Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - How the Poor Live, by George R. Sims, 1883 - Chapter 11

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OOKING over what I have written I am struck by what seems to me an important omission. In driving home the nail of the miserable condition in which the poor are forced to live, I have perhaps led the reader to imagine that the better instincts of humanity have been utterly stamped out - that the courts and alleys are great wastes of weed, where never a flower grows.
    I should be loth to father such an idea as this. In the course of many years of the closest contact with the most poverty-stricken of our fellow-men, I have learnt to think better, and not worse, of human nature, and- to know that love, self-sacrifice, and devotion flourish in this barren soil as well as in the carefully-guarded family circles which are, or should be, forcing-houses for all that is choicest and most beautiful among human instincts.
    Braver than many a hero who comes back from foreign plains with a deed of prowess to his credit and a medal on his breast, are some of the ragged rank and file who fight the battle of life against overwhelming odds, and never flinch or falter, but fight on to the end; and the end, alas is rarely victory or renown-too often the guerdon of these brave soldiers is the workhouse, the hospital, or a miserable death from cold and slow starvation, in a quiet corner of the street, where they have sunk down to rise no more.
    It is often a matter of wonder - at least I hope it is - to the good folks who skim their newspapers at the morning meal and take their politics, their Court Circular, and their police intelligence at a single draught between their sips of coffee, what becomes of the children whose fathers and mothers are sent to prison for long or short periods.
    The State does not consider the innocent victims of crime; the law punishes the individual without taking thought of the consequences to those who may be dependent upon her or him for bread. I am not advocating any leniency to a culprit on the score of his value as a breadwinner; I am simply going to state a few facts, and leave my readers to draw any moral they please from the narrative.
    Half the men and women of the lower orders who are imprisoned for various small offences, such as being drunk and incapable, assaulting each other, or committing petty larceny, are married and have families. Bachelors and spinsters are rare after a certain age in low neighbourhoods, and large families are invariably the result of early marriages, or that connection which, among the criminal classes and the lowest grade of labourers, does duty for the legally-solemnised institution.
    Many persons who wander into police-courts at the East-end, either for business or amusement, must be familiar with the poor woman, a baby in her arms, and her head strapped up with sticking-plaster and surgical bandages, who begs the magistrate not to punish the hulking fellow in the dock who has so brutally ill-used her. The woman knows, what the

magistrate and the public ignore, that the three months' sentence means comfort and luxury to the man - misery and starvation to the woman and her little ones.
    He has probably been the chief bread-winner; the woman is incapacitated by his ill-treatment from doing any work, and so she and her children are suddenly rendered penniless and homeless. She must crawl back from the court to her miserable garret, and when her babies ask for food pawn her few rags to get it for them ; and when all is pawned and gone, she cannot pay her nightly rent, so she must turn out with her little family into the streets or go into the work house. Such a case we heard as we looked into a police court on our travels ; and 1 shall not soon forget the agonised [-54-] cry of the woman as the magistrate gave her husband six-months, and congratulated her on being temporarily rid of such a ruffian.
    "Great God, what will become of us now?"
    I see that many humane people are asking what can be done to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. I don't know whether there is any society which looks after the wives and children of malefactors, and lends them a helping hand, if they deserve it, to tide over the absence of their sole source of income; but if there is not, I fancy here is work for idle hands to do, and a source for charity that, worked with discrimination and care, might alleviate one of the crushing evils to which poor families are liable.

    But these people are not always friendless, and it is a~ case I wish to quote which has led me to touch upon the subject.
    In one wretched room we visited there were six little cues home at the mid-day hour from school.
    "You have six children? " I said to the woman.
    No, sir, only four; these two little ones ain't mine - they are staying with us.''
    I imagined that they were the children of a relative, and questioned the woman further, wondering how she cared. to i crowd her little den with extra visitors, and then the story came out.
    These two extra mouths the good soul was feeding belonged to two little children whose mother, a widow, lived in a room above. For an assault upon the police she had been sent to prison. Thus the position of these orphans with a living parent was terrible. They would have been starved or taken to the workhouse, but this good creature went up and fetched them down to be with her own children, and made them welcome; she washed them and dressed them, and did for them all she could, and she intended to keep them if she was able till the mother came out.
    "She didn't see that she had done anything wonderful It was only neighbourly-like, and my heart bled to see the poor young uns a-cryin', and that wretched and neglected and dirty."
    Such cases as this are common enough - the true charity the charity which robs itself to give to others, is nowhere so common as among the poor. The widow's mite that won the Saviour's praise is cast into the great treasury daily, and surely stands, now, as then, far higher on the roll of good deeds than all the gold flung carelessly by the hands of the rich to every box rattler who promises "that the amount shall be duly acknowledged in the Times."
    I will quote one more case, which has just come und my personal observation, and which illustrates the brave struggles against adversity of which those people are capable.
    Our attention was directed to the circumstance by the head-mistress of the school which the children were attending, and who had noticed that they who had always been the cleanest and tidiest in the class were beginning to show signs of a little less motherly care. The children said their mother was too ill to do much, and we went to see her.
    Mrs. B. had some children of her own, and in addition she and her husband had taken in a little girl whose father had gone off tramping in search of work.
    We found her propped up in a chair looking terribly ill but in front of her in another chair was the wash-tub, and the poor woman was making a feeble effort to wash and wring out some of the children's things. She was dying. She was suffering from dropsy, and had not lain down for month - the water was rising rapidly and would soon reach her heart and kill her. Yet here she sat, scarcely able to breathe, and enduring untold agony, but making an effort to the very last to work and keep her little ones clean and tidy.
    It is a glorious lot in life - these people's, is it no ? - to toil on and struggle, to resist temptation, and giving their youth and age to the hardest labour for a wage that barely staves off starvation, to know that when illness comes or time steals their strength away, they are mere burthens, refuse to be got rid of since it encumbers the land.
    Can one blame them if, knowing their hard lot and the little reward the most virtuous life can bring them, they sink into the temptations spread around them? Remember, that for half their miseries, half their illness and premature decay, and much of the disease which cripples and carries off their children, the shameful way in which they are [-55-]  housed, and the callous neglect of their rights as citizens by the governing class is responsible.
    They are handicapped in the race from start to finish. And under these circumstances, such charity, such humanity, and such patience and long-suffering as exist among them are indeed worthy of admiration.
    The natural instinct of man is to evil, and  and when I read in little tracts and clerical addresses of the awful depravity of

the "heathen in our midst," I am tempted to ask what the reverend gentlemen and shocked philanthropists expect. I say, with a full knowledge of their surroundings, that the lower classes of our great cities are entitled to the highest credit for not being twenty times more depraved than they are.
    They are a class which contains the germs of all that goes to make up good citizenship, and the best proof of it is the patience with which they endure the systematic neglect of their more fortunate fellow-countrymen. In any other land but ours, the mighty mass of helots would long ago have broken their bonds and swept over the land in vast revolutionary hordes. They did not always know their power and had not enough knowledge to appreciate their wrongs. Education is opening their eyes, and their lips will be slow to express their new-born sentiments. It will be well to meet that movement half-way and yield to them that reform and humane recognition which some day they may  all too noisily demand.
    Here I am up on a platform and thumping away at the table and spouting what I have no doubt many excellent persons will think is rank communism, though it is nothing of the sort. Peccari, I apologise. The fumes of the misery I have passed through the last two months have got into my head and made me talk wildly. Let me resume my labour more in the character of a missionary or special [-56-] correspondent, and leave oratory and denunciation to the Sunday morning Wilkeses of Battersea Park.
    We have no business out of doors at all - let us study another domestic interior. The scene, a street which lies cheek by jowl with the quarter where the world of fashion rolls nightly in comfortable carriages to enjoy theatrical and operatic performance in half-guinea stalls and three-guinea boxes, and where fabulous fortunes are made by those who can make Mr. and Mrs. Dives weep at imaginary woes or laugh at a merry jest or comic antic.
    From such a scene as I am going to ask you to witness, thousands who crowd a theatre nightly to see a woman's head battered out against a sofa or a young man suffocate himself with the fumes of charcoal, would shrink back in disgust. But you will not, for if you have gone so far with us as this journey, you are, I feel sure, convinced that no good can come of hiding the worst phase of a question which is only dragged forward here that it may, by the very horror of its surroundings, arrest attention and so secure that discussion which must always precede a great scheme of reformation.
   Come with me to this place. Our way lies through Clare Market, so don't go alone, for it is a dangerous neighbourhood to strangers. Come with me through strange sights and sounds, past draggled, tipsy women crowding the footway, and hulking fellows whose blasphemies fill the tainted air, pick your way carefully through the garbage and filth that litter the streets, and stop in this narrow thoroughfare which is but a stone's throw from many a stage that holds the mirror up to nature, and yet would shrink from holding such a scene as this.
    We have stopped at a marine-store shop - we enter the passage and find our way up to the third floor. Here in a single room live a man, his wife, and three children. There has been an inquest on a baby who has died - poisoned by the awful atmosphere it breathed. We have stumbled up the dark crazy staircase at the risk of our limbs, to see this room in which the family live and sleep and eat, because in its way it is a curiosity. It has been the scene of an incident which one would hardly believe possible in this Christian country. For days in this foul room the body of a dead baby had to lie because the parish had no mortuary. Not only did the corpse have to lie here for days among the living, but on that little, table, propped against the window, the surgeon had to perform a post-mortem examination.
    Think of it, you who cry out that the sufferings of these people are sensationally exaggerated-the dead baby was cut open in the one room where the mother and the other little ones, its brothers and sisters, lived and ate and slept. And why?
    Because the parish had no mortuary, and no room in which post-mortems could be performed.
    The jurymen who went to view the body sickened at the frightful exhalations of this death-trap, and one who had thirty years' experience of London said never had he seen a fouler den.
    I have turned to the newspapers for a report of the inquest and found it, and I think it will be better to present it word for word. it is an ordinary newspaper report of what has happened and been legally investigated, and may carry conviction where my own unsupported testimony would fail.
    "A coroner's inquiry was held last night by Mr. Langham, regarding the death of an infant aged two and a half months, the daughter of a butcher named Kent, who, with his wife and three children, occupy a single room on the third floor of premises used as a marine store in Wych Street. The inquiry was held in the Vestry Room of the parish. On the return of the jury from viewing the body - which lay in the room occupied by the family - one of the jurymen addressed the coroner. He had, he stated, during his thirty years' residence in the parish, seen many places which he regarded as unfit for dwelling houses, but never had he seen one so bad as that which the jury had just visited. The staircase was dark and out of repair. The atmosphere inside was intolerable. Indeed, it was so bad that several of his fellow juryrnen had felt ill while they were there. They hoped that this expression of opinion would have some effect in inducing the proper authorities to provide a mortuary for the district, and that families who lived in one room might not be compelled to sleep and take their meals with a dead body within sight. Mr. Samuel Mills, surgeon, 3, Southampton Street, Strand, medical officer to the Bow Street Division of Police, deposed that he had made a post-mortem examination of the body on a propped-up table placed in front of the window of the room occupied by the family. The cause of death was consumption of the brain. From the state of the atmosphere in which the child was born, it was unhealthy. Another child had died from the same cause. He thought the local authority ought to provide a mortuary, and also a room in which post-mortem examinations could be conducted. A verdict in accordance with the medical evidence was returned by the jury, who further expressed their opinion that the want of a mortuary was calculated to be detrimental to the health of the persons living in the district; that there being no mortuary was a disgrace to the local authority; and that the circumstances surrounding the case they had investigated were a disgrace to this enlightened age."
    I will not add a word. I leave the newspaper report to arouse whatever thoughts it may in the minds of those who will peruse it. It is at least a revelation to many of "How the Poor Live."
    Let me hark back again to the lighter side of my subject. I began the chapter with a story of the self-sacrifice of the poor. I will now end it with a little incident of which I was an eye-witness this week. Some poor children of the slums had "a day in the country given them" by a friend, at which I had the privilege of being present.
    At tea, to every little one there were given two large slices of cake; I noticed one little boy take his, break a little piece oft eat it, and quietly secrete the remainder in his jacket pocket. Curious, and half suspecting what his intention was, I followed the lad when tea was over, to the fields.
    "Eaten your cake yet?" I said.
    "No, sir," he answered, colouring as though he had done something wrong.
    [-57-] "What are you going to do with it?"
    "Please sir," he stammered, "I'm goin' to take it 'ome to mother. She's ill and can't eat nothink, and I thought as she might manage cake, sir."
    In the train that brought those youngsters down came one white-faced child, who looked faint and ill with the walk to the station.
    The head teacher, who has the history of child at her fingers' end, saw what was the matter.
    "Had no breakfast to-day, Annie?"
    No, ma'am," was the faltering reply.
    There was a crowd of poor mothers at the station come to see the children off. One went out and presently returned with a penny, which she pressed into the child's hand - to buy herself something with. The woman had pawned her shawl for a copper or two in sheer womanly sympathy. Had she had the money about her she needn't have left the station.
    There was a good deal of pawning that morning, I know, from an eye-witness, and all to give the little children a copper or two to spend.
    And what a struggle there had been to get them something decent to wear for that grand day out If all the stories were written that could be told of the privations and sacrifices endured by mothers, that Sally and Jane and Will might look respectable at the treat, your heart would ache. As I don't wish it to, we will not go into the matter.

George Sims, How the Poor Live, 1883