These excerpts are taken from the Book Seven Years Hard written by the Reverend Free in 1904.
In a previous posts we read how the Reverend Free tired of tending to well off parishioners decided he wanted to undertake some missionary work in the Isle of Dogs, when he arrives in early 1897 his first impressions are not good and very soon after he gets a not particularly friendly welcome from some of the locals. After spending some years on the Isle of Dogs and getting to know the inhabitants the Reverend Free goes on to discuss their vices and virtues.
Well, let us acknowledge at once that the life of the East-ender is more or less a closed book to us. As our experience of him increases, our understanding of him seems to decrease. The problem is larger than we anticipated ; more intimate realisation of it confounds us. The East-ender’s sorrows, his joys, his ambitions : what does the most experienced know of these, save in the most superficial way ? Keenly desirous as we are of entering into the inner meaning of the life of the toiler, the most sanguine can boast but very partial success. Brotherhood is as yet too new a word ; identity of interest has not yet become a reality. Nevertheless, the lights and shades of the picture stand out prominently. Like other people, East-enders have their virtues and their vices, their angelical moments as well as their diabolical. Certainly they are not altogether bad ; quite as certainly they are not altogether good.
The besetting sin of the East-ender is intemperance. The drink habit is all but universal. If a dock labourer is invited to a ” beano,” he forthwith begins to devise the biggest possible ” booze ” at the highest possible price. Tell a factory girl that you are going to take her for an outing, and she immediately falls a-dreaming of unlimited “treats” of port wine. Boys on a holiday regard it as quite the correct thing to get drunk. And even women have very little notion ot a day in the country apart from the bottle. Nevertheless, women are not so very culpable. For one intoxicated woman, you will probably find two intoxicated boys and three intoxicated girls.
Like most evil things in the East End, the trick of gambling is acquired early in life. Pitch-and-toss at the street corners is of the passionate kind. On a single Sunday afternoon a boy will lose as much as five or six shillings. It is difficult for the police to cope with the evil, even when they are anxious to do so, which is not always. For the lads have their scouts at every corner,and at the sotto voce cry of ” Copper!” dissolve as it were by magic. Moreover, there is always a friendly neighbour to give asylum to the young miscreants. Doors left hospitably open afford a convenient means of escape. So many streets and alleys are cul-de-sacs, that a flank movement is denied the most consummate generalship. And it really is difficult fora policeman with any dignity to insist, in the face of absolute denial from the innocent-looking tenant of a house, that his quarry is in hiding under the family bed.
Foremost among the virtues of the East-ender is his good-humour. Good-humour is the redeeming point in his character, the salt that sweetens his very impurities, the lever that lifts him from the gutter where he is prone to lie all too complacently. He has many failings, many right-down vices ; but through them all,rendering them almost tolerable, runs that rich vein of gold.
The East-ender’s good-humour exhibits itself as much in
” Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,”
” Nod, and becks, and wreathed smiles.”
That is to say, he is fun-loving as well as amiable. His capacity for fun is enormous ; sometimes manifesting itself in sheer waggishness, at other times in the driest of dry banter, again in pungent and even delicate wit. Rarely is his smartness cruel. When it is so, it is jagged rather than keen. It does not cut ; it tears. His wit is easy and refreshingly original. Also, which is a great thing, it is without fear.
Next to his humour I should say that the East-ender’s most striking virtue is his affectionate clannishness. He will do anything for his own. Is a woman sick ? There will be no lack of willing hands to help with the children and look after the husband. Is a neighbour ” badly off,” which in East End vernacular means starving ? Somebody’s pocket is always full enough to spare a copper or two. It is not unusual for a whole street to subscribe to a present in money for a decent man or woman unusually down on their luck ; and the ” friendly lead ” for a poor fellow who has met with an accident.
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