Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - How the Poor Live, by George R. Sims, 1883 - Chapter 3

[-back to menu for this book-]



I CANNOT help being struck, in my wanderings through Povertyopolis, with the extraordinary resemblance which Caesar bore to Pompey - especially Pompey. One room in this district is very like the other. The family likeness of the chairs and tables is truly remarkable, especially in the matter of legs. Most chairs are born with four legs, but the chairs one meets with here are a two-legged race - a four-legged chair is a rara avis, and when found should be made a note of. The tables, too, are of a type indigenous to the spot. The survival of the fittest does not obtain in these districts in the matter of tables. The most positively unfit are common, very common objects. What has become of the fittest I hesitate to conjecture. Possibly they have run away. I am quite sure that a table with legs would make use of them to escape from such surroundings.
    As to the bedsteads. they are wretched, broken-down old

things of wood and iron that look as though they had been rescued a little late from a fire, then used for a barricade, afterwards buried in volcanic eruption, and finally dug out of a dust-heap that had concealed them for a century. The bedding, a respectable coal-sack would blush to acknowledge even as a poor relation.
    I have enumerated chairs, tables, and beds-not because they are found in every poor home ; there are several rented rooms which can boast of nothing but four walls, a ceiling, and a floor, but because these articles placed in one of these dens constitute what are euphemistically called "furnished apartments," a species of accommodation with which all very poor neighbourhoods abound.
    The " furnished apartments" fetch as much as tenpence a day, and are sometimes occupied by three or four different tenants during a week.
    The "deputy" comes for the money every day, and it is pay or go with the occupants. If the man who has taken [-15-] one of these furnished rooms for his "home, sweet home," does not get enough during the day to pay his rent, out he goes into the street with his wife and children, and enter another family forthwith.
    The tenants have not, as a rule, much to be flung after them in the shape of goods and chattels. The clothes they stand upright in, a battered kettle and, perhaps, a bundle, make up the catalogue of their worldly possessions.
    This rough-and-ready lodging is the resource of thousands of industrious people earning precarious livelihoods, and they rarely rise above it to the dignity of taking a room by the week. The great struggle is to get over Saturday, and thank God for Sunday. Sunday is a free day, and no deputy comes to disturb its peaceful calm. The Saturday's rent, according to the custom of the country, makes the tenant free of the apartments until Monday.
    It is the custom to denounce the poor as thriftless, and that they are so I grant. The temptation to trust to luck and let every day take care of itself is, it must be remembered, great. Life with them is always a toss-up, a daily battle, an hourly struggle. Thousands of them can never hope to be five shillings ahead of the world if they keep honest. The utmost limit of their wage is reached when they have paid the rent, kept themselves and their horribly large families from starvation, and bought the few rags which keep their limbs decently covered. With them the object of life is attained when the night's rent is paid, and they do not have to hesitate between the workhouse or a corner of the staircase in some doorless house.
    There is a legend in one street I know of  - a man who once saved half-a-crown, and lost it through a hole in his pocket. The moral of that legend may have improved itself upon the whole population and discouraged thrift for evermore; but be that as it may, the general rule is, "what you make in a day, spend in a day." It is needless to add that this precept brings its practisers perpetually within measureable distance of absolute penniless. They live and die on the confines of it. I am wrong; they invariably die on the wrong side of the border, and are buried at somebody else's expense.
    Drink is the curse of these communities; but how is it to be wondered at? The gin-palaces flourish in the slums, and fortunes are made out of men and women who seldom know where to-morrow's meal is coming from.
    Can you wonder that the gaudy gin-palaces, with their light and their glitter, are crowded? Drink is sustenance to these people ; drink gives them the Dutch courage necessary to go on living ; drinks dulls their senses and reduces them to the level of the brutes they must be to live  in such styes.
    The gin-palace is Heaven to them compared to the Hell of their pestilent homes. A copper or two often obtained by pawning the last rag that covers the shivering children on the bare floor at house will buy enough vitriol madness to send a woman home so besotted that the wretchedness, the anguish, the degradation that await her there have lost their grip. To be drunk with these people means to be happy. Sober - God help them! - how could they be aught but wretched.
    There is not only temptation to drink wrought by the fearful surroundings of the poor; a positive craving for it is engendered by the foul and fetid atmosphere they continually breathe. I have often wondered that the advocates of temperance, with the immense resources of wealth and organisations they command, have not given more attention to the overcrowding and the unsanitary condition of the dwellings of the poor, as one of the great causes of the abuse of stimulants.
    It is not only that crime and vice and disorder flourish luxuriantly in these colonies, through the dirt and discomfort bred of intemperance of the inhabitants, but the effect upon the children is terrible. The offspring of drunken fathers and mothers inherit not only a tendency to vice, but they come into the world physically and mentally unfit to conquer in life's battle. The wretched, stunted, mis-shapen child-object one comes upon in these localities, is the most painful part of our explorers' experience. The county asylums are crowded with pauper idiots and lunatics, who owe their wretched condition to the sin of the parents, and the rates are heavily burthened with the maintenance of the idiot offspring of drunkenness.
    The drink dulls every sense of shame, takes the sharp edge from sorrow, and leaves the drinker for a while in a fool's paradise. Here is the home of the most notorious "drunkardess"- if I may coin a word - in the neighbourhood. Mrs. O'Flannigan's room is easily entered, for it is on the street level, and one step brings us into the presence of the lady herself. She is in bed, a dirty red flannel rag is wrapped about her shoulders, and her one arm is in a sling. She sits up in bed at the sight of visitors, and greets us in a gin and fog voice slightly mellowed with the Irish brogue. Biddy has been charged at the police-courts seventy-five times with being drunk, and she is therefore a celebrated character. She is hardly sober now, though she has evidently had a shaking which would have sobered most people for a month. Her face is a mass of bruises and cuts, and every now and then a groan and a cry to certain Saints in her calendar tell of aches and pains in the limbs concealed under the dirty blanket that covers the bed.
    "I'm a pretty sight now, ain't I, gintlemen dear?" she says, with a foolish laughs. " Shure and I got blind drunk again last Saturday, and they run me in. The inspector let me out o' Sunday: God bless him for a rale gintleman. They carried me on a stretcher, bless yer hearts, and I kicked. Ha! ha! ha! " The hag positively yelled with laughter as she thought of the scene she caused and the trouble she gave the police.
    Suddenly she looks round as if in search of something.
    "Molly, ye young varmint, where are ye?" she shouts, and presently, from under the bed, where it lay crouching in fear, she drags a child, a wretched little girl of seven or eight, with its face and head a covered with sores, that make one shudder to look at them.
    "There, Molly, ye young varmint, show yourself to their honours, will ye?"
    The child begins to snivel. One of our number is the Board School officer of the district, and Molly has not been to school lately.


howthe-18.gif (108425 bytes)

    [-17-] Mrs. O'Flannigan explains.
    "Ye see,. I can't use my limbs just yet, yer honour, and Molly - Lord love her! - she's just the only thing I got to look afther me. I might be burned in my blessed bed, yer honour and not able to move."
    "You should give up getting drunk," I ventured to suggest; "then you wouldn't want a nurse."
    "You're right, your honour. It's the drink. Yer see, I can't help it. I ain't been sober for five years - ha! ha! ha! - and it's all thro' the trouble as come to me. My boy got into bad company and got lagged and put away for ten years, and I've never been the same since, and it broke nay heart, and I took to the drink. And now my old man's took to drink thro' aggravation o' me, and he gets drunk every night of his blessed life. Ha! ha! ha!"
    The woman's story is practically true. Before her trouble

she and her husband were costermongers and hawkers of fruit. The first of the evils of the foul slums where honest workers are forced to live, fell upon them in the ruin of the boy reared in a criminal atmosphere. The vicious surroundings were too strong for him, and he became a thief and paid the penalty.
    The mother sees her son - idolised in her rough way - taken from her; the den of a home becomes doubly wretched, and the cursed drink-fiend is invoked to charm the sorrow away. That is the first step "to drown sorrow.'' The steps after that are easy to count. The woman becomes an habitual drunkard, the rooms they live in get dirtier and smaller and fouler, and at last the husband drowns his sorrow too. "Aggravation" and a constant association with a drunken woman turn the poor fellow to evil ways himself and a whole family are wrecked, that under better  circumstances might have been good and useful citizens. Had these people been able to get a decent room among decent people, the first misfortune that sent them wrong might never have happened. Their case is the case of hundreds.
    Of drinking-shops there are plenty in these places ; of eating-houses, or shops for the sale of food, very few. So rare are the latter that when we come to one in a dirty, tumble-down street, we stop and examine the contents of the window. I don't know whether to call it a tart-shop, a baker's, or a dripping emporium. There seems to be a little bit of each about it, and half a rice-pudding, and a ham-bone, on which a bluebottle has gone to sleep - tired out perhaps with looking for the meat - give it the faintest suspicion of being an eating-house. There is also in the window a dilapidated bloater which looks as though it had been ruts over by an omnibus many years ago.
    It is while taking notes of the contents of this tempting emporium of luxuries that we become aware of a very powerful perfume. It seems to rise from beneath where we are standing, and used as we are by this time to the bouquets of the east, we involuntarily step back and contort the muscles of our faces.
    Then we see that we have been standing on a grating. Peering down we can just see into a gloomy little room. To the opened window presently there comes a man in his shirt-sleeves and looks up at us. His face is deadly white, the eyes are sunken, the cheek bones hollow, and there is a look in his face that says more plainly than the big ticket of the blind impostor, "I am starving.'' Starving down below there, with only a thin floor between himself and the ham-bone, the ancient herring, the rice pudding, and the treacle tarts.
    As the noisome effluvia rises and steams through the [-18-] grating we begin to appreciate the situation. This food shop is directly over the cellar which gives the odour forth. Pleasant for the customers, certainly. We determine to

push our investigation still further, and presently we down in the cellar below.
    The man in his shirt-sleeves - we can guess where coat is - receives us courteously. His wife apologises

the wretched condition of the room. Both of them speak with that unmistakable timbre of voice which betokens a smattering of education. In the corner of the room is a heap of rags. That is the bed. There are two children, a boy and a girl, sitting on a bare hearth and gazing into the fast dying embers of a wretched fire. Furniture the room has absolutely none, but a stool roughly constructed of three pieces of unplaned wood nailed together.
    Four shillings a week is the rent of the cellar below the pie-shop - the foul smell arises from the gradual decay of the basement and the utter neglect of all sanitary precautions.
    The man (who has only one arm) is out of work this week, he tells us, but he is promised a job next. To tide over till then is a work of some difficulty, but the "sticks" and the "wardrobe" of the family have paid the rent up to now. As to meals - well, they hain't got much appetite. The stench in which they live effectually destroys that. In this instance even bad drainage has its advantages, you see.
    Before the man lost his arm he was a clerk; without a right hand he is not much good as a penman in a competitive market. So he goes on as timekeeper in a builder's

yard, as a messenger, or as anything he can get a few shillings at for a living.
    The children have not been to school. "Why?" asks the officer who accompanies us. "Because they've no boots, and they are both ill now." It is true. The children, pale, emaciated little things, cough a hard rasping cough from time to time. To show us how bad they are they set up a perfect paroxysm of coughing until the mother fetches them a smack, and inquires "how they expect the gentleman to hear himself speak if they kick up that row?"
    The children's boots have gone with the father's coat, and at present it does seem hard to say that the parents must be fined unless the children come barefooted through the sloppy streets to school.
    Such, however, is the rule, and this boot question is an all-important one in the compulsory education of the children of the slums. How to get the boots for Tommy and Sarah to go their daily journey to the Board School [missing word, ed.] [-19-] problem which one or two unhappy fathers have settled by hanging themselves behind the domestic door.
    The difficulties which the poor have in complying with the demands of the Education Act are quite unsuspected by the general public. They are so numerous, and the histories revealed by their investigation are so strange, that I propose in the next Chapter to ask the reader to accompany me to a meeting at which the parental excuses for non- attendance are made. This is a meeting at which the parents who have been summoned for the non-attendance of their children adduce what reasons they can why they should not be summoned before a magistrate.
    I will let the mothers and fathers tell their own tale, and give a few statistics which I fancy will be revelation to many who are at present in sublime ignorance of