Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Petticoat Lane

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Has the reader ever heard of “Petticoat Lane?” If not, let us bring it under his notice. If he have—if he remembers the crusade made against its manners and customs by a Lord Mayor some four or five years ago, let us assure him that in spite of chief magistrates—in the teeth of a double allowance of police—it is still as flourishing and as unique in its characteristics, as when one of their lordships had his pocket picked, whilst paying it a Sunday morning visit in company with a bevy of city constables. There is a pretty brisk trade done in Hamburgh on the Christian Sabbath; the Jews in the Ghetto at Rome are not idle while “the faithful” are at high mass; but though, saving Scotland, there is no country on the face of the earth in which there is a more general suspension of business on Sunday, than in England, Petticoat Lane, E., “licks all creation”—as the Yankees have it—for the transactions, legal and illegal, conducted between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., on the first day of the week. It may be premised that “Petticoat Lane” is a misnomer for the locus in quo of the operations to which we refer. Under that general term of street nomenclature, nearly a score of streets, lanes, and alleys are comprised. Petticoat Lane was the seat of the trade in its infancy. The name now rather marks the character of the traffic than the spot on which it is carried on. The central avenue of all this selling, and buying, and pocket-picking, and shouting, and screaming, and eating, and drinking, is Middlesex Street, Whitechapel. Here it is, that Jews and Gentiles “most do congregate;” though the lanes, alleys, and yards that branch off from it at right angles are scarcely less crowded, and, like the great thoroughfare itself, are at times impassable. The best way of approaching the scene is from High Street, Aldgate. The third or fourth turn on the left, after you come from Leadenhall Street, or Fenchurch Street, is Middlesex Street. At either corner is the inevitable public-house. Turn sharp round to the east, and in two or three seconds you will find yourself brought in medias res. In the Tower of Babel, the voices might have been more various; but they could scarcely have been as numerous as they are in this long and narrow avenue. Shops, or rather half-shops, for space is valuable in Petticoat Lane, are in interminable lines on each side of you. Al fresco dealings are going forward on every foot of street-room. The time is, say, noon on Sunday. Trade is at its height then. It commences at 9 a.m., and becomes slack about 3 p.m. During the daytime on Saturday nearly every house is closed, the occupiers being Jews; but on the Sunday almost every imaginable species of barter is to be witnessed here. For the length of more than a quarter of a mile in a direct line, and from side streets innumerable, you are assailed by thousands of vendors, each trying to out-shout or over-scream his or her competitor, “Who’s the buyer?” “Who vants a sheap vatch?” “A vest worth a bob for a tanner.” “Spanish olives, four a penny.” “Ice, a half-penny a glass.” “Lemonade, a half-penny a bottle.” “Boot-laces, a dozen for a penny!” Persons are fairly puzzled when they hear old-clothesmen offer to buy soleless boots, odd slippers, or sleeveless coats. A visit to Petticoat Lane will unravel the mystery. There such articles are negotiable. We witnessed the purchase of a single suspender, after a huckstering of five minutes’ duration; and nothing is more common than the barter of an odd shoe or boot. Harrow Alley connects Middlesex Street with the London Clothes’ Exchange—commonly called Rosemary Lane—and in this alley are large baskets filled with odd gloves, and stockings, shoes that have no fellows, and shirts minus a sleeve. There are two or three very large covered buildings devoted to clothing for men and women; and here persons who have been “eased” of their pocket-handkerchiefs stand a good chance of being afforded an opportunity of recovering them by purchase. The business in the clothes’ exchanges is conducted chiefly by women and girls; and the shrill clatter which they keep up is positively ear-splitting. There are a few jewellery-stands, presided over by patriarchal-looking Israelites at the end of the clothes’ mart opening into Cutler Street, Houndsditch; but it is in Middlesex Street and its branches you must witness the varied traffic for which Petticoat Lane is so remarkable. No one who spends an hour here can deny that the Jews are a utilitarian race. Mere infants are vending pencils, stationery, buttons, toys, and refreshments along the thoroughfares; while the parents are busy at the shop doors, or behind the raised, sashes, in front of which their wares are exposed. Tripe Yard is devoted to picture-frames; Artillery Passage to auctioneers and vendors of quack medicine, of which latter individuals, more anon.

At not a few of the shops there are dealings in gold and silver. In Petticoat Lane you may buy a watch for five shillings, or embark in “a gold lever” worth thirty pounds. At very miserable- looking shops transactions in diamonds are not unknown. And here, as in the silk-handkerchief department, old friends may occasionally be recognised. Not so easily, however; for the watch-case trade is different from the trade in what watchmakers call “movements.” Trays full of “movements” are exposed at different doors. These are the bones, sinews, and intestines of watches. Nor is the crucible idle in this region on the Christian Sabbath. In front of “a marine stores” in one of the alleys, we observed two men busily and silently employed, apart from the multitude. One was seated behind a pan resting on three 56-lb. weights. In the pan was burning charcoal, into which one of the individuals referred to was dropping old epaulettes, stars, buttons, &c., which were poured out of a sack by his assistant. From the pan, the portions which did not fall through the grated bottom to the ground were passed to a large tray. The contrivances resorted to by the owners of wares, to drown contending voices, are not a little amusing. In one class of soft goods there is an immense competition. The passers-by are besieged by those who deal in it; but a German Jewess has adopted an extraordinary expedient for attracting a more than ordinary share of attention. Her voice is of marvellous shrillness. She pitches it to its highest key, and uses gestures as frantic as any that characterised the Sybil when under influence of the divine afflatus.

The ice, penny cigars, and halfpenny lemonade-men have good lungs, but their united tones are as a penny whistle to the stentorian strains of the sarsaparilla men. Yes, “sarsaparilla!” This is the beverage of the season in Petticoat Lane. It is there in barrels—three or four barrels before one shop—the price, a penny a tumbler; and such is the force of eloquence that this bitter is guzzled as fast as the assistant quacks can draw it. The Gentiles share this trade equally with the Jews. In one case the proprietor is an Irishman, and his partner, or assistant, a man of colour. The latter mounts a costermonger’s go-cart, and with a box of pills in one hand and a bottle of the so-called sarsaparilla in the other, delivers a medical lecture. To hear and see him is as good as a visit to Robson. He informs the auditory that one of the ingredients in the pills is the root discovered by Christopher Columbus, when “that {{[sic|renowed|renowned|nodash}} individual found out the great continent of America.” With this is mixed “the congenial gentian that was in great repute amongst the Israelites at the time of their captivity in Egypt. These two act as a ‘stomatic,’ and the sarsaparilla has its salutary effects on the sanguineous system.” To dispute this, he challenges “any member of the pharmaceutical, medical, or Materia Medica department of the profession.”

Whether the rage for sarsaparilla, at a penny a-tumbler, is a Petticoat Lane epidemic, time will tell; but no other teetotal beverage is in anything like the same estimation there just now. When the public-houses open at one o’clock, there is, of course a slight diversion of the liquor traffic. Pickles are in great demand all day long. Whole cucumbers, and cucumbers cut in two, lie in briney tubs; and huge pickled onions are displayed on plates at numerous shops. Cakes of various kinds are hawked by seedy-looking Israelites; and juveniles call out “eggs all hot!” supplying the purchaser with salt and spoon.

The great mass of the traders in Petticoat Lane are of the Jewish persuasion. All the dealers in watches and jewellery are. There is one branch, however, in which their long-standing monopoly has been attacked with considerable success.

In the clothes trade, the Hibernian has entered the lists with the Hebrew; and Celtic accents are familiar in “rag-fair.” Neither English nor Scotch are in any force in this quarter, as employers or employed; but English Christians of the lower classes much frequent it to make purchases. “Weekly payments” are taken; and shops abound, in which tradesmen’s tools, of every description, and of all qualities, are displayed for selection. Some of the traders unite the business of money-lender, with their more ostensible occupations. A small board suspended from the door-post informs the public that “loans from 2l. to 50l. are made immediately.” A number of Jew butchers have stalls in Middlesex Street. The meat is not at all inviting.

Bustle unequalled, noise indescribable, masses of people enormous even for London, are the main characteristics of Petticoat Lane on Sunday. Most of the Jews there are exceedingly dirty. They are “made up” for the occasion, perhaps; for many of them turn out in expensive wardrobes on their own Sabbath. Occasionally, however, a really picturesque scene presents itself. We observed in one of the jewellers’ shops a group composed of a venerable Hebrew, holding a beam and scales, and watching with earnest gaze the weight which made “even beam” with the precious metal offered him for sale: on each side of him a daughter, handsome enough to represent the maidens of Judea ere the prophecy was fulfilled and Jerusalem had ceased to be. Rembrandt would have made a master-piece of this trio.

One may visit Petticoat Lane without the fear of any more personal injury than he may chance to sustain from a crushing. But the visitor had better leave his watch and appendages, his pocket-handkerchief and his purse at home. There are “roughs” innumerable here. Some of the police are of opinion that this Sunday mart is a convenience to the poorer tradesmen. It may be so; but it is abhorrent to all our notions of the way in which Sunday ought to be observed, to have the shouts of buyers and sellers contending against the melodious call of church-bells, and to find trade in successful competition with religion on that day which Christians are commanded to keep holy.

A. B. Kelly.