Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - How the Poor Live, by George R. Sims, 1883 - Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII.

    ONE of the greatest evils of the overcrowded districts of London is the water supply. I might almost on this head imitate the gentleman who wrote a chapter on Snakes in Iceland, which I quote in its entirety- "There are no snakes in Iceland." To say, however, that in these districts there is no water supply would be incorrect, but it is utterly inadequate to the necessities of the people. In many houses more water comes through the roof than through a pipe, and a tub or butt in the back yard about half full of a black, foul-smelling liquid, supplies some dozens of families with the water they drink and the water

they wash in as well. It is, perhaps, owing to the limited nature of the luxury that the use of water both internally and externally is rather out of favour with the inhabitants. As to water for sanitary purposes, there is absolutely no provision for it in hundreds of the most densely-inhabited houses. In the matter of water and air, the most degraded savage British philanthropy has yet adopted as a pet is a thousand times better off than the London labourer and his family, dwelling in the areas whose horrors medical officers are at last divulging to the public.
    The difficulties of attaining that cleanliness which we are told is next to godliness may be imagined from the contemplation of this butt, sketched in the back yard of a house containing over ninety people. The little boy in his shirt-sleeves has come to fill his tin bowl, and we are indebted to him for the information that he wants it for his mother to drink. The mother is ill - has been for weeks - her lips are burning with fever, her throat is dry and parched, and this common reservoir, open to all the dust and dirt with which the air is thick, open to the draining in rainy weather of the filthy roof of the tumble-down structure beside it, this is the spring at which she is to slake her thirst. Is it any wonder that disease is rampant, or that the Temperance folk have such trouble to persuade the masses that cold water is a good and healthy drink?
    Remember, this is absolutely the supply for the day; it is, perhaps, turned on for about five minutes, and from this butt the entire inhabitants of the house must get all the water they want. In dozens of instances there is n supply at all-accident or design has interfered with it and the housewife who wants to wash her child's face or her own, or do a bit of scrubbing, has to beg of a neighbour or make a predatory excursion into a backyard more blessed than her own.
    Some of the facts about the water supply are not easy to deal with in articles for general reading, nor do they lend themselves to the art of the illustrator. The hewer of wood has found plenty of scope in this series, but the difficulties of the "drawer of water" are great. It was while I and my esteemed collaborator were debating how we could possibly reproduce much that we had seen in connection with this crying evil that a gentleman came along and gave us the chance of at least one sketch "on the spot." You observe him busy at the side of a tub - a tub from which his neighbours will fill their drinking and their culinary vessels anon. Do not imagine that he is engaged in his morning ablution. He is washing his potatoes - that is all - and in the evening he will take them out baked, and sell them in the public highway. For the sake of the public I am glad they will be baked, but though the water will in some instances be boiled, I don't think that tea is improved by the dirt off potato-skins - at least I have never heard so.
    Perhaps at the house where this tub was sketched the inhabitants were not so much injured as they might have been by the deficient water supply in the yard. If they didn't get water in one way, they generally had it in another. The law of compensation is always at work, and the rapacity of a landlord who left his tenants so badly off in one particular way may have been a godsend in another.
    The water in rainy weather simply poured through the roof of this house, saturating the sleepers in their beds and washing their faces in a rough-and-ready manner, but unfortunately it didn't rain towels at the same time, so that the bath had its inconveniences.
    The cause of these periodical shower-baths was pointed out to us by a tenant who paid four and sixpence a week for his "watery nest" in the attic, and who, in language which did not tend to show that his enforced cleanlincss had brought godliness in its train, explained that the land lord had taken the lead from the roof and sold it, and [-40-]

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[-41-] replaced it with asphalte, which had cracked with the result above described.
    Unacquainted with the stern necessities of the situation, you will contemplate the picture and say that these people are idiots to pay rent for such accommodation. What are they to do? - Move. Whither ? They know well how they will have to tramp from slum to slum, losing work, and the difficulties which will beset them on this room-hunt. They are thankful to have a roof even with cracks in it, and they will go on suffering-not in silence, perhaps, but

without taking action, because they know if they go further they may fare worse.
    The accommodation which these people will put up with is almost incredible.
    Some of the houses are as absolutely dangerous to life and limb as those specially built up on the stage as pitfalls for the unwary feet of the melodramatic heroes and heroines led there by designing villains in order that they may fall through traps into dark rivers and so be got rid of.
    Here is a house which has been slowly decaying for years; the people who live in it must be competent to accept engagements as acrobats, yet from floor to roof every room is densely inhabited.
    The stairs are rotten, and here and there show where some foot has trodden too heavily. The landing above is a yawning gulf which you have to leap, and leap lightly, or the rotten boarding would break away beneath you. Open a door and look into a room. There are two women and three children at work, and the holes in the floor are patched across with bits of old boxes which the tenants have nailed down themselves.
    The place is absolutely a shell. There is not a sound a room or passage in it. Yet it is always crammed with tenants, and they pay their rent without a murmur - nay, within the last year the rents of the rooms have been raised a nearly twenty-five per cent.
    The gentleman who inhabits the ground-floor with his wife and family is best off. He is a bit of a humorist, and he seems quite proud of pointing out to us the dilapidations of his dwelling-place, and takes the opportunity to indulge in what the gentlemen of the theatrical persuasion call "wheezes."
    [-42-] "Come thro'," he says; " well, no, I can't say as anybody have come through, not altogether. We sees a leg o' somebody sometimes as we ain't invited to join us, and now and agen a lump o' ceilin' comes down when the young woman up stairs stamps her foot, but so long as they don't start a dancin' acadermy up there, I don't mind."
    "But haven't you spoken to the landlord about it?"
     "Spoke! Lor' bless you! wot's the use? He'd larf at us, and if he was to larf too loud it might be dangerous. He won't do nothink. The place is bound to come down, yer know, by and by, for improvements.''
    Possibly the man's explanation of the landlord's neglect was correct, but to us it certainly appeared that the place was more likely to come down for lack of improvements. Going to bed under such circumstances as these must require a good deal of confidence, but I suppose the contingency of the floor above descending on one in one's sleep does not have the same terror for these people that it had for the nervous hero of that story of Edgar Allan Poe's, in which the room with contracting walls and descending roof was supposed to be a horror worthy of the inventive genius of the gentlemen of the Inquisition.
    Of course, when the ordinary repairs demanded by consideration for the safety of life and limb are left undone, and the most ordinary sanitary precautions are neglected, it is not likely that the present race of poor tenement-owners will listen to the appeals of those tenants whose livelihood - depends upon them keeping animals, and make some provision for the housing of pigs and the stabling of donkeys.
    Strange, too, as it may seem, in the houses which are being built on improved principles, no provision is made for the harrows and donkeys of the costermonger - a class which enters very largely into the composition of the one-roomed tribes. Some time ago a man was charged with assaulting his wife, and at the magisterial hearing it was elicited that the matrimonial quarrel was all on account of a donkey which slept under the bed.
    The magistrate was naturally astonished. He didn't believe such a state of things possible. Doubtless his wonder was shared by the public. The presence of a donkey in the apartment of a costermonger and his family is, however, by no means rare, and quite recently a zealous sanitary inspector has discovered a cellar inhabited by a man, his wife, three children, and four pigs.
  
The presence of animals not exactly regarded as domestic is a feature of certain poor districts of London. Fowls roost nightly in dozens of bedrooms in the back streets; - and only the other day a score of those miserable tortoises that one sees on barrows destitute of the smallest vestige of green stuff, and probably enduring the most prolonged agony, were discovered crawling about the floor of a costermonger's attic among his progeny, only slightly inferior in point of numbers to the poor animals themselves.
    It is a great complaint of the men, who as a rule are hardworking, honest fellows enough in their way, and thrifty too when they can keep away from the temptation of drink, that so little attention is being paid to their needs in the many schemes for improved dwellings for the industrial classes.
    In some of the cases where the accommodation for ponies and donkeys may fairly be called "stabling,'' the entrance is through the passage of a house densely inhabited, and the animals are led in and out daily in such a manner as to be a nuisance to the occupants, while the stables, being so close to the windows of the room and kept in anything but good order, are a constant danger to health.
    I have been assured by an old inhabitant of the costers' quarters that he knew a donkey who went upstairs to the third floor every night to go to bed ; but old inhabitants are not to be relied upon, and I give you this story for what it is worth.
    Of one thing, however, no one who personally investigates the poorer districts of great cities can remain in doubt. There are there hidden away from general observation marvels as great as any of those which the enterprising Farini imports from the Cannibal islands, the dismal swamps, the deserts and jungles of the savage world, for the amusement and edification of the shilling-paying public. Missing links abound, and monstrosities are plentiful. Some of the terrible sights which we have seen we have too much respect for the readers' feelings to reproduce. Now and again the revelations of some police court send a shudder through society. Children starved and stunted and ignorant as the lowest beasts of the forest are unearthed in foul dens where they have passed their little lives chained to the walls, or pounced upon by the police, led to the discovery by the tavern gossip of the neighbours. Grown women who have lived naked in underground cellars, and long ago lost their reason, are found one fine morning by the merest accident while their gaolers are away. On these hidden horrors of unknown London I need not dwell here. The history of Horrible London has yet to be written, but the brutality which makes many of these terrible things possible is largely due to the circumstances under which the poor live. rue careless disregard of human life and human suffering which has so long characterised us as a nation must bear fruit. The waste of human life brought about by the conditions under which the poor are allowed to live breeds in them a contempt for the sufferings of others. They become hardened, and the cruelty at which we shudder is their second nature. All that is best and holiest in life there is nothing to encourage - only the ferocious instincts of the brute are fostered by a state of existence in which the struggle for the very air men breathe is bitter and intense.
    Says a philanthropist, who has gone to the root of this appalling subject:- " In these districts men live in little more than half the space their corpses occupy when dead Think of it. Penetrate the awful places where vice and squalor, crime and brutality reign supreme; where the oath of the gin-maddened ruffian, the cry of the trampled wife, and the wail of the terrified child ring out night and day; where all is one fierce ferment in a hell upon earth, where day brings no light, and night no rest, and ask yourself what manner of fruit these forcing-houses can bear.
    When some one bold enough shall write "Horrible [-43-] London," and the black page lies open that all may read, - then, and not till then, will the enormity of the responsibility be recognised of those to whom the power to do so much has been given and who have done so little.
    That work is for stronger hands than mine to do. I am content here to chronicle such lights and shadows of life among the poor as fall across my paths in a journey round the outskirts only of the dark continent in our midst.

Here is an incident which, pathetic enough, has yet its humorous side. Here is a boy of eight years old in petticoats, a big, strong, healthy lad. His father is a dock labourer, and this is how he was brought forward as a candidate for some cast-off clothing which a director of the East and West India Dock Company was generously distributing.
    The dock labourers are a distinct class among the East-end poor, and I hope at some future time to give the reader a glimpse of life among them. How hard their struggle is my be gathered when their boys have to go till eight and mine years old in petticoats because the parents cannot afford to buy them knickerbockers or trousers.