Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Shadows, by George Godwin, 1854 - Chapter 2

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WE would throw light on some of the black spots in the metropolis, - the manufactories of evil and sorrow, - to show the miserable condition in which parts of London are even now; and the want of proper accommodation for the poor. "Wounds cannot be cured without searching:" the disease must be known before a remedy can be applied with certainty of success. " But we have heard of all this before," some will probably say; " we have read in the publications of the Health of Towns Commission, and elsewhere, the fullest details of the manner in which the poor live crowded together in ill-ventilated rooms, and have no doubt in our own minds as to the depreciating effects, both morally and physically, which necessarily follow."
    Very likely: but have these statements been attended to? Is [-10-] anything being done effectually to remedy the gigantic evil involved I So long as No is the answer to this inquiry, as it must be at this time, so long will repetition and reurging be necessary. It is extraordinary how lightly the majority estimate human life and health, and how obstinately they persist in courses inimical to both. The education of the rising generation is what we must mainly look to for a real advance:-
        "Ignorance is the curse of God,
        Knowledge the wings wherewith we fly to heaven."
    But, in the meanwhile, we of the present must do what is possible to rescue from the slough those who are sunk in it, and to increase the sum of human happiness.
    The greatness of the task is not to be listened to as good grounds for folding the hands and doing nothing. The work of the minute coral worm is scarcely to be measured; but, each performing its appointed duty, the foundations of vast islands are laid by the tiny and short-lived labourers.
    To be practical: let us look at the valley of the Fleet, Clerkenwell. Within the liberties of the City, in continuation of the new street from the end of Farringdon-street, this most abominable of rivers has been hidden from the sight; and the houses originally on its banks have to a great extent been swept away. It is true that a specimen of Field-lane (of which more hereafter), that famous mart for stolen handkerchiefs, still exists. There are also Plough-court, Plumtree-court, Holborn, and a few other bits within this part of the City, so inhabited as to give some notion of the houses formerly on the vacant space. Buildings have been cleared away, and those who inhabited them have been driven to equally unfit lodgings in other districts - a fact not to be lost sight of in considering the effects of the demolition of the dwellings of the poor without any provision for their reception elsewhere.
    If there were no courts and blind alleys, there would be less immorality and physical suffering. The means of escaping from public view which they afford, generate evil habits; and, even when this is not the case, render personal efforts for improvement unlikely. We would have such cleared away, therefore; but it is at the same time necessary that other accommodation should first be provided for those who are driven out.
    The visitor to the neighbourhood alluded to will notice in the cleared space a substantial wooden hoarding running up for some distance. A tall man may peep over it, and see and hear the "Fleet" rolling in an unwholesome stream. If we follow the course of this hoarding for some distance we shall see that the river enters and is hidden by a gloomy archway. Thank God! the visitor may exclaim, here is the end of the Fleet, and, with thankfulness and hopes that one day soon the part of the river before his eyes may in like manner be concealed, he wends comfortably on his way.
    [-11-] A more enterprising traveller, however, who, anxious to get an anecdote or two of the ancient stream, follows its apparent course in a northward direction, will find that the Fleet, like the river Mole, again appears at a short distance to the light of the day, and for several hundred yards through the dense population of Clerkenwell, he dives down various courts, and, by the favour of individuals, peeps out of dilapidated windows overlooking the Fleet in hopes to discover the end of its polluted course (for be it remembered this stream is the sewer for the refuse of a population of more than half a million of persons). Few men could view the blackness and hear the rolling of the Fleet, not to mention its effect on the other senses, without feeling pity for all residing near it. The explorer of the Fleet will find a street closely abutting upon it, on the east side of which are dense masses of buildings thickly populated: he will not fail to note the entrance to Frying-pan-alley; this way is exactly two feet six inches wide, and say twenty feet long: there would not be room to get a full-sized coffin out of this court without turning it on its edge. At the end of this narrow passage is a long line of squalid houses running in sharp perspective; little turnings, wherein are dust-bins and other matters, lead to similar courts and alleys,- Rose-alley, which-    
        "By any other name would smell as sweet,"
"Pear-tree-court, "Broad-court," &c., which sadly belie their names. The greater number of these houses are occupied by costermongers, and the various articles of traffic and animals required in the trade are lodged in the lower story. It would be difficult to give a complete notion of the dirty appearance of those courts and their inhabitants. On the opposite side of the way, after passing under an archway, we come to a special scene of wreck and neglect.
    Few would suppose that these dilapidated buildings were inhabited, and that too in the midst of winter, by human beings. In some parts the glass and framing have been entirely removed, and vain attempts made to stop out the wind and snow by sacking and other matter. The basement is occupied by donkeys and dogs. In one of the rooms we found a very old Irish woman (who said she was more than fivescore years of age), crouching over a little fire; her son, a man about thirty years of age, lives with her. There was no bedstead or other furniture in the room; the ceiling was cracked and rotten, and the window destroyed. The rent of this room is is. 6d. per week. This description will answer for several other apartments; but the rooms in the house to the right, by the dense packing and sad poverty of their inmates, make the places already mentioned appear better by the contrast. In the first room, the windows of which were filled with tins, wood, rags, &c., we found a middle-aged Irishman mending the trowsers of a lad about eight years of age, whom he was going to despatch to "worruk, to get his living, God help him!" Other children, too young to handle a broom at a crossing, or even to beg, stood about. Several women, such as those often met with in [-12-] the streets of London late at night, sat on the floor, near the black- looking fire, in idleness. There was an old bedstead in the room with straw upon it and some dirty rags; there was also a chair without a back, which was politely handed for our use. Here we heard long complaints of want of work; but our friend was evidently one of those who would not much distress himself in searching for it, - his six children will beg, - his wife will sell matches in the streets, - he will let part of his miserable tenement to lodgers,-and probably finish his useless and degraded existence in the workhouse, leaving behind him a large legacy of paupers, if not criminals. The room above presented a scene of still greater destitution. Our frontispiece represents it:-   There was not a single piece of furniture in it; three beds were rolled up on the ground; against the walls at intervals the whole worldly property of the different lodgers was suspended; attached to many articles, and also suspended from the roof; were small bottles of "holy water." In some instances these little collections of effects consisted of a bonnet and cloak or shawl, with a basket used for the sale of fruit and flowers; in others, nothing but a very old basket and a ragged shawl. In one part of the room there was a woman sorting bones, pieces of iron, cinders, &c., which she had gathered in the street; in another part, between the two beds, were a few cinders, which had been sifted out and placed there for the purpose of supplying the fire, round which were squatted dirty and ill-clad women and children. This room and the room below it, already mentioned, lodge in the night time twenty-five persons. The houses in this court belong to a gentleman at Notting-hill, by whom they are let to a chimney-sweeper, who lives on the spot, and then sublets them as mentioned.
    Continuing towards the north, there is a hilly street, formerly called Mutton-hill, now Vine-street; the centre of this street is reached by a sharp descent from each end. At the bottom of the banks, for these were formerly the green sides of the Fleet, are two walls, with a door in each, on which are painted communications from the Commissioners of Sewers. Many would pass here and imagine that these doors led to some neatly-paved yards; we have, however, removed the screen, that our readers may themselves see what is really behind it, namely, the Fleet.
    At night, or rather early in the morning, we visited some of the low lodging-houses in the neighbourhood. The moon was shining gloriously over old Bartholomew's; the "Smoothfield" looked more like a lake than a "cattle-market," when we left the station with a serjeant of police to pursue the inquiry; but what we saw by its light, aided by our companion's "bull's eye," we will tell in the next chapter. Bacon says, "It is a poor centre of a man's actions, himself. It is right earth; for that only stands fast upon his own centre; whereas all things that have affinity with the heavens, move upon the centre of another which they benefit." But acting even on this centre (Bacon's inference is right, though his illustration is wrong, for the earth is but part of a whole), thinking only of ourselves we must, if [-13-] we are wise, look to the health, the well-being, and the advancement of those beneath and around us, if it be but for the effect neglect of these may hare on our own health, well-being, and advancement.

The Fleet Ditch
Fig. 4  - The Fleet Ditch.