Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - Mr. Bumble and His Enemy "The Casual"

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MAKING a tour through the world we live in, bounded eastward by Lombard Street, where our place of business is, and northward by Highgate Villa, where we reside, and contemplating the manners and customs of the inhabitants - consisting chiefly of the wife of our bosom and our children, and our maid and man servant - we rejoice to find the condition of mankind so fair and promising, and all that certain writers are in the habit of avowing as to our social advancement so beautifully true. To be sure, occasionally our ears are shocked by the noise of complaining, nay, of downright growling and the howling of despair, out in the wilderness that lies beyond the boundaries of our world; but such sounds only betray the existence of unconscionable mortals such as ever did and ever will do their wicked best to disturb us in our childlike confidence in the wisdom and justice of an all-seeing Providence. "No more than others we deserve." We acknowledge our unworthiness, humbly and unreservedly, while, at the same time, we submit with becoming resignation to the enjoyment of our undeservings.
    It would be a happy change if all manner of people would in this respect do as we do. We would not exclude the beggar who comes tapping at our door, or even the miserable one who lies down at the workhouse gate, and so consigns his manhood [-358-] and his long-cherished self-respect - long-cherished, but finally starved to death - to the grave. It would be an excellent thing if all such persons would take to heart the teachings of that sweet little hymn, and indulge in the frequent ejaculation of that most comforting line of all, "no more than others I deserve." If they only knew the amount of cheerfulness and content the practice would ensure them, decidedly they would adopt it. Why should they not? Surely if we paying sixty pounds a year rent and taxes have no objection to, nay, find a pleasure in the lowly confession, they should not be so prideful and stubborn as to refuse. If it did them no good it could not possibly do them harm, and, like common politeness, its exercise would cost nothing. No more than others do we deserve a fine coat of broadcloth, and a feather-bed to lie on, and a handsome mahogany table on which to spread our dinner of fish and flesh and fowl - it would be monstrous, and enough to call down a judgment on our head if we asserted otherwise, yet, somehow, we have them. A fact that naturally tends to the increase of our child like confidence in Providence and inclines us to take things, including the fine coat and the roast meat and the rich gravy, as we find them; and moreover, to keep them: for it becomes a grave question, when our blindness to discover what really are our deservings is made so manifest to us - it becomes a question we should do well to ponder-whether we are justified, for the sake of gratifying our generous whims - but another term for vanities - in bestowing our goods on outcast wretches plainly branded as beings who deserve, and consequently get so much less than we get.
    If these are not our sentiments, the teachings of the British Bumble have been lost on us. Ever since he was installed in office has he regarded with curious dislike certain of the subjects confided to his rule. He has no objection to the "inmates" of his brick palace, the boarders and lodgers in perpetuity. Their government is his pleasurable business, and [-359-] every hour provides a something to stir anew the proud emotions that naturally belong to a man born to command and with ample opportunity for exercising this privilege. For the regular recipient of his "out-door" bounty Bumble has no great affection, but it is for the casual - the dregs of poverty that come with the Act of Parliament in their hands, as it were, and rap with it authoritatively at his gate for admission. The casual, in Bumble's eyes, is an abominable thing, an irritating nuisance, a sty on the parochial optic. The first law of nature with Bumble is Settlement, and the casual is its exact antithesis, and not content with being so, never so happy as when he can contrive to bring his disturbing influence - confound him! - to bear against what is settled and comfortable. You can no more catch and confine him and pin him down than you can perform the same operation on the foul vapour that comes belching up from a sewer grating. Worse than all, the casual - no matter what shape he assumes - has not the slightest respect for Bumble. The ruffian casual laughs at him, and sings funny and oftentimes libellous songs concerning him as he breaks stones or picks oakum. The to-be-pitied casual, the unfortunate fellow driven to workhouse shelter for the night by a noble desire to keep life and soul together just a little longer, he despises Bumble and regards him wrathfully, as well he may, for the beadle is furiously blind and knows no distinction of casuals, treating them one and all as a pack of lazy, dirty, and unwholesome scoundrels loathsome to the eye and contagious to the touch, and fit only for the treadmill and the hulks.
    Now this is the great mistake, a mistake disastrous as it is pig-headed and unreasonable. Without doubt, and as I out of my experience can testify, the scoundrelly element is not wanting in the casual ward.
    Take the number of applicants for temporary workhouse shelter at sixty, in all probability at least half of that number [-360-] will be worthless wretches, cadgers by birth and breeding, and with habits and minds as foul as the rags that hang about their bodies, and possessed of a devilish desire to contaminate and drag to their own bestial level every human creature that mischance throws in their way. Nor is it easy to point out how this may be avoided. If you keep open door for outcasts it is scarcely to be expected that the worser part will, out of tender consideration for the better, consent to stay out all night in the wind and rain. To be idle and dissolute is not to merit death by rheumatism or starvation. There will be sheep-black, white, and gray-in the outcast flock, and it is impossible to stand at the ward door with a stick and thrust back all whose appearance is objectionable. Without doubt the black sheep are excessively tiresome customers for Bumble to cater for; there can be no question that it is annoying in the extreme to have the laws and regulations of the house laughed at and set at defiance by a band of such desperadoes; but if this is bad for Mr. Bumble, what, in heaven's name, is it for the decent outcast, the man whose poverty is none of his own seeking, who would avoid it if it were possible, and who is urged to ask workhouse charity, having no choice between that and lying out on the street pavement? Such a one accepting the asylum offered him is a wronged and outraged man. It is the law of the land, that for the relief of urgent poverty, and as a loophole of escape against such temptation as may beset a hunger-baited man wandering the streets at night, every parish shall provide a place where shelter and a meal may be obtained on application; but what sort of humanity is it to invite a poor benighted wretch out of the highway lest his necessity make him a thief, and then thrust him into worse company than he would encounter if he had turned thief, and was caught and sentenced to prison? It is as though, in pretended compassion for a man lame of a limb, you carried him to a hospital and laid him for cure amongst patients stricken with deadly fever. As before [-361-] remarked, it is difficult to point out a way of amendment for this evil, but since it must be endured it is scarcely too much to expect from Bumble, who fails in his duty, albeit unavoidably some amount of patience and discrimination.
    That he is lamentably deficient of both has been long apparent. Doubtless he means well, poor man. As often as he is taken to task by the public press he responds in some way or other. Either he sulks or he whines, or he bullies or he begs. He is for ever patching and botching and making alterations, and pulling down and building up, so that nobody can say but that he is a busy man. It is as though he flew to muddle to escape from his perplexities and responsibilities as other foolish men fly to strong drink. Previous moves of Mr. Bumble in this line have been magnificent, but the most recent, and that which has provoked this letter, outvies them all. He has gone muddle-mad at last.
    He has hit on a grand scheme, the purport of which is nothing less than to abolish workhouse casuals utterly. He has consulted with his brethren, and they have laid their cocked hats together, and declared the scheme feasible, and joined hands and taken solemn oaths to stand or fall by it. The most curious part of the business is, that they have somehow contrived to win over to their cause several metropolitan magistrates, and so aided and abetted they are doing a tremendous stroke of business. The mainspring of Bumble's scheme for casual abolition is extremely simple, and an example of its working will at once make its efficacy apparent.
    "At the Thames Police-court fourteen casual paupers were charged with neglecting to perform the task of work assigned to them in return for a supper, night's lodging, and breakfast.* [* This paper appeared about four years since. The same "regulations," however, are still in force. -J. G] The workhouse superintendent explained that three of the prisoners were called on to pick two pounds of oakum each, [-362-] and some others to break each two bushels of stones, and they were allowed four hours in which to execute the task; but not one of them did the whole of the work. One man picked eight ounces of oakum and said that he could do no more, and one picked twelve ounces. The others broke only a portion of their bushels of stones. All the persons pleaded that they could not do the work, to which they were not accustomed. Mr. Benson sentenced them to a fortnight's imprisonment, and to be kept to hard labour."
Now, let us in the first place consider the terms on which a starved, broken-down, houseless man (for he is the "casual" proper, be it understood) enters the workhouse doors. He is not admitted as a beggar, but as a poor man wanting a job of work so badly that he is willing to accept one of the parish; and no Jew sweater drives a harder bargain than does Mr. Bumble. I have the report of a model workhouse before me, and I see that the two meals contracted for consist of twelve ounces of bread and one quart of gruel. At the present baker's price the bread should be worth threepence, and any one who has tasted workhouse gruel can have no hesitation in believing that it may be manufactured for a penny a quart at a handsome profit. Twopence is the outside value of the sort of lodging that the casual gets, and there we have the total of the casual's gettings - sixpence! For this four hours' labour is exacted. Because the destitute labourer is so very pinched, and needy, and helpless, Mr. Bumble finds him employment at the rate of three-halfpence an hour! It is nothing to the purpose to say that the picking of two pounds of oakum is worth no more than sixpence; possibly it is not, but that is an affair for the consideration of the taskmasters. It is four hours' labour anyhow - hard, tedious, disgraceful labour. Mr. Bumble having advanced to the poor man goods of the value of sixpence, claims of him the forepart of the next day, and then turns him into the street hungry, and with scarcely the [-363-] ghost of a chance of picking up a job, for the jobs are all picked up before afternoon.
    He is turned out, that is to say, provided he has executed the work demanded of him. He is "allowed" four hours to pick his oakum in, and be he ever so willing a man, should he lose his race against time, no excuse will avail him-he must pack to prison. Can anything be more monstrous or unjust? It is all very well for the taskmaster to tell the magistrate that two pounds of oakum may be easily picked by the most inexperienced person in even so little as three hours (this would make it twopence an hour); but this statement I deny. Any prison warder will tell you that the shredding of hard tarred rope is a business of knack, and not of sturdy perseverance that an experienced prisoner will do more of the work in one hour than a novice in six. The consequence is so palpable that it need hardly be pointed out; it is on the novice at oakum picking, the tender-fingered worn-out tailor, the decayed clerk, or worker at a trade requiring mental rather than muscular exertions, that the full weight of Mr. Bumble's whip falls ; these are the men whose only crime is poverty, who are sent to prison, while the Dodger and his friends, to whom oakum picking comes ever so much easier than A B C, complete their task at their leisure, and obtain their liberty in time to pilfer a dinner.
    If this course is persisted in, what the ultimate result will be requires no Daniel to foretell. For fear of the pains and penalties impending, the inexperienced oakum-picker will shun the casual ward. Finding himself hungry and in desperate strait, the outcast not as yet criminal may be driven to reflect: "If I seek refuge in the workhouse for a night I shall possibly be unable to perform the task set me, and then I shall be sent to prison; there is no escape for me. But supposing that I do not seek workhouse shelter? Supposing that I make a bold dash and steal the value of a pound? Then there is a chance for me; and if I fail, why it is only the prison after all." [-364-]  In this way Mr. Bumble will possibly be enabled to shirk some of his casual responsibility, but he will not escape scot free. He will not scare away these dexterous-handed ones the Dodger and his friends. They can perform the oakum trick with ease, and without doubt will continue to avail themselves, to the exclusion of all decent and deserving folk, of the accommodation afforded by the casual ward.