Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - How the Poor Live, by George R. Sims, 1883 - Chapter 2

[-back to menu for this book-]



S I glance over the notes I have jotted down during my journey through outcasts' land, the delicacy of the task I have undertaken comes home to me more forcibly than ever. The housing of the poor and the remedy for the existing state of things are matters I have so much at heart that I fear lest I should not make ample use of the golden opportunities here afforded me of ventilating the subject. On the other hand, I hesitate to repel the reader, and, unfortunately, the best illustratons of the evils of overcrowding are repulsive to a degree.
    Perhaps if I hint at a few of the very bad cases it will be sufficient. Men and women of the world will be able to supply the details and draw the correct deductions ; and it is, after all, only men and women of the world whose practical sympathy is likely to be enlisted by a revelation of the truth about the poor of great cities.
    Come with me down this court, where at eleven o'clock in the morning a dead silence reigns. Every house is tenanted, but the blinds of the windows are down and the doors are shut. Blinds and doors! Yes, these luxuries are visible here. This is an aristocratic street, and the rents are paid regularly. There is no grinding poverty, no starvation here, and no large families to drag at the bread-winner. There is hardly any child-life here at all, for the men are thieves and highway cheats, and the women are of the class which has furnished the companions of such men from the earliest annals of roguedom.
    The colony sleeps though the sun is high. The day with them is the idle time, and they reap their harvest in the hours of darkness. Later in the day, towards two o'clock, there will be signs of life ; oaths and shouts will issue from the now silent rooms, and there will be fierce wrangles and fights over the division of ill-gotten gains. The spirit of murder hovers over this spot, for life is held of little account. There is a Bill Sikes and Nancy in scores of these tenements, and the brutal blow is ever the accompaniment of the brutal oath.
    These people, remember, rub elbows with the honest labouring poor; their lives are no mystery to the boys and girls in the neighbourhood ; the little girls often fetch Nancy's gin, and stand in a gaping crowd while Nancy and Bill exchange compliments on the doorstep, drawn from the well of Saxon, impure and utterly defiled. The little boys look up half with awe and half with admiration at the burly Sikes with his flash style, and delight in gossip concerning his talents as a "cribcracker", and his adventures as a pickpocket. The poor-the honest poor-have been driven by the working of the Artizans' Dwellings Acts, and the clearance of rookery after rookery, to come and herd with thieves and wantons, to bring up their children in the last Alsatias, where lawlessness and violence still reign supreme.
    The constant association of the poor and the criminal class has deadened in the former nearly all sense of right and wrong. In the words of one of them, "they can't afford to be particular about their choice of neighbours." I was but the other day in a room in this district occupied by a widow woman, her daughters of seventeen and sixteen, her sons of fourteen and thirteen, and two younger children Her wretched apartment was on the street level, and behind it was the common yard of the tenement. In this yard the previous night a drunken sailor had been desperately maltreated and left for dead. I asked the woman if she had not heard the noise, and why she didn't interfere. "Heard it?" was the reply; "well, we ain't deaf, but they're a rum lot in this here house, and we're used to rows. There ain't a night passes as there ain't a fight in the passage or a drunken row; but why should I interfere? Tain't no business of mine." As a matter of fact, this woman, her grown-up daughters, and her boys must have lain in that room night after night, hearing the most obscene language, having a perfect knowledge of the proceedings of the vilest and most depraved of profligate men and women forced upon them, hearing cries of murder and the sound of blows, knowing that almost every crime in the Decalogue was being committed in that awful back yard on which that broken casement looked, and yet not one of them had ever dreamed of stirring hand or foot. They. were saturated with the spirit of the place, and though they were respectable people themselves they saw nothing criminal in the behaviour of their neighbours.
    For this room, with its advantages, the widow paid four and sixpence a week; the walls were mildewed and streaming with damp, the boards as you trod upon them made the slushing noise of a plank spread across a mud puddle in a brickfield: foul within and foul without, these people paid the rent of it gladly. and perhaps thanked God for the luck of having it. Rooms for the poor earning precarious livelihoods are too hard to get and too much in demand now for a widow woman to give up one just because of the trifling inconvenience of overhearing a few outrages and murders.
    One word more on this shady subject and we will get out into the light again. I have spoken of the familiarity of the children of the poor with all manners of wickedness and crime. Of all the evils arising from this one-room system there is perhaps none greater than the utter destruction of innocence in the young. A moment's thought will enable the reader to appreciate the evils of it. But if it is [-11-] had in the case of a respectable family, how much more terrible is it when the children are familiarised with actual immorality.
    Wait outside while we knock at this door.
    Knock, knock.-No answer!
    Knock, knock, knock!
    A child's voice answers, " What is it?"
    We give the answer - the answer which has been our "open, sesame" everywhere-and after a pause a woman opens a door a little and asks us to wait a moment. Presently we are admitted. A woman pleasing looking and with a certain refinement in her features holds the door open for us. She has evidently made a hurried toilet and put on an ulster over her night attire. She has also put a

brass chain and locket round her neck. There is a little rouge left on her cheeks and a little of the burnt hairpin colour left under her eyes from overnight. At the table having their breakfast are two neat and clean little girls of seven and eight.
    They rise and curtsey as we enter. We ask them a few question, and they answer intelligently - they are at the Board School and are making admirable progress - charming children, interesting and well-behaved in every way. They have a perfect knowledge of good and evil - one of them has taken a Scripture prize - and yet these two charming and intelligent little girls live in that room night and day with their mother, and this is the den to which she snares her dissolute prey.
    I would gladly have passed over this scene in silence, but it is one part of the question which directly bears on the theory of State interference. It is by shutting our eyes to evils that we allow them to continue unreformed so long. I maintain that such cases as these are fit ones for legislative protection. The State should have the power of rescuing its future citizens from such surroundings, and the law which protects young children from physical hurt should also be so framed as to shield them from moral destruction.
    The worst effect of the present system of Packing the Poor is the moral destruction of the next generation. Whatever it costs us to remedy the disease we shall gain in decreased crime and wickedness. It is better even that the ratepayers should bear a portion of the burthen of new homes for the respectable poor than that they should have to pay twice as much in the long run for Prisons, Lunatic Asylums, and Workhouses.
    Enough for the present of the criminal classes. Let us see some of the poor people who earn an honest living - well, "living " perhaps, is hardly the word - let us say, who can earn enough to pay their rent and keep body and soul together.
    Here is a quaint scene, to begin with. When we open the door we start back half choked. The air is full of floating fluff, and some of it gets into our months and half chokes us. When we've coughed and wheezed a little we look about us and gradually take in the situation.
    The room is about eight feet square. Seated on the floor [-12-] is a white fairy - a dark-eyed girl who looks as though she had stepped straight off a twelfth cake. Her hair is pow-

dered all over a la Pompadour, and the effect is bizarre. Seated beside her is an older woman, and she is white and twelfth-cakey too. Alas, their occupation is prosaic to a degree. They are simply pulling rabbit-skins - that is to say they are pulling away all the loose fluff and down and preparing the skins for the furriers, who will use them for cheap goods, dye them into imitations of rarer skins, and practise upon them the various tricks of the trade.
    Floor, walls, ceiling, every inch of the one room these people live and sleep in, is covered with fluff and hair. How they breathe in it is a mystery to me. I tried and failed, and sought refuge on the doorstep. The pair, working night and day at their trade, make, when business is good, about twelve shillings a week. Their rent is four. This leaves them four shillings a week each to live upon, and as there is no one else to share it with them, I suppose they are well-to-do folk.
    The younger woman s appearance was striking. Seated on the floor in an Eastern attitude, and white from top to toe-the effect of her dark eyes heightened by the contrast - she was a picture for an artist, and my fellow-worker made excellent use of his pencil, while I engaged her and her mother in conversation.
    These people complained bitterly of their. surroundings, of the character of the people they had to live among, and of the summary proceedings of their landlord, who absolutely refused to repair their room or give them the slightest convenience.
    "Then why not move?" I ventured to suggest. "Four shillings a week - ten guineas a year for this pigstye - is an exorbitant rent - you might do better."
    The woman shook her head. "There's lots o' better places we'd like to go to, but they won't have us. They object to our business. We must go where they'll take us."
    "But there are plenty of places a little way out where you can have two rooms for what you pay for this."

    "A little way out, yes; but how are we to get to and fro with the work when it's done? We must be near our work. We can't afford to ride."
    [-13-] Exactly! And therein lies one of the things which reformers have to consider. There are thousands of these families who would go away into the suburbs, where we want to get them, if only the difficulty of travelling expenses to and from could be conquered. They herd together all in closely packed quarters because they must be where they can get to the dock, the yard, the wharf, and the warehouses without expense. The highest earnings of this class is rarely above sixteen shillings a week, and that, with four or five shillings for rent, leaves very little margin where the family is large. The omnibus and the train are the magicians which will eventually hid the rookeries disappear, but the services of these magicians cost money, and there is none to spare in the pockets of the poor.
    In another room close to these people, but if anything in a more wretched condition still, we come upon a black man sitting with his head buried in his hands. He is suffering with rheumatics, and has almost lost the use of his limbs.

The reason is evident. His wife points to the bed in the corner against the wall, the damp is absolutely oozing through and trickling down the wall. The black man is loquacious. He is a hawker, and can't go out and lay in a stock, for he hasn't a penny in the world. He is stone broke. He is a Protestant darkie, he informs us, and is full of troubles. Two boys are lolling about on the floor. At our entrance a shock-headed ragged girl of ten has crawled under the bed. The Protestant darkie drags her out and explains she is "a-bringin' him to his grave with sorrer- she's a bad gel and slangs her mother". The P. D. doesn't know how he's going to pay his rent or where the next meal's coming from. He stands outside "a corffee shop" generally, when he can get about, and the lady as keeps it, bless her - she's a rare good on to me - she's a fallen angel, that's what she is " but he can't go and hawk nothing, else he'd be took up. "I ain't got no capital, and, faith of a Protestant darkie, I'm defunct."
    The man has a host of quaint sayings and plenty of the peculiar wit of the nigger breed, but his position is undoubtedly desperate.
    The rent of the death-trap he lives in with his wife and family is four and sixpence, and his sole means of subsistence is hawking shrimps and winkles when they are cheap, or specked oranges and damaged fruit. He has at the best of times only a shilling or two to lay out in the wholesale market, and out of his profit he must pay his rent and keep his family. I suspect that the "fallen angel" is often good for a meal to the poor darkie, and I learn that he is a most respectable, hardworking fellow "How do you do when you're stone broke?" I ask him. "Well, sir, sometimes I comes across a gentleman as gives me a bob and starts me again."
    The shot hits the mark, and we leave the Protestant darkie grinning at his own success, and debating with his wife what will be the best article in which to invest for the day's market.
    Honest folks enough in their way, these,-keeping themselves to themselves and struggling on as best they can, now "making a bit over," and now wondering where on earth the next sixpence is to come from. Just up the street is a house with an inscription over it which tells us we can find within a very different class to study. This is a licensed lodging-house, where you can be accommodated for 4d. or 6d. a night. This payment gives you during the day the privilege of using the common kitchen, and it is into the common kitchen we are going. We walk into the passage, and are stopped by a strapping young woman of about eight and twenty. She is the deputy. "What do we want ?" 
       Once again the password is given, and the attitude of the lady changes. She formally conducts us into a large room, where the strangest collection of human beings are crowded together. It is sheet-washing day, and there is a great fire roaring up the chimney. Its ruddy glare gives a Rembrandtisb tone to the picture. Tables and forms run round [-14-]the room, and there is not a vacant place. Men, women, and children are lolling about, though it is midday, apparently with nothing to do but make themselves comfortable. The company is not a pleasant one. Many of the men and women and boy are thieves. Almost every form of disease, almost every kind of deformity, seems crowded into this Chamber of Horrors. The features are mostly repulsive an attractive face there is not among the sixty or seventy human beings in the room. Some of them are tramps and hawkers, but most of them are professional loafers, picking up in any way that presents itself the price of a night's lodging. They are a shifting population, and rarely remain in one house long. Some of them only get a night in now and then as a luxury, and look upon it as a Grand Hotel episode. They sheep habitually in the open, on the staircases, or in the casual ward. The house we are in is one where Nancy and Sikes come often enough when they are down on their luck. Here is a true story of this very place, which will perhaps illustrate sufficiently the type of its frequenters.
    Some time last year two men left the house one morning. They were going into the country on business. One, whom I will call John, kissed his mistress, a girl of twenty, and said "Good-bye," leaving her at the house; he wouldn't be away long, and he and Bill, his companion, set out on their travels.
    A day or two after Bill returns alone, the girl asks him where her sweetheart is. "He's lagged," says Bill. But the girl has a bit of newspaper, and in it she reads that "the body of a man has been found in some woods near London; and she has an idea it may be John. "Oh, nonsense," says Bill-I quote the evidence- "he then lit his candle, and they retired to rest." John, as a matter of fact, had been murdered by his companion, they having quarrelled over the division of the proceeds of the burglary; and eventually this young woman, who so readily transferred her affections from one lord to another, appeared in the witness-box and deposed to pawning boots and other things for Bill which were undoubtedly the proceeds of a robbery at a house chose to where the body was found.
    This is the house in which we stand where the burglary was planned whence the murderer and the murdered set out together on their fatal journey. It was at one of these tables that the young girl discussed her absent lover's fate with her new lord his murderer, and it was here that the police came to search for him and found the girl whose evidence helped to hang him.
    Look at the people who sit there to-day - murderers and burglars some of them, cheats and pickpockets others, and a few respectable folks as far as their opportunities will allow. But remember that dozens of really respectable families who have to frequent these places nosy, and mix with malefactors day and night, because there are no other places open to them.
    Among all the cruelties practised on the poor in the name of Metropolitan Improvements this one deserves mentioning - that the labourer earning a precarious livelihood with his wife and his children have been driven at last to accept the shelter of a thieves' kitchen and to be thankful for it.