Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - How the Poor Live, by George R. Sims, 1883 - Chapter 13

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WITH the present chapter I bring this series of Papers to a close. I have endeavoured briefly to present to the reader a few of the phases of existence through which their poorer brethren pass. I have necessarily left untrodden whole acres of ground over which a traveller in search of startling revelations might with advantage have journeyed. But startling revelations were not the objects I and my collaborator had in view when we undertook these sketches. Our object was to skim the surface lightly, but sufficiently to awaken in the general mind an interest in one of the great social problems of the day. A few of the evils of the present system of overcrowding and neglected sanitation, I have the courage to believe, have been brought home for the first time to a world of readers outside the hitherto narrow circle of philanthropists who take an active interest in the social condition of the masses.
    One word with regard to the many letters which have appeared in the Pictorial World, and which have reached us privately. There seems a very general and a very earnest desire among the writers to do something for the people on whose behalf we have appealed to their sympathy.
    While fully appreciating the kind-heartedness and the generous feelings evoked, I cannot help regretting that in too many instances the idea prevails that charity can ameliorate the evils complained of. I have been grievously misunderstood if anything I have said has led to the belief that all Englishmen have to do to help the denizens of the slums and alleys is to put their hands in and pull out a sovereign or a shilling.
    It is legislation that is wanted, not almsgiving. It is not a temporary relief, but a permanent one, that can alone affect, in any appreciable manner, the condition of the one-roomed portion of the population of great cities.
    Charity is to be honoured wherever it is found, but charity unless accompanied by something else, may do more evil than good. There are in London scores and scores of men and women who live by getting up bogus charities and sham schemes for the relief of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of pounds pass annually through the hands of men whose antecedents, were they known, would make a careful householder nervous about asking them into his hall if there were any coats and umbrellas about.
    I am not a thick and thin supporter of the C.O.S. At various times I have been bitterly opposed, both to its theories and its practices; but it certainly has done an immense deal of good in exposing some of the scoundrels who appeal to the best sympathies of human nature under absolutely false pretences.
    It is not so long ago that a man who had been convicted of fraud was found the flourishing proprietor of a mission to the poor, or something of the sort, and whose annual income for two years past had been over a couple of thousand pounds, against an expenditure in tracts, rent, and blankets of one hundred and thirty-six pounds.
    In another instance, the promoter of a charity which had been in a flourishing condition for years, actually had his villa at St. John's Wood, and kept his brougham - his total source of income being the charity itself.
    If I quote these cases here it is not to hinder the flow of the broad, pure stream of charity by one single obstacle, but to show such of my readers as may need the hint how dangerous and delusive it is to think that careless alms-giving is in any shape or form a real assistance to the poor and suffering.
    People who wish to do good must give their time as well as their money. They must personally investigate all those cases they wish to relieve, and they must set about seeing how the causes which lead to misery and suffering can be removed.
    How are the evils of overcrowding-how are the present miseries of the poor to be removed-in what way can the social status of the labouring classes be permanently raised? Not by collecting-cards or funds, not by tracts or missions, but by remedial legislation - by State help and State protection, and by the general recognition of those rights of citizenship which should be as carefully guarded for the lowest class as for the highest
    We live in a country which practically protects the poor and oppressed of every land under the sun at the expense of its own. We organise great military expeditions, we pour out blood and money ab libitum in order to raise the social condition of black men and brown - the woes of an Egyptian, or a Bulgarian, or a Zulu, send a thrill of indignation through [-62-]

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[-63-] honest John Bull's veins. and yet at his very door there is a race so oppressed, so hampered, so utterly neglected, that its condition has become a national scandal.
    Is it not time that the long-promised era of domestic legislation gave some faint streaks of dawn in the parliamentary sky? Are we to wait for a revolution before we rescue the poor from the clutches of their oppressors? are we to wait for the cholera or the plague before we remedy a condition of things which sanitarily is without parallel  civilised countries?
    There is a penalty for packing cattle too closely together - why should there be none for improperly packing men and women and children? The law says that no child shall grow up without reading, writing, and arithmetic; but the law does nothing that children may have air, and light, and shelter.
    No one urges that the State should be a grandmother to the citizens, but it should certainly exercise ordinary parental care over its family.
    To quote an instance of the gross neglect of the interests of the poor by the State, take the working of the Artisans' Dwelling Act. Space after space has been cleared under the provision of this Act, thousands upon thousands of families have been rendered homeless by the demolition of whole acres of the slums where they hid their heads, and in scores of instances the work of improvement has stopped with the pulling down. To this day the cleared spaces stand empty - a cemetery for cats, a last resting-place for worn-out boots and tea-kettles. The consequence of this is, that the hardships of the displaced families have been increased a hundredfold. So limited is now the accommodation for the class whose wage-earning power is of the smallest, that in the few quarters left open to them, rents have gone up too per cent, in five years - a room which once let for  2s. a week is now 4s. Worse even than this, the limited accommodation has left the renters helpless victims of any extortion or neglect the landlords of these places may choose to practise.
    The tenants cannot now ask for repairs, for a decent water supply, or for the slightest boon in the way of Improvement. They must put up with dirt, and filth, and putrefaction-with dripping walls and broken windows, with all the nameless abominations of an unsanitary hovel, because if they complain the landlord can turn them out at once, and find dozens of people eager to take their places who will be less fastidious. It is Hobson's choice - that shelter or none - and it is small wonder that few families are stoical enough to move from a death-trap to a ditch or a doorstep for the sake of a little fresh air. The law which allows them the death-trap denies them the doorstep - that is a property which must not be overcrowded.
    Now, is it too much to ask that in the intervals of civilizing the Zulu and improving the condition of the Egyptian fellah the Government will turn its attention to the poor of London and see if in its wisdom it cannot devise a scheme to remedy this terrible state of things ?
    The social, moral, and physical improvement of the labouring classes is surely a question as important say as the condition of the traffic at Hyde Park Corner, or the disfigurement of the Thames Embankment. If one-tenth of the indignation which burst forth when a ventilator ventured to emit a puff of smoke on the great riverside promenade to the injury of the geraniums in Temple Gardens could only be aroused over the wholesale stifling and poisoning of the poor which now goes on all over London, the first step towards a better state of things would have been taken.
    Why does that indignation find no stronger outlet than an occasional whisper, a nod of the head, a stray leading article, or a casual question in the House sandwiched between an inquiry concerning the Duke of Wellington's statue and one about the cost of cabbage-seed for the kitchen-garden at Buckinghmam Palace ?
    The answer probably will be, that up to a recent date the magnitude of the evil has not been brought home to the general public or the members of the legislature. M.P.'s  do not drive through the Mint or Whitechapel, nor do they take their constitutional in the back slums of Westininster and Drury Lane. What the eye does not see the heart does not grieve after, and the conservative spirit born and bred in Englishmen makes them loth to start a crusade against any system of wrong until its victims have begun to start a crusade of their own, to demonstrate in Trafalgar Square, and to hold meetings in Hyde Park. There is a disposition in this country not to know that a dog is hungry till it growls, and it is only when it goes from growling to snarling, and from snarling to sniffing viciously in the vicinity of somebody's leg, that the somebody thinks it time to send out a flag of truce in the shape of a bone. We don't want to wait until the dog shows its teeth to know that he has such things. We want the bone to be offered now - a good marrowy bone with plenty of legislative meat upon it. He has been a good, patient, long-suffering dog, chained to a filthy kennel for years, and denied even a drink of clean water, let alone a bone, so that the tardy offering is at least deserved.
    It would be easy to show how the amelioration of the condition of the lower classes would be beneficial to the entire community, but it is scarcely worth while to put the question on such low grounds. The boon craved should come as an act of justice, not as a concession wrung from unwilling hands by fear, or granted with interested motives.
    Briefly, and narrowing the question down to its smallest dimensions, what is wanted is this. The immediate erection on cleared spaces of tenements suitable to the classes dislodged. A system of inspection which would not only cause the demolition of unhealthy houses, but prevent unhealthy houses being erected - a certain space should be insisted on for every human being inhabiting a room - say 300 cubic feet for each person, and this regulation should be enforced by inspection of labouring-class dwellings, the enforcement of proper sanitary regulations, and a higher penalty for any breach of them ; the providing of increased bath and washing accommodation in every crowded district; - the erection of proper mortuaries in every parish, and the preservation in every district of certain open spaces to act as lungs to the neighbourhood - all these should be items in any remedial scheme. Beyond this, the poor should be [-64-] encouraged in every possible way to decentralise. They must at present all crowd round the big centres of employment, because the means of travelling to and fro are beyond the reach of their slender purses. But if a system of cheap conveyance by tram or rail for the working-classes could be developed, they would scatter themselves more and more about the suburbs, and by their own action reduce the exorbitant rents they are now called upon to pay.
    Again, there should be in all new blocks of tenements built for this class accommodation for the hawkers and others who have barrows which they must put somewhere, and who are compelled at times to house the vegetable and animal matter in which they deal. A man who sells cabbages in the streets cannot leave his unsold stock to take care of itself at night, so he takes it home with him. At present he and his family generally sleep on it in their one room, but lock-up sheds and stabling for donkeys and ponies would obviate all the evils of the present system. The men are quite willing to pay for a little extra accommodation, and the removal of the mischief which comes of whole areas polluted with decaying vegetable matter is at least worth an experiment.
    The density of the population in certain districts, and the sanitary defects of the tenements, are at present absolute dangers to the Public Health. On this ground alone it is desirable to agitate for reform; but there is a broader. ground still - humanity. It is on that broad ground - I venture to ask those who by these scant sketches of a great evil have become in some slight way acquainted with it, to raise their voices and give strength to the cry which is going up at last for a rigid and searching inquiry into the conditions under which the Poor of this vast city live.
    To leave the world a little better than he found it, is the best aim a man can have in life, and no labour earns so sweet and so lasting a reward as that which has for its object the happiness of others. 
    Public opinion boldly expressed never fails to compel the obedience of those who guide the destinies of states. Public opinion is a chorus of voices, and the strength of that chorus depends upon the manner in which each individual member of it exerts his vocal power. How long the scandal which disgraces the age shall continue depends greatly, therefore, good reader, upon your individual exertions. If aught that has been written or drawn here, then, has enlisted your sympathy, pass from a recruit to a good soldier of the cause, and help with all your will and all your strength to make so sad a story as this impossible when in future years abler pen - and pencil than ours shall perhaps once again attempt to tell you- 


George Sims, How the Poor Live, 1883