From the Evening Standard of 2nd October, 1894.
Just beyond the Proof-house of the Gunmakers' Company near the Whitechapel end of the Commercial Road, begins a series of narrow streets running at right angles to the main thoroughfare, and cutting Fairclough Street at the further extremity, where the Tilbury and Southend Railway passes through the district [see below]. More or less alike in appearance, these byways, for they are no more, consist entirely of small two-storeyed tenements with an occasional stable or cow-shed to break the monotony, and a sprinkling of little shops devoted to coal and dried fish, stale fruit and potatoes, pickled cucumbers and salt herrings, shrivelled sausages and sour brown bread.
There is Backchurch Lane, where the Irish resident still holds his own against the incoming Russo-Jewish settler, and Berner [now Henriques] Street, where the window bills, written in Hebrew characters. inform you that there are 'loshing' or a 'bek-rum' (back room) to let, and thus proclaim the nationality of its denizens. There is Batty Street wholly given over to the foreign tailors, clickers and 'machiners'; Christian Street, long since an appanage of East End Jewry, and Grove [now Golding] Street, where the low-pitched tenements are so far below the pavement level that the passer-by can comfortably shake hands with the residents off the top floor through the bedroom windows.
And intersecting all these are a number of courts, alleys, and passages, so dark and narrow, so dirty and malodorous, that the purlieus of Seven Dials and the backways of Clare Market may be called light and airy in comparison with them. Some are blind, others lead through to the adjoining thoroughfare. Some branch off to right and left, others conduct one to open spaces forming irregular quadrangles lined with houses below the street level, so small and snug that the occupier standing in his front parlour can open the door, stir the fire, reach the dustbin outside, or make the bed inside without stirring from the spot. Courts and alleys, streets and yards, all are densely packed, in many cases even to the cellars below lighted by small gratings in the pavement. And the whole district, stretching from Backchurch Lane on one side to Morgan Street on the other, is the resort and principal abiding-place of the East End Anarchists. In the side streets and alleys hereabouts the majority of them live and loaf; within a stone's throw are their favourites haunts, the coffee-shops they patronise, and the private gambling-clubs where many spend their evenings, and close by is their printing press, their temporary club and meeting house, and even the tavern where their Friday evening discussions take place.
The Club and rallying place of the Russo-Jewish Anarchists in East London was until lately in Berner Street. Recent occurrences, however, rendered this an undesirable locality; it was too well looked after by the authorities. So it was transferred to a quieter and more obscure corner, where it was less likely to attract the notice of outsiders; and it is now by no means easy to find. Near the top of New Road which opens into Commercial Road, there is a turning known as Charlotte Street, at one corner of which is an oilmonger's and at the other a tobacconist's. Three doors or so from the former is a narrow archway, bricked over. The roadway beneath is roughly paved, and the kerb is generally the seat of some half-dozen unkempt and dishevelled gossips attended by twice as many barefooted children, Passing under the arch one emerges upon a lane or alley not more than nine to ten feet wide. There is a row of small tenement houses on one side, a dirty brick wall and some stables on the other. A few costers' barrows are backed up against the wall, and the uneven roadway and gutter are invariably sloppy and sloshy, owing to the grooming of horses always going on, and the practice the residents have adopted of emptying their waste water from the upper windows.
At the bottom of this thoroughfare, and of on the left hand side of it, is a small building, half workshop, half warehouse, with a steep sloping roof, the gable end facing the road. The lower part is entirely boarded up, and tightly nailed-to. There is a large double door on the first floor the entire width of the building, and only the upper part of this is glazed so that it is impossible to look in from without. Nor can the edifice be seen from the streets at the end of the lane in which it stands. There are two small doors, but without either bell or knocker, handle or latch to them. A couple of posters are stuck on the doors, one in Hebrew characters, reading Arbeiter Freund, the other in English, 'Workers' Friend', thus announcing this to be the official headquarters of the East End Anarchist propaganda. Knock, kick or batter at the side entry any afternoon or evening, and the big door on the upper floor will be cautiously opened, and you will hear a hoarse Khto tam? - 'Who's there?' If you are unknown to the speaker, you will be told that no business is done there. If the questioner above recognises you, or you come with a friend, a string arrangement will open the side door to the left, and by means of a wooden staircase you can mount to the upper floor. Go up any afternoon or evening and you will hear the sound, not of political argument or Socialist debate, but of cardboard falling upon wood, and suppressed talk and laughter. The whole of the upper part forms a large oblong room, hald office, half sitting-room, with a bench or two, upon which a score of young men and women are generally to be found seated, smoking and chattering away, while others are at a small table playing cards. As you enter you may catch one, watching the game, call out, in unctuous Yiddish, Dos kortel begrubt ach, 'that card will bury you' - and the card apparently does settle the player, for he throws it down with an oath and a muttered Shwartzmazel, 'bad luck', and tosses a couple of sixpences over to his companions. The young men usually present are well fed and dressed, belonging apparently to a comfortably-off class, and the young women are altogether comely specimens of 'fair Israel' in East London. But the visitors here are only new adherents, young converts, They are the idle drones of the Anarchist hive. The Club is but a rallying-place for such followers, and a blind for the outside public. For the workers we must look elsewhere. And these will be found in the smaller circles or branches which meet on Sundays, in their own appointed places.
One such branch, comprising a section of the women's organisation, has its meeting place in the very heart of the Anarchist quarter in the Commercial Road. Two or three doors from Morgan Street is a narrow passage by the side of the large public-house in the open thoroughfare. This is London Terrace, and leads to one of the darkest and most forbidding of the alleys that abound in the vicinity, There are houses on one side only, on the other a wall, which effectually prevents any glimmer of sunlight from reaching the tenements., So bad is the reputation of the terrace that none but residents would willingly go through it after dusk, and even those take care to keep their lower window-shutters close-barred and their doors locked as soon as twilight sets in. At the further end the wayfarer down there is as far from help and hearing, if attacked or molested, as though he were a hundred miles instead of a hundred paces away from one of the busiest thoroughfares in London. Half-way across the passage we enter an open doorway, and are ushered down a short flight of stairs by an associate, to whom we have leters of introduction, then across a yard communicating, seemingly, with the block of houses facing Umberstone Street only to find ourselves in an ordinary-aired room filled by two and twenty persons seated like those attending a spiritualist sťance, men and women ranged alternately around the wall. They are all Jews and Jewesses, but markedly different from the ordinary stock types encountered in the East End of London. None of the men are over forty, and only two of them wear beards - the rest moustaches and side-whiskers. They are neatly and quietly dressed, and were it not for their Jewish features, would pass unnoticed in any ordinary assembly of Englishmen. The women are, all of them taller than the average, strongly built, and plain-looking, with the heavy features of Russian Jewesses. They were their own hair - which East End Jewesses generally cover with a sheitel, or wig - and none of them have wedding rings. Their expression of face is not prepossessing, for the eye-brows are unusually bushy, and there is an ominous 'v' fold in the depression above the nose of several of them. Their peculiar utterance of certain consonants marks them out as Courlanderinnen, natives of Courland.
In presence of visitors properly vouched for, the proceedings at the meetings go on as usual, at least, so it is said. The programme consists of readings from advanced thinkers, with comments by the members, recitations of poems calculated to foster the spirit of Anarchism, and songs having the same tendency. The readings for the day are from Herbert Spencer, and the criticisms, with the frequent references to the abolition of marriage as an institution, the destruction of capital, and the good times coming when their revolutionary links will 'spew cartridges', are by no means milk for babes. The poems recited are decidedly strong meat. What do English readers say to this for a specimen verse or two? The original is, of course, in Judaeo-German, and it is rendered rough and ready from the original, the raciness of which however, it is impossible to reproduce:
If I dig in the mines of the frozen north,
I'll dig with a will: the ore I bring forth
May yet make a knife - a knife for the throat of the Tsar.
If I toil in the south, I'll plough and sow
Good honest hemp; who knows, I may grow
A rope - a rope for the neck of the Tsar.
Sarah Bernhardt might envy the fire and verve with which this recitation is given by one of the Jewesses, and there can be no possible mistake about the sentiments of the speaker and her auditory, whatever there may be about the merits of the verses. And the same fiery stuff, or fiery stuff of the same description, is being spouted about the same time at half a dozen other branches of the Anarchist League in the district between Backchurch Lane and the New Road, that runs up to Whitechapel. Everything is turned to account, tool for the purposes of its mischievous propaganda. Why, before the meeting is closed one member produces and sings an Anarchist version of 'After the Ball', with a finely-buttered moral drawn from the contrast between the wealthy dancers inside and the shivering poor outside, winding up with an Anglo-Yiddish chorus in which all join.
Of course, all those frequenting the Anarchist resorts of East London are not of the same temper and class as the foregoing. On the other side of the Commercial Road, in Greenfield Street, and about two doors down, is a small, squalid-looking shop, with a window on each side, a door in the centre, and panels painted a dull dirty yellow. The appearance of the whole place is fly-blown and untidy, from the torn curtains that conceal the interior to the shabby hangings that decorate the glass door. There are two rows of brown leather-covered seats running lengthwise inside, some little tables in front of them, a fly-specked mirror with the gilding cracked off, and a battered-faced clock against the side wall. Bills in each of the windows, in Hebrew characters, inform the Yiddish public and passers-by that 'here can be had coffee', also what they spell and call tie (tea), and alle ort von refreshments which every one will easily construe to mean all kinds of refreshments. This is a coffee-house much patronised by the great bulk of the poorer East End Anarchists and Socialists who live in the district, and here some district classes and types may be seen. One soon learns to distinguish them - one, that is, who has some knowledge of the foreign settlers and their dialects, for there are several forms of Yiddish which the accustomed ear as readily discriminated as an educated Englishman the brogue of an Irishman from the lingua Cockneyana of the born East Ender. Here may be noted the restless-eyes Galician, thin and lanky and flat-chested, his head cropped quite close, and remains of his ear-ringlets just showing; there the sly and foxy-looking Lithuanian, whose tongue instantly betrays him, for, like the Ephraimites of old in Judea, he cannot pronounce the 'sh', and says to this day and hour, Sibboleth for Shibboleth. There the restless Pole hobnobs with the muddle-headed German, each styling the other genoss, 'associate', for which privilege the foolish wretches pay their few pence weekly to the astute rascals who run the branches of which they are members. Only a few minutes' walk from the Commercial Road are the King's Arms (closed lately), in Fieldgate Street, and the Sugar Loaf, in Hanbury Street, both favourite resorts of the East End Anarchists, who get up the weekly discussions that tempt poor flies into the trap. Too lazy to work, they find in the mischievous propaganda they spread a capital means of bringing grist to their own particular mills. When not engaged in this work, the leaders and followers of East End Anarchism have only one resource, what they term Klein Shas, literally the 'little Talmud', a euphemism for card-playing; and they spend night after night in the haunts mentioned and the card rooms that abound in the neighbourhoods, gambling away the last coin that should have gone to their underfed wives and children, and returning home to rave afresh against society and the iniquity of those who do not go and do likewise.