Charity knocks at nearly every household door in this, England's capital, and is not turned away empty-handed from many. The aged, the orphan, the halt, the blind, of London, would fill an ordinary city. When the struggle for life is so severe as it is in England in the happiest times, the wounded and disabled and invalided must be in considerable numbers. The metropolitan charities attest, by their income and various forms, the zeal with which the Rich come to the side of the wounded in the fight. The fancy fair links the pleasures of fashionable folk with the comfort of the helpless poor. Indeed pleasure is allied with charity in a hundred forms in a London season. See the crowd, composed of representatives of all classes, who wait at the gates of Marlborough House on a fine evening in June. The Prince is coming forth en route for Willis's, or the Freemason's, or the London Tavern, on one of those missions of Charity which were the delight of Albert the Good, and have become among the most valued inheritances of his son. Among those who make their obeisances to him as he passes are many for whose comfort he will help to secure the obolus to-night.
Subscription lists display the open-handedness of all who have money, when a pressing occasion or a noble action calls forth the latent charity of the most commercial of races. And so the destinies of the multitude are connected with the aspirations of the Christian; some of the spare riches that flow from work and trade, are drawn back to the young who have been left alone before they could join the ranks of labour, and to the denuded invalids in whom there is no more work. Our charities of hard, serious, trading London, where the deadly will to win is printed upon the Cockney face in lines that abash and distress the stranger; are the noblest of any city on the face of the earth. London spends the revenue of many a Continental State on the unfortunate within her gates. Her wisdom in the distribution of her abundant alms, is very much disputed; but her liberality is, beyond compare, the most copious of any known community. No single fact more forcibly illustrates the enormous trade of London, than the million sterling which the metropolitan pocket disgorges at the call of charity. Hospitals, refuges, orphanages, soupkitchens, retreats kept for the old by heroic Little Sisters of the Poor, offer us studies of our time that are so many silken threads woven through society. Upon this ground all classes meet and shake hands.
Beyond compare the oddest, and at the same time the most popular form of alms-collecting known in London, is that systematically adopted by the hospital, asylum, and benevolent fund managers, viz., the charity dinner. One of Moliere's heroes has said:,
Tout se fait en dinant dans le siecle on nous sommes,
Twelve and fifteen hundred pounds are often coaxed from the pockets of a hundred and fifty gentlemen, after a dinner at the London Tavern, the Freemason's, or Willis's Rooms. The appetite, for almsgiving at any rate, comes with eating. It would be absurd to ask a man for a subscription while he is waiting for his dinner: but he beams at the bare suggestion, his own inner man being satisfied. You have feasted him, he is your slave, and he becomes a free agent again only when he has completed the process of digestion. "Feast won, fast lost", was Shakespeare's warning; acting on which the wary hospital governors bow to the diner, and lay before him the plight of the poor sick, while he tastes his first olive, and catches the early fire of the ruby light of his wine. That the plan is broadly based on human nature, the "thirty thousand dinners" which have been eaten in the name of charity in Bishopsgate Street and by Long Acre, are good evidence.
The why the diners give, let us not too narrowly seek to know; above all, let us not inquire in a cynical mood. An enormous sum of suffering is hereby relieved; thousands of children are housed, fed, and put out in the world. The widow has a smart little cottage placed at her disposal. To the artist whom misfortune has overtaken, is given peace of mind, and patience, till his hand shall no longer refuse the old cunning. To the working servant of letters is afforded a staff while he is lame. To the actor who has gladdened many hours for his overworked countrymen, the assurance of a roof for his old age is extended. But if I were seeking the arguments that most generously should recommend the methods by which London charities are supported, I would quote the words which Dickens and Thackeray, Disraeli and Lord Lytton, have spoken at public festivals, on the institutions the interests of which have been committed to their charge. "How like," said Thackeray at the Literary Fund dinner of I852, "British charity is to British valour! It always must be well fed before it comes into action! We see before us a ceremony of this sort which Britons always undergo with pleasure. There is no tax which the Briton pays so cheerfully as the dinner-tax. Every man here, I have no doubt, who is a little acquainted with the world, must have received, in the course of the last month, a basketful of tickets, inviting him to meet in this place, for some purpose or other. We have all rapped upon this table, either admiring the speaker for his eloquence, or, at any rate, applauding him when he sits down. We all of us know, we have had it a hundred times, the celebrated flavour of the old Freemason's mock turtle, and the celebrated Freemason's sherry; and if I seem to laugh at the usage, the honest, good old English usage, of eating and drinking, which brings us all together for all sorts of good purposes, do not suppose that I laugh at it any more than I would at good old honest John Bull, who has under his good, huge, boisterous exterior, a great deal of kindness and goodness at the heart of him! Our festival may be compared with such a person; men meet here and shake hands; kind hearts grow kinder over the table; and a silent almoner issues forth from it, the festival over, and gratifies poor people, and relieves the suffering of the poor, which would never be relieved but for your kindness. So that there is a grace that follows after your meat) and sanctifies it."
Dickens, on fifty occasions, spoke as tenderly and becomingly. Moreover he had a witching tongue that struck direct to men's hearts; so that he was esteemed through his life-time, the prince of charity dinner speakers. How he pleaded the cause of the poor actor, making the women's laughter ripple from their lips while the tears streamed from their eyes: but above and before all how he spoke for the sick poor children! The authorities in Great Ormond Street will tell anybody who may inquire, how his gallant and righteous spirit, how the warming light of his genius, plays about the cradles where the little ones lie! I can still catch the echoes of those tremulous tones in which he who created Tiny Tim, and melted the world's heart over the death of little Dombey; pleaded for the sick and destitute children, conjuring the men at the tables round about him to think of the weeping mothers by the hospital cots; then of their own happy little ones at home; and then of the sick child fretting for lack of healing care and wholesome sustenance. Oratory was never sweeter nor more persuasive than this; and never fell from human lips pleading a holier cause. London does not include within its spacious bound a more touching scene than that of the Hospital for Sick Children; nor a purer charity than that which covers helpless infancy. And so I close our pilgrimage at a sick baby's cot!
London boasts something like a hundred hospitals, a hundred homes and refuges for the houseless, fifty orphan asylums, over twenty institutions for the blind and deaf and dumb, fourteen for the relief of discharged prisoners, eighteen penitentiaries for fallen women, five asylums for incurables, over forty homes and institutions for poor sailors, and nearly twenty for soldiers; twelve charitable institutions for the benefit of poor Jews, and between thirty and forty relief societies for the clergy. Emigration, a dole for debtors, help to needlewomen, assistance to those most deplorable of creatures, friendless gentlewomen; comfort for unemployed nurses, protection for oppressed women, care for the insane, are among the objects for which Charity puts forth her white hand in our midst. Her gentle wings are spread over every conceivable human misfortune, over the brute as well as the human. The casual observer in our streets would hardly believe it; for they swarm with wretched children, covered with black rags, bare-footed and bare-headed, with claws for hands, and with voices hard and harsh as those of costermongers.
We are in the receiving room of a night refuge, the home of the ragged scholars whom Lord Shaftesbury has befriended, of the wild young clients of the devoted City missionaries. A worn-out, prostrate Arab, a baby in years, has been dragged in from the wintry streets. His face is livid yellow; his lips are black; and when they uncover him, we see how hard the world has been to the little heart. His infant fellow-sufferers look on, while he lies upon an old man's knees, and one of the officials (the outer world does not know how gentle and compassionate these poorly paid servants of the poor are, as a rule) pours out a restorative. Another officer gently puts his hands upon the backs of the boys, and leads them from the invalid. Such scenes, upon which my eyes have been led to fall so often, I hope not uselessly, lift the heart almost to the throat. The strong man in suffering is one thing: the ill-treated woman is another: but children like this, when they open their eyes, stab you with the thanks that beam in their young looks. You stand a criminal before them: as particeps criminis in the fiendish blows the world has struck upon them, lying cradleless upon the bare stones.
The thanks of this nearly lifeless waif make the grace that, in Thackeray's words, sanctifies the meat we eat in the name of charity. My companion picture to this of the wounded Arab of our streets, should be taken among the Little Sisters of the Poor, who beg broken victuals from street to street, and carry them to a home which they keep for aged men and women. John Selden has said: "Charity to strangers is enjoined in the Text. By strangers is there understood those that are not of our own kin, Strangers to your Blood; not those you cannot tell whence they come; that is, be charitable to your Neighbours whom you know to be honest poor People." But the Little Sisters of the Poor interpret charity in a larger sense than this. The helpless, roofless aged, are to them, neighbours all; and within the measure of their utmost means, they gather them to a comfortable fold. I have passed through their quiet realm: where the broken crusts of the poor are the banquet of the givers; and every living room in which is an ante-chamber of Death. The Little Sisters, who have forsaken the pleasures of the world to wait as unpaid servants at the couch of destitute Age, are the Grace Darlings of a perpetual storm, heroines with hourly need for courage. Fearlessly they penetrate the lowest of our streets to snatch an old man from death on the bare boards. Their trim green carts, which they drive through noisy London, seldom observed and seldom understood, stop at hotel and restaurant, and other doors, where they have promises of scraps. The crumbs that fall from rich men's tables into their baskets
are indeed not wasted.
Writers on the charities of London have never dwelt sufficiently on the services of the voluntary agents who give more than money in charity. Yet when we take the teachers of the ragged children of London as an instance of devotion to the cause of the poor, we cannot but be struck with the immense sum of spontaneous and gratuitous service that is at the disposal of the unfortunate. Three thousand unpaid teachers, Lord Shaftesbury tells us, nearly all of them being hard workers through the day, yield the ease of their evenings to the instruction of street Arabs. In order fully to understand the patience and courage that are necessary to the vocation of the Ragged School teacher, the reader must have spent at any rate a few hours, in a ragged school. He must have given considerable spans of time to the examination of the Industrial Schools, the training ships, the Shoe Black Brigades, the City Mission halls, the refuges and the rescue societies, before he can pretend to estimate the numbers of the noble army of servants of the poor, who operate within the boundaries of London.
I have come upon these Christian martyrs in the service of suffering humanity, in every corner of the metropolis: sitting at a poor dying lad's bedside in the House of Charity in Soho Square; soothing a convict's last moments in the floating infirmary off Woolwich Dockyard; saying cheering words to prisoners; conducting the amusements of shoe blacks; romping with beggars' babes in a Ratcliff creche, teaching the destitute blind boy his letters; and sowing smiles through a Cripples' Home.
London is all too charged with misery. The mighty capital comprehends whole townships of the almost hopeless poor. You step out of the Strand into Drury Lane or Bedfordbury: out of Regent Street by the East, into the slums of the shirtless: out of the Royal Exchange into Petticoat Lane: nay, out of the glittering halls of Parliament into the Alsatia that, diminished, but not destroyed, lies, a shame and scandal, behind Westminster Abbey. The Devil's Acre skirts the Broad Sanctuary. But, a great hospital faces St. Stephen's; and sits, a comely presence by the river side, within the shadow of the Lollard's Tower. The silver fringes are deepening from day to day round the cloud whereon we have traced the acuteness of London misery. We have marked at every step humble heroes and heroines at work to lessen it. English charity takes, in many instances, what our neighbours call bizarre forms; but then it appears in so many strange places. Its silver cords travel through the gay season.
She wears no mournful mien who presides at the stall of a fancy fair. See that most popular of princesses at work, serving out refreshments to gentlemen, in the name of charity. The cynic passes, and cries that it is all vanity. But surely here is good heart speaking in every gesture and every glance: light heart too, if you will. Shall the Boys' Home, for the bread-and-butter fund of which Her Royal Highness deigns to make tea; reject the grace, because it is tendered from the heart of Vanity Fair ? Surely it is better, for the givers, that they should warm their festivals with the light of charity to their poor neighbours; than that they should indulge in empty pleasures, unmingled with a single good purpose. Lady Greensleeves is bent on making the conquest of all eyes, with that latest achievement Madame Elise of the dainty hand, has sent her from the Rue Richelieu; and there is not a thought for the palsied ward which her wiles and Berlin wool are helping to rear. Granted. But let us keep Lady Greensleeves in humour; for, whether with her serious good-will or lacking it, the corner stone will have a coin or two of her getting in its cavity.
I remember a story of a supporter of a great Orphan Asylum, who was in the habit of giving a heavy sum yearly; and of hiding himself behind a screen while the chairman read out his name. I have no doubt the man was a sham Samaritan; that he was vain and hard at home; that he was a niggard to his poor relations; and wrangled with his wife every week over the cost of the house-keeping. But what good is to be got out of an inquisition on his motives? Nay, are we not quite certain to get some harm out of it, if we prove him base and hypocritical? Then if we began upon him, where should we stop?
Why should we not go up and down the tables of Mr. Willis, and put every dinner at the Freemason's and the London Tavern under our glass? If we began such a scrutiny we should frighten away thousands from the London poor-boxes, and set up a very ugly gallery of miserable sinners for the edification of the world, and the world is quite rich enough already in awful examples.
It is better for all parties that we should continue to believe in the genuineness of every giver; at any rate until we have contrived some perfect social scheme that shall make charity, as expressed in current coin of the realm, a superfluous presence. I fear these pages will be very yellow indeed before that good time shall have come upon our descendants.
Concluding our Pilgrimage, lingering over the old places, at the corners of familiar streets, over subjects we had laid down, only to be thrust out of the plan by more important ones, we took at last to the river and the bridges. It is from the bridges that London wears her noblest aspect, whether by night or by day; or whether seen from Westminster! or that ancient site, which the genius of Rennie covers with a world-famous pile. Now we have watched the fleets into noisy Billingsgate; and now gossiped looking towards Wren's grand dome, shaping Macaulay's dream of the far future, with the tourist New Zealander upon the broken parapets, contemplating something matching, "The glory that was Greece, The grandeur that was Rome."
We have paced up and down in the small hours, marking the groups of roofless men, women, and children settle in the stone recesses, out of the reach of the east wind, that sweeps, with most melancholy moan, through the black shipping drawn up, majestic sentinels, along the Silent Highway.
Along this Highway the artist in quest of the picturesque and suggestive in London, finds the best subjects for his pencil. London, east and west, begins at Greenwich Hospital, and ends at the Star and Garter at Richmond. The northern and southern boundary lines of the great metropolis glitter with two Crystal Palaces, beautiful as any jewelled halls that have been conceived by Eastern imagination; but the river that links Greenwich with Richmond, and draws a mighty line through the home of three millions of God's creatures, has no rival thread from north to south. From north to south, from Muswell Hill to Sydenham, a straight imaginary line stretches over the busiest ways of our wonder-working Babylon; over some of the darkest as well as over some of the hopefullest of its neighbourhoods. But the winding river is a silver thread that nature has wound for us. Hence, we have hugged its shores of the gentle tide: paddled on its bosom, loitered with untiring feet upon the bridges that span its ripples; and found our way back to it to ponder the end of our Pilgrimage.