Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - Little Bob in Hospital

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THE circumstances attending my introduction to little Bob were scarcely promising of our better acquaintance.
    It was an exceedingly muddy day, and the thoroughfare through which my way lay - never commonly decent, as the saying is, even at best of times - was now about as unfavourable to pedestrianism as can be well imagined. It is one of those old-fashioned streets that the increasing demand for broad highways flanked by palatial houses of business have bricked in, and buried alive, as it were. The houses of the streets are tall, gaunt, smoke-dried edifices, slatternly in decay, with the chimney-pot cowls all battered and blown awry as a dissipated beggar wears his hat, and with the doorsteps parted from the door-sill and trodden all aslant, like the heels of a tramp's boots. The windows of the houses, too, are peculiar, though I believe that they are in strict accordance with the notions of architectural beauty prevalent at the period when the buildings were erected. They are skimping little windows, set flush with the outer bricks, and have the naked and unnatural lock of eyes from which the lashes and brows have been shaven. The roadway is of the good old-fashioned cobble-stone pattern so favourable to the accumulation and retention of garbage and its essence, and the footway merely a more closely-woven selvage of the same material.
    Heedless of the miry condition of the said selvage, it swarmed [-143-] with children - whose home was the smoke-dried beggarly houses - engaged in the vigorous recreation afforded by shuttlecock and battledore. There was one, however - a very small one - who appeared to prefer the delight of ease and contemplation. He had no boots on his feet, or socks; he wore no hat or cap, nor pinafore, nor petticoats0 indeed, unless some other garment had got tucked up and coiled about the higher regions of his body, one would be justified from the evidence of his senses in declaring that the three-year-old philosopher had on nothing in the world but a wofully dirty little shirt and a frock to match. As he did not move as I approached, and as he occupied the centre of the footpath, I paused.
    "Hist him out o' the way, Sall, unless you wants your young 'un trod on," one old lady of ten or thereabouts, with her hair done up in a matronly knot behind, remarked to her companion.
    "Can't he walk ?" I asked
    "How can he when he's got the rickets ?" replied the knowing female in tones that betokened her pity for my ignorance "can't you step over him, stoopid? Bat up, Poll, keep the pot a-bilin'."
    By this time the young gentleman, who during the conversation had sat with his shockingly thin white legs crossed tailor-wise on the chill black pavement, mutely appealing out of his big heavy eyes to somebody to help him, proceeded to crawl out of the way as well as he could, which was not at all well. He had a monstrously great head, poor child, and a pot-belly, the two seemingly comprising a burden to which his puny strength was quite unequal. Besides, the clinging, slippery mud was against locomotion on the hands and knees. I took him up and sat him on the door-sill, an act of kindness that seemed to fill him with astonishment, judging from the look he gave me.
    What's your name, little boy?" I inquired. Now that his [-144-] mite of a face was flushed through shyness, he was anything but an ill-looking child.
    "Bob," said he.
    "What else?"
    "Bobby," said he, after some reflection.
    "And what's the matter, Bobby ?" (Poll was "batting up" to Sall's heart's content by this time, and at too great a distance to heed us). Bob didn't at first comprehend my question, so I amended it by inquiring whereabouts he ached.
    "'Ickits. Don't ache. On'y nights." There was a pause between "Don't ache" and "On'y nights," and as the latter was uttered Bobby's babyish brown eyes in an instant grew dull and his dirty little pale face careworn, as though the nights of his life were indeed sad times with him. I beckoned Sall from her shuttlecock, and made a few further inquiries concerning Bobby. He was "three-and-a-half" she informed me, and she had threepence a day for minding him. That his mother worked at rag sorting over in the Borough, and that his father was a "drunken cove, as walloped her." Ever since he was a year old Bobby had been rickety, which Sall attributed to his obstinacy in sitting on paving stones and sulking with his victuals. "He ain't fit for a gentleman to see - he never is," said Sall, making a dash at Bobby, and straightening his little draggletail frock, and extemporizing a comb with the spread dirty fingers of her hand, and applying it to Bobby's hair with such vigour that the poor child was thrown off his unsteady balance, with his legs in the air. Such legs! The spectacle of their thinness was shocking when no higher than the knees was visible, but now the sight was one to make a Christian man cry out aloud. Scraggy and hollow-thighed, as those of a starved cat, they were deadly white, except for the mud and dirt that coated them, with the little knees black and corned almost as the hands of a coal-heaver.
    "There!" exclaimed Sall, as she fetched him a spank for [-145-] tumbling over. "You wouldn't think that I washed him all over this morning, would you, now ?" To which I candidly replied that I really should not.
    "What does the doctor say about him?" I asked.
    "What doctor?"
    "Does a doctor never see him?"
    "What's the use, when it's rickets?" replied the little old woman; "he'll have to grow out of 'em. That's wot his young sister died of."
    Next day I sought and obtained an interview with Bobby's mother, and within a week Bobby was accepted an indoor patient at the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street. Being in the neighbourhood recently, I thought that I would look in and inquire how my little friend was getting on.
    My acquaintance with hospitals is not extensive, and I knew the Great Ormond Street institution only by repute. Once or twice I had visited the sick-wards of Guy's and Bartholomew's, and once the accident ward at the Royal Free Hospital; and, though, no doubt, the very best under existing circumstances is done for all comers at these various noble establishments, the little children there, lying in close company with diseased and dying adults, furnished a feature inexpressibly painful to contemplate. I knew that the Hospital for Sick Children exclusively professed to remedy this serious objection, and was delighted to hear that its charitable founders had ample reasons for being satisfied with the success of their project but I never knew until I went to visit Bobby how complete that success was, and were I equal to the task of describing it - which, alas I am painfully conscious that I am not - I am not sure but that I should hesitate to do so, lest the fond mothers of hundreds of ailing Bobbys and Pollys and Johnnys should joyfully hail the account as proclaiming the great barrier that has all along stood between them and the hospital removed, and they should flock there in a host that their dar-[-146-]lings might be cured. Every mother knows what the barrier is. "To be sure, they might do more for him than I can," says poor mother, hugging her sick or crippled little one ; "but how could I part from him? How could he part from me? God help my poor little fellow, I am his only comfort; he would pine to death in a strange hospital bed, amongst strangers."
    At the risk of involving the Great Ormond Street authorities in the difficulty above hinted at, I make bold to declare to you, hesitating mothers all, that your fears as to the comfort and content of your ailing children are utterly and entirely without foundation. By what manner of magic the miracle is wrought I will not even attempt to guess, but there is the fact repeated seventy odd times in as many little beds - sick children afflicted in but too many cases with disease that is cruelly painful, lying there as cheerful and patient and pleasant as though they had thoroughly taken to heart the truth that they were there for their good, and that the best they can do is to be on their very best behaviour while they are being cured. I can only again repeat that it is marvellous, and this was still my impression even after I had made acquaintance with the magician in command. He is a young man, this magician - many a mother with a baby in her arms has a son as old - and his great gift is power to win the confidence of babies. He escorted me upstairs into the first ward, which is a ward for little girls. To tell of white floors and the neatest of beds is only to claim for it what is common to all hospital wards, with this difference that instead of the dismal stump bedstead, each little patient here is provided with a pretty iron cot of a cheerful colour, surrounded at top by a rail on which slides a broad board at a convenient height for the patient to reach when it sits up, and on which is arranged its toys or picture-books. Everything is bright and light and pleasant looking, even to the nurses, who are not severe matrons, but neat young women, light-handed and cheery-looking, and with nothing but kind words for their helpless charges.
    [-147-] The first bed to which the magician introduced me contained a mite of a thing, aged about three years, and afflicted with dropsy. Wasted to mere skin and bone, the tiny creature was a sight to remember, as she lay with her great heavy head on the pillow, and her eyes half closed. But she brightened up as soon as the doctor touched her cheek and uttered her name. She couldn't speak, but she could smile, and this she did till her tiny goblin face was strangely puckered, and she kept her eyes fixed on him, as though it pleased her to do so, while we stood there and the magician gave me the particulars of her case.
    Then we came to a bed out at the foot of which hung suspended a weight at the end of a chain, which told of a little sufferer from some disease of the hip which required that the leg should be kept still and straight-the other end of the weighted chain being attached to the foot. Again the same cheery greeting, with words of thankfulness this time, the patient being old enough. Well, little Polly, how do you feel, eh? Quite well No, not quite well, Polly; all in good time. A very good little girl this, sir; a very good girl. Then came a case of amputation of the foot, the operation having taken place but three days before; but the patient, though pale and shakylooking, was quite cheerful and friendly with the magician, though tears came into her eyes when he said something about the poor little foot. Then a poor girl with such a wound in her throat as made me shudder to see, but who was now mending, as the doctor declared, and as the poor little thing herself affirmed, when he asked her, by a motion of her eyes, for she was as yet unable to speak or move. There was a basin with water and a little sponge by the bed, and the way in which the good fellow applied the latter to the little girl's wound was a sight for her mother to see.
    But it was the same story all through as we passed from ward to ward, where the cheerful fires were burning, and the kind-[-148-]faced nurses moved hither and thither, and some of the sick ones sat up at work on their basins of bread-and-milk or beef-tea, and others were contentedly busy at their play-boards, hooking gay railway carriages one to the other, or giving the animals of Noah's Ark an airing, or, as yet unequal to such active employment, with quiet interest turning the leaves of a painted picture-book. No crying to go home, no fretting or pining; all as happy under the circumstances not only as might be expected reasonably, but twenty times more so. All glad to see the doctor - or magician, as I have called him - all grateful for his encouraging word, or a touch of his kind hand. All? No ; let me keep strictly within the boundary of truth. Out of the seventy-five patients there is one sulky boy. He is known as the sulky boy, and is the exception that proves the happy rule. He is a delinquent of not gigantic proportions, being somewhere about two feet six in height, and five years of age; but he is getting well in a most ungrateful manner, and hangs his head when he is spoken to like a sturdy little bear being tamed against his will. He had a scratch on the side of his nose.
    "How did you get your nose scratched, my dear?" I asked him. He was so nearly well, I should mention, as to be out of bed and dressed.
    The rebel made no answer, but another patient exclaimed, "Please, sir, Bobby did it," at the same time pointing at the occupant of an adjacent bed.
    This Bobby?  -Bobby of the towzled-hair and the hollow eyes so eloquent of pain "o'nights !" Bobby, the mottled of dirt and pallor This clean, bright, mischievous little urchin, Bobby! No other, the magician assured me. "It will take some time to set the young gentleman up, however," said he, patting Bob's head; and, really, when I reflected on what Bob was doomed to go home to, I was scarcely sorry to hear it.
    And now, ladies and gentlemen, having given you, to the [-149-] best of my poor ability, an inkling of what the hospital in Great Ormond Street is like, I make bold to recommend it to your charitable consideration. Nay, I beg of you to remember it, regarding it as no shame to beg even in behalf of suffering baby-boys and girls. The noble scheme is capable of vast extension; nay, in a country such as ours it demands extension. Here are learned heads, and kind hearts, and willing hands eager to engage in this blessed work if you will only give them opportunity. At present the institution has but seventy-five beds, and, it need not be added, they are all full. They are always full, and day after day the great men who so generously devote their time and skill to the comparatively few sufferers they have house-room for are pained to turn from their doors cases that in every respect are worthy of admission. There can be no doubt that this little hospital will in time grow - it must grow. Let it not be of slow growth. I heartily wish that the charitably disposed could for themselves see what I have endeavoured to describe; they would need no further urging.* [" Since this paper was written the Great Ormond Street Hospital has been considerably enlarged, and a handsome convalescent home in connection with the institution established at Highgate.]