Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Days and Nights in London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1880 - Chapter 14

[back to menu for this book]




THE other day I was witness to a spectacle which made me feel a doubt as to whether I was living in the nineteenth century. I was, as it were, within the shadow of that mighty London where Royalty resides; where the richest Church in Christendom rejoices in its abbey and cathedral, and its hundreds of churches; where an enlightened and energetic Dissent has not only planted its temples in every district, but has sent forth its missionary agents into every land; where the fierce light of public opinion, aided by a press which never slumbers, is a terror to them that do evil, and a praise to them that [-272-] do well; a city which we love to boast heads the onward march of man; and yet the scene before me was as intensely that of savage life as if I had been in a Zulu kraal, and savage life destitute of all that lends it picturesque attractions or ideal charms. I was standing in the midst of some twenty tents and vans, inhabited by that wandering race of whose origin we know so little, and of whose future we know less. The snow was on the ground, there was frost in the very air. Within a few yards was a great Board school; close by were factories and workshops, and the other concomitants of organised industrial life. Yet in that small area the gipsies held undisputed sway. In or about London there are, it is calculated, some two thousand of these dwellers in tents. In all England there are some twenty thousand of these sons of Ishmael, with hands against everyone, or, perhaps, to put it more truly, with everyone's hands against them. [-273-] In summer-time their lot is by no means to be envied; in winter their state is deplorable indeed.
    We entered, Mr. George Smith and I, and were received as friends. Had I gone by my self I question whether my reception would have been a pleasant one. As gipsies pay no taxes they can keep any number of dogs, and these dogs have a way of sniffing and snarling anything but agreeable to an unbidden guest. The poor people complained to me that no one ever came to see them. I should be surprised if anyone did; but Mr. George Smith, of Coalville, is no common man; and having secured fair-play for the poor children of the brick- fields- he himself was brought up in a brick-yard - and for the poor and sadly-neglected inmates of the canal boats, he has now turned his attention to the gipsies. His idea is - and it is a good one - that an Act of Parliament should be passed for their benefit, something similar to [-274-] that he has been the means of carrying for the canal and brick- field children. In a paper read before the Social Science Congress at Manchester, Mr. Smith argued that all tents, shows, caravans, auctioneer vans, and like places, used as dwellings, should be registered and numbered, and under proper sanitary arrangements, with sanitary inspectors and School Board officers in every town and village. Thus in every district the children would have their names and attendance registered in a book, which they could take with them from place to place, and, when endorsed by the schoolmaster, it would show that the children were attending school. In carrying out this idea, it is a pity that Mr. Smith should have to bear all the burden. As it is, he has suffered greatly in his pocket by his philanthropic effort. At one time he had a well- paid situation, which he had to relinquish, as he declined to keep silence when the wrongs of the children of [-275-] the brick- yards were to be proclaimed and redressed. He not only did this, but he parted with what little property he had rather than the battle should be lost; and I am glad to see that a George Smith Fund has been formed, of which Lord Aberdeen is chairman; and as Mr. Smith is now without business or occupation, or means of livelihood, if I had five pounds to spare- which, alas! I have not- I know where it would go. As to the gipsies, they evidently hail Mr. Smith as a friend in need and a friend indeed.
    It is no joke, going into a gipsy yard, and it is still less so when you go down on your hands and knees and crawl into the gipsy's wigwam; but the worst of it is, when you have done so there is little to see after all. In the middle, on a few bricks, is a stove or fireplace of some kind. On the ground is a floor of wood- chips, or straw, or shavings, and on this squat some two or three big, [-276-] burly men, who make linen-pegs and skewers, and mend chairs and various articles, the tribe, as they wander along, seek to sell. The women are away, for it is they who bring the grist to the mill, as they tell fortunes, or sell their wares, or follow their doubtful trade; but the place swarms with children, and it was wonderful to see with what avidity they stretched out the dirtiest little hand imaginable as Mr. Smith prepared to distribute some sweets he had brought with him for that purpose. As we entered, all the vans were shut up, and the tents only were occupied, the vans being apparently deserted; but presently a door was opened half- way, and out popped a little gipsy head, with sparkling eyes and curly hair; and then another door opened, and a similar spectacle was to be seen. Let us look into the van, about the size of a tiny cabin, and chock full, in the first place, with a cooking-stove; and then with shelves, with [-277-] curtains, and some kind of bedding, apparently not very clean, on which the family repose. It is a piteous life, even at the best, in that van; even when the cooking- pot is filled with something more savoury than cabbages or potatoes, the usual fare; but the children seem happy, nevertheless, in their dirty rags, and with their luxurious heads of curly hair. All of them are as ignorant as Hottentots, and lead a life horrible to think of. I only saw one woman in the camp, and I only saw her by uncovering the top and looking into the tent in which she resides. She is terribly poor, she says, and pleads earnestly for a few coppers; and I can well believe she wants them, for in this England of ours, and especially in the outskirts of London, the gipsy is not a little out of place. Around us are some strapping girls, one with a wonderfully sweet smile on her face, who, if they could be trained to domestic service, would have a far happier life than they can ever [-278-] hope to lead. The cold and wet seem t~ affect them not, nor the poor diet, nor the smoke and bad air of their cabins, in which they crowd, while the men lazily work, and the mothers are far away. The leading lady in this camp is absent on business; but she is a firm adherent of Mr. George Smith, and wishes to see the children educated; and as she is a Lee, and as a Lee in gipsy annals takes the same rank as a Norfolk Howard in aristocratic circles, that says a good deal;. but then, if you educate a gipsy girl, she will want to have her hands and face, at any rate, clean; and a gipsy boy, when he learns to read, will feel that he is born for a nobler end than to dwell in a stinking wigwam, to lead a lawless life, to herd with questionable characters, and to pick up a precarious existence at fairs and races; and our poets and novelists and artists will not like that. However, just now, by means of letters in the newspapers, and engravings [-279-]
in the illustrated journals, a good deal of attention is paid to the gipsies, and if they can be reclaimed and turned into decent men and women, a good many farmers' wives will sleep comfortably at night, especially when geese and turkeys are being fattened for Christmas fare; and a desirable impulse will be given to the trade in soap.