At about eight in the morning we all had a shave in the Trafalgar Square fountains, and I spent most of the day reading Eugenie Grandet, which was the only book I had brought with me. The sight of a French book produced the usual remarks – ‘Ah, French? That’ll be something pretty warm, eh?’ etc. Evidently most English people have no idea that there are French books which are not pornographic. Down and out people seem to read exclusively books of the Buffalo Bill type. Every tramp carries one of these, and they have a kind of circulating library, all swapping books when they get to the spike.[1]

That night, as we were starting for Kent the next morning, I decide to sleep in bed and went to a lodging house in the Southwark Bridge Road. This is a sevenpenny kip, one of the few in London, and looks it. The beds are five feet long, with no pillows (you use your coat rolled up), and infested by fleas, besides a few bugs. The kitchen is a small, stinking cellar where the deputy sits with a table of flyblown jam tarts etc. for sale a few feet from the door of the lavatory. The rats are so bad that several cats have to be kept exclusively to deal with them. The lodgers were dock workers, I think, and they did not seem a bad crowd. There was a youth among them, pale and consumptive looking but evidently a labourer, who was devoted to poetry. He repeated

‘A voice so thrilling ne’er was ‘eard
In Ipril from the cuckoo bird,
Briking the silence of the seas
Beyond the furthest ‘Ebrides’[2]

with genuine feeling. The others did not laugh at him much.

[1] spike: workhouse

[2] ‘A voice so thrilling…furthest ‘Ebrides’: a corrupted form of a verse from Wordsworth’s poem, ‘The Solitary Reaper’: ‘A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard / In the spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird, / Breaking the silence of the seas / Amongst the farthest Hebrides’ (1805). Peter Davison

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The next day I went to Trafalgar Square and camped by the north wall, which is one of the recognised rendezvous of down and out people in London. At this time of year the square has a floating population of 100 or 200 people (about ten per cent of them women), some of whom actually look on it as their home. They get their food by regular begging rounds (Covent Garden[1] at 4am. for damaged fruit, various convents during the morning, restaurants and dustbins late at night etc.) and they manage to ‘tap’ likely-looking passers by for enough to keep them in tea. Tea is going on the square at all hours, one person supplying a ‘drum’, another sugar and so on. The milk is condensed milk at 2½d a tin. You jab two holes in the tin with a knife, apply your mouth to one of them and blow, whereupon a sticky greyish stream dribbles from the other. The holes are then plugged with chewed paper, and the tin is kept for days, becoming coated with dust and filth. Hot water is cadged at coffee shops, or at night boiled over watchmen’s fires, but this has to be done on the sly, as the police won’t allow it. Some of the people I met on the square had been there without a break for six weeks, and did not seem much the worse, except that they are all fantastically dirty. As always among the destitute, a large proportion of them are Irishmen. From time to time these men go home on visits, and it appears that they never think of paying their passage, but always stow away on small cargo boats, the crews conniving.

I had meant to sleep in St Martin’s Church,[2] but from what the others said it appeared that when you go in you are asked searching questions by some woman known as the Madonna, so I decided to stay the night in the square. It was not so bad as I’d expected, but between the cold and the police it was impossible to get a wink of sleep, and no one except a few hardened old tramps even tried to do so. There are seats enough for about fifty people, and the rest have to sit on the ground, which of course is forbidden by law. Every few minutes there would be a shout of ‘Look out, boys, here comes the flattie!’ and a policeman would come round and shake those who were asleep, and make the people on the ground get up. We use to kip down again the instant he had passed, and this went on like a kind of game from eight at night till three or four in the morning. After midnight it was so cold that I had to go for long walks to keep warm. The streets are somehow rather horrible at that hour; all silent and deserted, and yet lighted almost as bright as day with those garish lamps, which give everything a deathly air, as though London were the corpse of a town. About three o’clock another man and I went down to the patch of grass behind the Guards’ parade ground, and saw prostitutes and men lying in couples there in the bitter cold mist and dew. There are always a number of prostitutes in the square; they are the unsuccessful ones, who can’t earn enough for their night’s kip. Overnight one of these women had been lying on the ground crying bitterly, because a man had gone off without paying her fee, which was sixpence. Towards morning they do not even get sixpence, but only a cup of tea or a cigarette. About four somebody got hold of a number of newspaper posters,[3] and we sat down six or eight on a bench and packed ourselves in enormous paper parcels, which kept us fairly warm till Stewart’s café in St. Martin’s Lane opened. At Stewart’s you can sit from five till nine for a cup of tea (or sometimes three or four people even share a cup between them) and you are allowed to sleep with your head on the table till seven; after that the proprietor wakes you. One meets a very mixed crowd there – tramps, Covent Garden porters, early business people, prostitutes – and there are constant quarrels and fights. On this occasion, an old, very ugly woman, wife of a porter, was violently abusing two prostitutes, because they could afford a better breakfast than she could. As each dish was brought to them she would point at it and shout accusingly, ‘There goes the price of another fuck! We don’t get kippers for breakfast, do we girls? ‘Ow do you think she paid for them doughnuts? That’s that there negro that ‘as ‘er for a tanner’ etc. etc., but the prostitutes did not mind much.

[1] Covent Garden: In Orwell’s time (and for some three hundred years before) the central fruit and vegetable market serving London. The market moved to Nine Elms, Battersea, in 1974.

[2] St Martin-in-the-Fields Church: faces on to the North-East corner of Trafalgar Square. Its crypt provided shelter for down-and-outs. Shelter is still provided today.

[3] Posters: handwritten substitution for ‘parcels’. Peter Davison

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On the night of the 25th I started off from Chelsea with about 14/- in hand, and went to Lew Levy’s kip[1] in Westminster Bridge Road. It is much the same as it was three years ago, except nearly all the beds are now a shilling instead of ninepence. This is owing to interference from the L.C.C. who have enacted (in the interest of hygiene, as usual) that beds in lodging houses be further apart. There is a whole string of laws of this type relating to lodging houses,* but there is not and never will be a law to say that beds must be reasonably comfortable. The net result of this law is that one’s bed is now three feet from the next instead of two feet, and threepence dearer.

*For instance, Dick’s café in Billingsgate. Dick’s was one of the few places where you could get a cup of tea for 1d, and there were fires there so that anyone who had a penny could warm himself for hours in the early mornings. Only this last week the L.C.C closed it on the ground that it was unhygienic.

[1] kip: originally a brothel; then a common lodging house (as here) and by extension, a bed: today a sleep. Peter Davison

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Coming soon…

‘Hop-picking’ by George Orwell

New Statesman & Nation, 17th October 1931

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