Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Shadows, by George Godwin, 1854 - Chapter 4

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CAPTAIN HAY'S report "on the Operation of the Common Lodging- House Act" in 1853, states that up to December, 1852, 3,300 persons keeping common lodging-houses, accommodating nearly 50,000 nightly lodgers, were under police inspection; and the number is now very much greater. The cases given serve to show over what a wide district the dreadful state of things already set forth by us extends. In a small room in Rosemary-lane, near the Tower, fourteen adults were sleeping on the floor without any partition or regard to decency; and in an apartment in Church-lane, St. Giles's, not 15 feet square, were thirty-seven men, women, and children, all huddled together on the floor.
As Captain Hay truly says, "The efforts of parties well inclined to promote the well-being of society will be of little avail whilst there are such causes in operation, sufficient to counteract all the exertions made to this end. Churches, schools, free libraries, and mechanics' institutes, all excellent in themselves, will be found to have but small results, whilst large masses of the population grow up so immersed in ignorance and vice as to look on it with complacency, and to live in it without disgust."
    What we have ourselves seen surpasses belief, and, moreover, has features which prevent us from going into details of the worst portion. Under the pressure of professional occupations which absorbed the day, we have, during the night, under a sense of duty, penetrated some of the darkest recesses of Whitechapel and its neighbourhood, and have seen men and women under circumstances wherein virtue is impossible, and indulgence in vice or the commission of crime seems scarcely other than natural.
    O you! who, early taught what is right, and, out of reach of want, are comparatively little tempted, - who are restrained as well by fear of the opinion of your class as by your knowledge and religion, - view with charity and mercy the errors of your less fortunate brethren.
    Let these scenes, however, pass. We will not pain our readers with the details, but will wait for the morning, and be statistical and cool.
    The eastern portion of London, comprising the districts of Bishopsgate-street, Whitechapel, Goodman's-fields, Radcliffe-highway, Wapping, Commercial-road, Mile-end, Spitalflelds, and Bethnal-green, extending over a large surface, and containing an immense population, is unknown land to many thousands. To form an idea of its continued rows of lanes and streets, let our readers refer to the map of London, and they will not fail to be struck with the size of this large portion of the [-22-] metropolis, which is to a sad extent benighted and neglected. We will take a very small part of this space, viz., Bishopsgate-street and part of Whitechapel, and will commence with New-court, Charles-row, near Whitechapel church, - a court containing eight houses, with two rooms in each. This place has long been inhabited by low Irish, and has been the plague of the whole district. The condition of the houses is bad; and they contained, before the interference of the police, not less than 300 men, women, and children. There was only one place of convenience for 300 persons. The condition of the court at the time of our visit was shocking. The water was served, or wasted rather, half an hour each day, and this was almost the whole supply; for only a small cask was placed for the permanent reception of water. This court has lately been purchased by a neighbouring manufacturer, for the purpose of extending his premises; and by this time, the whole of the tenants may have been dispersed to other places. An Irishman, of pale and unhealthy countenance, evidently half fed, said, when he left that place he did not know where to go; he would be obliged to "intrude upon his friends." He had a wife and one child : two little children had died of fever. The young child was bleached, and although fifteen months old, did not look more than six or seven months. The face of the woman was disfigured by disease. A middle-aged woman, who said she had been turned out of the workhouse, was lying on the floor on a quantity of shavings. The charge for a bed of shavings amongst this class of poor people is one penny a day and night. The other inmates of this house had left, and the whole had to be turned out next morning the week's rent of the two wretched rooms in this house was 2s. 6d.: the Irishman who kept the house works at Covent-garden market,-traversing the long distance from this place to the market throughout the working days as early as four o'clock in the morning: from December till the beginning or middle of March (except Christmas week) his work is "very bad." He did not think that during the months stated his average earnings amounted to more than 2s. 6d. or 3s. a week; some days he did not even get 3d. : he had been obliged to live this distance from Covent-garden market in consequence of not being able to meet the expense of rent nearer, or rather was not able to find a place, for which he could help to pay by means of sub-letting. If obliged to obtain shelter in a lodging-house, he would be charged 3d. a night for himself, 3d. for his wife, and 1d. for the child: this would be 7d. a night, or 4s. 4d. a week (much more than the man's present income.)
    Serjeant Price, an officer of the metropolitan police force, who had been intrusted with the direction of the lodging-houses in this district, gave this account of the former condition of New-court :-.-House No 1. ground-floor, Haslin and his wife, - with daughters aged 17, 14, and 8; visible means of living, - by selling lucifer matches in the streets. Other floor, Flinden, his wife, a boy 17, and a girl 15, who sold onions and lucifers: the father had been out of work for three [-23-] years. No. 2. John Collins paid 1s. 3d. per week for his room (ground-floor), occupied by the keeper, John Collins, his wife, boys 16 and 10, and girl 17, sleeping on the floor; no bedsteads, no bedding. Above, Bridget Horsam, a boy 10 years old, and Joanna Collins, the keeper's sister, sleeping on the floor; in all, eight persons in this house, the space of the two rooms sufficient for the accommodation of three persons, allowing 30 superficial feet for each. The house was dirty, dilapidated, and swarming with vermin: this was the condition of two houses after they had been thinned by the police. The following is an account of part of a house of ten rooms in this neighbourhood (Rosemary-lane) let to the poor Irish at 1s. 8d. per week: one of these rooms, kept by Daniel Jones, contained five beds, as they were called; but which, in fact, were nothing but bundles of rags, similar to those described in Clerkenwell. In "Bed" No. 1, Daniel Jones, the keeper, his wife, and children aged 8, 7, and 5 years.- "Bed" No. 2, occupied by Cornelius Toomey (paid 6d. a week to the keeper), John and Peter Shea, in the same bed, paid 6d. each: 1s. 6d. for this bed. -"Bed" No. 3, John Sullivan and his wife, paying 7d. per week.- "Bed" No. 4, Cornelius Haggerty, his wife, boy 13, and girl 11; pays 1s. per week.- "Bed" No. 5, Patrick Kelly and wife, paying 11d. : in all, 14 persons in one room ; the original rent, 1s. 6d. The keeper received from lodgers 4s. per week. At the time of Serjeant Price's visit (24th of August, 1852) the greater portion of these persons were, in a state almost of nudity, huddled in this manner together.
    Charles-row, in which is situated the court above described, is a narrow street of small houses, occupied at one end by poor Irish, and at the other by German musicians, sugar-bakers, &c., who live very thickly together.
    In many streets adjoining are places over-populated and very unwholesome; indeed, Whitechapel church may be considered to be the centre of an immense mass of poverty, vice, and crime. Whitechapel is on the north and south divided by many streets and narrow courts, which are inhabited by very poor people, many of whom are weavers, Irish tailors, Jews, costermongers, dock labourers, and thieves ; the great extent of destitution is alarming.
    For an hour or more we traversed narrow alleys and places which do not deserve the name of streets. Some of the courts were in decent condition; but, although in most instances the places within the liberties of the city are provided with main drains, many of them, owing to bad pavement and the dirty habits of the people, were partly strewed with decaying matter and stagnant water. In a narrow passage near "Rag-fair," there is a piece of land in a close neighbourhood, covered with the refuse of fish, vegetables, broken baskets, dead cats and dogs, piled up, enough to create a fever in any neighbourhood. Before the summer weather sets in, a remedy for such abuses should be found. In most of the small courts in this neighbourhood the landlord obtains a rent of 3s., 3s. 6d., and even 4s. [-24-] for two very small rooms, and surely ought to attend to the provision of proper drainage and paving.
    It seems difficult to discover the climax of London poverty and destitution. In every depth there is a deeper still. The prices of various kinds of provisions in these neighbourhoods give a forcible notion of the condition of their swarming population. In most of these neighbourhoods you can purchase a halfpenny worth of fish or a halfpenny worth of soup, and other matters in proportion. The luxuries are singular in their price and character: a farthing's worth of damaged oranges, for example, being hawked about the streets and sold in shops. "Rag-fair," that well-known mart for every description of second-hand clothing, will supply good habits at any price.
    If some of our readers wish to judge for themselves, Cutler-street, a turning in Houndsditch, will lead them to the district. It is a curious scene : hundreds of people are assembled in the streets, which are so thickly covered with merchandise, that it is difficult to step along without treading on heaps of gowns, shawls, bonnets, shoes, and articles of men's attire. "Here Greek meets Greek," and not without "the tug of war." No person can form an idea of this anomalous multitude but by a visit. All poor and squalid; the children pinched and bleached, not "brought up," but, as Lamb says, "dragged up." Here may be seen in one of the markets, formed by some of the pillars and covering of the Hyde-park Exhibition, the great dealer, standing in his well-known place, and purchasing many cart- loads of clothing for exportation to the colonies, Ireland, and elsewhere; and other dealers of various grades, until we reach the merchant whose capital is less than a shilling, and who daily gets a living by the purchase of shoes, hats, and other matters, the uses of which, looking at their condition, it would be difficult to guess. Interesting as is this phase of London life, it would be foreign to our present purpose greatly to extend particulars : we cannot, however, avoid saying something more, our object being to show, by the provision of clothing made at "Rag-fair," the poverty of a class.* (* There is another Rag-fair of ancient date, near the Tower, - Rosemary-lane.)
    One of the London missionaries (a body whose valuable services can only be properly appreciated by those who understand the nature and extent of the evil to which we are directing attention) says:-
    "Persons who are accustomed to run up heavy bills at fashionable tailors' and milliners', will scarcely believe the sums for which the classes we are describing are able to purchase the same articles for their own rank in life."
    A missionary who recently explored Rag-fair, reported that a man and his wife might be clothed from head to foot for from 10s. to 15s. Another missionary stated that 8s. would buy every article of clothing required by either a man or a woman, singly. In Pennant's time it was less. He says (speaking of the other Rag-fair), that the dealer pointed out a man to him, and said: "Look at him. I have clothed [-25-]  him for fourteen-pence. A third missionary reported : "There is as great a variety of articles in pattern, and shape, and size, as I think could be found in any draper's shop in London." The mother may go to "Rag-fair" with the whole of her family, both boys and girls,- yes, and her husband, too, and for a very few shillings deck them out from top to toe. I have no doubt that for a man and his wife, and five or six children, 1 at their disposal, judiciously laid out, would purchase them all an entire change. This may appear to some an exaggeration: but I actually overheard a conversation in which two women were trying to bargain for a child's frock; the sum asked for it was 1d. and the sum offered was a penny, and they parted on the difference.
    The following is the copy of the bill delivered by the dealer to one of the missionaries, who was requested to supply a suit of clothes for a man and woman whom he had persuaded to get married several years after the right time:-
     "A full linen-fronted shirt, very elegant . . . . . 6d.
        A pair of warm worsted stockings . . . . .1d
        A pair of light-coloured trousers . . . . . 6d
        A black cloth waistcoat . . . . . 3d
        A pair of white cotton braces . . . . . 1d
        A pair of low shoes . . . . .1d
        A black silk velvet stock . . . . . 1d
        A black beaver, fly-fronted, double-breasted paletot coat, lined with silk, a very superior article . . . . . 1s. 6d
        A cloth cap, bound with a figured band  . . . . . 1d
        A pair of black cloth gloves . . . . . 1d
        [Total] 3s. 3d.
The man had been educated, and could speak no fewer than five languages; by profession he was, then, however, nothing but a dust-hill raker.
    The bill delivered for the bride's costume was as follows
        "A shift  . . . . . 1d
        A pair of stays . . . . . 2d
        A flannel petticoat . . . . . 4d
        A black Orleans ditto . . . . . 4d
        A pair of white cotton stockings . . . . . 1d
        A very good light-coloured cotton gown . . . . . 10d
        A pair of single-soled slippers, with spring heels . . . . . 2d
        A double-dyed bonnet, including a neat cap . . . . . 2d
        A pair of white cotton gloves . . . . . 1d
        A lady's green silk paletot, lined with crimson silk, trimmed with black . . . . . 10d
        [Total] 3s. 1d.
    The goods were selected by the missionary, and at the bottom of the bills the merchant marked:-
   [-26-] "P.S.-Will be very happy to supply as many as you can find at the same prices."
    Petticoat-lane, not long before Strype wrote, had hedge-rows and elm-trees on both sides, "with pleasant fields to walk in." Close by, in Gravel-lane, till recently, stood the "Spanish Ambassador's house." Many of the courts and alleys leading out of Petticoat-lane now are in a miserable state. At each corner of the lane where it opens into

The Dead and the Living : Bishopsgate-street District
Fig. 6. - The Dead and the Living : Bishopsgate-street District

Whitechapel High-street, is a public-house Many of the courts out of Bishopsgate-street are also very bad. Maitland, speaking of some of the alleys, &c., in Bishopsgate-street ward, describes them as "inconsiderable," "small and ordinary," " long and mean," "narrow and ordinary," &c.
    [-27-]  Since the time of Maitland's survey (1735), the condition of these numerous alleys and lanes has become worse. Dtiring a visit at night of some hours' duration, we found in the interior of these dwellings varied and painful scenes of poverty. Some of the inmates of these houses are Irish tailors, who are much overcrowded, and a great plague to the magistrates and the police. Generally speaking, the people of this district, although struggling and very poor, have mostly some little stock of furniture, and a desire to preserve appearances. In Half-moon-street, which turns out of Bishopsgate-street, next the "Sir Paul Pindar," there are courts of miserable character. The houses in "Thompson's-court" are in a frightful condition, and in "Thompson's rents" they are even worse. Order, cleanliness, or decency is out of the question.
    Fig. 6. represents a scene which we have met with more than once during our perambulations,-the coffin of a dead child in the midst of the sleeping living. In a single room the family sleep, work, eat, and perform the various duties of life in company with the dead, and the evil is increased by the length of time the poverty of parties obliges them to retain the corpse until what they consider proper preparations have been made for the funeral: this seldom takes place in less than a week; instances have been known of the interment having been put off for twelve days or a fortnight. This is a difficult matter to deal with, for the prejudices of the uninstructed are strong against the removal of the bodies until they are taken to the graveyard. It is most desirable that the feeling should be overcome, and proper places be provided for the reception and retention of the dead until the proper time for interment.
    The contemplation of the swarms of children which fill the miserable dens we are describing is saddening in the extreme, reflecting, as one naturally does, on what their career, with very few exceptions, must be, and what it should and might be.
    The friends of the poor child in its little coffin may rejoice!