Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - A West-End Cholera Stronghold

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[-348-]

A WEST-END CHOLERA STRONGHOLD.*

[* This paper was written during the last visitation of this terrible epidemic.]

LAST Tuesday I looked in at a dirty public-house in Hare-Street. There never were such roaring times for a poor neighbourhood publican. He is never the poorer for a cholera visitation, for, although his trade in beer at such periods is lamentably injured, it has always been the fashion to recommend brandy as an anti-choleraic, and under the management of the knowing proprietor of the Pig and Whistle a quartern of brandy sold may be made to yield as much profit as four retailed pots of beer, and so the matter was as nearly as possible equalised. But with this season's visitation of the scourge a new fashion in drinks has been introduced. "The safest and simplest drink during the prevalence of the epidemic is a mild compound of good rum and pure water, taken in moderation," is the formula promulgated by certain well-meaning M.D.s, furnishing a hint not likely to be thrown away, either on the landlord of the Pig and Whistle or his dram-drinking customers, who, so long as they are permitted to guzzle until they are drunk, are quite indifferent as to the means employed. So I found matters at the dirty tavern in Hare Street, An atmosphere foul of reeking sawdust and rank tobacco, and goodness knows what besides, filled the place, and the limited space before the bar was occupied by draggletail women, and shambling, slouching, fishy-eyed men, chiefly of the coarsest labouring and costermonger order, and at least seven-tenths of them were [-349-] indulging in the "safe and simple" drinks prescribed by the doctors. They were, however, taking the rum neat - a departure from the prescription, excusable, perhaps, on the ground that it was impossible in such a locality to find pure water to mix with it. Likewise, they were taking it immoderately, as the thick cluster of pewter measures and glasses on the counter went to show. But if such a vague term as "moderation" is given for construing to such folks, what better may be expected? I may consider a glass of beer a moderate quantity to be taken at dinner, while the ballast-getter of Radcliffe will take a quart of fourpenny with his mid-day meal, and another quart afterwards to wet his pipe, and still remain sober enough to refute any allegation that may be made as to his immoderation.
    If the maritime superstition that whistling a tune will at certain times provoke the rising of a storm might be applied to all other plagues, it would have been no wonder if the one under discussion had risen and confronted the noisy squalid group there assembled. A puncheon of "fine old vatted rum" was under-labelled in great chalk letters "Cholera mixture!" there was a placard of the Local Board of Health suspended from the same hooks that upheld a flaming show-board concerning somebody's famous "old tom", while another board concerning the advantage of becoming a member of the Hearts of Elm Burial Club was ominously ticketed "Now's your time." Cholera was the one prevailing topic. It was solemnly discussed by the pimplefaced, double-chinned landlady and her barmaid, as the former, with a great dish on her broad lap, was engaged in sorting mulberries for a pie for supper; it was chattered about and wept about by the draggletail women whose relatives very possibly had helped to swell the registrar's last week's terrible "returns;" it was argued by the men with grave sippings of the "mixture and knowing nods and winks, and noisy talk, and flourishing of dirty pipe-stems: as though it had been a mere Chartist question.
    [-350-] "What I ses is this," exclaimed the noisiest ruffian of the company, as he emptied his half quartern glass and passed the back of his dirty hand across his still dirtier and unshaven mouth "What I ses is this, we've got it hotter in these parts than anywhere else, and why is it? Why, cos it ain't like a district where nobs and swells lives; we're all factories, and breweries, and manufactories, and the rich uns what belongs to 'em hooks it away at evenings, and goes away to Peckham and them airy parts. What do they care about the smells and that so long as they pulls in the a'pence? We're nothink but a great large muck-bed what they grows their musharooms on - that's what we are. If they had to live here amongst us, with their kids and their missuses it would be werry soon altered. Look at the West-end, they ain't had no cholery. Oh dear, no and what's the reason on it? Ask Belgravy, and Great Wictoria Street, and them slap up parts; that's what's the reason on it."
    If "that's the reason on it," said I to myself, I am very glad of it, since it is significant of the fact that all those hideous slums that once disfigured and endangered the district between Westminster Abbey and Pimlico have been routed and destroyed. Peter Street no longer exists there, nor Tufton Street, nor Strutton Ground, nor Old Pye Street, nor that most foul and disgusting of thoroughfares, St. Anne Street. The parochial guardians of the West-end were wise in time. It is gratifying to find at least some few exceptions to the bungling batch. I must go and see these mighty improvements, and how they have covered the old ground. And shortly afterwards I went.
    Alas it is my melancholy duty to inform you, Mr. French-polisher, or Birdfancier, or whatever you were, that you are altogether mistaken when you suppose that the immunity from cholera enjoyed by the inhabitants of the West-end is due to the destruction of the old hot-beds of disease above enumerated. I have been there to see. Alighting at Great Smith Street, I [-351-] found my way to Peter Street, the filthy and thief haunted, and there were Cook's Court, and Leg Court, and Shepherd's Place, and the Laundry Yard, exactly as of old, except that nearly all of them wore a false front of white-wash that would scarcely bear scratching with the nail without betraying the hideousness beneath. The faith of those whose business it is to look to such matters in whitewash is wonderful. I met a man and his labourer emerging from an alley, the one with a ladder and the other with a great empty pail and a brush. "What have you been doing down there?" I asked. "Polishing of 'em up a bit, sir," said he with a satisfied air; "limewashed 'em back and front." "But how about the insides ?" said I; "how about the rotten floors and the leaky roofs? Pray have you done anything as regards the water-closet accommodation, have you enlarged the little cistern that supplies the vast number of people that live up here with water?" "How could I, sir? You can't do all that with lime-wash. " "But surely you have other remedies for these things besides lime-wash?" "Oh, yes, sir; there's Condy's fluid, and there's chloride of lime ; no fear of anything breaking out while you let us have enough of that sort of thing."
    No fear of the mad dog biting while you muzzle him and hold him down by the throat, but you can't be always holding him down; or even if you had the time and the patience how foolish it would be to do so, when by a few vigorous blows the ferocious brute might be put an end to and no more difficulty over the matter. Cholera is this mad dog that periodically makes its appearance amongst us worrying and ravaging; but we don't shoot it or knock it on the head; we pat it and coax it to lie down, and after it has grown weary of running a-muck, and probably bitten to death several kindly hands engaged in its pacification, it consents to curl down to sleep-till dog-days come again.
    That the mad dog has not at present extended its ravages to [-352-] the west-end of the town is little short of miraculous, and would really favour the idea that there is a degree of dirt and nastiness nauseating even to cholera itself. Take Old Pye Street, with its foul kennels, its tumble-down houses, and its swarms of unclean inhabitants teeming at the windows and doorways. It used to be said that, like Fryingpan Alley, Bluegate Fields, and a few other choice parts of the metropolis, Old Pye Street was a place into which after nightfall no single policeman dare venture, and looking in at its mouth at broad noon it would not be astonishing if the same condition of things still existed. There is no mistaking the haunts of thieves and desperadoes. The inhabitants, or rather the male portion of them, never seem at home. During the day-time business is naturally flat with them, and after they have slept off the fatigues of the preceding night they lounge about and amuse themselves till it is time to go to work again; but, though they remain at their own doors, chaffing or horse-playing with their mates and females, it is never in dishabille. Middle-aged thieves, young prigs, and that prevalent specimen of the order, the hulking, lanky big boy thief-they are coated and capped and booted like firemen on duty at a station, never knowing one minute from another when they may be wanted.
    Explore crooked, filthy St. Anne Street, and wonder not so much that it is spared as why it should be. Talk of Bethnal Green, talk of Club Row, and Hare Street, and the courts and alleys to be found in these thoroughfares, there is not one so shocking in its dirt and squalor as St. Anne Street - which is within a couple of stones' throw of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. What the water supply of this locality is I cannot say, but judging from the terribly dirty condition of the children, I should be inclined to doubt its abundance. To call them "dirty" children, and then to leave the matter, would be to convey a very inadequate idea of their deplorable appearance. You, my dear madam, may have seen children in a [-353-] state you would properly stigmatise as disgracefully dirty because their hair was dishevelled and their face in a condition of grubbiness, but I question if you can imagine the standard the dirtiest child in St. Anne Street attains. You would scarcely take it to be a child at all. Its hair is thickly matted, and overhangs its weak eyes; it has no more clothing than a ragged little petticoat and frock, which are filthy to look at as its skin, which is saying a great deal. But the most remarkable parts of its person are its feet and legs; they are blacker than a negro's. For Heaven knows how long a time-since the warm weather set in, probably, and admitted of such a luxury - has it waded in the inky kennels, and the sun has baked on its feet the matter adhering, and it has waded again, and the baking process has been repeated, until its toes are webbed with dried mire, and there it rolls and gambols with half-a- dozen of its fellows over the muddy stones in front of the houses in a worse plight than a little pig in a sty. In St. Anne Street, as though mocking its beastliness, there is a tremendous building, belonging to a baths and wash-house company; but almost opposite to it, by way of balance, there is a dust-yard, with the usual collection of filth and garbage, and old men and women squatting up to their waists in dustbin produce, while they sift and overhaul it; and in the said dust-yard there is a cow-shed, where something like a dozen cows are bred and fed, and supply prime new milk to the hale and ailing of the neighbourhood.
    There are many places in the neighbourhood more or less like Old Pye Street and St. Anne Street, not forgetting Leg Court, the Laundry Yard, and Elizabeth Buildings - all containing houses with the same absurdly lime-washed faces, and all in reality foul and stinking as ever. That they have no back yards at all at some of these places is evident, for there were to be seen--it was Saturday, the washing day of the deeply poverty-stricken several girls and women, with their tubs and [-354-] pails out in the street, dabbing out their poor rags, to be presently suspended on brooms and props from the windows above for drying.
    The worst feature of all, however, and it was to be seen in whatever direction one looked, were the swarms of half-naked, shockingly dirty children. It was the worst feature, and the most painful, because it meant so very, very much. And that I was not the first one to discover this it was my great good fortune presently to be made aware.
    In Peter Street, getting towards Tufton Street, there is a quiet-looking house in a row with the others. It has a shop, but the windows are now partially whitened, and nothing now is sold there. On the door is a notification that this is the infant nursery, all information concerning which may be obtained on ringing the bell.
    I rang the bell, and a decent-looking woman answered, and in reply to my inquiry, civilly informed me that the matron was from home, but that I was very welcome to look over the establishment. The shop and parlour appeared to be used as a sort of office and living rooms in one. The young woman took me upstairs to the first-floor, where one of the oddest sights it was ever my lot to witness immediately met my view In the front room, which is a large room, there is a space in the middle railed round like a miniature horse circus, the rail being about eighteen inches high, a netting of string extending from it to the floor. Spread within this ring was first a wool mattress, theta an indiarubber sheet, and over all a warm woollen rug. This was where the babies, the tiny things from a month old up to toddling size, disported, and there they were disporting-happy and contented, seemingly, as birds in a nest.
    Toddling about the room, which was plentifully furnished with comfortable little chairs, were several other little children, all with clean faces and well-brushed hair, and all wearing an [-355-] ample pink pinafore with the sleeves tied up with a bit of blue ribbon. There were toys to play with, and pictures on the walls, and a swing, and a magnificent rocking-chair, presented by some kind patron; and somehow the decent little women in charge of them had such a capital way of managing them that they were all as merry as grigs, and in the best of humours one towards the other.
    Out of this room you came to one even prettier, for here ranged along the walls were tiny iron cots with white sheets and feather pillows; and this is where the youngsters tired of play were laid to rest of afternoons. There was one so resting now, with an elephant out of Noah's Ark in his chubby hand.
    The civil young woman took me a little higher in the house, and showed me a lead flat securely railed in, and on one side of which were growing some blooming scarlet-runners. This was the babies' playground.
    She took me to another room which was the bath-room, and the water-closets were here too, but without the very faintest evil smell, a fact accounted for, probably, by the existence of a capacious cistern, as large as many in the neighbourhood, that had to do duty for an alley of twenty houses. And when I had seen all that was to be seen the civil young woman told me what it all meant.
    Five years ago some kind ladies in the neighbourhood, pitying the shocking condition of the little children such as I have endeavoured to describe, and knowing that the mischief arose chiefly out of the circumstance of their mothers being compelled to be out at work from morning till night, laid their heads together and opened this babies' home. They undertook the charge of little children from a month old and upwards from seven in the morning till eight at night, to feed, tend, nurse, and wash them for the sum of threepence per day. And ever since they stuck to the good work, with what blessed result who can tell? The average attendance of children at [-356-] the nursery I am informed is twenty; they have received as many as thirty; and, without doubt, the greater part of these, had they not been snatched from it, would have been shock-headed, black-legged, gutter grovellers, like the poor little wretches to be seen all round about.
    I have reason to believe that the good ladies who started and persevered in this noble work would do more if they had the means, for it need not be told that threepence a day per subject does not pay expenses or nearly. It is not only the food that has to be bought. These pink pinafores, for instance, were provided that the babies might appear uniformly decent; and the feather pillows for the tired little heads were not procured without money. On public grounds this tiny institution has a claim on public charity, especially at this season; for who knows how much its exertions have effected towards keeping the neighbourhood free of cholera?

source: James Greenwood, The Wilds of London, 1874