Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - A Tale of Dismal Swamps

[... back to menu for this book]




The low-lying districts adjacent to the Thames between Blackfriars and Waterloo Bridges, has been yet once  more afflicted with an inundation, and that of so peculiarly painful a nature as to demand special record, were it with no other view than to set, as forcibly as possible, before those concerned the urgent necessity of taking such steps as shall render such suffering to a great number of helpless and unoffending poor people in future impossible. During a greater number of years than one cares to look back on, there have [-49-] been periodical floodings in this same locality, and each time that they occur public indignation is aroused, and everybody demands why such a scandal should continue, when it might be effectually put a stop to by building a river wall. On such recurring occasions the parish authorities bestir themselves a little, and confer with wharfingers and those whose premises abut on the river; a few promises are made, a few posts and planks put in store to be used to block up the threatened streets and alleys whenever a "rising" is anticipated, and then the matter for the time drops. 
    It is to be sincerely hoped that the terrible visitations, with such alarming and exceptionally painful results to hundreds of poor families, will lead to the matter being earnestly considered, and a lasting remedy adopted. At the full height of the furious gales and snowstorms, the oft-heard cry, "The water is coming! " is heard in Upper Ground Street and its neighbourhood when high tides are expected, and the ordinary precautions taken.
    The window gratings of the underground dwellings are battened over and covered with stable litter, the bye streets are barricaded about two feet high with planks and puddling clay, and all done that parochial sagacity can suggest ; the rest is left to fate. Fate takes the business in hand with a vengeance. With the icy blast in full career, and with the snow heaping in yard-deep wreaths at the road sides, the river over- tops its limits and the mischief begins. Broad Wall, Belvedere Road, Boddy's Bridge, and half-a- dozen other streets inhabited by the poor are swamped to an alarming extent, the place that suffers most being known as Princes Square. It would be well-nigh impossible to exaggerate the wreck and desolation that has overwhelmed the humble tenements here to be found, which are about five-and-twenty in number. Though of small size-there are but five small rooms and a washhouse in each tiny habitation - the number of inhabitants must be very considerable, since every house accommodates one, and in some cases even two, families-husband, wife, and children. As a natural consequence, most of the rooms contain a bedstead, with bedding and bed covering, according to the means of the occupiers. It is this that makes the calamity appear so disastrous. 
    When the roaring river, leaping over its ordinary boundaries, comes rushing through the wharf-yards fronting the tide, and surging across the narrow thoroughfare, it bursts into the houses on the other side and into the side streets and courts and alleys. The invading flood, even at its commencement, is so peremptory and powerful that it frequently brings great masses of ice that have been travelling to and fro with the tides for several days, tumbling them over and [-50-] over and driving them forward until they come crashing against the doors, in some cases breaking them open with their sheer weight, and thus giving free ingress to the foul reek of mud and water. There is scarce time to catch up the little children crouching about the fireplaces, let alone to remove such cumbrous articles as beds and mattresses. 
    The suddenness of the flood is such that it is the main topic of conversation and wonderment amongst even those seasoned Thames-siders who have, as they express it, been " washed out of house and home" more times than they can count. At one of the floods, said a poor soul, " We hadn't had no dinner, my husband being out o' work, so I thought we would have a penn'orth of dried sprats, by way of a relish, for tea and while I built up a fire to toast ' em and make a cup of tea, one of my little girls went out to buy 'em, when all in a fright she comes in crying, 'Mother, mother! here's the river, here's the river!' and sure enough, it was following her so close up that I hadn't time to snatch up the little ones and time bread I'd been cutting before time water came rolling into the parlour like a great black sheet and leapt up against the stove, so that the fire was drenched out pretty nearly, and the teapot on the fender went floating."
    How, while the freezing wind is howling and the blinding snow is peppering like peas against time windows, wave after wave follows, is easy to understand, as well as that the force and weight of the water increases each moment of about three-quarters of an hour from the commencement of the flood - until the heaving slush has indicated its filthy high water mark within a foot of the ceilings of the lower rooms. But what is by no means easy to understand is the havoc and ruin of the incoming water, not only to the furniture of the unfortunate people, but to the dwellings as well, and that in their most substantial parts.
    Nor is this all. Shoaling in at the front door frequently the ice and snow laden deluge, breaking down all opposition and making a sheer break through each dwelling to the back part; and, if it finds there no outlet, bursting doors or windows and pouring into the little yards behind with such resistless violence t hat substantial walls, some recently built, and ten feet high, are sent toppling down, and lie higgledy-piggledy amongst the general ruin. Outhouses, sheds, chicken-houses, and workshops are made wrecks, and mingling with the broken bricks, the splintered wood and shattered tiles, are tubs, and trays, and stools that seek escape from the whelming rush by breaking a way for themselves through the washhouse windows.
    But it is, of course, within the little homes where time most pitiable sights are to be witnessed. They are to be seen at all events, not in one house or two, or half-a-dozen, but in an indescribable number. The most strikingly painful cases are, of course, those where the lower rooms serve as sleeping chambers as well as to live in. It will, perhaps, assist the reader to realise the dismal scene if he will picture what the same rooms are within an hour of these calamities. Poor and mean they might be, but for the class of persons who occupy them, they seem cosy and comfortable. The most prominent article of furniture the place contains is the bedstead and bed, the [-51-] latter not very luxurious in its component parts, but good enough and warm enough for work-weary bodies to enjoy repose upon. 
    The humble abode has its table or two, its few chairs, its fender and fireirons, its something that did duty as a carpet, with a few pictures on the w alls, scraps of ornamental crockery on the mantelshelf and sideboard, and perhaps a chest of drawers. Call a broker in, and he will assess time lot at fifty shillings value perhaps; but that says nothing - it is home. Regard it as such, with a cheerful fire burning in the grate - remember the pelting storm raging without - and may be, tea in course of preparation for those who will be home when it is dark. Then, sudden as an earthquake almost, comes the drenching and drowning, and in less than an hour what a cruel change.
    Take a rule and measure from the ankle-depth of slime on what was once the carpet to the level stain on each wall, and it will be found that six feet six of water have been there; not clean water, but a liquid more of the nature of kennel slush, teeming with ice fragments, and bearing on its surface such a prodigious quantity of snow that the mire-soddened bed is heaped with it two feet high, while there is a hillock of the same muddy snow all over the floor and in the fender, and piled in the fire- grate. For several days after the disaster happens the rooms smell as though they had been left to mildew and decay for a year at least, and the smell would be much worse if it were summer instead of mid-winter, but the flavour of it would not be different.
    It could not be more nauseating, however, and it is to be doubted if inundation at any other time or season could present such deplorable results. Were the furniture of each lower room to be washed into the river itself, and cast upon its oozy banks, it could not look more hopelessly ruined. Icicles hang from the bedraggled quilts on the poor beds, crockery and chimney ornaments lay shattered and choked with slime on the ground, whilst chairs and tables have been dashed against the walls, so that they are fit for nothing but to be dried and then used as firewood. It may be mentioned, as showing the force of these floods that at one house, in the back parlour, I saw a chair standing on the mattress of an iron bedstead, and the latter was raised up to such a height and with such violence that the chair - back was driven through the ceiling, and there it still hung suspended.
    In the midst of all this ruin and desolation the people who live there are too bewildered and paralysed at times to be equal to the task of bestirring themselves to clear away the wreckage and make some show of putting their houses in order again. This, however is partly because of a widely- spread belief that the river will be sure to rise again that afternoon or the next morning, and it would be labour in vain to attempt to clear out the wreck until the [-52-] worst was done. So there they sit, many of them, in the midst of the dismal swamp, mothers huddling with their little children over a fire in the rusty fire-place, in one instance roosting along the whole length of an old iron fender for want of a chair to sit on.
    The visitors who venture there need have their pockets full of handy coins, to do anything like justice to their natural impulses, the distress and the imperative demand for immediate assistance is so undeniable. On one occasion there was a poor woman, whose husband was out of work, very near her confinement, and there was the chest of drawers in which her motherly preparations were deposited, broken and tumbled face downward, the contents spilt, and the drawers filled with mud. And, what was of much more serious consequence, there was the bed and the sheets and blankets, a mere reeking, miry heap, fit to be handled only by a scavenger.
    There is one old fellow standing at his door crying, and on his being asked what is the occasion of his grief he can only point to his abode. His poor goods are turned completely topsy-turvey, a broken looking-glass and the legs of a broken table being reared on a soddened heap that has once been his bed, while his mattress is in the fireplace, and the frames of the pictures on the walls dangled disjointed and ready to fall away piecemeal. There is a chest of drawers in the room, and icicles are hanging from them, while an ominous "drip drip" betokens that the drawers still hold water. It is this chest of drawers, or rather their contents, that the old fellow is grieving so for. He is waterman at a cab-stand, and his wife is in the infirmary and his only son in the hospital, so that at present he is living entirely alone. He expects his wife home in a few days, however, and had made the place nice and comfortable to receive her, "and all the poor old girl's clothes and things, and her best gown and bonnet are in them drawers," says the old gentleman, in a choking voice. "She had that gownd and bonnet laid up in lavender, Lord knows how many years, and never wore 'em on'y to go to chapel in. It'll break her heart when she sees 'em."
    It is the same story of desolation and ruin whichever way one turns. The shattered furniture, the heaps of dirty snow and ice on the soaked and blackened beds and bedclothing, the wet walls with the six-feet-six water-mark, and with the wall-paper falling away in great patches, the floor wet as street pavement on a rainy [-53-] day, and the grimy window curtain frozen stiff after the soaking, and butting against the window-frame with a dull thud like a piece of board, when the east wind comes whistling in at the broken panes.
    And, as before stated, there are the mothers and the children, the former each with a lamentable tale to tell of having no other article of clothing to put on excepting that they wore, and nothing to lie on until that which has been immersed in the flood is dried. In some cases the drying process commences directly the tide recedes, the bed or mattress being exposed to such heat as the fire of the small grate might give out. There is terrible danger here, and one that the parish authorities (who to their credit be it spoken, appear anxious to do for the poor people all they can) will do well to look to.
    Bronchitis seems very prevalent at these times. How this baleful disease and others as fatal may be induced and spread in this afflicted neighbourhood is painfully evident if the sufferers are permitted to lie on beds imperfectly dry, and in rooms that reek from ceiling to floor. There is only one proper and efficacious course to pursue, and that is to provide, without an hour's delay, other lodgings for all the poor creatures who, through no fault of their own, have been suddenly reduced to such miserable straits. When they are housed and rendered as comfortable as may be, then may be considered the best way of setting them up in decent homes of their own again.