London Awakes – Living London 1902

London Awakes By W. Pett Ridge.


THE great town is a-bed. A day of busy, crowded hours ; a day with strenuous traffic in certain quarters and with easy content in others, a day of the year resembling in these things its three hundred and sixty-four fellows, is exacting its toll, and London, tired of its work and tired of its pleasures, takes a brief space of quiet. The last fight has taken place in Canning Town ; the last struggle through crowded staircases in Grosvenor Square is accomplished. There exist no rich or poor, fortunate or unlucky, good or bad, young or old ; with closed eyes all are equal, and dreams that come to sport with dormant minds care nothing whether the address be Eaton Square, S.W., or Tod Street, Limehouse. Just for an hour or two the millions of London are all little children. Come with me, and see how London awakes.


It goes to bed late and rises early: through these few intervening hours the main streets are, in wise parishes, fully lighted, and the wastrel, slippering along, is a king with all these illuminations existing for him and him alone. High-loaded waggons up from the home counties saunter along in a leisurely way, the carmen relying on their horses for finding the way to the Borough, to Covent Garden, to Spitalfields; a motor-car whirs by with a muffled-up driver sulky at finding so little traffic to disturb. The round light from policemen’s lanterns dances from doorways to windows, from windows into areas, goes in butterfly fashion up blind alleys, and sometimes discovering a bundle of rags rests there. The policeman says, not unkindly, ” Now then, this won’t do, you know,” and the bundle of rags replies hoarsely and vehemently, ” To think that it’s the likes of me that keeps the likes of you,” but rolls out all the same, starting off with elaborate pretence of keeping an important engagement, but trundling itself back as soon as the whispered sound of the constable’s footsteps has gone.

At 4 a.m.

The hour being four and the sky changing from black to something of a deep blue (a half moon and the stars still on duty), London begins to show, in places, signs of bestirring itself. Scarlet mail-carts, which might have gained this vivid colour from excess of haste, race along streets that lead to railway stations ; milk-carts run chariot races, newspaper carts waiting in the tributary lanes of Fleet Street and the Strand, listening to the grunt and heavy breathing of printing machines, catch the huge bundles that are aimed at them and fly away to keep up the game by throwing them at railway porters. There are but few hansoms in the streets, and the last four-wheeler is ready to rock its way home to a mews when its driver shall have finished his coffee at the stall; but the stations switch on another globe or two of electric light; parcels’ offices open; the all-night trams, on the south side of the river, take night workers home and bring early birds to Blackfriars.

The bridges that have been but specked with the infrequent cart take a more occupied air, and men with coat-collars turned up, pockets corpulent with breakfast in paper, hurry across from the southern side to poach some odd job that has been overlooked or disregarded by the regular huntsmen. The night loafer, ever growling a recital of some purely imaginary quarrel in which the other party appears to be badly worsted, drifts towards the parks to await the opening of gates and to prepare for daylight slumber, or stirred by some faint memory of early teaching goes to Trafalgar Square and there in the water of the silent fountains dips his head and his hands; sometimes able to make his toilet more perfect by borrowing from a lady a piece of soap.


The markets have a wide-awake appearance. All night long, the hall in Bow Street has been taking in wooden trays from vans, handled with great tenderness, and from end to end it is a flower garden, pleasantly and invitingly scented, bright and brave with colour, and prepared for the forthcoming inspection.

A public house in Bow Street is open for the market men and for no others, just as others in Fleet Street have been at the call of printers and no one else. To the market comes, for the joy of, market men, the young blade who at intervals in winter months gets himself dressed out of all recognition by one of the neighbouring costumiers, and, after a vain endeavour in Covent Garden Theatre to persuade himself that he is a desperate reveller, offers himself (with his companion) as a master in the craft of badinage, an adept in the art of chaffering, and finds these characters as unconvincing as the one he has been endeavouring to assume at the fancy ball. The two parties—workers and drones —contemplate each other as they meet in the hive, and the drones say, ” What a hideous bore it would be to have to work for one’s living” and the workers remark, ” Thanks be! we can do without making guys of ourselves.”

Up and down Long Acre cries are heard of “‘Igher up there, can’t you?” and slowly the carts of vegetables and the loads of fruit come nearer to their goal. There are more ways than one of earning a living in London ; in each side street near the market, for instance, stands a decent white-aproned, black-bonnetted, matronly woman, whose profession it is to hold whips for the drivers who go into the market; these also act as guides to porters who run along with sieves piled high on heads, shouting hoarsely ” Mainwarin’,” or some other name. In a few hours’ time, at nine o’clock to be precise, all this will vanish; the hose will play on the roadways, and put out the fire of traffic. Eastwards, the City market is opening its shops of meat and poultry ; if one could see Smithfield higher north, one would see the frozen sheep coming out of their white linen gowns that they have worn for the better encouragement of coolness.


The morning is chilly and you will not, I am sure, mind hurrying as we go down towards the river. The white-lighted Strand has hansom cabs on a rank near Waterloo Bridge, but I think we had better walk. The corner of Arundel Street is busy with newspaper carts — a little agility evades disaster. The sky has changed again and there is light in the east now, wherefore the river with a high tide looks like silver with a dark background of warehouses on the Surrey side, where a haze of smoke goes up from tall chimneys. A tug with white light forward and green light at stern takes half-a-dozen barges and, puffing out importantly, conveys them up river; and this seems such a good idea that three other tugs imitate the example, the barges rolling uneasily as who should say, Why on earth can’t you let a barge alone to finish its sleep? Outside Black-friars Station, and near the statue of Queen Victoria, the last touch of cleansing City streets is being done by furious drenching, the hose crawls about the street sinuously, giving here and there a squirt into the air. Looking back one sees the fine Embankment fringed with lamps; lights in some of the top rooms of the giant hotels seem to mingle with the stars.

We will not go to St. Martin’s-le-Grand, lighted and busy ; instead, we will hurry to the City side of London Bridge, where, even at this hour, lazy men lean on the coping, to become exhausted with the strain of watching those at work in the ships below. Steamers are unloading their contents, cranes whine at the necessity for early labour, and men, with leathern knots that give to their heads a useful flatness, go with crates of bananas along a gangway to disappear in warehouses.

Here, parallel with the river and running under the Christian name of Upper or Lower, from St. Paul’s Station to the Tower, is Thames Street, with traffic that crams the street as meat in a sausage skin.

We are early for Billingsgate, but everywhere is a fresh, interesting scent of fish; everywhere open cases dripping with melted ice; gas is flaring at the shell-fish establishments. If you have corns, prepare to guard them now. The heated men who come out from the wet, sloppy, slippery riverside market, their thick, broad-brimmed reeking hats loaded, have no time for the nicer refinements, and any protest will show clearly enough that the traditional flow of language has been handed down unimpaired to the new century.

You will be glad to go on eastwards, past the fine approach to the Tower Bridge, whose red lights warn the river that its bascules are down — the Tower itself we shall see better presently—past the entrances to the first docks and in the direction of St. George Street, East, once known under the name of Ratcliff Highway. St. George Street, East, is sparingly lighted, but you will see that it is endeavouring to atone for a speckled past. Gone are the dancing saloons, gone are most of the murky-looking money-changers; in their place are mission rooms, with invitations in half-a-dozen languages, and a Salvation Army shelter. Men come out of the riverside houses, and, closing doors quietly, set off at a run; the younger men startle the air with a whistled tune. A small girl of about twelve hurries to work north into Commercial Road with a mouth organ for only company and quite content. Every ten minutes makes a change, and the gas lamps in Shadwell have the shy look of a man in evening dress at daytime. Not that it is yet light. A slight mist has strolled up from the river, and hangs over the docks, so that men coming in opposite directions blunder against each other. Up a side street where, in lighted rooms, foreign tailors are already at work, into Commercial Road with high-stacked loads of hay lumbering along and workmen’s trams, blue and yellow, equally well loaded and sailing Aldgate way.


The sky has taken a lighter blue now with flecks of white clouds, and the gas lamps and the electric light go out. The pavement near Aldgate Station is crowded, and here newspapers are on sale—the hour is now a quarter to six; on the opposite side the butchers’ shops are open with a line of stark sheep from end to end. With the hurrying workmen (some of whom go into the station to take the first train Hammersmith way), the red handkerchief bundle still remains, but it has been partly ousted by a neat little wicker-basket carried under the arm; plus sometimes a blue-enamelled can. The younger men, although in a perspiring haste, stop for a moment to inspect the picture of a gentleman (who is evidently no gentleman) securing the head of an amiable-looking youth in the guillotine ; this illustrates the week’s melodrama at the local theatre. In a quiet crescent off the Minories an aproned youth at the Deutscher Gasthof cleans windows, and constables from the new police-station watch him with the air of men to whom any incident is welcome.

Here, as the directories say, is the Tower of London. The Tower stands out grey and white, clean cut and stately against the morning light of the eastern sky; in the budding trees that fringe the deep dry moat, birds sing as loudly as a street boy whistles, glad to be alone and easily deluding themselves into the belief that they are in the country. Indeed, one feels the bracing freshness of the morning air; one realises that Nature gives London and the country a fair start, and that London denies the air as the day wears on. A tired red-haired soldier makes for the gate that leads to the river side, and has argument with the sentry there. On towards Billingsgate again, where the railway vans, loaded with loose turbot sprinkled with ice, are now crowding by-streets that lead up to Eastcheap, and, if you can spare a minute, come down to the Custom House Quay. The pigeons, disturbed, fly away, but return quickly under the impression that, where men are, there must be lunch and consequently crumbs of bread for honest birds to eat. A poster says that the Watermen’s and Lightermen’s Asylum for Wives and Widows has five vacancies—may it always have vacancies and never a hard-up wife or a disconsolate widow for candidate.

Watermen and lightermen are at work now out on the river: barges in the Pool are being aroused, and men shout from the river-side to men at mid-river, and somehow contrive to make themselves intelligible to each other. The Batavier III., of Rotterdam, white funnelled and blue decked, goes out from the quay, under the slight control exercised by an unwinding rope, and down the river, the two bascules of the Tower Bridge lifting themselves politely to let her through. Near the Mansion House, which has on its walls an announcement signed Edward R. and I., the lighted subways are open, but are not required, for one can cross the space with as much safety as one would go over a country meadow. True, a railway van goes by, and still the newspaper vans race along, but those who know the crowded space by day would scarce recognise it now. A mail van returns from London Bridge, and half-a-dozen postmen wearing their empty canvas bags as scarves run after it, and get a lift to St. Martin’s-le-Grand.

Along Cheapside the earliest housekeepers are beginning to fill the zinc tubs that stand by the kerb ; they shake mats dustily, a work that the City laws will not permit at a later hour. Smoke, high up, goes from the chimneys ; and the cheaper refreshment places, that advertise beef puddings same as mother makes, unlock their doors and light the circle of gas-jets underneath copper urns. Junior clerks mingle with the increasing arrivals in Holborn, and a few cyclists occupy the roadway. From below the Tube stations send up now and again lift-loads of passengers, who give a black patch that quickly breaks up into units.

Away in the minor suburbs, where London mainly lives, servants are being implored to get up like good girls and see to master’s breakfast, otherwise he will be late for the City, and goodness alone has knowledge of what will happen then ; athletic young men and women are going out on their bicycles. In town, the Serpentine is engaging the attention of a few men whose houses presumably are not fitted with bath rooms; the gates of the Green Park and Battersea Park and Finsbury Park and Victoria Park have been unlocked. Workmen’s trains arrive crowded and fast at every railway station ; and near Liverpool Street a hospitable church is open that girls, who come up from West Ham in time to avail themselves of the cheap fares, but too early for work, may find retreat for an hour; yellow ‘buses and red ‘buses and trams of all colours come out of yards, their horses fresh and eager for the day’s work. Coffee stalls are closed up, and, business over, go home. Broad daylight now, and the time going quickly. A quiet hum of conversation starts, prelude to the noisier chorus to come later; piano organs are dragged by ladies in Italian costumes, who speak the purest language of Clerkenwell, to arouse somnolent bystreets. Everyone is a weather prophet and declares that we are in for another fine day; rings of smoke from cigarettes remain for an undecided moment in the crisp fresh air.


The asphalted roadway in front of the Mansion House is no longer the open space that it was an hour or so ago; ‘buses are going east to west, north to south, and City trains run almost buffer to buffer in their anxiety to bring up for the day’s work reinforcements of silk – hatted regiments who, centreing at the Mansion House, go off hurriedly armed with their little brown bags to occupy offices in a hundred by-streets. At Westminster the king of clocks chimes in its impressive way the hour, and Gog and Magog in Cheapside intimate agreement. London, at which we grumble sometimes, but of which we allow no one else to complain ; this great, overgrown, clumsy, good-tempered town, that some of us love with the affection we give to our mothers, London is awake.

Source: Living London Edited by George R. Sims. Cassell and Company, Limited. 1902.