Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Morning Chronicle : Labour and the Poor, 1849-50; Henry Mayhew - Letter I

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Friday, October 19, 1849

    The plan of publishing in this journal a series of communications descriptive of the condition of the poor was fully explained in The Morning Chronicle of yesterday. To me has been confided the office of examining into the condition of the poor of London; and I shall now proceed to state the view I purpose taking of the subject.
    Under the term poor I shall include all those persons whose incomings are insufficient for the satisfaction of their wants - a want being, according to my idea, contra-distinguished from a mere desire by a positive physical pain, instead of a mental uneasiness, accompanying it. The large and comparatively unknown body of people included in this definition I shall contemplate in two distinct classes, viz., the honest and dishonest poor; and the first of these I purpose sub-dividing into the striving and the disabled - or, in other words, I shall consider the whole of the metropolitan poor under three separate phases, according as they will work, they can't work, and they won't work. Of those that will work, and yet are unable to obtain sufficient for their bodily necessities, I shall devote my attention first to such as receive no relief from the parish; and under this head will be included the poorly-paid - the unfortunate - and the improvident. While treating of the poorly-paid, I shall endeavour to lay before the reader a catalogue of such occupations in London as yield a bare subsistence to the parties engaged in them. At the same time I purpose, when possible, giving the weekly amount of income derived from each, together with the cause - if discoverable - of the inadequate return. After this, it is my intention to visit the dwellings of the unrelieved poor - to ascertain, by positive inspection, the condition of their homes - to learn, by close communion with them, the real or fancied wrongs of their lot - to discover, not only on how little they subsist, but how large a rate of profit they have to pay for the little upon which they do subsist - to ascertain what weekly rent they are charged for their waterless, drainless, floorless, and almost roofless tenements; and to calculate the interest that the petty capitalist reaps from their necessities. Nor shall I fail to point out how, when the poor are driven to raise a meal on their clothes or their bedding, he who makes the advance is licensed by law to receive as much as 20 per cent, for the petty loan upon the shirt or the blanket, though more than five per cent, is forbidden to be charged for the loan upon the land. But, however alive I may be to the wrongs of the poor, I shall not be misled by a morbid sympathy to see them only as suffering from the selfishness of others. Their want of prudence, want of temperance, want of energy, want of cleanliness, want of knowledge, and want of morality, will each be honestly set forth. This done, I shall proceed to treat of the poor receiving parish relief, outside and inside the union; after which, the habits, haunts, and tricks of the beggars of London will be duly set forth; and, finally, those of the thieves and prostitutes.
    In the present article I shall endeavour to give the reader a general idea of the wealth and poverty, the power and weakness, the knowledge and ignorance, the luxury and want, the crime and charity, which all lie huddled together in London, in such vast and striking confusion. But before doing so, let me briefly draw attention to the extraordinary change of feeling which has taken place of late years, and which makes the poor of the present day of such moment to us that, from high to low, from one corner of the land to the other - in the mansion, the counting-house, and the taproom - the sufferings and privations of the labouring classes should be. listened to with so lively an interest that the columns of a morning newspaper are judged a fit place for the exposition of them. Indeed, the chief distinction of the present age from the past, consists, not in the substitution of steam for human labour - in the use of cranks and levers for thews and sinews - nor does it lie in the iron bands which now link town to town, and brace county to county, nor in the nerve-like wires that carry our wishes from one Corner of the land to the other with the same marvellous instantaneousness as our muscles act in obedience to our will. These, it is true, are salient points of difference between us and our forefathers. Still the broad line of demarcation separating our own times from all others is to be found in the fuller and more general development of the human sympathies.
    By the Act 27th Henry VIII, the officers of towns are directed to collect alms for the purpose of keeping "sturdy vagabonds and valiant beggars" to continual labour; and it is provided "that a sturdy beggar is to be whipped for his first offence, his right ear cropped for his second, and if he again offends he is to be sent to the next gaol till the quarter sessions, there to be indicted for wandering, loitering, and idleness; and if convicted, to suffer execution as a felon and as an enemy of the commonwealth." To those who have been accustomed to regard the "good old times" as a kind of past millennium, it must appear utterly incredible that, in the days of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, mere beggary was punishable with death; or that "bluff King Hal" should have hung up during his reign, as Harrison tells us, "of great thieves, of petty thieves and rogues, three score and twelve thousand" - slaying twice as many as the recent scourge that we prayed to have removed from us. It must be equally difficult for such as are ignorant of the atrocities perpetrated by "merry England," to believe that in the year 1785 no less than ninety-seven persons were hanged for the offence of stealing in shops to the value of five shillings; and that the late Lord Ellenborough said in the House of Lords, when a bill was brought in a second time for the abolition of the capital punishment awarded to this offence, "he trusted that laws which a century had proved to be beneflcial, would not be changed for the illusory opinions of speculatists and modern philosophy" (Hansard, vol. xx).
    The bull and badger baiting - the dog and cock fighting - the rat killing - and such other sports of the last century as pleased only in proportion to the amount of pain inflicted, have entirely passed away; and in their place there have sprung up among us laws and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals. Our princes and nobles are no longer the patrons of prize fights, but the presidents of benevolent institutions. Instead of the "bear-gardens" and cock-pits that formerly flourished in every quarter of the town, our capital bristles and glitters with its thousand palaces for the indigent and suffering poor. If we are distinguished among nations for our exceeding wealth, assuredly we are equally illustrious for our abundant charity. Almost every want or ill that can distress human nature, has some palatial institution for the mitigation of it. We have rich societies for every conceivable form of benevolence: for the visitation of the sick - for the cure of the maimed and the crippled - for the alleviation of the pangs of childbirth - for giving shelter to the houseless - support to the aged and the infirm - homes to the orphan and the foundling - for the reformation of juvenile offenders and prostitutes - the reception of the children of convicts - the liberation of debtors - the suppression of vice - for educating the ragged - teaching the blind, the deaf, and the dumb - for guarding and soothing the mad - protecting the idiotic - clothing the naked - feeding the hungry. Nor does our charity cease with our own countrymen; for the very ships of war which we build to destroy the people of other lands, we ultimately convert into floating hospitals to save or comfort them in the hour of their affliction among us.
    Let us now turn our attention to the number and cost of the honest and dishonest poor throughout England and Wales, so that we may be able to see what proportion the aggregate amount bears to the number of individuals living in a state of poverty and crime in the metropolis. Mr. Porter, usually no mean authority upon all matters of a statistical nature, tells us, in his "Progress of the Nation," p. 530, that "the proportion of persons in the United Kingdom who pass their time without applying to any gainful occupation is quite inconsiderable. Of 5,800,000 males of 20 years and upwards living at the time of the census of 1831, there were said to be engaged in some calling or profession, 5,450,000, thus leaving unemployed only 350,000, or rather less than six per cent. "The number of unemployed adult males in Great Britain in 1841," he afterwards informs us, "was only 274,000 and odd."
    But this statement gives us no adequate idea of the number of persons subsisting by charity or crime. For the author of the "Progress of the Nation," strange to say, wholly excludes from his calculation the mass of individuals receiving in and out door relief, as well as the criminals, almspeople, and lunatics throughout the country. Now, according to the last report of the Poor-law Commissioners, the number of paupers receiving in and out door relief was, in 1848, no less than 1,870,000 and odd. The number of criminals in the same year was 30,000 and odd. In 1844 the number of lunatics in county asylums was 4,000 and odd; while, according to the occupation abstract of the returns of the population, there were in 1841 upwards of 5,000 almspeople, 1,000 beggars, and 21,000 pensioners. These formed into one sum, give us no less than two millions and a quarter individuals who pass their time without applying to any gainful occupation, and consequently live in a state of inactivity and vice upon the income of the remainder of the population. By the above computation, therefore, we see that, out of a total of sixteen million souls, one-seventh, or fourteen per cent. of the whole, continue their existence either by pauperism, mendicancy, or crime.
    Now, the cost of this immense mass of vice and want is even more appalling than the number of individuals subsisting in such utter degradation. The total amount of money levied in 1848 for the relief of England and Wales was seven millions four hundred thousand pounds. But, exclusive of this amount, the magnitude of the sum that we give voluntarily towards the support and education of the poorer classes, is unparalleled in the history of any other nation, or of any other time. According to the summary of the returns annexed to the voluminous reports of the Charity Commissioners, the rent of the land and other fixed property, together with the interest of the money left for charitable purposes in England and Wales, amounts to 1,200,000 a year; and it is believed that by proper management this return might be increased to an annual income of at least two millions of money. "And yet," says Mr. M'Culloch, "there can be no doubt that even this large sum falls far below the amount expended every year in voluntary donations to charitable establishments. Nor can any estimate be formed, he adds, "of the money given in charity to individuals, but in the aggregate it cannot fail to amount to an immense sum." All things considered, therefore, we cannot be very far from the truth if we assume that the sums voluntarily subscribed towards the relief of the poor equal, in the aggregate, the total amount raised by assessment for the same purpose; so that it appears that the well-to-do amongst us expend the vast sum of fifteen million pounds per annum in mitigating the miseries of their less fortunate brethren.
    But though we give altogether fifteen million pounds a year to alleviate the distress of those who want or suffer, we must remember that this vast sum expresses not only the liberal extent of our sympathy, but likewise the fearful amount of want and suffering, of excess and luxury, that there must be in the land. If the poorer classes require fifteen millions to be added in charity every year to their aggregate income in order to relieve their pains and privations, and the richer can afford to have the same immense sum taken from theirs, and yet scarcely feel the loss, it shows at once how much the one class must have in excess and the other in deficiency. Whether such a state of things is a necessary evil connected with the distribution of wealth, this is not the place for me to argue. All I have to do here is to draw attention to the fact. It is for others to lay bare the cause, and, if possible, discover the remedy.
    There still remains, however, to be added to the sum expended in voluntary or compulsory relief of the poor, the cost of our criminal and convict establishments at home and abroad. This, according to the Government estimates of the present year, amounts to 948,000, which, together with that before mentioned, makes, in round numbers, the enormous sum of 16,000,000 per annum; and reckoning the national income, with Mr. M'Culloch, at 350,000,000, it follows that the country has to give nearly five per cent. out of its gross earnings every year to support those who are either incapable or unwilling to obtain a living for themselves.
    This is a general view of the burdens of the entire country. Let us now proceed more particularly to examine the relative advantages or disadvantages of the several counties, and to contrast the moral, intellectual, and physical condition of the best and the worst with the two metropolitan counties in particular. First, in reference to the density of the population or number of inhabitants per hundred statute acres, the returns teach us that Middlesex is the most crowded of all the counties; the number of individuals there congregated being as much as 1,931 per cent. above the average of the other counties; whilst the proportion for Lancashire, where the inhabitants are the next most numerous, is but 243, and Surrey, the third in density, 179 per cent. above the mean quantity. In ignorance, Middlesex and Surrey are respectively 59 and 53 per cent. below the average; so that the metropolitan counties rank not only as the most crowded, but as the best instructed. In crime, however, Middlesex is almost as much above, as in ignorance it is below the average, while Surrey occupies very nearly a medium place in the moral condition of the country. Nor are the metropolitan counties less distinguished for their wealth than they are for their knowledge. The number of persons of independent means is the highest in Middlesex and Surrey, while the real property in Middlesex is 33 per cent. above the average, and in Surrey six per cent. below it. The deposits in the savings banks are in Middlesex 18 per cent. above, and in Surrey 15 per cent. below, the average. Again, the number of illegitimate children in the metropolitan counties is less than in any other district, and they are equally illustrious for the rarity of improvident marriages among the people - Rutland being the only county, indeed, that ranks before them in this respect. Finally, though not blessed with the fewest paupers, still the proportion of persons receiving parish relief is in both counties about 12 per cent. below the average. It may then be said, that whilst the population is the most dense in the metropolitan counties, the people are the most instructed, the most independent, the most prudent in marriage, and have the smallest number of illegitimate children of any other county in England and Wales; and whilst the amount of savings in Middlesex is considerably above the average, the amount of pauperism in both counties is as considerably below it; and yet, strange to say, Middlesex is almost as distinguished for the criminality of its inhabitants as it is for their knowledge, independence, prudence, and chastity.
    Having now contrasted the morality, intellect, and wealth of the people of the metropolitan districts with those of other counties, let us proceed to set forth more particularly the characteristics of London itself.
    The city of London, within the walls, occupies a space of only 370 acres, and is but the hundred and fortieth part of the extent covered by the whole metropolis. Nevertheless, it is the parent of a mass of united and far spreading tenements, stretching from Hammersmith to Blackwall, from Holloway to Camberwell. A century ago, according to Maitland, the metropolis had drawn into its vortex one city, one borough, and forty-three villages. Despite its vast extent, still its increase continues to be so rapid, that every year further house room has to be provided for twenty thousand persons - so that London increases annually by the addition of a town of considerable size. At all times there are 4,000 extra houses in the course of erection. By the last return the metropolis covered an extent of nearly 45,000 acres, and Contained upwards of two hundred and sixty thousand houses, occupied by one million eight hundred and twenty thousand souls, constituting not only the densest, but the busiest hive, the most wondrous workshop, and the richest bank in the world. The mere name of London awakens a thousand trains of varied reflections. Perhaps the first thought that it excites in the mind, paints it as the focus of modern civilization, of the hottest, the most restless activity of the social elements. Some, turning to the west, see it as a city of palaces, adorned with parks, ennobled with triumphal arches, grand statues, and stately monuments; others, looking at the east, see only narrow lanes and musty counting-houses, with tall chimneys vomiting black clouds, and huge masses of warehouses with doors and cranes ranged one above another. Yet all think of it as a vast bricken multitude, a strange incongruous chaos of wealth and want - of ambition and despair - of the brightest charity and the darkest crime, where there are more houses and more houseless, where there is more feasting and more starvation, than on any other spot on earth - and all grouped round the one giant centre, the huge black dome, with its ball of gold looming through the smoke (apt emblem of the source of its riches!) and marking out the capital, no matter from what quarter the traveller may come.
    Those who have only seen London in the daytime, with its flood of life pouring through its arteries to its restless heart, know it not in its grandest aspect. It is not in the noise and roar of the cataract of commerce pouring through its streets, nor in its forest of ships, nor in its vast docks and warehouses, that its true solemnity is to be seen. To behold it in its greatest sublimity, it must be contemplated by night, afar off, from an eminence. The noblest prospect in the world, it has been well said, is London viewed from the suburbs on a clear winter's evening. The stars are shining in the heavens, but there is another firmament spread out below, with its millions of bright lights glittering at our feet. Line after line sparkles, like the trails left by meteors, cutting and crossing one another till they are lost in the haze of the distance. Over the whole there hangs a lurid cloud, bright as if the monster city were in flames, and looking afar off like the sea by night, made phosphorescent by the million creatures dwelling within it. At night it is that the strange anomalies of London are best seen. Then, as the hum of life ceases and the shops darken, and the gaudy gin palaces thrust out their ragged and squalid crowds, to pace the streets, London puts on its most solemn look of all. On the benches of the parks, in the nitches of the bridges, and in the litter of the markets, are huddled together the homeless and the destitute. The only living things that haunt the streets are the poor wretches who stand shivering in their finery, waiting to catch the drunkard as he goes shouting homewards. Here on a doorstep crouches some shoeless child, whose day's begging has not brought it enough to purchase it even the twopenny bed that its young companions in beggary have gone to. There, where the stones are taken up and piled high in the road, and the gas streams from a tall pipe in the centre of the street in a flag of flame - there, round the red glowing coke fire, are grouped a ragged crowd smoking or dozing through the night beside it. Then, as the streets grow blue with the coming light, and the church spires and chimney tops stand out against the sky with a sharpness of outline that is seen only in London before its million fires cover the town with their pall of smoke - then come sauntering forth the unwashed poor, some with greasy wallets on their back, to hunt over each dirt heap, and eke out life by seeking refuse bones or stray rags and pieces of old iron. Others, on their way to their work, gathered at the corner of the street round the breakfast stall, and blowing saucers of steaming coffee drawn from tall tin cans, with the fire shining crimson through the holes beneath; whilst already the little slattern girl, with her basket slung before her, screams watercresses through the sleeping streets.
    Yet who, to see the squalor and wretchedness of London by night, would believe that twenty-nine only of the London bankers have cleared through their clearing-house as much as nine hundred and fifty-four million pounds sterling in one year, the average being more than three millions of money daily - or that the loans of merely one house in the City throughout the year exceed thirty millions? Who could have visited the Rookery of St. Giles's as it existed but a few months back, and have seen the unutterable abominations of this retreat of wretchedness, this nest of disease, at once the nursery and sanctuary of vice - where in one house alone, Mr. Smirke tells us, were huddled together eleven men, thirteen women, and thirty children - where as many as sixty of the foulest of the London lazzaroni often sleep in the same abode - who could witness this want and wretchedness, and yet believe that this country is "the ban for the whole world," as the late Mr. Rothschild called it in 1832; or that "all transactions in India, in China, in Russia, and indeed every other empire, are guided and settled in this country"?
    Is it possible to believe that any man among us should want a roof to shelter his head by night, or a crust to quell his hunger by day, when we find that the amount of the property insured against fire is valued at more than five hundred millions sterling, even though, according to the returns made of the fires in the metropolis during 1836 and 1837, forty per cent. of the houses, amounting to two-fifths of the whole, were entirely uninsured. "A very short excursion into the worst part of St. Giles's," says Mr. Smirke, "will be enough to convince any one, through the medium of every sense, that it was built before the wholesome regulations respecting building and cleansing were in force. Indeed there is scarcely a single sewer in any part of it; so that here, where there is the greatest accumulation of filth, there is the least provision made for its removal." And yet, in the Holborn and Finsbury division alone - close neighbours - the length of main covered sewers is eighty-three miles, the length of smaller sewers to carry off the surface water from the roads and streets sixteen miles; the length of drains leading from houses to the main sewers two hundred and sixty-four miles, an extent almost equal to the distance of London from Edinburgh. The amount of money spent and the vastness of apparatus employed singly in lighting London and the suburbs with gas, would seem to dispel all thoughts of poverty. According to the account of Mr. Headley, the capital employed in pipes, tanks, gas holders, and apparatus of the London gas works, amounts to 2,800,000, and the cost of lighting averages close upon half a million of money per year; no less than 1,460,000,000 feet of gas being annually consumed, and upwards of nine millions being used on the longest night, giving a light equal to half a million pounds of tallow candles.
    "The consumption of butchers' meat," says an excellent authority, "is nowhere so great in proportion to the population as in London." The population which obtains a supply of animal food from the metropolitan market amounts to two millions. Now, calculating the number of cattle and sheep sold in Smithfield in 1839, with the number of pigs and calves, from the returns of a previous year, and averaging the dead weight of each according to the judgment of an intelligent carcass butcher in Warwick-lane, the gross weight of animal food which is furnished by the Smithfield market will amount to two hundred and seventy million eight hundred and eighty thousand pounds of meat annually consumed in the metropolis alone. At the low price of 6d. per pound the above quantity amounts to 6,847,000; and dividing this quantity among a population of two millions, the consumption of each individual will average 136 pounds of meat in the course of the year; so that it seems almost impossible to believe that any living soul within or without the City walls should ever want a dinner.
    The amount of crime in London is almost as amazing as its wealth. About thirty-six thousand criminals pass through the metropolitan gaols, bridewells, and penitentiaries every year. In one year the number of persons taken into custody by the metropolitan police for various infractions of the law amounts to 65,000 and odd - equal to the whole population of some of our largest towns. The criminal districts of the metropolis are peculiar. Larcenies in a dwelling-house were most numerous in Whitechapel in one year, and in St. George's-in-the-Borough in another. Larcenies on the person, on the other hand, were most common in Covent-garden at one time, and at another in Shadwell. Highway robberies, burglaries, and shop-breaking occur most frequently in the eastern and southern districts, as Whitechapel, Southwark, Lambeth, Mile-end, and Poplar. The parish of St. James usually furnishes the largest proportionate number of cases under the head of drunkenness, disorderly prostitutes, and vagrancy. Clerkenwell is distinguished for the greatest number of cases of horse-stealing, of assaults with attempt to rescue, and wilful damage. Common assaults are said to be most frequent in Covent-garden and in St. George's-in-the- East. Coining and uttering counterfeit coin, in Clerkenwell and Covent-garden; embezzlement, in Whitechapel and Clerkenwell; and pawning illegally in Mile-end and Lambeth. Murder has been found to be most prevalent in Clerkenwell and Whitechapel, manslaughter in Islington and Clerkenwell, and arson in Marylebone and Westminster. One thing is at least clear, that, judging from the limited number of facts supplied to us, Clerkenwell would seem to hold a bad pre-eminence for the number and nature of the offences committed within its limits. The Constabulary Commissioners, who had access to the best sources of information, made a return of the number of thieves and suspicious characters within the boundaries of the metropolitan police, and the following is the result of their investigation: - They divided the whole number into three classes, and they found, 1st, that there were 10,444 persons who had no visible means of subsistence, and who are believed to live by the violation of the law, as by habitual depredations by fraud, by prostitution, etc. 2nd, of persons following some ostensible and legal occupation, but who are known to have committed some offence, and are believed to augment their gains by habitual or occasional violations of the law, there were 4,353; and 3rd, there were 2,104 persons not recognised to have committed any offences, but known as associates of the above classes and otherwise deemed to be suspicious characters. Besides this return, the Constabulary Commissioners also obtained another, giving the number of houses open for the accommodation of delinquency and vice in the metropolitan district - namely, houses for the reception of stolen goods, 227; houses for the resort of thieves, 276; number of brothels where prostitutes are kept, 933; number of houses of ill-fame where prostitutes resort, 848; number of houses where prostitutes lodge, 1,554; number of gambling houses, 32; and number of mendicants' lodging-houses, 221.