Walter Besant on East London

Large and heavy as this old hardback was, it was also a quick read and a most infuriating one (though I enjoyed the illustrations a great deal). I can see why Rector J.G. Birch of St Anne’s Limehouse felt impelled to pen a book about his own neighbourhood in response to this and the vileness of Thomas Burke. It is, of course, also full of great quotes to take issue with and contrast to other works on the East End, so I’ve collected the ones that struck me most here as signposts, to return to in future and tear apart properly.

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Walter Besant opens with this broad description of what East London is — fairly innocuous to start with:

…it is not a city by organisation; it is a collection of overgrown villages lying side by side. It had, until this year (1900), no center, no heart, no representative body, no mayor, no aldermen, no council, no wards; it has not inherited Folk’s Mote, Hustings, or Ward Mote; it has therefore no public buildings of its own. (8)

there are no hotels, he writes: ‘Actually, no hotels!’ (9) That is, in fact, quite interesting when you think about how people move from town to town looking for work, perhaps visiting family. I wonder if he discounts lodging houses here, it seems unlikely to me that this should be true. For further investigation.

This crowded area, this multitude of small houses, this aggregation of mean streets–these things are the expression and the consequence of an expansion of industries during the last seventy years on a very large and unexpected scale; East London suddenly sprang into existence because it was unexpectedly wanted. (9-10)

In this, it seems to me perhaps he has in mind Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets, it certainly chimes with both his title and description. I initially felt quite charitable towards Besant running the People’s Palace, a most splendid name for an institution I thought, I need to know more! I have not yet found out much more. But Morrison worked under Besant on its journal, which makes the below even more curious and insulting:

Some twelve years ago I was the editor of a weekly sheet called the “People’s Palace Journal.” In that capacity I endeavoured to encourage literary effort, in the hope of lighting on some unknown and latent genius…I discovered, to my amazement, that, among all the thousands of these young people, lads and girls, there was not discoverable the least rudimentary indication of any literary power whatsoever. (13-14)

I suppose he is excluding Morrison himself from this description but Morrison did come from these streets himself and his writing is impressive I think. I have a novel by Besant on my list to read still, but I am not impressed with his style and doubt he holds any capacity to judge working class voices. But the why of that is demonstrated through this series of quotes really.ย  Back to monotony:

What appearance does it present to the visitor? There is, again, in this respect as well, no other city in the world in the least like East London for the unparalleled magnitude of its meanness and its monotony. It contains about five hundred miles of streets, perhaps more…

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From the point of view of the visitor:

The Unlovely City, he calls it [the traveller], the City of Dreadful Monotony! Well, in one sense it is all that the casual traveler understands, yet that is only the shallow, hasty view. Let me try to show that it is a city full of human passions and emotions, human hopes and fears, love and the joys of love… (16)

In thinking about topophilia, the impact of space on human beings and how they shape and are shaped by it I am curiously struck by the idea of the Unlovely City, though not in the sense that Besant discusses it as despite this seeming defense of its residents and their unique passions — it is patronising and soon breaks down when they start demanding too much. Still, most of the illustrations seem to show what to my mind is a fairly liveable city, and I love the great masts that must have always been in the background:

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But perhaps its principal illustrator, Joesph Pennell, just found Limehouse picturesque and fun to draw unlike much of the rest. Brook St was a centre of life and community in Limehouse and no longer exists:

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I did like the chapter, playing on the Unlovely City, titled ‘The City of Many Crafts’ — and he goes on to list them from the days there was still work here. Silk trade, bootmaking, factories, furniture and bootmaking, fur and leather dressing…all of them now gone. they brought vitality that the City of London lacked, as people lived near where they worked, the streets did not clear on weekends but remained full of life. ‘it is a city of the working-classes’ he writes. (28)

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There is a colourful passage on Billingsgate Fishwomen, which makes me admire them in a way slightly distinct to Walter Besant’s intention I think, especially as I hate descriptions ofย  labour as picturesque. I also hate this mawkish sentimentality over what is gone as though it’s somehow a natural process, I suspect made more picturesque through existing only in memory rather than as living breathing cursing women:

They were as strong, also, physically, as men, even of their own class; they could wrestle and throw most men; if a visitor offended one of them she ducked him in the river; they all smoked pipes like men, and they drank rum and beer like men; they were a picturesque part of the market…Alas! the market knows them no more. … we all have our little day; she has enjoyed her’s, and it is all over and past. (55)

He is, however,ย  as Birch noted, mostly insulting to those along the river:

…the people left to themselves, grew year by year more lawless, more ignorant, more drunken, more savage…The whole of the riverside population, including not only the bargemen and porters, but the people ashore, the dealers in drink, the shopkeepers, the dealers in marine stores, were joined and banded together in an organized system of plunder and robbery. (48)

This illustration shows Limehouse as it perhaps once was, one of its so-called thieving lazy shiftless workers in the foreground (though possibly it’s just that he hasn’t eaten for a few days, though he does look well fed):

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Walter Besant talks approvingly about the increased control of the docks, fences, body searches:

I am sorry that we have no record of the popular feeling on the riverside when it became at last understood that there was no longer any hope, that honesty had actually become compulsory…For the first time these poor injured people felt the true curse of labor. (52)

Could anything make me first laugh and then rage more than this sentence? There is so much documentation (see Harkness or Stafford) of how terrible dock work was, how it was work of last resort with its uncertain hours, its desperate daily competition for positions and need for constant readiness with starvation when you failed to obtain a place, its backbreaking work. It was widely understood to be the work that killed you the fastest.

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That sentence is really unforgiveable. His further thoughts on factory girls are almost as bad:

They work from early morning till welcome evening. The music of this murmur, rightly understood, is like the soft and distant singing of a hymn of praise. For the curse of labor has been misunderstood; without work man would be even as the beasts of the field. It is the necessity of work that makes him human… (115)

This was obviously written by a man who had not himself worked in a factory of the time, suffered phossy jaw or died early from lungs full of lint or lost a limb loading ships. It also means he does not understand one of the the other true curses of labour beyond early illness, injury and death: Bosses:

Meantime, the factory people are as careful about their girls as can be expected. They insist on their making a respectable appearance and wearing a hat….There is a good deal of paternal kindliness in the London employer…(141)

They didn’t give them the hats sadly, and this sentence is not mitigated by being followed by a patronising sentence on strikes, even given that it is a nod to the fabulous matchwomen’s strike.ย  There follows more on the lads, the problems they face since their working hours have been reduced from 12 hours and bedtime at dark, giving them too much time on their hands.

…he has four hours, perhaps five, to get through every evening…What is that boy to do?

If lucky they join one of the boys’ clubs, ‘work of their restlessness and get rid of the devil in the gymnasium with the boxing gloves…they become infected with some of the upper-class ideals, especially as regards honor and honesty, purity and temperence… (172)

That’s quite vomitous as well. I’m trying to think of novels or description of virtuous young male aristocrats who do not drink, sleep around, gamble or dock owners and merchants who are not ruthless and mercenary…I am at a loss. But I like the verb ‘infected’ in this sentence.

I laughed at his horror that these young men love the penny dreadfuls, imagine! Earlier he stated they didn’t read at all, so clearly he classes this literature as below contempt.

There is an archaic and awkward chapter on the ‘Alien’ — it starts with the huguenots, contains some uncomfortable words on the Jews.

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He visits an opium den and is disappointed by a fair sized room ‘neither dreadful nor horrible’. (206) He writes

There are small colonies and settlements of other foreigners. Anarchists make little clubs where murders are hatched, especially murders of foreign sovereigns… (206)

That made me laugh as well…

There is a chapter on the Houseless — the great throng of them. He mentions the new LCC development in Bethnal Green — describes 5000 people turned out of their homes, moving to other districts already overcrowded and most unable to return.

He also has a curious chapter on ‘the Submerged’ — like the ‘Unlovely City’ this category is one that I find actually incredibly useful, even if only for the thoughts it provokes. It essentially describes those who have fallen in life and stay down at the bottom listless, unable to lift themselves.

Not the tramp, nor the sturdy rogue, nor the professional criminal, nor the vile wretches who live by the vilest trades, may be numbered among the submerged. They fall noiselessly from their place of honor, they live noiselessly in their place of dishonor; they might perhaps be brought back to work, but the cases of recovery must be very few in proportion, because the causes which dragged them down are those which prevent them from being dragged up (250).

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This describes those suffering addiction, mental illness, what we would now call ptsd…there are so many different reasons people end up surviving on the streets.

There is quite a lovely illustration of a women’s workhouse which captures a little more of the gloom and the discomfort and the despair that Mary Higgs‘ more clinical descriptions couldn’t quite manage:

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Besant finishes with a few chapters on the East End’s old villages now suburbs, Hackney and more…I might have filled posts on those if I knew them better but have left them to one side. If I end up finding a new flat somewhere out there perhaps I will return to it. There is a cluster of interesting things about Ratcliff however, and a long description of where I now work, so that will fill a new post at some point.

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