With Christmas rapidly approaching, let us go on a journey back to the East End of London, to join the people of the district as they go Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve 1885.
Our trusty guide for our time-travelling excursion is a reporter from The Pall Mall Gazette, whose experiences of the shops, stalls and people in festive mood were published in the journal on Saturday, 26th December, 1885:-
CHRISTMAS AT THE EAST END
“Going into the East-end on the eve of the great Christian festival (writes one of our correspondents) we are apt to come away with the impression that “Christmas,” at least there, is nought else than a huge mockery.
Of wretchedness and misery, I saw comparatively little; but poverty was almost everywhere writ large. The people have got the sense of Christmas, but the measure of their actual realization must perforce be small.
An old man who had seen seventy winters, whom I met dragging along with difficulty a heavily-laden barrow of wood and wicker chairs and bassinettes, made reply to inquiries as to Christmas prospects at the East-end.
“It’s a hard’struggle for the poor to live – to get even a crust – without thinking of ‘extras’ at Christmas, and the only holiday which they anticipate is the holiday which gives them rest and peace in the grave.”
It did not need the announcement in the previous day’s papers, as to the seven thousand men out of work at Poplar and Limehouse, to emphasize the sad fact that “Hard Times” is not there accepted as the title of a mere piece of fiction, but rather as the graphic description of a stern reality.
“Little does the poor good, and little do they get.” This homely proverb of the common people may serve as a vivid summary of Christmas at the East-end.
Cheap goods in small quantities is the character of the trade; and where one buys, a hundred – aye, five hundred – admire, and pass by.
The “outside patron” is a great institution in Whitechapel and Mile-end. How “shows” are run at a profit down there would have puzzled even Artemus Ward to explain.
While a penny “peepshow” devoted to the mysteries of the planetary system was grievously neglected, the “Amazon Sisters,” one of whom, it was promised, would lift a 56 lb. weight by the ‘air of her ‘ead (that is, by Chinese-like pendants), “drew ” a large crowd.
THE FACTORY GIRLS
Concerning the people who thronged the main thoroughfares, the impression I brought away with me was that the great majority belonged to the factory girl order.
Yes, on every hand, you met the factory girl, with her abominable cockney “fringe,” her large broad-fliped hat, with its great bare feather, her loose neckerchief, in various colours, and that sign-manual of her set, the inevitable thin, ill-fitting ulster, either in dingy brown or dirty drab, which, while it lends to its wearer an air of semi-respectability, conveniently hides so much, not excluding, often, indifferent boots.
THE BOYS OF THE STREETS
Next to the factory girls, the boys of the street attracted my attention. To whatever centre of light you turned, there they were – eager-eyed and open-mouthed.
Boys of all ages and sizes; thin boys and stout boys, though it was painful to think that the thin boys, with their pale, pinched faces, largely preponderated, boys with caps and boys with hats – all, whether caps or hats, the worse for wear, either by tear, loss of peak or flipe, or by spots of grease; or the dinginess of time; boys without caps and boys without socks; boys in decent suits and boys in tatters – some of the latter indeed on the verge of beggary; scarcely one with an overcoat, many of them with their coat collars up, all of them with hands red with cold.
NOT MANY WRETCHED SPECIMENS
My experience may have been exceptional, but I did not come across more than half a dozen specimens of pure wretchedness – one notable case, a bare-armed, thinly clad woman, open at the bosom, carrying in her arms two little girls, equally badly clad, obviously suffering from the cold, and crying.
Only one drunken man, though the public-houses were bright-looking and doing a brisk business.
PEOPLE OUT AND ABOUT
For the rest, there were decently dressed wives of workmen, out marketing; workmen out for a stroll, unencumbered; young fellows, fair alike in dress and demeanour, who spent the evening either in solitary survey of the sights or in active flirtation with the factory girls; and here and there a clerk or foreman or shopkeeper, sedately strolling with wife or sweetheart.
No excitement, no enthusiasm; not a vulgar word; not an offensive act; the situation, after the fashion of us English, accepted stolidly – not the faintest “demonstration” of Poverty; the poverty, in fact, is forgotten in the interest of the hour – if, indeed, it is ever-present to the mind in tangible, seizable, and examinable form.
But it is time to turn to the shops and the stalls.
The butchers have a spray of holly here and there, in no case an elaborate display. There is a strong smell of the slaughter-house about some of the butchers’ shops, and one does not relish the free handling of the smaller pieces of meat which is permitted.
Pigs’ fry (2 for a penny”), liver, lights – these are leading items at several of the butchers’ shops and giblets, and fresh pickled pork at fourpence to sixpence. per lb., appear to be in great request.
“Pigs’ fry and a merry Christmas;” might well be at this season East London’s kindly message of remembrance to the West-end.
The grocers make for the most part a brilliant show – with their dried fruits, their candied goods, their cheeses, their wines, whiskies, and brandies.
One cannot forget the fruiterers’ stalls – well lighted, effectively arranged, shops – with their pyramids of oranges (“two a penny” and “three a penny”), their piles of red-cheeked apples, their festoons of grapes.
By the way, grapes, judging by the supply, appear to be in great demand at the East-end.
A GENERAL STORE
Very popular were those establishments where, upon the basis of a drapery business, has been built a general store.
In the largest shop of this description, there was an amazing display of cheap goods for Christmas. Here you could buy dolls (some of them dressed in “the height of fashion”) from twopence upwards, and you could secure a “handsome-looking” embossed tin teapot, “suitable for a present,” at fourpence.
A POPULAR EXHIBIT
This shop was the great centre of attraction for the boys; for in the window was a working cardboard representation of an orchestra “in full blast,” which could not fail to amuse even the sternest curmudgeon in the City.
So popular is this exhibit, the proprietor of the shop has been obliged to erect a slight barrier before his window; in front of which the lustrous-eyed lads stand in layers, full of delight.
The working of the toy, however, does not content them. In the true spirit of the British boy, they must get to the back of it, to see how it’s done.
Toy shops were usually surrounded; Chinese lanterns seemed to be a ”leading line” in these.
But, the toy shops proper have most unfair competitors in the shops of many kinds that offer toys as prizes or gifts.
THE SWEET SHOPS
In sweets, there is an abundance at choice from the “stick-jaw” of the coster up to the diving-girl, and the Father Christmas of the confectioner in a large way of business.
A feature in one confectioner’s shop was a guinea-pig in sugar, accompanied by a string of “pork sausages.”
At all these shops, the poor children criticise and covet, but pass on!
Oh, the pitiful lack of pennies! The shops wherein display is made of ladies’ ruffles, collarettes, and the like trifles, were very attractive and enticing.
Excellent goods were offered at cheap prices, and the girls and women did not fail to praise, if they did not purchase.
FLOWERS AND CHRISTMAS CARDS
The artificial flower stalls, also, come in for a fair share of patronage.
A big business was done in the cheapest forms of Christmas cards, principally at costers’ stalls. The cards underwent a rare sorting, though all would-be purchasers were satisfied at last.
A fat old lady who presided over one of the stalls offered me “a two-shilling card for twopence.” But most of them were sold at a penny.
The great body of the buyers were young girls of the factory type, whose behaviour was in every respect modest and becoming.
Another sight was a lad on his knees on the pavement, with a naphtha lamp flaring overhead, offering Christmas cards to a circle of boys almost as old as himself; and a mite of a girl clutching tightly, as if it were a great treasure, a little card which some kind soul had placed in her hand.
PAPER ROSES AND HOLLY
Then there was a considerable demand for paper roses, for the decoration of domestic interiors.
The market rate for these was “a penny a bunch” and threepence a bouquet.
There was a good amount of holly and a small quantity of mistletoe on offer.
Whenever a young man passed with his lady-love, the insinuating cry of the dusky dealer went forth “buy a spray of mistletoe.”
A fair-sized bunch of holly could be bought for twopence.
But while admiring crowds gathered round the stalls – as only a London crowd will crowd around anything suggestive of Nature – only the few dare venture to invest.
DECORATIONS FOR SALE
The bookstalls and tile tool stalls are without customers, but the tiny tin flags of all nations, “a penny each,” meet with a ready for decorative purposes; and penny jumping dolls, pots marked as presents from Leith, Margate, and every other place but London, tin and copper toys, and Birmingham trinkets are in fair demand.
The “prize” tea-shops are in high favour at Christmas.
THE GREATEST SHOW
The greatest outside show of all, however, is made by the cheap clothiers, of which there is quite a host, the windows of some of these establishments are veritable Tussauds.”