The American novelist Herman Melville (1819 – 1891) observed that “there are two places in the world where men can most effectively disappear – the city of London and the South Seas.”
There can be no doubt that, should anyone wish to seemingly vanish off the face of the earth, then Victorian London, with its ever-expanding population, was the perfect place to do so.
But, what was it like for the relatives of those who vanished without a trace in the 19th-century metropolis?
What resources were available to them in order to help them trace their missing friends or relatives?
The following story, dealing with just this issue, appeared in The Graphic on Saturday, 25th November, 1882:-
A SEARCH FOR A FRIEND
“The Inspector handed me a large volume, loosely bound: “Have a look through this, sir, to begin with.”
This, turned out to be an album, of the kind used by the Stereoscopic Company for celebrities and professional beauties, containing photographs of the unknown and unclaimed dead.
Each card was dated and numbered, and referred back to a book where all the details of the finding of the body were entered and tabulated.
THE WOMEN IN THE PHOTOGRAPHS
“No. 23, on information from the H Division of police,” dated 23rd March in the present year, I find on investigation to be the photograph of a woman aged about sixty, found in the River Lea, with the marks on her clothing and person fully described for future identification.
There are men and women in the book of all ages and ranks.
Some from the fineness of feature plainly well-educated; some smiling as though glad to go; some sneering in contempt of life and the cowards who dare not leave it; some frowning, hateful, desperate, disfigured; some talkative to the last, with the loquacity of alcohol; one, alert and intelligent, peeping from behind a curtain as though at bo-peep with death.
Between the women, as far as I could judge, there did not seem to be the same disparities – they were more of an age and a kind, more tired-looking, more peaceful; for the most part lying back with the aspect of complete fatigue after the long struggle, and with the air of thankfulness for the final rest.
THE ELEGANT LADY
Among them all, there is one face really beautiful and refined. It is plainly that of a lady, of about two or three-and-thirty, with features of a very spirituelle and elegant shape, and fine crimped dark hair.
She lies back in her coffin with as much grace as though her head reposed on a frilled pillow marked with her monogram, and her lips are closed with the light ease of a woman whose talk is simple and charming. No lines, no marks of care, no signs of perturbation or distress.
How comes it that she lies among the unknown dead, that of all her sorrows and her joys there remains only the meagre, “No. 29, on information from the M Division, June 15th, 1882?”
THE MISSING FRIEND
With a deep sense of relief I came to the last, and closed the book.
There was nothing there in the least resembling my friend.
Where now? I silently interrogated the Inspector.
What was next to be done?
HE HAD ARRIVED AT WATERLOO
On being assured that my friend had arrived at Waterloo Station, I had at once set to work to discover what had become of him since (a fortnight ago) he left his luggage in the cloak-room and went to the Grand Hotel to engage a room.
As to whether he ever reached the hotel we could not be sure; neither the porter nor the people in the office could swear to the description I gave.
So many young Frenchmen came there daily; and besides, in the bustle of people leaving the table d’hote, their attention was not very firmly fixed on a young man requiring a bedroom on the third or fourth floor.
Certainly, he did not appear to have slept there, nor could we from I that moment gain any information about him.
The problem was how to hunt out from among four or five millions of people a young fellow who at seven o’clock in the evening leaves his portmanteaus in the cloak-room at Waterloo and thenceforward disappears.
A DESCRIPTION CIRCULATED
First, to communicate a complete and accurate description to every police station in the country.
From Scotland Yard my friend’s appearance and peculiarities were telegraphed and distributed throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.
From each centre thus informed the police set to work.
In London every hotel and restaurant-keeper had one of the bills; and, with his senses sharpened by the reward offered, eyed his guests narrowly.
A WATCH KEPT EVERYWHERE
Waiters and booking-office clerks, chambermaids and porters – all were interrogated; stations, theatres, even the public-houses – all were watched.
For ten days I waited, each day expecting some scrap of news, some clue.
Nothing but disappointments, nothing but blind trails, nothing but interviews with complete strangers; while the luggage with the fresh labels of the hotels at Rouen and
Havre still waited in the cloak-room.
WHAT IS NEXT?
Where now? I silently interrogated the Inspector. What is next to be done?
High life and middle life have failed, why not try low life?
Not at the Continental, the Langham, or the Grand; perhaps (a last hope) at St. George’s-in-the-East.
THE JOLLY SAILORS
Not at the Aquarium, the Pavilion, or the Criterion; perhaps at the Prussian Blue or the Jolly Sailors.
At the Jolly Sailors the band above the bar is playing a schottische; and the potboy, in a knitted jacket, is doing an elaborate step variation that is much envied and applauded.
Masters of the ceremony, with their sleeves tucked up, stand in the centre of the room, at once to keep order and provide liquor.
The evening is so warm that the number of the dancers is comparatively few, composed mostly of Italian and Spanish sailors, beginning slowly to waltz with women in white print dresses and coloured sashes; while against the walls sit others stupidly looking on over their beer, white-faced boys and shifty men in dirty caps and dingy plaid ties.
It is a scene of dull debauchery, recalling more than anything Teniers’ “Boors’ Rejoicing.”
Most of the men are “trips,” “mackerel,” or “crimps;” most of the women hideous and disreputable specimens of the lowest class of Eniglish, Germans, and Dutch.
It is not an uncommon thing for the assembly to be temporarily broken up to watch a match with knives on the pavement outside.
NO SIGN ANYWHERE
My friend plainly has not been beguiled into this haunt of pleasure, with noisy deal floor and reverberating cornet overhead; nor into any of the others we visit.
Nor is he sleeping in the union casual-ward, where the casuals lie wrapped in their dusky blankets, stretched on their hammocks in all the grotesque contortions of uneasy sleep, grinding their teeth, and breathing like dragons guarding treasures; nor does he lie in the mortuary among the paupers awaiting burial, in plain coffins, with their names and ages on black-edged cards on the lid; nor in the little room next the post-mortem slab, where lie the remains of a Russian Jewess and her son, poisoned that morning with cyanide of potassium.
SEARCHING THE LODGING HOUSES
Lastly, and, as I confess to myself, as a forlorn hope – the lodging-houses.
It is past midnight, and the last public-house is closed, and the last half-pint is drunk.
The night is so warm and fine that sleep is the last thing that seems to enter into the thoughts of the men, women, and children crowding the narrow streets where our steps now lie. They stand and sit about, leaning against the discoloured walls and doorposts, smoking, crying, shrieking, and blaspheming.
There is a knot of them round the door of the first house we enter, who make way for us with much apparent humility, and some few sidelong curses.
The deputy in charge is summoned to our assistance, and questioned; he makes a parade of his authority by waking a couple of dock labourers asleep at full length on the kitchen benches, and, that done, is at our service.
NO ONE ANSWERS HIS DESCRIPTION
The house is not very full, he tells me, so many being away harvesting; certainly, he knows no one approaching in appearance the gentleman I describe.
A vain hope, as I thought; still, for form’s sake we examine the dormitories, and pass quietly through the white-washed rooms, and thence descending the ricketty stairs repeat our search in other similar abodes.
They are all alike, the same talkative fuddled men in the kitchens, the same few sleepers upstairs – nowhere any signs of him we were in search of.
THE SHUDDERING BABY
In the last, where places are set apart for married couples, the deputy pushes open a door and points to a little heap lying huddled in the centre of a large bed.
It is a white-faced and bald-headed baby, with colourless lips and mauve circles round the eyes.
It shudders, and shakes, and quivers, as though a premature subject of nightmare, or, perhaps, with so tiny a child, of nightpony, and from the tear on its poor thin cheek it has plainly cried itself to a deserted and lonely sleep.
Its dirty little clothes lie about on the foot of the bed, or are hanging against the partition.
“Mother’s out,” hoarsely whispers the deputy; “in presently, I dessay.”
ANOTHER FAILED ATTEMPT
It was past one o’clock, and nothing remained but to go home with the record of another failure.
The moon was getting low, and threw long shadows down the Whitechapel Road and along the glistening City pavements.
My thoughts, as I passed along the silent Strand in a swift night hansom, could not help straying to the luggage still lying unclaimed in the station hard by.”