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


Respecting the Parentage of some of our Gutter Population.

Who are the Mothers?—The Infant Labour Mark et.—Watch London and Blackfriars Bridges. — The Melancholy Types. — The Flashy, Flaunting "Infant. "—Keeping Company—Marriage—The Upshot.

Instructive and interesting though it may be to inquire into the haunts and habits of these wretched waifs and "rank outsiders" of humanity, of how much importance and of useful purpose is it to dig yet a little deeper and discover who are the parents—the mothers especially—of these babes of the gutter.
   Clearly they had no business there at all. A human creature, and more than all, a helpless human creature, endowed with the noblest shape of God's creation, and with a soul to save or lose, is as much out of place grovelling in filth and contamination as would be a wild cat crouching on the hearth-rug of a nursery. How come they there, then? Although not bred absolutely in the kennel, many merge into life so very near the edge of it, that it is no wonder if even their infantine kickings and sprawlings are enough to topple them over. Some there are, not vast in number, perhaps, but of a character to influence the whole, who are drop­ped into the gutter from such a height that they may never crawl out of it—they are so sorely crippled. Others, again, find their way to the gutter by means of a process identical with that which serves the conveyance to sinks and hidden sewers of the city's ordinary refuse and off-scourings. Of this last-mentioned sort, however, it will be necessary to treat at length presently.
     I think that it may be taken as granted that gross and deliberate immorality is not mainly responsible for our gutter population. Neither can the poverty of the nation be justly called on to answer for it. On the contrary, unless I am greatly mistaken, the main tributary to the foul stream has its fountain-head in the keen-witted, ready-penny commercial enterprise of the small-capital, business minded portion of our vast community.
    In no respect are we so unlike our forefathers as in our struggles after "mastership" in business, however petty. This may be a sign of commercial progress amongst us, but it is doubtful if it tends very much to the healthful constitution of our humanity. "Work hard and win a fortune," has become a dry and mouldy maxim, distasteful to modern traders, and has yielded to one that is much smarter, viz., "There is more got by scheming than by hard work."
    By scheming the labour of others, that is; little children—any­one. It is in the infant labour market especially that this new and dashing spirit of commercial enterprise exercises itself chiefly. There are many kinds of labour that require no application of muscular strength; all that is requisite is dexterity and lightness of touch, and these with most children are natural gifts. They are better fitted for the work they are set to than adults would be, while the latter would require as wages shillings where the little ones are content with pence. This, perhaps, would be tolerable if their earnings increased with their years; but such an arrangement does not come within the scheme of the sweaters and slop-factors, Jew and Christian, who grind the bones of little children to make them not only bread, but luxurious living and country houses, and carriages to ride in. When their "hands" cease to be children, these enterprising tradesmen no longer require their services, and they are discharged to make room for a new batch of small toilers, eager to engage themselves on terms that the others have learned to despise, while those last-mentioned unfortunates are cast adrift to win their bread—somehow.
    Anyone curious to know the sort of working young female alluded to may be gratified a hundred times over any day of the week, if he will take the trouble to post himself, between the hours of twelve and two, at the foot of London or Blackfriars bridge. There he will see the young girl of the slop-shop and the city "warehouse" hurrying homeward on the chance of finding a meagre makeshift—"something hot"—that may serve as a dinner.
    It is a sight well worth the seeking of any philanthropic person interested in the present condition and possible future of the infant labour market. How much or how little of truth there may be in the lament one occasionally hears, that our endurance is fail­ing us, and that we seldom reach the ripe old age attained by our ancestors, we will not here discuss; at least there can be no doubt of this—that we grow old much earlier than did our great grand­fathers; and though our "three-score years and ten" may be shortened by fifteen or twenty years, the downhill portion of our existence is at least as protracted as that of the hale men of old who could leap a gate at sixty. This must be so, otherwise the ancient law, defining an infant as "a person under the age of four­teen," could never have received the sanction of legislators. Make note of these "infants" of the law as they come in knots of two and three, and sometimes in an unbroken "gang," just as they left the factory, putting their best feet foremost in a match against time; for all that is allowed them is one hour, and within that limited period they have to walk perhaps a couple of miles to and fro, resting only during that brief space in which it is their happy privilege to exercise their organs of mastication.
    Good times indeed were those olden ones, if for no other reason than that they knew not such infants as these! Of the same stuff in the main, one and all, but by no means of the same pattern. Haggard, weary-eyed infants, who never could have been babies; little slips of things, whose heads are scarcely above the belt of the burly policeman lounging out his hours of duty on the bridge, but who have a brow on which, in lines indelible, are scored a dreary account of the world's hard dealings with them. Painfully puckered mouths have these, and an air of such sad, sage experience, that one might fancy, not that these were young people who would one day grow to be old women but rather that, by some inversion of the natural order of things, they had once been old and were growing young again—that they had seen seventy, at least, but had doubled on the brow of the hill of age, instead of crossing it, and retraced their steps, until they arrived back again at thirteen; the old, old heads planted on the young shoulders revealing the secret.
    This, the most melancholy type of the grown-up neglected infant, is, however, by no means the most painful of those that come trooping past in such a mighty hurry. Some are dogged and sullen-looking, and appear as though steeped to numbness in the comfortless doctrine, "What can't be cured must be endured;" as if they had acquired a certain sort of surly relish for the sours of existence, and partook of them as a matter of course, without even a wry face. These are not of the sort that excite our compas­sion the most; neither are the ailing and sickly-looking little girls, whose tender constitutions have broken down under pressure of the poison inhaled in the crowded workroom, and long hours, and countless trudgings, early and late, in the rain and mire, with no better covering for their shoulders than a flimsy mantle a shower would wet through and through, and a wretched pair of old boots that squelch on the pavement as they walk. Pitiful as are these forlorn ones to behold, there is, at least, a grim satisfaction in knowing that with them it cannot last. The creature who causes us most alarm is a girl of a very different type.
    This is the flashy, flaunting "infant," barely fourteen, and with scarce four feet of stature, but self-possessed and bold-eyed enough to be a "daughter of the regiment"— of a militia regiment even. She consorts with birds of her own feather. Very little experience enables one to tell at a glance almost how these girls are employed, and it is quite evident that the terrible infant in question and her companions are engaged in the manufacture of artificial flowers. Their teeth are discoloured, and there is a chafed and chilblainish appearance about their nostrils, as though suffer­ing under a malady that were best consoled with a pocket-hand­kerchief. The symptoms in question, however, are caused by the poison used in their work—arsenite of copper, probably, that deadly mineral being of a "lovely green," and much in favour amongst artificial florists and their customers. Here they come, unabashed by the throng, as though the highway were their home, and all mankind their brothers; she, the heroine with a bold story to tell, and plenty of laughter and free gesticulation as sauce with it. She is of the sort, and, God help them! they may be counted by hundreds in London alone, in whom keen wit would appear to be developed simultaneously with ability to walk and talk. Properly trained, these are the girls that grow to be clever, capable women— women of spirit and courage and shrewd discernment. The worst of it is that the seed implanted will germinate. Hunger cannot starve it to death, or penurious frosts destroy it. Untrained, it grows apace, overturning and strangling all opposition and assert­ing its paramount importance.
    This is the girl who is the bane and curse of the workroom crowded with juvenile stitchers or pasters, or workers in flowers or beads. Her constant assumption of lightheartedness draws them towards her, her lively stories are a relief from the monotonous drudgery they are engaged on. Old and bold in petty wickedness, and with audacious pretensions to acquaintance with vice of a graver sort, she entertains them with stories of "sprees" and "larks" she and her friends have indulged in. She has been to "plays" and to "dancing rooms," and to the best of her ability and means she demonstrates the latest fashion in her own attire, and wears her draggletail finders of lace and ribbon in such an easy and old-fashionable manner, poor little wretch, as to impress one with the conviction that she must have been used to this sort of thing since the time of her shortcoating; which must have been many, many years ago. She has money to spend; not much, but sufficient for the purchase of luxuries, the consumption of which inflict cruel pangs on the hungry-eyed beholders. She is a person whose intimacy is worth cultivating, and they do cultivate it, with what result need not be here described.
      At fifteen the London factory-bred girl in her vulgar way has the worldly knowledge of the ordinary female of eighteen or twenty. She has her "young man," and accompanies him of evenings to "sing-songs" and raffles, and on high days and holidays to Hampton by the shilling van, or to Greenwich by the sixpenny boat. At sixteen she wearies of the frivolities of sweethearting, and the young man being agreeable the pair embark in housekeeping, and "settle down."
      Perhaps they marry, and be it distinctly understood, whatever has been said to the contrary, the estate of matrimony amongst her class is not lightly esteemed. On the contrary, it is a contract in which so much pride is taken that the certificate attesting its due performance is not uncommonly displayed on the wall of the living-room as a choice print or picture might be; with this singular and unaccountable distinction that when a clock is reckoned with the other household furniture, the marriage certificate is almost in­variably hung under it. It was Mr. Catlin of the Cow Cross Mission who first drew my attention to this strange observance, and in our many explorations into the horrible courts and alleys in the vicinity of his mission-house he frequently pointed out instances of this strange custom; but even he, who is as learned in the habits and customs of all manner of outcasts of civilisation as any man living, was unable to explain its origin. When questioned on the subject the common answer was, "They say that it's lucky."
      It is the expense attending the process that makes matrimony the exception and not the rule amongst these people. At least this is their invariable excuse. And here, as bearing directly on the question of "neglected infants," I may make mention of a practice that certain well-intentioned people are adopting with a view to diminishing the prevalent sin of the unmarried sexes herding in their haunts of poverty, and living together as man and wife.
      The said practice appears sound enough on the surface. It con­sists simply in marrying these erring couples gratis. The missionary or scripture reader of the district who, as a rule, is curiously inti­mate with the family affairs of his flock, calls privately on those Young people whose clock, if they have one, ticks to a barren wall, and makes the tempting offer—banns put up, service performed, beadle and pew opener satisfied, and all free! As will not uncom­monly happen, if driven into a corner for an excuse, the want of a jacket or a gown "to make a ‘spectable ‘pearance in" is pleaded; the negociator makes a note of it, and in all probability the dif­ficulty is provided against, and in due course the marriage is con­summated.
    This is all very well as far as it goes, but to my way of thinking the scheme is open to many grave objections. In the first place the instinct that incites people to herd like cattle in a lair is scarcely the same as induces them to blend their fortunes and live "for better, for worse" till the end of their life. It requires no great depth of affection on the man's part to lead him to take up with a woman who, in consideration of board and lodging and mascu­line protection will create some semblance of a home for him. In his selection of such a woman he is not governed by those grave considerations that undoubtedly present themselves to his mind when he meditates wedding himself irrevocably to a mate. Her history, previous to his taking up with her, may be known to him, and though perhaps not all that he could wish, she is as good to him as she promised to be, and they get along pretty well and don't quarrel very much.
    Now, although not one word can be urged in favour of this iniquitous and shocking arrangement, is it quite certain that a great good is achieved by inducing such a couple to tie themselves together in the sacred bonds of matrimony? It is not a marriage of choice as all marriages should be. If the pair had been bent on church marriage and earnestly desired it, it is absurd to suppose that the few necessary shillings, the price of its performance, would have deterred them. If they held the sacred ceremony of so small account as to regard it as well dispensed with as adopted, it is no very great triumph of the cause of religion and morality that the balance is decided by a gown or a jacket, in addition to the good will of the missionary (who, by-the-bye, is generally the dis­tributor of the alms of the charitable) being thrown into the scale.
    To be sure the man is not compelled to yield to the persuasions of those who would make of him a creditable member of society; he is not compelled to it, but he can hardly be regarded as a free agent. If the pair have children already, the women will be only too anxious to second the solicitation of her friend, and so secure to herself legal protection in addition to that that is already secured to her through her mate's acquired regard for her. Then it is so difficult to combat the simple question, "Why not?" when all is so generously arranged—even to the providing a real gold ring to be worn in place of the common brass make-believe—and nothing remains but to step round to the parish church, where the minister is waiting, and where in a quarter of an hour, the great, and good, and lasting work may be accomplished. The well-meaning missionary asks, "Why not?" The woman, urged by moral or mercenary motives, echoes the momentous query, and both stand with arms presented in a manner of speaking, to hear the wavering one s objection. The wavering one is not generally of the far-seeing sort. In his heart he does not care as much as a shilling which way it is. He does not in the least trouble himself from the religious and moral point of view. When his adviser says, "Just consider how much easier your conscience will be if you do this act of justice to the woman whom you have selected as your helpmate," he wags his head as though admitting it, but having no conscience about the matter he is not very deeply impressed. Nine times out of ten the summing-up of his deliberation is, "I don't care; it won't cost me nothing; let ‘em have their way.
    But what, probably, is the upshot of the good missionary's endeavours and triumph? In a very little time the gilt with which the honest adviser glossed the chain that was to bind the man irrevocably to marriage and morality wears off. The sweat of his brow will not keep it bright; it rusts it. He feels, in his own vulgar though expressive language, that he has been "bustled" into a bad bargain. "It is like this ‘ere," a matrimonial victim of the class once confided to me; "I don't say as she isn't as good as ever, but I'm blowed if she's all that better as I was kidded to believe she would be."
    "But if she is as good as ever, she is good enough."
    "Yes, but you haven't quite got the bearing of what I mean, sir, and I haint got it in me to put it in the words like you would. Good enough before isn't good enough now, cos it haint hoptional, don't you see? No, you don't. Well, look here. S'pose I borrer a barrer. Well, it's good enough and a conwenient size for laying out my stock on it. It goes pooty easy, and I pays eighteen pence a week for it and I'm satisfied. Well, I goes on all right and without grumbling, till some chap he ses to me, ‘What call have you got to borrer a barrer when you can have one of your own; you alwis want a barrer, don't you know, why not make this one your own?' ‘Cos I can't spare the money,' I ses. ‘Oh,' he ses, ‘I'll find the money and the barrer's yourn, if so be as you'll promise and vow to take up with no other barrer, but stick to this one so long as you both shall live.' Well, as aforesaid, it's a tidy, useful barrer, and I agrees. But soon as it's mine, don't you know, I ain't quite so careless about it. I overhauls it, in a manner of speaking, and I'm more keerful in trying the balance of it in hand when the load's on it. Well, maybe I find out what I never before troubled myself to look for. There's a screw out here and a bolt wanted there. Here it's weak, and there it's ugly. I dwells on it in my mind constant. I've never got that there barrer out of my head, and p'raps I make too much of the weak pints of it. I gets to mistrust it. ‘It's all middling right, just now, old woman—old barrer, I mean,' I ses to myself, ‘but you'll be a playing me a trick one day, I'm afraid.' Well, I go on being afraid, which I shouldn't be if I was only a borrower."
    "But you should not forget that the barrow, to adopt your own ungallant figure of speech, is not accountable for these dreads and suspicions of yours; it will last you as long and as well as though you had continued a borrower; you will admit that, at least!"
    "I don't know. Last, yes! That's the beggaring part of it. Ah, well! p'raps it's all right, but I'm blest if I can stand being haunted like I am now."
    Nothing that I could say would add force to the argument of my costermonger friend, as set forth in his parable of the "barrer." Applying it to the question under discussion, I do not mean to attribute to the deceptiveness of the barrow or to its premature breaking down, the spilling into the gutter of all the unhappy chil­dren there discovered. My main reason for admitting the evidence in question was to endeavour to show that as a pet means of improving the morality of our courts and alleys, and consequently of diminishing the gutter population, the modern idea of arresting fornication and concubinage, by dragging the pair there and then to church, and making them man and wife, is open to serious objections. The state of matrimony is not good for such folk. It was never intended for them. It may be as necessary to healthful life as eating is, but no one would think of taking a man starved, and in the last extremity for lack of wholesome aliment, and setting before him a great dish of solid food. It may be good for him by-and-by, but he must be brought along by degrees, and fitted for it. Undoubtedly a great source of our abandoned gutter children may be found in the shocking herding together of the sexes in the vile "slums" and back places of London, and it is to be sincerely hoped that some wise man will presently devise a speedy preventive.
    In a recent report made to the Commissioners of Sewers for London, Dr. Letheby says: "I have been at much pains during the last three months to ascertain the precise conditions of the dwell­ings, the habits, and the diseases of the poor. In this way 2,208 rooms have been most circumstantially inspected, and the general result is that nearly all of them are filthy or overcrowded or im­perfectly drained, or badly ventilated, or out of repair. In 1,989 of these rooms, all in fact that are at present inhabited, there are 5,791 inmates, belonging to 1,576 families; and to say nothing of the too frequent occurrence of what may be regarded as a neces­sitous overcrowding, where the husband, the wife, and young family of four or five children are cramped into a miserably small and ill-conditioned room, there are numerous instances where adults of both sexes, belonging to different families, are lodged in the same room, regardless of all the common decencies of life, and where from three to five adults, men and women, besides a train or two of children, are accustomed to herd together like brute beasts or savages; and where every human instinct of propriety and decency is smothered. Like my predecessor, I have seen grown persons of both sexes sleeping in common with their parents, brothers and sisters, and cousins, and even the casual acquaintance of a day's tramp, occupying the same bed of filthy rags or straw; a woman suffering in travail, in the midst of males and females of different families that tenant the same room, where birth and death go hand in hand; where the child but newly born, the patient cast down with fever, and the corpse waiting for interment, have no separation from each other, or from the rest of the inmates. Of the many cases to which I have alluded, there are some which have commanded my attention by reason of their unusual depravity— cases in which from three to four adults of both sexes, with many children, were lodging in the same room, and often sleeping in the same bed. I have note of three or four localities, where forty-eight men, seventy-three women, and fifty-nine children are living in thirty-four rooms. In one room there are two men, three women, and five children, and in another one man, four women, and two children; and when, about a fortnight since, I visited the back room on the ground floor of No. 5, I found it occupied by one man, two women, and two children; and in it was the dead body of a poor girl who had died in childbirth a few days before. The body was stretched out on the bare floor, without shroud or coffin. There it lay in the midst of the living, and we may well ask how it can be otherwise than that the human heart should be dead to all the gentler feelings of our nature, when such sights as these are of common occurrence.
    "So close and unwholesome is the atmosphere of some of these rooms, that I have endeavoured to ascertain, by chemical means, whether it does not contain some peculiar product of decomposi­tion that gives to it its foul odour and its rare powers of engender­ing disease. I find it is not only deficient in the due proportion of oxygen, but it contains three times the usual amount of carbonic acid, besides a quantity of aqueous vapour charged with alkaline matter that stinks abominably. This is doubtless the product of putrefaction, and of the various foetid and stagnant exhalations that pollute the air of the place. In many of my former reports, and in those of my predecessor, your attention has been drawn to this pestilential source of disease, and to the consequence of heap­ing human beings into such contracted localities; and I again revert to it because of its great importance, not merely that it perpetu­ates fever and the allied disorders, but because there stalks side by side with this pestilence a yet deadlier presence, blighting the moral existence of a rising population, rendering their hearts hope­less, their acts ruffianly and incestuous, and scattering, while society averts her eye,, the retributive seeds of increase for crime, turbulence and pauperism.