This is another piece taken from my Creative Practice blog. It was inspired by a trip to the Bishopsgate Archive in which I became interested in Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton. You can read about my discoveries at the archive here.
This story is a fictional account of Sir Buxton's walk from where he worked at the Truman Brewery (on Brick Lane) to Mansion House, where he was to give a speech about the level of poverty in Spitalfields. My story is a first person narrative of what he might have seen and thought on his way there.
It was suggested that I take a carriage down to Mansion House along with the others, but I thought it better to make the walk on foot. If I am to truly well represent the poor and wretched of this district then I must not be ashamed to walk amongst them. By walking these streets I can infuse my mind with the horrors they behold, directly before attempting to convey them to the Lord Mayor and those others assembled for the evening’s discussion.
With the Black Eagle at my back I set out southwards along Brick Lane, where there is no shortage of poverty immediately detectable. Brick Lane is relatively spacious so the stench of its inhabitants is not as suffocating as those in the nearby passages. As I hear low moans of discomfort coming from an indeterminate direction – it is likely emanating from several sources – I think ahead to the evening’s agenda and how I can properly portray the destitute nature of Spitalfields.
It is not without some trepidation that I undertake this cause. Not for the first time I wonder why I have been selected to make this claim to the Committee, not having much to my credit except a stake in the brewery from which many of Spitalfields’ inhabitants earn their livelihood. Some say I have proven myself a generous soul, and certainly I try to help any of the families local to my home, but it is because I see it as my Godly duty. When people tell me I am to be commended for this contribution I am humbled – but now my good deeds have elevated me to such a position that my opinion is requested by the Lord Mayor!
But listen to myself, going on in a self-congratulatory manner while I should be making the final adjustments to that which I intend to say tonight. Those in attendance tonight are largely – and wilfully I daresay – ignorant of the truly decrepit nature of the living conditions of those in Spitalfields. I do not intend to mince my words for the benefit of their decorum.
Turning the corner into Brown Street I am immediately confronted by the sight of Mrs. Jenkins and her gang of young children running about innocently, each clasping something; a crust of stale bread, a blanket adorned with holes, a pair of worn-out leather shoes, a stool. She came to me a fortnight ago to ask me to speak to her landlord, a bullish man hardly better than a thug, and explain that her husband had disappeared, meaning she would not be able to afford the rent until he returned. I managed to ween a two week extension for her and her children, but in that period there has been no sign of Mr. Jenkins – he likely drunk or brawled his way to a roadside grave, along with countless others. It appears the mother has decided that she and her kin must leave the premises before the landlord returns to physically demand his rent. As her children play around her, using their random items as toys, she looks into the middle distance, a bereft hollowness to her stare, and she doesn’t see me. My instinct is to go to her to offer some assistance, but there is nothing I can offer. Any food or money that I could give would only forestall their misery by another day or two – and they still couldn’t return to their dwellings.
I stride on purposefully, using the image of the stricken family to fuel my thoughts. It is difficult to walk past such a scene, but one has become so used to these occasions that there is undoubtedly a thickening of the skin that one undergoes in living here. Still, when I have been drinking alone of an evening it is hard to keep the images of the surrounding hardship at bay. I can’t belay memories of the family of nine, father paralysed, mother sickly, their dwelling completely barren after their having sold their beds and furniture for food. The helplessness I felt when looking into those children’s eyes, with nothing to offer them, has soaked me to the bone in shame, and continues to do so each time my mind returns there.
I almost collide with a young lad as he comes striding out of Crispin Street, not looking where he’s going as his eyes are fixed on a steaming prize in his hands. We skip past each other awkwardly and I look to my left down the street from which he emerged to see a large cluster of people struggling to get ahead of each other towards something. The Spitalfields Soup Society out doing good work, as ever. But they’ve been reporting recently that even the 3200 quarts of soup they make daily leaves some mouths unfed. It is at hearing news like this, whilst picturing those fat and well-fed men a few streets away in the City, that you can’t help but wonder whether the situation has gone too far. Even if it is possible to make the affluent fully comprehend the distress here, will they care?
I must impress upon the Lord Mayor that this is his responsibility. I will say something like “the persons for whom we plead are your own labourers, your own mechanics and your own poor.” Let’s see how that appeals to his arrogance. I should imagine he’ll wrinkle his fine nose up at just such a suggestion. That is, until it is put to him that he could be the one to help put an end to it with the approval of a hearty donation. Then we’ll see a flash of that famous smile.
Oh, this whole thing is such vanity! To discuss the urgent necessities of these pressed-upon people in such an exotic enclosure as the Egyptian Hall! It is uncouth! But this strikes to the heart of the matter; it is the vanity of these people that prevents them from seeing, or even acknowledging, the plight of their fellow Londoners. As if they should ever come visit their less fortunate neighbours! How conveniently they forget that their fathers, and fathers’ fathers, once lived in these very streets – streets that they would now never set foot upon, lest they catch some kind of disease!
It is the departure of these affluent families that has caused such a concentration of the paupers in Spitalfields. The dearness of the rent for dwellings in the City sends them all scrambling desperately Eastwards with their families, looking for any kind of shelter. The houses that used to afford comfortable room for a family have become divided and subdivided until each holds half a dozen families or more. I have seen grown men, huddled three or four together on a single bed – but still shivering for lack of a blanket. Now tell me how we are to avoid pestilence from spreading in such conditions!
It is no wonder that I see so many bodies slumped in the corners of the streets from exhaustion. I look to my left down Artillery Lane, but the number of collapsed figures taking up cover in the relative closeness of the alley means that I have to take another route. Instead I am forced to continue on down Union Street, which I had hoped to avoid due to a horrific scene I had witnessed there just the previous Friday that I do not wish to relive. I walk quickly towards the lively roadway ahead that is Bishopsgate, but a chill runs down my spine as I pass the doorway in which I saw it – and I can’t help but recall it. Walking this street with William Hale a mere four days beforehand we had seen a barely-clothed body lying unmoving in the doorway, with a dozen vermin crawling under and over it, scrabbling hungrily at the paltry flesh. Horrified by the scene, we had chased away the rats with some effort, only to be further repelled upon the discovery that the victim was still alive! How - other than by the grace of God - I do not know. The last thing he remembered was passing out there a full two days beforehand! I ask once more, how can we go on living idly in a city where this kind of atrocity is possible? I will have to settle my stomach and recount this tale for the gentlemen this evening, and then we’ll see if they manage to keep down their expensive dinners!
Upon Bishopsgate I take a left, and the broad street’s openness comes as something of a relief from the encroaching melancholy that hovers in Spitalfields’ streets. I look up at the buildings around me as I walk, and the relief that I felt soon turns to annoyance as the obvious disparity between the grand stone buildings of these streets and their inhabitants, as compared with those among whom I have just passed. Just the other day I saw an advertisement in the newspaper, posted by someone living in the Bishopsgate vicinity, selling 4-poster beds, mahogany wardrobes, china, and such – presumably to buy replacements. The thought of donating such items to those in need – even those of far lesser value like plates or chairs - would never cross their minds.
The last appeal to the government brought in a donation of 800 pairs of shoes, 1000 blankets and 500 paillasses. To them, this seemed like a generous donation. To those in need it was a scramble to get their hands on any single piece of this offering. It was like trying to stanch the incessant bleeding from the stump of a torn-off leg with a mere foot of bandage. No money was offered. The arrogance of such a donation, thinking that it would be of any help whatsoever when they do not even know the true realities of the situation, makes my blood boil. I shall ensure that they have full understanding of the destitution tonight.
I cross Bishopsgate and come to the Church of St. Botolph’s. I walk down Wormwood Street, which runs alongside the grounds. Even here, under the watchful eye of the Lord and his emissaries, there are poor and needy slumped in the garden; the relative softness of the grass and the scant cover from chill provided by the shrubbery proving to be too much of a temptation to those completely exhausted. The Reverend Parsimony is fully aware of the situation, and I know he does not lack for suffering at the thought of these poor wretches outside his church’s doors, but he cannot open them. To let in one would mean having to let in them all, and he would shortly become overrun. The heart of the pauper is kinder and more generous than that of the well-to-do, in general – of that I have no doubt. But in such a situation, within a church full of disorderly people, there is no doubt that advantage would be taken of the generosity, possibly to an extreme degree. I continue on past the church, sending my best wishes to the Reverend, knowing he is somewhere saying prayers for all those in his vicinity whom he longs to help.
Upon Broad Street the full magnificence of the City is thrust upon me. Even though this evening my mission is one of attack upon those in these quarters, one can never fail to be impressed by the architecture here. The tall, statuesque buildings speak to the grand ability of the human mind and the potential of several great men working in conjunction towards a grand goal. If only I can get some of these great minds to turn their attention away from self-aggrandisement and towards totalitarian thought, we would be making great steps towards a more utopian and blessed society.
As I turn onto Threadneedle Street I can immediately see the top of the spire of St. Benet Fink Church, and my heart lifts slightly. This is one of Sir Christopher Wren’s greatest creations, without a shadow of a doubt. He was a truly great man, and one who I’m sure was no stranger to the tribulations of the city dweller. As I walk closer I appreciate, as I do every time I pass, the true monument to the love of God that it is. Its baroque beauty never fails to stun me, as I'm sure it does to all those who take a moment to appreciate it. There are no sleeping bodies in this churchyard, or anywhere in the near vicinity. Shudder the thought of someone being out on the street in this neighbourhood – such a thing would not be tolerated here. But their solution is just to move them on, not to offer any charity.
Finally I reach the foot of Threadneedle Street where it meets several others of the City’s main arteries. I stand across the junction from Mansion House, taking it all in before I decide to breach the doorway. Running through all the images, smells and sounds that I experienced as I traversed the route from the depths of despair to this monument to the upper class, I can feel the great importance of the evening well up in me. I am on a mission from God, of that I am sure. With his wind in my sails I will blow through the Egyptian Hall, bringing all of his divine wisdom upon the ignorant, unsuspecting heads of the gentlemen in attendance. And then I shall end by inviting his honour the Lord Mayor to come on a walking tour of Spitalfields with me to witness the things I describe first hand. I’m sure he would much rather pay a handsome sum than to risk infection.
I shall stall no longer. I cross the road and enter into Mansion House, heading towards the Egyptian Hall, my body set and my mind poised.