Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 5 - Tom Tiddler's Ground

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BARRY CORNWALL tells us that when he was a little boy he was told that the streets of London were all paved with gold; and it must be admitted that, to the youthful mind in general, the metropolis is a sort of Tom Tiddler's ground, where gold and silver are to be picked up in handfuls any day. There is a good deal of exaggeration in this, undoubtedly. To many, London is dark and dismal as one of its own fogs, cold and stony as one of its own streets. The Earl of Shaftesbury, a few years back, calculated there were 30,000 ragged, houseless, homeless children in our streets. The number of persons who died last year in the streets of London, from want of the necessaries of life, would shock a Christian. Last year the total number of casual destitute paupers admitted into the workhouses of the metropolitan districts amounted to 53,221 males, 62,622 females, and 25,716 children. We cannot wonder at this when we remember that it is said 60,000 persons rise every morning utterly ignorant as to the wherewithal to feed and maintain themselves [-61-] for the day. Wonderful are the shifts, and efforts, and. ingenuities of this class. One summer-day, a lady-friend of the writer was driving in one of the pleasant green lanes of Hornsey, when she saw a poor woman gathering the broad leaves of the horse-chesnut. She asked her why she did so. The reply was that she got a living by selling them to the fruiterers in Covent Garden, who lined the baskets with them in which they placed their choicest specimens. One day it came out in evidence at a police-court, that a mother and her children earned a scanty subsistence by rising early in the morning, or rather late at night, and tearing down and selling as waste-paper, the broad sheets and placards with which the dead walls and boardings of our metropolis abound. The poor sick needlewomen, stitching for two-and-sixpence a-week, indicate in some quarters how hard is the London struggle for life. But one of the worst sights, I think, is that of women (a dozen may be seen at a time), all black and grimy, sifting the cinders and rubbish collected by the dustmen from various parts, and shot into one enormous heap.
    The last dodge exposed for making money is amusing. A writer in the Times wanted to know how it was we see advertisements in London papers for a million of postage-stamps. A writer in reply says all the stories about severe papas, who will not let their daughters marry till they have papered a room with them, are false. He says if the reader will go to some of the purlieus of the Borough (leaving his watch and purse at home) he will [-62-] very possibly be enlightened. He will be accosted by a hook-nosed man, who will pull out a greasy pocket-book, and produce some apparently new postage-stamps, not all joined together, but each one separate, and will offer them for sale at about 2d. a dozen. If the enterprising stranger looks very closely, indeed, into these stamps, he may perhaps detect a slight join in the middle. They are made by taking the halves which are unobliterated of two old stamps and joining them, regumming the backs and. cleaning the faces. This practice is, it is said, carried on to a great extent, in the low neighbourhoods of Ratcliff-highway, and the Borough.
    During the year 1858 it appears 10,004 persons died in the public institutions of London: 5,535 in the workhouses, 57 in the prisons, and 4,412 in hospitals. Of the latter number 317 belong to the Greenwich and the Chelsea hospitals, 211 to the military and naval hospitals. About one in six of the inhabitants of the metropolis dies in the public institutions, nearly one in eleven dies in the workhouses. Only think of the population of London. In 1857 that was estimated by the Registrar-General at 2,800,000; since then the population has gone on steadily increasing, and it maybe fairly estimated that the London of to-day is more than equal to three Londons of 1801. Now, amidst this teeming population, what thousands of vicious, and rogues, and fools there must be; what thousands suddenly reduced from affluence to poverty; what thousands plunged into distress by sickness or the loss of friends, and parents, and other benefactors; to [-63-] such what a place of pain, and daily mortification, and trial London must be!
    But, on the other hand, from the time of Whittington and his cat, London has abounded with instances showing how, by industry and intelligence, and - let us trust - honesty, the poorest may rise to the possession of great wealth and honour. Indeed all the great city houses abound with examples. Poor lads have come up to town, friendless and moneyless, have been sober and steady, and firm against London allurements and vices, have improved the abilities and opportunities God has given them, and are now men of note and mark. The late Lord Mayor was but an office-lad in the firm of which he is now the head. Mr. Herbert Ingram, M.P. for Boston, and proprietor of the Illustrated News, blackened the shoes of one of his constituents. Mr. Anderson, of the Oriental Steam Navigation Company, and formerly M.P. for the Orkneys, rose in a similar manner. Sir Peter Laurie was originally in a humble position in life, so was Mr. Dillon, of the house of Dillon and Co. Our great Lord Chancellor, when employment was scarce and money ditto, held a post as reporter and theatrical critic on the  Morning Chronicle newspaper. Mr. Chaplin, the late Salisbury M.P., was an extraordinary instance of a man rising from the humblest rank. Before railways were in operation Mr. Chaplin had succeeded in making himself one of the largest coach proprietors in the kingdom. His establishment, from small beginnings, grew till, just [-64-] before the opening of the London and North Western line, he was proprietor of sixty-four stage-coaches, worked by fifteen hundred horses, and giving yearly returns of more than half a million sterling. Mr. Cobden began life in a very subordinate position in a London warehouse. Sir William Cubitt when a lad worked at his father's flour-mill. Michael Faraday, England's most eminent chemist, was the son of a poor blacksmith. Sir Samuel Morton Peto worked for seven years as a carpenter, bricklayer, and mason, under his uncle, Mr. Henry Peto. The well-known Mr. Lindsay, M.P. for Sunderland, was a cabin boy. The editor of one morning paper rose quite from the ranks, and the editor of another well known journal used to be an errand-boy in the office before, by gigantic industry and perseverance, he attained his present high position. Mr. J. Fox, the eloquent M.P. for Oldham, and the "Publicola" of the Weekly Dispatch, worked in a Norwich factory. The great warehouses in Cheapside and Cannon-street, and elsewhere, are owned by men who mostly began life without a rap. Go to the beautiful villas at Norwood, at Highgate, at Richmond, and ask who lives there, and you will find that they are inhabited by men whose wealth is enormous, and whose career has been a marvellous success. Fortunes in London are made by trifles. I know a man who keeps a knacker's yard, who lives out of town in a villa of exquisite beauty, and who drives horses which a prince might envy. Out of the profits of his vegetable pills [-65-] Morrison bought himself a nice estate. Mrs. Holloway drives one of the handsomest carriages you shall meet in the Strand. Sawyer and Strange, who the other day were respectable young men unknown to fame, paid the Crystal Palace Company upwards of 12,000, as per contract, for the liberty to supply refreshments for a few months. In the city there, at this time, may be seen the proprietor of a dining-room, who drives a handsome mail-phaeton and pair daily to town in the morning to do business, and back at night. Thackeray has a tale of a gentleman who married a young lady, drove his cab, and lived altogether in great style. The gentleman was very silent as to his occupation; he would not even communicate the secret to his wife, All that she knew was what was patent to all his neighbours - that he went in his Brougham in the morning, and returned at night. Even the mother-in-law, prying as she was, was unable to solve the mystery. At length, one day the unfortunate wife, going with her dear mamma into the city, in the person of a street sweeper clothed in rags, and covered with dirt, she recognised her lord and master, who decamped and was never heard of more. The story is comic, but not improbable, for London is so full of wealth, you have only to take your place, and it seems as if some of the golden shower must fall into your mouth. Mr. Thwaites, when examined before the Parliamentary Committee on the Embankment of the Thames, said, "The metropolis contributes very largely to the taxation of the country. [-66-]  The value of the property assessed under Schedule A, is 22,385,350, whilst the sum for the rest of the kingdom is 127,994,288; under Schedule D the metropolis shows 37,871,644, against 86,077,676. The gross estimated rental of the property of the metropolis assessed to the poor rates is 16,157,320, against 86,077,676 from the rest of the kingdom. The speculations on the, Stock Exchange embrace a national debt of 800 millions, railway shares to the extent of 300 millions, besides foreign stock, foreign railway shares, and miscellaneous  investments of all kinds. Land has been sold in the neighbourhood of the Exchange and the Bank at the rate of a million pounds an acre. The rateable value of the property assessed to the poor rates in the districts of the metropolis in 1857 amounted to 11,167,678. A Parliamentary Return shows that the total ordinary receipts of the Corporation of the city for the year 1857 amounted to 905,298, the largest item being the coal duty, 64,238. The London omnibuses pay government a duty of no less than 70,200 a year. The Thames even, dirty and stinking as it is, is full of gold. One fact will place its commercial value in the clearest light. In 1856 the Customs' duties entered as collected from all parts of the United Kingdom were 19,813,622, and of this large sum considerably more than half was collected in the port of London,- the Customs' duties paid in the port of London alone being 12,287,591, a much larger sum than paid by all the remaining ports of the United Kingdom put together. No wonder that the [-67-] Londoners are proud of the Thames. Why, even the very mudlarks - the boys who prowl in its mud on behalf of treasure-trove - earn, it is said; as much as 2,000 to 3,000 by that miserable employment in the course of a year.
    But we stop. The magnitude of London wealth and even crime can never be fully estimated. It is a boundless ocean, in which the brave, sturdy, steady swimmer-while the weak are borne away rapidly to destruction-may pick up precious pearls.