The Nightside of Sunderland (extract)

Sunday Morning in the Lanes

On Sunday morning we turned out as the bells of Sunderland Church were ringing and crowds of well dressed people were proceeding to their several places of worship. The lanes and alleys with which we have more immediately to do, furnished chance worshipper or two but these were exceptional cases. In a short time the streets were again almost deserted, and we determined to take a turn round the lanes at mid-day. One lane or alley was a counterpart of the others. Tawdry ill-clad females were standing at many of the doorways scowling at passers by, and a stray member of the “rougher sort ” would be met with now and again with hands in pockets and a short stumpy pipe between his teeth from which issued clouds of smoke in short defiant puffs. The last nights orgies had left their legacy of unrest behind them, and even the poor wretches we occasionally saw inside shivering over their scanty fires, produced an un¬favourable impression regarding the creature comforts of the Children of Night. The dirt and squalor, the doors which seemed ready to fall to pieces, and the windows broken in many places, and the gaps stopped up by odds and ends of anything which came handiest, had a lively and picturesque appearance, when dimly seen by gaslight, but it was indeed low life with the gilt of, as we saw it in open day. Verily one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.

The little chapel and the large bar

Whilst sauntering down the High Street in the evening, cogitating on men and things, our brown study was suddenly interrupted by the sound of music and we were agreeably surpassed to hear the words of a well known hymn come ringing through the air from one of the adjacent lanes.

“Jesus answers still; Send the answer back to Heaven; By Thy grace we will.”

We made a dash down the lane (Numbers Garth it turned out to be) and congregated in an open space, we found a motley crowd assembled from the centre of which the musical performance proceeded. At the end of each verse the leader gave out, in stentorian tones ‘and Sunderland vernacular, the words of the next, and so on to the end. The congregation, though rough was orderly and listened with outward decorum at least, and a goodly number res¬ponded to the invitation to attend a short service to be held in an adjoining room. I found the place of meeting after mounting two or three steps to be a long narrow slip of a room or rather two small rooms knocked into one, and not improved in the process. An awkward elbow of the partition projected a long way into the apartment from the side where I was located and consequently a portion of the audience were hid from the view of their fellow worshippers, though now and again a chorus of stentorian voices joining in the singing or ejaculating during the prayer gave evidence that they were keeping a sharp eye on the business on hand. Texts and scriptures mottos were stuck up along the white-washed walls and we suppose in honour of the season the gas brackets, were draped with a small attempt at adornment in in the shape of paper devices of various colours. The white-washed rafters close above our heads and the e small old fashioned window gave a quaint homely appearance to the -scene, and was in keeping with the motley congregation. The yellow or what had once been yellow or grey flannel jackets and heterogeneous apparel of the waifs and strays gathered in from the neighbouring lanes and alleys blended in pleasing harmony with the well ordered apparel of the’ regular worshipper. There was altogether a homely straight forward bluntness about the proceedings which pleased me and was a relief from the sober preciseness and steady decorum of ordinary religious meetings, A few unruly boys who had slightly interrupted the speakers opening remarks were audibly admonished by one of the leaders to “keep quiet or hook it,” and a singing brother whose soul was evidently in it, and who moreover taught by example as well as by precept, admonished the singers to exert their vocal powers as “there was no use in humbugging it.” The preachers’ remarks were simple and appropriate, and there was little beating about the bush for fine words or phrases, and yet I was rather startled at a sentence uttered in all earnestness during the prayer, “Oh, Lord shake us over the mouth of Hell,” and by the deep Amen emphasised which went round the room. One dear old lady whose whole heart was evidently in it, adding: “A good shake Lord.” These itinerant preachers deserve the highest praise for the patience and faithfulness with which they follow out their conceptions of duty, and we left the little chapel in Numbers Garth heartily wishing them God speed.

Dagoon (reprinted by Norman Kirtlan)