Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - How the Poor Live, by George R. Sims, 1883 - Chapter 7

[-back to menu for this book-]

[-34-]

CHAPTER VII.

    If I were asked to say off-hand what was the greatest curse of the poor and what was the greatest blessing, I think my answer to the first query would be the public-house, and to the second the hospital. Of course, I might be wrong. There are some people who will contend that in these islands the greatest blessing of the natives of all degrees is that they are Great Britons. Our patriotic songs bid us all rejoice greatly at the fact, and patriotism is not a class privilege. The starved outcast, crouching for shelter on a wild March night in one of the stone recesses of

London Bridge, has a right to exclaim with the same pride as the Marquis of Westminster- 
    "Far as the breeze can bear the billows' foam,
    Survey our empire and behold our home."
His soul, for all we know, may rejoice greatly that Britannia rules the waves, and in spite of the fact that a policeman spying him out as "without the visible means of subsistence" may seize him and consign him to durance vile, he - the outcast, not the policeman - may ponder with much national vanity on the fact that Britons never shall be slaves.
    Out upon the parochial-minded disciples of the Birmingham school, who pretend that a nation can be very great abroad and yet very small at home! "Survey our Empire" is a noble line, and there is another about the Queen's morning drum which has a magnificent ring about it, and crops up in patriotic leading articles about twice a week all the year round. It is, however, just possible that the vast extent of British rule does not come home so pleasurably to my friend on the bridge as it does to the well-fed, prosperous citizen of Jingo proclivities who believes that Heaven's first command to an Englishman was, "Thou shalt remove thy neighbour's landmark." The poor wretch may "survey" his "empire" with a feeling of anything but contentment, and he may be tempted to wish that we had a little less empire to look after abroad in order that a little attention might be bestowed upon the place where charity begins.
    Even at the risk of being pronounced unpatriotic, I shall, therefore, maintain my contention that the greatest blessing of the poor is the hospital - that noble institution of which Englishmen of all classes and all creeds may reasonably be proud.
    Sickness, disease, and accident enter very largely into the annals of the poor. Overcrowding, and unsanitary dwellings - all the ghastly surroundings of poor life in a [-35-] great city, which I have attempted feebly to describe in these papers - render the masses peculiarly susceptible to illness in every shape and form. Epidemics of some sort or other are rarely absent from the poorer districts, and many painful diseases and deformities are transmitted regularly from parent to child. To be sound of limb and well in health in these dens is bad enough, but the existence of an invalid under such circumstances is pitiable to a degree. The hospitals are the heavens-upon-earth of the poor. I have heard little children - their poor pinched faces wrinkled with pain - murmur that they didn't mind it, because if they had been well they would never have come to "the beautiful place." Beautiful, indeed, by contrast with their wretched homes are the clean wards, the comfortable beds, and the kind faces of the nurses. Step across from the home of a sick child in the slums of the Borough to the Evelina Hospital, and it is like passing from the infernal regions to Paradise. To this noble charity little sufferers are often brought dirty, neglected, starving; and even the nurses, used as they are to such sights, will tell you their hearts ache at the depth of baby wretchedness revealed in some of the cases brought to them. Passing from cot to cot, and hearing the histories of the little ones lying there so clean, and, in spite of their suffering, so happy, one is inclined to think that the charity is a mistake - that to nurse these children back to health only to send them again to their wretched homes us a species of refined cruelty. It were better in dozens of cases that the children were left to die now, while they are young and innocent, than that death should be wrestled with and its prize torn from it only to be cast back into a state of existence which is worse than death. The children have some dim inkling of this themselves. Many of them cry when they are well, and cling to the kind nurses, asking piteously not to be sent back to the squalor and dirt, and often, alas ! cruelty, from which they have been snatched for a brief spell. Here is a child at home and the same child in the hospital. Contrast the surroundings. Look on this picture and on that, and then say if there is not at least some ground for such a train of thought as the Hospital for Sick Children suggested to me!
    The elder people doubtless appreciate the blessings of the hospital as much as the children. The poor generally speak in the highest terms of such institutions. They could not, as a rule, lie ill at home ; care and attention would be impossible; and for a sick person the atmosphere would mean certain death. Doctors they cannot afford to pay. The class of practitioners who lay themselves out for business in these neighbourhoods are not, as a rule, much more than nostrum and patent-medicine vendors, and their charges are generally extortionate. If you could bring yourself to imagine truthfully the condition of the sick poor without the hospitals to go to, you would see a picture of human misery so appalling that you would cover your eyes and turn away from it with a shudder. Yet there are such pictures to be seen. There are cases which, from varying circumstances, do not go to the hospital. There are men and women who lie and die day by day in these wretched single rooms, sharing all the family trouble, enduring the hunger and the cold, and waiting without hope, without a single ray of comfort, until God curtains their staring eyes with the merciful film of death.
    It was such a case we came upon once in our wanderings, and which, without unduly harrowing the reader up, I will endeavour to describe.
    The room was no better and no worse than hundreds of its class. It was dirty and dilapidated, with the usual bulging blackened ceiling, and the usual crumbling greasy walls. Its furniture was a dilapidated four-post bedstead, a chair, and a deal table. On the bed lay a woman, young and with features that before hourly anguish contorted them had been comely. The woman was dying slowly of heart disease. Death was "writ large" upon her face. At her breast she held her child, a poor little mite of a baby that was drawing the last drain of life from its mother's breast. The day was a bitterly cold one; through the broken casement the wind came ever and anon in icy gusts, blowing the hanging end of the ragged coverlet upon the bed to and fro like a flag in a breeze. The wind roared in the chimney too, eddying down into the fireless grate with a low howling noise like the moan of a Banshee round a haunted house. To protect the poor woman from the cold her husband had flung on it his tattered great coat - a garment that the most ancient four-wheel night cabman would have spurned as a knee protector. " He was a plumber," she whispered to us in a weak, hollow voice; "he had been out of work for a week, and he had gone out to try and look for a job." One shivered to think of him wearily trudging the streets this bitter day, half clad and wholly starved; what must have been his torture as he failed at place after place, and the day wore on and brought the night when he would have to return to the poor dying wife with the old sad story?
    As one realised the full meaning of this little domestic tragedy, and knew that it was only one of many daily enacted in the richest city in the world - the scene of it laid not a mile from the full tide of all the pomps and vanities of fashion, of all the notorious luxury and extravagances which is the outward show of our magnificence and wealth, it was hard to repress a feeling of something akin to shame and anger - shame for the callous indifference which bids one half the world ignore the sufferings of the other-anger that with all the gold annually borne along on the broad stream of charity so little of it ever reaches the really deserving and necessitous poor.
    The house this poor woman lay dying in was one of a block which would have been a prize to a sanitary inspector anxious to make a sensational report. For the room in question the plumber out of work had to pay four and six-pence, and the broken pane of glass the landlord had refused to replace. The man was told "he must do it himself, or if he didn't like it as it was he could go."
    Such stories as this are painful, but they should be told. It is good for the rich that now and again they should he brought face to face with misery, or they might doubt its existence. These people - our fellow-citizens - cannot be neglected with impunity. These fever and pestilence- breeding dens that are still allowed to exist, these death-

[-36-]

howthe-41.gif (101887 bytes)

[-37-]traps out of which vestrymen and capitalists make large annual incomes, are a danger to the whole community.
    While I am on this subject, I may as well quote an instance which bears directly upon the interest - the selfish interest - which the better classes have in lending their voices to swell the chorus of complaints which is going up about the present state of things.
    Here is an "interior" to which I would call the special attention of ladies who employ nurse-girls for their children. This room when we entered it was in a condition beyond description. The lady was washing the baby, and she made that an excuse for the dirt of everything else. Two ragged boys were sitting on the filthy floor, a dirty little girl was in a corner pulling a dirty kitten's tail, and the smoke from the untidiest grate I ever saw in my life was making the half-washed baby sneeze its little head nearly off. The family, all told, that slept in this room was seven. There was a bed and there was a sofa - so I concluded the floor must have been the resting-place of some of them. "The eldest girl" - materfamilias informed us in answer to our questions - was gone out. She slept on the sofa. We knew somebody had slept there, because some rags were on it which had evidently done duty as bed-clothes.
    Outside this room, which opened on to a back yard, was a dust-bin. We didn't want eyesight to know that - it appealed with sufficient power to another sense. Inside was an odour which made the dust-bin rather a relief.
    I have described this place a little graphically for the sake of that eldest girl. It is not from any gallantry to the fair sex that I have done this, but because the young woman in question was, I ascertained, a domestic servant. She was a nursemaid just home from a place at Norwood, and in a week she w'as going to a place at Clapham. I remembered, as I gazed on the scene, a certain vigorous letter from Mr. Charles Reade which appeared in the Daily Telegraph some years ago about servants "pigging with their relations at home," and wanting the best bed-room and a feather-bed with damask furniture when in service. I never so thoroughly realised what "pigging with their relations" meant before.
    Now if you will take the trouble to think out the possible result of girls going from such pigstyes as these straight into well-to-do families, where they will nurse the children and be constantly in the closest contact with the younger members of the family, I think you will see that the dangers of unhealthy homes for the poor may be equally dangerous to a better class. I should like to know how many families now mourning the loss of a little child from fever, or the death of some dear one from small-pox, would have been spared their sorrow had the existence of such places as I have described been rendered impossible by the action of the law!
    I do not imagine for one moment that I have seen, or that I am likely to see, the worst phases of the evil which has become one of the burning questions of the hour. But what I have written about I have in every case seen with my own eyes, and in no case have I exaggerated; and yet more than one of my kindly correspondents doubt my story of the dead body being kept and eventually put out into the street.
    With regard to this, let the reader in doubt ask any sanitary inspector or officer of health to whom he can get an introduction if it is not an appalling fact that the poor have grown so used to discomfort and horrors that they do not look upon a corpse in the room they live, and eat, and sleep In as anything very objectionable!
    It often happens there is no money to pay for the funeral, and so, with that inertness and helplessness bred of long years of neglect, nothing at all is done, no steps are taken, and the body stops exactly where it was when the breath left it. 
    The following incident I take haphazard from the reports of Dr. Liddle, whose recent statement has even attracted Parliamentary attention and led to a question in the House:-

PROLONGED RETENTION OF A DEAD BODY IN A ROOM OCCUPIED BY A FAMILY.

    Mr. Wrack reports that, on visiting No. 17, Hope Street, Spital fields, he found in the room of the second floor the dead body of a child who had died fifteen days before the time of his visit. The room, which contained 1,176 cubic feet of space, was occupied by the parents of the dead child and a daughter aged thirteen years. the body was in a decomposed state. The reason assigned for not burying the child at an earlier period was that the father had no means to do so, and that his friends had failed to render him the assistance which they had promised. Mr. Wrack having pointed out the danger of keeping a dead body so long in the only room occupied by the family, application was made to the relieving officer, and the body was buried on the following day.

Fifteen days! Fancy that! with the knowledge you have by this time of the size and condition of the room in which the corpse remains mixed up with the living inmates day and night. Here are two more cases. Note the fact that in the first the child has died of scarlet fever, and that tailoring work is going on around it-work which when finished will be carried, in all human probability, with the germs of disease in it to the homes of well-to-do and prosperous people - a class which too frequently objects to be worried with revelations of the miseries of the masses.

PROLONGED RETENTION OF A DEAD BODY IN A ROOM OCCUPIED BY A FAMILY.

Mr. Wrack reports that, upon visiting No. 28, Church Street, Spitalfields, on the 5th December last, he found in the second floor front room the dead body of a child which had died of scarlet fever on the 1st of the month. The body was not coffined, and it lay exposed on a table in one corner of the room. the room was occupied as a living and sleeping room by five persons, viz., the father and mother, their child, a girl about three years old, and by two adults, viz., the grandfather and grandmother of the child, who were engaged at tailors' work. The child was playing on the floor. The room was about fourteen feet square and eight feet high, thus affording only 260 cubic feet of space to each person. The smell on entering the room was most sickening. Upon remonstrating with the people for keeping the body so long unburied, and especially for not having it coffined, they replied that they were waiting to raise the means for burying it and, being Irish, said that it was not heir custom to coffin their dead until the day of the funeral. The body was not buried until the 9th of December, and then it had to be buried by the parish authorities.
    Mr. Wrack also visited  No. 24, Princes Street, Spitalfields, on the 5th January, and found in the second floor front room the dead body of an aged woman, who died on Christmas Day. The room was occupied by the daughter of the deceased, a person about 40 years of age, who lived and slept in the same room. Upon asking the reason of her keeping the body so long unburied, she stated that she had been waiting for suitable things to be made for the funeral and upon asking when the funeral would take place, she stated that the body would hot be [-38-] buried until the 8th January, a period of fifteen days from the death. The Board had no power to compel the removal of the corpse, as there is no mortuary belonging to the Board in the district.

    I want to drive this nail home, though it is the practice itself I should prefer to knock on the head. Here are three more cases. Let rue quote them, and have done with the subject. 

PROLONGED RETENTION OF DEAD BODIES.

There have been three cases of prolonged retention of the dead in rooms occupied as living and sleeping rooms. One of these cases was that of a child who died at No. 26, King Street, Spitalflelds, and whose body was retained for nine days, the parents stating that they were inside to raise sufficient money to bury it. During the time the body was kept it became so offensive that it was necessary to remove it to a shed at the rear of the house. Eventually the father applied to the relieving officer, and obtained an order for the burial of the body. Another case was that of a young man who died of consumption at to, Royal Mint Street. The body of this young man was kept for eight days in the room in which his father and mother lived and slept.
    The third case was that of a child three weeks old, who died at No. 5, Devonshire Place, Whitechapel. The body of this child was kept in the room occupied by its parents for a period of twelve days, and at the time of the visit of the inspector the smell from it was most offensive.
    Although in each of these cases everything was done by the officer of this Board and by the relieving officer to induce the respective parties to bury their dead before a nuisance was occasioned, yet to a certain extent their efforts were unavailing. 
    As such cases are of frequent occurrence, it is certainly full time that power was given to magistrates to order the burial without delay of every corpse which is certified to be a nuisance or dangerous to the public health.

    It is necessary a great many things were done. It is necessary, above all, that the direct attention of the State should be given to the whole question, but the Home Secretary says there is "no time" to attend to such matters. The question which led to this answer and the Home Secretary's statement in full were as follows:-

SANITARY CONDITION OF WHITECHAPEL.

    Mr. Bryce asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether his attention had been called to the two last reports presented to the Whitechapel District Board of Works by the Medical Officer of health on the sanitary condition of the Whitechapel district, in which he condemned, as unsanitary and ill-arranged, several new buildings recently erected in that district, and expressed the opinion that amendments in the existing Building Acts were urgently required ; and whether, if sufficient powers to prevent the erection or order the closing of unsanitary dwellings were not now possessed by local authorities, he would undtertake to bring in a Bill to amend the Building Acts in this important particular, by investing the proper local authorities with such powers. 
    Sir W. Harcourt said he would be glad to introduce Bills upon this sod many other subjects, but there was no time for them. -Evening Standard, June 18, 1883.

    "No time!"
    It is well, with that answer ringing in our ears, to turn to the Parliamentary proceedings and discover what the important questions are which are engrossing the entire attention of the Legislature, and leaving "no time" for such a matter as the constant menace to public health which exists in the present system of "Housing the Poor."  I wil1 not enumerate them, or I might be tempted into a political disquisition which would be out of place ; but the reader can, with considerable profit to himself, find them and make a note of them.
    The list of important measures which have consumed the session and left "no time'' for this question will be instructive and amusing - amusing because the discussions which have taken up the time of the House contain in themselves all the elements of screaming farce.
    And talking of screaming farce I am reminded by my collaborator that Mr. J. L. Toole is in his sketch-book, and

I have never given an opportunity for him to be introduced yet.
    Room by all means, and at once for Mr. J. L. Toole - not the Toole of Toole's Theatre-the popular comedian who has made tomfoolery a fine art and burlesque a science, but his living, breathing image as he appeared to us, voice, and gesture, at the door of a house at which we lately knocked in search of information as to the profits of hat-box making.
    Our J. L Toole didn't tell us - he was very funny - he cracked wheezes that even John Laurence himself might give off without blushing.
    He suggested that while we were about it perhaps "he might as well tell us who he worked for as how much he got, and then we could go round and offer to make hat-boxes a halfpenny a dozen under." We didn't get much out of our J. L Toole except his portrait, and that was taken entirely without his permission, and is herewith presented gratis to our readers.