Victorian London - Charities - London Cottage Mission

    It is a common remark with those who, as an act of adventure, now and again visit such places, that it is marvellous how well, under the circumstances, the half-naked and more than half- starved little ragamuffins seen playing in the gutters look, and that it really seems as though they throve on dirt and neglect, as more fortunate children thrive with cleanliness and care. But it is only the exceptionally strong ones who are able to bear up against the baneful influences that threaten their early extinction. The weakliest ones are weeded out from the stronger during infancy, but there still remains a very large proportion of those who are described by their parents as never being what may be called "well and hearty." And then again, when epidemic disease visits these shady places, which the sun never fairly penetrates, and through the dismal recesses of which a healthful breeze was never known to blow - that is when havoc is wrought amongst the gutter children. They have no armour of defence against it. Their food is insufficient and of the very worst. In hundreds of cases, in the hot summer-time, when fever and cholera prevail, the child of ten is left at home to "look after" its three or four younger brothers and sisters, while the mother is out at work, the "looking after " mainly consisting in escorting them to the most likely place where something to eat may be picked up - literally,- the most favoured hunting- ground being the nearest fruit market, where, a dozen times a day, they may take their chance in a scramble for a share of rotten pears and plums, cast out ostensibly to be by-and-bye carted off by the scavenger.
    They are unwashed, clad in rags, and their "bed" is an abomination. That there are thousands of mothers dwelling in the back settlements, as they are called, who do their utmost to keep their homes and children clean and decent, I am not only willing to admit, but am prepared to vouch for, but that there is also an unpardonably grimy side to the picture is, unhappily, equally true. At best, however, it bears cruelly hard on the poor children when they are prostrated in sickness. It is bad enough, that bed of theirs, when, in the enjoyment of health, they retire to rest after a long day of street-prowling and kennel-raking; but to be there from an early waking in the morning, all the day through, and again through the long night, and next day again, with mother out at work (to stay at home is to proclaim a famine), and with the other children away at play or at school, and nothing to break the weary monotony but the hurried visit of the parish doctor, or the occasional and uncertain "look in" of the neighbour who has promised to give the little patient its medicine regularly. Do they suffer, and are they as sensitive as children delicately bred and tenderly nurtured? Make no doubt of it, kind-hearted mother with a little flock of your own, nor hesitate to bestow on them a full measure of your compassion. There may perhaps be some truth in the assertion that while they are hale and robust, the children of the slums grow to some extent innured to the hardships of the life they are born to; but that distinction between them and your own children or mine ceases at the threshold of the room where they lie ill abed. Their tastes and habits are coarser, and being all unused to a nurse's anxious care they are less fretful and peevish, maybe, but they are as fanciful and as imaginative as their small brothers and sisters of more respectable growth, and feel just as keenly the hardship and the weariness, and experience the same heart-yearning for the time when they will get well again. They feel it more, probably. In ordinary life, the child who is sick is consoled and comforted in its affliction; its mother's care and attention is unceasing, there is not a member of the family who has not a cheering word for it, or an endeavour lacking to mitigate its suffering  and enable it to tide over, as easily as maybe, the tedious time of convalescence.
    But, as a rule, the sick child, alley born and bred, has no such helps back to health afforded it. Its being smitten with disease is an additional burden placed on the backs of those who already are too heavily laden. Take the very common case of mother and father and three or four children occupying one room night and day. It is no use preaching to such unfortunate folk the dictates of decency. Somehow or other, probably those who are most fastidious as to the observances of polite society may have had something to do with their being thrust back to where we find them. Practically, they are as unable to help themselves to a more desirable state of things as if they were fettered hand and foot. It is only by ingenious contrivance that, at best of times, they can eke out the miserable dormitory accommodation at their disposal. Father and mother and the youngest child probably sleep in one bed and the three other children on a "shake-down," as it is called, in a corner. The latter are used to " roughing it," and in winter time cuddle together like little pigs in their straw for warmth sake. But sickness seizes on one of them; if it is contagious and takes the form of measles or whooping cough, so much the worse; but the more common ailment in such localities is low fever and wasting. The poor little patient's temples throb with a burning heat, he is full of aches and pains and cannot bear to be roughly touched. He is wakeful, perhaps a little delirious, and, in the long night-time, fidgetty and fretful. It is all very well to say that the affection of a mother and father for their child should be sufficient to enable them to bear cheerfully their share of such a family affliction ; but the matter has its physical as well as its moral aspect. The father perhaps is a waterside or a market labourer, and sorely needs all the rest he can obtain between, say eleven o'clock at night and four or five in the morning, and the mother may be in much the same case. Thus night after night there is no sleep for anyone in the unwholesomely close little room, and how is it possible that the innocent cause of so much inconvenience can be amiably regarded?
    But, as I have already said, the worst part of the business is when the little invalid boy or girl is slowly recovering from their sickness, and are in urgent need of the three essentials to setting them up again-proper strengthening food, pure air and sunshine and pleasant companionship-- and have no more chance of attaining them than of their going a journey to the moon on horseback; nothing but the dismal old conditions to assist the shaky little patient in the up-hill struggle-the stinted meal of bread and dripping or treacle, or a share in the hotch-potch of meat scraps or tripe cuttings with potatoes, with no more delightful outlook, as he or she lies in bed, than the blackened ceiling and the broken wall, and with no other couch than the old one, with a couple of sacks in lieu of sheet and blanket, and a bolster as hard as a wooden block. One can easily imagine a poor little girl or boy, so circumstanced, dreaming a dream. Closing their eyes in hopelessness and weariness, they fall asleep, and straightway a Dreamland Fairy whisks them off to a place that appears to be too much like what they have heard and read of Paradise to be a portion of the dull and dreary world they have been used to. They are snugly abed in a bran-new iron cot, with snowy sheets and fleecy blankets, and, lying near the window, they can make out that all round about the outside of the house, as far as they can see. are green hills and valleys spangled with wild flowers and level meadows smooth as a carpet, where cricket and football and a dozen other games may be played; with tall trees with clustering foliage and gnarled limbs, irresistibly suggestive of bird-nesting, and with a sparkling stream in which the fish are leaping as though inviting any boy possessed of a rod and line to come and catch them if he can; with, over all, a cloudless blue sky, and the larks carolling, and the bees busily humming as they industriously give all their attention to the manufacture of wax and honey. He was but poorly, the boy recollects, when he lay down in that other bed, in the dark corner; but waking up in this one, and looking, as I have before said, out at the window, he already feels "ten pounds better," as the saying is, and wants to get up and be off for a ramble in the woods or a scamper across the meadows. Is he at liberty to do so? He will risk it, anyhow. And up he gets, and slips on his clothes-not his old rags, but a clean and comfortable suit - and makes for the door. But alas for the treacherous nature of dreams! no sooner has he done so, than the delapidated old room in Squalor Alley presents itself, and he is compelled to step into it, and there he really wakes, worse oft and more miserable than before he had the lovely vision. 
    What would the poor little convalescent give if that dream could only be made to come true? But it is after having thus artfully worked my way towards it that I come to the pith and purpose of my paper. To put it bluntly, it is not a question of what the ailing one, boy or girl, would give to make the realisation of that vision of Paradise possible, but how much - to make it a personal matter - will the warmhearted reader whom God has blessed with means beyond his actual need, give towards it ? It would be much prettier, more poetic, at all events, if the great good hinted at could be achieved by the interposition of the wand of the Dreamland Fairy before alluded to, but, perforce, we must be practical, and make it a matter of pounds and shillings. The scheme that is to spread gladness through Shady-land has already been begun. Those who are at the helm of affairs at that successful centre of East-end benevolence, the London Cottage Mission, Salmon's Lane, Limehouse, have boldly taken the matter in hand, and progressed with it so far as to have completed an arrangement with a large-hearted gentleman, the owner of land in the lovely district of Sevenoaks, for a rich slice of that fruitful land, nearly twelve acres in extent. The present position of affairs is this :- the ground having been secured for what may be termed a preliminary term of three years and a half, with power to continue the holding on an extended lease, it is proposed as the most expeditious and least expensive arrangement to erect several wooden houses, which, while they are weather-proof and quite comfortable, can be taken to pieces as they are put together, without waste of material. It is proposed to make provision to start, for about two hundred boys and girls, an equal number of each, and the necessary means being assured, the builder, who will engage to carry out and complete his contract in three weeks from the day of commencing, will get to work immediately, and meanwhile every other preparation will be making. The two hundred and fifty iron bedsteads, with the necessary bedding, will be got ready with the rest of the furniture for dormitories, school room, dining room, playground, &c., &c., so that there is really no obstacle but one - so slight that it may be conquered easily enough by a few passes of the pen across the face of a few bankers' cheques - to the place being occupied before the advancing summer is more than a month older. Six or seven hundred pounds I am assured by the hard-working Secretary, Mr. Walter Austin, will suffice to make the affair an accomplished fact. And such a fact! All that I spoke of as appearing in that vision to the poor little convalescent of Squalor Alley is to be found there, and more. Not only is there wood and dell, hills and valleys; the trout stream is a reality, and so is the orchard and the market garden (tons of material for the Salmon's Lane Irish stew dinners might be grown there). All round about too, there are hop gardens, and there seems no reason why, come picking time, many of the small patients should not find a royal road to health, and at the same time earn quite a comfortable sum by working, taking it easy of course. for the hop growers. Included with these various uncommon advantages is another, a well of mineral water, the healing virtues of which are spoken of by the inhabitants of the locality as well-nigh invaluable.
    But this of course would have to be tested and proved and there will be time for that when the Convalescent Home is built up and fully arranged, and the first contingent of the host of children of East London who are slowly recovering from attacks of illness, more or less protracted, has been packed thither by rail. The best guarantee that can be given that the Halls Green Convalescent Home will be well managed is to be found in the fact that Miss Napton, to whose untiring energy and wise judgment not a little of the prosperity of the Salmon Lane Charity is due, will be the lady chief in command there, assisted by an efficient staff. It is not proposed to keep the children at the home for an indefinite time; there will be too many candidates for the blessings it will confer, to admit of such liberality, as that. The spell in the country will last from a fortnight to a month, and in cases where the parents can afford it they will be expected to pay the sick child's railway fare. In the majority of cases the patients will be too poor to pay anything, they will have to he taken "just as they are" from the squalid bedroom (but not before a medical certificate has been procured stating the child is free from contagious disease and may be removed with safety), cleaned, clothed, and whisked off to Wonderland, and there well fed and kindly cared for, and coaxed back to health at the expense of the Institution and its patrons. The latter arc folk to be envied, for what greater blessing in life can there be than for a man to he able to reason thus:- "Just at present, this bright and beautiful summer time there are hundreds of wretched children who have long lain ill in their miserable homes and are now slowly, and by a painfully tedious process, recovering. I will make it my affair to give, say, ten of them a friendly lift on the hilly road to health. I have ten pounds to spare, and each golden coin will be a passport for some poor pale faced little boy or girl, so wan and weak that people turn round and look at her or him on the way to the railway station. They will proceed to snug quarters at Sevenoaks, there to remain until their dull eyes brighten and their small appetites become prodigiously large ones, and their white lips become rosy, and the sickly hue of their complexion is changed by country fare and country air to a wholesome russet brown. I can do this," says the man with ten pounds to give, "and I will. And, without fear of contradiction, I say of him, that he be the happiest man alive.

James Greenwood, Glad News for Shady-Land, 18??


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