Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - "Whitechapel Villagers."

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RAINHAM Railway Station, in Essex, is perhaps fifteen miles from London Bridge, and Rainham being a well-known market  gardening centre. Thither it was that I made my way, my intention being to view the country therefrom at this rich and ripe time of year by way of a starting-point, and acquaint myself with as much as might be learnt at sight of the ways and means, the hardships and happy times, and the domestic economy generally of those who toil in the fields.
    It was night when I arrived at Rainham, but the lanes are pleasant walking, and there was something of a moon, so I set out on a meditative stroll until bedtime. Suddenly, and breaking strangely the stillness, there came on the wind sounds of mirth-the shrill laughter of women blending with the rattling chorus of a music-hall song, in which at least fifty voices of strong Irish flavour, were vigorously assisting. It was only when the varying wind blew straight up the lane that I could hear the sounds with any distinctness, and in vain I mounted the hedge-bank and looked about for the spot where the concert was being held. It was nowhere to be seen.
    When a few minutes before I passed the village ale-house - the title of which, in delicate compliment to the locality, was the Cauliflower - the landlord was persuasively ejecting from his premises the last reluctant departer, ere he locked and barred his door for the night, and I knew that going Tilburyward there was no other public-house for nearly a [-97-]  mile. It could not, therefore, be at a drinking-house that the merry waking was going on.
    Puzzling and listening, I advanced up the low-hedged, dusty lane, with a wide stretch of dark fields on either side, the singing seeming to come nearer, when in a twinkling, the mystery was solved. In a twinkling, literally, for the beacon that guided me to the discovery was the flickering light of a tallow candle stuck in what in the distance looked like a turnip, carried in the hand of a being who might have been a witch. She stood in the entry to a black shed or barn, the door of which she had pushed partly open from within, and as she guarded the flaring candle with her hand, the light of it was thrown on her figure. She was an old woman, with rags on her bent shoulders, and with a rag - a red one - bound about her grisly grey hair: her face was fiery red, and, judging from her language, she was in a towering rage. She gripped a stick in her list and "Dash and double-dash ye, whoever ye a-r-r-e," she cried; "if ye come dishturbin' us in this way, I'll shmash your double-dash shcull if I can lay me shtick on it."
    There was no response, as far as I could hear, to this adjuration, and presently the old woman vanished, banging the door, whereupon all was darkness again.
    I have already stated that the door of the shed, or whatever it was, was only partly open, and the woman's body nearly filled the opening; nevertheless I had obtained a glimpse of the interior - merely a glimpse. I could make out other forms similar to that of the witch with her head bound up, as well as of younger women, bare-shouldered and with shaggy heads of hair, some too that were mere children, while the ground seemed to be littered thickly with straw; and all the while that the old lady with the stick was swearing and gesticulating the singing was kept up by the company in full cry, a wild kind of dance accompanying it.
    The door was closed, but now that my attention was drawn particularly to it I could see chinks of light in the wooden walls of the shed. A crevice that will let out a ray of light will serve the curious man's purpose as a peephole. Caution was requisite, however. I had seen and heard enough to convince me that it was a private party, and that trespassers ran a risk of being punished with the utmost rigour of the old Irishwoman s knobby stick, and possibly a score other similar weapons, wielded in fists equally muscular. But, in the event of detection, escape would not be difficult.
    The shed stood not more than half a dozen yards from the public highway, and separated from it only by some low palings, and a swinging gate. Venturing in, I approached the shed, and - all is fair in love and adventure - applied my eye to a crack in the boards. To half a dozen cracks in succession, but with no better success. There was not a single chink through which I could make out a tenth as much as I had seen when the door stood ajar. There was singing and laughter, and a constant indulgence in most emphatic language, and a curious and incessant rustling of straw, but I could make nothing of the actors or of what they were doing.
    Clearly there was nothing for it but to let the matter rest until the morning. So I stole softly out at the gate again, and as I passed hustled against a man with [-98-] his arms resting on the palings. He was as much startled as I was, and fell back into the road.
    "Dashed if I didn't think it was one on 'em," he exclaimed with a laugh of relief, "they keep it up foine, don't they?"
    "They do indeed," said I; "who are they ?"
    "Who? I should have thowt you knowed. They're Mr. - 's field hands. Not the home dwellers, but the strangers - the 'Whitechapel Willagers' as we'd call 'em. This is their sleeping place."
    "And how many are there?"
    "How many? Oh, seventy or eighty. Bless you, they're quiet now to what they are sometime. It's a reg'lar little hell when the quarrelsome ones get the drink in 'em, and they get fightin'."
    "But do you mean to say that seventy or eighty human creatures - men, women, and children - cook, live and sleep in that barn ?"
    "There ain't no men among 'em,'' returned the man ; only women, and girls, and a few lads. More there didn't oughter be considering how they all sleep. They don't cook in there either. It wouldn't do. They'd have the place burnt over their heads very soon with the straw beds laying all over the floor."
    "Where, then, do they do their cooking?"
    "Out here in the open. You ought to come, if you want to see a queer sight, about six or seven o'clock in the evening."
    But I did not wait so long before I paid another visit to the barn. I was there next day in the forenoon, and found the place silent and deserted, save for two old Irishwomen, a girl of about eighteen, and a baby less than a year old, who was basking in the sun on a heap of litter, as happy and contented as a little pig in a stye. This was outside the barn, and within a few feet of the footpath. Why, the young girl, who was a strapping wench with naked feet as brown as Spanish mahogany, sate idle, I did not inquire, but one of the old women (I could almost have sworn to the red rag in which her head was tied), was away from work because she had been "taken a bit queer" the night before, and the other was nurse to the baby on the rubbish heap, its mother being away working in the fields. Cooking was going on, and over a fire made of dried grubbed-up vegetable roots was perched what looked like a saucepan lid, but which served as a frying-pan, and in it was sputtering with a savoury steam a mess of meat and vegetables, which I suppose was the mid-day meal of the trio.
    The women were civil and communicative enough, and one of them informed me that she had worked on the same ground for more than five-and-twenty summers. She was not a "home- dweller," she said (by which she meant that she was not an inhabitant of Rainham or its neighbourhood), but a hand hired for the season. It was a large farm, and grew almost everything; and, besides local labourers there were usually about a hundred strangers employed for about ten weeks each season. When the crops were cleared, she crossed over to Kent, and was in time for the hopping, which lasted until nearly the end of September, and so she had in each year between three and four months as a field hand.
    What did she do when she was not employed? Why, she worked at slop navy tailoring- made sailors' clothes and hammock [-99-] ticks for the contractors. She knew a dozen women - twenty she might say - who "seasoned" it on that land, and did the same. Having been employed here so long, could she inform me whether this farm might be taken as a fair average of the farms of the district as regarded the treatment of the hands? She couldn't say for that. She didn't know a better, or of course she should have shifted. As for the earnings, that depended a great deal on the weather. Eighteen-pence a day was the pay for day work, from seven in the morning till six in the evening; but a great deal of it was piece-work, which suited people who had growing boys and girls to help them, and in fine weather, and at certain work - onion-pulling for instance - some families earned as much as four shillings a day. Oh, yes, it was pleasant work enough in fine weather, and a healthy change from slop-work in a back-room in Whitechapel; but in wet weather, such as we had last year, it was something cruel. A spell of wet made it bad every way on a farm like that, where the hands were such a mixed lot. There was nothing for it but to stick to the old barn from morning until night or go to the beershop, spending money with none being earned. But the rowdy sort got drunk, and came home when the beer-shop turned them out and quarrelled and fought within an inch of murder sometimes, which you see, sir, makes it onpleasant in a place where there's only one floor for all of us, and the decent ones are already comfortable on their straw and want to be asleep. But even that isn't the worst of it in wet weather. There were some growing things that couldn't be kept waiting when they were ready, but must be got in, wet or dry, and that was dreadfully bad for women and girls. It was not much use tying sacks round your skirts - they soon got soddened with the reeking stuff you were working amongst; and what could be worse, sir, for a rheumatiz and all manner of things, than for a female, young or old, to work all day wet through everything as high as her knees?
    "You are glad enough, no doubt," I remarked, "to get back to the shed here and dry your clothes."
    "Glad enough, we should be, sir, of course, but how's the drying to be done? There ain't no convenience for drying, there isn't many of us that has more petticoats than we stand upright in, and if we could sit without e'm  avhile they are drying, where is the fire? We have none except of the sort you see here now, just a few old roots that we cook by, but they're no use at all to dry a woman's wet clothes. Yes, it has been always alike ever since I have worked here, and I don't know that the field hands who come from London, or any other long distance, are treated different. That's why nobody grumbles, you see, sir. It might p'raps be altered if we all grumbled, for our master ain't got a bad name, but nobody likes to be ringleader for fear of the sack. Was it better at the hop-picking? Indeed it was, in every way - better pay, better sleeping, and everything. But it didn't use to be; Lord! no. Hopping was a lot worse than market-garden work is now. It was because it got so bad-men and women and girls and lads all herding together-that it got talked about among gentlefolks, and there was an alteration. P'raps when it got a bit worse among market-garden hands there would be a [-100-] similar interference. Was there any herding together here? Well, in a manner of speaking there wasn't, because there were no men allowed in the barn. But boys were allowed; you couldn't help that, you see. It would be so inconvenient to separate families, when a mother had her growing boys and girls with her to help her. How did they manage for sleeping ? Oh, fairish ; friends slept together. In separate beds? Well, you might call 'em separate if you liked, because they wasn't in one, but there wasn't much separation about 'em. Bless you! how could there be with about seventy to sleep in such a little place. Come, look for yourself; sir; there's nobody there.
    So I went in, and found that the barn which I may be pardoned for representing was within a mere few yards of the highway and not more than a hundred and fifty yards of the Rainham School for boys and girls, was a ramshakle edifice of wood about forty feet long, and, perhaps, half as much in width. There were within it no fittings whatever to fit it for a sleeping place; except hooks and nails driven into the rough boards there was nowhere where the poor lodgers could bestow their surplus articles of attire, and the day being excessively hot, skirts were at a discount, so that the walls were festooned with them, giving the place the aspect of a rag warehouse. The "beds were on the floor. The old woman had told me that I might call them separate jf I chose, but it was impossible to do so without doing violence to one's senses. They were not separate even to the extent that horse- beds in a stable are, having no sort of board or partitioning between them. They were of straw, and straw only, without rugs or sheets though I noticed, in a few instances, an attempt had been made to improvise a bolster by stuffing rags and old boots, or bean-haulm from the fields, under the straw at the head part. You could see the shape of the beds by the indentations the sleepers had made, and some beds you could see had accommodated one person and others two, three, and four, while between one frowsy couch and the next there was a ridge of straw a foot wide, and perhaps a foot high, this being the order of things from end to end, and through and through.
    "And how old are the boys who are allowed to sleep here?" I inquired of my guide.
    "I don't know that they are allowed," was her careful reply. "Because you see, the order is that the shed is only for women and children, but some of 'em are a bit oldish, as much as fifteen, I dare say. But we try to be decent. There's no gettin' undressed or anything of that. Oh dear, no, we wouldn't have such a thing. Besides, there's no bed-clothes. Warm enough? Yes, in general, but it isn't the want of warmth that troubles us, it's the rain. You can see, sir, if you look up, that the roof isn't as watertight as it might be, and there's that hole where a winder used to be and which is covered over with a sack. It'll come down sometimes that sudden and heavy in the night that we're drenched a'most before we're awake, and with the straw all wet as well. And if it keeps on raining, of course we can't make any fires out in the open, even when daylight comes, and our things have to dry on our backs. So, one way and another, as you say, sir, the rain is the field- worker's greatest enemy. It does us one good turn, though, least-[-101-]ways in these parts, where, in dry seasons, water is scarce. It provides us with plenty of water to do our bit of washing in. It is bad so many sleeping in one place, and not taking your clothes off if the water is scarce. Last year, at this time, the ditch across the fields there was flooded full of nice clean water, and of Sundays it was quite a sight to see the hands washing their clothes there and giving their young uns a scrubbing; but this year there is hardly a drop of water in the ditch, and what there is is all green atop, and not fit to use. But it is only the clean ones that feel the miss of water. Give many of 'em enough to bile their tea and cook their taters in, and you may keep all the rest, for all the use they'll make of it, month in and month out."
    "You ought, if you want to see a queer sight, to come here at six or seven in the evening, was the advice given me the night before by the man I encountered at the palings; and, taking leave of the intelligent and communicative old Irishwoman, I went away to return again at the time mentioned. Sure enough, there was a spectacle for my contemplation "queer" enough to make a man indulge for the moment in the fancy that he was not in an Essex village less than twenty miles from Charing-cross, but in some remote region of savagery.
    There was the whole colony of "Whitechapel Villagers" squatted on the patch of ragged land that fronted the shed. Browner by many shades than gipsies were most of them, but dearth of water may have had as much to do with their swarthiness as sun tan. It is more economical and handier, I suppose, to have an old handkerchief or any other wisp of rag bound round the head than to wear a hat or bonnet; but when the said head-wrapping is villainously dirty, and sprigs of touzled hair crop out of holes in it, it has not an elegant nor even a tidy appearance. Thus the majority of the elderly females were adorned; but the young ones, clinging to fashion as to life, though their skirts were slovenly and their faces unclean, found time somehow, and it is to be presumed a comb and a bit of looking-glass as well, to cultivate a "forehead fringe."
    For the most part, these berry- brown damsels wore flashy earrings and same of them the additional ornament of a necklace, and these, with the barbarous fringe low down on their eyebrows, made a picture, as they crouched round the cooking-fires, that reminded me vividly of the illustrations in Mr. Catlin's books depicting the habits and customs of the North American Indians and their squaws. The fifty or sixty were divided into at least a dozen groups, the members of which reclined, or knelt, or squatted in a ring, and in the centre were the fires of roots, sputtering and flaring and smoking, some being provided with a saucepan, and some with a kettle or a frying-pan, in which scraps of meat or bacon frizzled, while some had a spiked stick in lieu of a fork, on which, at the glowing embers, they toasted an odorous red-herring, as a relish with their tea-supper. It must not be imagined, however, that these primitive proceedings came amiss to them or occasioned them any unhappiness or melancholy heart-yearning for the superior advantages of civilisation.
    The old women, when the bacon or the bloater was done, took it with a hunch of bread on their laps, and munched away with [-102-] great good humour and appetite; nor was the tea seemingly less enjoyed because it was without milk, and drank out of basins and gallipots instead of cups and saucers. The chattering, the laughing, the singing, the boisterous mirth, all bore testimony to the fact that, for the time at all events, they were happy enough, and that if they were ill-used they were not aware of it. All things considered, perhaps, the poor creatures who thus serve as extra bands, are better off than if they passed the whole of their lives in the pent-up and unwholesome slums they call their homes. At the same time, the reader will probably agree that such hard-drudged, ill-paid toilers of the fields might and should be better cared for. It is not because "they don't grumble," or even that they express themselves satisfied with such treatment, that those responsibie are to be excused from providing them with such conveniences as decency and humanity demand.