Victorian London - Publications - Social
Investigation/Journalism - The Morning Chronicle : Labour and the Poor, 1849-50;
Henry Mayhew - Letter XXVI
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Tuesday, January 15, 1850
There is a world of wisdom to be learnt at the Asylums for the Houseless
Poor. Those who wish to be taught in this, the severest school of all, should
pay a visit to Playhouse-yard, and see the homeless crowds gathered about the
Asylum, waiting for the first opening of the doors, with their bare feet--
and ulcerous with the cold--
resting for hours on the ice and snow in the
streets, and the bleak stinging wind blowing through their rags. To hear the
cries of the hungry, shivering children, and the wrangling of the greedy men,
scrambling for a bed and a pound of dry bread, is a thing to haunt one for life.
There are four hundred and odd creatures utterly destitute--
infants at their breasts--
fathers with boys holding by their side--
in a word, the very poorest of this the very richest city of the world. The Asylum for the Houseless is the
confluence of the many tides of poverty that at this period of the year flow
towards the metropolis. It should be remembered, that there are certain callings
which yield a subsistence to those who pursue them, only at particular
seasons. Brickmakers, agricultural labourers, garden women, and many such
vocations, are labours that admit of being performed only in the summer, when,
indeed, the labourer has the fewest wants to satisfy. The privations of such
classes, then, come at a period when even the elements conspire to make their
destitution more terrible. Hence, restless with want, they wander in hordes
across the land, making in vain hope for London, as the great emporium of wealth--
market of the world. But London is as overstocked with hands as every other nook
and corner of the country. And then the poor creatures, far away from home and
friends, find at last to their cost, that the very privations they were flying
from pursue them here with a ten-fold severity. I do not pretend to say that all
found within the walls of these asylums are such as I have described--
know trade upon the sympathy of those who would ease the sufferings of the
destitute labourers, and they make their appearance in the metropolis at this
especial season. Winter is the beggars'
harvest. That there are hundreds of
professional vagabonds drawn to London at such a time I am well aware. But with
them come the unemployed workmen. We must not therefore confound one with the
other, nor let our indignation at the vagabond who will not work check our
commiseration for the labourer or artisan who cannot get work to do.
The following table, which has been made up
with considerable care and no little trouble from the records and reports of the
Asylum for the Houseless Poor, shows the different callings of the parties who
have frequented these places of nightly shelter for the last seventeen years.
The number of individuals of a particular calling who appear annually at these
asylums has been compared with the number of individuals belonging to such
calling usually located in London, and the result shows us how many of each are
utterly destitute. The average for all London, it will be seen, is one in every
219 individuals. In my next Letter I hope to be able to show the counties which
contribute most largely to this yearly convention of poverty.
AN AVERAGE DRAWN FROM THE
RETURNS FOR 17 YEARS OF THE OCCUPATIONS OF THE PERSONS ADMITTED INTO THE ASYLUMS
FOR THE HOUSELESS POOR.
Factory employment 3
Labourer, agricultural 12
Charwomen and washerwomen 13
Labourers, general 17
Smiths and ironfounders 36
Paper-makers and stainers 58
Bricklayers, plasterers, and slaters .. 62
Harness-makers and saddlers 80
Painters, plumbers, and glaziers 119
Cabinet-makers and upholsterers 128
Printers and compositors 142
Carpenters, joiners, and wheelwrights 150
Average (for all London) 219
Trimming and button makers 277
Ostlers and grooms 286
Clerks and shopmen 346
Jewellers and watchmakers 411
Carvers and gilders 500
Leather-dressers and curriers 802
Milliners and dressmakers 10,390
In my last letter I dealt
principally with the houseless labourers. In the present one I purpose dealing
with the artisans and tradesmen who are in a similar state of destitution. In my
next I shall pass from these to the vagrants, and thence to the beggars of
London. A homeless painter gave me the following
statement. His appearance presented nothing remarkable--
it was merely that of
the poor artisan; there was nothing dirty or squalid about him. "
I was brought
up a painter,"
he said, "
and am now 27. I served my apprenticeship in
Yorkshire, and stayed two years after my term was out with the same master. I
then worked in Liverpool, earning but little, through illness, and working on
and off as my health permitted. I got married in Liverpool, and went with my
wife to Londonderry, in Ireland, of which place she was a native. There she died
of the cholera (in 1847). I was very ill with diarrhea myself. We lived with her
friends, but I got work, though wages are very low there. I never earned more
than 2s. 6d. a day there. I have earned 5s. 6d. a day in Liverpool, but in
Londonderry provisions are very cheap-the best meat at 4d. per pound. It was
an advantage to me being an Englishman. English workmen seem to be preferred in
Ireland, as far as I can tell, and I have worked in Belfast and Coleraine, and a
short time in Dublin, as well as in Londonderry. I came back to Liverpool early
in 1848 and got work, but was again greatly distressed through sickness. I then
had to travel the country again, getting a little employment at Hemel Hempstead
and St. Alban'
s, and other places about, for I aimed at London, and at last I
got to London. That was in November, 1848. When in the country I was forced to
part with my clothes--
I had a beautiful suit of black among them. I very seldom
got even a trifle from the painters in the country towns; sometimes 2d. or 3d.
from a master. In London I could get no work, and my shirts and flannel shirts
went to keep me. I stayed about a month, and having nothing left was obliged to
start for the country. I got a job at Luton, and in a few other places. Wages
are very low. I was always a temperate man. Many a time I have never tasted
drink for a week together--
and this when I had money in my pocket, for I had
£30 when I got married. I have, too, the character of being a good workman. I
returned to London again three weeks back, but could find no work. I had again
to part with any odd things I had. The last I parted with was my stopping- knife
and diamond, for I can work as a glazier and plumber; country painters often can--
mean those apprenticed in the country. I have no clothes but what I have on. For
the last ten days I declare solemnly I have had nothing but what I picked up in
the streets. I picked up crusts that I saw in the streets, put out on the steps
by the mistresses of the houses for the poor like myself. I got so weak and ill
that I had to go to King'
s College Hospital, and they gave me medicine which
did me good. I often had to walk the streets all night. I was so perished I
could hardly move my limbs. I never asked charity--
t; but I could have
eaten anything. I longed for the fried fish I saw; yes, I was ravenous for that
and such like, though I couldn'
t have touched it when I had money and was
middling well off. Things are so different in the country, that I couldn'
fancy such meat. I was brought to that pitch I had the greatest mind to steal
something to get into prison, where at any rate, I said to myself, I shall have
some food and shelter. I didn'
I thought better of it. I hoped something
might turn up next day; besides it might have got into the papers, and my
friends might have seen it, and I should have felt I disgraced them, or that
they would think so, because they couldn'
t know my temptations and my
sufferings. When out all night, I used to get shelter, if I could, about
Hungerford Market, among the straw. The cold made me almost dead with sleep; and
when obliged to move, I couldn'
t walk at first--
I could only crawl along. One
night I had a penny given me--
all I had gotten in five bitter
nights in the streets. For that penny I got half a pint of coffee. It made me
sick, my stomach was so weak. On Tuesday I asked a policeman if he couldn'
recommend me to some workhouse, and he told me to come here, and I was admitted,
and was very thankful to get under shelter."
The next was a carpenter, a tall, fine-built
man, with a pleasing expression of countenance. He was dressed in a flannel
jacket and fustian trousers, with the peculiar little side pocket for his foot-
rule, that told you of his calling. He was about forty years of age, and had the
appearance, even in his destitution, of the more respectable mechanic. It is
astonishing to mark the difference between the poor artisan and the labourer.
The one seems alive to his poverty, and to feel it more acutely than the other.
The labourer is more accustomed to "
as it is called; but the
artisan, earning better wages and used to better ways, appears among the
Houseless Poor as a really pitiable character. Carpenters are among the classes
of mechanics in which there appears to be the greatest amount of destitution,
and 1 selected this man as a fair average specimen of the body. He said--
have been out of work nearly three months. I have had some little work in the
an odd job or two at intervals, but nothing regular. When I am in
full work on day work I can make 5s. a day in London. but the masters very
generally wishes the men to take piece work, and that is the cause of men'
work being cut down as it is, because men is obliged to take the work as they
offers. I could get about 30s. a week when I had good employment. I have no one
but myself to keep out of my earnings. I have saved something when I was on day
work, but then it went again directly I got to piece work. This is generally the
case with the carpenters. The last job I had was at Cobham, in Surrey, doing
s work, and business with my master got slack, and I was discharged.
Then I made my way to London, and have been about from place to place since then
endeavouring to get work from every one that 1 knew or could get recommended
to. But 1 have not met with any success. Well, sir, I have been obliged to part
with all I had--
even to my tools, though they'
re not left for much. My tools
are pawned for l2s., and my clothes are all gone. The last I had to part with
was my rule and chalk-line, and them I left for a night'
s lodging. I have no
other clothes but what you see me in at present. There are a vast many
carpenters out of work, and like me. It is now three weeks since the last of my
things went, and after that I have been about the streets, and gone into bakers'
shops and asked for a crust. Sometimes I have got a penny out of the tap-room of
a public-house. It'
s now more than a fortnight since I quitted my lodgings. I
have been in the Asylum eight nights. Before that, I was out in the streets for
five nights together. They were very cold nights--
oh yes, very [the man
shivered at the recollection]. I walked up one street and down another. I
sometimes got under a doorway, but it was impossible to stand still long, it was
so cruel cold. The sleet was coming down one night, and freezed on my clothes as
it fell. The cold made me stiff more than sleepy. It was next day that I felt
tired, and then if I come to sit down at a fireside I should drop asleep in a
minute. I tried when I was dead beat to get into St. Giles'
s union, but they
would not admit me. Then the police sent me up to another union--
I forget the
but they refused me. I tried at Lambeth, and there I was refused. I don'
think I went a day without some small bit of bread. I begged for it. But when I
walked from St. Alban'
s to London I was two days without a bit to put in my
mouth. I never stole, not a particle, from any person, in all my trials. I was
brought up honest, and, thank God, I have kept so all my life. I would work
willingly, and am quite capable--
yes, and I would do my work with all my heart,
s not to be got at."
This the poor fellow said with deep emotion;
and, indeed, his whole statement appeared in every way worthy of credit. I heard
afterwards that he had offered to "
put up the stairs of two houses"
man s own terms rather than remain unemployed. He had told the master that his
tools were in pawn, and promised, if they were taken out of pledge for him, to
work for his bare food. He was a native of Somerset, and his father and mother
were both dead.
I then took the statement of a seaman, but
one who, from destitution, had lost all the distinguishing characteristics of a
s dress of the better description. He wore a jacket such as seamen
sometimes work in, too little for him, and very thin and worn; a waistcoat, once
black; a cotton shirt, and a pair of canvas trousers. He had an intelligent look
enough, and spoke in a straightforward manner. He stated: --
I am now
thirty-five, and have been a seaman all my life. I first went to sea as a
cabin-boy at Portsmouth. I was left an orphan at fourteen months, and don'
know that I have a single relation but myself. I don'
t know what my father
was. I was brought up at the Portsea workhouse. I was taught to read and write.
I went to sea in 1827. I have continued a seaman ever since--
pretty well. The largest sum I ever had in my possession was £38, when I was in
the Portuguese service, under Admiral Sartorius, in the Donna Maria frigate. He
t his flag aboard, but he commanded the fleet, such as it was; but don'
call it a fleet, say a squadron. Captain Henry was my last captain there; and
after him I served under Admiral Napier--
he was admiral out there with his flag
on the Real, until Don Miguel'
s ships were taken. The frigate I was in (the
Donna Maria) took the Princessa Real--
she was a 44-gun ship, and ours was a 36.
It was a stiffish thing while it lasted--
was the fight; but we boarded and
carried the Princessa. I never got all my prize-money. I stopped in Lisbon some
time after the fight; and then, as I couldn'
t meet with a passage to England,
I took service on board the Donegal, 74 guns, Captain Fanshawe. I liked Lisbon
pretty well: they'
re not a very tidy people--
treacherous, too, but not all of
them. I picked up a very little Portuguese. Most of my £38 went in Lisbon. The
Donegal brought Don Carlos over, and we were paid off in Plymouth; that was in
1834. Since then I have been in the merchant service. I like that best. My last
voyage was in the Richard Cobden, a barque of 380 tons belonging to Dundee, but
she sailed from Gloucester for Archangel, and back from Archangel to Dundee with
a cargo of hemp and codilla. We were paid off in Dundee, and I received
£4 8s. on the 13th of October (he showed me his discharge from the
Richard Cobden. and his register ticket). I went to Glasgow and got a vessel
an American, the Union--
and before that I stayed at a lodging- house
in Dundee that sailors frequent. There was a shipmate of mine there, a
carpenter, and I left my things in his charge, and I went on board the Union at
Glasgow, and stayed working on board eighteen days: she was short of men. The
agreement between my old shipmate and me was that he should send my things when
I required them. My clothes were worth to me more than £5. The ship was to sail
on Friday, the 15th of November--
t mind getting under weigh on a
and I got 10s. from the skipper to take me to Dundee on Thursday,
the 14th; but when I got to Dundee for my clothes I found that the carpenter had
left a fortnight before, taking all my things with him. I couldn'
anything as to where he had gone. One man told me he thought he'
d gone to
Derry, where some said he had a wife. The skipper paid me for what days I had
been employed, and offered to let me work a passage to New York, but not on
wages; because I had no clothes he couldn'
t take. I tried every ship in the
Broomielaw, but couldn'
t get a job, nor a passage to London, so me and two
other seamen set off to walk to London. I started with 3s. One seaman left us at
Carlisle. We didn'
t live on the way--
we starved. It took us a month to get to
London. We slept sometimes at the unions; some wouldn'
t admit us. I was very
lame at last. We reached London a month ago. I got three days'
work as a
rigger, at 2s. 6d. a day, and a week'
s shelter in the Sailor'
s Asylum. I had
work also on stevedore'
s work in the Margaret West, gone to
Batavia. That brought me 12s., those five days'
work. Since that I'
nothing, and was so beat out that I had to pass two days and nights in the
streets. One of those days I had a hit of bread and meat from an old mate. I had
far rather be out in a gale of wind at sea, or face the worst storm, than be out
two such nights again in such weather and with an empty belly. My mate and I
kept on trying to get a ship, but my old jacket was all against me. They look at
s clothes now. I passed these two nights walking about Tower-hill and to
London-bridge and back, half dead, and half asleep, with cold and hunger. I
thought of doing something to get locked up, but I then thought that would be no
use, and a disgrace to a man, so I determined to bear it like a man. and try and
get a ship. The man who left us at Carlisle did no better than me, for he'
here too, beat out like me, and he told me of this Asylum. The other man got a
m not a drinking man, though I may have had a spree or two, but that'
all over. I could soon get a ship, if I had some decent clothes. I bought these
trousers out of what I earned in London. I spun out my money as fine as a man
The poor man who gave me the following
narrative was a coloured man with the regular negro physiognomy, but with
nothing of the light-hearted look they sometimes present. His only attire was
a sadly-soiled shirt of coarse striped cotton, an old handkerchief round his
neck, old canvas trousers, and shoes. "
I am 20,"
he said, in good English,
and was born in New York. My father was a very dark negro, but my mother was
white. 1 was sent to school and can read a little, but can'
t write. My father
was coachman to a gentleman. My mother spoke Dutch chiefly; she taught it to
my father; she could speak English, and always did to me. I worked in a
s house in New York, cleaning knives and going errands. I was always
well treated in New York, and by all sort of people. Some of the ?rough uns'
in the streets would shout after me as I was going to church on a Sunday night.
At church I couldn'
t sit with the white people. 1 didn'
t think that any
hardship. I saved seven dollars by the time I was sixteen, and then I went to
sea as a cabin-boy on board the Elizabeth, a brigantine. My first voyage was to
s, New Brunswick, with a cargo of corn and provisions. My second
voyage was to Boston. After that I was raised to be cook. I had a notion I could
cook well. I had cooked on shore before, in a gentleman'
s house, where I was
shown cooking. Pretty many of the cooks in New York are coloured people--
men more than the women. The women are chiefly chambermaids. There was a
vacancy, 1 was still in the Elizabeth, when the cook ran away; he was in a
bother with the captain about wasting tea and sugar. We went some more voyages,
and I then got engaged as cook on board a new British ship, just off the stocks,
at St. John'
s, New Brunswick--
the Jessica. About four months ago I came in
her to Liverpool, where we were all paid off. We were only engaged for the run.
I received £5. I paid £2 10s. to my boarding mistress for two months'
It was 5s. and extras a week. I laid out the rest in clothes. I had a job in
Liverpool in loading hay. I was told I had a better chance for a ship in London.
I tramped it all the way, selling some of my clothes to start me. I had 6s. to
start with, and got to London with hardly any clothes and no money. That'
months back, or nearly so. I couldn'
t find a ship. I never begged, but I stood
on the highways, and some persons gave me twopences and pennies. I was often out
all night, perishing. Sometimes I slept under the butchers'
Whitechapel. I felt the cold very bitter, as I was used to a hot climate
chiefly. Sometimes I couldn'
t feel my feet. A policeman told me to come here,
and I was admitted. I want to get a ship. I have a good character as a cook; my
dishes were always relished; my peas-soup was capital, and so was my dough and
pudding. I often wished for them when I was starving. [He showed his white
teeth, smiling as he spoke.] Often under the Whitechapel stalls I was so frozen
up I could hardly stir in the morning. I was out all the night before Christmas,
that it snowed. That was my worst night, I think, and it was my first. I couldn'
walk, and hardly stand, when the morning came. I have no home to go to."
The next was a brickmaker, a man scarce
a stout, big- boned man, but a little pale, evidently from cold and
exhaustion. His dress was a short smock frock--
yellow with dry clay--
fustian trousers of the same colour, from the same cause. His statement was as
I have been out of work now about seven
weeks. Last work I done was on the middle level drainage, in Cambridgeshire.
Brick-making generally begins (if the weather'
s fine) about February, or the
beginning of March, and it ends about September, and sometimes the latter end
of November. If the weather'
s frosty, they can'
t keep on so long. I was at
work up to about the middle of November last, making bricks at Northfleet, in
Kent. I was with the same party for three years before. After that, brickmaking
was done for the season, and I was discharged with ?five stools'
beside; each stool would require six people to work it, so that altogether
thirty hands were thrown out of work. After that, I went to look for work among
brickmakers. They makes bricks slop-way right through the winter,
re dried by flues. I am by rights a sand-stock brickmaker. Howsomever
t get a job at brickmaking slop-way, so I went down on the middle
level, and there I got a job at river cutting, but the wet weather came, and the
water was so strong upon us that we got drownded out. That'
s the last job I'
had. At brickmaking I had 3s. 10d. a thousand, this last summer. I have
had my 4s. 6d. for the very same work. Two years ago I had that. Six of us could
make about 65 thousand in a week, if it was fine. On an average, we should make,
I dare say, each of us about £1 a week, not more, because if it was a showery
day, we couldn'
t do nothing at all. We used to join one among another in the
yard to keep our own sick. We mostly made the money up to 14s. a week when any
mate was bad. I did save a few shillings, but it was soon gone when I was out of
work. Not many of the brickmakers save. They work from 17 to 18 hours every day
when its fine, and that requires a good bit to eat and drink. The brickmakers
most of them drink hard. After I got out of work last November, I went away to
Peter- borough to look for employment. I thought I might get a job on the London
and York Railway, but 1 couldn'
t find none. From there I tramped it to Grimsby--
I said, I may get a job at the docks; but I could get nothing to do there, so I
came away to Grantham, and from there back to Peterborough again, and after that
to Northampton; and then I made my way to London. All this time I had laid
either in barns at night-time, or slept in the casual wards of the unions--
is, where they would have me. Often I didn'
t get nothing to eat for two and
three days together. and often I have had to beg a bit to keep body and soul
together. 1 had no other means of living since November last but begging. When I
came to town, I applied at a large builder'
s office for work. I heard he had
something to do at the Isle of Dogs, but it was the old story--
they were full,
and had plenty of hands till the days get out longer. Then I made away to
Portsmouth. I knew a man there who had some work, but when I got there he had
none to give me at the present time. From there I went along the coast, begging
my way still, to Hastings, in hope of getting work at the railway, but all to no
good. They had none, too, till the days got longer. After that I came round to
London again, and I have been here a fortnight come next Monday. I have done no
work. I have wandered about the streets any way. I went to the London Docks to
see for a job, and there I met with a man as I knowed, and he paid for my
lodging for one or two nights. I walked the streets for two whole nights before
I came here. It was bitter cold, freezing sharp, indeed, and 1 had nothing to
eat all the time. I didn'
t know there was such a place as this till a
policeman told me. A gentleman gave me 6d., and that'
s all I'
ve had since I'
been in this town. I have been for the last three nights at the Asylum. I don'
ll take my ticket away here till after tomorrow night, and then I
thought of making my way down home till my work starts again. I have sought for
work all over the country, and can'
t get any. All the brickmakers are in the
same state as myself. They none of them save, and must either starve or beg in
the winter. Most times we can get a job in the cold weather, hut this year, I
t know what it is, but I can'
t get a job at all. Former years, I got
railway work to do, but now there'
s nothing doing, and we'
re all starving.
When 1 get down home, I shall be obliged to go into the union, and that'
for a young man like me, able to work, and willing, but it ain'
t to be had--
t to be had."
Then came a tailor, a young man only 21
years old, habited in a black frock-coat, with a plaid shawl twisted round his
neck. His eyes were full and expressive, and he had a look of intelligence
superior to any that I had yet seen. He told a story which my inquiries into
the slop trade taught me was "
I have been knocking about for near upon
he replied, in answer to my inquiries. "
I was working at the
slop-trade at the West-end. I am a native of Scotland. I was living with a
sweater. I used to board and lodge with him entirely. At the week'
s end 1 was
almost always in debt with him--
at least he made it out so. I had very often to
work all night, but let me slave as hard as I might I never could get out of
debt with the sweater. There were often as many as six of us there, and we slept
two together in each bed. The work had been slack for some time, and he gave me
employment till I worked myself out of his debt, and then he turned me into the
streets. I had a few clothes remaining, and these soon were sold to get me food
and lodging. I lived on my other coat and shirts for a week or two, and at last
all was gone, and I was left entirely destitute. Then I had to pace the streets
all day and night. The two nights before I came here I never tasted food nor lay
down to rest. I had been in a fourpenny lodging before then, but I couldn'
raise even that, and I knew it was no good going there without the money. You
must pay before you go to bed at those places. Several times I got into a
doorway to shelter from the wind and cold, and twice I was roused by the
policeman, for I was so tired that I fell asleep standing against a shop near
the Bank. What with hunger and cold, I was in a half- stupid state. 1 didn'
know what to do. I was far from home and my mother. I have not liked to let her
know how badly I was off. [The poor lad'
s eyes flooded with tears at the
recollection of his parent.] I thought I had better steal something, and then at
least I should have a roof over my head. Then I thought I'
d make away with
myself. 1 can'
t say how--
it was a sort of desperation--
and I was so stupid
with cold and want that I can hardly remember what I thought. All I wanted was
to be allowed to sit down on some doorstep, and die; but the police did not
allow this. In the daytime I went up and lay about the parks most part of the
day, but I couldn'
t sleep then; I hardly know why, but I'
d been so long
without food, that I couldn'
t rest. I have purposely kept from writing to my
mother. It would break her heart to know my sufferings. She has been a widow
this ten year past. She keeps a lodging- house in Leith, and has two children to
support. I have been away eight months from her. I came to London from a desire
to see the place, and thinking I could better my situation. in Edinburgh I had
made my £1 a week regularly, often more, and seldom less. When I came to London
a woman met me in the street, and asked if I wasn'
t a tailor. On my replying
in the affirmative, she told me if I would come and work for her husband I
should have good wages, and live with her and her husband, and they would make
me quite comfortable. I didn'
t know she was the wife of a sweater at that
time. It was a thing I had never heard of in Edinburgh. After that time I kept
getting worse and worse off, working day and night and all Sunday, and still
always being in debt to them that I worked for. Indeed I wish I had never left
home. If I could get back I'
d go in a moment. I have worked early and late, in
the hope of accumulating money enough to take me home again, but I could not
even get out of debt, much more save, work as hard as I would."
I asked if he
would allow me to see some letters of his mother'
s, as vouchers for the truth
of his story, and he produced a small packet, from which, with his permission, I
copied the following: --
My dear Son--
I have this moment received your letter. I
was happy to hear from you, and trust you are well. Think of that God who has
carried you in safety over the mighty deep. We are all much as you left us. I
hope you will soon write--
Ever believe me.
This was the first letter written after his
absence from home.
Since then his mother, who is aged and
rheumatic (his letters vouched for this), had been unable to write a line. His
brother, a lad of sixteen, says, in one of the letters: --
I am getting on with my Greek, Hebrew. Latin, and French,
only I am terribly ill off for want of books. My mother was saying that you
would be bringing me a first rate present from London. I think the most
appropriate present you can bring me will be a Greek and English, or a Hebrew
and English Lexicon-or some Hebrew, Greek, or Latin book."
A letter from his sister, a girl of
eighteen, ran as follows: --
My dear Brother--
I take this opportunity of writing you,
as you wrote that you would like to have a letter from me. I am very sorry you
have been ill, but I hope you are keeping better. I trust also that affliction
will be the means of leading you more closely to the only true source of
happiness. Oh, my dear brother, you are still young, and God has told us, in his
word, that those who seek him early shall find him. My dear brother, we get many
a sad and solemn warning to prepare to meet our God; and oh! my dear brother,
what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world. and lose his own soul?"
The last letter was dated the 5th of
December last, and from his brother: --
We received your kind letter,"
it ran, "
and we hasten to answer it. It has given my mother and me great relief to hear
from you, as my mother and I were very miserable about you. thinking you were
ill. We trust you will take care of yourself, and not get any more cold. We hope
you will be able to write on receipt of this, and let us know how you are, and
when we may expect you home, as we have daily expected you since the month of
These letters were shown to me at my
request, and not produced by the young man himself, so that it was evident they
were kept by the youth with no view of being used by him as a means of inducing
charity; indeed, the whole manner of the young man was such as entirely
precluded suspicion. On my asking whether he had any other credentials as to
character, he showed me a letter from a Scotch minister, stating that "
been under his charge, and that from his conduct, he had been led to form a
favourable opinion of his talents and moral character; and that he believed him
to be a deserving, industrious young man."
Of the class of distressed tradesmen seeking shelter at this
asylum, the two following may be taken as fair types. One was a bankrupt
linen-draper, and appeared in a most destitute state. When he spoke of his
children his eyes flooded with tears: --
I have been in business in the linen-drapery line--
five years ago. I had about £600 worth of stock at first starting, and used to
take about £65 every week. My establishment was in a country village in Essex.
I went on medium well for the first two or three years, but the alteration of
the poor-laws, and the reduction of the agricultural labourers'
destroyed my business. My customers were almost all among the working classes. 1
had dealings with a few farmers, of whom I took butter, and cheese, and eggs, in
exchange for my goods. When the poor-laws were altered, the outdoor relief was
stopped, and the paupers compelled to go inside the house. Before that, a good
part of the money given to the poor used to be expended at my shop. The
overseers used to have tickets for flannels, blankets, and
shirtings, and other goods; with these they used to send the paupers to my
house. I used to take full £8 or £10 a week in this manner; so that when the
poor-laws were altered, and the previous system discontinued, I suffered
materially. Besides, the wages of the agricultural labourers being lowered, left
them less money to lay out with me. On a market day they were my chief
customers. I would trust them one week under the other, and give them credit for
7s. or 10s., if they wanted it. After their wages came down, they hadn'
means of laying out a sixpence with me; and where I had been taking £65 a week,
my receipts dwindled to £30. I had been in the habit of keeping two shopmen
before, but after the reduction I was obliged to come down to one. Then the
competition of the large houses in other towns was more than 1 could stand
against. Having a larger capital, they could buy cheaper and afford to take a
less profit, and so of course they could sell much cheaper than I could. Then to
try and keep pace with my neighbours I endeavoured to extend my capital by means
of accommodation bills, but the interest I had to pay on these was so large, and
my profits so little that it soon became impossible for me to meet the claims
upon me. I was made a bankrupt. My debts at the time were £300. This is about
six years ago. After that I took a public-house. Some property was left me. I
came into about £1,000; part of this went to my creditors, and 1 superseded my
bankruptcy. With the rest I determined upon starting in the publican line. I
kept at this for about ten months, but I could do nothing with it. There was no
custom to the house. I had been deceived into taking it. By the time 1 got out
of it all my money was gone. After that I got a job as a referee at the time of
the railway mania, and when that was over I got appointed as a policeman on the
Eastern Union line. There 1 remained two years and upwards, but then they began
reducing their establishment, both in men and in wages. I was among the men who
were turned off. Since that time, which is now two years this Christmas, I have
had no constant employment. Occasionally I have got a little law-writing to do;
sometimes I have got a job as under waiter at a tavern. After I left the waiter'
place I got to be very badly off. I had a decent suit of clothes to my back up
to that time, but then I became so reduced I was obliged to go and live in a low
lodging-house in Whitechapel. I was enabled to get along somehow; I knew many
friends, and they gave me a little money now and then. But at last I had
exhausted these. I could get nothing to do of any kind. I have been to
Shoreditch station to try to pick up a few pence at carrying parcels. but there
were so many there that I could not get a crust that way. I was obliged to pawn
garment after garment to pay for my food and lodging, and when they were all
gone I was wholly destitute. I couldn'
t raise even two pence for a night'
lodging. so I came here and asked for a ticket. My wife is dead. I have three
children; but I would rather you would not say anything about them if you
please, because I have told all the truth, and if the gentleman was to see my
statement it might hurt his feelings."
I assured the man that his name would
not be printed, and he then consented to his children being mentioned. "
age of my eldest child is fourteen, and my youngest nine. They do not know of
the destitution of their father. They are staying with one of my relations, who
has supported them since my failure. I wouldn'
t have them know of my state on
any account. None of my family are aware of my misery. My eldest child is a
girl, and it would break her heart to know where 1 am, and see the state of
distress I am in. My boy, I think, would never get over it. He is eleven years
old. I have tried to get work at carrying placard boards about, but I can'
My clothes are now too bad for me to do anything else. I write a good hand, and
would do anything. I don'
t care what, to earn a few pence. I can get a good
character from every place I have been in."
The other tradesman'
s story was as
I am now 33, and am acquainted with the grocery trade,
both as master and assistant. I served a five years'
apprenticeship in a town
in Berkshire. The very late hours and the constant confinement made me feel my
apprenticeship a state of slavery. The other apprentices used to say they felt
it so likewise. During my apprenticeship I consider that I never learnt my trade
properly. I knew as much at the year'
s end as at the five years'
father gave my master £50 premium; the same premium, or more, was paid with the
others. One, the son of a gentleman at --
, paid as much as £80. My master made
an excellent thing of his apprentices. Nearly all the grocers in the part of
m acquainted with do the same. My master was a severe man to us in
respect of keeping us in the house, and making us attend the Methodist chapel
twice, and sometimes thrice, every Sunday. We had prayers night and morning. I
attribute my misfortunes to this apprenticeship, because there was a great
discrepancy between profession and practice in the house, so there could be no
respect in the young men for their employer, and they grew careless. He carried
on his business in a way to inspire anything else than respect. On the
cheesemongery side we were always blamed if we didn'
t keep the scale well
wetted, so as to make it heavier on one side than the other--
I mean the side of
the scale where the butter was put--
that was filled, or partly filled with
water, under pretence of preventing the butter sticking. and so the customer
was wronged half an ounce in every purchase. With regard to the bacon, which, on
account of competition, we had to sell cheap--
at no profit sometimes--
to say to us, 'You must make the ounces pay:' that is. we were expected to add
two or more ounces, calculating on what the customer would put up with, to every
six odd ounces in the weight of a piece. For instance, if a hock of bacon
weighed 6 lb. 7 oz., at 4?d. per lb., we were to charge 2s. 3d. for the 6 lbs..
and (if possible) adding two ounces to the seven which was the actual weight,
charge each ounce a halfpenny, so getting 2s. 7?d. instead of 2s. 5d. This is a
common practice in all the cheap shops I'
m acquainted with. With his sugars
and teas inferior sorts were mixed. In grinding pepper a quantity of rice was
used, it all being ground together. Mustard was adulterated by the
manufacturers. if the price given showed that the adulterated stuff was wanted.
?[he lowest-priced coffee was always half chicory, the second quality
one-third chicory; the best was 1 lb. of chicory to 3 lb. of coffee, or
one-fourth. We had it either in chicory-nibs, which is the root of the endive
cultivated in Yorkshire, Prussia, etc.; or else as spurious chicory powdered.
2d. or 3d. per lb. cheaper, the principal ingredient being parsnips and
carrots, cut in small pieces, and roasted like chicory. A quart of water is the
allowance to every 28 lbs. of tobacco. We had to keep pulling it so as to keep
it loose, for if left to lie long it would mould and get a very unpleasant
smell. In weighing sugar, some was always spilt loose on the scale opposite the
weight, which remains in the scale, so that every pound or so is a quarter of an
ounce short. This is the practice only in ?cutting'
shops. Often enough,
after we have been doing all these rogueries we were called in to prayers. In my
next situation. with an honourable tradesman in Yorkshire, I found I had to
learn my business over again, so as to carry it on fairly. In two or three years
I went into business in the town where I was apprenticed; but I had been
subjected to such close confinement. and so many unnecessary restrictions,
without any opportunity of improving by reading, that when I was my own master,
and in possession of money, and on the first taste of freedom, I squandered my
money foolishly and extravagantly, and that brought me into difficulties. I was
£150 deficient to meet my liabilities, and my'
friends advanced that sum, I
undertaking to be more attentive to business. After that, a man started as a
grocer in the same street, in the 'cutting'
line, and I had to compete with
him, and he sold his sugar a halfpenny a pound less than it cost, and 1 was
obliged to do the same; the preparing of the sugar for the market day is a
s work, and all at a loss. That'
s the ruin of many a
grocer. My profits dwindled year by year, though I stuck very close to business,
and in 18 months I gave it up. By that time other ?cutting'
none have done any good. I was about £100 bad, which my friends
arranged to pay by instalments. After that I hawked tea. I did no good in
that. The system is to leave it at the working men'
s houses, giving a week'
credit, the customers often taking more. Nothing can be honestly made in that
trade. The Scotchmen in the trade are the only men that can do any good in it.
They charge 6s. for what'
s 4s. in a good shop. About nine months ago my wife--
had been married seven years--
was obliged to go and live with her sister, a
dressmaker. as I was too poor to keep her or myself either. I then came to
London to try for employment of any kind. I answered advertisements, and there
were always forty or fifty young men after the same situation. I never got one,
except for a short time at Brent- ford. I had also a few days'
work at bill
that is, grocer'
s circulars. I was at last so reduced that I couldn'
pay for my lodgings. Nobody can describe the misery I felt as I have walked
the streets all night, falling asleep as I went along, and then roused myself up
half frozen, my limbs aching, and my whole body trembling. Sometimes, if I could
find a penny, 1 might sit up in a coffee-shop in Russell-street, Covent-garden,
till five in the morning, when I had to roam the streets all day long. Two
days I was without food, and determined to commit some felony to save me from
starvation, when, to my great joy--
for God knows what it saved me from, as I
was utterly careless what my fate would be--
I was told of this Refuge by a
poor man who had been there, who found me walking about the Piazzas in
Covent-garden as a place of shelter. I applied, and was admitted. I don'
how I can get a place without clothes. I have one child with my wife, and she
supports him and herself, very indifferently, by dressmaking."
s wife, speaking with a strong
Scotch accent, made the following statement. She had altogether a decent
appearance, but her features--
and there were the remains of prettiness in her
were sadly pinched. Her manners were quiet, and her voice low and
agreeable. She looked like one who had "
seen better days"
as the poor of
the better sort not unfrequently say in their destitution, clinging to the
recollection of past comforts. She wore a very clean checked cotton shawl and a
straw bonnet tolerably entire. The remainder of her dress was covered by her
shawl, which was folded closely about her, over a dark cotton gown: --
horn twenty miles from Inverness (she said), and have been a servant since I
was eleven. I always lived in good places--
the best of places. I never was in
inferior places. I have lived as cook, housemaid. or servant of all work, in
Inverness, Elgin, and Tain always maintaining a good character--
I thank God for
that. In all my distress, I'
ve done nothing wrong; but I didn'
t know what
distress was when in service. I continued in service until I married; but I was
not able to save much money, because I had to do all I could for my mother, who
was a very poor widow, for I lost my father when I was two years old. Wages are
very low in Scotland to what they'
are in England. In the year 1847 I lived in
the service of the barrack-master of Fort George, twelve miles below Inverness.
There I became acquainted with my present husband, a soldier; and 1 was married
to him in March, 1847, in the chapel at Fort George. I continued two months in
service after my marriage--
my mistress wouldn'
t let me away; she was very
kind to me; so was m, master: they all were. I have a written character from my
This, at my request, she produced. "
Two months after, the
regiment left Fort George for Leith, and there I lived with my husband in
barracks. It is not so bad for married persons in the artillery as in the line
(we were in the artillery) in barracks. In our barrack rooms no single men were
allowed to sleep where the married people were accommodated. But there were
three or four married families in one room. I lived two years in barracks with
husband, in different barracks. I was very comfortable. I didn'
what it was to want anything 1 ought to have. My husband was a kind sober man.
[This she said very feelingly.] His regiment was ordered abroad, to Nova Scotia.
I had no family. Only six soldiers'
wives are allowed to go out with each
company, and there were 17 married men in the company to which my husband
s determined by lot. An officer holds the tickets in his cap, and
the men draw them. None of the wives are present. It would be too hard a thing
for them to see. My husband drew a blank."
She continued: "
It was a sad
scene when they embarked at Woolwich, last March. All the wives were there, all
crying and sobbing, you may depend upon that; and the children too, and some of
the men; but I couldn'
t look much at them, and I don'
t like to see men cry.
My husband was sadly distressed. I hoped to get out there and join him, not
knowing the passage was so long and so expensive. I had a little money then, but
s gone, and I'
m brought to misery. It would have cost me £6 at that
time to get out. and 1 couldn'
t manage that. So I stayed
in London, getting a day'
s work at washing where I could, making a very poor
living of it: and I was at last forced to part with all my good clothes after my
money went; and my'
God bless him!--
always gave me his money to do
what I thought best with it. I used to earn a little in barracks with my needle,
too. I was taken ill with the cholera at the latter end of August. Dear, dear,
what I suffered! and when I was getting better I had a second attack, and that
was the way my bit of money all went. I was then quite destitute; but I care
nothing for that, and would care nothing for anything, if I could get out to my
husband. I should be happy then. I should never he so happy since I was born
s now a month since I was entirely out of halfpence. I can'
would disgrace me and my'
husband, and I'
d die in the streets first. Last
Saturday I hadn'
t a farthing. I hadn'
t a thing to part with. I had a bed by
the night, at 3d. a night, not at a regular lodging-house; but the mistress
t trust me no longer, as I owed her 2s. 6d., and for that she holds
clothes worth far more than that. I heard of this Asylum, and got admitted, or I
must have spent the night in the street. there was nothing else for me; but,
thank God, I'
ve been spared that. On Christmas-day I had a letter from my
This she produced. It contained the following passage: "I am
glad this letter only costs you a penny, as your purse must be getting very low;
but there is a good time coming, and i trust in god it will not be long, my deir
wife i hope you will have got a good place before this raches you. I am dowing
all in power to help you. i trust in god in three months more, if you Help me,
between us we'
ll make it out." She concluded: --
t like him
to know how badly I am off. He knows I would do nothing wrong. He wouldn'
he never would. He knows me too well. I have no clothes but what
are detained for 2s. 6d.. and what I have on. I have on just this shawl and an
old cotton gown, but it'
s not broke, and my underclothing. All my wish is to
get out to my husband. I care for nothing else in this world."
Next comes the tale of a young girl who
worked at velvet embossing. She was comely, and modestly spoken. By her attire
it would have been difficult to have told that she was so utterly destitute as
1 afterwards discovered. She was scrupulously clean and neat in her dress;
indeed it was evident, even from her appearance, that she belonged to a better
class than the ordinary inmates of the Asylum. As she sat alone in the long
unoccupied wards she sighed heavily, and her eyes were fixed continually on the
ground. Her voice was very sorrowful. Her narrative was as follows: --
?I have been out of work for a very long
for full three months now, and all the summer I was only on and off. I
mostly had my work given out to me. It was in pieces of 100 yards--
sometimes less, and I was paid so much for the dozen yards. I generally had
3?d., and sometimes 1?d., according to what it was; 3?d. was the highest
price that I had. I could, if I rose at five in the morning and sat up till
twelve, earn between 1s. 3d. and 1s. a day. I had to cut the velvet after it had
been embossed. I could--
of a diamond pattern--
do five dozen yards in a day,
and of a leaf pattern I could only do three dozen and a half. I couldn'
enough of it to do even at these prices. Sometimes I was two days in the week
without work, and sometimes I had work for only one day in the week. They
wanted, too, to reduce the 1?d. diamond work to ld. the dozen yards, and so
they would have done, only the work got so slack that we had to leave it
altogether. That is now seven weeks ago. Before that I did get a little to do,
though it was very little, and since then I have called almost every week at the
warehouse, but they have put me off, telling me to come in a fortnight or a week'
time. I never kept acquaintance with any of the other young women working at the
warehouse, but I dare say about 25 were thrown out of work at the same time as I
was. Sometimes I made 6s. a week, and sometimes only 3s., and for the last
fortnight I got 1s. 6d. a week, and out of that I had my own candles to find,
and 1s. 6d. a week to pay for my lodgings. After I lost my work I made away with
what little clothes I had, and now I have got nothing but what I stand upright
[The tears were pouring down the cheeks of the poor girl; she was many
minutes afterwards before she could answer my questions, from sobbing.] "
she said, "
when I think how destitute I am. Oh yes, indeed
[she cried through her sobs] I have been a good girl in all my trials. I might
have been better off if I had chosen to take to that life. I need not have been
here if I had chosen to part with my character. I don'
t know what my father
was. I believe he was a clerk in one of the foreign confectionery houses. He
deserted my mother two months before I was born. I don'
t know whether he is
dead or not, for I never set eyes on him. If he is alive he is very well off. I
know this from my aunt. who was told by one of his fellow-clerks that he had
married a woman of property and gone abroad. He was disappointed with my mother.
He expected to have a good bit of money with her; hut after she married him her
t notice her. My mother died when I was a week old, so I do not
recollect either of my parents. When my aunt, who was his own sister, wrote to
him about myself, my brother, and sister, he sent word back that
the children might go to the workhouse. But my'
aunt took pity on us. and
brought us all up. She had a little property of her own. She gave us a decent
education, as far as lay in her power. My brother she put to sea. My father'
brother was a captain, and he took my brother with him. The first voyage he went
(he was fourteen) a part of the rigging fell on him and the first mate, and they
were both killed on the spot. My sister went as lady'
s maid to Lady , and went
abroad with her, now eighteen months ago, and I have never heard of her since.
The aunt who brought me up is dead now. She was carried off two years and three
months ago. If she had lived I should never have wanted a friend. I remained
with her up to the time of her death, and was very happy before that time. After
that I found it very hard for a poor lone girl like me to get an honest living.
I have been struggling on ever since, parting with my clothes, and often going
for two days without food. I lived upon the remainder of my clothes, for some
little time after I was thrown entirely out of work; but at last 1 got a
fortnight in debt at my lodgings, and they made me leave--
s a week and
three days ago now. Then I had nowhere but the streets to lay my head. I walked
about for three days and nights without rest. I went into a chapel; I went there
to sit down and pray, but I was too tired to offer up any prayers, for I fell
asleep. I had been two nights and three days in the streets before this, and all
I had during that time was a penny loaf, and that I was obliged to beg for. On
the day that I was walking about it thawed in the morning and froze very hard at
night. My shoes were bad. and let in water, and as the night came on my
stockings froze to my feet. Even now I am suffering from the cold of those
nights. It is as much as I can do to bend my limbs at present. I have been in
the Asylum a week, and tonight is my last night here. I have nowhere to go, and
what will become of me the Lord God only knows. [Again she burst out crying most
piteously.] My things are not fit to go into any respectable workroom, and
t take me into a lodging either, without I have got clothes. I would
rather make away with myself than lose my character. [As she raised her hand to
wipe away her tears I saw that her arms were bare, and on her moving the old
black mantle that covered her shoulders I observed that her gown was so ragged
that the body was almost gone from it, and it had no sleeves.] "
have kept this,"
she said, "
if I could have made away with it."
that she had no friend in the world to help her, and that she would like much to
I afterwards inquired at the house at which
this poor creature had lodged as to whether she had always conducted herself
with propriety while living there. To be candid, I could hardly believe that any
person could turn a young friendless girl into the streets because she owed two
rent, though the girl appeared too simple and truthful to fabricate
such a statement. On inquiry I found her story true from the beginning to the
end. The landlady, an Irishwoman, acknowledged that the girl was in her debt but
3s., that she had lodged with her for several months, and always paid her
regularly when she had money; but she couldn'
t afford, she said, to keep
people for nothing--
the girl had been a good wellbehaved modest girl with
Henry Mayhew, letters to the Morning Chronicle, 1849-1850