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

CHAPTER V.

The Problem of Deliverance.

Curious Problem—The Best Method of Treatment —The “Child of the Gutter” not to be Entirely Abolished—The Genuine Alley-Bred Arab.— The Poor Lambs of the Ragged Flock—The Tree of Evil in Our Midst.— The Breeding Places of Disease and Vice.

    The curious problem—”What is the best method of treatment to adopt towards improving the condition of neglected children, and to diminish their number for the future?” has been attempted for solution from so many points of attack, and by means so various, that a bare enumeration of the instances would occupy much more space than these limited pages afford.
    We may never hope entirely to abolish the child of the gutter. To a large extent, as has been shown, he is a natural growth of vices that seem inseparable from our social system: he is of the world, the flesh, and the devil; and, until we purge our grosser nature, and become angelic, we must tolerate him as we must the result of all our ill-breeding. It is a thousand pities that it should be so, because, as I have endeavoured in these pages to show, the neglected child issuing from the source here hinted at, is by far the most unmanageable and dangerous. Blood is thicker than any water, not excluding ditch water; and the chances are that the un­lucky “love-child” will not remain content to grovel in the kennel to which an accident of birth consigned him, but, out of his rebel­lious nature, conceive a deadly hatred against the world that has served him so shabbily, and do his best to be revenged on it. It is not of the neglected child of this breed that I would say a few con­cluding words, but of the genuine alley-bred Arab of the City; the worthy descendant of a tribe that has grown so used to neglect that it regards it as its privilege, and fiercely resents any move that may be taken towards its curtailment.
    If ever a distressed creature had friends surely this one has. From time immemorial it has been the pet of the philanthropist. Unsavoury, unsightly bantling as it is, he is never tired of fondling it, spending his time and money over it, and holding it up to the commiseration of a humane public, and building all manner of homes and asylums for it; but he still remains on hand. If he would grow up, and after being bound ‘prentice to a wholesome trade cease to trouble us, there would be some satisfaction in the business; but it never grows up. It is like the borrowed beggar s brat, that, in defiance of the progress of time, never emerges from its bedgown, and never grows too big to be tucked under one arm, leaving the other at liberty to arrest the charitable passer-by.
    To be sure it is a great consolation to know that despite our non-success, the poor little object of our solicitude is in no danger of being dropped in hopelessness and abandoned, but it would be encouraging to discover that we were making some progress with our main design, which can be nothing less than the complete extinction of children of the “gutter” tribe, such as we are now discussing.
    As it is, we are making scarcely any progress at all. I am aware that statistics are against this statement, that the triumphant reports of this and that charity point to a different conclusion. This home has rescued so many little ones from the streets—that asylum can show a thousand decently clad and educated children that but for its efforts would at this moment be either prowling the streets, picking up a more precarious living than the stray dog picks up, or leading the life of a petty thief, and rapidly earning his right to penal servitude.
    This, and much more, is doubtless true, but there remains the grim fact that our filthy byways still swarm with these dirty, ragged, disease-stricken little ones, and as plentifully as of yore they infest our highways, an eyesore and a shuddering to all decent beholders. If there has occurred any recent diminution in their number, I should rejoice to know it; but that such is in the least degree the fact, certainly I am not justified in assuming in the face of the urgent appeals daily put forth by the wise in such matters, and who never tire of urging on the benevolently dis­posed, that never was there such need as now to be up and stirring.
    And it can never be otherwise while we limit our charitable doing to providing for those poor lambs of the ragged flock as fast as they are bred, and cast loose on the chance of their being merci­fully kidnapped and taken care of. As with indiscriminate giving to beggars, it may be urged that we can never go wrong in ministering to the distress of the infantine and helpless. Opportunities of doing so should perhaps be joyfully hailed by us as affording Wholesome exercise of our belief in the Christian religion, but we may rely on it that the supply of the essential ingredient towards the said exercise will never be unequal to the demand. Our charit­able exertion flows in too narrow a channel. It is pure, and of depth immeasurable, but it is not broad enough. We have got into a habit of treating our neglected children as an evil unavoidable, and one that must be endured with kindly and pious resignation. We have a gigantic tree of evil rooted in our midst, and our great care is to collect the ripe seeds it drops and provide against their germinating, and we expend as much time and money in the pro­cess as judiciously applied would serve to tear up the old tree from its tenacious holding, and for ever destroy its mischievous power. No doubt it may be justly claimed by the patrons and supporters of homes and asylums, that by rescuing these children from the streets they are saved from becoming debased and demoralized as were the parents they sprang from, and so, in course of time, by a steady perseverance in their system, the breed of gutter prowlers must become extinct; but that is a tedious and roundabout method of reform that can only be tolerated until a more direct route is discovered, and one that can scarcely prove satisfactory to those who look forward to a lifetime return for some of their invested capital.
    We may depend on it that we shall never make much real pro­gress in our endeavours to check the growth of these seedlings and offshoots of ragged poverty and reckless squalor until we turn our attention with a settled purpose to the haunts they are bred in. Our present system compels us even in its first preliminary steps to do violence against nature. We cannot deal with our babies of the gutter effectually, and with any reasonable chance of success, until we have separated them entirely from their home. We may tame them and teach them to feed out of our hands, and to repeat after us the alphabet, and even words of two and three syllables. We may even induce them to shed their bedraggled feathers and adopt a more decent plumage; but they can never be other than restless and ungovernable, and unclean birds, while they inhabit the vile old parent nest.
    It is these vile old nests that should be abolished. While they are permitted to exist, while Rosemary Lane, and Peter Street, West­minster, and Back Church Lane in Whitechapel, and Cow Cross and Seven Dials, and a hundred similar places are tolerated and allowed to flourish, it is utterly impossible to diminish the race of children of the gutter. Why should these breeding places of disease and vice and all manner of abomination be permitted to cumber the earth? There is but one opinion that these horrid dens are the sources from which are derived two-thirds of our neglected ragged urchin population. Further, it is generally conceded, that it is not because of the prevalence of extreme poverty there; the filthy little public-houses invariably to be found lurking in the neigh­bourhood of rags and squalor would not be so prosperous if such were the case. It is the pestilential atmosphere of the place that will let nothing good live in it. You may never purify it. It is altogether a rotten carcase; and if you stuff it to the mouth with chloride of lime, and whitewash it an inch thick, you will make nothing else of it. It is a sin and a disgrace that human creatures should be permitted to herd in such places. One and all should be abolished, and wholesome habitations built in their stead. Half measures will not meet the case. That has been sufficiently proved but recently, when, not for morality or decency sake, but to make room for a railway, a few score of these odious hole-and-corner ‘‘slums~~ were razed to the ground.
    The result was to make bad worse. The wretched occupants of the doomed houses clung to them with as much tenacity as though each abode were an ark, and if they were turned out of it, it would be to drown in the surrounding flood. When the demolishers came with their picks and crows—the honest housebreakers,—and moun­ted to the roof, the garret lodgers retreated to the next floor, and so on, debating the ground step by step before the inexorable pickaxe, until they were driven into the cellar and could go no lower. Then they had to run for it; but, poor purblind wretches, they had lived so long in dungeon darkness, that the broad light of day was unbearable. Like rats disturbed from a drain, all they desired was to escape out of sight and hide again; and again, like rats, they knew of neighbouring burrows and scuttled to them with all speed.
    Ousted from Slusher’s Alley, they sought Grimes’s Rents. Grimes’s Rents were already fully occupied by renters, but the present was a calamity that might overtake anyone, and the desired shelter was not refused. It was a mere matter of packing a little closer. The donkey that lodged in the cellar was turned into the wash-house, and there was a commodious apartment for a large family, and nothing was easier than to rig up an old counter­pane on an extended string, so converting one chamber into two. Hard as it is to believe, and in mockery of all our Acts of Parlia­ment for the better ordering of lodging-houses, and our legal enactments regulating the number of cubic feet of air every lodger was entitled to and might insist on, in hundreds of cases this Condition of things exists at the present writing. Within a stone’s cast of the Houses of Parliament, where sit six hundred wise gentlemen empanelled to make what laws they please for improv­ing the condition of the people, every one of the said six hundred being an educated man of liberal mind, and fully recognising the Christian maxim that godliness and cleanliness are identical, may be found human creatures housed in places that would ruin the health of a country-bred pig were he removed thereto. In these same places parents and grown up and little children herd in the same room night and day. Sickness does not break up the party, or even the presence of grim Death himself. Singularly enough, how­ever , more ceremony is observed with new life than with old Death. A missionary friend related to me the case of a family of five inhabiting one small room, and the youngest boy, aged thir­teen, died. The domestic arrangements, however, were not in the least disturbed by the melancholy event; the lad’s coffin was laid against the wall, and meals were cooked and eaten and the two beds made and occupied as usual until the day of burial. A little while after, however, the mother gave birth to a child, and my friend visiting the family found it grouped on the landing partak­ing of a rough-and-ready tea. It was voted “undacent to be in­thrudin’” until next day. However, the decent scruples of the head of the family did not hold out beyond that time, and by the evening of the next day the old order of things was quite restored.
    How in the name of goodness and humanity can we, under such circumstances, hope to be delivered from the curse of neglected children?