Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - A Hungry Dinner Party

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THERE are differences of opinion as regards the advantages, moral and physical, of permanently established soup-kitchens in poor neighbourhoods. There are persons, and no doubt they form a majority, who maintain that no harm can possibly arise from placing within easy reach of those who require it a warm and comfortable meal. It is urged. and probably with much truth, that it must not be supposed because amongst the applicants at the kitchen door are found women and children quite decently attired, that the benevolent design of the promoters of the charitable scheme is in danger of being abused.
    The pinching shoe of poverty is not necessarily the shoe of the beggar and vagabond. There is a penury that shrinks from declaring itself, and which will stifle its hunger pangs even to the "last buckle hole of its belt," as the saying is. more to be pitied than the lot of those who are so utterly wanting in proper pride and self-respect, that they don't wait until the wolf comes scratching at the door, but cry out for help against the ravening monster at the first faint sounds of his voice-ever so far off at present. The former poverty-stricken kind of folk are likely to be tempted by the soup kitchen. It is not as though the soup were given away. At a penny a quart it is very cheap-wonderfully cheap considering the liberal quantity of meat and bread in it, and there may perhaps be in the mind of the prideful poor mother who, after a struggle, persuades herself that she may without losing "caste" send for threepen'orth of it, than it can be produced at a profit only by miraculous management.
[-27-] On the other hand, there are those who are as strongly of opinion that to make the soup-kitchen a national institution, and one on which the thoughtless as well as the needy may depend for a helping hand when times are hard, is to encourage a beggarly spirit among the poor, and undermine the self-dependence of those who, but for having this soup thrust down their throats, in a manner of speaking, would have struggled through with their self- respect intact.
    It is urged by the anti-soup-kitchen party that, giving its patrons all credit for kindly intent, it is a mistake on the part of the charitable to build and endow these establishments in every poor neighbourhood, as charity schools and almshouses are built and endowed, apportioning to them close times and open times, with a day in November - fixed as Guy Fawkes Day - for lighting the copper fires and getting the ladles ready - doing this though the weather may be as warm as in spring, and local destitution only to be discovered by diligent seeking. But at all events there is no diversity of opinion as regards Irish stew when it appears as the sole and staple dish at a dinner given to a crowd three or four hundred strong of downright hungry little children, to whom a hot and comforting meal of any kind, let alone one in which meat plays a prominent part, is an affair to look forward for longingly by day and to dream of by night.
    People who know little about such matters may be inclined to ask, with a little impatience, why the vulgar conglomerate known as Irish stew should be held in such high esteem by those whose privilege it is to cater for ragamuffin guests, whose card of invitation is the humble little piece of pasteboard delivered personally by certain good Samaritans who have inquired into the necessities of every case beforehand. There are at least half a score of good reasons why Irish stew should be the dish preferred before all others.
    In the first place, where the means of cooking are neither extensive nor elaborate, there is nothing so easy to prepare and with less chance of spoiling than Irish stew. It pretends to be no more than it is - a hotchpotch, a "stirabout" of meat and meal and all manner of shredded vegetables, with judicious season-[-28-]ing. It does not in the least matter, so that it is done enough, how long it is kept simmering in the boiler. It is readily served, and at a pinch may be assisted to the mouth with no other implement than a spoon. It may be eaten out of a plate, out of a jug or saucepan-lid for lack of a better utensil, or out of a pannikin or baking dish, or a publican's beer- can. It is convenient alike for toothless babes and the denuded gums of old age, and gaunt and half-starved units of manhood can "put away an enormous quantity of it in a short time when elbow-room is scant and time is precious. More than all, it is almost the only nutritive concoction that can be served piping hot to a great company where the waiters are not over many and lack the dexterity of the professional.
    Very much depends on this last-mentioned advantage in the case of those poor little children who at this time of year are as scantily clad as though it were high summer-time, and who have trudged through the muddy streets perhaps a couple of miles, without either caps or bonnets, and with scarce any covering to their feet. They are cold through and through, and shivering, so many of them, that the attempt to raise a "hooray" as they swarm about the door of the appointed dining- room (blocking the pavement entirely, and monopolising the best part of the roadway) is accompanied with a sound like that of castanets, this effect being occasioned by the chattering of their teeth. Nor is this the only music by the exercise of which they hope to hurry the movements of those within.
    The reader has, perhaps, heard of the "rough music" that, in the lower grades of society, is resorted to as a feature of rejoicing at popular weddings. Pots and stones, kettles, frying-pans, and sticks are the principal instruments of the orchestra, and better music could not on such occasions be heard - the noise is so deafening. Outside the little Mission Hall in Condor Street, Limehouse,a similar band might have been heard. The implements were of a less noisy capacity, consisting principally of plates and tin pannikins and spoons, but the performers were many and the inducement strong.
    Twelve o'clock was the advertised time for the dinner to take place, and here was a quarter-past, twenty minutes past, and still the doors were closed. What was worse, as muscular and selfish people, gathered about a theatre door before opening time, push and elbow away the weak and diffident, so many of the earlier arrivals, who, hugging their basins and spoons, had been for an hour or more congratulating themselves on having secured foremost places that would give them an advantage when the rush for seats came, were cruelly ousted from their point of vantage by those who came later, and in whom, it is to be hoped, the urgings of hunger were responsible for such unpolite and unscrupulous behaviour. It was less pardonable in them, because it was notorious that, in consequence of the limited accommodation afforded by the dining-room, the company could be fed only in hatches, and that after the first instalment were let in and the room was filled, there would be a long, long half hour to wait out in the cold, to say nothing of the dreadful possibility that the Irish [-29-] stew might be all ate up, and they, the outsiders, would be sent empty away. It wasn't as though they had been privileged with a peep behind the scenes as I had, and witnessed the liberal scale on which the feast was provided. There were three coppers.
    One might have thought that the centre one, full and bubbling to the brim, was large enough for the purpose, since its dimensions must have exceeded the historical vessel in which Jack the Giant Killer was hidden by the giant's wife when put out of the way of old Blunderbore, with his keen scent for the blood of Englishmen. But the others that flanked the monster middle pot were full as well, and besides these there was on the ground a huge laundry tub covered over with a white cloth, which, being raised, revealed such a wealth of mashed potatoes that one could imagine a hungry urchin outside becoming so delirious at its contemplation as to take a header sheer into it, and so put a bitter-sweet end to his existence, like Clarence in the malmsey butt. It was no use letting any of them in until everything was in readiness for their reception, no matter how much they knocked at the doors, hallooed "Hooray," and rattled their spoons against their crockeryware. Besides, they were kept well posted as to how matters were progressing within.
    The bottom panes of glass in the door were opaque with some inner coating, but there ~vere crevices and spy holes through which watchful eyes were peeping, and the elder ones gave their hungry young brothers and sisters "flying angels," and so perched up they could see over the beclouded panes, and were constantly nudged and shaken up by their bearers if they ~vere slow in reporting progress. At last a shrill voice exclaimed with a hysterical gasp and a clap of the hands, "They're bringing of it in. And there's Miss Napton with her apern on." And next moment there was heard the welcome sound of a bolt being withdrawn on the other side of the door, and as many as were able were free to enter.
    It is not at all surprising that the promoters and the working staff of this excellent charity, which is known as the London Cottage Mission, are earnestly anxious for an enlargement of their premises, which, unfortunately. can be accomplished only by demolishing the present ramshackle and inconvenient erection, and rebuilding. The "mission hall" is the dining-room, and there is room only for a range of narrow tables on either side, and for four rows of sitters. But children of [-30-] the spare dimensions of these famished young "East-enders" can pack close, and they did on the present occasion. They packed so close that in patches where a dozen or so boys of a size sat, their awfully towzled heads of hair looked like an uninterrupted quickset hedge, in which a magpie might have built her nest in secrecy and safety.
    There were a few grown people, chiefly women, very old and white and starved-looking, and some mothers who had come not for their own sakes, as was evident, for they seemed to touch scarce a mouthful, but for the sake of the two or three poor little ragged mites of things they brought with them, and a good sprinkling of girls of thirteen or fourteen, sisters turned mothers, each in several instances responsible for a younger child on either side of her, and another on her lap.
    There was one poor soul whose story (the truthfulness of which was vouched for by Mr. W. Austin, who manages this branch of the Cottage Mission) was a very sad one. She was a young woman, but she had four young children, the smallest a feeble-looking little creature, still an infant. They had given her temporary shelter at the mission room, because, the night before, being unable to pay up arrears of rent, and her empty room affording her landlord no satisfaction, she had been turned out of the house to seek a shelter for herself and her wretched children where she might. They had, it seemed, slept huddled together on the steps of the house through the previous night, and were here to break a fast that dated from yesterday noon, waiting until the stew was ready, And yet the husband, as I was informed, was a man willing to work if he could find it to do, and held a letter of recommendation from his last employer, whom he had served for a great many years.
    I was likewise told that the children present belonged chiefly to dock labourers who could obtain no employment, and to those who, to my thinking, were in a worse case, inasmuch as they were in constant work, such as it was, and were, therefore, utterly hopeless of ever being better off. These latter were shirt and trouser makers for slop masters, who abound at the East-end of London.
    It has been discovered that by the aid of the sewing machine a woman, working early and late, may make ten or twelve men's shirts in a day, and the price she is paid for them is one shilling a dozen, with twopence if she works all the button-holes. But this was no time for comparing dismal notes, with the delicious odour of bubbling-hot Irish stew so impregnating the atmosphere of the room that it was half as good as a meal to breathe it. There it stood in two steaming pans on a table at one end, and the quickset-hedge on the heads of the boys seemed to grow visibly, and there was a smacking of lips as audible as drops of rain pattering on trees when all eyes being turned in that direction, they saw the president of the pans stir up their contents preparatory to making a beginning.
    But not yet. Grace first, if you please. It must, of course, be reprehensible in any case to greet the announcement of grace with anything in the nature of a groan, even though it were involuntary and under the breath, but if anything could excuse it - I was about to say - it was the heartiness with [-31-] which they went at it, with the evident determination to make as short work of it as possible. But that would be reprehensible too, and so I ill say no more about it, except that it was duly accomplished, and that instantly afterwards, like soldiers drawing swords from their scabbards at the word of command, the hungry three hundred grasped their pots and plates and pans and basins, and thrust them forward with such a clamour to be served that those without, not yet sharing the repast, must have been goaded well- nigh to insanity.
    They were used to the work, those who waited on them; and, without looking, it would have been easy enough to have told how rapidly the distribution was proceeding by the gradual subsidence of the hubbub. All were provided at last, and hard at it. I think it was never my lot to witness a spectacle that was so painful and at the same time so pleasant.
    It was shocking to see so many helpless little children glaring so wolfishly at the food before them, and waiting with famished impatience, because for a few moments it was too hot for them to eat; but it was pleasant to reflect that there was plenty for them and to spare, and that, for the time being, at all events, they would in a quarter of an hour be one and all satisfied.
    Decidedly the stew was hot.
    "You are a-gobbling of it up, you are, Joey," remarked one quick redheaded boy to his next neighbour. "You'll be as sorry for it as I was last time if you don't watch it."
    "Ow was that? " inquired a muffled voice.
    "Why I burnt my tongue that bad that I couldn't do more' n a couple of basinsful arterwards. You take it cool like I do, Joey. You'll put away more of it in the end, I'll lay a ha'penny."
    Taking it cool, taking it hot, the ragged young trencherman certainly did "put away" such an enormous quantity that in many cases it bewildered one to understand where they stowed it all, especially as there were no outward visible signs of their filling out. To be sure, as the vessels were filled and emptied and filled again, there were heard murmur-[-32-]ing complaints respecting elbow room, and there was a general demand from everybody to everybody else that they should "get up furder and not scrouge so."
    But there was no mistaking the evidence of a happy change afforded by their faces. The hawk-like look of the eyes of mere babies was softened, and they seemed, somehow, to have grown much too young to partake of such strong food as Irish stew, till one wondered to see them there; while the elder boys and girls at length found time to talk with each other and to toy with their spoons. There were many, however, who still stuck to their work, and with a motive. Their eyes frequently wandered to the clock, and they knew that the precious moments were flying, and that presently they would hear the sound of the dreaded whistle that piped all hands away from the repast. At last it was heard, and rowers in a race when nearing the winning-post do not ply their oars with greater rapidity than these feeders against time now brandish their spoons.
    Again the whistle is blown, and, with a smile that denotes their consciousness that they have done their very best, win or lose, they lay down their spoons. They now sing grace after meat, very much to the satisfaction of the rapidly increasing mob without, which with exemplary patience has been awaiting its turn. Full and contented, the first lot are dismissed, and another company as large admitted, but as they go through precisely the same forms and ceremonies as their predecessors, there remains no more to say.