Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894


   Opened by the London Congregational Union—The proprietors summoned for permitting overcrowding—I propose an arrangement—It is ac­cepted—A conference—Resolutions—Speakers’ experiences of casual wards—Various classes of casuals—A “stiff,” or hawker’s license— Why Medland Hall was founded—Encouraging results.
   THERE are many charitable institutions in London about which the general public know little or nothing, and among the number may be reckoned Medland Hall.
   Opened at the beginning of last year by Mr. Sydney Halifax, situated near the Stepney railway station, and owned by the London Congregational Union, Medland Hall is to all intents and purposes a casual ward for men run on an improved method.
   On the first night of its existence the Hall had twenty inmates, and on the day the census was taken the number was six hundred and, eighty-three, including four hundred under fifty years of age. Thousands of persons have benefited by the institution since its establishment.
   The shelter opens its doors at eleven o’clock at night, and the inmates are allowed to remain there until six in the morning. It sometimes happens that a man will leave before that time, in which case there will always be several poor outcasts anxious to take his place. One or two hours’ rest and shelter are very welcome to those who have passed the night wandering about the streets or crouching in a doorway. During the winter nights a number of men are usually to be seen waiting outside the building on the chance of being admitted.
   Last September Medland Hall came before my notice [-57-] officially at the Thames Police Court. The proprietors of the place were summoned by the Limehouse Board of Works, under the Nuisances Removal Act, for permitting overcrowd­ing, and thereby endangering the health of the inmates. The sanitary inspector, at whose instance the proceedings were taken, stated that, when he visited the premises, which con­sisted of four floors, they contained three hundred and eighty-four persons, whereas they were only capable of properly accommodating two hundred. After explaining that he had. found the house similarly overcrowded on other occasions, he said that the inmates had nothing to lie on but the bare boards, and that, in his opinion, such a condition of things was not conducive to health.
   Mr. Gates, the superintendent of the Hall, next gave evidence. He explained that the premises the Union then occupied were of a temporary character, the original building having been destroyed by fire, and a new one being in course of erection. He went on to say that their lease would expire on the twenty-fourth of October, and that they would then be able to move into their new quarters.
   It occurred to me that if I made a peremptory order for the closing of the premises, I should be depriving hundreds of poor fellows of a shelter. I therefore proposed that an arrangement should be come to between the authorities and the London Congregational Union, suggesting that the former might withdraw from the prosecution on the latter undertaking to limit the number of inmates to two hundred. This proposition was accepted and acted upon.
   On Tuesday, the fifth of April in the present year, a conference was held at Medland Hall, respecting the con­dition of casual wards in the metropolis. Mr. Sydney Halifax presided, and was supported by Mr. Gates, Mr. Stapley (of the London County Council), and other gentlemen. There were also present over four hundred men, most of whom had been inmates of casual wards.
   The resolutions proposed and passed were:
   “1. That the casual ward accommodation of the metropolis should be largely increased, so that neither men nor women need be turned upon the streets because the wards are full.
   “2. That casuals be admitted to the wards up till midnight on any night, and that they be at liberty to leave at five o’clock in the morning.
   [-58-] “3. That no task should be required of those casuals who only need shelter and medical attendance, but that when they need food, whether supper or breakfast, or both, the labour performed should be in proportion to the meals con­sumed.
   “4. That the dietary be improved, and the scope of the tasks so arranged as to give to casuals the opportunity of doing that class of work for which they are best adapted, and that the plank bed be prohibited.
   “5. That the property qualification for election to Boards of Guardians be abolished, and the method of electing them be so reformed as to admit of working men taking a direct part in the administration of the casual wards.
   “6. That no limits be placed upon the number of visits by men or women to the casual wards, provided that they are destitute at the time of application.”
   Several casuals were called upon to state their views, and the speeches they made were so amusing and interesting that I propose to give some quotations from them.
   Mr. E. ascended to the platform, and addressed the con­ference as follows:
   “Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen—my comrades—I shall never forget my first experience of casual wards. I am speaking of about fifteen years’ experience. I didn’t know what sort of a thing the inside of a casual ward was; but I had been fifteen nights in the streets, and I had got to that pitch that I thought I would go to the casual ward, and I went to the best I could find —Shoreditch. A tall gent about six feet high came to the door and looked down on me. ‘What do you want?’ says he. ‘I want a night’s lodging, if you please,’ says I. ‘Oh, come in, young gentleman,’ says he. ‘We are here for that purpose; come in. I’ll give you yer supper in a minute.’ In I went, and down I sat, quite comfortable like. Presently I heard a voice through a little wicket window say: ‘Come here. What’s yer name ?‘I told ‘im. ‘What are you?’ says he. ‘I told ‘im. ‘What’s yer age?’ says he. ‘Well,’ thinks I to myself; ‘you’ll know enough presently.’ Howsoever, I told ‘im, and then he looks me up and down, and says: ‘You ain’t partic’lar strong, are you? I shall talk to you in the morning.’ ‘Well,’ says I to myself, ‘that cove’s all right.’ Next morning they gave me my breakfast, and the same cove opens the door, and says, with a grin: ‘D’yer see those stones?’ Should think I did see ‘em—great lumps of [-59-] granite. ‘Well,’ says he, ‘you’ve got to break ‘em before you go out of here.’ Thinks I to myself, ‘if they wait till I break ‘em they’ll have to wait a long time.’ There were two hammers lying there, and I took the biggest and struck at the stones. The hammer flew up to the ceiling and I didn’t know where I was. I did no good with those stones. The cove came back in about an hour, and said: ‘Can’t you do no better than that?’ My hands were all bleeding, and I says: ‘No; I can’t do ‘em.’ Then he brings me four or five pieces of oakum, and I started to pick ‘em. When I had got through about five ounces he comes back, and says:
   ‘Why, you’re no good at anything. I’ve a good mind to run you in.’ ‘What for?’ says I. ‘‘Cause you ain’t done your task,’ says he, and he goes on to say as how there’s an old chap in the next cell what had done his little lot by four o’clock. ‘Don’t you come here again,’ says he to me. I’ve ‘eard say that a Cabinet Minister in the ‘Ouse of Commons said there wasn’t any poverty in London, and that it was greatly exaggerated, and that the casual wards weren’t ‘alt full. Well, now the very same night I went to four casual wards and I couldn’t get in ‘cause they said as how they was all full. Something has been said about Mile End. Well, I’ve been there, and the bloke has come to the door, and said : ‘How many of yer?’ ‘Ten,’ says we. ‘Well,’ says he, ‘I can only take in five. The others must go away.’ And would you believe it, when I got inside I found there was eight cells empty I if any gent calls what’s a-looking after ‘em, they go and fill up all the cells pretty quick. That’s ‘ow they work it, and I think it’s about time some one did look into it. Well, I think I’ll leave this now in better hands. This is my maiden speech.”
   Mr. E. was loudly applauded, and was complimented upon his speech by the chairman.
   A Mr. B. next addressed the meeting. He said:
   “This is the first time I have ever occupied this platform; perhaps it will not be the last. I think it an honour to stand up here. I wish to relate to you in a few simple words my experience. One of my experiences was in 1889, when I entered Whitechapel ward. I was perished with cold. They gave me a small portion of bread and some skilly. I was told to wash my face in water which resembled broth, and I wiped my face on a towel that would disgrace a rag-shop. Then I was told to go to bed, and after wrapping myself in [-60-] a blanket you could see to read a newspaper through, I got to sleep. In the morning I had four pounds of oakum to pick in an ill-lighted and ill-ventilated room. I tried to pick it, but got nervous because I thought I should get run in. At five o’clock they took my oakum away from me and booked the quantity. They then gave me a pint of skilly resembling bill-stickers’ paste, and a small portion of bread. I was put back with others, as I thought, to go to bed, but the fates had ordained that I was not to go to bed, but to prison. After waiting for some time the casual master came in with a list of seven names, and I was among them. We had to stand out in a line, and after we were all assembled, three policemen took us into custody and we were marched round to the police station, taken before the magistrate and sentenced, three of us to fourteen days and the others to eighteen days. I was better treated in prison, and had better food, and was altogether much more comfortable than when I was in the casual ward. I fought shy of casual wards after that, and went on into the country and got a little work. But it soon failed, and then I had to go back to casual wards. The next experience I had was in 1890, when I went into Rotherhithe. I dare say you know what sort of a shop that is. I was received more like Bill Sikes and his dawg than anything else. They gave me ten hundredweight of stones to break. I knew no more of breaking stones than the whale did of the inside of St. Paul. I had a poisoned ankle when I went in, and I was afraid of hitting it. After knocking the stones about till five o’clock in the afternoon, the master looks in and he says: ‘Young gentleman, I don’t wish to hurry you, but if you haven’t done I shall have to charge you.’ I didn’t finish my task, and I was taken to the Greenwich Police Court next day and received fourteen days. Why should we have our hands bleeding because we haven’t got fourpence? Why should we have our hearts bleeding because we are set to tasks which no convicted criminal has to per­form? I ask you who are assembled here to-night, bona fide working men, some of you fellows like me—I ask all of you to do your best. If you never spoke before in your lives, open your mouths and let these gentlemen know what we have to suffer at the hands of the casual masters. I say to these ladies and gentlemen, if they do their best to help us, and to alleviate our sufferings in our daily march through this life, I am sure they will not only have the plaudits of thou-[-61-]sands like me, but the approbation of the Divine Mediator and Friend who is always willing and who is always quick to reward those who give even a cup of cold water in His name.”
   Another casual gave an account of his experiences. His story was similar to that of the others. He was ordered to break ten hundredweight of stones—a task, he declared, that no novice could perform if he were offered a thousand pounds as his reward—and because, by the end of the day, he had only got through about half the quantity, he was taken into court and sentenced to fourteen days’ imprisonment.
   A magistrate sees a good many frequenters of casual wards. For the most part they are brought before him charged with neglecting their allotted tasks. In some cases they are poor, miserable-looking creatures, weak physically and without any moral backbone. Another class are the sturdy, impudent beggars, who, I verily believe, abstain from work on principle. Again, it sometimes happens that the delinquent is an apparently honest man, who, having lost his means of liveli­hood, through no fault of his own, has been forced to resort to the casual ward.
   It is, of course, impossible to generalise with regard to this class of prisoners. Each case must be judged on its own merits. Obviously, if a man is quite capable of performing his work, but wilfully abstains from doing so, he must be sent to prison. On the other hand, if he is unable, either through physical weakness or want of knowledge, to accomplish his task, it would be grossly unjust to punish him; but there is always a doctor in attendance, I believe, and he certifies whether or no the person is able-bodied.
   The question of the capacity of the casuals to do the particular kind of work that is set before them is one that apparently needs to be looked into.
   “They gave me a lot of oakum to pick,” said a casual in describing his experiences, “and as I had never done such a job before, and didn’t know how to do it, of course I hadn’t finished in time. Now, I’m a basket-maker, and what would be the good to put a man to make a lot of baskets when he had never done work of that kind before? And where’s the difference, I should like to know!”
   Among the tramps, who constitute a large proportion of the inmates of casual wards, are many men who have been navvies. They also include a number of soldiers—some of [-62-] whom are pensioners—and a sprinkling of broken-down pro­fessional men. Oddly enough, you seldom or never find an old sailor in the ragged army of tramps.
   The crafty, indolent individual who begs his way from door to door, and from street to street, has several ways of evading the law. His principal expedient is to procure a hawker’s license, which is known among the brotherhood as a “stiff.’ It is the easiest thing imaginable to do this. All a man has to do is to go to the police station, pay five shillings, give his name, and ask for a hawker’s “brief.”
   The license confers upon the holder legal authority to call at any house, provided he has something to sell. Two or three pencils, one or two sticks, half-a-dozen boot-laces —these, or any other equally trifling goods, are sufficient for the purpose. Under cover of this pretence, for it is no better, begging is carried on all over the country. When confronted by a constable, all the delinquent has to do is to produce his license and declare that he is merely pursuing the legal calling of a hawker—an explanation he not infrequently conveys in language that is none of the choicest.
   I cannot forbear to describe a police inspector’s experience of one of these individuals.
   The officer found the fellow, to all intents and purposes, begging, though he carried, ostensibly for sale, a packet of cards on which scriptural texts were inscribed.
   “Do you know,” said the former, “that you want a license to do this sort of thing?”
   “No, I don’t want a license,” was the reply.
   “But you do,” retorted the inspector, “and if I catch you at this game again, I shall have you locked up.”
   “You will, will you? Well, we’ll see about that;” and the mendicant bade him farewell in terms both flippant and. filthy.
   Later in the day the police inspector met the same man, as he was skulking out of the gateway of a gentleman’s­ mansion.
   “Hullo, there!” said the officer, “now, you know I’ve warned you that you want a license for this business.”
   The fellow retorted:
   “I suppose you know best, but I know better. I don’t want a license—because I’ve got one;” and as he spoke he drew his “brief” from his pocket and laughed in the officer’s­ face. “Take me to the station, my friend,” he continued, [-63-] “and see what your superior will say.” —an invitation, it is needless to say, that was not accepted.
   It sometimes happens that men of this stamp will enter the casual ward with money successfully concealed about their persons. A tall fellow of twenty, who, though as strong as a horse, had never done a proper day’s work in his life, was heard to boast that he once went into a casual ward with fourteen shillings in his pocket, did his task without perspiring, and left the establishment next day as rich as he entered it.
   What with pots of four ale, plenty of fresh air, and the constant meeting with old friends, the tramp’s life, though it has its intervals of imprisonment, is a tolerably merry one. The philosophy of the thing appears to be that it is easier to idle, and eat and drink, than to work hard and only do the same.
   It would seem that nothing can be done to put down our vagrant population, which increases year by year, the children inheriting the lazy and roving proclivities of their parents.
   Medland Hall was founded, in the first place, because it was felt that the casual wards are not able to accommodate all who desire to enter them, and, in the second place, because there was a desire to try the experiment of letting out the inmates sufficiently early in the morning to admit of their obtaining work. A man has to stay in the casual ward the greater part of the day, breaking stones, picking oakum, or doing some other work as a set-off against his food and night’s lodging; and as, when he is set at liberty, it is much too late to find a job anywhere, he is unable to get the money to pay for a bed. Unless, therefore, he has the luck to secure the loan of a few pence, he is driven back at night to the casual ward, with the same consequences as before, and in the end, it may very likely be, he is sucked down into the vortex of chronic pauperism. How easy to sink! How difficult to rise again
   As I say, Medland Hall, in which I take a very great interest, was established on lines intended to enable its inmates to regain an independent footing in the world. The experiment, I am delighted to think, has been attended with very encouraging results. Undoubtedly our Local Government Board and Boards of Guardians can learn some very useful lessons from Medland Hall.

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