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Down Among The Meths Men

September 24, 2011
by the gentle author

The work of Geoffrey Fletcher (1923–2004) is an inspiration to me, and today I am publishing these fascinating drawings he made in Spitalfields in the nineteen sixties accompanied by an excerpt from his 1967 book Down Among the Meths Men. For anyone seeking an introduction to Geoffrey Fletcher’s writing, I recommend The London Nobody Knows which has just been republished with a new introduction by Dan Cruickshank.

If you want to know who they are, the meths men of Skid Row, then I will introduce them as the alcoholic dependents of the East End. They are to be found primarily in an area of of a couple of square miles known as Skid Row. It is a Rotten Row and only beginning to attract the attention of the trend setters.

Skid Row was originally a place of fields. Bodies were tipped there in the plague, their remains turn up occasionally. The most architecturally interesting part of Skid Row are the streets built by the Huguenots, who settled there after the St Bartholomew massacre. A century and a half ago, the rest of the East End surrounded the Huguenot quarter and brought it low. Ultimately the area will be rebuilt. No plans have been made to preserve the houses of Queen Anne’s time, as far as I am informed. I should like to see the whole of Skid Row preserved intact, with its inhabitants, though I recognise this is not a conventional view.

It is necessary, therefore, to contemplate it before it disappears, street by street. Without a doubt, reformers will eventually overtake these suburbs of Hell. They will tear down the fine, rotten houses, build over the bombed site and cart off the wet rags, old mattresses, waste paper and vegetable refuse that makes the quarter so attractive. In that event, London will have lost one of its major advantages, for there is nothing to be gained from well swept streets and office blocks.

Stand in Artillery Lane, watch a meths man rubbing his itchy sores and then eye the stream of commuters pouring into Liverpool St Station intent on the suburbs. Now and again, a meths man will appear among them, a goblin in rags. In their haste for home and respectability, they have nothing to say to him. Nor he to them. He is the inarticulate voice crying from the wilderness of old bricks, bug-ridden rags, cinders and sickly grass. His bloated, alchohol-distorted face is something from an uneasy dream, he sways in front of you in tipsy despair, blurred, disgusting, shaking like an Autumn leaf, the apotheosis of the antihero, a Prophet without a message.

There is a curious camaraderie among the meths men, perhaps the only attractive quality a conventional observer would allow them. It is a ghostly solidarity, the fag end of what is called co-operation, citizenship, the team spirit or any other of those names used commonly to cover up the true nature of the forms of society.

When I got to the Synagogue, I found them on the steps, eight men and a woman. One of the school was in the cooler. A negro roadsweeper languished over his muck wagon at the corner and a few young prostitutes, on the job, hung about in Brick Lane. Brick Lane is marvellous, a melting pot of all the nationalities that grew from the loins of Adam, greasy, feverish Brick Lane, the Bond St for the people of the abyss. Fournier St was a perspective of houses, once the homes of silk merchants and Huguenot weavers, over-used and neglected till the very imposts of the carved doors had become faint and bent with dejection. From the over-tenanted houses, the signs of fruit merchants and Jewish tailors creaked in the wind. The rain had given way to the thin mist of a Winter day.

The Chicksand group sat in a row, staring at nothing. Absolutely nothing. It reminded me of the brass monkeys. I knew the woman. The Chicksand men called her Beth, referring to her native quarter of Bethnal Green. Beth showed signs of recognition, lifted up her weary red eye-lids and stretched out a hand for a fag. I distributed Woodbines. Meths women are heavy drinkers, and can get through three or four wine bottles full in a morning, but they tend to begin slowly and build up as the day wears on. Next to her was Liverpool Jack, an ex-merchant seaman whose nerves had gone West on the convoys, and a man called Pee. He had no other name, nor could any other have done him credit. He was the most abject of the meths men. He had made two or three attempts at suicide, and his last one nearly rang the bell. I thought, sometimes I overdo my relish for offbeat experiences.

In Itchy Park, beside Christ Church, Spitalfields.

Meths woman, 1965.

Meths men on the prowl in Artillery Passage, 1965.

Meths people in Artillery Passage, 1966.

Meths men gather round the fire outside the Spitalfields Market.

Meths men waiting to move on the corner of Fournier St, 1965.

The old meths site in Fieldgate St, Whitechapel.

Spitalfields Market scavengers.

Meths man asleep in Widegate St, 1965.

You may also like to read

The Spitalfields Nobody Knows (Part One)

The Spitalfields Nobody Knows (Part Two)

16 Responses leave one →
  1. Marina permalink
    September 24, 2011

    Wonderful, moving portraits

  2. September 24, 2011

    Good one, Gentle Author. Thanks for the introduction to some vivid work! I’ll definitely check out Fletcher’s book.

  3. September 24, 2011

    Lovely sketches, and very well written. Though it is safe to say that it is our distance from these lower depths that give this narrative it’s beauty … and these denizens of hopelessness any vestiges of romance.

  4. Gary permalink
    September 24, 2011

    The meth drinkers are still to be found in the East End at these present times.
    Methylated spirit is pure absolute alcohol mixed with methyl to render it unpalatable, but the meths man mixes it with orange juice to cover the taste.
    The alcohol in meths is much stronger than in normal spirits. In my youth I foolishly put pure absolute alcohol in a glass of bitter and gave it to my friend David who slept for 36 hours.

  5. Cherub permalink
    October 10, 2011

    I find these drawings very poignant. There is always a reason why people end up on the streets living a hopeless life. My late dad was born in 1917 in a poor part of Belfast and he often used to tell me about the poverty and homelessness he witnessed during his youth in the 30s. If we complained about anything as children or teenagers he would often say we should be grateful we had a roof over our heads and were not homeless alcoholics. I think what he saw must have obviously had an effect on him and he was a great believer in not judging a book by its cover or a man by his clothes.

  6. Robert Grofuss permalink
    December 1, 2011

    There is a compelling description of these street alcholics in George Orwell’s book ” down and out in Paris and London ” the second part of the book is set in London and he describes sharing a bench with the drinkers on a freezing night.

  7. Jeffrey Prior permalink
    December 29, 2011

    When growing up in the early seventies I would often visit Club Row on a Sunday morning with my father, to look at the dogs and reptiles. I remember seeing these men, staggering around the area in shabby greatcoats tied with string, wearing rotting plimpsoles, and seemingly shouting at everyone. I think I can remember the ridged bottles of purple liquid which would be swigged in dank shop doorways and on rickety park benches, and rotten yellow stumps for teeth.

    Walking back to where the car was parked near the Henry Moore statue on that council estate, the whole area smelt of Sunday roast dinnners being cooked. We would go and visit Aunt Ivy and Uncle Len in there flat in Ada Street, next to the gas works by the Regents Canal for a nice cup of tea, before heading back North to Enfield.

    I don’t think that there are any meths drinkers left, or new ones coming through. The bombsites have been cleared, the sale of dogs is banned, and Club Row market is now half empty. The smell of roast dinners cooking on Sunday mornings has gone forever, just like my Dad, Aunt Ivy and Uncle Len. Gaw’d bless ’em all.

  8. Irene permalink
    April 3, 2015

    Thank you for this. My mother grew up in this area. I also like Fletcher’s
    film, directed by Norman Cohen. The synagogue is now a mosque.

  9. Catherine M permalink
    August 6, 2017

    I remember seeing Meths drinkers as a child in London in the 1960’s/70’s..that, and Surgical spirits.
    They were just as described by the pencil/ink drawings here, the alcoholics favoured long tweed coats made of wool, slit up the back.
    They did used to sit around braziers, some in Glasgow, in the Gorbals, one bitter winter in 1977 looked like something from another era now.
    Braziers are no longer used. bomb sites have been built on, and meths mercifully gave way to cheap ‘legitimate’ alcohol.
    However, Ron and Martin, two 1970’s long term homeless from Kingston upon Thames did drink surgical spirits- Martin began to go blind from it.
    Both men were kindly, Kaleidoscope, a very good harity [I think it is still going] gave them food, and a place to be.

    I hope wherever they are now ,they are at peace, whether in this World or the Next.

  10. Catherine M permalink
    August 6, 2017

    Jefferey, Yes, London that we knew has gone forever.
    The ridged meths/surgical spirits bottles , flattish oval shaped, ridged on one side, with the amethyst contents part hidden by a paper bag.
    Today I cleaned an oak floor with meths, and the bottles of today are plastic and very different looking, the meths looks the same though.

    The ‘derelicts’ as my parents called them did used to quarrel a lot amongst themselves, and string was sometimes used as belts to hold the coats closed in winter.
    I remember destroyed noses amongst this population, wether through fighting or, as someone suggested untreated syphilis caught years before.

    Deeply sad though- these poor men and women- no one should have to live like that, and so many had [and have still] short life expectancy.

  11. bob l permalink
    November 27, 2019

    As a child I lived in Aldershot, a military town with a lot of what we called “derelicts”. Most of them were war vets who suffered from shell shock. A little ditty some of the kids would taunt them with went thus
    Lately Lincon I been thinking just what is that you are drinking?
    Looks like whiskey, taste’s like wine,
    Oh my God its turpentine!

  12. George permalink
    February 14, 2022

    With respect to denatured alcohol (methylated spirits), if methanol (methyl alcohol) is used as an additive to the ethanol, the substance becomes not just unpalatable, but actually poisonous, and if consumed can cause blindness or death.

    Wikipedia has an article on the types of denatured alcohol. And in its ethanol article, it also lists the grades of ethanol, including absolute alcohol, which refers to ethanol with low water content which is also not intended for human consumption.

  13. Paul permalink
    May 12, 2022

    Perhaps I’m romanticizing all of this, much as I tend to do with “riding the rails”, but I really wish I could have lived in this area back in its heyday, living on nothing but methyl alcohol and the kindness of strangers, who would have taken pity on poor, pathetic ole me. It’s sad, but it’s sad in a way that touches my sensitive soul. I’m sure that many of the denizens of this time and place formed strong friendships, the kinds of friendships that would have continued long past the grave.

  14. Jack Kelly permalink
    September 11, 2022

    Heart wrenching.

  15. Pam permalink
    September 15, 2022

    As a child I was fascinated by the homeless people in Whitechapel. I think that if we were to see a group of them today we would be utterly shocked, the poverty and degradation was actually beyond imaginable and not to be romanticised. I am grateful to the Gentle Author for this article, I had thought no-one would remember or be interested in those people whose conditions affected me so much as a child, also for bringing Geoffrey Fletcher’s book to my attention, I have purchased a copy.

  16. January 3, 2024

    With the Social Security system in place now you don’t see these poor unfortunates on the streets in the numbers we used to see in the 60s and 70s, many of them at least have a roof over their heads, courtesy of social housing. Whether it’s warm and clean is another matter. I know there are people still sleeping rough, but not in the same numbers as 50 odd years ago. I used to see these poor men (it was mostly men) gathered at Aberdeen’s Gallowgate, completely legless and incoherent before opening time. Where did they get the drink – licensed grocers?

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