Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper; every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three – fruit and ‘sweetstuff’ manufacturers in the cellars, barbers and red-herring vendors in the front parlours, cobblers in the back; a bird-fancier in the first floor, three families on the second, starvation in the attics, Irishmen in the passage, a ‘musician’ in the front kitchen, a charwoman and five hungry children in the back one – filth everywhere – a gutter before the houses, and a drain behind – clothes drying, and slops emptying from the windows; ... men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.
Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1839 on St Giles Rookery
see also 'Sanitary Ramblings' - click here
see also James Hannay in Sketches of London Life - click here
Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Morning Chronicle : Labour and Poor, 1849-50; Henry Mayhew - A Visit to the Cholera District of Bermondsey
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A VISIT TO THE CHOLERA DISTRICTS OF BERMONDSEY
Monday, September 24, 1849
There is an Eastern fable which tells us that a certain
city was infested by poisonous serpents that killed all they fastened upon; and
the citizens, thinking them sent from Heaven as a scourge for their sins, kept
praying that the visitation might be removed from them, until scarcely a house
remained unsmitten. At length, however, concludes the parable, the eyes of the
people were opened; for, after all their prayers and fastings, they found that
the eggs of the poisonous serpents were hatched in the muck-heaps that
surrounded their own dwellings.
The history of the late epidemic, which now seems to have almost spent its fatal fury upon us, has taught us that the masses of filth and corruption round the metropolis are, as it were, the nauseous nests of plague and pestilence. Indeed, so well known are the localities of fever and disease, that London would almost admit of being mapped out pathologically, and divided into its morbid districts and deadly cantons. We might lay our fingers on the Ordnance map, and say here is the typhoid parish, and there the ward of cholera; for as truly as the West-end rejoices in the title of Belgravia, might the southern shores of the Thames be christened Pestilentia. As season follows season, so does disease follow disease in the quarters that may be more literally than metaphorically styled the plague-spots of London. If the seasons are favourable, and typhus does not bring death to almost every door, then influenza and scarlatina fill the workhouses with the families of the sick. So certain and regular are the diseases in their returns, that each epidemic, as it comes back summer after summer, breaks out in the self-same streets as it appeared on its former visit, with but this slight difference, that if at its last visitation it began at the top of the Street, and killed its way down, this time it begins at the bottom, and kills its way as surely up the lines of houses.
Out of the 12,800 deaths which, within the last three months, have arisen from cholera, 6,500 have occurred on the southern shores of the Thames; and to this awful number no localities have contributed so largely as Lambeth, Southwark and Bermondsey, each, at the height of the disease, adding its hundred victims a week to the fearful catalogue of mortality. Any one who has ventured a visit to the last-named of these places in particular, will not wonder at the ravages of the pestilence in this malarious quarter, for it is bounded on the north and east by filth and fever, and on the south and west by want, squalor, rags and pestilence. Here stands, as it were, the very capital of cholera, the Jessore of London - JACOB'S ISLAND, a patch of ground insulated by the common sewer. Spared by the fire of London, the houses and comforts of the people in this loathsome place have scarcely known any improvement since that time. The place is a century behind even the low and squalid districts that surround it.
In the days of Henry II, the foul stagnant ditch that now makes an island of this pestilential spot, was a running stream, supplied with the waters which poured down from the hills about Sydenham and Nunhead, and was used for the working of the mills that then stood on its banks. These had been granted by charter to the monks of St. Mary and St. John, to grind their flour, and were dependencies upon the Priory of Bermondsey. Tradition tells us that what is now a straw yard skirting the river, was once the City Ranelagh, called "Cupid's Gardens," and that the trees, which are now black with mud, were the bowers under which the citizens loved, on the sultry summer evenings, to sit beside the stream drinking their sack and ale. But now the running brook is changed into a tidal sewer, in whose putrid filth staves are laid to season; and where the ancient summer-houses stood, nothing but hovels, sties, and muck-heaps are now to be seen.
Not far from the Tunnel there is a creek opening into the Thames. The entrance to this is screened by the tiers of colliers which lie before it. This creek bears the name of the Dock Head. Sometimes it is called St. Saviour's, or, in jocular allusion to the odour for which it is celebrated, Savory Dock. The walls of the warehouses on each side of this muddy stream are green and slimy, and barges lie beside them, above which sacks of corn are continually dangling from the cranes aloft. This creek was once supplied by the streams from the Surrey hills, but now nothing but the drains and refuse of the houses that have grown up round about it thickens and swells its waters.
On entering the precincts of the pest island, the air has literally the smell of a graveyard, and a feeling of nausea and heaviness comes over any one unaccustomed to imbibe the musty atmosphere. It is not only the nose, but the stomach, that tells how heavily the air is loaded with sulphuretted hydrogen; and as soon as you cross one of the crazy and rotting bridges over the reeking ditch, you know, as surely as if you had chemically tested it, by the black colour of what was once the white-lead paint upon the door-posts and window-sills, that the air is thickly charged with this deadly gas. The heavy bubbles which now and then rise up in the water show you whence at least a portion of the mephitic compound comes, while the open doorless privies that hang over the water side on one of the banks, and the dark streaks of filth down the walls where the drains from each house discharge themselves into the ditch on the opposite side, tell you how the pollution of the ditch is supplied.
The water is covered with a scum almost like a cobweb, and prismatic with grease. In it float large masses of green rotting weed, and against the posts of the bridges are swollen carcasses of dead animals, almost bursting with the gases of putrefaction. Along its shores are heaps of indescribable filth, the phosphoretted smell from which tells you of the rotting fish there, while the oyster shells are like pieces of slate from their coating of mud and filth. In some parts the fluid is almost as red as blood from the colouring matter that pours into it from the reeking leather-dressers' close by.
The striking peculiarity of Jacob's Island consists in the wooden galleries and sleeping-rooms at the back of the houses which overhang the dark flood, and are built upon piles, so that the place has positively the air of a Flemish street, flanking a sewer instead of a canal; while the little ricketty bridges that span the ditches and connect court with court, give it the appearance of the Venice of drains, where channels before and behind the houses do duty for the ocean. Across some parts of the stream whole rooms have been built, so that house adjoins house; and here, with the very stench of death rising through the boards, human beings sleep night after night, until the last sleep of all comes upon them years before its time. Scarce a house but yellow linen is hanging to dry over the balustrade of staves, or else run out on a long oar where the sulphur-coloured clothes hang over the waters, and you are almost wonderstruck to see their form and colour unreflected in the putrid ditch beneath.
At the back of nearly every house that boasts a square foot or two of outlet - and the majority have none at all - are pig-sties. In front waddle ducks, while cocks and hens scratch at the cinderheaps. Indeed the creatures that fatten on offal are the only living things that seem to flourish here
The inhabitants themselves show in their faces the poisonous influence of the mephitic air they breathe. Either their skins are white, like parchment, telling of the impaired digestion, the languid circulation, and the coldness of the skin peculiar to persons suffering from chronic poisoning, or else their cheeks are flushed hectically, and their eyes are glassy, showing the wasting fever and general decline of the bodily functions. The brown, earthlike complexion of some, and their sunk eyes, with the dark areol~ round them, tell you that the sulphuretted hydrogen of the atmosphere in which they live has been absorbed into the blood; while others are remarkable for the watery eye exhibiting the increased secretion of tears so peculiar to those who are exposed to the exhalations of hydrosulphate of ammonia.
Scarcely a girl that has not suffusion and soreness of the eyes, so that you would almost fancy she had been swallowing small doses of arsenic; while it is evident from the irritation and discharge from the mucous membranes of the nose and eyes for which all the children are distinguished, that the poor emaciated things are suffering from continual inhalation of the vapour of carbonate of ammonia and other deleterious gases.
Nor was this to be wondered at, when the whole air reeked with the stench of rotting animal and vegetable matter: for the experiment of Professor Donovan has shown that a rabbit, with only its body enclosed in a bladder filled with sulphuretted hydrogen, and allowed to breathe freely, will die in ten minutes. Thénard also has proved that one eight hundredth part of this gas in the atmosphere is sufficient to destroy a dog, and one two hundred and fiftieth will kill a horse; while Mr. Taylor, in his book on poisons, assures us that the men who were engaged in excavating the Thames Tunnel suffered severely during the work from the presence of this gas in the atmosphere in which they were obliged to labour. "The air, as well as the water which trickled through the roof," he tells us, "was found to contain sulphuretted hydrogen. This was probably derived from the action of the iron pyrites in the clay. By respiring this atmosphere the strongest and most robust men were, in the course of a few months, reduced to a state of extreme exhaustion and died. They became emaciated, and fell into a state of low fever, accompanied with delirium. In one case which I saw," he adds, "the face of the man was pale, the lips of a violet hue, the eyes sunk and dark all round, and the whole muscular system flabby and emaciated." To give the reader some idea as to the extent with which the air in Jacob's Island is charged with this most deadly compound, it will be sufficient to say that a silver spoon of which we caught sight in one of the least wretched dwellings was positively chocolate-coloured by the action of the sulphur on the metal.
On approaching the tidal ditch from the Neckinger-road, the shutters of the house at the corner were shut from top to bottom. Our intelligent and obliging guide, Dr. Martin, informed us that a girl was then lying dead there from cholera, and that but very recently another victim had fallen in the house adjoining it. This was the beginning of the tale of death, for the tidal ditch was filled up to this very point. Here, however, its putrefying waters were left to mingle their poison with the 267 cubic feet of air that each man daily takes into his lungs, and this was the point whence the pestilence commenced its ravages. As we walked down George-row, our informant told us that at the corner of London-street he could see, a short time hack, as many as nine houses in which there were one or two persons lying dead of the cholera at the same time; and yet there could not have been more than a dozen tenements visible from the spot.
We crossed the bridge, and spoke to one of the inmates. In answer to our questions, she told us she was never well. Indeed, the signs of the deadly influence of the place were painted in the earthy complexion of the poor woman. "Neither I nor my children know what health is," said she. "But what is one to do? We must live where our bread is. I've tried to let the house, and put a bill up, but cannot get any one to take it. From this spot we were led to narrow close courts, where the sun never shone, and the air seemed almost as stagnant and putrid as the ditch we had left. The blanched cheeks of the people that now came out to stare at us, were white as vegetables grown in the dark, and as we stopped to look down the alley, our informant told us that the place teemed with children, and that if a horn was blown they would swarm like bees at the sound of a gong. The houses were mostly inhabited by "corn-runners," coal-porters, and "longshore-men," getting a precarious living - earning some times as much as 12s. a day, and then for weeks doing nothing. Fevers prevailed in these courts we were told more than at the side of the ditch.
By this way we reached a dismal stack of hovels called, by a strange incongruity, Pleasant-row. Inquiring of one of the inmates, we were informed that they were quite comfortable now! The stench had been all removed, said the woman, and we were invited to pass to the back-yard as evidence of the fact. We did so; the boards bent under our feet, and the air in the cellar-like yard was foetid to positive nausea. As we left the house a child sat nursing a dying half-comatose baby on a door step. The skin of its little arms, instead of being plumped out with health, was loose and shrivelled, like an old crone's, and had a flabby monkey-like appearance more than the character of human cuticle. The almost jaundiced colour of the child's skin, its half paralyzed limbs, and state of stupor, told it was suffering from some slow poison; indeed the symptoms might readily have been mistaken for those of chronic poisoning from acetate of lead. At the end of this row our friend informed us that the last house on either side was never free from fever.
Continuing our course we reached "The Folly," another street so narrow that the names and trades of the shopmen were painted on boards that stretched, across the street, from the roof of their own house to that of their neighbour's. We were here stopped by our companion in front of a house "to let." The building was as narrow and as unlike a human habitation as the wooden houses in a child's box of toys. "In this house," said our friend, "when the scarlet fever was raging in the neighbourhood, the barber who was living here suffered fearfully from it; and no sooner did the man get well of this than he was seized with typhus, and scarcely had he recovered from the first attack than he was struck down a second time with the same terrible disease. Since then he has lost his child with cholera, and at this moment his wife is in the workhouse suffering from the same affliction. The only wonder is that they are not all dead, for as the man sat at his meals in his small shop, if he put his hand against the wall behind him, it would be covered with the soil of his neighbour's privy, sopping through the wall. At the back of the house was an open sewer, and the privies were full to the seat."
One fact, says an eminent writer in toxicology, is worthy of the attention of medical jurists, namely, that the respiration of an atmosphere only slightly impregnated with the gases emanating from drains and sewers, may, if long continued, seriously affect an individual and cause death. M. D'Arcet had to examine a lodging in Paris, in which three young and vigorous men had died successively in the course of a few years, under similar symptoms. The lodging consisted of a bed-room with a chimney, and an ill-ventilated ante-room. The pipe of a privy passed down one side of the room, by the head of the bed, and the wall in this part was damp from infiltration. At the time of the examination there was no perceptible smell in the room, though it was small and low. M. D'Arcet attributed the mortality in the lodging to the slow and long-continued action of the emanations from the pipe (Ann. d'Hyg., Juillet, 1836).
We then journeyed on to London-street, down which the tidal ditch continues its course. In No. 1 of this street the cholera first appeared seventeen years ago, and spread up it with fearful virulence; but this year it appeared at the opposite end, and ran down it with like severity. As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer the sun shone upon a narrow slip of the water. In the bright light it appeared the colour of strong green tea, and positively looked as solid as black marble in the shadow - indeed it was more like watery mud than muddy water; and yet we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink. As we gazed in horror at it, we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it; we saw a whole tier of doorless privies in the open road, common to men and women, built over it; we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it, and the limbs of the vagrant boys bathing in it seemed, by pure force of contrast, white as Parian marble. And yet, as we stood doubting the fearful statement, we saw a little child, from one of the galleries opposite, lower a tin can with a rope to fill a large bucket that stood beside her. In each of the balconies that hung over the stream the self-same tub was to be seen in which the inhabitants put the mucky liquid to stand, so that they may, after it has rested for a day or two, skim the fluid from the solid particles of filth, pollution, and disease. As the little thing dangled her tin cup as gently as possible into the stream, a bucket of night-soil was poured down from the next gallery.
In this wretched place we were taken to a house where an infant lay dead of the cholera. We asked if they really did drink the water? The answer was, "They were obliged to drink the ditch, without they could beg a pailfull or thieve a pailfull of water. But have you spoken to your landlord about having it laid on for you? "Yes, sir; and he says he'll do it, and do it, but we know him better than to believe him." "Why, sir," cried another woman, who had shot out from an adjoining room, "he won't even give us a little whitewash, though we tell him we'll willingly do the work ourselves: and look here, sir," she added, "all the tiles have fallen off, and the rain pours in wholesale."
We had scarcely left the house when a bill caught our eye, announcing that "this valuable estate" was to be sold!
From this spot we crossed the little shaky bridge into Providence-buildings - a narrow neck of land set in sewers. Here, in front of the houses, were small gardens that a table-cloth would have covered. Still the one dahlia that here raised its round red head made it a happier and brighter place. Never was colour so grateful to the eye. All we had looked at had been so black and dingy, and had smelt so much of churchyard clay, that this little patch of beauty was brighter and greener than ever was oasis in the desert. Here a herd of children came out, and stared at us like sheep. One child our guide singled out from the rest. She had the complexion of tawed leather, and her bright, glassy eyes were sunk so far back in her head, that they looked more like lights shining through the hollow sockets of a skull than a living head, and her bones seemed ready to start through the thin layer of skin. We were told she had had the cholera twice. Her father was dead of it. "But she, sir," said a woman addressing us, "won't die. Ah! if she'd had plenty of victuals and been brought up less hardy she would have been dead and buried long ago, like many more. And here's another," she added, pushing forward a long thin woman in rusty black. "Why' I've know'd her eat as much as a quartern loaf at a meal. and you can't fatten her no how." Upon this there was a laugh. but in the woman's bloodless cheeks and blue lips we saw that she like the rest was wasting away from the influence of the charnel-like atmosphere around her.
The last place we went to was in Joiner's-court, with four wooden houses in it, in which there had lately been as many as five cases of cholera. In front, the poor souls, as if knowing by an instinct that plants were given to purify the atmosphere, had pulled up the paving-stones before their dwellings, and planted a few stocks here and there in the rich black mould beneath. The first house we went to, a wild ragged-headed boy shot out in answer to our knock, and putting his hands across the doorway, stood there to prevent our entrance. Our friend asked whether he could enter, and see the state of the drainage? "No; t'ain't convenient," was the answer, given so quickly and sharply, that the lad forced some ugly and uncharitable suspicion upon us. In the next house, the poor inmate was too glad to meet with any one ready to sympathise with her sufferings. We were taken up into a room, where we were told she had positively lived for nine years. The window was within four feet of a high wall, at the foot of which, until very recently, ran the open common sewer. The room was so dark that it was several minutes before we could see anything within it, and there was a smell of must and dry rot that told of damp and imperfect ventilation, and the unnatural size of the pupils of the wretched woman's eyes convinced us how much too long she had dwelt in this gloomy place.
Here, as usual, we heard stories that made one's blood curdle. of the cruelty of those from whom they rented the sties called dwellings. They had begged for pure water to be laid on, and the rain to be shut out; and the answer for eighteen years had been, that the lease was just out. "They knows its handy for a man's work," said one and all, "and that's the reason why they impose on a body." This, indeed, seems to us to be the great evil. Out of these wretches' health, comfort, and even lives, small capitalists reap a petty independence; and until the poor are rescued from the fangs of these mercenary men, there is but little hope either for their physical or moral welfare.
The extreme lassitude and deficient energy of both body and mind induced by the mephitic vapours they continually inhale leads them - we may say, forces them to seek an unnatural stimulus in the gin-shop; indeed, the publicans of Jacob's Island drive even a more profitable trade than the landlords themselves. What wonder, then, since debility is one of the predisposing conditions of cholera, that - even if these stenches of the foul tidal ditch be not the direct cause of the disease - that the impaired digestive functions, the languid circulation, the depression of mind produced by the continued inhalation of the noxious gases of the tidal ditch, together with the intemperance that it induces - the cold, damp houses - and, above all, the quenching of the thirst and cooking of the food with water saturated with the very excrements of their fellow creatures, should make Jacob's Island notorious as the Jessore of England.
see also George Godwin in London Shadows - click here
see also Charles Manby Smith in The Little World of London - click here
see also George Sala in Gaslight and Daylight - click here
see also Ragged London in 1861 - click here
... it was one dense mass of houses, through which curved narrow tortuous lanes, from which again diverged close courts – one great mass, as if the houses had originally been one block of stone, eaten by slugs into numberless small chambers and connecting passages
John Timbs, Curiosities of London, 1867
In a recent report made to the Commissioners of Sewers for
London, Dr. Letheby says: “I have been at much pains during the last three
months to ascertain the precise conditions of the dwellings, the habits, and
the diseases of the poor. In this way 2,208 rooms have been most
circumstantially inspected, and the general result is that nearly all of them
are filthy or overcrowded or imperfectly drained, or badly ventilated, or out
of repair. In 1,989 of these rooms, all in fact that are at present inhabited,
there are 5,791 inmates, belonging to 1,576 families; and to say nothing of
the too frequent occurrence of what may be regarded as a necessitous
overcrowding, where the husband, the wife, and young family of four or five
children are cramped into a miserably small and ill-conditioned room, there are
numerous instances where adults of both sexes, belonging to different families,
are lodged in the same room, regardless of all the common decencies of life, and
where from three to five adults, men and women, besides a train or two of
children, are accustomed to herd together like brute beasts or savages; and
where every human instinct of propriety and decency is smothered. Like my
predecessor, I have seen grown persons of both sexes sleeping in common with
their parents, brothers and sisters, and cousins, and even the casual
acquaintance of a day’s tramp, occupying the same bed of filthy rags or straw;
a woman suffering in travail, in the midst of males and females of different
families that tenant the same room, where birth and death go hand in hand; where
the child but newly born, the patient cast down with fever, and the corpse
waiting for interment, have no separation from each other, or from the rest of
the inmates. Of the many cases to which I have alluded, there are some which
have commanded my attention by reason of their unusual depravity— cases in
which from three to four adults of both sexes, with many children, were lodging
in the same room, and often sleeping in the same bed. I have note of three or
four localities, where forty-eight men, seventy-three women, and fifty-nine
children are living in thirty-four rooms. In one room there are two men, three
women, and five children, and in another one man, four women, and two children;
and when, about a fortnight since, I visited the back room on the ground floor
of No. 5, I found it occupied by one
man, two women, and two children; and in it was the dead body of a poor girl who
had died in childbirth a few days before. The body was stretched out on the bare
floor, without shroud or coffin. There it lay in the midst of the living, and we
may well ask how it can be otherwise than that the human heart should be dead to
all the gentler feelings of our nature, when such sights as these are of common
“So close and unwholesome is the atmosphere of some of these rooms, that I have endeavoured to ascertain, by chemical means, whether it does not contain some peculiar product of decomposition that gives to it its foul odour and its rare powers of engendering disease. I find it is not only deficient in the due proportion of oxygen, but it contains three times the usual amount of carbonic acid, besides a quantity of aqueous vapour charged with alkaline matter that stinks abominably. This is doubtless the product of putrefaction, and of the various foetid and stagnant exhalations that pollute the air of the place. In many of my former reports, and in those of my predecessor, your attention has been drawn to this pestilential source of disease, and to the consequence of heaping human beings into such contracted localities; and I again revert to it because of its great importance, not merely that it perpetuates fever and the allied disorders, but because there stalks side by side with this pestilence a yet deadlier presence, blighting the moral existence of a rising population, rendering their hearts hopeless, their acts ruffianly and incestuous, and scattering, while society averts her eye,, the retributive seeds of increase for crime, turbulence and pauperism.
[click here for full text of The Seven Curses of London]
James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869
see also James Greenwood in In Strange Company - click here
see also James Greenwood in The Wilds of London - click here
see also James Greenwood in Low-Life Deeps (1) - click here
see also James Greenwood in Low-Life Deeps (2) - click here
One of the saddest results of this overcrowding is the inevitable association of honest people with criminals. Often is the family of an honest working man compelled to take refuge in a thieves’ kitchen ... Who can wonder that every evil flourishes in such hotbeds of vice and disease? .... As if the men and women living together in these rookeries are married, and your simplicity will cause a smile. Nobody knows. Nobody cares ... Incest is common; and no form of vice or sensuality causes surprise or attracts attention ... The low parts of London are the sink into which the filthy and abominable from all parts of the country seem to flow.
W.C.Preston, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London 1883
see also George R. Sims' Horrible London - click here
Victorian London - Publications - Humour - Punch - cartoon 9
Small Eastendian. "ELLO! 'ERE'S A MASHER! LOOK AT 'IS COLLAR AN' 'AT!"
Punch, 3rd May 1884
see also D. Rice-Jones in In the Slums - click here
see also George Sims in How the Poor Live, chpt. 1 & passim - click here
see also Thomas Wright in The Great Army of London Poor - click here
see also Thomas Wright in The Pinch of Poverty - click here
A SLUM SCENE
by GEORGE R. SIMS
[-203-] The problem of the Housing of the
Working Classes in London lives on through the centuries. It occupied the
attention of our grandfathers, and it is exceedingly probable that it will be a
burning question when our grandsons have attained a green old age. The
problem arises in the first instance from overcrowding. Overcrowding is the
result of the multiplication of rnanufactories and workshops in the larger
centres. The wealth of a city, and the opportunities it offers of picking up
gold and silver - either legitimately by labour or illegitimately by crime -
attract not only the population of the rural districts, but also the inhabitants
of less-favoured towns and less-favoured countries. Generally speaking, the
present condition of affairs is, however, mainly due to two things - the
increased birth rate and the migration of the rural population.
THE OLD ROOM IN SLUMLAND / THE NEW ROOM IN A MODEL DWELLING
[-206-] high in the court.
You can see them yourself in the photograph reproduced on page 208. Guarding
their household gods sat women with infants in their arms. They sat on, hopeless
and despairing, and saw their homes demolished before their eyes. Now and again
the heap of bedding and furniture was diminished. A man would return and tell
his wife he had found a place. They would gather up their goods and go. But all
were not so fortunate. I have seen a woman with a child in her arms and two
children crouching by her side sitting out long after nightfall by her flung-out
furniture, because the husband could find no accommodation at the rent he could
Sometimes a boy is left in charge of the piled-up property while his parents go off in different directions to hunt for shelter. Frequently the parents wander a considerable distance, and it is long after midnight before they return to the young sentinel.
If you dive below the surface you will understand more readlily how terrible is this problem of Evicted London. Granting that the raising of sanitary dwellings on the site of insanitary is an admirable work, fully adlmitting that the London County Council's idea of breaking up and scattering colonies of undesirables makes for the public good, we are still faced by the difficulty - What is to become of the people who are unfit (by reason of their ways or their families) for the new buildings ? What will happen to the areas in which the "undesirables " (i.e. the criminal and vicious) scatter themselves?
The bulk of the people evicted are the poor, earning small and precarious livelihoods, hawkers and "general dealers"- a description that covers a multitude of trades. The bulk of the people housed in the new buildings are artisans earning a regular and decent wage. The idea in improving insanitary dwellings off the face of London is, of course, that the dishoused shall be rehoused. But many of the dlishoused fail to find accommodation in the new buildings. One or two are admitted at first, but as the block becomes filled they are weeded out on some excuse or other. Slum dwellers are not wanted in nice clean buildings. The superior artisan who will respect his property and pay regularly is the tenant the Board of Directors and the private philanthropist alike desire.
And, again, there is the question of the children. The poorest people seem to have the most. And the children are a bar not only to admission to the new dwellings, where only so many people are allowed to sleep in a room, but even to the common lodging-houses. A man and his wife and five or six children are not wanted anywhere, not even in the lowest of the doss-houses. So when the day of eviction comes mother and the children must turn out and wait "somewhere" while father tramps the city paved with gold in search of a spot in which to lay his head. If father is in work, then mother must do the tramping.
I will take a real case. Tom Brown calls himself a general dealer. As a matter of fact he and his wife make "ornaments for your fire stove" artificial flowers, and rosettes to hawk in the streets for special occasions, such as Boat Race day, St. Patrick's day, Lord Mayor's day, and the days of National holiday or jubilation. He and his wife earn between them when times are good £1. When times are bad they earn a few shillings. I have known Tom [-207-] for the last six years, and during that period he has been evicted four times. The family were evicted for property to be pulled down in the Borough; they found two rooms in Bermondsey. There after eight months they were again evicted for improvements, and went to St. George's. They were turned out of St. Georges and went to Lambeth. They have now been evicted again, and have succeeded, after endless tramping, in finding two rooms in Bermondsey near their old quarters, but their rent is six and six instead of five and six.
Take another case, that of George Jones, a carman in regular employ, lately evicted to make room for artisans' dwellings. The family consists of Jones, his wife, and seven children. When they were turned out, the father lost several days' work trying to find a place where the nine of them could be accommodated at a rental he could afford. For three nights and three days the family were homeless, and at last had to apply to the workhouse, where the wife and children were received as "paying guests". The workhouse authorities eventually succeeded in finding rooms for the family.
It occasionally happens, such is the generosity of the poor to the poor, that the younger and weaker children when evictions take place are accommodated for a night or two by the poor neighbours who are still left in peaceable possession of a roof. Quite recently in a house of four rooms in Foxley Street, Bermondsey, there lived a man, his wife, and ten children the latter ranging from four to twenty-four years in age. Yet, when a case of eviction occurred near them, they took in the three children of a poor woman who was unable to find shelter. The same hospitality I have known extended by a family of eight occupying two rooms.
A large number of the evicted drift into the various common lodging-houses when there are no children, or children who can be disposed of temporarily among friends.
If there are children who cannot be housed temporarily the situation is desperate. Here is a case in point. A decent hardworking man and his wife had lived in a small tenement house which was eventually demolished under an improvement scheme. They tried in vain to get another small house. At last the father, mother, and three children drifted into an utterly disreputable common lodging-house. Here the Rescue Society's officer discovered the children, and the law took them from the parents and sent them to an industrial school to be kept at the expense of the ratepayers.
We point with pride to the new and improved dwellings raised by the enterprise of governing bodies, public companies, and private philanthropists on the sites where recently stood foul and insanitary dwellings, in which the poor huddled together without light, without ventilation, and without a water supply; and we say that here at least is a step in the right direction. No one will deny it; but we shall never get further than a [-208-] step, we shall never come within measurable distance of the goal if we shut our eyes to the terrible difficulties which beset the present system of dishousing a poor and struggling class in order to make room for a superior class in constant employment.
The people who can go into model buildings, who can afford the number of rooms demanded by the regulations for a family of a certain number, are only slightly represented in the insanitary areas in which demolition compels wholesale eviction. The dwellers in the new buildings come as a rule from other districts and from a better class of property. The evicted, unless they are fortunate, find shelter in already overcrowded and insanitary areas, because it is only in this class of property they will be tolerated. Thus every area cleared for superior dwellings, for street improvements, or for railway schemes only adds to the further congestion of areas in which the poor are already massed together under the worst conditions.
1. ON GUARD 2. EVICTED
And increased overcrowding is not the only evil that follows the wholesale evictions which are now almost weekly occurrences in London. The struggle for life of the evicted, always keen, becomes fiercer than ever. At each fresh rush for accommodation rents are advanced, so that it frequently happens that a family housed in one insanitary area for five and sixpence a week for two rooms are, after eviction, compelled to pay six and sixpence a week for worse rooms in another insanitary area. And so fearful are they of having to go through the terrible search for shelter again that they never dream of making the slightest complaint, however grossly the landlord may neglect his duty.
I once interviewed a woman who with her four children was living in a wretched garret in a court in the Borough. It was a wet day, and the rain was coming through the broken roof and falling on a child who was lying on a bed in the corner. "You should complain to the landlord," I said; "he is bound at least to give you a rainproof roof for your [-209-] money." "Complain!" exclaimed the woman in a tone of horror ; "yes, I should like to see myself doing it. I did complain to him once, when we was better off and lived in a room downstairs. There was a brick loose in the, wall, and the rain had soaked through, and the plaster had given way till there was a hole as you could put your two fists in - so I went to him, and I said he ought to repair it."
"And of course he did?"
"Yes, he did - he come and nailed the lid of a soap box across the hole, and he put the rent of the room up sixpence a week for the improvement."
A good deal of the neglect and abuse of property with which the poor of London are credited is due to this kind of conduct on the part of the slum landlord. The hapless tenants are glad to get accommodation anywhere, and they cannot afford to be particular as to the condition of the room or rooms. If they complain they will be told that they can clear out, there are plenty of people waiting to come in. So the tenants, unable to move the landlord's heart, take their revenge on his property. Boards that have been used to patch walls are torn off and used as firewood, stair railings - if there are any left - share the same fate. Presently there is very little left of the house but the walls, some crumbling plaster, and a window-frame or two patched with brown paper. The doors suffer less than any other portion of the property. The reason is that the slum-dweller desires occasional privacy. A door is useful, not only when you want to shut yourself in, but when you want to shut your neighbours out - and some neighbours in the slums are given to making mistakes and walking into, or falling into, other rooms than those for which they have paid the weeks rent.
On all the phases of Evicted London I have not dwelt. I have but slightly sketched a few of the difficulties that the wholesale dishousing of the poor brings in its train. All the schemes of rehousing, with perhaps two exceptions -and those I believe have not been very successful - aim at the survival of the fittest. But the unfittest do not die. They are not destroyed. Like Jo in Bleak House they are only being eternally "moved on."
RIPE FOR EVICTION
George R. Sims, Living London, 1902
see also Districts -