Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - Cellar Life in St. Giles's

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 WITH a knowledge of the powers vested in those to whom the working of the Metropolis Local Management Act has been entrusted, one might well feel justified in regarding all that has been said of "St. Giles's," the head-quarters of depravity and squalor, as a legend of the barbarous past. It must have startled innocent folk to learn that, but a year or so ago, no 1ess than a hundred and seventy of the notorious St. Giles's cellars were still in use as human habitations, and that, after the manner of rats and other burrowing animals, as many families, consisting of mother, father, and a more or less numerous swarm of big and little children, passed their lives in these dismal holes under the houses, working, eating, dunking, and sleeping all in the damp and dirt and dark. Of course it was out of the question that such a disgusting and disgraceful condition of things should be permitted to exist for a single day after it was exposed. Indeed the Medical Officer of Health has been able to announce since, that the cellar-dwellers have been routed, and that, "to his knowledge, not a single underground room in the district is now illegally occupied."
    Better late than never. To be sure, ignorance of such matters somewhat prevented one from understanding why it should take so long to unearth this colony of pestilence-breeders, but it was undeniably a comfort to hear that it had been accomplished at last. Was it quite certain, however, that they [-169-] had been ousted for good and all? Had the entrances to the underground dens been bricked up, or what were the precautions that had been taken to guard against the possibility of these cave-dwellers making their way back to their old haunts as soon as the ill wind which had scattered them had blown over? It occurred to me that it might be worth while to go and see, and accordingly one evening recently I alighted from the omnibus that, on its westward route, takes a short cut through Seven Dials.
    It was about seven o'clock, and the gas was alight - the gas and the oil and the paraffin and the naphtha. St. Giles's of 1873 is pretty much what it was a quarter of a century ago. A big brewery and three or four new streets have shorn its skirts somewhat, but it is heartwhole still, and as dirty and draggletailed as ever. The only "enlightenment" that modern customs and usages have brought it appears is in the increased brilliancy of its public houses, which are especially rich in plate-glass and gas glitter. There are the same ragged women, some with babies in their arms - some mere girls - and some with backs bent with age; and there are, as of old, the groups of lanky, ill-dressed youth, with a sharp look-out from under the peaks of their caps; the same knots of hulking men of mature age. too lazy even to support with their fingers the short pipe which hangs all aslant from their mouths, while their hands are plunged wrist-deep in the pockets of their trousers. The stalls are the same, so are the shops, the awful little dens - and there are scores of them - inside and out of which are exposed for sale scraps of household furniture, which, by a jocular fiction of the "trade," is termed "second-hand," although it must be twenty-second hand at the very least, and bedding, mattresses, and beds, and bolsters and pillows, the sickening complexion of which should be sufficient warrant for a sanitary inspector to seize them at once and consign them without delay to the flames.
   [-170-] I purposely fixed on the Dudley-street quarter of the St. Giles's district, because it was within my recollection that, in the disgraceful old times, the dwellers in cellars mustered very strong there. There used to be scarcely a house in the front of which there was not a hole in the pavement and a ladder by which the underground lodgers used to descend to their lairs. Used to! why there they were now! I could scarcely believe the evidence of my eyes. I had cut the comforting paragraph from the newspaper, and at that moment had it in my pocket. By the light of a street lamp I took it therefrom and once more perused it. No, there was no mistake-on my part, that is to say. There it stood in fair print. "The medical officer of health for the district of St. Giles now reports that, to his knowledge, not a single underground room it in the district is now illegally occupied." And there, from where I stood, I glanced into Dudley-street, and left and right, within thirty yards, I could see the open mouths of several cellars luridly lit by the fire and candlelight below. As though to put the matter beyond a doubt, at that moment there slowly emerged from the jaws of the nearest gulf a male lodger with a pair of deplorably ragged trousers slouched about his legs, and wearing a shirt horribly dirty and so full of rents that his hairy chest and shoulders were almost bare. His face was dirty, too, and sickly white, and to prevent his lank black hair from falling ever his eyes - which blinked and winked as do those of a miner who comes up in the cage after many hours' labour in the gloomy pit - he had encircling his head a fillet of cobler's "waxed end." With his dangling shirt-sleeve he administered a refreshing wipe to his face and throat, and seated himself at the edge of his hole, with the evident intention of enjoying a few mouthfuls of the comparatively pure air of Dudley-street.
    So emphatic a contradiction of my newspaper paragraph demanded further investigation. I crossed the road, and, as an excuse for lingering long enough at the mouth of the cellar to [-171-] obtain a peep at the interior, made inquiry of the man as to the place of abode of an imaginary tailor.
    "It can't be in Dudley-street, I should think," he replied, "there ain't no tailors here that I knows of; we are nearly all translators."
    This was startling. Was it possible that individuals whose pursuits were literary could be brought so low as this?
    "Are you a translator ?" I asked him.
    "Ah !" he replied, "anybody might know that with arf a hi in his head ;" and as he spoke he jerked with his thumb in the direction of the cellar's depths. My eyes followed the movement, and presently in the steamy haze were enabled to make out a cobbler's seat in the midst of a heap - a couple of bushel, at least - of old boots and shoes, apparently in the last stages of mildew and decay.
    "There's what I translates," explained the ragged cobbler, with a grin that showed how neatly the stem of his short clay pipe fitted into the hollow it had worn for itself in the side teeth of his upper and lower jaw; "I translates 'em into sound uns."
    "Is it good pay ?" I ventured.
    "It's starvegut pay," growled the poor translator, most un-pleasantly scratching himself; "it ain't taturs and salt hardly for a cove's wife and kids."
    "Especially with rents so high !" I remarked.
    "Well you may say it, mister," he replied, ruefully; "fancy! four bob a week for that!" and once again, with a backward movement of his thumb, he indicated the underground den.
    The excavations under the ancient houses of Dudley Street possess no windows at all, and the only way in which light and ventilation can be conveyed to the wretched inhabitants is through a hole in the pavement - a narrow opening, no larger than might be made by removing an ordinary paving-stone.
    [-172-] Leading down into the cellar is a ladder or a flight of wooden steps protected by a handrail. The roof of the cellar is level with the common roadway, and its floor must be several feet below the sewage and gas pipes. A wooden flap is hinged by the side of the gap at the head of the ladder, and is, I imagine closed at night time, and when the weather is unendurably inclement; though how, at such times, the benighted lodgers contrive to breathe is a mystery.
    "D'ye hear ?" exclaimed the translator, calling down to his wife; "there's the doctor goin' to see Mother Simmons's gal agin."
    "Ah! poor thing," came up the hoarse though sympathetic response of the translator's wife; "she'll snuff it, you may depend."
    By which I believe the good soul - a mother herself - meant that it was her belief that the existence of the girl Simmons would shortly be extinguished. But just imagine any one man, woman, or child lying ill abed in such a pestiferous, dingy den! Should the bedstead happen to stand at a far corner of the cellar, the doctor, even though it were noon in sultry summertime, would be compelled to examine his patient by candlelight. And the minister would have to read the dying words of blessed consolation by the flickering tallow flame, which would afterwards show a light for the undertaker with his measuring tape. But how about the coffin? It is not difficult to slide an empty box down a ladder. But a burdened box? To bring it to the surface as a shoulder-load in the ordinary way would, under the circumstances, be impossible; there could be nothing for it but to haul it up with a rope, tearful mourners clambering up in the wake and lending a steadying hand.
    As I turned away from the hole in which the translator and his family resided, my impression was that the medical officer of health for the district of St. Giles had made a mistake, He had said that there was now not one of the ancient cellars im-[-173-]properly occupied. Here, without doubt, was one. Were there others? Were there! At every step I took in dark Dudley Street I grew more and more amazed. Surely the medical officer of health for the district of St. Giles must have been shamefully imposed on. Here was another inhabited cellar of precisely the same pattern as that already described, and next door another, and again next door still another, this time with half-a-dozen nearly nude and hideously dirty children wriggling up and down the ladder, and larking in and out of the cellar darkness below, like rabbits in a warren. More inhabited cellars on the right hand side, on the left hand side-sometimes two and three together, sometimes with half-a-dozen houses between. From one end to the other of Dudley Street, which be it borne in mind, is but a small portion of the district of St. Giles, I counted thirty of these underground dens, all alive with human life. Besides these there were eight others, which though inhabited, could scarcely be said to be lively. In these a solitary cobbler toiled, the flames of his tallow candle disclosing him deep down in the dingy hole, hammering and stitching with desperate energy in the midst of heaps of mildewed wreckage of souls and upper leathers. In these eight instances I could not see any one down in the cellars but the cobblers themselves though for that matter there was so little light that there may have been in each case a wife and a large family of children stowed away in the background. But, as regards the other thirty instances, they made no secret of their existence as human dwelling-places. There they were, with their mouths open, gaping on the highway, and there was nothing to prevent the passer-by from looking down their dingy throats. There were the fires in the places, and the pots and kettles on the fires, and there were the mothers, and there were the babies, the elder children hauling refractory youngsters down the ladder, at the same time threatening them in forcible language with what they would "ketch" if they didn't "come indoors and [-174-] go to bed." It may perhaps be objected that the words used in the report were that no underground cellar was now "illegally" occupied, and that by illegal occupation was meant the using of the said cellars as sleeping rooms. I am bound to confess that I am not in a position to prove incontestably that the law is outraged to this extent. I can declare that in two cases I caught sight of the legs of a bedstead, festooned with a ragged bed-quilt; but, for all that I can show convincingly to the contrary, the bedstead might in each case have been the family dining-table, and the ragged quilt the tablecloth. At the same time it strikes me as being in the last degree improbable that these wretched ill-paid patchers of old boots rent other apartments besides that in which, all day long and far into the evening, they reside, and work, and take their meals, and that at a certain hour of the night they bundle up the ladder, and into the street, with their sleepy children, and proceed to a dormitory, the healthfulness of which is officially certified. Maybe it is taken for granted that because everything in the shape of sleeping convenience is absent from a cellar, the inhabitants by day do not pass the night there. This, however, is a view of the matter scarcely likely to be taken by the authorities of a district hundreds of the population of which sleep in their rags and on the bare boards as many nights in the year as they are not more decently lodged in prison or the casual ward of a workhouse. Besides, if it comes to that, what is gained to public decency and public health by drawing the line, as it would seem the officials of St. Giles's now draw it, and by which it is declared legal and unobjectionable for human beings to herd from early morning till late at night in dungeon damp and darkness, breathing foul air and breeding fever and all manner of disease, provided they turn out and go somewhere else to pass the hours between midnight and daybreak. It is no less marvellous than monstrous that such an appalling condition of things should have been permitted to exist so long, [-175-] especially when, as is evident, the sanitary authorities have long had the matter in hand. I did not pursue my investigation beyond Dudley Street, but it is fair to assume that in the surrounding vile courts and alleys - Dudley Street is a broad and busy thoroughfare - the evil is just as prevalent. I must be permitted to say in conclusion that the picture here given is not a bit overdrawn or exaggerated. There, to-day as yesterday, are to be seen in Dudley Street, Seven Dials, the deep black cellars, reached through a gap in the pavement, and by means of a steep ladder, and in each, at a greater depth in the earth than the sewers and the nests of the sewer rats, families of human beings - fathers, mothers, and little children-live and eat and drink, and make themselves at home.