Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Shadows, by George Godwin, 1854 - Chapter 3

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[-13-]

CHAPTER III.

    It must not he supposed that we seek, by these papers on the dwellings of the London poor, to awaken sympathy in behalf of individuals, to be expressed by pecuniary assistance to them. Our object, it must be evident to all who will give it any consideration, is permanent improvement and general amelioration. We would show the great want there is of decent accommodation for the poorer classes, the miserable state in which thousands are lodged, the degrading and demoralizing effect of this upon the character; and then point to the fact that decent accommodation may be provided for them, and a fair return be obtained for the money laid out in effecting it, to say nothing of the sums that would be saved to the community by the diminution of crime, disease, and death (not confined, let it be remembered, to the locality of the originating hovels), to which such improvements would unquestionably lead.
    Let us return for a moment to Clerkenwell, - "Nigh," as Garth wrote,-
        "Nigh where Fleet Ditch descends in sable streams,
        To wash his sooty Naiads in the Thames,"
[-14-] or, as Pope described it in nearly the same words,-
        "To where Fleet Ditch, with disemboguing streams,
        Rolls its large tribute of dead dogs to Thames."
    It was about two in the morning when we wended our way to the valley of the Fleet, to visit some of the lodging-houses in that neighbourhood, starting from the police-station in Smithfield, where the suspended handcuffs of various sizes recall a time when these were more needed here than they are now. For many years, in early days, Smithfield was called "Ruffian's Hall;" by reason, "it was the usual place of frayes and common fighting during the time that sword and bucklers were in use." In the still night you may see, with the mind's eye, Rahere exhorting the people to aid him in building the Priory of St. Bartholomew: to this succeeds jousts and tournaments, with brave knights, fair ladies, and a vast deal of ruffianism: here Wallace was executed and Wat Tyler slain, and there, opposite to the entrance to the old church (the moon is just now touching with bright light the dog-tooth moulding in the entrance arch amidst modern houses),
        "Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded
        That all the apostles would have done as they did."
    A heap of rough blackened stones and ashes remain, underground, to mark the spot.
    London is dead asleep at this time; there are few persons abroad excepting a few roisterers around the bright fires of the street coffee-stalls, but at short intervals we stumble on the quiet guardians of the City, and are reminded that, while all seems at rest, the spirit of the law watches and protects. It is not market morning at Smithfield, or there would be more bustle in Cheapside and other important parts of the City, which in the daytime overflow with passengers and carriages; at this time our boots ring with a hollow sound upon the pavement, and have an echo. The air seems denser as we approach the ditch, though it may be fancy; and it is now that bad airs become worse, and the human frame is less able to resist injurious influences.
    As our business is not with the élite of society, we progress towards what remains of Field-lane. In St. John's-court, West-street, Fox and Knott-court, and other places, there are still some common lodging-houses; but these seem to be completely under the surveillance of the police, and in no instance that we saw were occupied by more than the number of lodgers allowed by the regulations. Some had been cleaned recently, and otherwise improved. There are many abominations, nevertheless, in Fox and Knott-court: if you need proof, open that door at the bottom of it, but shut it again quickly, and let us go.
    The back parts of many of these premises are exceedingly filthy. At the end of the new street is the City Hospice, where several persons, male and female, are lodged in apartments separately arranged and well ventilated. A visit to this place would be interesting to [-15-] those inquiring into the important subject of improving the dwellings of the poor, although we are not prepared to recommend the system pursued here. One good feature of this institution is the establishment of washing-places, &c., which can be used by any person (free) at any hour of the day. Adjoining this is the Field-lane Ragged School, under the patronage of the earl of Shaftesbury. In this place we found 163 lads and young men asleep; and a curious sight it was. The room is lighted with gas, and the floor is divided, by planks about a foot high, into compartments a little larger than the body of a man. In nearly all of these was a lodger, covered with a rug, and, judging from the loud snoring, sound asleep. Those who attend the school may sleep here without payment; and nearly all this sleeping assembly are without visible means of obtaining a living,-many of them are known thieves. At the end of Field-lane, the houses are occupied for doubtful purposes: in one we found a witch-like hag still waiting for business. What that business was we need not inquire. The house was a dilapidated and unwholesome den. In Field-lane there are several lodging-houses, which have the ground-floor fitted up as kitchens or coffee-shops: large coke fires were burning in these. On the seats, on the tables of the first we looked into, under the tables, and strewed about the floor, in some instances partly lying over each other, like eels in a dish, were men of various ages. In a back room, partly divided by a partition, was another fire with more lodgers, some of whom, at that late hour, had but just arrived, and were cooking their supper. There were thirty lodgers in these apartments, who pay 3d. each for the privilege of stopping here; for sleeping in the beds upstairs, 4d. a night is charged for each lodger. These houses have four rooms upstairs, many of them six. Allowing four persons in each room, and only four rooms in each house, we have

Sixteen lodgers, at 4d. per night (7 nights) £1 17s 4d
Thirty ditto at 3d. per ditto £2  12s 6d
[Total] £4  9s 10d
Per annum if always full £233 11s 4d. 

    This would be the night-work only; but most of their lodgers are the receivers and assistants of thieves, and no doubt many sleep during the day in order to be prepared for night-excursions, and by this means the profit of the lodging-house keeper is enhanced. We went into five of these houses, and found them all full, - of misery and vice.
    Leaving Field-lane, and crossing Holborn into Shoe-lane, opposite the wall of St. Andrew's Churchyard, you reach the entrance to Plumtree-court, which has long been the haunt of fever: this court extends a considerable distance towards Farringdon-street, when it goes off at right angles to Holborn; the court is very narrow, and [-16-] the drainage very imperfect. A sink at the bottom of this pestilent hole receives the greater part of the refuse of the place; it is often stopped, and then a pool of considerable extent is formed. Pulling the latch of the outer door of one of the houses here, and then entering the room on the left, with the assent of its occupants, we found an atmosphere so stifling that we were forced for a moment to retreat. There were two beds in the room : in one, which seemed to have heads all round it, were no fewer than nine women and children. They were stored so oddly and so thickly, that it was not an easy matter to count them even by the strong light of the policeman's lantern. In the other bed were a man and a lad, and in a small room, or closet leading from this room, three other persons were sleeping. There was little ventilation. Had there been none, assuming that each respiration is forty cubic inches (Menzies), the respirations twenty a minute (Hailer), and that the existence of .08ths. of carbonic acid is destructive (Liebig),* (*See First Report of Metropolitan Sanitary Commission, p.127)  the occupants of the front room must have died in eight hours! We will not trouble our readers with the inference, nor need we give them further details of this quarter. Pondering on what we had seen, and weighing the possibility of improvement before the infant-school has done its work, we were glad to make our way homeward, to freer air. The morning was dawning, and Wordsworth gave us utterance for our impressions:-
        "The city now doth like a garment wear
        The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
        Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
        Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
        All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
        *    *    *    *     *
        Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!   
        The river glideth at his own sweet will:
        Dear God I the very houses seem asleep;
        And all that mighty heart is lying still."
    The sun is up again, and we will look a little farther west. Let us examine what in Stow's time was the pleasant path "leading to the fields towards Highgate and Hampstead," and which is now called, as it was then, Gray's-inn-lane. The courts and lanes in this locality extending towards Clerkenwell have long enjoyed an unenviable celebrity; and certainly the condition of many of them, as well as of their inhabitants, is On the one-pair floor; On the the ground floormiserable in the extreme. It is difficult to find fresh words to describe the varied scenes of wretchedness to which this inquiry leads us. We will enter the worst of these courts, Charlotte's-buildings, which, whether viewed in the bright sunlight, in drizzling rain, in the twilight, or the dead of night, still has the same dismal, dreadful aspect. During the day, and particularly in the evening till about ten or eleven o'clock, the narrow area is filled with strange-looking and ragged figures, whose dresses and complexion harmonize with the [-17-]  grey mouldy and dingy-looking walls of the buildings. So wild and haggard is the scene, that few who have not had experience of these places and people would venture to the bottom of the court. There are fifteen houses in this narrow place. Let us take one at random, and look into the interior. We have, Asmodeus-like, removed the front wall from the top to the bottom, that our readers may examine without fear, and at their leisure, the extraordinary and distressing scene it presents (Fig. 5). Let us schedule its contents, beginning with the ground-floor front. There are no bedsteads, chairs, or tables, a few ragged clothes are drying before a little fire in the grate, above the mantel are a looking-glass about three inches high and some torn prints of the Crucifixion, &c.; in the cupboards, without doors, are pieces of broken crockery; a kind of bed in one corner, with children asleep; the floor rotten in many parts, the walls and ceiling sadly cracked. The rent is  2s. 3d. per week, which is called for every Monday, and must be paid at latest on Wednesday.
    The ground-floor back presented a sad scene of distress, - the man, his wife, and some children earn a living by chopping fire-wood; the man had been ill, and not able to rise for two days. He was lying on a quantity of wood-shavings, and was partly covered with an old black and ragged blanket; his skin did not appear as if it had been [-18-] washed for weeks; he was very ill, and evidently in a state of fever; his wife The Attic; On the Two Pair Floorwas almost equally dirty. "We have no wood to chop, was the expression of their ultimate distress. This room was much dilapidated, and they had suffered greatly during late severe weather, owing to the broken condition of the windows. The rent is 1s. 9d. per week : the window overlooks a back yard, the condition of which was shocking: the senses of these poor creatures have, however, beconie so deadened, that they seem only to be susceptible of cold and hunger, and the grossest impurity of the atmosphere is in no way cared for. Viewing the unwholesome state of the back yard of this house (the others are equally bad), and considering the numerous places in London where similar accumulations of filth are allowed, we cannot but wonder that before this time the necessity for the formation of a sanitary police has not been admitted.
  
The first-floor, both back and front, was crowded with inhabitants. The people acknowledged that fifteen persons slept in the two little rooms the previous night; the walls were cracked and dirty, and the ceiling constantly falls upon the floor while the inmates are taking their food : one woman said that a part of the cracked hearthstone from above had fallen amongst the children. Some of the people in the front room were employed in chopping firewood, which the children are sent out to sell. It is difficult, since the new police regulations respecting lodging-houses, to get a true account of the number who actually reside in these places, as the parties are afraid [-19-] of the particulars getting to the ears of the authorities; they, however, confessed that fifteen grown people and children slept on this floor: the rent of the front room is 2s. 3d.; back, 1s. 9d. Continuing our way up-stairs, we found the state of the staircase and the rooms worse and worse.
    In the front room two-pair, when our eyes had become accustomed to the Rembrandtish gloom, we found fifteen persons: some had been selling onions, &c. in the streets; some begging; one or two were seemingly bricklayers' labourers; and others had been working at the carrion heaps in the neighbourhood. It was a motley group: a characteristic Irishman was seated on the top of an iron cooking-pot engaged in conversation with one whom he called "Mr. D." at the chimney corner. They were exceedingly polite, and no gentleman in his arm-chair could have been more courteous than our friend on his iron throne. It is, unfortunately, difficult to get truth from the poor Irish, who will impose all manner of fables upon a stranger, and we did not find this case an exception. Nearly all the Irish by whom this court is occupied agree in stating that they were driven from Ireland by sheer distress, and that many fled from almost certain death at the time of the great famine. The rent of this floor is the same as that of the floor below.
    The attic, in a state of repose, is shown in the top cut. This, if possible, exhibits greater poverty than below. The walls are full of large holes, and the light is visible through the roof. The rent of the attics is the same as of the floor below : it may seem strange that the prices of the rooms should not vary, but this uniformity is effected by the landlord removing those whose necessities are greater, or who may be a shilling or so in arrear of rent, to the upper quarters.
    The first feeling after visiting this place is that of astonishment that persons should be allowed to let such dilapidated buildings to these poor people, who really pay more than a fair rent for a good house; the rooms are seldom unoccupied, and the loss trifling. The rent would be as follows:-
        Four front rooms at 2s. 3d ....... 9s. 0d. per week.
        Four back do. at 1s. 9d. ........... 7s. 0d.
  
     [Total]                                         16s. 0d.
or £41. 12s. per annum.
    The population of this small court is immense. If we take an average of fifteen persons in each floor of the houses visited, and this is greatly below the number, we find sixty persons are occupying one house, and nine hundred are in the court.
    In the neighbourhood of this den are Bell-court, Tyndall-buildings, Baldwin's-gardens, Verulam-street, &c. Some of these are close courts, and others lead with various narrow ramifications towards Leather-lane. Fox-court, which for a long time was the habitation of the worst characters, is one of those passages with many branches [-20-] and little courts, - some of which are very badly constructed. One small square place of this description, and which contains several tall houses, is entered by a very narrow covered entrance, in which, as if to stop the passage of even partially pure air, is situated the dust-heap, which we found overflowing, and in bad condition. The state of the houses not only here, but in Charlotte's-buildings, &c. bad as it is, is considered to have been wonderfully improved during the last few months. In Fox-court are several licensed lodging-houses; these have been limewashed, and in other ways cleansed; the space of the various rooms measured, and the number of lodgers fixed, corresponding to the size of each. In this place is a clump of fourteen small houses, which have been thus prepared for lodgers. The number allowed is seventy-five, and the beds are mostly occupied: this at the charge of 3d. for each lodger per night, would produce £6. 11s. 3d. per week, or £341 a year. In this place, Fox-court, the unfortunate known in literature as Richard Savage, was born of the countess of Macclesfield. In Portpool-lane is an improved building, erected under the superintendence of the Society for improving the Condition of the Working Classes-part of the funds for the erection of this building was provided by subscriptions collected in the London churches on the Thanksgiving-day for the departure of cholera. It is a great advantage to the neighbourhood, and consists of a very large washhouse, apartments for ironing, &c. It has been converted to its present purpose from the wreck of a brewhouse. Underneath the washhouse the cellars have been divided and fitted with closets to enable the costermongers to store their unsold goods, instead of taking them into rooms so thickly occupied as those we have mentioned.
    Each closet is provided with a hock and key, and a small weekly sum is charged for this~ and for accommodation for their barrows, &c.; there are also two sets of rooms for families, similar to those erected by the Society in other parts of London, and rooms for single women of good character; these rooms are neatly fitted with washhand-stand, two iron bedsteads, mattresses, &c. they are plentifully supplied with water, and well ventilated: the rent of each of these rooms is 2s. per week: they are mostly occupied by two persons, who pay thus 1s. a week for a comfortable lodging, partly furnished. The great advantage of houses of this description for needlewomen and poor persons who take in washing, which they can complete at the washhouse opposite, is evident; and the good will be great if it can be shown that this class of buildings will pay a fair return on the cost of erection at this rent.
    Something should be done with Charlotte's-buildings forthwith. Few of the countless throng who flood the paths in Gray's-inn-lane have any knowledge of the hot-bed of disease and vice which exists within a dozen yards from them.