Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - The Last Day in the Old Country

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THE LAST DAY IN THE OLD COUNTRY

IT was quite a relief when the big hand of the clock at the Midland Railway Station pointed to half-past seven, and the guards in charge of the train called, "Right, here," and the engine-whistle peremptorily made known its intention to start immediately. To be sure, there was nothing to be sorry for presented by the spectacle of two hundred and thirty-six downtrodden and poverty-stricken ones, rescued by a single bold brave move from long-endured penury, and set fairly on the road to comfort and plenty.
    It was all right when once they started; it was the seeing them start that was not enjoyable - it was such a woefully kindly starting. It was the prudent intention of the worthy promoters and conductors of the expedition to avoid as far as possible last moment adieux, and a barrier had been erected to keep from the platform every one who could not show a train ticket. But within the last ten minutes - just indeed when the majority of the emigrants had taken their seats with their little children and their babies in arms, and a couple of good Samaritans were going the length of the train doing a brisk trade as milkmen, filling bottles out of big pails full of new milk, for the benefit of the little ones who had a night ride all the way to Liverpool before them - somehow the barrier gave way (I should not be in the least surprised if the fatherly-looking policeman in charge of the wicket had a hand in the "accident") and the emigrants' [-221-] friends and relatives made a sort of orderly stampede for the carriages, and immediately there ensued such a tremendous display of clasped hands between the platform and the doors and windows, accompanied by such a chorus of "God bless you," and "Keep your heart up, old boy," &c., &c., that one was compelled to fall back on the reflection, how immeasurably ample was the recompense that would reward this brief trial, in order to find courage enough to look on without blinking.
    Two hundred and thirty-six this time rescued from that drear and hungry lane that seemed to have no turning, and placed on the highway to prosperity and independence, and all through the indefatigable efforts of the ladies and gentlemen who form the East London Emigration Committee. Their scheme is a very simple one, although its working involves infinite pains and discrimination. Its main principle is to assist to the healthy and remunerative labour fields of Canada, not those deplorably poverty-stricken ones who can no more exist without "help" in a new country than here, but those - and they may be counted by thousands in London - who, given a "wheel," will put their shoulder to it might and main, and never cease their endeavour till they have fairly lifted it out of the nick. They don't require much help; the worst of it is such a host of them require it. They come begging and praying to those who have the emigration scheme on hand; they send all manner o pitiful and imploring letters - manly, honest letters - promising to pay back faithfully all that is advanced to them, and all for the privilege of being "set on their legs again" and being allowed "another chance."
    Lack of funds, however, prevented the sending a larger number than that already stated on the present occasion. The luggage had gone on before, and they were advised to be at the St. Pancras station of the Midland Railway at six o'clock, where their good friends and helpers would meet them. It was a strange sight to see them arrive. They were not like ordinary [-222-] railway passengers of the third or any other particular class; they were not in the least like "excursionists." The fact of every party being distinguished by bearing a "bundle" slightly favoured the last-mentioned idea; but the said bundle, which at a cursory glance might have been mistaken for provisions, on closer inspection turned out to be something very different. The bundles contained something that was too precious to be entrusted to the dark and uncertain depth of a ship's hold, or something that would be wanted on the voyage. It would be difficult to imagine an assemblage so various in its component parts. There were women of every type - little and big, old and young - and men to guess whose "calling," from their attire, would have been next to impossible. A few there were whose fustian nether garments still bore traces of their last job among oily machinery, bespeaking them out-o'-work millwrights and engineers; but the majority bore no trade mark at all.
    They were one and all, however, stamped with what was much more to the purpose - an eager desire to get at some trade to make their mark on. There were big brawny men, with vast shoulders and fists of awful dimensions, loose about the throat, and clean cropped and smiling, who would insist that it was "Kennedy" they were going to, and who spoke of "Kennedy" as though it was an individual with whom they had been challenged to a friendly pugilistic encounter, and whom they already saw licked into submission after the first three rounds. There were tall men, who would have been big men had they not been half-starved, and who evidently had it in their minds to take it out of Canada as regarded that prime beef at two shillings a stone as soon as ever they found opportunity; but, little and big, they were all bright and cheerful, and confident of victory in the fight before them.
    They had need be, were it only on account of the troop of children they took with them. I am sure that I am within the mark when I state that there were, without counting little [-223-] babies in arms, at least fifty whose united ages would not equal that of a very old man; while the boys and girls of from five to twelve reckoned at least another fifty. And the little ones had not been forgotten. In many instances they had brought their dolls with them, neglecting them in their bewilderment, and carrying them by the hair, and head downwards by their heels; but good Countess de Grey had kindly provided for those who had no toys, and a big box was quite ready for unpacking when all were on board.
    The tea went off quite as well as might have been expected; but, try as hard as we may, we shall never succeed in making of an emigrants' farewell party an occasion for genuine rejoicing, or a cheerful picture even. A deal of sunshine properly belongs to it; but, at present, it is too far away for its genial warmth to be felt to any very appreciable extent. It is all very well to be fortified by facts that have gone before and by argument that is sound and undeniable, but you will seldom or never succeed in persuading an Englishman when "good-bye" time comes that he should be downright glad to quit the old country. It is tolerably smooth sailing until the pinch comes. Five or six weeks since, in the midst of hopeless poverty and patient belief in better times to come, so thoroughly threadbare and worn out that it seemed a rotten stick indeed to trust to, when there dawned on the poor out-o'-work's family the blessed chance of presently taking ship and sailing away to a land of peace and plenty, there was joy enough. The only dread was lest this one should prove as delusive as the many other chances that had gone before it, and leave them in worse case than ever. When an incredulous mate asks poor Bill Jones does he really mean going if he can, Bill can find no other answer than a hearty guffaw at the possibility of the other's doubting it. "Will we go!" exclaims Bill. "Well, that's a rum question to ask a feller who hasn't handled a trowel since last November. Ask the missus whether we'll go or no." And Mrs. Bill, her motherly [-224-] mind dwelling on the marvellous difference that meat every day at dinner, with milk plentiful as water, and flour dirt cheap, will be sure to make in her pale little brood of three boys and two girls, echoes her husband's sentiments right bravely. And when Bill, who has urged his suit with the "gentlemen of the committee," with the pertinacity of a Briton, returns home one fine day, the proud bearer of the document that entitles him and his family to a passage to Quebec on a certain day, fixed and settled, it is like nothing so much as merry Christmas with them.
    But after that comes the sober time. The "perhaps they may go" has blossomed to a certainty that they are going, and with the dawning of this matter-of-fact realisation comes a reckoning up of who will be left behind. Nor is this all. It is imperative that they raise all the money they can towards assisting themselves, and to this end the home must be "broken up." The teeth of poverty have so long been nibbling at the said home that probably there is not very much left of it; but you may depend that the most cherished of the household goods are those that have stood out longest against sacrifice. But there is no help for it; they must go at last. To the unconcerned, the breaking up of a man's home is a very unpoetic performance. The broker lets fall no tear of sympathy as he surveys the shabby lot. He has nothing but a grunt of contempt for the cracked and odd china set, sacred to wedding days, christenings, and the like. He tears a rent in the treasured feather-bed, and plunges in his dirty fist to test the quality of the feathers, and is not a whit more favourably impressed with it when he is pridefully informed how many years it has been in the family. He has so little reverence for the mahogany tea-caddy that was poor mother's that he actually scrawls with a bit of chalk on the well-rubbed lid of it his meagre estimate of the worth of each item, and what the total is. It is nothing to him. He is used to the rooting up of homes, and thinks no more of the job than he would of rooting up parsnips.
    [-225-] It is a good thing when that's over. Now the cable is fairly slipped and they are launched, man and wife and children are drawn more closely together, and feel more than ever they did before how much depends on individual endeavour and a stanch resolution to stave off a faint heart. This is one of the chief secrets of the emigrant's doing in a strange land - one of the most valuable results of the emigration scheme. It is not so much the transplanting a human creature from a country where the only bread that can be spared for him is workhouse bread, to another country where butcher's meat may be bought at threepence a pound, and a wholesome, home-baked peck loaf is always assured him ;-it is the lifting him out of the Slough of Despond, and planting his feet on ground whereon he may stand firm, and stand till the end of his days, if he will only try and steady himself. This is the grand object, and how seldom it fails of achievement let the thousands of letters from emigrants writing "home" attest The emigrant, provided always he is of the right sort, as soon as he lands in Canada feels like a man to whom a new lease of life has been granted. He is roused out of that apathy which surely comes of long grinding of his unfortunate nose against the grindstone of adversity, and the incessant repetition of that dolorous phrase. "Where's the use of trying ?" And his wife catches his hopeful spirit, and he reads in the unwonted brightness of her eyes her reliance on him, and her steady determination to assist him heart and soul. So the battle is half won before the new land is invaded, and in every case, by this simple plan' of helping some poor willing fellow to help himself, a little more elbowroom is provided for the stay-at-homes of our own over-crowded labour market.
    On another occasion I chanced to be down in Cambridgeshire when a batch of labourers belonging to a village there were on the threshold of being "off for Queensland." It had been resolved that there should be a turn out of the whole [-226-] population, men and women, to accompany the bold adventurers to the railway station, and give them a hearty cheer by way of God-speed. I had never beheld anything like this. I had seen emigrants in plenty aboard ship in the docks, who were ready enough, nay, even eager to start on their voyage; but these were chiefly poor folks who had undergone all the weariness and worry and inconvenience which in such cases invariably attend every step of the way from the broken-up home to the shore-plank of the vessel that is to bear them away. It is something to have accomplished the tremendous undertaking so far, to say nothing of the comfort of companionship with a great many other people who are bound on the same journey; and it is no wonder if intending emigrants arrived at this stage show themselves cheerful enough to laugh and chat amongst themselves, and gather on the deck and wave their caps, and give out a lively hurrah as the ship steams out of harbour; but I was curious to see the sort of spirit in which our Suffolk son of the soil bade good-bye to the old spot and to friends and neighbours, and set out to seek his fortune.
    I found, although it wanted yet two hours of the time when the train would be due, that the village was all astir. A Union delegate had come down to improve the occasion (the disagreement between Hodge and his master, the farmer, was then at its height) by holding forth to the locked-out brotherhood and sisterhood on the shining example the three married couples and the two single young fellows were setting them. It was an animated scene. It was on a green, close by the church and the white-dotted churchyard, that the gathering took place, and the spokesman, a thoroughly earnest advocate of emigration, had his appropriate stand on the great clumsy village-made box of one of the voyagers, inscribed with the owner's name and destination, together with the intimation that "this box will be wanted on the voyage. The men and women present must have numbered at least two hundred, and "blue" was [-227-] as prevalent as at Hammersmith on a boat-race day. The women wore it in their caps and at their bosoms ; the men wore bows and streamers of it in their billycocks; the babies in arms had the sleeves of their frocks looped up with the brave colour. The delegate had a choice rosette of blue, worn on the breast of his coat as a soldier wears his war medal. There was a great bundle like a bed in a canvas bag, labelled "Passenger for Queensland," and on this sat the three married women and their eight children all in a row in front of the speaker, all plentifully bedecked in blue, while their husbands and the single men were ranged on either side of him, and lustily led the cheering whenever the speaker made a point.
    The women seated on the bundle were hardly as enthusiastic as their husbands. Of course, it was convenient to hold the meeting just by the church, for there everybody could. see the time by the clock, and know to a minute when they ought to start to meet the train. The only drawback to this advantage was that the churchyard surrounded the church, and it might have been confidently wagered that of the three married couples and the single young fellows there was not one who had not kith and kin lying there, and to whom "Good-bye" must presently be said as to the rest. This, probably, was the reason why the three women all sat with their faces turned in that direction. It may likewise have accounted for the woman who had a baby in her arms hugging it and rocking it as though it was in pain, and she was trying to keep it from crying, though all the time the chubby little chap, with his dimpled arms decorated with the "stroikin' colour," was all alive, and crowing over her shoulder at the other youngsters.
    He knew his business, that delegate, and, as the hands of the church clock moved on, his discourse grew more and more cheerful, and his pictures of the happy existence that awaited those who were immediately starting to enjoy it grew each minute more brilliant In his zeal for keeping up their spirits [-228-] he made a little slip, which was convincing of the delicacy of the task he had undertaken. "It is no romance, my friends," said he; "it is a fact, as sure as that you now see the sun shining, that this other world of which I am speaking is, as compared with this place, a Paradise of plenty and contentment. There is no sorrow there, no tears, no heartache for the future, and the way to this glorious land, my friends, is that way;" and he pointed down straight to the grass at his feet. There was something in the gesture and the words that was so in unison with the thoughts of the women, whose gaze was directed towards where the grassy mounds and the white stones were, that two of them suddenly broke down and hid their faces in their handkerchiefs. The orator saw his error, and hastened to add that the glorious land he meant was Queensland, which was at the other side of the world, exactly beneath where they were then standing; but it required the telling of two or three amusing stories of English ploughmen who had become Queensland estate owners, and of old-country milkmaids, who ten years ago were expected to "bob" halfway to the ground when the squire's lady addressed them, and who were now the mistresses of farms ten times as large as any in Suffolk, before anything like the previous cheerfulness was restored.
    It was not entirely restored when the delegate had spoken his speech, and wound up by hinting that, as it wanted but half an hour to the time when the London train might be expected they had, perhaps, better be moving. "Ay, ay! let's be moving !" everybody said, and proceeded to do so with such unanimous alacrity that it was clearly the one idea that anything was better than standing still and thinking of what was just about to happen. There was no lack of hands to carry the emigrants' luggage, or the emigrants' baby-in-arms, or even the two and three-year-olders who did not want carrying, and would rather have walked, but who nevertheless were shouldered by neighbours who had no other way at the moment of showing [-229-] their kind regard for those they were on the point of losing. And so they went trooping up the street, the married couples arm-in-arm in front, with their friends about them, and the shouting, hooraying crowd bringing up the rear. As the station was approached, however, the hurrahs grew less boisterous and hearty, and occasionally there would elapse at least half a minute, when the whole company marched as silently as though they were at a funeral; then some one would cry out, "Keep it up, lads gi' em another - gi' em a rattler this time!" But when the rattler came there was a huskiness in the tone of the manly bass, and a dry shrillness in that of the womanly treble, that made anything but exhilarating music after all. I would have given a trifle willingly if at that moment the most tyrannical farmer in the county had passed that way. It would have done everybody an immense amount of good, I feel convinced.
    In a few minutes the station was reached - such a little station that, though the station-master was willing to be as obliging as possible, he was compelled to shut the gate on half the ribbon-bedecked followers, who had to be content with looking through the palings. The pinch was coming now, and it was almost enough to make one laugh till the tears came to his eyes to witness the odd kind of hilarity that possessed the emigrants' old friends and neighbours, and by which they intended to make it appear what excellent spirits they were in, and how completely at their ease.
    Then the station bell rang, and the London train came sliding in and stood still at the platform. Tides and trains wait for no man, and for a thoroughly unsentimental person commend me to a railway guard or porter. In a twinkling boxes and bundles, little and big, destined for Queensland, and addressed to that effect, are as unceremoniously hauled into the luggage van as though they were mere ordinary packages going no further than Shoreditch, and the three married couples and the children and [-230-] the two single young men are hustled into the third-class carriage, which is of the cattle-truck order, and woefully suggestive of a hearse, and the two old women who are hanging on to the door handle, and whose puckered faces are now subject to singular spasmodic twitchings, are ordered to "stand away there," which they do, staggering to a seat where they are joined by other old women, and, turning their faces from the train, they rest their arms on each other's shoulders, and bow their grey heads, and all break down together. But this must not be; the men are not very blithe-looking just now, and blink and gulp as though this kind of thing were to them very distasteful physic, though taking their header's word for it, it was the very best for their complaint that could possibly be prescribed. "Stand afoor 'em !" "Stand afoor 'em!" the men whisper rapidly to each other as they range themselves in front of the weeping women. "Dang it! don't let 'em go away wi' such a last look as that!"
    But the women are not to be baulked of a last look, and as suddenly as they were overcome they recover; and when the train moves, and there are handkerchiefs and faces white and wet at the window openings of that third-class carriage, there is a tremendous waving of  "stroikin' colours" on the platform, and such a brave show of delight that, hard as it was to part, those who were left behind were, for their sakes, glad to see the others go, that one could but wish there was no make believe in it, but that it was entirely real.