Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - How the Poor Live, by George R. Sims, 1883 - Chapter 9

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CHAPTER IX.

 

THESE pages would be incomplete without at least a passing reference to some of the many efforts which have already been made to deal with the evils arising from the condition of things it has been my desire to expose.
    The mere charitable work going on I have not space to deal with. There are night refuges, missions, and many excellent institutions due to public and private enterprise in all the poorer quarters, all of which in a manner more or less satisfactory afford relief to the inhabitants.
    One good work, however, which I do not care to leave hiding its light under a bushel, is the home for factory-girls, managed by the Sisters of St. John the Baptist, Clewer, and situated in Southwark.
    Here, girls employed in the many factories of the neighbourhood during the day can, if they are willing to submit to the rules, find a real home for a small weekly payment, and escape the wretched and too often vicious surroundings of the places in which their parents live.
    With a full knowledge of all the temptation which besets the work-girls who have to spend their leisure in these slums none can doubt the good work such institutions may do.
    On the night of our visit we were conducted from basement to roof by one of the Sisters; we saw the girls and heard their histories from their own lips, and learnt how terrible was the sin and misery which had forced them to look upon their vile homes with loathing, and how fierce the temptation which beset them when left to themselves.
    These girls are of the class which most deserve help; they work hard at dangerous trades for their living, and

they pay for their food and board. What the charity does is to throw a certain home influence around them, give them cleanliness and godliness, and preserve them to some extent from the contamination of the streets - streets here which are thronged at night with the worst types of humanity the great city can show.
    The story of the Mission is romantic. A lady Mrs. Hun [-44-] was left a young widow. After less than two years of married life her husband died suddenly. She devoted herself to her own daughter, who grew up into a beautiful girl. The morning after her first ball the young lady was found dead in her bed. To assuage her grief and keep from breaking down utterly, the bereaved mother determined to devote herself to charity. The fearful condition of the young girls in this neighbourhood was brought to her attention, and with her fortune and her dead daughter's she devoted herself to establishing a home for factory-girls.
    Such is the short and simple story of how this excellent institution was founded. How it is carried out, how the girls cling to the Home, and how thoroughly they appreciate its comforts, any lady can see who cares to take a trip as far as Union Street, Borough, and ring the bell of the All Hallows' Mission-House.
    The work which these girls have to do in return for a small wage is generally of a dangerous character. Many of them literally snatch their food from the jaws of death.
    One girl in the Home was white and ill and weak, and her story may be taken as a sample. She worked at the "bronzing," that is, a branch of the chromo-lithography business, and it consists in applying a fluid, which gives off a poisonous exhalation, to certain work. Bronzing enters largely into the composition of those Christmas pictures which delight us so much at the festive season, and which adorn the nursery of many a happy, rosy-checked English child.
    The law recognising the dangerous nature of the works says that the girls doing it shall be allowed a pint of milk per day, the milk in some way counteracting the effect of the poison the girls inhale. It will hardly be believed that some of the best firms refuse to comply with the regulation and if the guts complain they are at once discharged.
    Now, the wages paid are seven shillings per week. To keep at their employment it is necessary that the workers take castor-oil daily, and drink at least a pint of milk. They must either pay for these luxuries out of their scanty earnings or go without, and eventually find their way to the hospital.
    Take another trade - the fur-pulling. The women and girls employed at this are in some shops locked in the room with their work, and have to eat their food there.
    If you had ever seen a room crowded with girls pulling the fluff from cats, rabbits, rats, and goodness knows what other animals, you would appreciate the situation better. The fluff, the down, and the small hairs smother everything, and are necessarily swallowed by the occupants of the room with pernicious effect. Yet it is the custom of some of the men in the trade to force their employees to eat under such circumstances, that is, to swallow their food thickly coated with the hairs from which nothing can preserve it.
    Why do not the women refuse? Because they would be discharged. There are always hundreds ready and eager to take their places. The struggle for bread is too fierce for the fighters to shrink from any torture in its attainment. With the dangers of the white-lead works, which employ a large number of these families, most people are now familiar; at least, those who read the inquests must be. In addition to the liability to lead-poisoning, in many of these works the machinery is highly dangerous. In spite of the Employer's Liability' Act, the victims of machinery accidents - that is, when they are women or children - rarely get compensation.
    The hospitals are full of accidents from these causes often the negligence is that of a fellow-workman, but in at least half-a-dozen cases I have investigated not one shilling of compensation has the victim obtained.
    Saw-mills, and places where steam and circular saws are used, employ a large number of boys. If you were to give

a tea-patty to saw-mill boys, the thing that would astonish you would be the difficulty of finding half-a-dozen of your guests with the proper number of fingers.
    I know one little lad who is employed at pulling out the planks which have been pushed through the machine by men, and he has one hand now on which only the thumb is left. Then there is the lemonade-bottling, which is another industry largely employing the lads of poor neighbourhoods. The bottles are liable to burst, and cases of maiming are almost of daily occurrence. The bottlers are obliged to wear masks to protect their faces, but their hands are bound to be exposed to the danger.
    These are a few of the dangerous and unhealthy occupations by which the poor live, and I have enumerated those largely practised by children. I have done so show how little we can wonder if for lack of a protecting arm, or that parental love which is, alas, so rare a thing in the very poor districts, these boys and girls yield to the first [-45-] temptation to go wrong, and instead of risking life and limb for a paltry wage, take to those paths of vice which we have it on the highest authority are always the most easy of access.
    As we leave the home of the factory girls we come upon a scene which illustrates the life outside. A big crowd of foul-mouthed, blackguardly boys and girls, with a few men and women among them, are gathered round two girls who are fighting fiercely. They have quarrelled, a bystander tells us, in the adjacent public-house about a young man. He is considered her legitimate property by one lady, and the said lady has surprised him treating her rival to gin. Neither of the girls are more than seventeen, I should say, yet they are fighting and blaspheming and using words that make even myself and my collaborator shudder, used as we are by this time to the defiled Saxon of the slums.
    "Go it, Sal," yells a female friend, and Sal goes it, and the boys and girls stand round and enjoy the spectacle, and add their chorus of blasphemy and indecency to the quarrel duet of the Madame Angots of the gutter
    I had nearly forgotten an incident which occurred when we were in the factory-girls' home, and which is not without its lesson as showing the value even these girls attach to social position. One young lady was introduced to us as having a sweetheart who always brought her home of an evening with great punctuality. "What is your sweetheart? I asked. "A boot-finisher; was the answer. "Where does he work - at what firm? " "He works just by Fenchurch Street Station. "Is it a large bootmaker's?" "Well, it ain't exactly a bootmaker's; he's a shoeblack." I never heard a shoeblack called a boot-finisher before, but I think the euphemism was allowable in a young lady who wishes to exalt the commercial status of her intended.
    I alluded in a recent Chapter to the costermongers as a large and worthy class. Since that Chapter was written I have explored a district which is almost exclusively inhabited by them - a portion of St. Luke's. To what I have already written let me add that until now I had not the slightest conception that things were so bad as they really are. My visit was early in the morning, before the men and women had gone out with their loads. If you could have seen the condition of the rooms and yards piled up with rotting vegetable refuse, and the way in which the cabbages and the fruit were stowed for the night, and where they were stowed, it would have cured such among you as are fond of a bargain at the door from ever patronising a barrow again.
    Out of the fetid one room where man and wife and family slept they carried the stuff that their neighbours were to eat. It had passed the night with them, and the green-stuff was decidedly faded and languid. It was piled on the barrow, and then soused with dirty water, and so wheeled away to be cried up and down the streets of London.
    No wonder diseases are spread if from such poisoned fever-breeding dens as this the food is carried with all its impurity day after day to be hawked from door to door!
    I do not blame the costers. They must get where there is an open space for their barrows handy, some bit of waste land where houses have been condemned and pulled down. They stack their harrows here, taking off one wheel and carrying it home, that their property may not be wheeled off in the night. But areas with this waste land are limited, so up go the prices, and the coster must pay. In Green - Arbour Court, St. Luke's, I came upon a man who was paying eight shillings a week for one miserable room, and all round the district the very vilest accommodation fetches something very near that figure.
    Eight shillings a week for one room! Surely a class that can pay that must be worth catering for even by the five per cent. philanthropists.
    Some time ago there was a scheme to build a goods station in this district, and before the Bill could be considered Parliament required a labouring-class statement, that is, a statement of the number of poor people who would be displaced.
    On looking through the figures I find that to build this station about 3,000 poor people would have to be turned out of their houses.
    It is the pulling down of area after area for the purpose of building large warehouses and railway stations, and that sort of thing, which is, of course, at the root of the overcrowding. The accommodation becomes more limited year after year, and the property built as dwelling-houses under the Artisans' Dwelling Act does not, as I have pointed out before, offer any accommodation to the class displaced.

    In another district I made a discovery which I fancy must be unique. I found a public house which was a high way for traffic. You went out of a street into a bar - you walked straight through and found yourself in a network of courts behind. I found on inquiry that for years the public house had been used as a footpath, and I have no doubt it was found highly convenient by ladies and gentlemen in hurry to escape observation.
    In another district still I unearthed as sweet a little story as any of the annals of jobbery can, I imagine, furnish. Let

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me tell it carefully, for the law of libel is a fearful and wonderful thing, and I have no desire to have the proprietors of this journal reading their next Christmas number in Holloway Gaol.
    A big block of buildings falling into decay were for sale. A person officially connected with the parish drew the attention of the sanitary officers to them, and had them condemned as unfit for habitation. Directly this was done the parish gentleman, in conjunction with a firm of speculators, bought the property for a bagatelle - for old building material, in fact. But the new proprietors didn't pull it down - not they. They gave a coat of whitewash here and there, and let every single room again directly at increased rentals, and every single room is full of rent-payers now. The street of houses which was condemned five years ago has been a little gold mine, and a handsome fortune has been made out of it by the very people who insisted upon calling the attention of the sanitary authorities to it.
    It is needless to say that the same attention has never been solicited since.
    I should like to know how many more blocks of property - unfit for human habitation - are held in the same way in London.
    I fancy the revelations on this subject would be startling to a degree.
    Yet amidst all these horrors and sufferings, working at dangerous trades, housed in death-traps, neglected and persecuted, the poor manage to live, and some of them to amuse themselves. How they amuse themselves we shall shortly see.