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PURSUING our investigations, we select a well-known district, comprising a portion of two other parishes, and often reported on in our pages. As we glance upon the map, we find that the walk we had allotted to ourselves is too large to be taken during the time at our disposal. Reducing the outline, we adopt as our base of operations the broad thoroughfare of Shoreditch extending from the Great Eastern Railway to the foot of Hackney Road, facing eastward thence between the lines of the latter road and the line of railway stretching until both intersect Cambridge Road. Entering Boundary Street at the back of Shoreditch Church, we pass along with some delays until it opens into Bethnal Green road. We traversed several alleys and courts, dirty and dismal, the denizens of which told their own tales in their pallid faces and tattered raiment. Here and about, the pavement of the streets, the flagging of the paths, the condition of the side channels, and the general state of the entries and back-yards are unendurably bad. Let us instance New and Old Nichols Streets, the latter particularly is miserable and melancholy to behold. A showery day gives a vividness to the repulsive features observable. Rags, millboard, an old hat, or newspaper, will be found in this quarter doing duty for a pane of glass. We noticed several sashes here altogether free of panes, but we had no doubt about the aches within. There are many houses in this quarter not in habitable condition, and the back-yards of several are full to overflowing with nastiness and filth. The lanes off Mount Street, formerly Rose Street, as an old sculptured tablet dating from 1723 informs us, are also in a filthy condition, and the channels are unable to discharge themselves, or the sinks to carry off the liquid matter, household slops, or rainpour. At the end of this street, where it leads into Old Castle Street, and abuts against a blind street, the terrible conflagration which we noticed in "The Builder" last autumn occurred. It would appear that neither fire-warnings nor fore-warnings make much impression upon some people; and though they escape with difficulty once or twice, they are still ready for some petty advantage to risk their lives again. The houses that were here completely gutted of floors, windows, and roofs, are now being repaired, and are already occupied; and the large timber-yard, whose close proximity caused all this dreadful havoc, will be soon restocked.
The authorities of Shoreditch or Bethnal Green ought to see that the back wall of the timber-yard is built of sufficient height and thickness to prevent such another accident as the last. There will exist the same danger as before, and perhaps the next time there will be a greater loss of life, if timely precaution be not taken. To give the people at the back of this timber- yard a chance for their lives, a passage should be opened into Newcastle Street, and the street allowed to exist no longer as a blind street. A brick wall alone cuts off egress.
A few yards hence and we are in sight of Columbia Market, - a failure as a meat-market, and only a partial success as a fish-market. What a pity that such a large foundation, begun under such good auspices, and having its inception in such a fine benevolence, has not borne better fruits. Miss Burdett Coutts has, at all events, done her duty nobly; but the public and the poor, who form the largest part thereof, are not easily convinced. Fashion sways them, and prejudice leads them, and sharpers traffic on their credulity.
Opposite Columbia Market, on the Crabtree road, there are streets, lanes, waste spots, and back-yards in a most wretched condition, dilapidated houses, whose shattered doors and windows bear all the appearance of having been once bombarded, and are now tumbling to unmistakable ruin. Passing through an old gateway here, where we had to pick our steps through 6 in. of heavy sludge, we found ourselves in a few moments among a number of old tenements, that no stranger could expect to find in such a place. We wind round an angle, and we find ourselves face to face with more old buildings, with patches of little gardens in front, but quite trodden upon and denuded at this season. Here we find poverty, dirt, and rags. No scraper or besom of Bethnal Green scavenger sweeps in here, nor are the denizens alive to the danger that surrounds them. Their homes are gloomy and bare, and the gravest concern of their lives is how they will be able to "make both ends meet," by Saturday night. We move along, through a narrow passage, that cuts obliquely through the angle of a house, and while thinking what a villainous spot this would be on a dark night, find we are safely emerging into Virginia Row.
Turville and Tyssen Streets are traversed, and the courts and lanes leading therefrom, but the picture is still unrelieved. While here and there we find these back and side streets barely passable and unswept, the narrow alleys and entries, and back-yards, are in a most filthy condition. Club Row, off Bethnal Green-road, has breadth of pavement and footway, but ruin is in full swing in this short street. Here domiciles of five stories may be found propped, and no doubt prayed for, that they may not fall and kill any one. The state of Sclater Street and the lanes and alleys branching therefrom is very bad. At the upper end of this, on a corner-house, a tablet has the following inscription, "This is Sclater Street, 17-18." We need not stop to inquire who was Sclater. All we need say now is, posterity knows Sclater Street, and is shocked at its filthy condition, and that of its courts. Bacon Street has another stone tablet, with the date 1723.
Not long ago a new metropolitan police station was opened. In a crowd outside Bethnal Green Police Court, youth and old age, draggle-tail and drunkard, shameless Amazon and skulking vagabond, will be found congregated. Such a sight we encountered as would beggar all description. Talk of the Whitechapel type of humanity and roughness, Bethnal Green has no necessity to play second fiddle, so far as the elements that compose her street rabble may be analysed. This street exhibition of infamy of all kinds acts as a dangerous example to villainy in the bud. It is a living picture, on which the young mind gloats and hungers to see repeated. The neglected children in our streets thus grow up to manhood reflecting all, and more than all, of what they hear and see, and which, unfortunately, they are not slow to imitate.
Crossing Brick Lane - sacred to costers' barrows and street stalls - we wind along John Street by the Goods Station of the Great Eastern Railway, and thence, turning an angle, we reach Winchester Street. The house property about this quarter is in ruinous condition. The dwellings of the poor are low and mean, and the general character of the buildings as structures are of the "Jerry" type. If the rent can be screwed out of the tenants around here, the landlord ought to be thankful. These wretched tenements have been doctored to death, and they are now bursting asunder in sheer rottenness. Southampton Street and London Street have roadways and footways of the very worst type, and on the day of our visit they were almost impassable swamps. The footways were nearly as bad as the streets. The drainage here is no doubt very bad, and in rainy weather inundation in the street is the consequence; but here as elsewhere in the district, as we will show, no attempt is made at keeping the thoroughfare in repair. In this quarter, the Great Eastern Railway Extension will curve off, and sweep round by the top of Hackney Road. At the head of Three Colts Lane, dilapidations are in full swing in the line of railway, and the tenements here and about are miserable structures. Poverty and sickness are rife, and foulness and filth abundant.
The streets on each side of Old Bethnal Green Road we found in an abominably dirty condition. Minerva Street, - sludge, heaps of filth and ashes unremoved; Hope Street, Treadery Street, Temple Street, Charles Street, - all miserable, and here wretched attempts at repairs had been a-making, with an odd barrow of stones flung into the ruts. We went through some long passages or lanes leading off Old Bethnal Green-road, where rows of houses with little gardens before them may be seen. The roadway was deep with sludge, and the gardens in some instances but receptacles for all sorts of refuse. Perhaps the summer aspect might be different. The lanes parallel to this, and at right angles, are filthy, and heaps of unremoved dirt are in abundance.
Off Bethnal Green Road proper we found many streets and lanes in a similarly neglected condition. In the back and low places are choked drains, inundation, and heaps of unremoved refuse. In White Street and its offsets, and Derbyshire Street, there was no end of sludge, and not a scavenger or sweeper to be seen anywhere. Round about this quarter a great many poor are located, eking out a subsistence in making articles of household use for children, costermongers, wood-splitters, chair-carvers, pill-box makers, and several other shop and house articles for sundry uses, the profits from which enable them to keep body and soul together. Granby Street, Gosset Street, Thorold Square, Nelson Street, Essex Street, Gibraltar Walk, and the lanes, courts, and streets leading off these places, we found in an unclean and filthy condition. In all our walks about Bethnal Green, we did not meet more than half a dozen scavengers at work. Gibraltar Walk dips down into a hollow from Bethnal Green Road, and here and there are brokers, furniture-dealers, bird-fanciers, and cage-makers. If their health is good, they must have iron constitutions. The Bethnal Green vestry ought to take a walk round this quarter, and see whether its condition will have any effect on stirring them into action; but these last-named places are beauty itself compared with other unmentionable localities, where the "social evil" and the small-pox are killing bodies and damning souls together.
The epidemic is raging and increasing in virulence in many of the districts we passed through, hinging on one side to Hackney and on the other to Shoreditch, and we had great difficulty in obtaining information, from the reluctance of parties to allow any of their family to be sent to the hospital. In certain quarters we found the poor people entered into "a solemn league and covenant" to render no information to visiting officers, if they suspected them as such. They choose to nurse the small-pox at home, and in many instances they doggedly refuse to let their children be vaccinated. It is curious to hear their reasons and the foolish notions they entertain. In some instances, they have a show of reason upon their side; for we find that some few medical men have not taken particular care with the cases they have attended. The health and general constitution of the patient operated upon ought to be known. Fresh and healthy matter is a necessity, that the eruption may be perfect. If the poor are not properly vaccinated the rich will assuredly, through one channel or another, eventually suffer.
From the corner of Gibraltar Walk to Shoreditch the Bethnal Green Road requires to be widened several feet. The increasing traffic of this thoroughfare, - the ready and direct access to the new East London Museum, in course of completion, - necessitates it. The drainage of a large portion of the Bethnal Green district is very defective, and the back lanes and courtyard fountains exist in many places as a nuisance surrounded by nuisances. Many of them are most dismal spouts.
Old weather-boarded houses on the front, and half-timbered ones, are numerous in the district, and they are sources of danger in case of fire. The many small furniture workshops and timber-yards on all sides of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch are another element of danger, and ought to lead to the perfectness of an efficient and ever-ready fire-brigade for the district.
To sum up the general condition of the portion of Bethnal Green district we passed over would be to simply say, Bethnal Green is in a most disgraceful and neglectful condition, and has been so for years. Some of the predisposing causes of this state we have already shown, others are to be found in the long-protracted squabbles of its local boards. This charge also applies equally strongly to Shoreditch, and in a minor degree to Hackney. Some of the local organs are also to blame for fanning up and keeping alive factious quarrels between opposing parties. Instead of catering for the wants of the poor of the parish, and directing the whole of their energies to counteract the spread of a serious epidemic, we have the members of three local boards leaping at each others' throats, and acting more like savages than Christians. Need we wonder that fever stalks abroad, that people sicken and die, amidst streets and lanes full of filth; that prostitution and destitution, abomination and desolation, curse the earth. How can it be otherwise? Have we not seen honest men who have raised their voices and taken up their pen to strive against this fearful torrent of vice and filth denounced, held up to the fool's scorn, and the knave's laughter. Death, however, strikes indiscriminately, and the arm that is often stretched in relief, and the hand that is raised to strike down, are palsied together.
In dealing with the localities we have passed under review, we have been compelled to leave out minute details, and numerous sad recitals of suffering and want which we encountered. From what we have seen, heard, and carefully examined we are justified in pronouncing judgment as we have done.