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Down Among The Meths Men

January 13, 2023
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.

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)

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    January 13, 2023

    Here “meth” is short for methamphetamine. It’s still a drug in common use among the druggies here in the US. Often along with other drugs and alcohol.
    I worked in a trailer factory for a short time when I was 19/20 years old. Lots of the workers there used methamphetamine in pill form. Those who used it consistently became jaundice yellow with sores on their skin. There were a lot of hard drinkers there too.

  2. January 13, 2023

    I agree with the Gentle Authour, a great observer, humanitarian and a man who could see the beauty in decay .
    I think Ian Nairne was also brilliant at seeing this, and they were both sadly right in foreseeing the callous and greedy destruction of old London and the endless mania for tidyness.

  3. permalink
    January 13, 2023

    I wrote about them and valued them and to me I was proud of them and I listened to them and they helped me and I helpee them and they were emblematic of my East End and my poetry.
    They seemedvtp be the older version of the way the Ckuncil and Government could not care about us.
    Look at people dying now and being so badly treated then we have pale shadows.
    If anybody wants to buy my book, “Story of a Stepney bot” please tell me at

  4. Annie S permalink
    January 13, 2023

    So very sad, I can remember seeing a few meths drinkers from my childhood, it seems that cheap cider and beer have taken over.
    A very interesting read about the area where, fortunately, many of the buildings have survived, including the Synagogue and Artillery Passage is very up market now!

  5. Mark permalink
    January 13, 2023

    Beautiful prose. Desperately sad lives lived to their conclusion in the fetid gutters of Skid Row. Mind you, I would’ve joined them jeering the city gents streaming into the City out of Liverpool Street Station, going about their pointless but profitable villainy. I remember seeing a few meths drinkers in my childhood visits to the Smoke, scary men with bloodshot eyes with a look on the faces so far away, inviting death, sweet death.

  6. Naomi permalink
    January 13, 2023

    What an extraordinary way Geoffrey has with words. His descriptions are so rich. And the drawings so candid yet tender. No way would photographs have been possible and these hasty studies suit their less visible subjects so well. I can see why you admire him – not just his skill in writing and drawing but his desire to preserve Skid Row and respect and appreciation for a community of people from all over.

    I personally so identify with the sentiment ‘..London will have lost one of its major advantages, for there is nothing to be gained from well swept streets and office blocks.’

  7. Rupert Neil Bumfrey permalink
    January 13, 2023

    Where did they all disappear to, along with the countryside tramps?

    No doubt the increased mechanisation of farming did not help, but within cities what was the cause?

  8. January 13, 2023

    Magnificent description, by Geoffrey Feltcher, poignant, direct and very human. Thank you.

  9. January 14, 2023

    ‘Goblins in rags’ is such an evocative phrase and one that I will not forget. The Fae are never comfortable or straightforward and goblins, in particular, connote a vicious menace. How fearsome the meths drinkers must have seemed to the respectable city workers on their way back to their cozy suburban homes. As an adolescent, I remember studying the knarled and bloated faces of the homeless ‘alkies’ around the town. They were pitifully grotesque. I had compassion but was also afraid of the potential for anger and violence.

    Whilst I really appreciate the quality of this writing, there is a danger of romantising the broken here. Done badly, sweeping homeless people off the streets may be nothing more than an exercise in gentrification. Done with constructive love and kindness, getting someone off the streets and into a better, safer life can only be a good thing.

  10. Stephen permalink
    January 15, 2023

    In Fletcher’s writing about the meth’s men there is an odd admiration; from a libertarian philosophical outlook these people have chosen an absolute form of freedom – to live a life that has squalor, death and the ecstasy of obliteration. There is no return.

  11. Gillian Tindall permalink
    January 16, 2023

    Apropos of Ron Wilkinsons’s comment – what was referred to as `meths’ was not methamphetamine, virtually unknown here in the 1960s, but ordinary old metholated spirits as sold then for use in litle stoves. I assume it has some intoxicating properties, and it was cheaper than alcohol.

  12. January 17, 2023

    What an extraordinary and evocative piece of writing..

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