Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853

THE CITY INQUEST FOR THE POOR.

    I keep a shop in the City, and open it every morning as Bow Church bells are ringing out eight o'clock. I pay a very heavy rent, as well as Queen's taxes and poor's-rates; and I could do neither, to say nothing of maintaining my family, if I did not mind my business, and work hard. But, by the help of constant attention and industry, I am happy to say, I am able to make my shop keep me and my family too, which it does comfortably, and lifts me, in some sort, above the world, and enables me to bear the character, which I should always like to retain, of a respectable man.
    We dwellers in London City proper are supposed to entertain a very high regard for respectability, and so we do; and I am going now to detail the operations of what, I suppose, must be called an institution altogether peculiar to the City, of which the world out of the City knows very little, and which has been in being I don't know how many centuries - before there were any poor-laws, or any "good Queen Bess;" and which must have been a respectable affair - if I am any judge of what that means-from the very first, whenever that was. It is a good thing to relieve necessity in any shape, and a better thing to help it to help itself; but to dispense charity without doing a mischief in some way or other, either by rewarding imposture, encouraging idleness, or repressing the springs of self-reliance or self-exertion, is about the hardest business I have ever had to do with, and I have had some knotty affairs to get through in my time. Now, the various wards of the City do every year, I think, manage this difficult matter very carefully and efficiently, though not without a good deal of trouble; and as I think their mode of doing it sets a good example, I have made up my mind to let the public know something about the Inquest for the Poor, which comes off in December every year. I believe it will be a novelty to most people out of the City limits, and to not a few within them as well. What I know about it, I have derived from experience: that, indeed, is all I have to relate; and when I have told my tale, the reader will be as wise as I am, in this respect at least.
    About the middle of last December, I received a citation to attend a wardmote, to be held in the school-room of my parish. I was in expectation of this summons, as, the parishioners being called upon in rotation, I knew that my turn would come on upon this occasion. The number of tradesmen, who must be all of respectable character, summoned to the first meeting, is always greater than the number required to serve on the inquest, because many find it very inconvenient, and others find it impossible, to give their services. Valid excuses are admitted in plea against the performance of the duty; but a frivolous excuse is not allowed; and a tradesman whose turn it is to serve, if he can prefer no good reason for not serving, must serve or pay the fine. Six guineas is the heavy penalty inflicted upon a recusant who declines service altogether. This preliminary meeting is called merely to insure a sufficient company to be in attendance in the vestry of --- Church, at the general wardmote held on St. Thomas's Day.
    After an early breakfast on the morning of the day above named, I repaired to the vestry, which was very fully attended, and where, in the course of the forenoon, the common-councilmen for the ward were elected for the ensuing year, and, their election settled, were all duly admonished respecting their duties by the chairman. Then, from the number of respectable tradesmen in attendance, myself and eleven others were elected to prosecute the inquest for that year on behalf of the poor; and we in our turn were admonished by the same authority, that we were not to compass any treason, nor to conspire against Her Majesty the Queen - than which, I am very sure, nothing could have been further from our thoughts. The inquest being thus incorporated, we proceeded to elect a foreman and a treasurer, and to decree fines for non-attendance. The fines were appropriated to the payment of expenses, no part of the money collected being available for any other purpose than that of charity. The collection commenced by a contribution from each member of the inquest, each giving liberally, and setting a generous example. All these necessary preliminaries being settled, every man of us got into a handsome cloak, trimmed with fur, hired for the occasion, at a cost of five shillings per head, and, with the beadle of the ward blazing in scarlet and gold, pacing majestically beneath a three-cornered hat, and pushing a ponderous gold mace in advance, we were marched off to Guildhall, to pass muster before Gog and Magog, and to be presented to his worship the lord mayor. us lordship, who was surrounded by a staff of officials in gorgeous liveries, was very glad to see us: indeed he told us so - said that he was extremely gratified at receiving so highly respectable a company, and expressed more than once his satisfaction at finding that we were so ready to act in the cause of charity as to sacrifice our valuable time, and unite together for the succour of the distressed. He addressed us, in fact, for nearly a minute and a half: after which, as time was pressing, and others were waiting to be presented, we were signalled forward to a side-door, and made a very sudden exit into the street, whence we marched back to the vestry to disrobe, with the exception of some few of our number, who knowing that the business of the charity was done for the day, abandoned their cloaks to the care of the owner, who contrives generally to be in attendance at this critical moment, and proceeded to look after their own private affairs. We all met, however, in the evening, and partook of a substantial dinner, to which, according to a custom which has prevailed from time immemorial, the churchwardens of the parish and the foreman and treasurer of the inquest of the preceding year were invited. The dinner went off, as a dinner should do, with perfect harmony and good feeling; and some very excellent speeches were made on the subject of the inquest - its undeniable efficacy and utility, and its great antiquity. We broke up at a sober hour, each member being charged to present himself at the vestry at nine in the morning on that day week, under the penalty of half-a-guinea.
    It would have suited my interests very well, when the day came round, to have forfeited my half-guinea, and have attended exclusively to my own business; but judging it more to my credit to go through with the work I had undertaken, I was at my post, together with several of my colleagues, before the hour had struck. Some of our members did not come at all the first day, but sent their half-guineas; others, having to come in from the suburbs before omnibus-time, arrived too late, and were fined in smaller sums for the breach of punctuality. Our party being at length complete, to the number of ten, we indue our cloaks, and, pioneered by the ward-beadle with his ponderous mace, we sally forth to feel the charitable pulse of several parishes - ten good men and true; swathed to the chin in voluminous folds of broad-cloth fringed with fur, and headed by the ample proportions of the mace-bearer in scarlet and cloth of gold; our apparition, and our mission too, were plainly a mystery to the major part of the population, who, seeing us but once a year, and then but momentarily, as the procession emerges suddenly from one door to plunge into another, do not very well know what to make of it. "Is that there a buryin' or a marryin'?" "What's that lot o' fellows after?" " What's up now, Jem?" "Is that red-legged cove Cardinal Wiseman ?"- such are a few of the inquiries which from time to time testified the astonishment of the uninitiated; to all of which our imperturbable leader opposed a face as impenetrable as that of the sphinx of the Desert. ·We should have been sadly at a loss, by the way, without him. He knew every soul in the whole ward who would come down to the extent of a sixpence for the sake of the poor; and he led his small phalanx boldly to the charge through all impediments. Under his guidance, we did what certainly we should never have attempted without it. We stormed the stout citadels of the merchants, and carried their strongholds up as high as the third and fourth floors, and captured many a poor man's dinner from the very jaws of the cash-box. We dived into cellars, and crouched and crept into subterranean dens. ·We threaded muddy lanes, and wandered among bewildering wharfs, and mounted lofts and sheds, and squeezed ourselves into all sorts of out-of-the-way slums. We climbed ladders leading up into creaking timber galleries, and got into regions of old planks and cobwebs, dim with dust and odorous with ancient smells. We assailed the scholar at his studies, and the craftsman at his labour, and from all and each we met with a courteous reception, and gathered the sinews of benevolence. The dispositions of men vary in few things more than in their several modes of conferring a favour. Some of our most liberal donors thoughtfully sent their bank-notes to the vestry, to save us the trouble of waiting upon them : others, on the contrary, levied the full value of their gifts, by keeping us wearily waiting before we got them. A barber, whom we found at his block busily weaving a wig, and whose diminutive crib would not contain half our company, apologised because it was not in his power to do much for us, and then diffidently tendered a guinea. A portly dealer in feminine luxuries talked largely of the claims of our indigent brethren. and the sacred obligations of charity, and wound up his sonorous homily with the climax of half-a-crown. We found one burly gentleman, buried up to the elbows in red tape and legal documents, who professed a perfect horror, a rooted antipathy, to the poor in every shape, and who had a decided conviction that poverty was a nuisance which ought to be put down. When he had said this, and a great deal more, he very consistently lent a hand towards abating the nuisance, by presenting us with a contribution of double his usual annual subscription. When we had got out of earshot, our experienced chaperon remarked to me: "When I heer'd him again' on so, I knowed he was agoin' to come down 'ansome. He's a wery nice genelman, what enjoys a grumble, and don't mind paying for it!"
    Our domiciliary visits occupied between three and four days, and the rain fell in torrents during the whole time. We were wet through in spite of the cloaks we wore, but canvassed the whole district successfully notwithstanding, and probably collected every shilling that was to be got. Our guide had so often felt the pulse of the whole ward in this way, that he never suffered us to waste our time or our demands upon those whom he knew to be impracticable; and thus we got through the business much more quickly, as well as more prosperously, than we could possibly have done had we been left to our own resources. The result of our united labours was a purse of nearly two hundred pounds; and now came the more pleasant part of our duty - the distribution of alms, at a season when poverty is most severely felt, to the most deserving of the most needy.
    The distribution took place a few days after the collection was finished. In the interim, blank tickets had been distributed to such of the donors as chose to receive them, upon which they inscribed the names of the poor persons whom they recommended for relief. The vestry where we were elected was the scene of the distribution. The body of the church was allotted for the accommodation of the poor ticket-holders, who formed a numerous and a very motley crowd, and who were called in to receive their dole in rotation, by the ward-beadle, from a list which he had prepared. I suspect, however, that the system of rotation was not very rigidly observed, inasmuch as half-a-dozen women, with squalling children in their arms, were among the very first who were called in and dealt with, by which means something like peace and quietness were obtained while the claims of the crowd of the remaining applicants were severally considered. What followed was a very different affair from that which transpires weekly at the parish pay-table. I have been churchwarden, overseer, and guardian of various parishes in my time, and I have seen the poor in all conditions and under all circumstances, and I thought I knew them well enough; but I derived a new lesson now, and learned that it is possible for humanity to undergo the direst misfortunes without losing heart and hope to drain the cup of misery to the dregs without becoming utterly selfish - and to be long immersed in the lowest depths of necessity, and yet be human still. I shall describe one or two of these hapless claimants upon the benevolence of their wealthy fellow citizens, premising that a few of them only are the recipients of parish pay. They see no disgrace, perhaps, in participating in a voluntary alms, because it is voluntary, and, as such, cannot be regarded as the peculiar property of that numerous class who assert and maintain a life-interest in compulsory funds legally levied for their support.
    One of the first who seemed to attract general sympathy was an old, old man, trembling on the very verge of the grave, who had outlived almost every faculty of mind and body. He could walk only by instinct, advancing his foot mechanically, to save himself from falling when he was pushed gently forwards. When standing, he could not seat himself- and when sitting, he could not get up without help. In whatever posture he was placed, there he remained. Altogether insensible to question and remark, he looked wildly round upon us, and smiled, and winked with both eyes. These were his sole remaining capabilities - to wink, and to look agreeable. He had been recommended as an object worthy of charity by a liberal donor, and he was brought in person to justify the recommendation. He was clean, and neat and tidily dressed, but evidently in a state of perfect unconsciousness of everything around him. He had lived once, but it was in times long passed and gone: you might guess him to be what age you chose, but you could hardly think him older than he was; time, who had stolen his faculties, had forgotten to wreck the casket that contained them; the spirit of life had left its tenement, and, by some strange mistake, the animated machine had gone on without it. My neighbour, the watchmaker, compared him to a clock with the striking-train run down, and the works rusty beyond repair. He could not thank us for the alms we gave him, but he did all he could - he winked, and smiled, and tried to make a bow, but failed in the attempt, and resigned himself cheerfully to the care of his friends, who carried him off.
    Another quiet applicant was a lady, whose natural-born gentility poverty might obscure but could not conceal. Years of want and struggling deprivation had dimmed her charms; but they had neither bowed nor bent her stately form, nor quenched the inherent virtue of self-respect, nor deprived her of the correct and appropriate diction, and the winning and courteous expression which once graced a drawing-room. She was introduced to us by the beadle as Lady W---; and although draped in very humble and well-worn apparel, she looked what she was - a gentlewoman in every sense of the word; though beyond an empty title, she possessed hardly anything in the world. She answered our inquiries with a natural courtesy, which at least some of us felt to be a condescension. "Gentlemen," she said, "it is true, as your attendant states, that I am a lady. In my youth, I married a titled man. I make no boast of that - it was, indeed, my misfortune. I was brought up and educated to occupy a station inferior to few: I filled that station for many years; it is not for me to say how appropriately; and though calamity has overtaken me now, and I have been familiar with necessity for so long a time, yet I feel that I am a lady still. I may be reproached with poverty, and that I can bear; but I trust I shall never be justly reproached with having fallen to the level of my circumstances. I am grateful to you for the assistance you so kindly render me; and I can express that sentiment, and feel it deeply, too, without humiliation, because the aid you supply is as voluntary on your part as its acceptance is necessary on mine." When our foreman had instinctively wrapped the donation awarded to her in a quarter sheet of letter-paper, and presented her with it, she bent with a dignified obeisance, and silently withdrew.
    A third applicant, worthy of a passing notice, was a lady of a very different stamp. Who or what she had been in former years, I could not ascertain, but she appeared before us in the character of a middle-aged mince-pie monomaniac, and jam- tart amateur. The poor harmless creature was clad in the veriest shreds of dusky feminine attire, which barely shielded her limbs from the inclemency of the weather. She had a notion that she, too, was a lady, and that, being a lady, she was bound to live by the consumption of pastry and nothing else. We were admonished by our custodian that whatever amount we awarded her, whether it were much or little, would be forthwith consigned to the confectioner, in exchange for mince-pies and tarts of the very best quality; and I regret to say, that this announcement had the effect of reducing considerably the sum she derived from the charity of the ward, and effectually preventing the consummation of any very formidable debauch with her favourite viands. But the poor simpleton was as merry as she was innocent and harmless; and all unsuspicious of the latent grudge which had lessened her gratuity, tripped hastily off, to enjoy at least a delicious repast.
    After we had sat some hours, a very distressing case was brought forward. A poor woman, the wife of a working-man, and the mother of a young family, had been deserted by her husband, who had left her, besides her own children, the charge of his bedridden parents. Under this accumulation of burdens, she had been heroically struggling for some months, in the vain attempt, by her single energies, to ward off the approach of want, and to act at the same time the part of nurse to the old couple. She had succeeded in a great measure, and modestly sought but a little help to enable her to persevere in her arduous undertaking.
    Then came an old man, verging on fourscore, the very beau ideal of the merchant's serving-man of the last century. He had once been comparatively prosperous; but, judging from his cheerful face, perhaps hardly ever happier than he was now. For fifty years of his life he had been custos and confidential housekeeper to a well-known firm, which, after four or five generations of unvarying prosperity, had sunk in the panic of 1846 into the gulf of bankruptcy. In the general wreck that followed, old Benjamin was forgotten, or remembered only with a pang of unavailing regret. He found a refuge, however, in some small garret, where he contrives to preserve his cheerfulness and his pigtail, the only outward and visible sign of his former respectability, and where he acts as master of the ceremonies to a clique of ancient ladies, his fellow-lodgers, to whom he is at once the guardian and the beau of the fourth floor. When he had received his own little modicum of benevolence, he pleaded hard for the immediate settlement of the claim of one of his fair coterie, a widow of fourscore and five; and finding that his request could not be complied with, but that she must be left till her turn came, he retired to a corner of the room, and waited a full hour and more, until her business was settled, when he bowed ceremoniously, till his pigtail pointed to the zenith, and tendering his arm, escorted her home with all the vivacity and politeness of the days of hoops and high-heeled shoes. I have scarcely found out the reason why it was that the spectacle of this happy, kind old soul made me feel a little, only a little, ashamed of myself.
    This cosy old couple had hardly tripped out of sight, when our prosy synod was honoured by the advent of a real and extraordinary phenomenon. This was nothing less than a ragged, crazy improvisatrice, who advanced, full of jingling rhymes, which she delivered with a volubility perfectly startling. She had evidently the highest idea of her poetical qualifications, and discharged her couplets in a perfect shower upon us, not a little to the astonishment of myself and a few other strangers to her overpowering genius. The beadle quietly endeavoured to moderate the flow of her eloquence; but she denounced him as a "sorry-Jack" for his pains, and was going on at a tremendous rate, rhyming Jack with back, thwack, crack, whack, &c. &c., when she was called to order in a manner that admitted of no demur - Mrs. Margaret Maggs, roared the beadle; and the tenth Muse, brought to a sudden stand-still, ceased her oracular utterances, and, grasping her modicum of shining silver, vanished from the presence.
    The distribution lasted the whole of the day; and it was a weary day for some of the poor applicants, whose turns came last, and who almost fainted for want of refreshment. But all who deserved it, went home effectually relieved and gladdened; and many who did not, got a lesson upon the occasion, and learned that Charity is not always as blind as she is supposed to be. The whole of the money collected is not distributed at once. About a third part of the amount is reserved until the approach of the next ensuing winter, when a second distribution takes place, generally to the same applicants.
    I have heard it insinuated before now, that city functionaries of all sorts are prone to take good care of themselves, whenever they meet to consider the wants of the poor. I may perhaps be allowed to say, that when we have a feast, we pay for it; and that not one farthing of any collection made in the City for the poor was ever, to my knowledge, appropriated to any other purpose. As a respectable man, I, for one, would never countenance any intromission of that kind.