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The ladies and gentlemen whom I had the pleasure of
introducing to you in the last chapter, had, most of them, some good and
sufficient excuse for the non-attendance of their children at school. Before the
"B" meeting at which we assisted was over, more than one case was
examined, which left the official no option but to take out a summons and run
the risk of one of those amiable lectures which unthinking magistrates now and
again see fit to bestow upon the luckless officer of the Board who has done what
the law compels him to do, and no more.
The parents summoned are in many instances dissolute or careless people, who utterly neglect their offspring, and take no pains to ensure their attending school, or they are crafty, cunning wretches, who see in the law a means of attaining a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Here is a woman who, when asked why her boy of nine has not been to school for a month, declares that he plays
truant, and that he is quite beyond her control. Now the
result of such a complaint is, that the young gentleman will, if the parent
reiterates in court her statement, be sent to a reformatory for five years.
That is just what the good lady wants. Her story is one that may be instructive if not edifying.
Two years ago her husband got ten years' penal servitude or a heavy fracture of his country's laws, leaving her with three children, two boys and a girl. There is a custom in such districts as that of which I write which shortens the period of mourning for a lost mate very considerably. Directly husband "No. 1" gets forcibly removed from the domestic hearth, his place is almost invariably taken by another gentleman, who is master of the situation, and locum tenens with full family honours.
I cannot resist telling a little story a propos of this domestic phase of slum life, which illustrates it rather forcibly. A little girl of eight at one of the schools near the Mint came one morning with a pair of boots on her little feet. This was the first pair of boots she had ever been seen in, and the unwonted magnificence naturally attracted attention.
"Why, Annie, you've got a pair of boots at last, then!" exclaimed the governess.
"Yes, mistress," the child replied," glancing proudly at the battered, second-hand shoes, three times too large for her.
"And where did you get them?"
"One of my fathers gave 'em to me, mistress; the one what's at home this week."
This "father" was evidently a better fellow than most of the nomadic husbands who wander about from family circle to family circle, ready to replace its absent head at a moment's notice. He must have been more generous to another man's child than the "husband" of the lady whose history I have so unceremoniously interrupted, and who wants her boy put away in a reformatory.
Husband "No. 2," I gather from one who knows the history of the case, is a young fellow who objects to "brats," and the "brats" are being got out of the way one by one. The eldest boy was put to thieving, and he is being kept now by the State; the girl took to something worse, and a benevolent society relieved the mother of any future liability on her behalf. And now the good lady comes to the "B" meeting and declares the youngest boy is incorrigible, and hints as broadly as she dare that she should be glad to have him put away as well. She will have her wish, and the boy, whom in all probability she has wilfully kept away and encouraged in his incorrigibleness, will be sent to a reformatory within a fortnight.
Thus you see a wholesale clearance has been made of one family, and the room they took up at home will soon be utilized by new-comers, in the shape of family number two.
A more charming and ingenious way of disposing of incumbrances it is difficult to imagine. It is not, however, by any means uncommon.
Marriage, as an institution, is not fashionable in these districts. Yet so long as cohabitation is possible, that is to say, so long as neither the hospital, the prison, nor the churchyard effects a separation, the couples are fairly faithful, and look upon themselves as man and wife, with the usual marital obligations.
Both parties to the arrangement exhibit great reluctance to "break" of their own free will, and it is marvellous to see the tenacity with which a decent hard-working woman will cling to a ruffian who spends her earnings and blackens her eye, as regularly as Saturday night comes round although he has not the slightest legal claim on her allegiance.
If you ask the couples who live happily together why
[-26-] they don't get married,
some will tell you frankly that they never gave it a thought, others that it's a
lot of trouble and they haven't had time. A clergyman's wife who took intense
interest in a young couple living together in a room in the Mint determined to
make them get married. The young fellow earned fair wages, and was sober and
steady the girl kept her room and her two little children clean and decent, and
was always civil-spoken and pleasant. The good lady who had the entrée of
the place talked to the young man whenever she saw him, and he admitted at last
that, perhaps, the union might as well be made a legal one -"Not that me
and Sall 'ull get on any better, you know, mum, - we couldn't ; but since you've
been on at her she seems to have a bit o' fancy like for to have the marridge
lines, and if you'll tell us how, we'll get it done and over, rnissis."
Delighted with the promise, the lady set to work and prepared everything. She gave the bride a new gown to be married in, and made frocks for the two little ones to come and see their father married; she arranged with her husband to perform the ceremony, and last, but most important, she got the young man a day's holiday without loss of pay from his employers.
The eventful day arrived; the good soul beaming and elated, waited, with a few friends invited to see the interesting ceremony, at the church. The clergyman stood with his book at the altar, but no young couple. Twelve o'clock struck, the clergyman went into the vestry, and put his coat on; and bitterly disappointed at the failure of her little scheme, the good lady sat on for an hour, thinking some delay might have occurred, but after a while she gave it up as a bad job, and departed also.
That evening, in as towering a rage as a clergyman's wife could decently be, she marched off to the Mint, and tackled the delinquents at once. "What did they mean by it?"
The young man was very civil and very apologetic. "He didn't mean to be rude, but the fact was, a mate hearin' he'd got a day off offered him a job at carting as was worth five bob; and you know, mum, I couldn't loose five bob just for the sake o' gettin' married."
I am happy to say that the energetic lady set to work again, got another holiday for the man a week after, and this time "personally conducted " the wedding party to the church, which they did not leave till the young woman was the proud possessor of that by no means common property in the locality, a marriage certificate.
But to return to the "B" meeting. The lady who wants her little boy put away having been disposed of, a decent- looking woman takes her place. She is nursing a baby, and by her side stands a small boy with staring eyes that seem fixed upon nothing in particular - a strange, uncanny, big-headed child, who attracts attention directly.
Mrs. Jones, the mother, is called upon to say why this lad's sister, aged ten, has been absent three weeks.
"Well, I'm very sorry, gen'lemen, but I've had to keep her at house. Ye see, gen'lemen, I haves ruernatics, which takes me all of a nonplush in the joints o' the knees and the ankles of the feet, and then I can't move."
"Yes, but that needn't keep the girl at home. You can nurse the baby even if you have rheumatics."
"Yes, sir, I know ; but it's that boy as is the trouble. Ye see, sir, he can't be lef' not a minnit without somebody as can get after him quick. He's allers scttin' hisself a-fire. He gets the matches wherever we 'ides em, and he lights anything he sees - the bed, the baby, hisself. Bless you, gen'lemen, it's orful ; he can't be off settin' somethin' alight not five minnits together. He ain't right in is ed, sir."
The idiot incendiary paid not the slightest attention ; his wild, strange eyes were wandering about the room, probably for a box of matches with which to set us alight, and make one big blaze of the "B" meeting, chairman, officers, himself, and all.
"And that ain't all, sir: my 'usband's dead, sir; and all we ye got for a livin's a little shop, sir, where we sells drippin', and matches, and candles, and odds and ends;
and I cant t run in and out when I'm so queer, and
the gal's all I've got to do things. I wish you would give her half-time,
The poor woman certainly had her work cut out, with the rheumatics, the baby, the shop, and the idiot incendiary; and the chairman, after a little consultation with the officer, finding the case was a deserving one, granted the half-time; and the woman left evidently considerably relieved, dragging the young gentleman with a tendency to commit hourly arson after her.
The next to put in an appearance was a lady with a wretched-looking face and a shabby, draggled, out-all-night and drunk-in-the-morning appearance generally. Her profession was stated with official bluntness in the paper handed to the chairman. It is generally translated "street-walker" in family circles.
But, whatever she might be, she had children, and the law [-27-] required them to come to school. Instead of making their attendances, learning to read and write, the children were street Arabs. The woman was meek and quiet enough. She promised "She'd see to it," and was reminded that she had
made the same promise before. This time it was not accepted,
and the woman was informed that she would have to appear before a magistrate.
Meekly and quietly she said, "Thank you, sir," as if the chairman had presented her with a medal or a pound of tea, and went out.
The women poured in one after the other - there were very few men, most of them, I suppose, being "at work," whatever that term might imply in their particular case - and they were of all sizes, sorts, and conditions. There were respectable; decent, motherly-looking souls, drunken outcasts, slatternly trollops, half-starved and sickly-looking women, and fat, overwhelming women, who came not to be crushed, but to crush.
One gaunt, fierce-looking lady, with the voice of a man and the fist of a prize-fighter, gave the company a bit of her mind. "Her 'gal' warn't a-coming to be worried with a lot o' stuff. She was delikit, her gal was, and the School Board was murderin' of her."
"What's the matter with her?" asked the chairman.
"Well, it's nervis system, and her teeth growin' out."
"Where's the doctor's certificate that she's too ill to attend?"
"Sitifkit? d'ye think I've got time to go a-gettin' sitifkits - not me - ain't my word good ernuff?"
The School Board officer knows this lady's circumstances, and he whispers something to the chairman. The girl's "nervis system" and dental eccentricities have not prevented her affectionate mother from sending her out hawking every day while she stops at home and drinks.
"Where's your husband?" asked the officer. "I haven't seen him lately. He'll have to be summoned, you know, as you can't get a certificate."
The officer in question has good reason to ask affectionately after the husband. Last year the worthy gentleman got a month for playfully tossing the officer down a flight of hairs on to his head.
"Where's my husband ? Ah ! " says she, purple with passion, " you want to summon him, do you ? Well, then, you jolly well carn't. Gord's got him."
"Dead?" asked the chairman. " Yes - didn't I say so?"
"Then you will be summoned instead."
The lady didn't retire - she had to be diplomatically crowded out, and the last sounds that reached the room as she receded along the corridor, under gentle pressure, were wishes that the chairman and all concerned might go where, at least if her estimate of his whereabouts was correct, they would not have the pleasure of meeting her late lamented consort.
There are some rough customers to deal with in this district - so rough that it is a wonder the Act works so smoothly as it does. The fiercest and most reckless of the lawless classes have to be bearded in their dens by the devoted ill-paid officers, who ferret out the children and insist upon their coming to school. Up to the topmost garret and down to the lowest cellar, in dens and hovels given over to thieves and wantons, I have accompanied a School Board officer on his rounds, and I frankly confess that I have passed a few bad quarters of an hour.
There are dozens of these places where the
blow follows the
word in a moment, where life is held of the least account, and where assaults
are so common that the victims would as soon think of asking the police to
notice their broken windows as to take cognizance of their broken heads.
There is a legend that one of these cellars in the Mint- it fetches 3s. a week rent, by the by- a man killed a woman and left her; and that nobody took any notice until the body got unpleasant, and then they threw it out into the street.
[-28-] The "'appy dossers " are the wretched people who roam about the street houseless, and creep in to sleep on the stairs, in the passages and untenanted cellars of the lodging- horses with the doors open night and day. No policeman's lantern is ever turned on them, and they crowd together in their rags and make a jolly night of it. Sometimes in among them creeps a starving woman, to die from want and exposure ; and she dies while the foul oath and the ribald jests go on; and the "dossers" who are well enough to be "'appy" make such a noise that a lodger, disturbed in his legitimate rest for which he has paid, comes out and lays about him vigorously at the "varmints," and kicks them down stairs, if he can.
Thus not only are many of the licensed lodging-houses and
homes of the poor breeding-houses in themselves for crime, disease, and filth,
but they are, for lack of supervision, receptacles for that which has already
been bred elsewhere, and which is deposited gratis, to swell the collection.
A "'appy dosser" can make himself comfortable anywhere. I heard of one who used to crawl into the, dust-bin, and pull the lid down; but I know that to be an untruth, from the simple fact that none of the dust bins on this class of property have a lid. The contents are left, too, for months to decompose, not only under the eyes of the authorities, but under the noses of the inhabitants. The sanitary inspection of these houses is a farce, and in many cases the vestrymen, who ought to put the law in motion, are themselves the owners of the murder-traps.
How foul, how awful some of these places, where the poor have found their last refuge, from Artisans' Dwelling Acts and Metropolitan improvements, are, I dare not tell you. I have been told that the readers of a shilling book don't care to know, and the difficulties of dealing with this subject are increased by my knowledge of the fact that in a truthful account of " How the Poor Live" there can be but little to attract those who read for pleasure only. Rags - that is to say, the rags of our cold, sunless clime - are never picturesque ; squalor and misery can only be made tolerable by the touch of the romancist - and here I dare not romance.
Bad, however, as things are, shocking as is the condition in which thousands and thousands of our fellow-citizens live from the cradle to the grave, it is not an unmixed evil if out of its very repulsiveness grows a remedy for at.
It has got now into a condition in which it cannot be left. For very shame England must do something, nay, for self- preservation, which is the most powerful of all human motives. This mighty mob of famished, diseased, and filthy helots is getting dangerous, physically, morally, politically dangerous. The barriers that have kept it back are rotten and giving way, and it may do the State a mischief if it [-29-] not looked to in time. Its fevers and its filth may spread to the homes of the wealthy ; its lawless armies may sally forth and give us a taste of the lesson the mob has tried to teach now and again in Paris, when long years of neglect have done their work.
Happily there is a brighter side. Education - compulsory education - has done much. The new generation is learning at least to be clean if not to be honest. The young mothers of the slums - the girls who have been at the Board Schools - have far tidier homes already than their elders. The old people born and bred in filth won't live out of it. If you gave some of the slumites Buckingham Palace they would make it a pigstye in a fortnight. These people are irreclaimable, but they will die out, and the new race can be worked for with hope and with a certainty of success. Hard as are some of the evils of the Education Act, they are outbalanced by the good, and it is that Act above all others which will eventually bring about the new order of things so long desired.
So important a bearing on the home question has the schooling of the children who are to be the rent-payers of the next generation, that I propose to devote the next chapter to sonic sketches of School Board life and character ; and I will take it in one of the worst districts in London, where the parents are sunk in a state of misery almost beyond belief.
I will show you the children at school who come daily to their work from the foulest and dirtiest dens in London - that awful network of hovels which lie about the Borough and the Mint.