Friday, 21 August 2015

St George in the East

Ratcliff-highway is the Haymarket of the East-end, with filthy paint instead of gaudy gilding, with beershops instead of cafes, with calico and cheap finery instead of velvet and silk. Here congregate sailors from all parts of the world, to waste in squalid debauchery the hard earnings of long voyages; and here are to be seen such specimens of womanhood as appal to the eye and cast a blight on the imagination. One who knows it well, who has spent the best part of ten years in the midst of it, who has laboured as few could labour to do some good, temporal as well as spiritual, to its teeming thousands, tells a sad story of it. This gentleman, the Rev. C.F.Lowder, M.A., in his "Five Years in St. George's Mission" (and he has the same story to tell when he has nearly doubled those years) gives us a glimpse of what the parish of St. George-in-the-East was and is.

"Within the boundaries of this immense parish (of over 50,000 souls) lies the greater portion of the London Docks. Ratcliff-highway, so notorious for deeds of violence, scenes of debauchery, and flagrant vice, runs right through, and is chiefly contained within, it. Its population is for the most part connected with the docks or river; it abounds in lodging houses for sailors, public houses, dancing and concert rooms, and various low places of amusement; brothels swarm in it, and their wretched inmates are permitted to flaunt their sin and finery and ply their hateful trade openly by day and night without let or hindrance in the most public thoroughfares. There are also large sugar refineries which employ a great number of Germans, so that the population of St. George's is, perhaps, as mixed as any in the world. Foreign sialors from every country, Greeks, Malays, Chinese, Lascars, Dutch, Portuguese, French, Austrians, may be encountered everywhere; the Irish may be numbered by thousands. The mixture and recklessness of vice, the unblushing effrontery with which it is carried on, when the lowest of every country combine to add their quota to the already overflowing stock, can scarcely be conceived. Public opinion against it there is none, for the parochial authorities are themselves too much interested in its continuance to dare to suppress it; some are publicans, at whose houses these wretched girls congregate, and some of these publicans it must be remembered, actually employ such girls to entrap the sailors; in fact, to some houses, a staff of prostitutes is a necessary part of the stock in trade, and instances could be adduced in which brothels have been attached to the public houses or rented by their owners. Such is the publican interest, by far the strongest in the parish, so much so that for years one at least of the churchwardens was a publican, another parochial officer is notoriously living in incest, another vestryman was lately the owner of houses of ill fame ... At midnight when the public-houses are closed, the quarrels, fights and disturbances are such a matter of course that none can hope for a night's rest until they are inured by habit. There are frequent fights between foreign and English sailors about the girls with whom they are keeping company, and it is not uncommon to see desperate encounters between the girls themselves, kicking, tearing one another's hair, and biting, as they roll together in the streets, a crowd standing around, and instead of interfering, encouraging the combatants. ... Then again, the poverty of the parish is very great ... In the midst of such scenes of sin and misery, the children are brought up - the school of too many the streets, abounding in temptation, echoing with profane and disgusting language, and forming a very atmosphere of vice; their examples at home a drunken father and mother, with brothers and sisters already deep in sin, and abroad thieves and prostitutes a little older than themselves. thus they are early taught to thieve, to swear, to be bold and immodest in their manners and talk, and so to fall in with sins which they behold in others at the most precocious age. This is no exaggerated description of the whole of the parish, for it has no redeeming features.'

The Standard, 26 December 1865

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