


corner of a court, which affords a side entrance for the
accommodation of such customers as may be desirous of
avoiding the observation of the passers-by, or the chance of
recognition in the public street. It is a low, dirty-looking,
dusty shop, the door of which stands always doubtfully, a
little way open : half inviting, half repelling the hesitating
visitor, who, if he be as yet uninitiated, examines one of the
old garnet brooches in the window for a minute or two with
affected eagerness, as if he contemplated making a purchase ;
and then looking cautiously round to ascertain that no one
watches him, hastily slinks in: the door closing of itself
after him, to just its former width. The shop front and the
window-frames bear evident marks of having been once painted ;
but, what the colour was originally, or at what date it was
probably laid on, are at this remote period questions which
may be asked, but cannot be answered. Tradition states that
the transparency in the front door, which displays at night
three red balls on a blue ground, once bore also, inscribed in
graceful waves, the words " Money advanced on plate, jewels,
wearing apparel, and every description of property," but a
few illegible hieroglyphics are all that now remain to attest
the fact. The plate and jeweb would seem to have disap-
peared, together with the announcement, for the articles of
stock, which are displayed in some profusion in the window,
do not include any very valuable luxuries of either kind. A
few old china cups ; some modern vases, adorned with paltry
paintings of three Spanish cavaliers playing three Spanish
guitars ; or a party of boors carousing : each boor with one
leg painfully elevated in the air, by way of expressing his
perfect freedom and gaiety ; several sets of chessmen, two or
three flutes, a few fiddles, a round-eyed portrait staring in
astonishment from a very dark ground ; some gaudily-bound
prayer-books and testaments, two rows of silver watches quite
as clumsy and almost as large as Ferguson's first ; numerous
old-fashioned table and tea spoons, displayed, fan-like, in half-
dozens ; strings of coral with great broad gilt snaps ; cards of


rings and brooches, fastened and labelled separately, like the
insects in the British Museum ; cheap silver penholders and
snuff-boxes, with a masonic star, complete the jewellery
department; while five or six beds in smeary clouded ticks,
strings of blankets and sheets, silk and cotton handkerchiefs,
and wearing apparel of every description, form the more use-
ful, though even less ornamental, part, of the articles exposed
for sale. An extensive collection of planes, chisels, saws, and
other carpenters' tools, which have been pledged, and never
redeemed, form the foreground of the picture ; while the large
frames full of ticketed bundles, which are dimly seen through
the dirty casement up-stairs the squalid neighbourhood
the adjoining houses, straggling, shrunken, and rotten, with
one or two filthy, unwholesome-looking heads, thrust out of
every window, and old red pans and stunted plants exposed
on the tottering parapets, to the manifest hazard of the
heads of the passers-by the noisy men loitering under the
archway at the corner of the court, or about the gin-shop
next door and their wives patiently standing on the curb-
stone, with large baskets of cheap vegetables slung round
them for sale, are its immediate auxiliaries.

If the outside of the pawnbroker's shop be calculated to
attract the attention, or excite the interest, of the speculative
pedestrian, its interior cannot fail to produce the same effect
in an increased degree. The front door, which we have before
noticed, opens into the common shop, which is the resort of all
those customers whose habitual acquaintance with such scenes
renders them indifferent to the observation of their com-
panions in poverty. The side door opens into a small pas-
sage from which some half-dozen doors (which may be secured
on the inside by bolts) open into a corresponding number of
little dens, or closets, which face the counter. Here, the more
timid or respectable portion of the crowd shroud themselves
from the notice of the remainder, and patiently wait until
the gentleman behind the counter, with the curly black hair,
diamond ring, and double silver watch-guard, shall feel


disposed to favour them with his notice a consummation
which depends considerably on the temper of the aforesaid
gentleman for the time being.

At the present moment, this elegantly-attired individual is
in the act of entering the duplicate he has just made out, in
a thick book : a process from which he is diverted occasionally,
by a conversation he is carrying on with another young man
similarly employed at a little distance from him, whose
allusions to "that last bottle of soda-water last night," and
" how regularly round my hat he felt himself when the young
'ooman gave 'em in charge," would appear to refer to the
consequences of some stolen joviality of the preceding evening.
The customers generally, however, seem unable to participate
in the amusement derivable from this source, for an old sallow-
looking woman, who has been leaning with both arms on the
counter with a small bundle before her, for half an hour pre-
viously, suddenly interrupts the conversation by addressing the
jewelled shopman " Now, Mr. Henry, do make haste, there's
a good soul, for my two grandchildren's locked up at home,
and I'm afeer'd of the fire." The shopman slightly raises his
head, with an air of deep abstraction, and resumes his entry
with as much deliberation as if he were engraving. " You're
in a hurry, Mrs. Tatham, this ev'nin', an't you?" is the only
notice he deigns to take, after the lapse of five minutes or
so. "Yes, I am indeed, Mr. Henry; now, do serve me next,
there's a good creetur. I wouldn't worry you, only it's all
along o' them botherin' children." "What have you got
here ? " inquires the shopman, unpinning the bundle " old
concern, I suppose pair o' stays and a petticut. You must
look up somethin' else, old 'ooman ; I can't lend you anything
more upon them ; they're completely worn out by this time,
if it's only by putting in, and taking out again, three times
a week." " Oh ! you're a rum un, you are," replies the old
woman, laughing extremely, as in duty bound ; " I wish I'd
got the gift of the gab like you ; see if I'd be up the spout
so often then ! No, no ; it an't the petticut ; it's a child's


frock and a beautiful silk ankecher, as belongs to my husband.
He gave four shillin' for it, the werry same blessed day as he
broke his arm." " What do you want upon these ? " inquires
Mr. Henry, slightly glancing at the articles, which in all
probability are old acquaintances. " What do you want
upon these ? " Eighteenpence." " Lend you ninepence."
"Oh, make it a shillin'; there's a dear do now?" "Not
another farden." "Well, I suppose I must take it. The
duplicate is made out, one ticket pinned on the parcel, the
other given to the old woman ; the parcel is flung carelessly
down into a corner, and some other customer prefers his claim
to be served without further delay.

The choice falls on an unshaven, dirty, sottish-looking
fellow, whose tarnished paper-cap, stuck negligently over one
eye, communicates an additionally repulsive expression to
his very uninviting countenance. He was enjoying a little
relaxation from his sedentary pursuits a quarter of an hour
ago, in kicking his wife up the court. He has come to
redeem some tools : probably to complete a job with, on
account of which he has already received some money, if his
inflamed countenance and drunken stagger, may be taken as
evidence of the fact. Having waited some little time, he
makes his presence known by venting his ill-humour on a
ragged urchin, who, being unable to bring his face on a level
with the counter by any other process, has employed himself
in climbing up, and then hooking himself on with his elbows
an uneasy perch, from which he has fallen at intervals,
generally alighting on the toes of the person in his immediate
vicinity. In the present case, the unfortunate little wretch
has received a cuff which sends him reeling to the door ; and
the donor of the blow is immediately the object of general

"What do you strike the boy for, you brute?" exclaims a
slipshod woman, with two flat irons in a little basket. u Do
you think he's your wife, you willin ? " " Go and hang your-
self! 1 ' replies the gentleman addressed, with a drunken look


of savage stupidity, aiming at the same time a blow at the
woman which fortunately misses its object. "Go and hang
yourself; and wait till I come and cut you down." " Cut
you down," rejoins the woman, " I wish I had the cutting of
you up, you wagabond ! (loud.) Oh ! you precious wagabond !
(rather louder.) Where's your wife, you willin ? (louder still ;
women of this class are always sympathetic, and work them-
selves into a tremendous passion on the shortest notice.)
Your poor dear wife as you uses worser nor a dog strike a
woman you a man ! (very shrill ;) I wish I had you I'd
murder you, I would, if I died for it ! " " Now be civil,"
retorts the man fiercely. " Be civil, you wiper ! " ejaculates
the woman contemptuously. " An't it shocking ? " she
continues, turning round, and appealing to an old woman
who is peeping out of one of the little closets we have before
described, and who has not the slightest objection to join in
the attack, possessing, as she does, the comfortable conviction
that she is bolted in. " Ain't it shocking, ma'am ? (Dreadful !
says the old woman in a parenthesis, not exactly knowing
what the question refers to.) He's got a wife, ma'am, as
takes in mangling, and is as 'dustrious and hard-working a
young 'ooman as can be, (very fast) as lives in the back
parlour of our 1 ous, which my husband and me lives in the
front one (with great rapidity) and we hears him a beaten'
on her sometimes when he comes home drunk, the whole
night through, and not only a beaten' her, but beaten' his
own child too, to make her more miserable ugh, you beast !
and she, poor creater, won't swear the peace agin him, nor
do nothin', because she likes the wretch arter all worse
luck ! " Here, as the woman has completely run herself out
of breath, the pawnbroker himself, who has just appeared
behind the counter in a gray dressing-gown, embraces the
favourable opportunity of putting in a word : "Now I won't
have none of this sort of thing on my premises ! " he inter-
poses with an air of authority. " Mrs. Mackin, keep yourself
to yourself, or you don't get fourpence for a flat iron here ;


and Jinkins, you leave your ticket here till you're sober, and
send your wife for them two planes, for I won't have you in
my shop at no price; so make yourself scarce, before I make
you scarcer. 1 "

This eloquent address produces anything but the effect
desired; the women rail in concert; the man hits about him
in all directions, and is in the act of establishing an indis-
putable claim to gratuitous lodgings for the night, when the
entrance of his wife, a wretched worn-out woman, apparently
in the last stage of consumption, whose face bears evident
marks of recent ill-usage, and whose strength seems hardly
equal to the burden light enough, God knows ! of the thin,
sickly child she carries in her arms, turns his cowardly rage
in a safer direction. " Come home, dear," cries the miserable
creature, in an imploring tone ; " do come home, there's a
good fellow, and go to bed." "Go home yourself," rejoins
the furious ruffian. "Do come home quietly," repeats the
wife, bursting into tears. " Go home yourself," retorts the
husband again, enforcing his argument by a blow which sends
the poor creature flying out of the shop. Her "natural
protector" follows her up the court, alternately venting his
rage in accelerating her progress, and in knocking the little
scanty blue bonnet of the unfortunate child over its still more
scanty and faded-looking face.

In the last box, which is situated in the darkest and most
obscure corner of the shop, considerably removed from either
of the gas-lights, are a young delicate girl of about twenty,
and an elderly female, evidently her mother from the re-
semblance between them, who stand at some distance back,
as if to avoid the observation even of the shopman. It is
not their first visit to a pawnbroker's shop, for they answer
without a moment's hesitation the usual questions, put in a
rather respectful manner, and in a much lower tone than
usual, of " What name shall I say ? Your own property, of
course ? Where do you live ? Housekeeper or lodger ? "
They bargain, too, for a higher loan than the shopman is at

VOL. i. u


first inclined to offer, which a perfect stranger would be little
disposed to do ; and the elder female urges her daughter on,
in scarcely audible whispers, to exert her utmost powers of
persuasion to obtain an advance of the sum, and expatiate
on the value of the articles they have brought to raise a
present supply upon. They are a small gold chain and a
" Forget me not " ring : the girl's property, for they are both
too small for the mother ; given her in better times ; prized,
perhaps, once, for the giver's sake, but parted with now with-
out a struggle ; for want has hardened the mother, and her
example has hardened the girl, and the prospect of receiving
money, coupled with a recollection of the misery they have
both endured from the want of it the coldness of old friends
the stern refusal of some, and the still more galling
compassion of others appears to have obliterated the
consciousness of self-humiliation, which the idea of their
present situation would once have aroused.

In the next box, is a young female, whose attire, miserably
poor, but extremely gaudy, wretchedly cold but extravagantly
fine, too plainly bespeaks her station. The rich satin gown
with its faded trimmings, the worn-out thin shoes, and pink
silk stockings, the summer bonnet in winter, and the sunken
face, where a daub of rouge only serves as an index to the
ravages of squandered health never to be regained, and lost
happiness never to be restored, and where the practised smile
is a wretched mockery of the misery of the heart, cannot be
mistaken. There is something in the glimpse she has just
caught of her young neighbour, and in the sight of the little
trinkets she has offered in pawn, that seems to have
awakened in this woman's mind some slumbering recollection,
and to have changed, for an instant, her whole demeanour.
Her first hasty impulse was to bend forward as if to scan
more minutely the appearance of her half-concealed com-
panions ; her next, on seeing them involuntarily shrink from
her, to retreat to the back of the box, cover her face with her
hands, and burst into tears.


There are strange chords in the human heart, which will
lie dormant through years of depravity and wickedness, but
which will vibrate at last to some slight' circumstance
apparently trivial in itself, but connected by some undefined
and indistinct association, with past days that can never be
recalled, and with bitter recollections from which the most

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 26) → online text (page 18 of 31)