[from Hall Caine Drink]
One of the first effects of the drastic "Drunkard's Act," as reported in the daily newspapers, has been that of bringing the bogus clubs of London under the full and open operation of the Licensing Laws, How good a thing this is can only be realised by those who know what bogus clubs are and have been, what sinks of iniquity they stood for down to a few days ago, and what loopholes for the evasion of justice the rascals who run such places may still discover in the most rigid legislation which is intended to control them.
I remember that the late Rev. Hugh Price Hughes, writing to me some years ago about a book I had lately published, expressed a desire to see for himself some of the dens in the "Devil's Acre," on whose fringe he had founded his West London Mission. It was impossible to take him round, because his face in that quarter was too familiar, and, without proper disguise, it would have been difficult to see that under-world to any purpose. But I was able to give him data for certain impersonal investigations, and I think he satisfied himself that, black as the picture was which I had painted; the reality was yet more hideous. Londoners know little or nothing of some of the hells over which they are walking every day, and any adequate account of what I have seen with my eyes and heard with my ears would perhaps be condemned by many readers as the wildest exaggeration. My own acquaintance with the bogus clubs dates back to my earliest days in London. I was then a very young man, a journalist, representing a provincial daily paper, and doing the work of a general free-lance. My friends were few, my income small, and my home was in two rooms on the edge of Clare Market. The mornings were usually spent in writing, and the evenings in gathering material on which to write. Between nightfall and two, three, and four in the morning, I was out on my foraging errands, tramping the streets east and west, north and south, visiting slums and cafés, music-halls and free-and-easies, boxing "leads," and drinking places of various kinds. Two years I spent in this way, living almost entirely alone, and turning out for an editor:, who was good to me and allowed me to write practically what I pleased, an immense mass of disconnected matter, fugitive sketches, transcripts of fact and generril human story. They were not the brightest and happiest years of my life, but, little as I thought so at that time, I am now by no means sure that they were not the most stimulating and profitable.
Out of the memory of these days one experience stands out with startling vividness. The story does not take much telling, and the effect it is to produceon the reader must depend largely on his own character and temperament. Going home one -night in the early hours of the morning, I came upon a group of three shop-girls, all younger than sixteen years, and all reeling drunk. They had just been turned out of a place in Soho that had the appearance of a little Methodist chapel, and they were making the sleeping street echo with their maudlin singing of the current music-hall ditty. To see a young girl, or even a boy, utterly drunk has always been to the the most painful of spectacles. It would,be difficult to analyse a feeling that is made up of so many impressions. All I know with certainty is the fact that nothing hurts me quite so much; and is long as I live I shall remember the intensity of hatred with which I turned my eyes from the poor besotted girls in their muslin dresses and white dancing-slippers to the demure-looking hell from which they had come.
It was a bogus club, and that night was the night of a ball. Through the door, as it opened and closed, I caught glimpses of the interior, but I was not allowed to go inside. The place, which was run by a foreign rascal who had left his country for his country's good, has since been raided and closed. It did incalculable mischief in its time in the utter degradation and demoralisation of English womanhood. The law allowed it to exist under the cover of the regulations which applied to legitimate clubs. It had no license, and, it did more harm in a year than all the licensed houses about it could have perpetrated in a century.
Twenty years later, in writing the book I have referred to, I visited this pestiferous place again, and, under the wing of a suitable pioneer, I was permitted to enter it. In one night and the first four hours of the next morning, I looked up twenty to thirty of such clubs, and some dens of still deeper iniquity. My guide at the beginning of the evening was a bogus club-keeper whose house had been shut up a little while before. He was found for me by the foreign owner of a restaurant in Soho, and under his wing I set out at ten o'clock at night in a jacket and cap which were lent to me by way of disguise. Two sovereigns were the fee of this dubious person for his pioneering, but he handed me over to somebody else towards midnight, when further fees had, of course, to be provided.
Our range was not a wide one. I do not think we were ever more than half a mile from Leicester Square, and certain of the worst haunts were in that immediate vicinity. The first calls were at comparatively harmless places. We would stop at the door of what seemed to be a private house, knock or ring, and be admitted immediately. In the lobby or hall there would be a desk at which a clerk sat taking tickets or toll. If you belonged to the club already you passed through unchallenged, but if you were not yet enrolled, the difficulties of nomination and election were far from serious. You paid twopence, received a little card inscribed with your name (mine, I remember, by choice of my sponsors, was Harry Hall), and were straightway a fully qualified member. I joined some twenty clubs in the course of that night, under the auspices of my two questionable guides.
There was nothing very alarming going on at the clubs visited between ten and twelve. Usually a variety entertainment of the crudest kind was in progress, with the artistes out of a branch of the profession which the public usually knows nothing of. They were generally persons having some other occupation during the day, and eking out their income by "half-crown turns" at night. The favourites- would do three or four such turns at as many different clubs; but the rank and file would do one only, and fill up the remainder of the evening by enticing people to drink, and earning a sorry commission on. the results. Thus, a girl vocalist, after singing on the stage in her painted face and the poor finery of her short muslin skirts, would come down into tile hall and be treated by her audience. It was all very common and coarse, but not obviously wicked, and tile general atmosphere of clubs of this type, was merely vulgar., rather than positively degrading. Looking around «t the habitués one had the feeling that the men belonged to the humbler class, of workers in. the West End, and that the attraction of such resorts above that of the ordinary public-houses lay in the greater freedom of their management, the apparent absence of police supervision, and the later hours to which they kept open their doors.
These clubs were for men only, but. some others to which women also were admitted struck me as even less open to reproach on moral grounds. One such was a waiters' club, another was a hairdressers' club, a third. was a- club for. hotel servants in general. They occupied houses in the neighbourhood of Fitzroy Square; and their concert-room was usually a long: apartment built over the space which had once been the back-yard: The membership was foreign in nearly every instance, French, Swiss, and Italian, and the men were accompanied by women who seemed to be their wives. There was drinking; of course, and a. certain license in the social intercourse, but nothing that could be considered debasing or at all beneath the level of the less reputable music-halls. One felt that the poor strangers in a strange land used these clubs mainly, as a means of meeting with people of their own race and tongue, and it was easy to imagine conditions under which such reunions might be good and useful.
But towards twelve o'clock I was taken into much darker scenes, the clubs run, not by committees chosen by trades, but by individual proprietors..
These persons were nearly always of foreign nationality, and frequently criminals who had escaped from their own country. Taking a house in some central yet quiet thoroughfare, some little eddy from the stream of traffic, they had established places which they called, clubs, but which always were in reality public-houses without a license, and claiming the rights and privileges of a home. It is impossible to overpaint the picture presented by some of these abominable dens. They were the resorts of rascals who wished to enjoy themselves without the surveillance of the law, the haunts of the worst women, the sanctuaries of the basest men. Quarrels, fights, and in some cases crimes of violence, amounting more than once or twice to manslaughter and murder, were the natural fruits of these hotbeds of vice.
My nameless sponsors had to exercise some skill in taking me to these places, for the zeal of the proprietors to keep out visitors of doubtful intentions corresponded with the risk they ran of fine and imprisonment in case of detection and surprise. The knock at the outer door was usually answered in- the first instance by the opening of a grille (like the grille in the door of a monastery), and then a whispered conversation of the following character :-
" Who's there ? "
" Who's that with you?"
" A friend I met in Hamburg."
" What's his name?"
After that there would be the roll of the door chain, the click of the lock going back, and the cautious opening of the guarded portal. But even then the preliminaries would not be complete, for, to meet the possible contingency of a raid by the police, the farce of enrolment would be gone through immediately, and in exchange for a subscription ranging from twopence to sixpence, a card of membership would be drawn out.
Somewhere in the early hours I found myself within the walls of the infamous haunt associated with my memory of the three young girls who were reeling home drunk. A ball was going on that night also; balls were always going on, for in thst vile place dancing was a part of the standing programme. This club differed from others of its kind in never harbouring women of notoriously bad character. The scoundrels who ran it knew a game too good for that. They catered for, girls in business, assistants in shops, clerks, and cashiers in tea-rooms and drapery establishments, and all the vast multitude of the innocent and thoughtless, the frivolous and ignorant among the long lines of young working women who are to be seen trooping home through certain thoroughfares between eight and nine o'clock at night. Setting the trap of a nightly dance under apparently respectable auspices for these young creatures full of animal spirits, the rascals drew their victims to their den as a means of bringing others also-the young male fools with characters to be compromised and money to risk and lose.
But the worst of the hells which we visited that night were neither drinking dens nor dancing saloons: They were quiet places in silent streets, where you hardly heard the sound of a voice or a step. It was pointed out by my guide that nearly all of them bore a distinctive mark by which the initiated might know them from without. This was an opaque blind across the lower pane of the window, showing green with the light behind it. After a preliminary inquisition through the door ajar, with the chain still holding it, one would enter with soft footsteps a quiet and, shaded room, where a group of men sat in silence around a green-topped table. We had visited half a dozen such places before anything uncommon occurred, and then came a somewhat frightening adventure.
In a street going off Shaftesbury venue, not many yards from the Lyric and Apollo Theatres, my guide and I drew up, about three in the morning, at what seemed to be the door to an apartment over a shop. I remember that a policeman was pacing in front of the place, and I have a clear recollection of the hollow ring of his tread as he passed over an iron grid in the pavement. The door was 'opened' to us after the customary fencing, and then we found ourselves- in a narrow passage with a staircase which led down to a cellar. Descending the staircase, we came to a white-washed vault which might have been built for lumber. In this vault, lit by two smoking oil lamps, twenty or more men sat playing faro about a long deal table In a smaller vault, obviously intended for coals, there was a counter covered with bottles of ale and spirits.
"'Take care," my guide whispered, "there's not a man here to-night who hasn't done time."
Down to that moment I had felt no fear, but now my limbs began to tremble. The majority of the gamblers took no notice of our arrival, but I observed that the croupier had seen us. I saw something in his face that made me yet more uneasy, and partly to allay his suspicions, and partly to quiet my own fears I stepped up to the table, and at the proper moment put down half a sovereign. Then I thought I caught the sound of a distinct note of warning. There was a cough and a low whistle, followed by a restless movement. Nobody looked at me, where I stood trembling from head to foot, but almost quicker than it takes to say it, the twenty odd men shambled up and slunk out. Not one of them went, as we had come, by the staircase leading to the street, yet in a few moments they were all gone, and I was alone with the man who had brought me.
Then I saw that he, too, was trembling.
" Let's get out," he whispered, and in another minute we were in the street. I hardly knew what had happened, but my legs were sinking under me, and, hailing the policeman, who was still pacing near the door, I told him to call a cab. He did so, and as we drove away my guide explained that I had been mistaken for a detective, that the assurance with which I had joined in the game had suggested: that I had assistance close at hand, that this suspicion: had probably saved me from being knocked on the head, and that the gang of ex-convicts and ticket-of-leave men who made up the company in the cellar had escaped by the back way which such human rats always keep open in case of discovery and surprise.
"But how about the policeman?"
" Oh, he would have a couple of pounds to keep guard for the owner of the gambling hell," said my friend.
" And how would the policeman warn him of approaching danger? "
" By walking heavily over the coal-grid."
I give this statement on the authority of my dubious guide, without taking any responsibility for the truth of its serious accusation.
But perhaps the most interesting and quite the most pathetic of the bogus clubs we visited that. night was one which. was intended for the poor outcasts of the streets. It is an interesting recollection that by the rough-and-ready process already described I was made a member of that club also. The pathos of the place lay in the fact that it was, not a mart at which the members might ply their unhappy business, but a haunt in which they could, meet together as social beings after their sorry work was over. There they were, in a big room up a long passage in a street off Wardour Street,. with the male companions and protectors of their own class, no longer smiling and ogling and playing the part of decoys, but talking seriously or sadly over their troubles (chiefly relating to landladies and debt), and, of course, drinking and treating and gambling. Some of the poor girls had children with them-their own children apparently -and, though it was later than three in the morning, the perky little faces, often sweet and almost beautiful, were bright and sleepless. The frequenters of the club, both male and female, were nearly all foreigners, belonging to the class of Belgian and French who are to be seen promenading Leicester Square and the lower part of Regent Street. It was the saddest sight conceivable. Rightly regarded, a woman of the streets is a pathetic picture at the best of times, but seen in her simple character as a human creature, surrounded by the domestic ties and responsibilities which attach to all of us, she is perhaps the most pitiful thing alive.
The big clock of Westminster was booming four as, with candle in hand, I went upstairs to bed in the sedate old club-house in Whitehall Gardens, which was then my temporary home. Perhaps the sanctimonious precincts sacred to the innocent sleep of canons and bishops would have. been a little shocked if they had known of the many clubs of a different character which I had visited during the hours of that rather perilous night and morning.
But true it is that one half of the world does not know how the other half lives, and God forbid that in the study of humanity for proper purposes there should be anything common or unclean.
I fell asleep with a confused sense that was compounded of many painful visions - visions of gambling hells, of dancing dens, of thoughtless young fellows going headlong to disgrace, of flighty young girls falling victims to their own bounding animal: spirits, fed by the unscrupulous fuel provided by some. of the dregs of foreign countries, and, above all, of drink-drink, without which (speaking, broadly) there can be no gambling, no prostitution, and no crime.
After breakfast next morning I went over the ground again in order to see how far I could recognise by daylight the scenes: I had visited by night, and I found; to my disappointment, that I could identify very few of them. This was not merely due to the different aspects which unfamiliar places present when seen in different lights, but to the perplexing fact that within certain areas in Soho, and the district north of it, nearly every house bore-the same outward sign of being- a club-house of the kind I have described. If the bogus clubs I visited were thirty in all, I cannot doubt that the gross number of such places within a radius of half a mile to three-quarters was three hundred at least, and in making this rough estimate I do not take into account the more fashionable haunts of the same general character which have always flourished: west of the Haymarket.
It is now eight years since. I made my round, and in the interval the police authorities have not been idle. One by one they have weeded out some of the more pernicious growths of the bogus club system. I have repeatedly recognised, in the police- court reports of a raid here and there on a place bearing some flowery title, one or other of the scenes of my nocturnal adventure. Of the twenty to thirty clubs of which I was made member eight years ago, few, if any, now remain. The life of such places, like the life of the criminal and of the prostitute, is necessarily brief, but they spring up on each other's ashes, and thus their evil influence is perpetuated, whatever happens to the individual existence. The scoundrels who run them pay the fine, sometimes a heavy one, which is imposed by the magistrate, and then go round the corner and begin again.
If the worst comes to the worst, and London is no longer possible to a man of notoriously bad character, he flies to one of the greater cities of the provinces, and finds a happy hunting ground on undisturbed soil. There is only too much reason to fear that all over the Kingdom the bogus club is an increasing danger, and hence it was well that certain regulations of the new Licensing Act should have been expressly designed to meet and defeat its peculiar evils.
For example, it is now required that a club supplying intoxicants shall be properly registered, and shall furnish the authorities with full particulars of its organisation. This will cripple the operation of the proprietary places which have hitherto been run, as any illegal drinking den might be, by one unknown and irresponsible person. Then it is required that the members of a club shall not be admitted to its premises within less than forty-eight hours after their nomination, and this, if the regulation can be rigorously carried out, will make it impossible to profit by such casual membership as I enjoyed on the night of the adventure I have described. Next, it is required that the supply of liquor shall be under the control of a committee of the members only, that the repeated presence of drunken persons on the club premises, or the admission of friends for the purposes of drinking or gambling, shall be offences for which the governing body shall be liable to heavy penalties. Finally, it is ordered that a club shall be struck off the register if established on premises where a license has been forfeited or refused.
But legislation intended to control the bogus club has been hampered by the fact that it must control the legitimate club as well. It is impossible that there should be one law for the rich and another law for the poor, or that regulations intended to apply to the club of the Italian and Swiss waiters in Fitzroy Square should not also apply to the club of the noblemen in Pall Mall.
On this difficulty the bogus club has hitherto been able to live, evading justice, and driving its coach and pair through the restrictions of the law. Will it escape the worst penalties of the drastic new Act, and continue to flourish in spite of legislation designed to suppress it ? That is by no means an improbable sequel, for it exists by virtue of the cunning of a class who are learned in expedients to defeat the police.
In the end it may appear that the only measures capable of dealing with this species of vampire enterprise are such as may put serious limitations to the comfort and dignity of the reputable club. It might, for example, be found necessary to place all clubs under constant police supervision, and this would be an irksome and humiliating condition to clubs governed to good ends, and even tend so far to increase the power of the police as to lead to the abuses, only too well known in other countries (Russia particularly) of government by police constable.
But in order to stamp out an evil of any kind concessions of convenience are constantly asked for and made in all civilised society, and the complete suppression of the thousands of bogus clubs which by one artifice or another are now able to defy the law and demoralise the community, would not be dearly bought even by regulations which might deprive the reputable club-house of its home-like privacy and comfort.
But when the law has done its best, the duty of society to itself in this matter is by no means fully discharged. You cannot make people moral by Act of Parliament. You can only punish them for being immoral, and when the punishment is over the impulses which prompted the offence may remain as they were. Some of the worst offences against law and order come of the abuse of natural instinct., and certainly the instinct on which the bogus club lives and has its being is not only natural but inevitable. The desire for happy social intercourse is the law of the human heart. on which the vampire proprietors of these dens of iniquity make their reckoning. If there were more clubs of good character, the clubs of bad character would have less reason for their existence.
Has society done its best by the natural desire of young people of both sexes to meet together with the freedom and familiarity of properly organ- ised clubs ? Has the Church done its best? Is it a hard saying that down to quite recent years society has done nothing, and the Church much less than nothing, to satisfy that irresistible and entirely beautiful impulse? Can it be possible that the bogus clubs that now swarm over the Kingdom are the secret, and, of course, disastrous, revolt of poor human nature against the rigid and false restraints which the Church in a greater degree, and society in a lesser one, has imposed upon the social intercourse of the sexes?
True, that in our generation both society and the Church are taking other and far more liberal courses. The Church of England, the Catholic Church, and many of the Nonconformist churches have lately established mixed clubs in many places. But, so far as I know, the principle and plan of even the most liberal of these oorganisations leave much to be done in broadening their appeal before they can so compete with the bogus clubs as to outdo them in their own attractions. The boys and girls of the great cities who are at working shops, offices, and factories during the hours of the day want their evenings to be enlivened by music.
Why not give it. them ? They want dancing. Why not give it them ? They want songs and sketches and theatrical entertainments. Why not give them such pleasures also-and in your churches if need be, lest the devil should give them much worse entertainment in his hells ?
I t may be that my liberality is too large, and that I will shock some good Sabbatarians to whom Sunday is a day of penance as well as a day of rest ; -but knowing by the evidence of my own eyes that, with all our ignorant and canting abuse of the Continental Sunday, the Sunday of London (after nightfall, and in certain districts, at all events), is not so much the Lord's Day as the devil's day, I should rejoice. to hear that any fearless clergyman had decided to abandon his evening service in favour of any wholesome entertainment whatsoever which could compete with the allurements of the evil places that are open round about him.
In any case, I respectfully submit to the consideration of ministers of all denominations the grave problem of social life to which Parliament has addressed itself in the Act that is now in operation. They can do more than legislators to wipe out the evils of the infamous organisations which live on drink and gaming and immorality; and in my view they will do. their work to most purpose by establishing social clubs for both sexes on liberal, modern, and enlightened principles wherever clubs of doubtful origin already exist or are likely to take root.
" I HAVE read what Mr. Hall Caine has written with interest and care, and am greatly impressed by the cases he states and the remedies he proposes. The condition of things described is one with which I have hitherto been entirely unfamiliar, and I should like to visit some of these places before venturing an opinion as to the remedy for them.
"I am not sure that Mr. Hall Caine is right in recommending that churches should do more to provide amusements and entertainments. More is already done in this way than he is aware of, and I do not think the tendency is altogether a healthy one. I should like to see the churches provide good clubs and social centres for young people of both sexes-my own church is one that his already done so-but above all things, it is the associations of home which the church ought to secure for the young worker, who have few opportunities of knowing much about home life.
" But, whatever the forms of recreation provided may be, they ought not to be such as to encourage a frivolous and shallow type of character which craves for amusement and nothing else. The church which overdoes the amusement business is more likely to supply recruits to the life which Mr. Hall Caine deplores, than rescue them from it."
" I think there is little I can add to what Mr. Hall Caine has written in the matter of sham clubs, beyond an expression of general agreement.
The new Act does right when it deals with the drunkard personally, and with the drinking clubs. Previous legislation, with the object of restraining drunkenness, was directed almost wholly to hampering and restricting the licensed publican and his trade, with the effect of causing the unlicensed and unsupervised dens to wax and flourish.
" Apart from the sort of clubs of which Mr. Hall Caine speaks, there are many Sunday drinking clubs, voluntary associations of soakers who drink the Sunday through on private premises with wretchedly bad liquor.
" It should be the policy of legislation to confine drinking as much as possible to the public-houses, where it can be supervised and regulated, rather than to drive it away into unknown holes and corners where no Act of Parliament is regarded."
" Mr. Hall Caine draws attention in a forcible and telling manner to one of the symptoms of a Continentalised London. I do not think that Parliament and the municipal authorities have yet realised that London is replacing Paris as a great haunt of amusements and people who wish to be amused. The American and the Colonial, at any rate, now think of London as the place in which to have a real good time.
" Our laws, police regulations, and the force of public opinion, drive underground the worst side of public 'gaiety' which has charaçterised Paris in particular ; and the problem arises, whether to attempt to stamp out evil by force, or to counteract it by lawful opportunities of reasonable amusement.
"It is pretty clear that the operation of law alone will not expunge from the growing and close-packed area of London the evils to which Mr. Hall Caine alludes, and we have no oedile or purveyor of public joy at work to, offer the open-air alternatives which would counteract the underground revelry.
" Our parks and Embankment are without cafés, the river from Woolwich to Richmond was until yesterday blank of pleasure steamers, the tea-gardens of. the eighteenth century London are all gone.
" Olympia lies vacant three years out of four; and even Earl's Court, limited in area and fairly central, is only just within the boundary of success. The catering of food and drink at such places of public amusement as we possess is, in my experience at least, most unsatisfactory.
" What will come of this a generation hence, unless we mend our ways, is more than one can with any equanimity contemplate; we shall have the hugest, wealthiest, costliest, and most sinful city in the world."