At Frying Pan Alley with Jack London
The twenty-six year old American novelist Jack London came to report upon the Coronation of Edward VII in the Summer of 1902, but when he arrived he chose instead to spend seven weeks exploring the East End and wrote an account published as “The People of the Abyss.” London grew up in poverty in San Francisco and worked in all kinds of menial jobs whilst becoming a writer, allying himself with the lowest of the low, tramping across America and being imprisoned as vagrant before he was able to make a living from his writing. Yet although he won wealth and success, his own experience gave him a personal understanding of what it meant to struggle and he never lost his passion to tell the stories of the lives of the poor.
One day in August 1902, walking down the Mile End Rd with a sweatshop shoemaker - “a man of twenty-eight who eked out a precarious existence in a sweating den” - Jack London accepted his invitation to visit the workplace in question and see the conditions for himself.
Passing Leman St, we cut off to the left into Spitalfields, and dived into Frying Pan Alley. A swarm of children cluttered the slimy pavement, for all the world like tadpoles just turned frogs on the bottom of a dry pond. In a narrow doorway, so narrow that perforce we stepped over her, sat a woman with a young babe, nursing at her breasts grossly naked and libelling all the sacredness of motherhood. In the black and narrow hall behind her, we waded through a mess of young life, and essayed an even narrower and fouler stairway. Up we went, three flights, each landing two feet by three in area, and heaped with filth and refuse.
There were seven rooms in this abomination called a house. In six of the rooms, twenty-odd people, of both sexes and all ages, cooked, ate, slept and worked. In size the rooms averaged eight feet by eight, or possibly nine. The seventh room we entered. It was a den in which five men “sweated.” It was seven feet wide by eight long, and the table at which the work was performed took up the major portion of the space. On this table were five lasts, and there was barely room for the men to stand to their work, for the rest of the space was heaped with cardboard, leather, bundles of shoe uppers, and a miscellaneous assortment of materials used in attaching the uppers of shoes to their soles.
In the adjoining room lived a woman and six children. In another vile hole lived a widow, with an only son of sixteen who was dying of consumption. The woman hawked sweetmeats on the street, I was told, and more often failed than not to supply her son with the three quarts of milk that he daily required. Further, this son, weak and dying, did not taste meat oftener than once a week, and the kind and quality of this meat cannot possibly be imagined by people who have never watched human swine eat.
“The way ‘e coughs is somethin’ terrible,” volunteered my sweated friend, referring to the dying boy. “We ‘ear ‘im ‘ere, while we’re workin’, an’ it’s terrible, I say, terrible!” And, what of the coughing and the sweetmeats, I found another menace added to the hostile environment of the children of the slum.
My sweated friend, when work was to be had, toiled with four other men, in his eight-by-seven room. In the Winter, a lamp burned nearly all the day and added its fumes to the over-loaded air, which was breathed, and breathed, and breathed again.
In good times, when there was a rush of work, this man told me that he could earn as high as “thirty bob a week,” – Thirty shillings! “But it’s only the best of us can do it,” he qualified. “An’ then we can work twelve, thirteen and fourteen hours a day, just as fast as we can. An’ you should see us sweat! Just running from us! If you could see us it’d dazzle your eyes – tacks flyin’ out of mouth like from a machine. Look at my mouth.”
I looked. The teeth were worn down by the constant friction of the metallic brads, while they were coal black and rotten.“I clean my teeth,” he added, “else they’d be worse.”
After he told me that the workers had to furnish their own tools, brads, “grindery,” cardboard, rent, light, and what not, it was plain that his thirty bob was a diminishing quantity.
“But how long does the rush season last, in which you receive this high wage of thirty bob?” I asked. “Four months,” was the answer, and for the rest of the year, he informed me, they average from “half a quid,” to “a quid” a week. The present week was half gone and he had earned four bob. And yet I was given to understand that this was one of the better grades of sweating.
I looked out of the window, which should have commanded the backyards of the neighbouring buildings. But there were no backyards, or rather they were covered with one-storey hovels, cowsheds in which people lived. The roofs of these hovels were covered with deposits of filth, in some places a couple of feet deep – the contributions from the back windows of the second and third storeys. I could make out meat and fish bones, garbage, pestilential rags, old boots, broken earthenware, and all the general refuse of the human sty.
“This is the last year of this trade, they’re getting machines to do away with us,” said the seated one mournfully, as we stepped over the young woman with the breasts grossly naked and waded anew through the cheap young life.
If Jack London returned he would find Frying Pan Alley unrecognisable now, with upmarket food chains in the snazzy Nido student tower on one side and the new Raven Row art gallery on the other. No doubt he would be pleased to see that the squalor and filth he witnessed here have been consigned to history.
At the time of Jack London’s visit in 1902, the population of the East End was three times what it is today, yet he would not have wander too far on his return visit to discover that overcrowded housing and child poverty persist over a century later. He would not be very happy about that. And although he would be delighted that sweatshops such as he described have gone from East London – even if only within living memory – yet he I think he would be disappointed to learn that manufacturing under comparable conditions still exists on the other side of the world and their products are on sale throughout the streets of our modern capital.
“I went down into the under-world with an attitude of mind that may be best likened to that of an explorer,” wrote Jack London of his researches in that long ago Summer. In conclusion to “People of the Abyss,” he explored questions raised by his East End sojourn. “If Civilisation has increased the producing power of the average man,” he wrote,“why has it not bettered the lot of the average man?” It is a question that, in various forms, has been debated ever since.
Frying Pan Alley, 1912, by C. A. Mathew
Frying Pan Alley, nineteen seventies.
Archive photographs copyright © Bishopsgate Institute
You might also like to read about Jack London at Itchy Park