Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Shadows, by George Godwin, 1854 - Chapter 5

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SOME of our readers will perhaps say to us, - "Your statements are too truthful, too minute, and they give us pain." We regret to be forced to give pain what we have seen and what we have written have caused more grief to ourselves than to our readers; but the necessity is so great, the duty, as it seems to us, so imperative, that we cannot yet either pause in our course or change it. It is time the whole truth were known it is time that "improvers" were made to feel strongly that when they knock down houses occupied by the poor in the neighbourhood of their "work," drive them forth, and do not [-28-] provide other habitations for them, they must necessarily increase the evils of overcrowding already in operation, and are guilty of wrongdoing.
    We do hope, too, to do something towards removing prejudices on the part of the lower classes, which stand in the way of amelioration, - the prejudice, for example, already referred to, which would lead the occupants of a single room, ill-ventilated and over-filled, to retain the body of a deceased relative amongst the living rather than deposit it in a fitting reception-place, to wait the appointed time for burial. The feeling which prompts it is a holy one: far be it from us to depreciate it, still less to scoff; but duty must overweigh feeling : the living have a stronger claim upon us than the dead.
    A startling example of the practice came before us the other day, when opening a cupboard in a miserable room in the neighbourhood of Gray's-inn-lane, we found, shut up with the bread and some other matters, the body of a child, without a coffin, but decently disposed. The child had been dead a week: on one of the shelves was its little mug, marked "Mary Ann," with some broken crockery. The man's wife had died a few weeks before, and had been kept in the same room fourteen days amidst a family of children. The opponents of legislative interference in such cases should reflect on the wide injury to health committed by this permissive poisoning, to say nothing of its effect on the character of the people. We had prepared a sketch of the closet, but its aspect was so painfully repulsive that we have withheld it. Truth is often less truth-like than fiction.
    Let us leave this part of our subject and walk to Drury-lane. Throughout a considerable portion of Drury-lane, Wych-street, Holywell-street, and even the great thoroughfare of the Strand, there was until very lately no sewer, and, consequently, the inhabitants were obliged to submit to the infliction of cesspools under many of the houses, causing (particularly in crowded courts) the greatest damage to health. In Wych-street and Holywell-street many of the houses are of considerable antiquity, and although, in some instances, inhabited by improper characters, are not so overcrowded or so neglected (except in the matter of drainage) as to require particular notice. In Newcastle-street, and the places adjoining-Drury-court and the narrow lanes leading from it-the houses are in decent condition, and by means of an association formed amongst the neighbours, have been freed from many troublesome inhabitants : the same may be said of Craven- buildings, Feathers-court, White Hart-street, and others.
    Fever has been a frequent visitor to this part of Drury-lane, and the cholera of course found it out. There are many courts and lanes in Drury-lane, the rent of a single room in which varies from 1s. 9d. to 2s. and 2s. 6d. per week. Many of these houses and those surrounding them are occupied by persons who obtain their livelihood at Covent Garden market. In the direction of Covent Garden market, Crown-court, Rose-street, and other places in the vicinity are unhealthy and much neglected. From Long-acre to the main street of St. Giles's [-29-] the lanes and courts are occupied by numbers of poor Irish, costermongers, foreigners, and persons of loose character, and, as might be expected, the houses are dirty in the extreme.
    Near the top of Drury-lane, on the west side, are some ancient wooden houses, now occupied as cow-sheds. On the opposite side of the street, with an undertaker's shop placed most ominously at each side of the entrance, is a place called the Coal-yard. At some distance down this place, on the fight-hand side, is the following rudely- painted notice:-
     Old Original
     Oyster, depot
     Live and Let Live.
Having passed the oyster-shed of this cosmopolitan worthy, who has expounded the above very proper sentiment, although he could not call his oysters as witnesses to prove that he follows his own teaching, we came to an archway, under which was a large collection of stable and cow-shed refuse : and having with difficulty managed to pass this miry spot, discovered a narrow place called King's Arms-yard, containing at least a dozen houses on the two sides, erected with a sort of gallery in front over stables. In this place were several cart-loads of refuse, similar to that already described. The smell and appearance of the place were shockingly bad. The daintily-dressed lady in the blue brougham now standing at the corner, scarcely guesses her proximity to so much "dirt and distress, though the nice face looks well disposed to pity and give aid, if aid were practicable. The rooms are much out of repair. For one, in which we found a man and his wife and five children (supported by the sale of flower papers), the rent is 2s. 6d. a week.
    Within a stone's throw of this very spot the Great Plague of 1665 first broke out in London. It is distressing that, in spite of cautions and advice, though nearly 200 years have elapsed, this neighbourhood should still be allowed to be a harbour for fever and other epidemics. Dr. Sutherland, in his cholera report of 1848-49, writes,- "Suffice it to say that cholera, true to the laws by which epidemics are governed, followed the usual track of the fevers by which Edinburgh and Leith are scourged, locating itself in the same filthy closes, occupying the same ill-ventilated and over-crowded tenements, not unfrequently carrying off its victims from the selfsame rooms which its fatal ravages nearly depopulated in the epidemic of 1832."
    Fever is rife in this neighbourhood : on the Sunday before our visit four bodies were taken from Wild's-buildings; and we heard a little girl quietly advising another child not to go into a certain passage, lest she should get the fever. Although the houses about here are dirty and ill-drained, they are in tolerably good repair. The waste of life and increase of pauperism in this neighbourhood are very considerable, to a great extent caused by the want of cleanliness and the ill arrangement of the dwellings. The correctness of this statement is shown by the contrast in the health of the lodgers in the model [-30-] lodging-house for men hard by, which has been opened for six or seven years, with that of the general neighbourhood. This place was altered to its present use by the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes; and it is gratifying to find that even in this neighbourhood the benefit of well-ventilated lodgings is properly

A Weaver's Room in Spitalfields
Fig. 7.- A Weaver's Room in Spitalfields

appreciated. The house contains eighty-two beds, a large sitting- room or kitchen, accommodation for washing, a small library, &c. : the charge for lodging here is 4d. per night, or 2s. a week: many of the lodgers have resided here for some time, one so long as five years. The manager of - the place says, that there are never fewer than [-31-] seventy-five lodgers each night, and that generally all the beds are occupied. When the cholera was carrying off people on all sides, there did not occur a single case here ; and scarcely any illness which required hospital care has happened in it since the opening of the building.
    "From dirt comes death:" there is no mistake about it, and the oftener this assertion is repeated, and the more universally it is impressed and acted on, the better for the world.
    Continuing our walk, we pass Church-lane, the remaining portion of St. Giles's Rookery; but this has been so frequently described, that it is unnecessary to enter into particulars. It is still a sad place, and is occupied by the worst characters. We would direct attention to places less known, but which in their way are equally pernicious.
    When we were in the Bishopsgate district, we made an examination of the houses occupied by the weavers in Spitalfields, and gathered some information concerning them which may interest our readers. The distress here is very great, and although the houses are for the most part in better condition than some we have described, and the weavers a respectable class of persons, the close crowded rooms in which they work, with other local causes in operation, produce illness and shorten life. We give a sketch of one of the rooms we entered, where the father and mother were continuing their midnight toil amidst the sleeping children spread about the apartment (Fig. 7).
    They were at work on white watered silk for wedding dresses!
    In one room we found a scene which had been described by anticipation:-

"A poor worn weaver there works for his bread-
Working on, working on, far in the night;
His daughter breathes hollowly, lying a-bed,
And the wasting clay
Lets the spirit play
Over her face with a flickering light!

But the loom is stopped ; and down by the bed
The father kneels by his dying child;
But vainly he speaks - her time is sped;
No answer there comes to his outcry wild,
For the child stares out with her glazed eyes,
Till the eyes turn back-and she silently dies
And they call it a Fever,
Putrid or low;
But I and the weaver
Both of us know
That the fetid well-water, and steaming styes,
And the choked drains' gases, that unseen rise,
Subtle and still,
Sure and slow,
Certain to kill
With an unheard blow,
Are the fiends who poisoned that maiden's breath,
And cling to her still as she sleeps in death!"

    Again and again we would assert, that as you lead men and women [-32-] to appreciate cleanliness, light, air, order, you make them better citizens, increase their self-respect, and elevate them in the social scale. By the miserable dwellings to which thousands in this and other great towns are condemned, we are educating them downwards, - an easy process, with frightful results. It cannot be too often repeated, that the health and morals of the people are regulated by their dwellings.