Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - How the Poor Live, by George R. Sims, 1883 - Chapter 6

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CHAPTER VI.

CHAPTER VI.

HE difficulty of getting that element of picturesqueness into these Chapters which is so essential to success with a large class of English readers, becomes more and more apparent as I and my travelling companion explore region after region where the poor are hidden away to live as best they can. There is a monotony in the surroundings which became painfully apparent to us, and were our purpose less earnest than it is we might well pause dismayed at the task we have undertaken.
    The Mint and the Borough present scenes awful enough in all conscience  to be worthy of earnest study; but scene after scene is the same. Rags, dirt, filth, wretchedness, the same figures, the same faces, the same old story of one room unfit for habitation yet inhabited by eight or nine people, the same complaint of a ruinous rent absorbing three-fourths of the toiler's weekly wage, the same shameful neglect by the owner of the property of all sanitary precautions, rotten floors, oozing walls, broken windows, crazy staircases, tile-less roofs, and in and around the dwelling-place of hundreds of honest citizens the nameless abominations which could only be set forth were we contributing to the Lancet instead of the Pictorial World; -these are the things which confront us, whether we turn to the right or to the left, whether we linger in the Mint or seek fresh fields in the slums that lie round Holborn, or wind our adventurous footsteps towards the network of dens that lie within a stone's-throw of our great National Theatre, Drury Lane.
    The story of one slum is the story of another, and all are unrelieved by the smallest patch of that colour which lends a charm to pictures of our poorest peasantry. Cod made the country, they say, and man the town and wretched as is the lot of the agricultural labourer, the handiwork of Heaven still remains to give some relief to the surroundings of his miserable life. Field and tree and flower, the green of the meadow and the hedge, the gold and white of buttercup and daisy, the bright hues of the wild cottage garden,- it is in the midst of these the pigstyes of the rustic poor are pitched, and there is scope for the artist's brush. But in the slums he can use but one colour; all is a monotone - a sombre grey deepening into the blackness of night. Even the blue that in the far-off skies seems to defy the man-made town to be utterly colourless, is obscured by the smoke belched forth from a hundred chimneys ; and when the sun, which shines with systematic impartiality on the righteous and unrighteous alike, is foiled in its efforts to get at these outcasts by the cunning builders, who have put house so close to house that even a sunbeam which had trained down to the proportions of Mddle. Sarah Bernhardt, and then been flattened by a steamroller, could not force its way between the overhanging parapets with any chance of getting to the ground. So what sunshine there is stops on the roofs among the chimney-pots, and is the sole property of the cats of the neighbourhood, who may be seen dozing about in dozens or indulging in a pastime which they have certainly not learnt of their masters and mistresses, namely, washing their faces.
    The cat-life of the slums is peculiar. Dogs are rare, but the cats are as common as blackberries in September. Not over clean and not over fat, the cats of the slums yet seem perfectly contented, and rarely leave the district in which they have been reared. They ascend to the roof early in the day, and stay there long after darkness has set in, and in the choice of a local habitation they show their feline sense. The rooms of their respective owners offer, neither air nor sunshine, and when "the family" are all at home, it is possibly the inability of finding even a vacant corner to curl  up in that drives Thomas to that part of a house which the people of the East consider the best, but which the people of our East have never sought to utilise.
    [-30-] The cats of the slums are certainly domesticated: they marry and have families, and the kittens are the only really pretty things we have seen since we start on our explorations.
    The young of most animals are interesting and picturesque; but a kitten is perhaps the prettiest of all; and a painful contrast is there between the sallow dirty face, the sunken eyes and wizard features of a baby we see sitting on a doorstep nursing one, and the dainty face, blue eyes, and plump pretty figure of the kitten. The mother of the latter has set an example in the matter of philoprogenitiveness and domestic forethought which the mother of the former would do well to imitate.
    There are not wanting those who believe that for the present generation of poor little can be done. I mean, of course, the poor who are sunk in the misery and degradation of slum life. Dirtiness is ingrained in them, and if they had decent habitations provided for them to-morrow, they would no more live in them than a gipsy could settle down under any but a canvas roof.
    Thrift they do not understand, and are too old to be taught; and ordinary decency is a thing of which they have about as much conception as they would have of the aestheticism of Mr. Oscar Wilde or the philosophy of Mr. Herbert Spencer.
    I am not of the school which says that the regeneration of the masses is hopeless, but I freely confess that the great chance of bringing about a new and better order of things lies among the children who are to be the mothers and fathers of the future. In the old Biblical times water and fire were the elements which solved the knotty problem of 

regenerating a seething mass of humanity sunk in the lowest abysses of vice and degradation. The deluge that shall do the work now must come of the opening of the floodgates of knowledge. Already, in tiny rivulets as yet, the waters are trickling even into the darkest corners of our great cities. The flood can never rise high enough to cleanse  those who have grown up ignorant, - at best it can but wet  their feet; but the children cannot escape it,- the waters will gather force and volume and grow into a broad glorious river, through which the boys and girls of to-day will wade breast high until they gain the banks of the Promised Land. 
    It is this river of knowledge which the modern wanderers  

in the wilderness must ford to reach the Canaan which the philanthropist sees waiting for them in his dreams. 
    The first working of the Education Act was fraught with countless difficulties. It was no light task to catch the children of a shifting race, to schedule street Arabs and the offspring of beggars and thieves and prostitutes. But in the course of a few years almost every difficulty has been conquered, and now there is hardly a child above a certain age - no matter how wretched its condition may be - that is not brought within the beneficial influence of education.
    True that many of them come shoeless, ragged, and starving, to learn the three R's, to burthen their scanty brains with sums and tasks while their stomachs are empty and their bodies weakened by disease and neglect; but they have at least their chance. Let us take a school where, perhaps, the poorest children come-a school recruited from such homes as we have familiarised you, with in previous chapters - and see the little scholars at their dainty tasks. Here is a child who is but one remove from an idiot. The teacher has a hard task, for the Government inspector expects all the scholars to make the same progress. This poor waif - the offspring of a gentleman whose present address is Holloway Gaol, and a lady who has been charged seventy-three times with being drunk and incapable - must pass a certain standard before she can leave school; in her case, if she lives, she will pass out by age, for statistics show that no system can make this class of intellect retain a lesson. It is sowing seed upon a rock, and there will be no harvest; but the child has just sufficient intelligence to escape [-31-] the asylum, and between the asylum and the school there is no half-way house.
    Some benefit, at least, she derives from the discipline, the care, and the motherly sympathy of a kind head-mistress, who takes a strong personal interest in her little charges. For so many hours a day at least the child escapes the ghastly surroundings of the den which is her "home."
    Side by side with her sits a pretty, intelligent little girl of nine. This child's eyes are bright with intelligence, the features are pleasing and regular. As she is called forward, she rises and smilingly comes towards us. There is none of that stolid indifference, that mechanical obedience to a 

command which distinguishes too many of the little ones who are here in obedience to the laws. This girl learns quickly, and has had all the better qualities brought out. She is neat, and takes a pride in her personal appearance. She has learnt to be ashamed of dirt, and she is ambitious to be high up in her class. Ambition is the one quality which will help above all others to lift the poor out of degradation. The older race have it not ; hence they are content with their present positions, only seeking to gratify their daily appetites, and caring not a fig for the morrow. This child will do well, whatever she undertakes ; and it is such as she who will survive in the battle of life, and become the mothers of a better and more useful class.
    Yet hers is a sad enough story. Her father was a boatman, and in a drunken rage struck his wife down with a boat hook.
    Hers was the common offence of asking for money. The blow injured the woman's brain, and from that day to this she has been in a lunatic asylum. The father disappeared after the crime, and the child's grandmother took the orphan with living parents in, and out of her scanty earnings kept her. One day this year the old lady passed some men carrying a body found in the river to the dead-house. Curiosity induced her to go in with the crowd, and the face of the dead man was that of her son.
    A back street tragedy-common enough, with a varied plot and incidents in these parts, but, as it stands, the life-story of this child.
    "And your granny keeps you now? " says the teacher, as she concludes the little history and turns to the girl.
    "Yes, teacher; and when I grow up I'm going to keep granny."
    So may it be!
    Here is a group of girls sketched hastily from the hundred in the room. Some of them come from decent homes, and sonic from cellars ; many of their histories arc romances, but they are romances which mostly tend one way-to show the misery, the guilt, and the poverty in which they have been reared ; and to recount them would be but to dwell upon a note which perhaps I have touched too often already.
    [-32-] There are brighter stories, too, to he told of their parents, but none so bright as they will be able to tell of themselves when, after years of discipline and culture, they go forth to lead lives which with their fathers and mothers were impossible.
    Close to the school where the either girls are educated, and in the same building, is the department for infants. Here the children under seven are prepared to pass into the upper department.
    Directly we enter we are struck with the appearance of these children. Bad faces there are among them - bruises and scars, and bandages and rags - but the bulk of these younger children have a generally better appearance than their little neighbours.
    There is a theory in the school, and it is borne out to a certain extent by fact, that some of the youngest and best-looking are the children of girls who just got the benefit of the Education Act before they were too old, and who in their young married life have reaped the benefit of those principles of cleanliness and thrift which the Board School inculcates. The young mothers are already a race far ahead of the older ones in this district, and the children naturally benefit by it. It must be borne in mind that the girls of this class marry or take a mate at a very early age. Many of them have three or four children by the time they are twenty, so that at the time the Education Act came into force, some twelve years ago, they would have been brought under its influence. These young women, too, live in a better way; their room is tidier and cleaner, there is a little coquetry in them, and they have a sense of shame which renders them excellent service. They are anxious about their children's education, they recognise the advantage the discipline and instruction have been to them, and the general tone of their lives is every way a distinct advance on the old order of things.
    I quote these facts because they so fully bear out the theory that Education must be the prime instrument in changing the condition of the poor for the better, whatever results it may have later on upon the condition of the labour market and the political and social questions of the future. The many theories which are put forward about the result of educating the masses, it is not nay province here to discuss; nor need I consider those doctrines which are closely akin to socialism, and which are the favourite arguments of a school of advanced thinkers when discussing the future condition of the masses.
    I have only to confine myself to the facts before me, and I think this great improvement in the children of the young mothers a most important one.
    The best examples are in a room which is a kind of creche. Here the babies can be left by the mothers who have to go out to work, and the tiny mites are looked after with motherly care by a kind-hearted creature whose lot I do not envy. Fancy forty infants, some of them little over two years old, to take care of for eight hours a day. Mothers will appreciate the situation better than I can describe it.
    Look at the illustration on the next page, and you will see the babies at dinner. They have brought their bread and butter with them, and they sit at the little low table enjoying it thoroughly. In the winter, when work is scarce, alas! baby's bread and butter is not always so thick as it is to-day. Sometimes baby has only a dry crust. But there is a lot of the best sort of Christian character knocking about in the Great City, and an excellent society, which provides dinners for poor Board School children, has done much to alleviate this painful state of things. A starving body, a famished child there is no fear of imposture here; and if any one who reads these Chapters wishes to support a truly admirable movement, where there is no fear of abuse, he or she may imitate Captain Cuttle, and, having found a good thing, make a note of it.
    In addition to the dining and play-table there is a long bed in the room. There the tired babies sleep eight or ten in a row sometimes, and forget their baby troubles. The creche as a boon and a blessing to the poor woman who going out to work has a choice of keeping an elder girl at home to nurse the baby and be summoned for it, or locking the said baby up alone in a room all day with the risk to its life and its himb~ inevitable to such a course, not to mention the danger of fire and matches and fits.
    It is therefore with grief I hear that there are to be no more built in Board Schools, and that the cost of maintaining those existing must in future be defrayed by voluntary contributions. The Government objects to the creche department on economical grounds.
    The lady who manages the infants old enough to learn has no easy task, but the order is perfect, and the children drill like little soldiers. Here, too, the stories of many of them reveal a depth of misery not often sounded except in the police-courts.
    Here is a bright, pretty, golden-haired girl of five who

rather upsets my pet theory. She ought to be ugly and dull, if there is anything in breed. Her mamma is seldom out of prison for more than a week. Mamma not having learned Latin does not know the difference between meum and tuum, and is an incorrigible shoplifter and thief. When she is enjoying her liberty, too, she has a habit of tumbling about which is not conducive to health. She has fallen out of a window and damaged the pavement below, and once with a baby in her arms she fell down the stairs of this very school.
    When they picked her up the baby's collar bone was broken, 

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but she was sound enough to exclaim, "If it hadn't ha' been for that blessed baby i'd a broken my neck, I would."
    It isn't every mother who is philosopher enough to recognise the use of a baby in breaking her fall down stairs.
    The father of this little girl, whose counterfeit presentment is here given, is a respectable man; but he has to go a long way away for work, and when papa is in the country and mamma is in goal, some good Sisters of Charity have taken the child and found it a home.
    We have made our notes and taken our sketches, and the children file out of school to dinner and to play.
    One sturdy little chap takes his sister's hand and leads her out like a little father. He has over half a mile to take her 

home. We are told it is a beautiful sight to see him piloting her across the great thoroughfares when the traffic sweeps wildly up and down, and never leaving go the little hand that is placed so trustingly in his till home is reached and the dangers of the streets are over. They are a pretty pair as they toddle out hand in hand, and they form a pleasant picture in this brief sketch of the little scholars who come daily from the garrets and cellars of the slums to get that "little learning which in their cases is surely the reverse of a "dangerous thing."