Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Shadows, by George Godwin, 1854 - Chapter 6

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THE examination we have commenced disheartens and distresses. Nothing short of personal experience would have led us to believe in the frightful amount of ignorance, misery, and degradation which exists in this wealthy and luxurious city,-this city of 300,000 houses and two millions and a quarter of persons. The number of children who at this time are being educated in vice, fitted for disturbing and injuring society, forbidden from good, and prepared for a life of misery,-children who have no affections or ties; in whom natural good feelings have been quenched; who have no advisers but the bad; no home, no hope ;-is perfectly appalling. They are to be counted in thousands; we fear to say how many. Can nothing be done to save them, and so save society? Here is a fertile field appealing for labourers to the Christian, the philanthropist, the political economist, and the mere egotist, who would save himself money and annoyance by preventing, instead of punishing. Let us remember there is no irremoveable reason why these children should grow to be disorderly and lawless, - liars, thieves, perhaps murderers; they were born as capable of good as your own offspring; and, with the same nurture and teaching, would make as useful members of society. Lead them into good habits; imbue them with right principles,-and their lives, in the natural course of things, will be in accordance with these habits and principles. Equally as a matter of course will the lives of these poor outcasts follow the training they are now receiving. Knowing the seed, we know what the plant must be. It seems almost an injustice to punish for a natural result.
    Here, we feel satisfied, is a right spot for the spade of those who would reap a rich harvest of good, and earnestly we pray that they may be found.
    The same course of argument proves irresistibly the importance of improving the dwellings of the poor, and the evil which is being done by all acts which tend to crowd men and women into unsuitable, ill-drained, ill-ventilated, and dilapidated buildings. The rapidity with which this changes the character of the occupants is startling to those who have not before observed it.
    [-33-] We are being led away, however, from our original intention, which was to give some additional information concerning the weavers of Spitalfields, in accordance with our promise in another chapter. This large district, inhabited by silk weavers, is but little known, except to those whose business is connected with the place; it has, however, remarkable features, and is well worthy of a visit. Some of the streets are composed of well-built houses, from three to four stories in height, having, in the upper rooms, glazed windows extending the whole length of the houses, which give them a peculiar appearance. The general aspect of the neighbourhood is cleaner, and is less squalid than in the other regions of the "East," and the inhabitants are also better clad and neater in their appearance. The weavers are mostly of French descent, their forefathers having been driven to London by religious persecution shout 150 years ago, and it is curious to note how much they have preserved the national style and peculiarities to the present day. There is an immense number of them, and they are mostly remarkable for intelligence. They suffer much privation, struggling to some extent as they do against machinery. In Spital-square, which is close to Bishopsgate-street, the master weavers live. Leading from this are streets, black and dilapidated, which are becoming more and more crowded in consequence of the removal of houses by the Eastern Counties Railway Company, who have purchased part of the neighbourhood. In other districts, owners of houses will not permit the looms to be set up. If this should aid in leading some of the weavers to seek other employment it would be fortunate their present condition is miserable, nor is there any prospect of improvement. Amongst the principal streets thus occupied, are Grey Eagle-street, Black Eagle-street, Pearl-street, Phoenix-street, and Hope-street. Seeking one of the most respectable of the class, who lives out of the web of streets in a cottage with a garden, we found the room comfortably furnished. In a cupboard in the corner, was a collection of old china and glass, which had probably been brought from abroad at the time that persecution drove his ancestors for refuge to this country; and since, even in times of difficulty, carefully preserved. This weaver, whose name was decidedly French, and who, although a very old man, was intelligent, cheerful, and gentlemanly in his manner, had two daughters, well-dressed young women, of from twenty-three to twenty-five years of age, who assisted their father in working at the loom. The mother had died during the last visitation of cholera, and both the daughters had been ill, one of them dangerously. Many of their neighbours were attacked, and several died. The mother was upwards of sixty years of age at the time of her death, and for forty-five years had been entirely employed in weaving white silk. Year after year they had found it necessary to work more hours, even then receiving a less amount of money than formerly. This had never been a large family, and the parents had been able to rear the daughters in a time of comparative prosperity to present usefulness. In many cases, however, he said, families laboured [-34-] on in the midst of abject poverty and distress; and ret, notwithstanding privations and temptations, and that these weavers have at times from 20 to 40 worth of property intrusted to their care, a breach of confidence seldom happens. The old weaver said, in his youth the weavers generally had a gala day once a week, when some of the most active and vicious would amuse themselves with bull- baiting, dog-fighting, and cock-fighting, and others would enter into rivalry with their tulips and pigeons.
    The Spitalfields weavers are still fond of flowers, and few houses, even of the poorest, are destitute of a bit of "greenery;" they complain that they have now short time for the healthful recreation of the garden; still, however, some of them work in it a little, and many rear pet pigeons and canaries. The Spitalfields weavers are greatly attached to their own neighbourhood, and many old men are known not to have travelled during their long lives farther than King's-cross on one side, and London-bridge on the other. Two old men we met with had never seen the Euston-square station, nor had either travelled by railway or steamboat; yet they were not destitute of intelligence, and pointed with some pride to the pattern of flowered velvet on their looms. The weavers, like the Northumbrian miners, and other class workers, almost invariably intermarry with each other. Spitalfields weavers' sons have constantly intermarried with Spitalfields weavers' daughters, and thus to the present day have preserved the peculiarities to which we have alluded.
    In this district a model building was erected a few years since, by the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes, and attached to the building is a dormitory and other accommodation for single men. It is to be regretted, that notwithstanding the goodness of the accommodation, the establishment has not been so fully occupied as is desired. Yet, considering the habits of the greater part of this population, the circumstance is not so much to be wondered at. We spoke to several young weavers and other mechanics residing in the district, and found that they all preferred a lodging where they could to a certain extent have some of the social advantages of home. They liked their tea better, they said, if they took it beside some one who would supply the place in conversation of a mother or sister.
    Endeavours have been made by two of the City missionaries to give the advantages of education to the children of the weavers and others who are poor, in this neighbourhood. Although the silk weavers are shrewd and intelligent, they had seldom, until solicited, sent their children to school, the reduced wages of the weavers rendering it necessary to use the labour of the children, even when quite young, in "winding quills" (a process needed in silk weaving), in order to increase the income of the family. Schools without cost to the pupils, but at painful exertion to the missionary, are opened, we understand, early in the morning, at intervals during the day and evenings, and during Sundays, by which arrangement education is beginning to [-35-] spread amongst the young, and will no doubt be the means of fitting many for other duties than that of weaving. Nothing is so much wanted for the improvement of the sanitary condition of the poor as knowledge, for they are at present-speaking of the mass-perfectly unconscious of the effects of the bad atmosphere, and other evil conditions in which they and their children exist. The following notes from the conversations of Spitalfields weavers may be interesting.
    A weaver, about thirty years of age, was working flowered silk, at 8d. a yard. He said he worked from fourteen to sixteen hours a day. "My earnings from Christmas to Christmas last year were not more than 10s. a week. I am obliged to 'play' when work is slack ;-that means, after finishing a 'cane' (an inch of silk, &c.), I have to wait until more is ready; sometimes this is a fortnight, or three weeks, or perhaps more. The slack times cause wages to be reduced. This is not done in a hurry, but by a halfpenny, or even a farthing a time. A man with a family calls at these bad times for work, and is shown some for which something less than his former price is offered : to save his family from the workhouse he agrees. I never in my experience knew the price of work again raised when once reduced. Five years ago I remember very well I could have earned with greater ease and in less time 16s. than I can now 10s." An old woman, the widow of a weaver, whose husband had died a short time since, said she earned 4d. a day by winding satin (working thirteen or fourteen hours a day); her daughter 2s. 6d. a week for working the same long horn's. The rent of their room was 1s. 6d. a week.
    A weaver, his wife, and two grown-up daughters, working at ultramarine and crimson velvet, said they could each complete one yard in a day of from thirteen to fourteen hours, for which they were paid 1s. 3d. a yard: this would come to 7s. 6d. a week for each person, but there are many drawbacks. "I have a yard measure there," said the man, pointing to his loom, "exact according to Act of Parliament, but I never take home any work without having a deduction made in consequence of the difference of measure. A web of velvet is worth, when finished, about 10 10s. in the market; so on our four looms we have forty guineas' worth of property at the least. If it should happen that a web should be lost, either by roguery or accident, the whole of the weavers in the employ of the person to whom the lost web belonged would have a sum stopped from each until the amount was entirely made up," which, together with the time spent in waiting for work, would reduce the wages of this family to about 5s. a week each, - 1 in all; and in order to live comfortably and have sufficient space for their work, they are obliged to pay as rent not less than 5s. a week, leaving 15s. a week for food and clothing.
    In another house, a weaver was waiting for work; his wife was weaving black silk scarfs for gentlemen. This woman was weaving silk which took sixty-four threads to one inch, but she had woven black silk so fine as to require 120 threads to the inch, or 4,320 to [-36-] each yard, for which she would receive 4d., or somewhere about 1d. for each 1,000 throws of the shuttle, to which must be added the time lost in picking, entering, and twisting the silk.
    When these remarks were first published, we received a number of communications confirming their accuracy. One wrote thus:-
    "In the name of the Spitalfields weavers, I humbly beg to offer you our sincere and heartfelt thanks for your exposition of our miserable condition. The few cases you noticed are undeniable and accurate, and though our trade abounds with similar instances, they were quite sufficient to show that the sufferings of the silk-weavers were no chimera. There are very few of the silk-weavers whose earnings, from Christmas to Christmas, average 10s. per week; very few indeed: they have so many drawbacks, and loss of time waiting for their work, besides the low price they receive for their labour, that it is really astonishing how many of them live.
    "The zeal with which you advocate the interests of the working classes, and the improvement of their dwellings, is duly appreciated, and your services are gratefully acknowledged by them. You, sir, kindly but truly state that the weavers are mostly remarkable for intelligence : it is the more remarkable, when considered how scanty are their means to obtain it. They really have no time to improve their morality or intelligence. Even the Sunday brings no Sabbath to many of them : they know no change but from the loom to the bed, and from the bed to the loom. The weavers are considered by many who are without the least knowledge of their real condition, as an ignorant, discontented set of people, always making a noise, and never satisfied.
    "These persons, sir, would do well to follow your example, by making a personal investigation; they would then be able to judge whether we have not sufficient cause for complaint. I think, sir, it would be difficult, if not impossible, in this country, to find a body of mechanics forced to toil so incessantly, and subsist in such penury as the silk-weavers, and whatever will be the end of this state of things (which cannot last much longer), I am at a loss to imagine. Hundreds of the silk-weavers would be but too glad to transfer their labours to other channels of industry, did the opportunity but offer itself. I have long been trying to find other means of employment myself. I am now only thirty-one years of age, and feel strong and active enough for any work; yet, being friendless, I have, like many others, failed in my endeavours. So I suppose we must struggle on in our hopeless condition a little longer, trusting to the hand of Providence to come to our rescue.
    "Sir, it is seldom the true state of the Spitalfields weavers is brought to public notice: and they are all unanimous in giving you their thanks and heartfelt gratitude for your observations."
    From one we received a poem of 112 lines, setting forth touchingly the melancholy condition of his family, and wrongfully attributing it to the parsimony and bad feeling of his employers. We cannot print [-37-] the whole of the poem, but we will give some portions of it for more than one reason. The lines begin:-

"Life's to some a happy dream,
    With smiling friends and pleasures gay,
With scarce a cloud to mar the scene,-
    All brightness, like a summer's day.
The trials the struggling poor do feel
    Are unknown to their breast;
The wrongs to which the low-born yield
    Can ne'er disturb their rest
And many a noble heart has broke
    Beneath its silent woe,
With heroism that bespoke
    A greatness such as heroes show.
And I, the son of poverty,
    What wretched sights I've seen,
Where want has held its sovereignty,
    With visage haggard, lean.
Twas in a weaver's cheerless shop
    Where first I saw the light;
The want of work had been our lot
    T' increase our wretched plight."

The father, long out of work, at length obtains employment, and, according to the writer,-

"For thirteen years in slavish toil
    He swelled their princely store,
For others wove the costly robe,
    While threadbare clothes he wore.
From early morn till late at eve,
    And oft till midnight hour,
Within his loom exhausted, weave
    Till nature checked the power.
And when his trying task is done,
    In fear he wends his way,
Lest in his wrath the heartless one
    Should stop his scanty pay."
"His home-alas! scarce worth the name-
    A room some few feet square,
With bed and loom crammed in one room,
    And children huddled there.
With such a scene before one's eyes,
    To be condemned to toil,
Half clothed, half fed,-much better dead
    Beneath the peaceful soil."

    Getting too old to weave, he is discharged ; and the writer reproaches the rich who wear the brocade for disregard of the want which prevails where it is made; and refers to, what we know to be the case, the honesty with which, spite of poverty, the employer's materials are preserved and returned.
    We will not close our present chapter without repeating the appeal we made at the commencement of it in favour of the outcast [-38-] children of London, who may be either good citizens or a pestilence, according as they are trained; and we would further say that "now is the time,-not to-morrow; "now is ours,-to-morrow may not be. Let us remember that "there is, in the smile of those whom we have served, a something which we may take with us into heaven.