Off the Track in London – in the Royal Borough of Kensington

NOTE: This article first appeared as ‘Off the Track in London – in the Royal Borough of Kensington by George Sims (first published in The Strand magazine 1904 as ‘Off the Track in London’, and as ‘The Avernus of Kensington – Highest Death Rate in London’ in St Clement’s parish magazine 1911). It has been made available thanks to local historian Tom Vague and the Colville Community Forum

Off the Track in London – in the Royal Borough of Kensington’ by George Sims, 1904 (first published in The Strand magazine 1904 as ‘Off the Track in London’, and as ‘The Avernus of Kensington – Highest Death Rate in London’ in St Clement’s parish magazine 1911).

The sun shines brightly on the gay Kensington thoroughfare in which I meet my artist confrere and prepare to wander off the track in a district, which is held to be the wealthiest in the Empire. It is a winter morning, but the sky is blue, the air is balmy, and the flood of sunlight gives a Rivieran aspect to the stately mansions and pleasant villas that we pass on our way to the point at which we are to turn off and make our plunge into one of the strangest districts of London, a district of which its rich neighbours have no knowledge, although it lies at their doors.

A walk of a few minutes and we have left wealth and fashion behind us; the gay shops have vanished, the well-dressed people have disappeared as if by magic. The mansions and the villas have given place to the long streets of grey, weather-beaten, two and three story houses, in which the local industry writes itself large in white letters.

Here we are in Notting Dale and in the heart of Laundry-Land. In every house in street after street the blinds of the ground floor are down as though someone lay dead within. But if you look from the opposite side of the street you will see that in every room above the blinds lines are stretched from wall to wall, and from these lines wrung out details of the washing-tub are hanging. If you cross to the dilapidated railings of the sorry little patch that was once a front garden and peer into the basement you will see that laundry work is in full swing. The blinds of the ground-floor rooms are probably drawn because the hand laundresses do not like to be criticised too closely by the neighbours, who are also their business rivals.

The street is typical of a dozen others. You may see again and again that broken down little front garden, with its stunted trees, strewn rubbish, and the little wooden, lopsided railing that looks as though it no longer thought the patch it once guarded worth standing up for. On the windowsill of the top floor of a score of houses you may see a lonely, empty flowerpot that looks more like a handy missile in an emergency than an adjunct of window gardening. The rain-sodden, blackened stucco meets you at every turn, and when you have counted the twentieth cat sitting on a sill or a doorstep washing its shirt to snowy whiteness you begin to wonder why the local influence has not made itself more widely felt. Everybody in the houses is washing for other people, everything is conducted with scrupulous cleanliness and under official inspection, but there are plenty of streets adjacent to Laundry-Land in which only the cats make themselves conspicuously clean.

A little further away towards Latimer Road are the great steam laundries employing a small army of young women, who at the dinner hour will turn out and make every street in the Dale a forest of white aprons. But all the streets of Laundry-Land are not given up to useful industry. A portion of the district is so notorious as a guilt garden that it has been called the London Avernus. It is packed with common lodging-houses, a large number of them for women, and it has streets of evil reputation in which almost every window is broken and stuffed with rags. The Borough Council has now in hand a splendid rehousing scheme which will vastly improve the district, but we must take it as we find it today.

We turn out of the sunlight, and entering a narrow doorway descend into the basement of a typical lodging-house. The house is known locally as the ‘Golden Gates’, a name bestowed upon it in a spirit of badinage by a client with a sense of humour. The kitchen is crowded with women, young and old. Some are sitting on the benches around the wall, one or two are making a late breakfast; an old woman is cooking something at the red coke fire.

As a rule there is little conversation in a lodging-house in the morning hours. I have been constantly struck by the note of moodiness, not to say sullenness, which hangs over the company during the hours of daylight. The men are, as a rule, more communicative than the women. Women of the class that drift to the doss-house are not inclined to exchange confidences with their neighbours.

The lady in the dingy

The lady in the dingy Astrakhan keeps up a running fire of chaff

But the kitchen of the Golden Gates has one talkative occupant. As soon as our eyes get accustomed to the gloom, which is only relieved by a ray of light filtering through a small, dust-covered window, we notice that a tall woman in faded finery and an astrakhan hat, and with some traces of refinement in features and bearing, is standing in the centre and chaffing the others. One or two smile at her jokes, but the majority are wholly indifferent, wearing that air of sullen aloofness, which is peculiarly characteristic of a woman’s lodging-house.

I have not intruded on the privacy of the ladies of the Golden Gates without a show of justification. To enable my companion to make a sketch of the scene, I have resorted to an expedient which permits me to make certain enquiries of a semi-official nature, and to attract the attention of the guests while my confrere is at work. If they were aware that they were being sketched it is quite likely that there would be trouble, and my comrade might find himself in as unpleasant a fix as did a photographer who once went with me to the Chinese quarter in Limehouse, for Living London, and attempted to take the proprietor of an opium den and some of his clients. The photographer emerged unscathed, but the camera required a considerable amount of repair.

Fortunately I have an inquiry to make which puts my audience in sympathy with me, and my confrere is supposed to be making notes of the information supplied as to the last movements of a woman who had used the house for some time and had mysteriously disappeared. During the whole time the lady in the dingy astrakhan keeps up a running fire of chaff, which materially assists us. She welcomes us to the “Hotel de Fourpence,” and says, though it isn’t exactly the Carlton, it is quite comfortable when you get used to it. She interlards her bantering remarks with French words, and we come to the conclusion that she is a governess who has drifted down.

It is no uncommon thing to find men and women of education in the lowest lodging-houses of London. I have found a clergyman in one of the worst dens of Flower and Dean Street. In one of the Dale lodging-houses there is a woman whose father had his town house and country house and his villa in the South of France. This woman in the Astrakhan hat is a striking contrast to her surroundings. Most of the other inmates are of the usual type – women who have drifted down from honest industry to vagabondage, or have been born to it.

Returning through the Golden Gates into the sunshine, we make out way to Jetsam Street. This is not its real name, but the one I have given it. This is a street of black and battered doors, of damaged railings, and of broken windows. On the doorsteps here and there stand groups of slatternly, unkempt women. From the windows above a tousled head occasionally appears. Many of the houses here are common lodging-houses; but some of them are in the hands of the house-farmers, who let them out in furnished rooms at a shilling day. We enter a room which is unoccupied and take stock of the furniture. It consists of a bed, two chairs, and the wreckage of a dirty deal table.

In this room a man and his wife and children are accommodated at night, but the shilling paid only entitles the family to remain there until 10 in the morning. At that hour they are turned and their tenancy ceases. If they wish to renew it they can do so in the evening, but not before. These people, who are paying 6 shillings a week, or 7 shillings where Sunday is not a free day, for a single room, have to spend the day in the streets. Many of them make their way to the public parks and sleep on the seats or on the grass. Some of them beg, some of them hawk trumpery articles. They are probably paying £18 a year for a wretched room, and yet in the house-farmer’s hands they are homeless every day in the week.

Jetsam Street is flooded with golden sunshine as we pass through it, but the sunshine has not made the inhabitants light-hearted. Halfway down the street a man and a woman are fighting. The man is delivering a series of kicks in the style of La Savate at the woman, who is defiant and nimble and defends herself with her jacket, which she has taken off and uses both as a guard and as a weapon.

One or two women standing on the doorsteps watch the proceedings, but apparently without interest. An old woman proceeding to the public house for beer turns her head for a moment and then passes on her way. A little boy in rags passes the fighting couple and takes no notice whatever. It is an ordinary incident, and has no special attraction for the neighbours. Presently the man succeeds in planting a blow that sends the woman down. She is up again in a moment and faces him, prepared to continue the contest. But he thinks he has scored a point and is satisfied. “Now I’ll go to the workhouse,” he says, “And the best place for you,” answers the woman.

The man thrusts his hands in his pockets and slouches off. The woman puts on her jacket and strolls away. If we were to investigate the circumstances that have led up to the fight, we should find that we had been assisting at a Notting Dale version of the story of Carmen, Don Jose, and Escamillo, only Carmen in this case is a laundry girl, Don Jose is an idle ruffian, and Escamillo is another, only of a bolder type.

In Notting Dale, the women are the principal wage earners, and the district is infested with a contemptible set of men, who are loafers or worse. It is a common thing in the Dale for a man to boast that he is going to marry a laundry girl and do nothing for the rest of his life. It seems difficult to realise that such a scene and such a street can exist within a stone’s throw of a quarter crowded with the wealth and fashion of the capital. But wherever you step off the beaten track in London a hundred surprises await you.

I do not wonder at the fight in Jetsam Street which fails to arouse the lookers-on from their mid-day lethargy, for I am an old traveller in this strange land. But I must confess that it gives me a little shock when at the end of the street I come upon a man in the last stage of consumption sitting propped up with pillows in an armchair on the doorstep. He has been brought out to sit a little while in the sunshine. The poor fellow has, I ascertain, taken his discharge from the infirmary a few days previously. He wants to die at home – at home in Jetsam Street.

The picture I have had so far to draw is a painful one and a squalid one. But it is typical of the neighbourhood, and could not be omitted if in these travels off the track I am to give a faithful account of the London that is so little known even to Londoners. Let us hasten through the sordid streets, looking up at the blue skies and ignoring the squalid house, and make our way to a more romantic spot.

The Potteries.”

How odd this description of a portion of Kensington sounds, yet the district we are now in is known by this name, and yonder is what remains of the kiln. Here in the Potteries the spell of the old romance still lingers, for this is the district of the gipsies. In front of it is the pleasant recreation ground, Avondale Park, which the County Council has made beautiful for the children of the Dale, and just round the corner is hidden a space where, year after year, the gipsies came with their vans and encamped for the winter. And close at hand are cottages and gardens, to which ducks and geese give quite a rural appearance.

The gipsies are not here this winter, but there are one or two vans left to mark the spot where, until quite recently, the sons and daughters of Egypt pitched their ‘tans’ in the heart of fashionable Kensington. Some of them, yielding to the force of such modern ideas as the sanitary inspector and the School Board officer, have given up the fight for existence in a dwelling-van and have gone to live under a roof like the gorgios, though a gipsy of the true Romany blood believes that nothing but ill-luck will attend the Romany chal or the Romany chi who lives in a house.

Today the children of the gipsies are, many of them, in the Notting Dale Board School and the fathers and mothers are in the lodging-houses. One of the wanderers, who in the old times used to pitch on the vacant ground of the Potteries, so far fell into gentile ways as to take a lodging-house and run it himself. He and his wife became noted characters in the Dale, and when he died a little time ago the gipsies came from far and near and gave him a genuine Romany funeral, with all the ancient rites and ceremonies of the great Pali tribe who wandered out of India long centuries ago and gave the word ‘pal’ to our language to signify brother.

Though the gipsy camp has departed and the ground will know it no more, the surroundings are still suggestive of the old days. Hard by a dwelling-van left, like the rose of the poet, blooming alone is the shed of a chair-caner, a handsome, prosperous looking man, who is working in the open and singing at his congenial task. The battered carts, the old chains, the broken wheels, the pigeon lofts, and the wooden sheds standing on a patch of waste ground remind you of the pictures you were given to copy at school when you were in the drawing class. If there had only been a mill handy the resemblance would have been complete, but the chimney of the old kiln dominates the scene and takes the mill’s place.

Here the note of Jetsam Street has disappeared. All around are respectable working class dwellings and stable yards. A little farther up is a double row of cottages with a paved way between them that seem to have been lifted bodily out of a Yorkshire mill town and dropped with their quaint out-houses on to the confines of Kensington. When you come upon Thresher’s Place you rub your eyes and wonder if it is possible that five minutes’ walk will bring you out on Campden Hill.

In the mews round about the Potteries are the remnants of the Italian colony that drifted here some years ago, when Little Italy in Clerkenwell began to be encroached upon by the modern builder. The majority have now drifted farther afield, to Fulham and Hammersmith. But there are still a fair number of the children of the Sunny South in the Dale. You may see the organs in the early morning being polished up outside the houses, and if you go into the yards you may discover the ice-barrows packed away in the coach-houses, waiting for the disappearance of the baked-chestnut season and the coming of summer.

Here, in a large coach-house in a mews, is a proprietor of ice-cream barrows hard at work repainting his stock in gorgeous colours. Brilliant streaks of red and green light up the dreary place where the signor is working. When we look in upon his artistic proceedings he is filling his studio with melody. He is singing an air from ‘Il Trovatore’ in his native Italian, and at the same time painting an Italian girl in her national costume on the panel of an ice-barrow.

A little farther down the mews we climb the crazy staircase that leads to the loft, and find a middle-aged widow occupying it with five children. We have arrived at an awkward moment, for the widow is in tearful converse with the Industrial Schools officer. One of the children has been caught the previous night begging. Children are not allowed to beg in the streets today, and if it is found that the parents send them out or have not sufficient control over them to keep them in the little offenders can be taken before a magistrate and sent to an industrial school, to be trained for more reputable occupations in life.

The widow declares that the boy was not sent out by her, and weeps copiously, while she relates the story. She has five children and no money. I don’t think the officer is very much impressed. I am afraid he knows more about the widow and the begging boy than he cares to reveal in the presence of strangers. He gives the woman a kindly warning, and leaves her with the intimation that if any more of her children are caught begging she will be invited to pay a visit to the magistrate.

The Industrial Schools officer has a busy time in the Dale, for there are many young children living in vicious and criminal surroundings, and it is his task to remove them at the first opportunity, in order that they may have a chance in life. The work the industrial schools are accomplishing is invaluable. Under the Act a careful guardianship can be exercised by the State until the rescued boy or girl has reached the age of 18. There is no coming out of the industrial schools and returning to the evil surroundings now. But the task of the officer who has to see that the lads and lasses do not, after their school days are up, return to their evil associates is not a light one. He has occasionally to exercise the ingenuity of a Sherlock Holmes in order to get on the track ‘one of his young people’ who has mysteriously disappeared from the place that has been found for him or her.

Not long ago a young girl who had been sent to Canada, and was supposed to be doing well there, was discovered dressed in boy’s clothes back again in the Dale with her uncle and aunt, who were undesirable companions for her. The girl had in some way managed to get her passage-money and come home, and had hoped, disguised as a young man, to escape the vigilance of the Industrial Schools officer.

Through a couple of streets and we are back in common lodging-house land. There is one long street in which the houses are registered from end to end. Some of them look like shops with the shutters up, others like private houses that have come down in the world. But every room is packed with as many beds as the law permits, and the common kitchen is reached by the area steps.

At one of the houses along this street a man and a woman are standing at the door. The woman has only one arm and one eye, the man has no arms. But they are a highly popular couple, and a good many of the lodging-houses in the street belong to them. The lady is said to be quite equal to quieting any disturbance among the lodgers with her one hand, and the man displays the most remarkable skill, suffering apparently little inconvenience from his loss. When you have seen him take his pipe out of his mouth with the empty sleeve of his jacket you will understand how he is able, with his wife’s assistance, to keep his rough clientele well in hand, and to compel their respect.

There is one feature of Notting Dale which strikes you forcibly if you go into a local crowd engaged in a heated argument, and that is the preponderance of the rural accent; for this is a district in which the evil of rural immigration has written itself large. Thousands of honest country folks crowd up year after year to the great city that they believe to be paved with gold. Of those who come in by the Great Western a large percentage drift to the Dale, failing to find room in the districts around the terminus; and in the Dale a process of moral deterioration goes on which is a tragedy.

The husband fails to find the work he expected would be ready to his hand in busy London. The little savings are soon gone; the man and his wife are driven to the common lodging-house, or, if there are children with them, to the furnished room. The wife perhaps goes to the laundry work. The husband’s enforced idleness often ends in his becoming a confirmed loafer, contented to live on what his wife can earn. There is in Notting Dale a large working population living cleanly by honest industry, but the country folk who have been unfortunate at the commencement of the struggle for life in London cannot avail themselves of the cleaner accommodation and the better environment. They are forced into the area which is given over to the vicious and the criminal, and they gradually sink to the level of their neighbours.

Many a tale of heroic struggle against evil surroundings do the women tell who come before the School Board officials to explain the non-attendance of their children. Sometimes it is the man who has had the moral strength to resist, and with tears in his eyes will tell of the healthy, country-bred wife who came with him one day from the far-away village full of hope, but who has yielded to the awful environment, deserted his home, and left his children to fall into evil companionship.

There is no sadder chapter in the story of London than that of the light-hearted country folk who come to it full of courage and hope, and gradually sink down under the evil influence of a slum to which their poverty has driven them, until they themselves are as criminal and as vicious as their neighbours. For them little can be done, though now and again the brave men and women who are working in the good cause succeed in rescuing them, even though they have fallen to the lowest depths of the abyss.

But for the next generation the hope is greater. High above one of the most notorious streets in the Dale tower the great buildings in which the children are gathered together and educated and taught the principles of right doing. This is the thought that comes to me as, fresh from our pilgrimage of pain, we stand in the big playground and watch the little ones filing out in the sunshine to go to their homes. Some of them are well clad, the children of honest, hard-working folk who love them and care for them. But many are going back to miserable dens where there is neither love nor care, where there is no respect for the laws of God or man.

They cannot all be saved from the evil environment that awaits them, but they come day after day to the schools, and there they fall under an influence which, if they are not inherently bad, will stand them in good stead through all their lives. We watch the little ones as with the light-heartedness of childhood they trip away, some to the meal which loving hands have prepared for them, others to crowd and clamour at the doors of the mission-house, where the free meal stands between them and the hunger pain, and then we turn into a street that bore formerly so ill a name that the authorities changed it, to remove the stigma of the address from the few decent people in it. In five minutes we are once more on the beaten track and in the heart of Royal and aristocratic Kensington.

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