Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859 - Chapter 13 - Houseless and Hungry

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IN the city of London, in two contiguous thoroughfares - the shabbiest, dingiest, poorest of their class - there are two Houses of Poverty. To the first, entrance is involuntary, and residence in it compulsory. You are brought there by a catchpole, and kept there under lock and key until your creditors are paid, or till you have suffered the purgatory of an Insolvent Court remand. This house is the Debtors' Prison of Whitecross Street. I know it. I have seen the mysteries of the Middlesex side, and have heard the lamenting in the Poultry Ward. Its stones have sermons; but it was not to hear them that I travelled, one gloomy winter evening, Cripplegate Ward. My business in Whitecross Street was of no debtor or creditor nature; for I was there to visit another house of poverty, the asylum of the Society for affording Nightly Shelter to the Houseless.
    Let me, in the first instance, state briefly what this Society professes to do. The manner in which it is done will form a subject for after-description. 'It is the peculiar object and principle of this charity' (I quote the Report), to afford nightly shelter and assistance to those who are really houseless and destitute during inclement winter seasons, and the occasional suspension of out-door work, in consequence of the rigour of the weather. To fulfil this intention, it is provided that an asylum shall be open and available at all hours of the night, without the need, on the part of the applicant, of a ticket, or any other passport or plea but his or her own statement of helpless necessity.' The relief afforded is limited to bread in a sufficient quantity to sustain nature, warm shelter, [-146-] and the means of rest. Thus, little inducement is offered to those removed in the slightest degree from utter destitution, to avail themselves of the shelter for the sake of the food. but, in all oases of inanition or debility from exhaustion or fatigue, appropriate restoratives, such as gruel, wine, brandy, soup, and medicine, are administered under medical superintendence. 'Many have been thus rescued,' says the Report, 'from the grasp of death.'
    I have two friends who do not approve of institutions on the principle stated above. My good friend Pragmos objects to them as useless. He proves to me by figures, by tables, by reports from perspicacious commissioners, that there is no need of any destitution in London; and that, statistically, tabularly, honourable-boardically-speaking, there is no destitution at all. How can there be any destitution with your outdoor relief, and your in-door relief, your workhouse test, relieving officers, and your casual ward? Besides, there is employment for all. There are hospitals and infirmaries for the sick, workhouse infirmaries for the infirm. Prosperity, the war notwithstanding, is continually increasing. None but the idle and the dissolute need be houseless and hungry. If they are, they have the union to apply to; and, consequently, asylums for the houseless serve no beneficial end; divert the stream of charitable donations from its legitimate channels; foster idleness and vice, and parade, before the eyes of the public, a misery that does not exist.
    So far Pragmos. He is not hard-hearted; but simply, calmly conscious (through faith in Arabic numerals, and in the Ninety-ninth Report of the Poor Law Commissioners) that destitution cannot be. But, he has scarcely finished quoting schedule D, when my other and sprightlier friend, Sharplynx, takes me to task, humorously, jocularly. He rallies me. 'Destitution, my boy,' says Sharplynx, familiarly, 'gammon! How can you, a shrewd man of the world' (I blush), 'an old stager' (I bow), be taken in by such transparent humbug? Haven't you read the "Times?" Haven't you read the "Jolly Beggars?" Did you never hear of cadgers, silver-beggars, shallow-coves? Why, sir, that fellow in rags, with the imitation paralysis, who goes shivering along, will have veal for supper to-night: the kidney end of the loin, with stuffing, and a lemon squeezed over it. That woman on the doorstep has hired the two puny children at fourpence a day; end she will have a pint and a half of gin before she goes to [-147-] bed. That seemingly hectic fever flush is red paint; those tremblings are counterfeit; that quiet, hopeless, silent resignation is a dodge. Don't talk to me of being houseless and hungry! The impostors who pretend to be so, carouse in night cellars. They have turkey and sausages, roast pork, hot punch, paramours, packs of cards, and roaring songs. Houseless, indeed! I'd give 'em a night's lodging  - in the station-house, and send 'em to the treadmill in the morning.' Whereupon Sharplynx departs, muttering something about the good old times, and the stocks, and the whipping-post.
    So they go their separate ways - Pragmos and Sharplynx - yet I cannot blame either of them. It is but the old story of the many punished for the faults of a few. You, I, thousands are coerced, stinted in our enjoyments, comforts, amusements, liberties, rights, and are defamed and vilified as drunkards and ruffians, because one bull-necked, thick-lipped, scowling beast of a fellow drinks himself mad with alcohol, beats his wife, breaks windows, and roams about Drury Lane with a life-preserver. Thousands - whose only crime it is to have no money, no friends, no clothes, no place of refuge equal even to the holes that the foxes have in God's wide world - see the band of charity closed, and the door of mercy shut, because Alice Grey is an impostor, and Bamfylde Moore Carew a cheat; and because there have been such places as the Cour des Miracles, and Rats' Castle. 'Go there and be merry, you rogue!' says Mr. Sharplynx, facetiously. So the destitute go into the streets, and die. They do die, although you may continue talking and tabulating till Doomsday. I grant the workhouses, relieving officers, hospitals, infirmaries, station-houses, boards, minutes, and schedules, the Mendicity Society, and the Guildhall Solomons. But I stand with Galileo: Si muove! and asseverate that, in the City paved with gold, there are people who are destitute, and die on door-steps, in the streets, on staircases, under dark arches, in ditches, and under the lees of walls. The police know it. Some day, perhaps, the Government will condescend to know it too,; and instruct a gentleman at a thousand a year to see about it.
   Thinking of Pragmos and Sharplynx, I walked last Tuesday evening through. Smithfield and up Barbican. it is a very dreary journey at the best of times; but, on a raw February night - with the weather just hesitating between an iron frost and a drizzling thaw, and, not making up its mind on either subject, treating you to a touch of both alternately - the over-[-148-]land route to Whitecross Street is simply wretched. The whole neighbourhood is pervaded with a miasma of grinding, unwholesome, sullen, and often vicious poverty. Everything is cheap and nasty, and the sellers seem as poor as the buyers. There are shops whose stock in trade is not worth half a dozen shillings. There are passers-by, the whole of whose apparel would certainly be dear at ninepence. Chandlers' shops, marine-stores, pawn-shops, and public-houses, occur over and over again in sickening repetition. There is a frowsy blight on the window-panes and the gas-lamps. The bread is all seconds; the butchers'-shops, with their flaring gas-jets, expose nothing but scraps and bony pieces of meat. Inferior greengrocery in baskets chokes up the pathway; but it looks so bad that it would be a pity to rescue it from its neighbour the gutter, and its legitimate proprietors the pigs. The air is tainted with exhalations from rank tobacco, stale herrings, old clothes, and workshops of noxious trades. The parish coffin passes you; the policeman passes you, dull and dingy - quite another policeman compared to the smart A.67. The raw night-breeze wafts to your ears oaths, and the crying of rotten merchandise, and the wailing of neglected children, and choruses of ribald songs. Every cab you see blocked up between a costermonger's barrow and a Pickford's van, appears to you to be conveying some miserable debtor to prison.
    Struggling, as well as I could, through all this squalid life, slipping on the greasy pavement, and often jostled off it, I came at last upon Whitecross Street, and dived (for that is about the only way you can enter it) into a forlorn, muddy, dimly-lighted thoroughfare, which was the bourne of my travels-Playhouse Yard. I have not Mr. Peter Cunningham at hand, and am not sufficient antiquary to tell when or whereabouts the playhouse, existed in this sorry place. It is but a melancholy drama enacted here now, heaven knows!
    I was not long in finding out the Refuge. About half-way up the yard hung out a lamp with a wire screen over it, and the name of the asylum painted upon it. I made my way to an open doorway, whence issued a stream of light; and before which were ranged, in a widish semicircle, a crowd of cowering creatures, men, women, and children, who were patiently awaiting their turn of entrance. This was the door to the House of Poverty.
    I need not say that the object of my visit was promptly [-149-] understood by those in authority, and that every facility was afforded me of seeing the simple system of relief at work. It was not much in a sight-seeing point of view, that the Society's officers had to show me. They had no pet prisoners; no steam-cooking apparatus; no luxurious baths; no corrugated iron laundry; no vaulted passages, nor octagonal court-yards gleaming with whitewash and dazzling brass-work; no exquisite cells fitted up with lavatories and cupboards, and conveniences of the latest patent invention. Everything was, on the contrary, of the simplest and roughest nature; yet everything seemed to me to answer admirably the purpose for which it was designed.
    I entered, first, an office, where there were some huge baskets filled with pieces of bread; and where an official sat at a desk, registering, in a ledger, the applicants for admission as they presented themselves for examination at the half-door, or bar. They came up one by one, in alternate sexes, as they had been summoned from the semicircle outside. Now it was a young sailor-boy in a Guernsey frock; now a travel- stained agricultural labourer; now a wan artisan; now a weary ragged woman with a troop of children; now, most pitiable spectacle of all, some woe-begone, shrinking needle- woman-young, but a hundred years old in misery-comely, but absolutely seamed and scarred and macorated by famine. The answers were almost identical: They had come up from the country in search of work; or they were London bred, and could not obtain work; or the Union was full, and they could not get admission; or they had no money; or they had had nothing to eat; or they did not know where else to go. All this was said not volubly; not entreatingly; and with no ejaculations or complaints, and with few additions; but wearily, curtly, almost reluctantly. What had they to tell? What beyond a name, a date, a place, was necessary to be extracted from them? In their dismal attire, in their deathlike voices, in their awful faces, there was mute eloquence enough to fill five hundred ledgers such as the one on the desk. I am no professed physiognomist. I believe I have sufficient knowledge of the street-world to tell a professional beggar from a starving man; but I declare I saw no face that night passing the hatch but in which I could read: Ragged and Tired-Dead Beat-Utterly Destitute-Houseless and Hungry. The official took down each applicant's name, age, and birthplace; where be had slept the night before; what [-150-] was his vocation; what the cause of his coming there. The ledger was divided into columns for the purpose. I looked over it. To the causes for application there was one unvarying answer - Destitution. In the 'Where slept the previous night?' the answers ran: St. Luke's; Whitechapel; in the streets; Stepney; in the streets, in the streets, and in the streets again and again, till I grew sick. Many men are liars, we know; and among the five hundred destitute wretches that are nightly sheltered in this place there may be - I will not attempt to dispute it - a per-centage of impostors; a few whose own misconduct and improvidence have driven them to the wretchedest straits; yet, I will back that grim ledger to contain some thousand more truths than are told in a whole library of Reports of Parliamentary Committees.
    There was a lull in the admissions, and I was inquiring about the Irish, when the official told the doorkeeper to 'call the first female.' By luck, the 'first female' was Irish herself She was a very little woman, with the smallest bonnet I ever saw. It was, positively, nothing more than a black patch on the back of her head, and the frayed ends were pulled desperately forward towards her chin, showing her ears through a ragged trellis-work. As to her dress, it looked as if some cunning spinner had manufactured a textile fabric out of mud; or, as if dirt could be darned and patched. I did not see her feet; but I heard a flapping on the floor as she moved, and guessed what sort of shoes she must have worn. She was the sort of little woman who ought to have had a round, rosy, dumpling face - and she had two bead- like black eyes; but face and eyes were all crushed and battered by want and exposure. Her very skin was in rags. The poor little woman did nothing but make faces, which would have been ludicrous, if - in the connection of what surrounded and covered her, and her own valiant determination not to cry - they had not been heartrending. Yes; she was Irish (she said this apologetically); but, she had been a long time in Liverpool. Her husband had run away and left her. She had no children. She could have borne it better, she said, if she-had. She had slept one night before in the 'Institution' (she prided herself a little on this word, and used it pretty frequently), but she had been ashamed to come there again, and had slept one night in the workhouse and three nights in the streets. The superintendent spoke to [-151-] her kindly, and told her she could be sheltered in the Refuge for a night or two longer; and that then, the best thing she could do would be to make her way to Liverpool again. 'But I can't walk it, indeed,' cried the little woman; 'I shall never be able to walk it. O, dear! O, dear!' The valorously screwed-up face broke down all at once; and, as she went away with her ticket, I heard her flapping feet and meek sobs echoing through the corridor. She did not press her story on us. She did not whine for sympathy. She seemed ashamed of her grief. Was this little woman a humbug, I wonder?
    A long lank man in black mud came up afterwards; whose looks seemed fluttering between the unmistakeable 'ragged and tired' and an ominous 'ragged and desperate.' I shall never forget his hands as be held them across on the doorsill - long, emaciated, bony slices of integument and bone. They were just the hands a man might do some mischief to himself or some one else with, and be sorry for. I shall never forget, either, the rapt eager gaze with which he regarded, almost devoured, the fire in the office grate. He answered the questions addressed to him, as it were mechanically, and without looking at his interlocutor; his whole attention, wishes, thoughts, being centred in the blazing coals. He seemed to hug himself in the prospective enjoyment of the warmth; to be greedy of it. Better the fire there, than the water of the dark cold river. I was not sorry when he received his ticket; and, looking over his shoulder at the fire, went shuffling away. He frightened me.
    I was informed by the superintendent (a frank-spoken military man, who had lost a leg in the Caffre war), that, as a rule, the duration of the shelter extended by the Society is limited to three nights to Londoners, and to seven nights to country people. In special cases, however, special exceptions are made; and every disposition is shown to strain a point in favour of those weary wanderers, and to bear with them, as far as is consistent with justice to others. A ration of eight ounces of bread is given to each admitted person on entrance, another ration when they leave between eight and nine the next morning.
    Accompanied by the secretary, and the superintendent, I was now shown the dormitories. We visited the men's side first. Passing a range of lavatories, where each inmate is required to wash his face, neck, and arms-hot -water being [-152-] provided for the purpose - we ascended a wooden staircase, and came into a range of long, lofty, barn-like rooms, divided into sections by wooden pillars. An immense stove was in the centre, fenced in with stakes; and, in its lurid hospitable light, I could fancy the man in black and some score more brothers in misery, greedily basking. Ranged on either side were long rows of bed-places, trough-like, grave-like, each holding one sleeper. In the early days of the Society (it has been in existence for more than thirty years) the inmates slept on straw; but, as this was found to possess many drawbacks to health, cleanliness, and to offer danger from fire, mattresses stuffed with hay and covered with waterproofing, which can be washed and aired with facility, have been substituted. Instead of blankets, which harbour vermin and are besides less durable, there are ample coverlets of Basil leather, warm and substantial. With these; with the ration of bread; with genial warmth, the objects sought for are attained. It is not an hotel that is required. The slightest modicum of luxury would corroborate Pragmos, and be an encouragement to the worthless, the idle, and the depraved. The Refuge competes with no lodging-house, no thieves' kitchen, no tramps' boozing-cellar; but it is a place for a dire corporeal necessity to be ministered to, by the simplest corporeal requisites. A roof to shelter, a bed to lie on, a fire to warm, a crust to eat-these are offered to those who have literally nothing.
    By the flickering gas, which is kept burning all night, I stood with my back to one of the wooden pillars, and looked at this sad scene. The bed-places were rapidly filling. Many of the tired-out wayfarers had already sunk into sleep; others were sitting up in bed mending their poor rags; many lay awake, but perfectly mute and quiescent. As far as the eye could reach, almost, there were more ranges of troughs, more reclining heaps of rags. I shifted my position nervously as I found myself within range, wherever I turned, of innumerable eyes, - eyes calm, fixed, brooding, hopeless. Who has not had this feeling, while walking through an hospital, a lunatic asylum, a prison? The eyes are upon you, you know, gazing sternly, moodily, reproachfully. You feel almost as if you were an intruder. You are not the doctor to heal, the priest to console, the Lady Bountiful to relieve. What right have you to be there, taking stock of human miseries, and jotting down sighs and tears in your note-book?
    [-153-] I found the surgeon at a desk by the fire, he bad just been called in to a bad case; one that happened pretty frequently, though. The miserable case was just being supported from a bench to his bed. He had come in, and bad been taken very ill; not with cholera, or fever, or dysentery, but with the disease - my friend, Sharplynx, won't believe in - Starvation. He was simply at death's door with inanition and exhaustion. Drunk with hunger, surfeited with cold, faint with fatigue. He did not require amputation nor cupping, quinine, colchicum, nor sarsaparilla; he merely wanted a little brandy and gruel, some warmth, some supper, and a bed. The cost price of all these did not probably amount to more than sixpence; yet, curiously, for want of that sixpennyworth of nutriment and rest, there might have been a bill on the police-station door to-morrow, beginning, 'Dead Body Found.'
    I asked the surgeon if such cases occurred often. They did, he said: Whether they ever ended fatally? Occasionally. Only the other night a man was brought in by a police sergeant, who had found him being quietly starved to death behind a cart. He was a tall, athletic-looking man enough, and was very sick. While the sergeant was stating his case, he suddenly fell forward on the floor-dead! He was not diseased, only starved.
    Seeking for information as to the general demeanour of the inmates, I was told that good conduct was the rule, disorderly or, refractory proceedings the exception. 'If you were here at eight oclock, sir,' said the superintendent (it was now half-past seven), you wouldn't hear a pin drop. Poor creatures! they are too tired to make a disturbance. The boys, to be sure, have a little chat to themselves; but they are easily quieted. When, once in a way, we have a disorderly character, we turn him out, and there is an end of it.' I was told, moreover, that almost anything could be done with this motley colony by kind and temperate language, and that they expressed, and appeared to feel, sincere gratitude for the succour afforded to them. They seldom made friends among their companions, the superintendent said. They came, and ate, and warmed themselves, and went on their way in the morning, alone. There is a depth of misery too great for companionship.
    Touching the boys, those juveniles were relegated to a plantation of troughs by themselves, where they were plunging [-154-] and tumbling about in the usual manner of town-nursed Bedouins. I learnt that the Institution -to use a familiar expression - rather fought shy of boys. Boys are inclined to be troublesome; and, whenever it is practicable, they are sent to the ragged-school dormitaries, where, my guide said, 'they make them go to school before they go to bed, which they don't like at all.' More than this, some parents, to save themselves the trouble of providing supper and bedding for their children, will send one or more of them to the Refuge; and, where space is so vitally valuable, the introduction of even one interloper is a thing to be carefully prevented.
    The Refuge is open after five in the evening, and a porter is on duty all night for the admission of urgent cases. The fires and gas are also kept burning throughout the night, and a male and female superintendent sit up, in case of need. Those who have been in the Refuge on Saturday night, have the privilege of remaining in the Institution during the whole of Sunday. They have an extra ration of bread and three ounces of cheese, and divine service is performed in the morning and afternoon. There are many Sabbaths kept in London: the Vinegar Sabbath, the Velvet and Satin Sabbath, the Red Hot Poker Sabbath, the carriage-and-pair Sabbath, the gloomily-lazy Sabbath, the pipe-and-pot Sabbath; but I doubt if any can equal the Sabbath passed in this wretched Playhouse Yard, as a true Sabbath of rest, and peace, and mercy.
    We went up, after this, to the women's wards. The arrangements were identical with those of the men; save, that one room is devoted to women with families, where the partitions between the troughs had been taken away that the children might lie with their mothers. We passed between the ranges of bed-places; noticing that the same mournful, weary, wakeful silence, was almost invariable, though not, I was told, compulsory. The only prohibition-and safety requires this - is against smoking. Now and then, a gaunt girl, with her black hair hanging about her face, would rise up in her bed to stare at us; now and then, some tattered form amongst those who were sitting there till the ward below was ready for their reception, would rise from the bench and drop us a curtsey; but the general stillness was pervading and unvarying. A comely matron bustled about noiselessly with her assistant, who was a strange figure among all these rags, [-155-] being a pretty girl in ringlets and ribbons. One seemed to have forgotten, here, that such a being could be in existence. I spoke to some of the women on the benches. It was the same old story. Needle-work at miserable prices, inability to pay the two-penny rent of a lodging, no friends, utter destitution; this, or death. There were a few - and this class I heard was daily increasing - who were the wives of soldiers in the Militia, or of men in the Land Transport and Army Works Corps. Their husbands had been ordered away;* (* This paper was written during the Crimean war-time.) they had no claim upon the regular Military Relief Association, they had received no portion of their husbands' pay- and they were houseless and hungry.
    I stopped long to look down into the room where the women and children were. There they lay, God help them! head to heel, transversely, anyhow for warmth; nestling, crouching under the coverlets; at times feebly wailing. Looking down upon this solemn, silent, awful scene made you shudder; made you question by what right you were standing up, warm, prosperous, well-fed, well-clad, with these destitute creatures, your brothers and sisters, who had no better food and lodging than this? But for the absence of marble floors and tanks, the place might be some kennel for hounds; but for the rags and the eyes, these might be sheep in the pens in Smithfield Market.
    I went down stairs at last; for there was no more to see. Conversing further with the secretary, I gleaned that the average number of destitute persons admitted nightly is five hundred and fifty; but that as many as six hundred have been accommodated. Looking at the balance-sheet of the Society, I found the total expense of the asylum (exclusive of rent) was less than one thousand pounds.
    A thousand pounds! we blow it away in gunpowder; we spend it upon diplomatic fools' caps; we give it every month in the year to right honourable noblemen for doing nothing, or for spoiling what ordinary men of business would do better. A thousand pounds! It would not pay a deputy- sergeant-at-arms; it would scarcely be a retiring pension far an assistant prothonotary. A thousand pounds! Deputy-chaff-wax would have spurned it, if offered as compensation for loss of office. A thousand pounds! the sum jarred upon my ear, as I walked back through Smithfield.. At least, for [-156-] their ten hundred pounds, the Society for Sheltering the Houseless save some hundred of human lives a year.
    I abide by the assertion, that men and women die nightly in our golden streets, because they have no bread to put into their miserable mouths, no roofs to shelter their wretched heads. It is no less a God-known, man-neglected fact, that in any state of society in which such things can be, there must be something essentially bad and rotten.