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THE BACK OF WHITECHAPEL
IF I were writing a partially fancy description of the poverty and wretchedness in a particular district, I should mix the aspects of one street with the aspects of another, and hide my real locality under a very thin veil. I should call Whitechapel by its more appropriate name of Blackchapel, and play with the East of London under the title of St. George's-in-the-Dirt. As this book, however, is intended to be a faithful chronicle of what I have seen, what the local clergy and others see every day, and almost every hour, and what everyone else may see in a week's walk about the back streets of London, I give up effect for the sake of truthfulness, and strive to become a plain, matter-of-fact guide.
[-40-] There are many different degrees of social degradation and unavoidable poverty, even in the east. Whitechapel, properly so called, may not be the worst of the many districts in this quarter; but it is undoubtedly bad enough. Taking the broad road from Aldgate Church to old Whitechapel Church, a thoroughfare, in some parts, like the high street of an old-fashioned country town, you may pass on either side about twenty narrow avenues, leading to thousands of closely-packed nests, full to overflowing with dirt, and misery, and rags. Many living signs of the inner life behind the busy shops are always oozing out on to the pavements and into the gutters; for all children in low neighbourhoods that are not taken in by the ragged and other charity schools are always living in the streets: they eat in the streets what little they get to eat, they play in the streets in all weathers, and sometimes they have to sleep in the streets. Their fathers and mothers mope in cellars or garrets; their grandfathers or grandmothers huddle and die in the same miserable dustbins (for [-41-] families, even unto the third and fourth generation, have often to keep together in these places), but the children dart about the roads with naked, muddy feet; slink into corners to play with oyster-shells and pieces of broken china, or are found tossing halfpennies under the arches of a railway. The local clergy, those who really throw themselves heart and soul into the labour of educating these outcasts, are daily pained by seeing one or more drop through into the great pit of crime; and by feeling that ragged schools are often of little good unless they can give food as well as instruction, and offer the children some kind of rude probationary home. At the George Yard Ragged School, Whitechapel, conducted by the Rev. Mr. Thornton, and personally superintended by Mr. Holland, they have turned part of an old distillery into one of the most useful and active institutions of this kind in the metropolis, and they are already struggling with these and other difficulties. The secretary, Mr. Lewis, writing January 15, 1861, says:-
[-42-] "We have lately had a number of boys in a most distressing state - homeless, hungry, and almost naked. The teachers and friends have done what they could to help them, and can do no more. Those who teach the "ragged band" have feeling hearts, and it is painful to lie in one's own bed and feel that there are a number of poor boys wanting even shelter these bitter nights. Should we send them away and they perish in the streets, at our doors certainly would their deaths lie. We have paid for their lodgings, at various lodging-houses, night after night; but now with this severe weather, and the mass of distress it has brought around us, matters have come to such a pass we are compelled to ask the public to lend us a helping hand in our extremity. We have taken a place to shelter them in, and earnestly ask for help to go on. Old boots and shoes, old clothes, old rugs or blankets, rice, potatoes, oatmeal, &c., will be most acceptable. To send these helpless ones adrift is, apart from anything else, to make thieves of them."
[-43-] They have gathered some four hundred children, of all ages, and of both sexes; and they give them every encouragement to consider the school as their home. They provide a meal of rice on one day, a meal of bread on another, and a meal of soup, if they can, on the third day; and they have taken eight poor castaways - nobody's children - "into the house," and are endeavouring to train them into honest working boys. The stories of destitution, cruelty, and desertion which these outcasts have to tell are more harrowing than a thousand tragedies. One has lost all traces of his parents, another is a street beggar's orphan, and another owns no parent but a drunken prostitute, who kicked him, swore at him, stabbed him in the cheek, and left a scar which he will carry to his grave. He can now find no traces of such a mother, except in the cruel mark upon his face; and is more happy, perhaps, in calling his schoolmaster father than he ever was before in his life.
The conductors of this school are anxious to fit up some kind of rough sleeping-loft for the [-44-] children. They dread to let them go out into the black courts and alleys, knowing what dirt and brutality often await them. It requires very little diving behind the houses on either side of the Whitechapel main road to account for this feeling on the part of the ragged-school managers. Within a few yards of this refuge is New Court, a nest of thieves, filled with thick-lipped, broad-featured, rough-haired, ragged women, and hulking leering men, who stand in knots, tossing for pennies, or lean against the walls at the entrances of the low courts. The houses present every conceivable aspect of filth and wretchedness; the broken windows are plastered with paper, which rises and falls when the doors of the rooms are opened: the staircases always look upon the court, as there is seldom any street door, and they are steep, winding, and covered with blocks of hard mud. The faces that peer out of the narrow windows are yellow and repulsive; some are the faces of Jews, some of Irishwomen, and some of sickly-looking infants. The ashes lie in front of the houses; the drainage is thrown out of the [-45-] windows to swell the heap; and the public privy is like a sentry-box stuck against the pump in a corner of the court. There may be as many families as there are rooms, cellars, and cupboards in a single house; forty people, perhaps, huddled together in a small dwelling; and if there is not a mixture of different families in one room it is due to the ceaseless vigilance of the sanitary officer, Inspector Price, in carrying out the Lodging-Houses Act. The lowest order of Irish, when they get an opportunity, will take a room and sub-let it to as many families as the floor will hold. Inkhorn Court is a fair sample of an Irish colony; the houses are three stories high, and there is not a corner unoccupied. Tewkesbury Buildings is a colony of Dutch Jews, and, if anything, they are a little cleaner than their Christian neighbours. George Yard is an English colony, numbering about a hundred families; and Wentworth Street, Crown Court, and Castle Alley have the same character. Their inhabitants are chiefly dock labourers, and their families a class who form one-half of the population of this dis-[-46-]trict. A correspondent, Mr. Wilford, of Catherine Street East, writing January 10, 1861, says:- "The dock labourers consist of a mixed class of people - English, Irish, Scotch, Germans, and a few French, and others. There are employed at times as many as 20,000 to 25,000 labourers in the five docks, who are extra men, and about 3,000 or 4,000 permanent men; and at the wharves below London Bridge there are at times as many as 3,000 men employed, making a total of upwards of 30,000 men employed in the docks and wharves below bridge. lt is thought at the present time that there are not more than 4,000 or 6,000 who are at work, owing to the adverse winds and the severe frost. The average earnings of thousands of these poor fellows is not more than 7s. 6d. per week all the year round, so that when there is a great stagnation in the shipping trade, many thousands are almost starved to death. It is a lamentable fact that such is tlme case at the present time." The other half of the inhabitants in these streets is made up of thieves, costermongers, and stall-[-47-]keepers, professional beggars, rag-dealers, brokers and small tradesmen.
In one court I saw a singular blind labourer, who was out of work in consequence of the frost. He got his living by reading the Bible in the street, feeling the raised letters with his hand, and he complained that he could do nothing now because "the touch was cold." He staggered over the mud heaps with a thin stick, and disappeared in the dark, cellar-like lower room of a ragged-school refuge for outcasts. In some of these repulsive courts the inhabitants cling to a rude love of flowers, and many an unsightly window-ledge is fitted up to resemble a garden enclosure, with miniature railings and gates.
The rents drawn for the wretched apartments in these courts vary from 4s. to 9d. a week, the average being about 2s. a week. This rental often pays for the hire of "furniture," consisting of a round table, white with age, a couple of bare wooden chairs, a fender and poker, often, unfortunately, not wanted except when the parish coals are being sparingly burnt; a turn-up bed-[-48-]stead, with a rustling bag of straw for a bed, and a very dirty scanty coverlet. The rent for this accommodation is collected painfully, punctually, and incessantly by small instalments; and unpromising as this class of property looks to the superficial observer, thriving tradesmen are found to "farm" it in the neighbourhood as middlemen, and in some cases it belongs to important local residents. The Jews have bought a little of it up of late years, perhaps because their colony in this quarter is slowly increasing. The Jewish poor are fewer and better provided for than our poor, and the applications for relief are never made except in cases of extreme distress. They are wonderfully independent and self-supporting, and keep up the ceremonies of their nation under the most adverse circumstances. In a very black miserable hut in Castle Alley, a poor Jewess was burning the "twelvemonth's lamp" for her deceased mother, although it was only a glimmering wick in a saucer full of rank oil.
The female population in these courts and alleys, as usual, forms the greatest social difficulty [-49-] to be dealt with. Their husbands may be dock labourers, earning, when employed, if on the "permanent list," 3s. a day - if on the "casual list," only 2s. 6d. a day; their children, after an education in the streets or the ragged schools, may be drafted off into lucifer-match or brush factories, where cheap and juvenile labour is in much demand; but for the woman, and the grown up daughters, although it may be necessary for them to help in maintaining the poor household, there is nothing but ill-paid needlework, which they may never have learnt. Domestic servitude in this neighbourhood, with a few exceptions, is not to be coveted, as there is little more, for the local-bred servant, than a choice of low gin-shops, or lower coffee-houses. The best paid occupation appears to be prostitution, and it is a melancholy fact that a nest of bad houses in Angel Alley, supported chiefly by the farmers' men who bring the hay and straw to Whitechapel market twice a week, are the cleanest-looking dwellings in the district. The windows have tolerably neat green blinds, the doors have [-50-] brass plates, and inside the houses there is comparative comfort, if not plenty. While the wretched virtuous population are starving in black holes, or creeping out in the hour of their wildest prosperity to purchase sixpennyworth of refuse meat from the stall opposite the greasy, sawdusty shambles, the inhabitants of this court of vice know little, at least for a few years, of want and suffering. If their ranks are thinned by death or disease, there are always fresh recruits coming forward; and must be while there are as many houseless women as men, and nothing but low threepenny lodging-houses, where little or no distinction is made between the sexes. I heard a child in the street - a boy about eight years of age - telling another boy what a man had given his mother as the price of her shame. The boys and girls here are men and women at ten or twelve years of age.
The local clergy are painfully aware of these facts, and they have made an effort with some success to check the evils of prostitution. The indefatigable incumbent of St. Jude's - the [-51-] Rev. Mr. Thornton before alluded to - with local assistance, has started a temporary refuge for females in Boar's Head Yard, Petticoat Lane, in the very heart of this melancholy district. The work of this refuge commenced in May, 1860. Since that period it appears that sixty-four young women - mostly fallen, some in danger - nearly all from the neighbourhood, have passed through the institution; of these sixteen are in situations doing well, seven have been restored to their friends, one is married, one has died, nineteen have been sent to other institutions; and of the remaining twenty some have left, with approval, to seek an honest living; some have proved failures, having left soon after admission from dislike of the discipline or other causes; and eight are now in the refuge, making the total seventy-two. This excellent institution is in some degree self-supporting, the inmates earning money by washing, mangling, and needlework. By this means the cost of each case has been kept down to about four shillings a week. The receipts from work are small, in consequence [-52-] of the constant change of inmates, the institution being designed as a temporary refuge, not as a permanent home. The managers, consisting of a comnmittee of ladies, solicit female clothing, assistance in procuring more work for the inmates, and the inspection of visitors, especially ladies.
ST. GEORGE'S IN THE EAST
PASSING from Whitechapel towards the river into the Commercial Road, you find the thoroughfare one of the broadest in London, with stone tram-ways for waggon traffic laid down on each side as far as Blackwall. This main road, viewed at any hour, shows little evidence of the crowded population who huddle together behind the houses, especially on the river-side. The difference in the superficial appearance of this road, compared with Whitechapel, may be accounted for by the fact that it is pierced by very few courts and alleys, strictly so called, the small dwellings being invariably arranged in streets. There are thousands of these streets spread over Stepney, Limehouse, Shadwell, St. George's, and Mile End, having such a family likeness that the description of one in its main features will serve for them
[-54-] all. Their houses look flat and depressed, being only one story high, and they generally contain two small rooms on the ground floor, two more above, with a very close little yard, seldom larger than one of the rooms. When they are new, clean, and in the possession of their original tenants, they shelter a hard-working class, chiefly connected with the shipping trade and the different factories in the east; and when they fall a few degrees in the scale of comfort and respectability, they follow the example of more wealthy neighbourhoods and admit a lower colony of tenants. From being occupied by struggling householders they sink gradually through all the phases of lodging-letting until they are reduced to the condition of being divided into tenements. Each room is then taken by a different family; the doorstep is seldom cleaned; the passage and stairs belong to everybody, and are looked after by nobody; the little yard becomes choked up with dust and filth; the inspector of nuisances is openly defied if he ever goes near the place, and the unfortunate street is doomed; it grows
[-55-] more black and more ragged every day; a yellow mist always seems to hang over it, through which its unsightly inhabitants may be dimly seen from the main thoroughfare into which it runs; ignorant policemen begin to look suspiciously upon it, and overrated "detectives" put it down as a harbour for thieves. It gets an ill-name, like an unlucky dog, and is hanged by all except the patient district visitors.
It is unnecessary for any writer to go over all the low streets of a particular district to give the public a faint picture of their chief characteristics, and he will do his duty if he carefully selects that representative thoroughfare which seems to him to present most of the features he wishes to depict. Such a representative hole and corner I believe I have found in Star Street, in the Christ Church division of St. George's in the East, a locality of forty-three acres, with a population of 13,300, untiringly watched over by the Rev. G. H. M'Gill.
Star Street is a narrow avenue, leading out of the Commercial Road towards the river, the [-56-] entrance to which is half blocked up with fruit-stalls, crossing-sweepers, and loiterers. Unlike most of its neighbours, it hangs out every sign of overcrowding for the most careless or hurried passer-by to look at, and it contains, perhaps, within an equal area, more hard-working, would-be-honest strugglers for dear life than any similar street in the same district. Its road is black and muddy, half filled with small pools of inky water, in which stand a number of trucks and barrows belonging to the poorest class of costermongers. The end is nearly blocked up with a public-house, which seems to thrive in the very citadel of want. At some of the low dirty doors wet baskets are standing half full of a common fish called "dabs;" in some of the wretched parlour windows, under sickly yellow curtains, a few rotten oranges are displayed on an old shutter for sale; another miserable front parlour seems to have been scooped out so as to form something like a shop, in which a few coals are thrown down in one corner as a sign of trade; another parlour has been turned into a cat's-meat store, [-57-] and there is one of those small chandler's-shops where nearly everything is sold, and "weekly payments" are taken, which invariably flourish in such neighbourhoods.
I went down this thoroughfare with the chief clergyman of the district, and we were immediately surrounded by poor, thin women, in scanty dresses, representing every variety of dirt and poverty. They have nothing to pawn, nothing to take to the marine-store dealers. Their husbands can get no work for the present at the docks, and they can get little or no needlework from the cheap clothiers in the neighbourhood. Their standard of living is so low that a few days of compulsory idleness brings them to the brink of starvation. One has a story to tell of fever and sickness, another of bread refused by the poor-law authorities on some technicality, another begs to be visited without delay, and a dozen others present letters of recommendation for relief from the funds at the disposal of the clergyman. The same [-58-] question seems always to bring the same melancholy answer;-
"How many children have you?"
"What's your husband?"
"A dock labourer."
"How long has he been out of work?"
"Not done a stroke for thirteen weeks."
"Come to me, at the parsonage, at three."
We go into some of the houses to inspect the misery. The ground floor of one is occupied by a sweep. A short broom sticks out over the door. The front parlour contains two women, half covered with soot. A bed, as black as the women, stands in one corner, in which an infant is sleeping, with its little face looking pale, even under the dirt, and its head lying lower than its legs. Two other young children are playing on the black floor in front of the little glow- worm of a fire, eating what is literally bread and soot. Six other children, belonging to the same parents, are playing somewhere about in the inky puddles; and even this family only [-59-] represents half the population of the small house. The rooms may be ten feet square - certainly not more* -
[*Average height - eight feet five inches; length, nine feet six inches; width, nine feet six inches]
and the rent averages about two shillings a room. The back parlour is also rented by the sweep, and it contains nothing but a mountain of soot - the store resulting from several weeks' work - an empty birdcage, and a fluttering green rag of a window-blind. Upstairs, in one room, is a street hawker, with a wife and five children, and in another room is a carpenter, also with a wife and five children. The latter has the same old painful story to tell of no work and no pay. He is a strong, healthy man, nearly fifty years of age, respectable in appearance, and civil in address. He is trying to still his evident hunger with a little weak tea, probably made from boiled tea-leaves, which his wife has begged from some family for whom she works. A few small lumps of precious bread are floating in the tea, and a hungry child is looking over the edge of the table at the remains of
[-60-] a small coarse loaf. Not a crumb is wasted of the scanty store; for the blank days of unproductive idleness may not be near their end, and the hateful workhouse must be kept at arm's length. The other children, if not in the ragged or national schools, are rolling anywhere about the streets, like all other children of the very poor, in every back alley of the town. When they are gathered together at night - if they ever are so gathered - the roof of this stunted dwelling will cover twenty-five inmates. Other houses in the same poor street - not larger, not cleaner - shelter twenty-two and twenty-one inmates respectively; and thirteen lodgers for one house seems to be a very common number. Two of the rooms have eleven inmates, while one particular room has nine, and another room has nine also. The general result seems to be - according to a local census taken by the Rev. Mr. M'Gill, on December 19, 1860 - that in two hundred and thirty-five small rooms there is, self-crammed, a growing, breeding population of three hundred and forty-four adults and three
[-61-] hundred and fifty-seven children, making a total of seven hundred and one. A few of these unfortunates have been struck off the list since this melancholy account was taken; some by exhaustion, or long-settled disease, brought to an end by want. One labourer gave in, under a low fever, a few hours before we visited the street, and his dead body was stretched upon the only bed in the dark room, covered with a borrowed white sheet. Round the fire was a crowd of weeping women, and amongst them the widow, with two of the dead man's moaning children stricken with the same fever. Wretched as these people were, they would struggle to bury the dead body without assistance from the parish, for there is nothing the poor have such a horror of as a pauper's funeral. No sooner have we left this abode of misery than we are almost dragged over to another, where a mere girl is suddenly left a widow with two helpless infants. Her husband was a dock labourer, twice as old as herself, and he died of asthma. He hung about the docks in the keen weather, day after
[-62-] day, waiting for ships that never came, and the afternoon before he came home wet, miserable, and hungry, took to his scanty bed, and never left it again. Death is bitter enough at all times, and in all places, but it is a hundred-fold more bitter where those who are left are haunted by the dreadful feeling that a few pence would have kept the body and soul together if they could only have been found.
There are other streets in this district, such as Devonshire Street and Hungerford Street in the immediate neighbourhood, which are as full of hunger, dirt, and social degradation as Star Street - my representative thoroughfare. They have all been in the same condition for years, and they show little prospect of material improvement. They contain no thieves, and no threepenny lodging-houses, and are tolerably free from houses of ill-fame. It is a curious social fact that when a particular street reaches a certain depth of poverty it becomes purified from its vice; for though thieves and prostitutes do not become converted in a period of scarcity, [-63-] they invariably shift their quarters. The lower industrial occupations in the general locality I have been dealing with may be broadly classed as dock-work, needle-work, coal-whipping, and street hawking. The labouring population are independent and honest, and no alms are ever applied for at a period of full labour. The district is industriously "worked" by the clergy and their assistants. The ragged and national schools, some of them fitted up under railway arches, collect and educate about a thousand children of both sexes - boys, girls, and infants. These schools are supported by government to the extent of 290l. (I take the figures of 1860), by the pence of the children to the extent of 300l., and by local subscriptions to the amount of 150l. more. A movement is on foot to enlarge and improve the old Middlesex Society's National Schools in Cannon Street Road, founded in 1781, which are far behind the pressing wants of the locality. There is a blanket-and-rug society, instituted for the purpose of giving (not lending) these necessaries to the poor, and every year [-64-] one-fourth of the stock distributed has to be renewed from fair wear and tear. Instances where this property has been pawned, even in periods of great want and suffering, are very rare. There is a small Dorcas society, which dispenses about 261. a year, and which only stops here for want of funds. There is no public soup-kitchen, but the clergy distribute bread, coals, and grocery, as far as their means go; and the Rev. Mr. M'Gill receives assistance every year from the Marquis of Westminster, for these and other parochial purposes, to the extent of 100l.
The clerical work seems very heavy, as in 1860 there were six hundred and eleven baptisms, one hundred and thirty-five marriages, and five hundred and twenty churchings; and the visiting work, divided amongst twenty-one local visitors, has reached four hundred and fifty-three cases of poverty and sickness in one day during January, 1861. It is proper to mention here that the incumbent is assisted in this part of his labours, by the Metropolitan District Visiting Association, with an annual donation of 1001.
[-65-] Amongst all this charity and, benevolent work there is one healthy example of self-help in the Christ Church Penny Bank, the oldest institution of its kind in London. Its total receipts in 1860 were about 9441., and its total repayments about 945l. It brought over a balance from the former year of about 3881., and it begins the present year with a balance of about 3871. The detailed accounts for 1860 show that more money was paid in during the winter and autumn than during the spring and summer, and the heaviest withdrawal was made in December.
This is hardly the place to dwell upon certain notorious inequalities in the metropolitan poor-rates; but I cannot close this chapter without referring to the different assessments of the two great docks in the quarter I have been dealing with. The London Dock Company, which usually employs about one thousand five hundred of the men who are now thrown upon the parish or upon chance relief, paid 19,000l. as its share of the poor-rate in 1869; and the St. Katharine Dock Company, which usually employs about [-66-] one thousand similar labourers, only paid 720l. in the same year. The two properties are only divided by a lane which a man can almost leap over; but the first has the misfortune to stand in part of Shadwell, St. George's, Wapping, and Aldgate, while the last has covered the whole of an extinct parish, and has pushed the poor upon its neighbour's shoulders.
The latest parochial statistics in St. George's in the East (for the week ending January 19, 1861) show that the poor-law guardians relieved 3,720 out of an estimated population of 60,000, and issued some 600 summonses for the last quarter's rates.
The whole area of the parish is three quarters of a mile long, by three quarters of a mile broad.
THAT vast district of eastern London familiar to the public under the broad title of Bethnal Green would exhaust a twelvemonth in a house-to-house visitation. It is flat, it is ancient, dirty, and degraded; its courts and alleys are almost countless, and overrunning with men, women, boys, dogs, cats, pigeons, and birds. Its children are ragged, sharp, weasel-like; brought up from the cradle - which is often an old box or an egg-chest - to hard living and habits of bodily activity. Its men are mainly poor dock labourers, poor costermongers, poorer silk-weavers, clinging hopelessly to a withering handicraft, the lowest kind of thieves, the most ill-disguised class of swell-mobsmen, with a sprinkling of box and toy makers, shoe-makers, and cheap [-68-] cabinet-makers. Its women are mainly hawkers, sempstresses, the coarsest order of prostitutes, and aged stall-keepers, who often sit at the street corners in old sedan-chairs, and sometimes die, like sentinels, at their posts.*
[* Last Monday evening, December 24, 1860, the deputy coroner for East Middlesex held an inquest at the "Marquis of Cornwallis" public-house, Curtain Road, Shoreditch, relative to the death of Agnes Edgell, aged seventy-three years, who died from exposure to the weather. It appeared from the evidence that the deceased had kept an oyster-stall at the corner of Charles Street, Pitfield Street, and on Saturday night last she was seen sitting on a chair by her stall. When her daughter and a lodger called upon her and asked her if she wanted anything, she replied, "Yes, I am very cold." The daughter went for some tea and bread and butter, but about half-past eleven o'clock the deceased suddenly became ill, and died in her chair before medical assistance could be got. The deceased had been in charge of the stall about thirty years, and was a decent woman, much noticed by the neigh bours for her cleanly and sober habits. Mr. John George Blackall, surgeon, of Pitfield Street, Hoxton, stated that the deceased was dead when he was called. Life had been extinct five minutes, and he found her dead in a chair. He had made a post-mortem examination of the body, and found that the various organs were healthy and free from disease. The heart and lungs were congested, and the immediate cause of death was cold and exposure to the severity of the weather. On the night in question the deceased complained of the cold, and had once had some warm rum and water, although she was an abstemious woman. The jury returned a verdict that [-69-] "The deceased died from congestion of the heart and lungs, brought on by exposure to the cold and inclemency of the weather while sitting at a public stall."]
Its [-69-] broadest highways are chiefly lined with the most humble shops. There are steaming eating-houses, half filled with puddings as large as sofa squabs, and legs of beef, to boil down into a cheap and popular soup; birdcage vendors; mouldy, musty dens full of second-hand garments, or gay "emporiums" in the ready-made clothing line; pawnbrokers, with narrow, yellow side entrances, whose walls are well marked with the traces of traffic; faded grocers; small print shops, selling periodicals, sweetstuff, and stale fruit; squeezed-up barbers, long factories and breweries, with the black arches of the Eastern Counties Railway running through the midst. Every street of any pretension is generally guarded at its entrances by public-houses smelling of tobacco, stale beer, and sawdust; and the corners of every leading thoroughfare cutting into the heart of the district are watched over by glittering genii in the shape of gin-palaces.
[-70-] Concerts, which consist chiefly of street "nigger" singing, held in dingy, long rooms, over the bars of the public-houses in the interior, form the chief amusement of the common inhabitants in their hours of plenty, occasionally varied by dog-fights, rat-matches, and the sport of drawing the badger. On Sundays the whole neighbourhood is like a fair. Dirty men, in their sooty shirt-sleeves, are on the housetops, peeping out of little rough wooden structures built on the roof to keep their pigeons in. They suck their short pipes, fly their fancy birds, whistle shrilly with their forefingers placed in their mouths, beat the sides of the wooden building with a long stick, like a fishing-rod, and use all their ingenuity to snare their neighbours' stray birds. Those they catch are not quite as valuable as the products of the Philoperisteron Society, but they have a value, varying from tenpence to half-a-crown, and long usage has settled the amount of redemption money which will buy back one of these captives. Down in some of the streets a regular exchange is held
[-71-] for the purpose of buying, selling, and comparing animals; and, as in Whitechapel and all such neighbourhoods, no difficulty is found in obtaining beer or spirits contrary to law, as long as the money to pay for it is forthcoming.
This enormous portion of London is divided into many small district parishes, each one watched over by a very active clergyman. Amongst the principal workers are the Rev. Mr. Christie, the Rev. Mr. Gibson, and the Rev. James Trevitt. I have taken the lower portion of Bethnal Green (the district parish of St. Philip), which has been carefully worked by the latter excellent gentleman for more than nine years, because it enables me to deal with certain social features common also to Shoreditch and Spitalfields.
I have known the neighbourhood I am describing for twenty years, and, if anything, it seems to me to be getting dirtier and more miserable every year. Old houses, in some few places, have been taken away - simply because they fell to pieces; but the new houses erected within [-72-] the last ten years show little advance in the art of building dwellings for the poor. The whole present plan and arrangement of the district is against improvement, and the new structures sink to the level of the old.
The first court I go into with my guide is called "Reform Square" - a bitter satire upon its aspect and condition. It is nearly opposite the Church of St. Philip, and is a square yard - not much larger than a full-sized dining-room. It is entered by a mountainous slope of muddy brick pathway, under an archway; and contains half-a-dozen houses, which look out upon two dust-heaps, a pool of rain and sewage, mixed with rotten vegetable refuse, and a battered, lop-sided public privy. The houses are like doll's houses, except that they are black and yellow. The windows are everywhere stuffed with paper - rags being in too much demand at the marine store-shop, or for the clothing of the human child-rats, who are digging into the dust-heaps, with muddy oyster-shells. Every child must have its toys; and at the back of Shoreditch [-73-] they play with rusty old saucepans, pieces of broken china, stones torn out of the roadway, or cinders that they search for laboriously. Very often the boys have to mind babies, while their mothers are out at work, and they sit about upon doorsteps with dirty brown limp bundles that never look like young children.
At the entrance to "Reform Square" is a row of zigzag two-roomed houses, let for about four shillings a week; the street-doors of which open into the lower rooms, almost upon the wretched tenants' beds. The staircases leading to the upper apartments are little more than ladders in one corner, and there is no space for more than the usual furniture - a table, two chairs, and a bedstead. The flooring of the lower rooms in these houses is so high above the pavement in the street, that three stones are placed at each of the street-doors for the inhabitants to climb into their dwellings by. I say climb, for the lower stone is so lofty, and the whole three are so shallow on their flat surfaces, that it is with difficulty a full-sized [-74-] man can stride up them. When you stand in the narrow doorway, and look down into the street, it is like looking down into a deep pit. The comfort in the inside of these dwellings is about equal to the conveniences outside. The one we went into smelt so close and musty from overcrowding, neglect, and, perhaps, forty years' dirt, that it almost made me sneeze. It was occupied by a sallow-faced woman, who called herself a "gipsy," and who gets her living amongst servants and others as a fortune-teller.
In another house of greater height, with a close, black, uneven staircase, almost perpendicular, we found a mixed population of about fifty people. In one room was a labourer's wife and several children, yellow, eager, and very ragged; in another was a woman with a blighted eye; in another a girl making match-boxes, assisted by a boy, while her father, a hawker of bootlaces, crouched despondingly over the grate, groaning about the badness of trade, and her mother was busy about the room. The dirt in this apartment was the landlord's dirt, not the [-75-] tenant's - a most important distinction. The walls were chipped and greasy - the one cupboard was like a chimney; but the few plates were clean and neatly arranged - clean, perhaps, for want of being used. The floor had been well scrubbed and sanded, the mantelshelf was set out with a few poor china ornaments, and there were a few pictures stuck up which had been cut out of an illustrated newspaper. One was a fancy portrait of Lord Brougham. This room was admittedly occupied by this family and another woman - a stranger - from necessity, not from choice. At the top of the house was a weaver's work-room, lighted by two long windows with diamond panes. It contained two idle shuttles, watched over by a sickly woman, almost sinking with anxiety, if not from want. The husband was out seeking work in the silk market, like hundreds of fellow-labourers, with little prospect of obtaining it. A change in fashion, and the inevitable operation of the French Treaty, have affected Spitalfields and Bethnal Green in the same way as Coventry, and a [-76-] large mass of trained industry finds itself suddenly "displaced." It is not easy in middle life, with energies kept down by low living, little recreation, and bad air, to turn the mind and fingers into a fresh trade. The best of us are not always equal to such a task, and a poor weaver's wife may naturally sit on the edge of her scanty bed, and look into the future with little hope.
The statistics of silk-weaving show a melancholy decline. In 1824 there were 25,000 looms in and about Spitalfields, now there are only 8,000. In 1835 wages were lower by thirty per cent, than in 1824, and they did not average more than eight or nine shillings a week. Now they cannot be higher than seven shillings, or seven shillings and sixpence a week, on an average; and there are only from twenty-five to thirty master weavers. Perhaps, 20,000 working weavers are now struggling against this decay of their handicraft, and many of them, in despair, are taking to street hawking. The Rev. Mr. Trevitt has set up many of these skilled labourers in this rough calling, with a capital of a few [-77-] shillings. Mr. Corkran, the excellent missionary connected with the London Domestic Mission, who knows more, perhaps, of the misery in Spitalfields proper, than most men, gives a very sad account of the poor in his district. I do not quote his admirable reports, because they deal with a period earlier than what I am dealing with.*
[* 1850 to 1859 inclusive. 1860 is not yet published.]
I entered another street, not far from the one I have been speaking of, to witness more misery and more pain. There is nothing exceptional or transient in the conditions of life I am endeavouring faintly to describe. In Whitechapel, in St. George's in the East, and in Bethnal Green, the people have lived for nearly a quarter of a century as they are living now. Strike off a few cases of obvious imposition - of pardonable exaggeration on the part of Scripture readers - and make a little allowance for the late severe weather - and we shall find the social condition of nearly one-half of London to be nearly as low and degraded as that of Ireland in its worst days. Here is a [-78-] representative street of houses - leading off from the road in which stands St. Philip's Church - the windows in the lower rooms of which are actually on the ground. These lower rooms are wells, dark and unventilated; and overcrowding, with all its attendant evils, can hardly be avoided in such a place. Just now we saw a row of houses where you had to climb up into the lower rooms; here you have to dive down into them. The first house we enter at random contains a suffering family. A large-headed, gaunt girl, tall and speechless, with arms like thin sticks, sits motionless in a chair. It scarcely requires a second glance at this poor creature to tell that she is an idiot. A man sits shivering by the fire - old-looking though not aged. He is a sawyer by trade. We ask after his health, and his wife, who struggles to speak cheerfully, answers for him:
"He went out, sir, to work, one morning early, without food, and the cold seems to have struck on his chest."
The man tries to tell us that he has never [-79-] been warm since, but the words seem to hiss in his throat. I have spoken to scores of people who have nearly lost their voices from asthma and other diseases of the chest; and I have seen many poor deaf and dumb creatures who could only show their misery by their looks. One youth - a young coal-whipper, with scanty and uncertain work - was maintaining a father and mother who both suffered under this terrible affliction. The most melancholy sight, however, is to watch the blind when they hear that the visiting clergyman is in the street or court. They creep out of dark holes of doorways, feeling their road carefully, and throw out their arms widely as if to embrace the expected loaf.
Christopher Street, with its continuations, is a fair sample of an ordinary Bethnal Green street, and though short, it contains many varieties of low and humble life. In one two-roomed house is a notorious dog-trainer, who has lived there for many years, and who keeps a dog-pit for the gratification of his patrons. His yard is often crammed with every kind of terrier and fighting [-80-] dog, and his upper room, where the pit is built, is reached by a ladder passing through a trap door. When you enter this room, the ladder can be drawn up and the trap-door shut down, and so far you are secure from interruption. The windows are boarded up behind the blinds, so that no noise within can reach the little street; and when a sufficient number of patrons are gathered together to pay the spirited proprietor of this den, the delights of Hockley-in-the-Hole are partially revived. Dogs are set together by the throat, cats are worried and killed by bull-terriers within a certain time, to show the training of the dog, and rats are hunted round the pit for the same purpose.
Within a few doors of this illegal sporting theatre is a family who have just been rescued from the lowest depths of wretchedness. They were found, a few days ago, without food, without fire, or any other necessary, in a room nearly bare, their furniture having been seized for rent. There were a father, mother, and several children [-81-] standing shivering within the bare walls, the children having nothing on them but sacks tied round their waists.
In Old Nichols Street, a turning in this district leading off from Shoreditch, we have a specimen of an east-end thieves' street. Its road is rotten with mud and water; its houses are black and repulsive; and at least fifty dark sinister faces look at you from behind blinds and dirty curtains as you pass up the rugged pavement.
Courts of the filthiest description branch off on either side, filled with the usual dust-heaps, the usual pools of inky water, and the usual groups of children rolling in the dirt. There is a silence about the street and its houses indicative of the character of the place. The few trades that are carried on are in most cases merely masks - industry is the exception, robbery is the rule. A few hawkers, who have eaten up their "stock money," or capital, and have even pawned their baskets at the baker's for a loaf of bread, are to be found in some of the holes and corners, but the dark public-house with the green blinds is [-82-] full of thieves, the houses on either side are full of thieves and prostitutes, and a tavern in a side street is full of swell-mobsmen. Even here, as in all these places, there is something to admire. A woman, who works at box-clump-making, with her husband, has picked an orphan boy from the streets, and given him a place amongst her own children. His father was a porter at one of the markets, and died suddenly in the midst of his work. The boy was tossed about for many days, fighting hard for food, until he found a home with people who were nearly as poor as himself. Many cases of such self-sacrifice, such large-hearted generosity, may be easily found amongst the poor. The cases of heroic endurance under the most frightful trials are even more frequent, and they make us respect these poor creatures even in their dirt and rags.
The Rev. Mr. Trevitt is unceasing in his labours within his own district, and he has called round him an efficient staff of assistants. He has about forty visitors who watch over the poor, and he draws about 80l. per annum from the Metro-[-83-]politan District Visiting Society. He has two ragged schools, which collect about seven hundred children; two national schools, which collect about two hundred and fifty more; and an infant school, which gather about one hundred infants. His Sunday schools are attended by about eight hundred children, who have to work during the week, and his evening schools are generally attended by about eighty of the same class.
There is no public soup-kitchen, but the usual miscellaneous distribution at the parsonage, according to means. Mr. Trevitt looks sharply after the many hungry children in his district, and often has a soup-dinner for these alone. A few days ago a thin, sickly man came to the parsonage door, and asked to be admitted amongst the children. He was told that this was against the rules, and he went away in tears. He was called back before he had crawled out of the street; he crept in, like a poor dog, and was seated with the little ones. His case was inquired into, and it turned out that he was one of the most wretched of that very wretched class, an hospital "incur-[-84-]able." He had been turned out by the doctors a few weeks before, had been tossed about the streets unable to work, and was dying from starvation. His case may be only one out of thousands.*
[* The following is another "incurable" case, from the same neighbourhood, bearing date January 20, 1861:-
"Inspector Armstrong, of the H division of police, mentioned to Mr. Leigh, the sitting magistrate at the Worship Street police court, the following pitiable case of distress, to which his attention had been called, and which he had himself visited. The inspector said that on entering the top room of a house situate in Thomas Street, Brick Lane, Spitalfields. He found a man and woman lying in what might with due allowance be termed a bed; covering or blanket there was none. The rooms were nearly bare. The inmates were evidently very ill, and they looked much older than they really were. They were man and wife; Copeland by name. The man was formerly a cabinet-maker. His mother was present, and doing all she could to comfort them. From her the inspector learned that they were both in a consumption, the husband having been turned out of the London Hospital a fortnight since as incurable, after a seven weeks' attendance there. The inspector added that the wretched couple were incessantly obliged to be raised to a sitting position, in consequence of inability to breathe otherwise. The mother of Copeland was called for by Mr. Leigh, and vouched for the truth of her miserable relative's condition. A fortnight since a son of Inspector Constable, H division, in pity for the sufferings he witnessed, gave them l0s. Mr. Leigh, for present aid, ordered that two blankets and 10s. should be instantly sent them."]
[-85-] There is a maternity society in the St. Philip's district, to lend necessaries for child-birth, and an excellent industrial school (built and presented to the district by Mr. Edward Thornton, at a cost of 3,000l.), where girls and women are taught needlework. The penny bank, in 1860, showed receipts to the amount of 9001., and this is the poorest of the Bethnal Green parishes.
The other side of Shoreditch - the Finsbury side - is quite as full of black courts and alleys as Bethnal Green. Walk along the main thoroughfare from the parish church towards the city, peep on one side of the hay-bundle standing at the corn-chandler's door; look through the group of rough, idle loungers, leaning against the corner of the gin-shop, or dive under the fluttering garments that hang across outside the cheap clothier's window, and you will see a dark, damp opening in the wall, like the channel of a sewer passing under and between the houses, and leading to one of the wretched courts and alleys. You enter the passage, picking your way to the bottom, and find a little square of low, black [-86-] houses, that look as they were built as a penal settlement for dwarfs. The roofs are depressed, the doors are narrow, the windows are pinched up, and the whole square can almost be touched on each side by a full-grown man. At the further end you will observe a tap, enclosed in a wooden frame, that supplies the water for the whole court, with a dust-bin and privy, which are openly used by all. In the middle of the little sooty square, standing in the puddles always formed by the sinking stones, you will see three or four harrows belonging to street vendors, and you will gather from this that some of the stall-keepers you have noticed in the thoroughfare outside retire to these dark hiding-places when their labour is done. Glancing over the tattered green curtain at one of the black windows, you will see a room like a gloomy well, and in its depths perhaps a knotted old woman crouching over a small glow-worm of coal, gleaming in a grate full of dust; or the frowning face of some idle male inhabitant of the court, whose expression somehow reminds you of the felon's dock. If you [-87-] pass to the right or left, you may find other oven-like entrances leading to other similar courts; or you may go out into the main thoroughfare, and, seeing a similar passage a few yards farther on, you may explore it, to find yourself in another twin huddling-place of the poor. The plan and design of this second court wiil be in all respects the same as those of the first, showing that the same master-mind has created them both. Who the owners of this class of property are may remain a mystery; they draw their rents in short, sharp payments, and they have no reason to complain of the unprofitable character of their investments. These settlements, of which there may be fifty scattered at the backs of the houses on each side of Shoreditch, within the space of half a mile, were all built thirty, forty, sixty, and even eighty years ago, when building regulations were not so strict as they are now; and they were nearly all framed to meet that desire of the English people to have a "house to themselves." The value of house property in these holes and corners of Shoreditch must be rising rather than [-88-] falling. An ordinary room, in one of these courts, will fetch two shillings a week, and an ordinary house, which contains little more than one room covered with a loft, will fetch four shillings a week. In some cases these courts are choked up with every variety of filth; their approaches wind round by the worst kind of slaughter-houses; they lie in the midst of rank stables and offensive trades; they are crowded with pigs, with fowls, and with dogs; they are strewn with oyster-shells and fish refuse; they look upon foul yards and soaking heaps of stale vegetable refuse; their drainage lies in pools wherever it may be thrown; the rooms of their wretched dwellings have not been repaired or whitewashed for years; they are often smothered with smoke, which beats down upon them from some neighbouring factory, whose chimney is beyond the control of the Act of Parliament; rag-warehouses have their close store-rooms looking them full in the face; and cats'-meat preparers boil their cauldrons amongst them without fear. In most cases the inhabitants, as we might fully [-89-] expect, are not superior to their surroundings, and in places like Bowl Court, Plough Yard, which contains a half-Irish colony, they form the greatest nuisance of all. An Irish landlord or landlady will rent a room at about two shillings a week, and then take in as many families, or individuals, at a small nightly rental, as the floor can possibly hold. This is openly done in defiance of the Lodging-house Act, or any other social reform law.
Red Lion Court, near the Shoreditch corner of the Kingsland Road, is another bad specimen of these alleys, being overcrowded with men and their families engaged in the watercress trade. Pierce's Court, New Inn Yard, Shoreditch, is another of the worst; and the whole line of Holywell Lane, on either side, is full of these holes and corners.
Each one has got its story to tell, like more ambitious thoroughfares, and here is a narrative of a Shoreditch Court, told in the words of the Reporters:- "A middle-aged, poor-looking woman, who stated her name to be Sarah Wilkinson, [-90-] and who was accompanied by a pale-faced little girl, dressed in black, said to be eleven years old, but who seemed about seven or eight, applied at the beginning of December, 1860, to Mr. Leigh, the sitting magistrate at the Worship Street police court, for advice, with the following strange statement:- Mrs. Wilkinson said that the object of her application to the magistrate was to learn what she was to do with the little girl she had with her, who had neither home nor food, and was utterly friendless. The child's name was Eliza Clarke, and she was the daughter of an engineer of the same name, who formerly worked for Mr. Ramsay, in the same business, near Shoreditch Church, but who abandoned the girl's mother about seven years ago, to go to Australia, and had never since been heard of. About two years ago the mother was taken into custody, and brought to this court, charged with selling spirits without a licence, as she believed, and on her being committed for that offence her child was taken into Shoreditch Workhouse, and remained there as long as the mother's term of [-91-] imprisonment lasted, for as soon as the mother was liberated she instantly went to the work house, and claimed and took away her daughter. The mother and child had since lived in a court called Mark's Place, Leonard Street, Shoreditch, in one of the houses of which she had a small ready-furnished room, which she held up to the morning of the previous Monday week, when she went out, as usual, leaving the little girl at home, and had never again been seen from that time to this. Inquiries had been made about her, but she could not be traced anywhere, and she (the applicant) and all the neighbours felt quite sure that something must have occurred to the woman, as she was such a good and affectionate mother she would be certain to come back to her child if she could. They were all poor people down that court, and, as the mother did not come back, and it was unsafe to leave so young a girl in charge of the room, which was wanted for some one else, the landlady had accordingly resumed possession of her room and goods, and then the child had no place [-92-] to go to. All the neighbours liked the mother, and pitied the child, and they had all given her something to eat and drink by turns; but they had too many incumbrances of their own for any one to take her in and lodge her; and the little girl had consequently been sleeping about anywhere she could, and on Monday slept all night upon the stairs of one of the houses. She (Mrs. Wilkinson) was a widow, and had been so three years, and had three little children to keep. She had only one room herself, and could not possibly take the child in. Besides, she was only a charwoman, and that occupation was so uncertain that she could hardly keep herself and family. She did not live in Mark's Place, but a short distance off; and on going there that morning to see about some work, she met the little girl, sopped through with rain, and in such a pitiable state that, knowing how fond her mother was of her, she could not bear it, and determined to go at once with her to Shoreditch workhouse, and induce them to admit the girl till something was heard of the mother. [-93-] She accordingly took the child there, and some person seated at a desk told her she must see Mr. Cole. Who Mr. Cole was she did not know, nor whether she did see Mr. Cole, but a thin gentleman inquired her business, and she explained to him the forlorn state of the little girl, and told him everything that she had now told the magistrate. Instead of admitting the child, however, the gentleman did not even take down her name or address, but told the witness she had no business to interfere, and as she had interfered so much, she had better look after her herself, which, as she had already explained, she could not do. On receiving this refusal, she told the gentleman that she must take the little girl before a magistrate, and he replied that she might do so if she liked. She then walked out of the house, leaving the child behind her, thinking that they might perhaps keep her, as she was there, but in a minute or so afterwards the girl was turned out into the street, although a shower of rain was coming down at the time. She had now, therefore, brought the child to [-94-] the magistrate, to know what was to be done with her, as it was enough to make any heart ache to see a child in such a state as this was. Mr. Leigh said it was certainly a strange story the woman had told. The child seemed to him to have been wholly deserted, and if the applicant had really told the workhouse authorities all that she had told him, and she said she had, it did seem surprising that they should see a child like this, with no food, no mother, and no place to go to, and yet refuse to take her in. He thought some explanation would be given of it, and the warrant officer of that district must take the woman and child to the house, state the particulars, and inquire why they did not admit her. - Mr. Edwards, of the Shoreditch Board of Guardians, and Mr. Cole, relieving officer, waited upon Mr. Leigh to explain that part of the above case with which they are connected. Mr. Cole stated that the woman did attend with the child, and made the application referred to. She said she was a widow with three children of her own, and that she could not keep the child, and [-95-] although he told her that she would be compensated by the parish for her trouble, and any expense she might incur by tending it while the inquiry was made, she refused to have anything more to do with it, and took the child away with her without further parley, and expressed her determination to take her before a magistrate. The officer said that if she was resolved upon doing that he could not help it, and the woman went out with the child, and did not leave it behind her at the house, as she stated, nor was it, as she also said, thrust out into the street. Mr. Edwards said that every anxiety was felt by the guardians to attend to all cases of this kind, as far as possible, and he could confidently appeal to the warrant officer whether immediate attention was not paid to any recommendation or order of the magistrates, whether verbal or written. The child had been admitted the same night without hesitation, and when he stated that they had an ancillary establishment at Brentwood , now full of children, many of whom had been cruelly deserted by their parents, [-96-] with the object of getting them there, it was obvious that some previous inquiry was imperative, and Mr. Cole had been appointed as an extra overseer for that especial purpose. Some further observations of a similar tenor followed, and ultimately Mr. Leigh expressed himself satisfied with the explanation now given, and thanked the gentlemen for their waiting upon him to afford it."
Some of the alleys, which are sometimes called "rents," sometimes "rows," sometimes "gardens," "places," "buildings," "lanes," "yards," "squares," and sometimes "walks," - situated near Mark's Place, on the other side of the Curtain Road, down Holywell Mount - still maintain a little of a certain rural aspect which they must have had in full bloom when they were first built and occupied. Their houses are not larger, but they have each a piece of ground in front, which, though it grows nothing, to all appearance, but broken, uneven railings, serves to ventilate the place, and keep the opposite dwellings at a proper distance. In other alleys, even in the thickest [-97-] part of Shoreditch, there is, here and there, a desire shown to be clean; and I may mention one little, ill-constructed court in Holywell Lane, which is quite a flower in the wilderness. Its entrance is low and gloomy, but the rugged stones on its footway are carefully swept, and the uneven steps leading down to its little row of houses are white with hearthstone. The first dwelling - a small room with a staircase like a ladder, leading up into the top loft (the plan upon which nearly all the small houses in these courts appear to be built) - has nothing about it to account for its luxurious look, and yet it seems to be a palace compared with its neighbours. Its owner is an humble working man, with one child, and an cleanly, decent wife, and all the magic that struck me, or that would strike any one who took the trouble to pay it a visit, was produced by nothing more wonderful than a little soap and water.