Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Seven Curses of London, by James Greenwood, 1869



Startling Facts.

The Pauper Population. —Pauper Children.— Opinions concerning their proper Treatment—A Hundred Thousand Children loose in London Streets.--­Neglected Babies. —Juvenile “Market Prowlers.”

It is a startling fact that, in England and Wales alone, at the present time, the number of children under the age of sixteen, dependent more or less on the parochial authorities for maintenance, amounts to three hundred and fifty thousand.
    It is scarcely less startling to learn that annually more than a hundred thousand criminals emerge at the doors of the various prisons, that, for short time or long time, have been their homes, and with no more substantial advice than “to take care that they don’t make their appearance there again,” are turned adrift once more to face the world, unkind as when they last stole from it. This does not include our immense army of juvenile vagrants. How the information has been arrived at is more than I can tell; but it is an accepted fact that, daily, winter and summer, within the limits of our vast and wealthy city of London, there wander, destitute of proper guardianship, food, clothing, or employment, a hundred thousand boys and girls in fair training for the treadmill and the oakum shed, and finally for Portland and the convict’s mark.
    It is these last-mentioned hundred thousand, rather than the three hundred and fifty thousand previously mentioned, that are properly classed under the heading of this first chapter. Practi­cally, the three hundred and fifty thousand little paupers that cumber the poor-rates are without the category of neglected ones. In all probability, at least one-half of that vast number never were Victims of neglect, in the true sense of the term. Mr. Bumble derives his foster children from sources innumerable. There are those that are born in the “house,” and who, on some pretext, are abandoned by their unnatural mother. There are the “strays,” discovered by the police on their beats, and consigned, for the present, to the workhouse, and never owned. There is the off­ spring of the decamping weaver, or shoemaker, who goes on tramp “to better himself;” but, never succeeding, does not regard it as worth while to tramp home again to report his ill-luck. These, and such as these, may truly ascribe their pauperism to neglect on somebody’s part; but by far the greater number are what they are through sheer misfortune. When death snatches father away from the table scarcely big enough to accommodate the little flock that cluster about it—snatches him away in the lusty prime of life, and without warning, or, worse still, flings him on a bed of sickness, the remedies for which devour the few pounds thriftily laid aside for such an emergency, and, after all, are of no avail, what other asylum but the workhouse offers itself to mother and children? How many cases of this kind the parish books could reveal, one can only guess; quite enough, we may be sure, to render un­palatable that excessive amount of caution observed by those in power against “holding out a premium to pauperism. It is some­what amazing to hear great authorities talk sometimes. Just lately, Mr. Bartley, reading at the Society of Arts a paper entitled, “The training and education of pauper children,” took occasion to remark: —“These children cannot be looked upon exactly in the same way as paupers proper, inasmuch as their unfortunate position is entirely due to circumstances over which they could have no con­trol. They are either the offspring of felons, cripples, and idiots, or orphans, bastards, and deserted children, and claim the protection of the law, frequently from their tenderest years, from having been deprived of the care of their natural guardians without fault or crime of their own. Such being their condition, they must either steal or starve in the streets, or the State must take charge of them. It may further be affirmed that, in a strictly commercial point of view, it is more economical to devote a certain amount in education and systematic training than by allowing them to grow up in the example of their parents and workhouse companions, to render their permanent support, either in a prison or a workhouse, a burden on the industrious classes. The State, in fact, acknow­ledges this, and accordingly a provision is theoretically supplied for all pauper children, not only for their bodily wants, but, to a certain extent, for their mental improvement. At the same time, it is also necessary that the extreme should not be run into, viz., that of treating them so liberally as to hold out a premium to pauper­ism. In no case should their comfort be better than, nor in fact as good as, an industrious labourer has within his reach.”
   Mr. Bartley is a gentleman whose knowledge of the subject he treats of exceeds that of most men; moreover, he is a man who, in his acts and nature, shows himself actuated by a kind heart, governed by a sound head; but, with all deference, it is difficult to agree altogether with the foregoing remarks of his: and the are the better worth noticing, because precisely the same sentiment breathes through almost every modern, new, and improved system of parochial reform. Why should these unfortunate creatures, “their unfortunate position being entirely due to circumstances over which they had no control,” be made less comfortable in their condition than the industrious labourer,—who, by the way, may be an agricultural labourer, with his starvation wages of nine shillings a week and his damp and miserable hovel of two rooms to board and lodge his numerous family? What sort of justice is it to keep constantly before their unoffending eyes the humiliating fact that they have no standing even on the bottom round of the social ladder, and that their proper place is to crouch meekly and un­complainingly at the foot of it? Even supposing that they, the pauper children, are “either the offspring of felons, cripples, and idiots, or orphans, bastards, and deserted children,” which is assuming to the verge of improbability, still, since it is acknow­ledged that the state in which we discover them “is due to no fault or crime of their own,” why should we hesitate to make them commonly comfortable? To fail so to do when it is in our power, and when, according to their innocence and helplessness, it is their due, is decidedly at variance with the commonly-understood principles of Christian charity. It will be needless, however, here to pursue the subject of pauper management, since another section of this book has been given to its consideration. Anyhow, our three hundred and fifty thousand pauper children can have no claim to be reckoned among the “neglected.” They are, or should be, a class whose hard necessity has been brought under the notice of the authorities, and by them considered and provided for.
   There are other neglected children besides those already enu­merated, and who are not included in the tenth part of a million who live in the streets, for the simple reason that they are too young to know the use of their legs. They are “coming on,” how­ever. There is no present fear of the noble annual crop of a hundred thousand diminishing. They are so plentifully propagated that a Savage preaching “civilization” might regard it as a mercy that the localities of their infant nurture are such as suit the ravening appe­tites of cholera and typhus. Otherwise they would breed like rabbits in an undisturbed warren, and presently swarm so abun­dantly that the highways would be over-run, making it necessary to pass an Act of Parliament, improving on the latest enacted for dogs, against the roaming at large of unmuzzled children of the gutter. Observe the vast number of “city Arabs,” to be encoun­tered in a walk, from Cheapside to the Angel at Islington, say. You cannot mistake them. There are other children who are constantly encountered in the street, male and female, who, though perhaps neither so ragged and dirty as the genuine juvenile vagrants, are even more sickly and hungry looking; but it is as easy to distin­guish between the two types—between the home-owning and the homeless, as between the sleek pet dog, and the cur of the street, whose ideas of a “kennel” are limited to that represented by the wayside gutter, from which by good-luck edibles may be extrac­ted. Not only does the youthful ragamuffin cry aloud for remedy in every street and public way of the city, he thrusts his ugly presence on us continuously, and appeals to us in bodily shape. In this respect, the curse of neglected children differs widely from any of the others, beggars alone excepted, perhaps. And even as regards beggars, to see them is not always to believe in them as human creatures helpless in the sad condition in which they are discovered, and worthy of the best help we can afford to bestow on them. It is next to impossible by outward signs merely to dis­criminate between the impostor and the really unfortunate and destitute. The pallid cheek and the sunken eye, may be a work of art and not of nature, and in the cunning arrangement of rags, so as to make the most of them, the cheat must always have an advantage over the genuine article. Weighing the evidence pro and con., the object of it creeping even at his snail’s pace may be out of sight before we arrive at what appears to us a righteous verdict, and our scrupulous charity reserved for another occasion. But no such perplexing doubts and hesitation need trouble us in selecting the boy gutter bred and born from the one who lays claim to a home, even though it may be no more than a feeble pretence, con­sisting of a family nightly gathering in some dirty sty that serves as a bedroom, and a morning meeting at a board spread with a sub­stitute for a breakfast. In the latter there is an expression of countenance utterly wanting in the former; an undescribable shy­ness, and an instinctive observance of decency, that has been rain-washed and sun-burnt out of the gipsy of the London highway since the time of his crawling out of the gooseberry sieve, with a wisp of hay in it that served him as a cradle.
    And here I can fancy I hear the incredulous reader exclaim, “But that is mere imagery of course; ragamuffin babies never are cradled in gooseberry sieves, with a wisp of hay to lie on.” Let me assure you, dear madam, it is not imagery, but positive fact. The strangest receptacles do duty as baby cradles at times. In another part of our book, it will be shown that a raisin-box may be so adapted, or even an egg-box; the latter with a bit of straw in it as a cradle for an invalid baby with a broken thigh! But as regards the gooseberry sieve, it is a fact that came under the writer’s immediate observation. Accompanied by a friend, he was on a visit of ex­ploration into the little known regions of Baldwin’s Gardens, in Leather Lane, and entering a cellar there, the family who occupied it were discovered in a state of dreadful commotion. The mother, a tall, bony, ragged shrew, had a baby tucked under one arm, while she was using the other by the aid of a pair of dilapidated nozzleless bellows in inflicting a tremendous beating on a howling young gentleman of about eleven years old. “Tut! tut! what is the matter, Mrs. Donelly? Rest your arm a moment, now, and tell us all about it.” “Matther! shure it’s matther enough to dhrive a poor widdy beyant her sinses!” And then her rage turning to sorrow, she in pathetic terms described how that she left that bad boy Johnny only for a few moments in charge of the “darlint comfortable ashleap in her bashket,” and that he had neglected his duty, and that the baste of a donkey had smelt her out, and “ate her dane out o’ bed.”
    I have had so much experience in this way, that one day I may write a book on the Haunts and Homes of the British Baby. It was not long after the incident of the gooseberry sieve, that I dis­covered in one small room in which a family of six resided, three little children, varying in age from three to eight, perhaps, stark naked. It was noon of a summer’s day, and there they were nude as forest monkeys, and so hideously dirty that every rib-bone in their poor wasted little bodies showed plain, and in colour like mahogany. Soon as I put my head in at the door they scattered, scared as rabbits, to the “bed,” an arrangement of evil-smelling flock and old potato-sacks, and I was informed by the mother that they had not a rag to wear, and had been in their present condi­tion for more than three months.
   Let us return, however, to the hordes of small Arabs found wandering about the streets of the city. To the mind of the initia­ted, instantly recurs the question, “whence do they all come? They are not imported like those other pests of society, “German band boys or organ grinders;” they must have been babies once upon a time; where did they grow up? In very dreary and retired regions, my dear sir, though for that matter if it should happen that you are perambulating fashionable Regent-street or aristo­cratic Belgravia, when you put to yourself the perplexing question, you may be nigher to a visible solution of the mystery than you would care to know. Where does the shoeless ragged, dauntless, and often desperate boy of the gutter breed? Why, not unfrequently as close almost to the mansions of the rich and highly respectable as the sparrows in their chimney stacks. Nothing is more common than to discover a hideous stew of courts and alleys reeking in poverty and wretchedness almost in the shadow of the palatial abodes of the great and wealthy. Such instances might be quoted by the dozen.
   It is seldom that these fledglings of the hawk tribe quit their nests or rather their nesting places until they are capable, although on a most limited scale, of doing business on their own account. Occasionally a specimen may be seen in the vicinity of Covent Garden or Farringdon Market, seated on a carriage extemporized out of an old rusty teatray and drawn along by his elder relatives, by means of a string. It may not be safely assumed, however, that the latter are actuated by no other than affectionate and disinterested motives in thus treating their infant charge to a ride. It is much more probable that being left at home in the alley by their mother, who is engaged elsewhere at washing or “charing,” with strict injunctions not to leave baby for so long as a minute, and being goaded to desperation by the thoughts of the plentiful feed of cast-out plums and oranges to be picked up in “Common Garden” at this “dead ripe” season of the year, they have hit on this ingenious expedient by which the maternal mandate may be obeyed to the letter, and their craving for market refuse be at the same time gratified.
           By-the-bye, it may here be mentioned as a contribution towards solving the riddle, “How do these hundred thousand street prowlers contrive to exist?” that they draw a considerable amount of their sustenance from the markets. And really it would seem that by some miraculous dispensation of Providence, garbage was for their sake robbed of its poisonous properties, and endowed with virtues such as wholesome food possesses. Did the reader ever see the young market hunters at such a “feed” say in the month of August or September? It is a spectacle to be witnessed only by early risers who can get as far as Covent Garden by the time that the wholesale dealing in the open falls slack—which will be about eight o’clock; and it is not to be believed unless it is seen. They will gather about a muck heap and gobble up plums, a sweltering mass of decay, and oranges and apples that have quite lost their original shape and colour, with the avidity of ducks or pigs. I speak according to my knowledge, for I have seen them at it. I have seen one of these gaunt wolfish little children with his tattered cap full of plums of a sort one of which I would not have permitted a child of mine to eat for all the money in the Mint, and this at a season when the sanitary authorities in their desperate alarm at the spread of cholera had turned bill stickers, and were begging and imploring the people to abstain from this, that, and the other, and especially to beware of fruit unless perfectly sound and ripe. Judging from the earnestness with which this last provision was urged, there must have been cholera enough to have slain a dozen strong men in that little ragamuffin’s cap, and yet he munched on till that frowsy receptacle was emptied, finally licking his fingers with a relish. It was not for me to forcibly dispossess the boy of a prize that made him the envy of his plumless companions, but I spoke to the market beadle about it, asking him if it would not be possible, knowing the propensities of these poor little wretches, so to dispose of the poisonous offal that they could not get at it; but he replied that it was nothing to do with him what they ate so long as they kept their hands from picking and stealing; furthermore he politely intimated that “unless I had nothing better to do” there was no call for me to trouble myself about the “little warmint,” whom nothing would hurt. He confided to me his private belief that they were “made inside something after the orsestretch, and that farriers’ nails wouldn’t come amiss to ‘em if they could only get ‘em down.” However, and although the evidence was rather in the sagacious market beadle’s favour, I was unconverted from my original opinion, and here take the liberty of urging on any official of Covent Garden or Farringdon Market who may happen to read these pages the policy of adopting my suggestion as to the safe bestowal of fruit offal during the sickly season. That great danger is incurred by allowing it to be consumed as it now is, there cannot be a question. Perhaps it is too much to assume that the poor little beings whom hunger prompts to feed off garbage do so with impunity. It is not improbable that, in many cases, they slink home to die in their holes as poisoned rats do. That they are never missed from the market is no proof of the contrary. Their identification is next to impossible, for they are like each other as apples in a sieve, or peas in one pod. Moreover, to tell their number is out of the question. It is as incomprehensible as is their nature. They swarm as bees do, and arduous indeed would be the task of the individual who undertook to reckon up the small fry of a single alley of the hundreds that abound in Squalor’s regions. They are of as small account in the public estimation as stray street curs, and, like them, it is only where they evince a propensity for barking and biting that their existence is recognised. Should death tomorrow morning make a clean sweep of the unsightly little scavengers who grovel for a meal amongst the market offal heaps, next day would see the said heaps just as industriously surrounded.