Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Shadows, by George Godwin, 1854 - Chapter 7

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THE statements in the previous chapters have had the advantage of a large circulation : the statements remain uncontradicted, the deductions unquestioned. And yet, if we are asked what practical good to any extent has up to this time resulted from them, we must, with shame, reply, - none-positively none!
    And soon the cholera will be upon us. It passed as if by electrical agency over certain lands, almost depopulating places peculiarly circumstanced, and has made its way to London. At Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead it carried hundreds to the grave.
    The authorities of these towns have been closing grave-yards, and cleansing lanes and alleys, which, for filth and neglect, we venture to say were not to be surpassed in the kingdom. But why did they wait until the plague came! Surely the intelligent and scientific men of Newcastle must have known what a magazine of dangerous material had been formed by their neglect, and which only wanted the touch to destroy hundreds of lives.
    Are we to wait in London until the disease has again broken out among us, before proper measures are resorted to, to stop its course Surely this ought not to be so. London should at once undergo a systematic inspection, and be' put into a condition to resist the pestilence: we feel certain if this were done in a proper manner, it would lead to the most important results and benefits. It will be of no use, however, to send the beadles and such-like functionaries, but a staff of intelligent persons, who are capable of appreciating the peculiarities of the various means of death so plentifully strewed around the metropolis, and accustomed to these inquiries. Expense should not he considered: let the cost be what it may, it will produce a saving. Every vestry and board of guardians should at once initiate proceedings : every man should feel himself; as he is, personally interested in seeing them properly and effectually carried out. Many of the places which we have seen with our own eyes, cry shame on the institutions of the nineteenth century.
    We would, however, on this, as on other occasions, restrain our expressions of feeling, and confine ourselves to some plain statements, which can be practically disposed of. Let us look again at one or two [-39-] of the localities already illustrated and described by us as ready for any bad seed. Take, for example, the neighbourhood of "Paradise" (fallen), at King's-cross. A very active assistant in this inquiry went to that locality on one evening, in company of Mr. Sutherin, a surgeon of this neighbourhood, known for his zeal in the cause of the suffering poor.
    The first place visited - a large yard surrounded by houses - contained about twenty cart-loads of oyster-shells, kept there in store for laying the foundations of roads. The smell of these was most offensive: the proprietor of the yard was out of the way, and his wife could not think how any one could complain of "clean oyster-shells," - forgetting that large particles of the fish adhered to each shell, and were left there to putrify. In another part of the yard was a stack, containing many cart-loads of cowhouse and stable refuse, piled up against the back wall of a house here (in this very house) the doctor had at the time a case of typhus fever.
    The water comes in on Saturday night at six o'clock, and there is no more until six o'clock on Monday night. On Sunday night there was no water in this or the adjoining houses. In one of the houses, within a few yards of that attacked by fever, we learned, by the peculiar and dismal howl, that the Irish inmates were "waking" some one dead.
    You may wander on amid scenes of dilapidation, and enter rooms with miserable atmospheres : it is a sad sight to see young and helpless infants in such places. To all our inquiries, "there was no water last Sunday" was the reply, and of course none during the greater part of Monday. There are numerous pig-styes, giving forth foul odours, close to the doors, and below the dwellings of the people, although it is contrary to law to allow these animals to be kept in populous towns. It is also illegal to stack up mountains of vegetables and other refuse; and as these illegal acts are the undoubted cause of many deaths, a heavy responsibility must rest on the guardians of parishes, whose duty it is to see the sanitary laws for the welfare of the poor carried into effect.
    In a dilapidated house, thickly inhabited, and for which the inhabitants pay about £27 a year, the back-yard was disgraceful: a cesspool was overflowing and spreading over the ground, and deep pools of stagnant and poisonous matter filled the cracks of the pavement. No description can give an idea of this place. There was no water last Sunday, "not a drop of water in the next yard, nor in the next and the next." There are cesspools open or closed below and adjoining the houses. One or two streets have lately had drains made through them : in the large remainder all lies on the surface;- heaps of the refuse of piggeries, cowsheds, and stables, vegetables, fish, &c. - with bad pavement, great poverty, and for nearly two days in the week no water! Even the dumb animals-horses, cows, pigs, and asses, - must also be equally ill provided with this necessary. Such are the notes of a neighbourhood, which we venture to say is not much ex-[-40-]ceeded in ill condition amongst savages, and is certainly disgraceful to the parish of St. Pancras.
    This "Paradise," and parts adjoining, are positively worse now than at the time of our first visit six or seven months ago. Let none regard our description as overcoloured. So far from this being the case, the abominations are underrated, and this we will prove by a few further categorical statements. We will commence with Pancras-place, Pancras-road. There are sixteen consecutive houses in this row in a most filthy and dilapidated state, as they have been for years. A person residing opposite to them informs us they have not been painted for thirty years: other say, they cannot remember them undergoing repair. Apparently, if one were taken down, they would all fall: in fact, they are not fit for human habitation. The cesspools are in a most offensive state, being only partly covered, so that the contents often rise over the boards which form the flooring. The stench is, as the occupiers observe, "horrible." These houses are mostly let to five or more families, each family occupying a room, for which they pay respectively, from the kitchen upwards, 3s., 2s. 9d., 1s. 6d., and 1s. per week, or at the rate of £29. 5s. per annum, for places not fit for pigs to dwell in.
    In Weller's-court, a small court leading from old St. Pancras-road to Ashby-street, the houses were a few days ago in a most dilapidated state, the back-yards, as well as the court itself, disgusting and offensive, the soil from the cesspool actually overflowing, baskets of decaying fish strewed about, stagnant water and heaps of fish and dung lying about in all directions. Some of these houses have no convenience, so that offensive matter is thrown into corners, or deposited upon the heaps of dung that lie in various places. The effluvium evolved is most injurious to animal life, indeed worse than direct poison; for in the latter case, if you know the character of the poison, you have an antidote; while in the former, it is insidious in its effect, and is not apparent in many cases until too late for medical assistance to be of any avail. Ashby-street, commencing at the upper end of Weller's-court, and running parallel with St. Pancras-road, consists of about twenty-nine houses: most of them, particularly those on the further side from the road, are in a most dirty and filthy state, the cesspools in most instances full, and the smell exceedingly offensive. The street is without a drain, and strewed with animal and vegetable matter. Scarlet fever of a very malignant form, as well as small-pox, has been raging here. Let us look into a house in an adjoining street. This consists of five small rooms, and a back kitchen or washhouse, and is occupied by five families, numbering thirty-three individuals, distributed as follows, viz.-seven in the kitchen, which is underground, a man, his wife, and five children; seven in the room over the kitchen, a man, his mother, wife, and four children : in the room behind this are four labourers, who sleep upon two small beds, which fill the room eight in the top front room, a shoemaker, his wife, and six children seven in the top back room, six men and [-41-] women, with one child, occupying only two beds. The kitchen is very dirty, has two sinks, both untrapped, communicating with the drain, and contains the water-butt for the supply of water to the several families. The house itself is filthy, the walls besmeared with dirt, and the yard contains an open cesspool and stagnant water. No wonder that cholera has already been busy in this house!
    Being in this neighbourhood, let us mention a curious and instructive instance of the consequence of sanitary neglect which occurred not far off. In a narrow passage lined with houses, leading from Clarendon-square to the New-road, passengers that way may have noticed a small manufactory of yeast for the use of the London bakers. The owner of this place has always been a pattern of cleanliness : many have remarked the pleasant look of the old-fashioned little garden, the stone pavement so cleanly washed, forming "quite a picture." Opposite this place are stables for horses, in the possession of a greengrocer, who, in spite of remonstrance, stacks up his decayed vegetables in his yard. It is well known that all the processes of brewing require scrupulous attention to cleanliness, and that want of care in this respect is almost certain to stop fermentation. The manufacture of yeast is little different from the brewing of ale the ingredients are allowed to boil for a certain time : when that is done, and they are mixed, if the atmosphere is in a proper state, fermentation will go on. The accumulation of filth had become great in the yard opposite the yeast manufactory, and at the time of carting it away the smell was offensive. The yeast-brewer was at work, and instead of the fermentation going on as it ought, by covering the liquid with a thick, deep yellow coat of yeast, the surface was stagnant as ditch-water, and covered in parts with a blue mouldy-looking scum. On a similar occasion, the yeast-brewer seeing the fermentation nearly checked, removed the vessel of liquor through the garden to the back of his house, at a distance from the smell, and the brewing at once went on in a thriving manner. This seems a simple matter, but it may serve to bring to the minds of some who shut their eyes to the fact, that the air, although they do not see it, is a powerful agent : it can destroy the functions of life as surely, and in some cases as instantaneously, as a cannon-ball.
    In a previous chapter we mentioned the condition of the "Coal-yard," at the top of Drury-lane,-a spot near which the Great Plague of 1665 first made its appearance. At a recent visit the place seemed even worse than formerly. At one end of these dwellings is a building occupied by the parish poor, and here a fire-engine is kept. At the, time of our visit, about eight o'clock on one Saturday evening, the people opposite this place complained of their neglected condition and inadequate supply of water. They had then none in their tank. Suddenly a cry of fire was raised, and the engine was brought forth for use. "Thank God," said one of the women, "there is a fire: we will soon get some water." Presently the water ran into the empty cask, the turncock not being able to prevent it from coming into the [-42-]  houses' at the time he supplied the engines. Surely they must be ill supplied with water - one of the greatest necessaries of life - when they "thank God for a fire."
    We could lay our finger on a map of London, and trace the districts which will be ravaged by cholera; and it is certain, by proper care and management, that the evil might be lessened, if not prevented altogether. Will it not be infamous if endeavours be not made?
    It has been shown that the cholera can be battled with by sanitary measures, and that fever in the same way can be abated. The model lodging-house in Charles-street, Drury-lane, is a striking example of the advantages and effects of proper means in one of the worst neighbourhoods. This house has now been open about eight years, and is occupied by from seventy to eighty lodgers daily; and yet during that period, although cholera and fever have killed numbers on all sides, there has not been a single case of either in it. A good supply of water, proper drainage, and ventilation, have stopped disease; and it is not a little gratifying to find that the example of this building, in such a place, has not been without its effect on the landlords of the adjoining houses.
    If, then, human life can thus be saved, the condition of houses becomes a matter demanding the care of all persons in authority, and they should at once put a stop to the species of wholesale murder now going on.
    Early attention should be directed to the supply of water, the more so as the impression prevails that this is ample. Our readers already know how untrue this is, and we will add some further proofs. One evening, between six and eight o'clock, we examined Rose-street and the courts adjoining, with this object in view. Rose-street is near Covent-garden, with several narrow passages which lead to Long-acre, and is thickly inhabited by a poor, and in some instances bad class of people. Having before described many similar dwellings, we will not now enter into particulars in that respect, but content ourselves by stating that all we have written will only give a slight notion of their miserable condition. At No. 18, Rose-street, they said, "We don't have a drop of water on the Sunday; we have to go to Covent- garden. There are not so many people in the house now as at other times; they have gone to the hop-picking." There are eight rooms in this house, each let to separate families : although we did not get at the exact numbers, we may at the very least put the population, even at the present, at five in each room; that will give forty persons; the water-cask would contain 120 gallons, and is filled on each Saturday afternoon between three and four o'clock; there is then no further supply until Monday at about the same hour, - about forty-eight hours!
    It will be seen that this supply is totally inadequate; but, says an inhabitant, "Go to the other house, sir; the poor craters there are actually starving for want of water." The premises in which these water-starved people live belong to eminent brewers. Inquire in [-43-] this description of neighbourhood where you please, and the answer will be, "We have no water on Sunday; we are obliged to beg for it." "The poor creatures," said one, "do not know what to do for water on a Sunday; it is very troublesome, but one cannot refuse them water; bless you, they come begging and begging, until I am often without myself."
    What is the condition of the drainage in this neighbourhood? we inquired of one who has a manufactory near - "Drain, sir? here is my drain," pointing to a wooden spout lying near the ground. "There's my drain, sir; it runs into the street there, on to the surface, and down through that court into the 'Acre.'"
    Angel-court, Long-acre, is a wretched place. The six houses have one site for water, closet, and dust- heap, and here is a view of it (Fig. 8).
    shad-10.gif (34831 bytes)The place containing these conveniences for say 150 persons, is in a small yard or court. Here, the people state, they are not short of water; on inquiry, we found that there was a tank for the reception of water somewhere underground; we were unable to discover the exact position, but it is not likely to be far from the pump shown in the above engraving. Here there is nothing but surface drainage, and in consequence the refuse of the closet (A), &c. must pass into a cesspool, most probably in the neighbourhood of the subterranean water-tank.
    It is a curious circumstance, and we have before alluded to it, that the people living in these places are slow to acknowledge the unwholesomeness of their condition. Inquire how their children are in health, and (although you may see disease written on their faded countenances) they will almost invariably say, "Quite well, thank God." Let those persons, however, whose business it is (or at least ought to be) to look into these houses, not be content with this off-hand reply. Let them inquire the number of times that fever has visited the family; how many friends they lost by the last attack of cholera; how many children they have living, and HOW MANY DEAD. The inference will be very different.
    Wild-passage, Drury-lane, is a narrow court, thickly inhabited; and we may say in passing, that this and other neighbourhoods in London are certainly more densely populated since the dispersion of persons in other places by the Lodging-house Act, and the removal of numerous dwellings without any suitable provisions being made, than they were before. 
    [-44-] Here is a drawing (Fig. 9) of a water-cask in Wild-passage, which reminds us of the withered condition of the ship graphically described by Coleridge: and let it be remembered that this vessel is provided for a house of eight families.
    shad-11.gif (26439 bytes)In this place the people say they have "a very bad supply of water,"  "on Sundays have no water at all," "have to hunt for it on Sundays, and even in the week days are often without water." In one house they had had no water for six weeks. In another house we found the water-cask, dust-bin, and closet in a cellar. The underground arrangement of water- cask or tank, closet, and dust-bin, cannot be too much reprobated; it is unwholesome in the extreme. Several persons, not only here but also in Rose-street, occupy cellars. One woman in Wild-passage said that she had been driven by poverty and distress to rent an underground back-kitchen or cellar, for herself and three children, for 1s. per week, and that they had all been laid up at one time with fever, but recovered.
    In the neighbourhood of Marlborough-street police station, Berwick-street, a district already referred to, there is no water in the courts and alleys on the Sundays. Here many of the people complain, not only that the water-casks are deficient in size, but that the water is frequently turned off before the cask is full. In one of these little courts, the people hearing us make inquiries respecting the water, rushed out from all sides, speaking with bitter rage of the inadequate provision. We managed to gather, amid the din, that they suspected a person who keeps a small general shop (one of those curiously squalid attempts at trading met with in these neighbourhoods), and through which the water-pipe passed, of "thieving the water on the way to them. On examining the shop, we found that the shopkeeper had bored a small hole in the water-pipe, to prevent him, as he said, from struggling and fighting with the people in the court when the water came in, "there being so many of them, and so little water, that they were often like so many devils."
    We are simply telling a plain tale, and have used unvarnished facts, in the hope that our observations may at the present time direct attention to the water supply amongst the poor. It is a matter of necessity and justice, which should be attended to even without consideration of the cholera. ·Water should be supplied, if not constantly, at least every day, Sunday of course included; the receptacles should be examined, covers should be put to them, secured by locks, and the water should be removed as far as possible from the closets and dust-bins.
    [-45-] One more fact before we conclude. The cholera killed at one time 100 persons a day at Newcastle, where the population is about 90,000. If it attack the metropolis with similar violence, and the mortality bear here the same proportion to the population as at Newcastle, we should lose 20,000 persons in a week, or double the number of the soldiers who were encamped at Chobham!
We say this not as ground for alarm, but as a reason for preparation; and we again exhort all who have power, immediately to take those steps by which, under Providence, as science amid experience show conclusively, the evil may be mitigated, if not altogether averted.