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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A Hooligans' Supper

I had hoped to attend the banquet in the character of a street Arab but chance threw me instead into the army of the Crusaders, and before I could show my colours, I had enlisted, and was out against the Saracens of South London attached to the staff of the "Kennington Devil-Drivers." the 1159th. Regiment of the King's Own Army of Salvation. My greatest ambition was at last realised: I was a Special War Correspondent at the front!

As the Major and I deployed out of Kennington Lane, reconnoitering the hostilities, we caught the volleys of a lively skirmish by the Elephant and Castle, at which point the first "open-air" company of volunteers was making a desperate stand against the enemy. Our troops had formed a hollow square. and, though surrounded by an overwhelmingly superior force, were more than holding their own. We hurried up to join them and gave our own voices to the Cause.

It was after ten o'clock, and predatory "Hooligans", street walkers and a shivering army of the homeless encompassed our little Forlorn Hope of sharpshooters who were firing words of hope into the hearts of the throng. The Blue Brigade fought like heroes all that night There was round after round of hallelujahs, gallant charges of entreaty and promise, and by ones and twos the men and lasses fell — fell to their knees, aimed a prayer, and formed again.

What did it mean? How were we to make those half-starved wretches believe it were better to drudge for eighteen shilling, a week than to "lift" five pounds in half that time? But the Brigadier knew the proper range, elevation. and charge. and his shots went home. It is an old story now, this fanatical street minstrellsy; but. though we smile and toss our shilling to the silver-faced girls with banner or drum, it is always new and always wonderful, this strange mixture of mysticism, exaltation, and Holy Text, the promise of Life Everlasting, the slang. the cheap music and the grotesque display, all of which, mixed in the open air and rain, spiced with persecution and ridicule, savoured with the mud of the street, makes a spell that brings the blackguard and the professional criminal to his knees. It is the old miracle-play rewritten to suit she times; but it is not priestcraft — it is friendcraft, and, in virtue of that distinction, it is alive and human, casting off the shroud of the dark ages.

We retreated in good order, then, after the battle, marched four abreast through the slime of the Newington Butts. singing "Saved by the Blood of the Lamb". At corner and corner we were reinforced by other squad of street-skirmishers, who fell in at our rear, and, with a fascinated escort of pavement-stragglers, we got back in a triumphal procession to the Barracks. There, besieging the old chapel, were the hundred "Hooligans" invited to attend the armistice.

They had all been selected by Brigadier Hoggard's staff, or by the "Slum Officers" — women of the Army who live in the purlieus, week in and out, doing "settlement work", but unskilled in scientific "sociology", and compiling reports for no University. It is their business to learn the life and language of the poor, and to insert the thin edge of salvation, helping the slatternly drunkard from the gutter. nursing the sick, clothing the naked. They speak the dialect of the alley; they believe in filling a man's stomach before they offer him the bread of Eternal Life.

So the "Hooligans" filed in, mid made pell-mell for the triple row of tables,and took their seats at the benches — as precious set of scoundrels as you could pick out of the Rogues Gallery. Here was Mustard, "a crop-haired, low-browed lad with a villainous scowl, squat and smoky. who had recently done ten days time for breaking a policeman's nose. Here was "Spug" Rafferty. who was known by the Staff. though not by the police, to have "busted" a house in South Lambeth only last week, and there were a score of others, self confessed highwaymen and sneak-thieves, pointed out to me. There was "Stodger", who had the unique distinction of not having taken a drink, or "lifted a jerry", or knocked down a "copper" for two weeks! There were men and boys, in cliques and gangs, who would go out of the hall and "stand a bloke on his head" before morning as surely as they would eat seven sandwiches during the evening.

We fed them beef and bread and tea till the Commissary Department had emptied its larder. The record was something like ten cups of tea, and is held, I think, "Stodger" himself. For many of then, this "tuck-in" would have to last for several days, and what "puddin'" they could not swallow was carried away in their pockets.

We passed amongst them, gossiping and getting acquainted, under the pretence of inciting them to new attacks upon the provender, until at last their fury lulled and they were in condition for the feast of unworldly wisdom that was to follow. Meanwhile, in the bank of seats above the platform at the end of the hall, a choir of saints in blue halos had been singing gospel songs set to the tunes of the street, their role. ascetic, thin lipped lasses framed in the dark bonnets of the Order of the Weltschmeriz.

As Commissioner Coombs gave his straightforward. plain-worded talk, Brigadier Hoggard, who has instituted the movement and propelled it with his own personal force and magnetism, leaned over the railings and watched the faces of the gathering. It is the Brigadier who knows many things about the "Hooligan" which the police do not know, for he has gained their confidence by a career of tact and discretion and good advice. I do not doubt that he knows the secret leaders of the "Borough" and the "New Cut" gangs, men who are well dressed and respectable in appearance, and yet direct the piracies of their respective "mobs". He knows perhaps who is "wanted" for that job in Brixton last Saturday night, but, though be will not tell, you may be sure that he is doing his best to get the criminals to confess, and it is not so unlikely that he will succeed either.

The Brigadier knows too how the "Hooligans" and pickpockets put the "splits", or detectives off the scent, where the "fences" are that change stolen watches into good coin, and he can show you places in South London where a well dressed man's life is not safe after dark. And yet, knowing all this, he has faith that he can in time touch such hearts and rescue some brands from the burning. He is wise; he believes in works as well as faith, and you may feel sure that, beside the mysteries of his creed, he depends also Upon the power of human love. So, with his doctrine, he offers to these friendless, homeless, hopeless guests sympathy, counsel, and aid.

The Brigadier points to one or two absorbed faces, who seem to have found a friend for the first time to offer them an open-handed fellowship, and he shows one or two more young men who have done honest work ever since he has met them. The Brigadier is not easily discouraged, for he has seen a sinner profess repentance in Church, go up to the altar rail, and come out with the communion plate hidden under his coat.

These feasts cost the Headquarters Staff about a pound a night, but as yet the officers have not attempted to enlist public support in the way of contributions, for they are feeling their way, confident that the money will come if the cause is worthy.

We have had the Missionary Crusaders who go forth armed with tracts, the Charity Crusaders who strew shillings among beggars, and the Sociological Crusaders who compile statistics. Thee are many Orders in the Church of Rome who do better than these, but all work at best through interpreters. This is a new experiment, bound to the same end but armed with different weapons; me may help, hinder, watch or ignore it as we will but the Forlorn Hope pushes on through Darkest England under the yellow, red. and blue flag.

Gelett Burgess

The Sketch. March 1st. 1899

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