from Charles Davies Orthodox London (Tinsley Brothers 1874-5)

Midnight missionary meetings for prostitutes had been held for some years (pictured is a gathering for about 200 at St James' Hall, Regent Street in 1860);  'Bo'sun' Smith had previously held similar events locally, and his son Theophilus Ahijah Smith (1809–1879) was the secretary of the movement from 1861-64.
(See here for a report, also by Charles Davies, of services in a very different style.)

That man essays a difficult task who would write of London's ugliest vice without calling up a blush to the cheek of virtue and innocence who would let decent English maids and matrons read the story of their "erring sisters' shame" without pandering to a depraved curiosity or a vulgar appetite for horrors.  Let none who seek such prurient details be at the pains to run their eye down these pages; nor, at the same time, let those who dread to hear of the special sin of great cities veil them from the sight even of the purest and most blessedly ignorant in the household. Let each be well assured that, while a plain, unvarnished statement of things heard and seen is given, much must of necessity be suppressed. The whole of the stern, sad truth cannot be told, but from what is told, let those who read guess what might be revealed were no such wholesome restraint enforced. Neither, again, is it of West-end vice painted, enamelled, almost refined that we would now speak. No Lais or Aspasia is the model at present. No Formosa lures us to scenes of gilded vice. It is vice with the paint off, or so clumsily patched as to heighten its deformity, that we are to see.

Here is the programme: Midnight Meeting Movement.  Admit to St Matthew's Schoolroom, Princes Square, St George's Street, E., at eleven o'clock; whilst a written addendum states that 'this meeting is among the sailors' girls of Ratcliff Highway, a distinct class of the fallen'. Fallen, and in Ratcliff Highway! That announcement, coupled with the assurance that every unpleasing detail shall be delicately veiled, will surely be enough to scare all but genuine good Samaritans from the too true story.

On leaving the silent city behind to go eastward at night, I have a feeling as though I had passed beyond the haunts of civilization into some desert. Nor is the idea quite hyperbolical; for that district lying along the Thames east of London Bridge is a country in itself, and towards midnight it has many of the unattractive aspects of a wilderness. Along Thames Street, so busy by day-time, you hear the echo of your own footsteps. Pass the postern gate of the Tower, and you are in the sailors' quarter; on into Ratcliff Highway euphemistically termed St George's Street where, amid frequent public-houses and dancing-rooms, low vice keeps perpetual saturnalia. Leaving for a moment this noisy thoroughfare, I find myself in one of those queer, quiet nooks so numerous in London, Princes Square, with the little Swedish church in the centre, looking picturesque in the moonlight. Among other buildings is St Matthew's Schoolroom. I enter, and find the clergyman and a couple of the society's officials. The company have not yet arrived, though ample preparations are being made for a large number in the shape of a comfortable tea.

It is proposed that we should pass the time before the hour of assembling in visiting the public-houses of Ratcliff Highway; and, in charge of a gentleman who has the entree, I sally forth. If you look narrowly into each low gin-shop, you will find that it has a long room at the back, with tables running round, the centre being left open for dancing, and the end occupied by a small stage. In the first we enter a man is singing a comic song to a small audience; or rather the audience and he are singing it together, and the young ladies of the company, in a sort of ballet attire, with a tendency to scarlet boots, are mingling freely with the audience. A word with the smart barmaid as to whether she has read the last book he left, and my guide marshals me into the dancing-room, the manager of which, attired as a clown, is lounging in the doorway.

The wonderful thing is the excellent footing on which my friend, who is a City Missionary, stands with the publicans, diametrically opposed as their callings seem. He shakes hands with all the girls, calls them 'lassies' and scatters his invitations broadcast among them. They are largely accepted too. There is an utter difference, he tells me, between these sailors' girls and the soldiers' girls of contiguous quarters. They hold no communication with one another. These girls have a distinctive attire. They go bareheaded, greatly leaning to ornaments in their hair; they wear low dresses and a shawl cast about them to look like an opera cloak. On many a breast I saw strange to say a large cross!

As we passed one dismal lane leading out of the main thoroughfare, my guide asked me to come down. 'This is Gravel Lane,' he said; 'at the bottom is the Dock bridge, where so many of these poor girls throw themselves over. It has been found necessary in consequence to keep a policeman there from seven in the evening all night. I call it the "Bridge of Sighs",' he added. [See footnote.]  We went down; and, sure enough, there was the policeman at his gloomy vigil. It was a quiet nook, with the bows of two big ships looming over the moonlit water. 'They find it very convenient,' said the Missionary, with a touch of grim humour, 'to come down here and drop into the water'.

But it was time to get back to the schoolroom. When we did so, we found somewhere about eighty girls assembled, sitting on the school forms, and taking tea with evident gusto. There was some little noise of course - where did ever fourscore females of any class gather without noise over the cup that cheers? - but still all was orderly and decorous, so far. From the brazen-face harridan who had been 'out' for long years (such is the technical term), to the girl of fifteen, whose 'outing' numbered only weeks there they were, human wrecks, body and soul, stranded on the cruel shoals of society, and only beginning to be recognized as material for the social reformer to work upon. Some half-dozen gentlemen connected with the Midnight Meeting Society, and two or three Bible-women, were waiting on these strange guests; and the clergyman, a youngish man, with quite white hair and a silvery voice, was going up and down the ranks, making cheery remarks, and ministering to appetites that were by no means delicate. I ingratiated myself by taking round that highly popular condiment, the plumcake; and whilst I did so, not one indecent or even discourteous word was spoken, no indelicate act or look met my eye amongst those fourscore of the very offscouring of Ratcliff Highway. 'It is astonishing what relics of humanity one finds here', said the clergyman.

With instinctive horror naturally experienced for what is new or strange, I felt myself shrinking from these poor girls in the dancing- room, whilst my merry Missionary shook each one by the hand and greeted her with his 'Well, lassie! ' But when brought face to face with them, I was utterly ashamed of such a feeling, and wondered why people should shake them off roughly or give them hard speeches, instead of imitating the good Missionary's efforts to say a word that shall save them.

One of the first girls to whom I spoke had just made the 'great experiment' of a leap from the Bridge of Sighs. She had been rescued from the water and taken to prison, where she was kept for seven days; and when I saw her she had only that morning come out of gaol. She had evidently been drinking during the day; and there was a fierce light in her eyes, as she kept saying, in answer to protests against her attempted suicide, and advice that she should try to right herself, 'No, no; I am fallen too low, too low. I shall try London Bridge to-night.' 'Do you think she will?' I asked of one of the officials. 'Likely enough', was the business-like reply. In a quarter of an hour I came round to her again, and she was roaring with laughter and 'taking a sight' at a friend on a neighbouring bench.

When tea was over a hymn was sung, and considerable giggling was caused by its being pitched so high that the key had to be changed. That was the great interruption in fact, the only interruption of the evening, the irrepressible proneness of the girls to giggle; but I fancy I have observed this proneness elsewhere than in the purlieus of Ratcliff Highway. For instance, to show how a casual word will lead these impetuous people astray the clergyman read a portion of Scripture to them, and related the parable of the Ten Virgins. The title was received with a regular guffaw. His address, which was perhaps a little too scholarly, described the marriage ceremonies of the East, and the 'ornament of grace' worn by the bride, at which the girls giggled again, and quite lost the point of that allegory. They sang lustily, and many of them had melodious voices. A few could sing the hymns without book - relic of a decent childhood, not yet lost! One old stager, who prided herself on her vocal powers, managed to get an arm-chair all to herself, and sang really an excellent alto with the air of an Alboni. Another gentleman followed the clergyman, and took the invitation ticket above quoted as his text, repeating, over and over again, the question, 'Have you got tickets for Heaven?' and receiving pointed, but sotto voce replies. Strangely enough, the noisiest and most troublesome section were not the sailors' girls, but some work-girls sack-sewers who kept to themselves, and did their best to disturb proceedings, leaving noisily so soon as they had disposed of a very heavy tea, and had a brief 'lark' during the preliminary proceedings.

There were several more hymns, and a brief address was given by the secretary of the society, who urged the girls to leave the bad life at once behind. They could, if they chose, go away from that room, and be taken in cabs to homes where they would be qualified to lead decent lives for the future, and eventually, out of a total of eighty-eight, four girls did so remain, and a good many others promised to come to the office in the morning. One fresh-looking country lass wanted to be sent home to attend her mother's funeral. Her father, who had been a farmer, was in independent circumstances; but the daughter was an outcast, though only six weeks 'out' in Ratcliff Highway, and as comely and well-spoken a girl as one could wish to see. Decidedly the noisiest and most giggling of the whole fourscore was, to my surprise, one of the four who remained; but I was informed that those who thus remained are often disappointing cases. Either they act on impulse, which cools down before the morning; or they will sometimes go to the Home because it is late, and they may be locked out of their lodgings; or even they will go simply for the 'lark' of having a ride in a cab. The ordeal of having to walk up from Ratcliff to the office in Red Lion Square in the morning is, as one can well understand, a much better test of sincerity.

Two other interesting 'cases' may be mentioned, each confirming the good clergyman's remark that relics of humanity exist even here. One girl lingered long and anxiously about the door; and the cause, I was told, was that she had a little child, two years old, whom she wished to have cared for. Clinging to the old, vile life herself, she still sought, like Dives in the parable, that the one to whom Nature had bound her with such strong ties might not come to that place of torment. The second case was that of a middle-aged woman, on whose face, it perhaps sounds hard to say, Nature seemed to have graven the stigma of her calling. I had noticed her as one of the few who shed tears when allusion was made to the fact that some of the girls probably had mothers who had cared for them and prayed over them, and might even now be watching them from the world beyond. 'That woman', said my guide of the evening, 'is a veritable missionary for me. She has been 'out' eleven years; and though she won't leave her bad life, she protects me from being insulted, and gets the younger girls to listen to me.'

As the girls passed out of the room, a card was presented to each with the following words: 'Dear Friend, If you will call at the office of the Midnight Meeting Movement, 5, Red Lion Square, Holborn, W. C., any day, from Monday to Friday, between ten and four, and Saturday, between ten and twelve, advice will be given you, and, if possible, assistance for the future.'

Such were some of the presentable particulars of the Midnight Meeting. They may serve a good purpose if they convince the most forlorn wanderer on the wild London streets that there is still such a word as 'home' for her; that she need not say, in Hood's graphic words
Oh, it was pitiful,
Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

Christian charity is not so rare as it was. There are among us those large-hearted ones who can pity the sinner, whilst they loathe her sin. If one such Sister of Mercy in the truest sense of the words can learn from what we have now said a new mission and mode of doing good, another sphere of serving Him who did not disdain to work among the publicans and harlots, this brief record of the Midnight Meeting will not have been written in vain.

footnote: although the missionary refers to one of the Wapping bridges as the 'Bridge of Sighs', at this date this more commonly referred - as a place for prostitutes' suicides, rather than to the original bridge in Venice! - to Victoria Bridge, because of the etching with this bridge in the background [left - held at the V & A], by the pre-Raphaelite Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96), written to illustrate Thomas Hood's 1844 poem The Bridge of Sighs. However, Victoria Bridge, though mooted in the 1840s, did not open until 1857, and it seems that Hood's inspiration for his affecting poem was a suicide from Waterloo Bridge. (Victoria Bridge was a suspension bridge which proved unstable, and was renamed Chelsea Bridge to avoid association with the royal family in the event of its collapse; it was rebuilt in 1937.) So 'Bridge of Sighs' can be seen as a generic term.

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