Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Days and Nights in London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1880 - Chapter 15

[back to menu for this book]

XV.

THE STREET BOYS OF LONDON.

ONE of the comic sights of the City is that of a guardian of the streets making an attack upon a bevy of small boys, who are enjoying themselves in their own wild way in some quiet corner sacred to the pursuits of trade. It may be that the ragged urchins are pretending to be engaged in business, but X. Y. Z. knows better, and, remembering that order is heaven's first law, and that the aim of all good men and true is to make London as much as possible like the New Jerusalem, he dashes in amongst the chaotic mob in the vain hope that he shall be able to send [-281-] them about their business. Alas! London in one respect resembles a place not mentioned in ears polite, in that it is paved with good intentions. X. Y. Z. is a case in point. In a fair field the chances would be in his favour. He has long legs, he is well made, he has more than an average amount of bone and muscle, but he is not fairly matched. Indeed, he is as much out of his element in the contest as a bull in a china shop. He can't dodge under horses' bellies; he can't crawl between the wheels of an omnibus or railway waggon; he can't hide his portly form behind a letter pillar; and his pursuit is as vain as that of a butterfly by a buffalo; and generally he does but put to rout the juvenile mob, and resolve it into its component parts only for a time. It is not always so. A. B. C. comes to the aid of X. Y. Z., and captures the small boy, who, to avoid Charybdis, falls a prey to Scylla, and then the precious prize is borne away before [-282-] the bench, and Old Jewry rejoices, for there is one little pest the less. Of course the policeman is right. He does what I could not do. I am not a millionaire, but it would require a very handsome sum to get me to go boy-hunting down Cheapside or in any of its adjacent streets. X. Y. Z. has less sense of incongruity than I have, or he sees the eternal fitness of things from a different point of view. Let me observe here the boy has also a standpoint differing from either.
    Let me take a single case. Jack Smith, as we will call him, was the son of a Scotch piper. He was born - or he has heard his mother say so - in one of the vast number of the courts that lead out of the Strand. His father was in the army, but on his discharge took to playing in the streets and in public-houses for his living till his death a few years back. As to his mother - hear this, ye sentimentalists who say pretty things [-283-] about a mother's love !- she deserted the boy, and left him to shift for himself. He took, of course, to selling lights and newspapers. When he got money he lodged in the Mint, when he had not, he slept in the barges off Thames Street. At last one morning he was caught by a policeman, and hauled before the Lord Mayor. The latter let him off that time, but warned the boy that if he were caught again it would be the duty of society to send him to gaol. What can such a boy think of society? Will he be very grateful for its kindness, or very anxious for its welfare? I think not. London, it is calculated, contains ten thousand of these shoeless, homeless, friendless, forsaken, ragged, unwashed, uncombed young urchins of doubtful antecedents. It is difficult to trace their genealogies, and it is still more difficult to understand why they ever came into existence at all. They are not a blessing either to father or mother, [-284-]and as a rule may be said to deny the existence of parental authority altogether. "Mother dead; father gone for a soldier - a sailor "- as the case may be- is the common result of all inquiry; and, when it is not so, when father and mother do "turn up " - "turn up" from the nearest gin- shop, all redolent of its perfume - it is not always to the boy's advantage. Solomon says, "Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child;" he might have said the same of many who are not children; and what is to be expected of a boy who is born and bred, as it were, in the streets of London? I have known wise fathers have foolish sons. I have seen the children of what are called pious people go astray. In the very city of London many are the ministers' and clergymen's sons who kick over the traces. The crop of wild oats sown by some of these young fellows is really astonishing. It was only the other day that the son of the fore-[-285-]most baronet in Evangelical circles, the last scion as it were of a noble house, stood trembling at the bar of the Old Bailey. But these children of the gutter have never had a chance of going right. No mother has watched their every step - no father has held up to them a living example of truth and integrity and right - no teacher has waited the dawning of their young intellect - no Christian minister has moulded and guided the workings of their young hearts - the atmosphere in which they live and move and have their being as of poverty and crime. Mostly they run away from home, the home of the thief and the harlot and the drunkard, and what they learn they learn in the back streets of Whitechapel, in the filthy courts of Drury Lane, in the purlieus of St. Giles. Like perpetuates its like. The seed of the serpent is always venomous; the tiger's cub is always thirsting for blood. There are [-286-] gutter children in London who have risen to be merchant princes, but they have come of an honest good family stock. As to those of whom I write, there is a curse on them from their very birth. Happily for them, they are unconscious of it, and yet in some undefined way it treads upon their steps. Like Gray's naughty schoolboys:
        They hear a voice in every wind,
        And catch a fearful joy.
    As I say, they are secretly conscious of a war between themselves and all that is deemed respectable. They feel that society, in the shape of the policeman, has its eye upon them. They have very restless eyes and very restless legs. They are as unlike the primitive ploughboy of the fat fields of Suffolk, of the swamps of Essex, of the fens of Lincolnshire, of the Sussex Downs, as can well be imagined. You can scarcely fancy they belong to the same species; yet, at the [-287-] same time, the street boy of the city is the same all the world over. In Paris, in London, in Edinburgh, in Dublin, and Belfast, the dirty little ragged rascals arc intrinsically one and the same - barring the speech. It is wonderful this oneness of sentiment, the bonds of brotherhood. The other day, on the pier at Boulogne, I lit a fusee for the purpose of having a smoke. Before I could say Jack Robinson, I was beset with hordes of ragged, shoeless, unwashed urchins, just the same as those you see in Cheapside; and it was only by bribery and corruption that I could emancipate myself. In London, as is to be expected, we have more of the commercial element; there is less freedom for them here. They must turn traders, and hawk Echos and cigar-lights, or sweep crossings. As to miscellaneous and irregular talent, society fosters it no more in the ragged boy than it does in the well- clad man, and so we have [-288-] got rid of the Catherine-wheel business and dangerous gymnastics of that kind. Many boys have the vices of their breed - the vices engendered by a life of poverty and of fear. They are afraid to be honest in their answers. They are afraid, when you talk to them, you have got some end in view. They will watch you, when you question them, to see how they can best please you. If you want to see what they are, catch them flattening their noses against the eating- house shop windows just about pudding time. That's human nature, and a wonderful thing is human nature. It would be well if society would take the trouble to recognise that fact. It was the want of the recognition of that fact in the good old times, when wild lawlessness was tempered with Draconian severity, that has entailed on the present generation the difficult problem as to what is to be done with our street boys.
    [-289-]Two solutions of the problem are offered us - the Reformatory School and the Refuges for Homeless and Destitute Children. According to our statisticians, in the former seventy per cent. are reclaimed and reformed. According to the latter, eighty per cent. are similarly improved. Mr. Williams, of Great Queen Street, claims for his institutions that they have an advantage over the reformatories, inasmuch as the taint of a prison attaches to the former; and that the fact of a boy having been an inmate of one of them exerts very often a most unfavourable influence over his prospects in life, however desirous he may be of acting honestly and industriously. For years and years he becomes marked, and is treated with more or less suspicion; and, when this is the case, it is not to be wondered at if he returns to a life in which the standard of action is very different to that of good society, and in which the most successful criminals are the [-290-] most highly envied and applauded. The returns of the Great Queen Street Refuge show, however, much may be done to cure the evils arising from suffering the street boys of our day to ripen under the devil's guidance into depravity and crime. Last year, there were admitted there 445 boys, as follows: From various casual wards and other night- shelters, 63; on the application of parties interested in their welfare, 95 ; on their own application, 98 ; sent in by the secretary and subscribers from the street, 76 ; brought in by the boys' beadle (that is, a person employed to hunt up needy cases), 17 ; sent by magistrates and policemen, as being utterly destitute, 17; sent by London City missionaries, ragged-school teachers, and others, 44; readmitted from the ship, 60; sent from Newsboys' Home, 29. The benefit of such an agency is still more apparent when we remember that it is [-291-] not much more than five years since the Chichester training-ship has been established, and that during that time, upwards of one thousand boys have been placed on board, and in ittle more than four years and a half the committee have trained and placed out in the Mercantile Marine and Royal Navy as many as seven hundred boys, all of whom, it is to be remembered, were bound to be, from necessity, as it were, the criminal classes of society. But, after all, this is but a drop in the bucket. It is something to do; it is a great deal to do. England requires good sailor lads; and these lads generally, according to the testimony of their masters, turn out such. At Faming ham, the secretary, Mr. A. O. Charles, will show you any day three hundred street arabs all growing respectable. England is already overstocked with incapables and scoundrels; and these boys would have [-292-]been such had not kindly hearts and friendly hands come to the rescue. That they can be trained and made useful we see in the number of well-conducted blacking boys, of whom, I believe, the number is three hundred and sixty- two, and in the little scavengers who pursue their calling almost at the very peril of their life. In 1851 the first Shoe- black Society was formed. There are now eight, and last year the earnings of the boys amounted to upwards of 11,000. Only think of all this money made by London mud!
    Clearly the street boy can be elevated in the scale of being. The vices of his early life may be eradicated. The better part of him may be strengthened and called into existence. He is not all bad, nor altogether incurable. He is what you and I might have been, good or bad, had we been left to ourselves. It is hard work winning him [-293-] over. It requires a patience and a wisdom such as only a few possess, but it can be done, and it must be done, if the future of our country is to be brighter and better than its past. Ah, he is very human, that little unwashed, uncombed, unfed, untended nobody's child. Leave him alone, and he will be cunning as a serpent, cruel as a wolf, like a roaring lion, ever hungering for its prey. Grown up to a man, and not hung, he will cost the State a great deal of money, for no man wastes property like the thief, and to try him and shut him in prison is very costly work. It is infinitely cheaper to make an honest man of him. For ten pounds you may plant him with a Canadian settler, who will make a man of him in a very few years. At any rate it is unwise to treat him unkindly, to keep him moving on, to chivy him for ever along the streets, much to the disgust of old ladies, who are [-294-] always "dratting" those horrid boys. It is to be feared their number is on the increase, and this, I regret to write, is the testimony of one who ought to know. What is the reason? My informant tells me it is. diminished parental authority. Every day, mothers and fathers come to him with boys of tender years, whom they declare to be utterly unmanageable. Another cause undoubtedly is our cheap and trashy literature. Recently, a great newsvendor stated before a committee of the House of Commons, that he sold weekly one hundred of "The Black Monk," one hundred of "Blighted Heart," five hundred and fifty of "Claude Duval," fifty of "The Hangman's Daughter," and three hundred and fifty of "Paul Clifford." If you want to sec what these boys read, visit Kent Street or the New Cut. Look at the sensational pictures of the cheap illustrated journals, in which murder, suicide, [-295-] and crime are the staple commodities treated of. Read some of the journals professedly written for boys, and which you will see the boys read if you happen to pass any large establishment at the dinner hour, and it will not be difficult to understand what street boys, if left to themselves, are sure to become. 

THE END.