A Whitechapel Boozing Ken

In 1872 Parliament passed a new Licensing Act, which enacted various regulations and offences relating to alcohol, particularly licensing of premises and their opening hours, notably on Sunday mornings, the one day when the working classes had been able to enjoy their pints after a hard week’s labour.

Inevitably, people found all manner of ingenious ruses to get around the new – and extremely unpopular – regulations an illegal drinking dens – or “kens” – flourished in the working districts of the big towns and cities.

Whitechapel, with its huge working class population had its fair share of these drinking dens, and, in September, 1872, the investigative journalist James Greenwood, managed to gain admission to one.

A portrait of James Greenwood.
James Greenwood


The East London Observer, published his account of his experience in its edition of Saturday, 14th September, 1872:-

There was nothing in the least attractive about it: and unless your attention had been particularly directed towards it, as mine has been, you might have passed up and down the shabby little Whitechapel back street in which it was situated, and observed in it nothing in the least remarkable.

It was just an ordinary barber’s shop, the front parlour of one of a row of small houses, with a striped pole jutting out above the doorway, and a window-board, on which was innocently inscribed, “Shaving, 1d.; hair cut, 2d.” By the side of the board was a glass bottle, containing some amber-coloured fluid, stopped with a tin funnel instead of a cork, and bearing about its neck a label intimating “Hair oil in ha’porths and pen’orths.”

Nothing else.

If the barber was a professor, he was too modest to parade the distinction. If he was the inventor or vendor of any miraculous preparation either for banishing grey hair or for promoting early whiskers on the cheek of ambitious youth, there were no outward signs of his enjoying’ so valuable a possession.

Yet the extent of his trade was wonderful.


It was Sunday morning, and the church bells, which had just commenced ringing, denoted the time of day to be eleven o’clock; but it was evident that very many of the residents of Little Swallow-street and its neighbourhood were not even shaved yet.

It was curious to note how undecided many of those for whom the striped pole served as a beacon appeared to be as to whether they should be shaved or not.

They would shamble leisurely down Little Swallow-street in twos and threes, and when they reached the barber’s they would pause and look left and right, pass their hand musingly over their stubbly chins, and then turn swiftly in at the little door, as though acting on the well-considered conviction that it was, after all, the best thing to do.


I went in with the rest. I had not the courage to be shaved. I had previously witnessed the operation in similar establishments, and had a sickening dread of that shaving-brush, like nothing much in size and texture as two or three tufts plucked from an ordinary half-worn hearth-broom.

I must confess to rooted antipathy for the soap-bowl and the soap contained in it – bristling as both were with spiky atoms of men’s beards, red, brown, and grey, to an extent which suggested the idea that they had been plentifully sprinkled with bakers’ raspings.

I felt that I dare not be shaved, I resolved to have my hair cut – just the ends taken off.


There were forms and chairs for the barber’s customers to sit on, and these they occupied with fair regard for the “next turn.”

There were so many customers waiting their next turn that the front parlour was unequal to their accommodation, and they had brimmed over into the back parlour, which was the barber’s bedchamber as well as his living room.

This, however, was an advantage rather than otherwise, because the turn-up bedstead, for the occasion turned down, served as a seat for eight or ten of us.


It was an uncomfortable, frowsy little den; the barber’s two little children and the baby were squalling and fighting on the ground; and the turning down of the bedstead had pressed the barber’s wife into a corner, where, at table partly occupied by unwashed cups and saucers and the heads and bones of the bloaters on which the family had regaled at breakfast time, she was busily engaged in cutting up steak and rolling out dough for a meat pie.

She seemed not in the least embarrassed by the presence of the ten men sitting along the edge of the bedstead, neither did they at having to sit there.

They smoked and talked, or read the newspaper, and that in the midst of dirt and muddle that at home would have been altogether unbearable, with a degree of equanimity and good humour that was inexplicable.


Until you found out the reason why. This was the key to the mystery.

The barber and his two assistants polished off their customers at the rate of three in ten minutes, and as soon a man was shaved, and had paid his penny, the barber said to him, “Would you like to go through and see the scarlet runners this morning?” To which singular question the man promptly, as though he had expected it, replied, “Well, I don’t care if I do.”

Then the barber remarked to the lathering boy, whose business it was to keep a couple of customers constantly ready napkined and soaped for the razor, “Joe, show him through.”

Whereupon Joe accompanied the shaven one to the back-door of the house, and unlocked it; and so the customer vanished.


In one instance, a man, whom nobody seemed to know was shaved, and the barber took his penny and said “Thanky,” and nothing else; on which the customer remarked, in an injured tone, “Can’t I see the beans.”

“What beans?” says the barber innocently.

“Oh, it’s all right,” remarked another customer, ” It’s all right, Mr. Popshort, I’ll go bail for him.”

“That will do, then,” rejoined the barber, motioning Joe, “but how was I to know?”

I began to rejoice that I had not made my mind to be shaved.


The scarlet runners were no mystery to me, as I had, a few days before, made the acquaintance of a person who had, Sunday after Sunday, watched their growth from the time when they first pushed their green heads through the earth; but, for all that, I was not a bona fide bean fancier.

I was a spy and traitor; and, though a man may carry his countenance very well under the generality of trying circumstances, it is an awkward matter to do so in the hands of the enemy who wields a keen razor, and who has you fixed in a chair with your arms helplessly swathed in a cloth, and your head tilted back till the skin of your throat is tightly stretched.

An assault with a pair of scissors is far from pleasant; but I had a good chance of avoiding even this penalty, inasmuch as during the process of taking the ends of my hair off, my head would be bowed, and the barber would not have much opportunity for reading guilt in my face.

Besides, I had come provided with a weapon that would disarm suspicion. I was to ask if “Old Bailey” had been there that morning. There was magic in the words. As the barber gave me my fourpence change out of sixpence, he looked as innocent of scarlet runners growing in his garden as though it were the depth of winter.

“Has Old Bailey been here this morning? ” I asked.

His manner altered at once. “He’ll be here, presently, I dare say,” said he, cheerily. “Will you have a look at the scarlet runners?”


Joe let me out into the yard, where a few strings of the celebrated vegetables were trained to go against the palings. But they were nothing to look at, and they were never meant to be looked at.

At the end of the yard there was a door ajar; having the clue, I pushed it open, and found myself in a woodchopper’s shed.

Passing through this, I came to a low wall, with a chair close to it to make it easier to climb over; and, having performed this feat, there I was within a few yards of another back door, very near which was a young man cleaning pewter-pots.

“Straight through,” said the young man, and, in a twinkling, I found myself in the taproom of the “Hare and Weazel;” where were already assembled at least five-and-twenty young men and old, who, judging from their clean-shaven visages, had one and all been invited by Mr. Popshort to view his scarlet runners.

This was the explanation of all mystery, all the manoeuvring.


The “Hare and Weazel” was a public-house at which provided he had a mind to undergo the ordeal above described, a man might enjoy the privilege of setting the law at defiance, and indulging in malt and spirituous liquors “on the sly'”during prohibited hours on Sunday morning.

To be sure, it was not a very splendid reward after so much trouble. The place was villainously dirty and uncomfortable. There was scarcely a form or a chair to sit on, and the landlord could not have shown himself more tyrannical had we been dungeon captives, and he our gaoler.

Talking above a whisper met with instant rebuke, and any man who dared to laugh was threatened with peremptory expulsion.

“I aint a-goin’ to get into trouble because you lot,” angrily protested the landlord. “You know it’s agin the law. I shouldn’t be surprised if the was the perlice at the keyhole this minnit.”

But no one turned pale at the intimation of this alarming possibility. On the contrary, it seemed to give a zest to the illicit proceeding, and the secret company took long pulls at their pewter pots, and winked their satisfaction as they passed the measure to their neighbours.


It was an awfully good joke this, defying the police under their very noses – to engage in a deed of daring, the penalty of which, should it be discovered, would be certain fine or imprisonment.

It meant much more than appeared on the surface. It meant that as men and Britons we were determined, at the risk of forfeiting our liberty, to uphold our right to drink beer on a Sunday morning, never mind what it cost us.

And, to do him justice, the landlord exerted himself heroically to enable us to exercise to the utmost the virtue of pecuniary sacrifice in the good cause.

He had no common porter on tap; no fourpenny ale – no sixpenny,, even. It was all eightpenny; and drawn from the wood, mind you- so as to avoid the dangerous noise that raising it from the cellar by means of the beer-pulls would make.

A group of people drinking outside a pub.
Victorian Drinkers Outside A Beer Shop on Whitechapel Road.


Perhaps it was this drawing it from the wood that gave the eightpenny such a foreign flavour. Not a strong flavour by any means, but the landlord made merit of this. “‘Taint likely,” said he, “that’s because it’s genuwine, and hain’t had nothing added to it; you might drink pailful and not find a headache in it.”

Judging from its singular mild flavour, the gin also might have been drawn from the wood, even from the rain-water butt that stood in the yard; but it was the purest Old Tom, the landlord assured us, and on that account he charged us seven pence a quartern for it.


During the next hour, so many of Mr. Popshort’s customers were anxious to view his scarlet runners that the taproom of the “Hare and Weazel” became choke full; and the landlord, who added a delicious contraband flavour to all he brought us by adopting a free-and-easy undress, consisting of trousers, dirty shirt, and slippers only, found enough to do in supplying our demands.

Whatever he handed in at the guarded door was accompanied by a “Hush!” and a laying of his forefinger on his lips, enjoining to secrecy and silence; so that the thirty or forty of us, huddling together in the stifling heat of that nasty-smelling little den, drank and replenished our pots and glasses with as much stealthy, malicious glee, as though the cellars of the Chief Commissioners of Police himself were under process of pillaging, and we were draining them dry.


We conversed in whispers, and the most natural thing in the world was that our favourite theme should be the new Licensing Act.

Said one man, who seemed bent on practically testing the landlord’s assertion that there was not a headache in a whole pailful of the eightpenny, “This is summat like the whole times, this. Why, we ain’t had such a muster here on a Sunday morning, ah, not for months.”

“And we shouldn’t now”, remarked another, “if it wasn’t for them coming down sudden with that there Act. Well, it’s only fair that everybody should have a turn. Them there publicans out in the Green-lanes and them places just far enough into the country for Sunday morning walk have had a tidy spell of it with their bony fidy travellers. They bony-fidy’s ’em when they ketches’em, don’t they?”

“Sure they do, but it’s a pity, I think. I like to be neighbourly, of course; but I certainly used to like that stroll out atween the hedges before dinner on a Sunday morning. It did a cove good, there’s no mistake about that; but a man who’s used to his half-pint at eleven can’t do a baking walk in the, sun and go without it.”

“‘Tain’t likely,” said everybody.

“But don’t you think that it’s just a spurt and will blow over in a month or so? They’ll soon be sick of taking advantage of the precious fog that hangs about that Act, and snaring in the same net them wot says they is travellers and them wot serves ’em because they believes that they is.”

“I don’t believe it. It’s much more likely that them that keeps public-houses a little way out in the country, where Sunday morning travellers are in the habit of calling, will get that aggravated by the police being down on ’em that they’ll cut the Sunday trade altogether and keep their houses shut.”


“Why, it stands to sense that they will,” spoke the landlord of the “Hare and Weazel” – at that moment handing in and taking the money for a half-a-pint of gin and two pots of eightpenny –  “and a good thing too. It’ll put a stopper on them that’s jolly fond of walking off to take their Sunday morning’s pint in the fields and medders, and never caring a button how their neighbours are to live. All right. I’ve got my eye on’em. It’ll rather astonish ’em, when they come here a Sunday morning for me to ablige ’em, and I tell ’em to go and have a look at the green leaves instead. Them and their ‘umbuggin’ green leaves. Give me a good summer cabbage – them’s green leaves enough for me, and if they ain’t, and my appetite was another tickler in the afternoon, I can always fall back on  watercress.

This noble sentiment elicited loud whispers of applause; and the man who had expressed his liking for a walk between the country hedges, feeling that he, perhaps, was the individual the landlord had his retributive eye on, ordered a conciliatory quartern of rum, and when the landlord had fetched it and had condescendingly drank a glass of it, he further enlightened us as to what were his opinions on the clause of the new Act that dealt with Sunday trading during prohibited hours.


“Live and let live, that’s my motto,” said the landlord.

“All except for teetotallers,” remarked a sneak, who a little before had “stuck up” a pint till next day.

“Teetotallers included,” replied the landlord of the “Hare and Weazle,” magnanimously; “they’ve done me many a good turn, and never better than when they passed the Act that stopped the Sunday morning out in the country.”

“I approve of their principles,” continued the landlord, bestowing a grin and a wink on the company generally.

“It is a scandalous thing to see the doors – the front doors mind you! – of a public-house open on Sunday morning on any pretence whatever. If fellows will indulge in the vicious habit of insisting on their pint on Sunday morning as well as on any other, they should keep it dark, and not make their vulgarity as public as people coming from church make their hymnbooks and that. If they must drink – and mind you, they will do that, open or sly, if they take it into their heads to do it – why let ’em keep the secret to themselves, and call at Popshort’s for a comfortable shave and -”


What else did not transpire, for at this moment an authoritative rapping was heard at the front door, and at that same moment the potboy made his appearance with a pail.

Without apology he seized every measures on the tables and emptied it into that receptacle; and in a twinkling he gathered up every pot and measure and vanished with them to regions below.

“Out you go. Sharp’s the word. Hook it over the wall. Good luck t’ ye-!”

And so, ignominiously dismissed, we tumbled over the wall into the wood-chopping shed, and thence made our way to where the scarlet-runners grew, and so, one- at a time, through the barber’s shop, and out into Little Swallow-street.

I could not help thinking, as the majority of our company went hiccuping and staggering along, that if this was one of the inevitable results of preventing men from buying and drinking a pint of beer openly and honestly on the country wayside on a Sunday morning, the sooner we amend the new Act to which the mischief is attributable the better will it be for all parties concerned.”