Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Shadows, by George Godwin, 1854 - Chapter 8

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DIRTY, dilapidated, and unwholesome dwellings destroy orderly and decent habits, degrade the character, and conduce to immorality. Bad air produces feelings of exhaustion and lowness of spirits, and these tempt to the use of stimulants-the fruitful parents of all crime. We have urged and re-urged this in many shapes: but repetition is necessary, improvement moves so slowly. The "New Lodging-house Act" is being pushed gradually yet firmly into use, and is, without doubt, effecting much good. "The sanitary policemen," as the earl of Shaftesbury said on a recent occasion, "are looked upon by the poor as guardian angels." Admitting the genera] good of this measure, there is, nevertheless, one consideration which requires careful and immediate attention. While the new Act of Parliament is driving the poor from their close quarters, we say now, as we have said before, no adequate provision has been made for their reception elsewhere, and the consequence must be that rent for dwellings will be raised beyond the means of the destitute poor, particularly those with families of children, and they will simply remove the overcrowding to places not at present discovered by the police, or be compelled to seek shelter in the workhouses.
    The following case shows the operations of the Act in this respect :-A widow, very poor, with three children, the eldest ten years of age, is charged 3s. 6d. a week for lodging in a house in "Short's-gardens," Drury-lane: this is an amount of weekly rent which it is totally out of the power of this woman, in her present circumstances, honestly to pay. The lodging-house keeper says that having known the woman for some years, he has, since his house was licensed, let her and the children sleep there for 3s. 6d. a week-a sum less than he ought to charge: the ordinary charge would be 4d. a night for the mother (2s. 4d. a week), and half-price for the children (3s. 6d. a [-46-] week); in all, 5s. 10d. This is a startling amount of rent, but the lodging-house keeper, as he observed, since he dare not admit more than a certain number of inmates, must charge the amount allowed by law to enable him to live, and at the same time pay his rent and taxes.
    Immediate and large provision of lodgings is required by the present condition of things, particularly for the very poor who have families of children.
    Lodgings of a certain description are needed where a man or woman with a family of children can be sheltered at a cost of from 1s. 6d. to 2s. a week. The City of London should do something to supply this want. In all directions they are demolishing the dwellings which are at all likely to afford shelter to the poorest, and are driving poverty, vice, and ignorance out of the City. Yet, the "poor will not cease to be in the land," and as it is evident that those who formerly lodged, and are at the present time living within the City, must otherwise go elsewhere; the effect of this will be to burden the surrounding parishes with the pauperism which they have turned from their own doors. We would gladly behold this demolition if other provisions were made; and it is to be hoped that the Corporation of London, under these circumstances, will set an example in trying if wholesome shelter for poor families can or can not be provided, remuneratively, at the cost to which we have alluded, viz, from 1s. 6d. to 2s. a week. We do not care about the old-fashioned style of house being followed, but would wish that buildings should be erected on a strictly economical principle, dictated by the superior scientific knowledge of the present day; and we are satisfied that places of this description could be reared, which, by judicious arrangements, might be made not only profitable to the builders, but at the same time to confer a great service on the whole community.
    The importance of showing that suitable dwellings and other accommodations for the industrious poor can be made self-supporting, induces us to mention the last annual report of the Metropolitan Association for the Improvement of the Dwellings of the Poor, particularly as we are of opinion that buildings erected for English working men must not be institutions of charity. Satis6ed as we are that a sufficient provision of healthful habitations for the working classes can only he hoped for as the result of commercial speculation; and anxious as we have ever been, therefore, to show that capital may be advantageously invested in providing these, we are much interested in the success of the Metropolitan Association. At first the dividend paid was small, necessarily, because, amongst other reasons, while the houses were building, of course there was no return from the capital expended: at the present moment, however, as we are glad to hear, all the buildings are paying about five per cent. "Once let it be proved," as Lord Carlisle said some time ago, "that the act of doing good, in however unpretending and commonplace a manner, to large masses of the struggling and impoverished, [-47-]  would pay its own way, and insure its fair profit, and it would follow that benevolence, instead of being only an ethereal influence in the breasts of a few, fitful and confined in its operations, would become a settled, sober habit of the many ; widening as it went, occasioning its own rebound, and adding all the calculations of prudence to all the impulses of generosity.
    The Metropolitan Buildings, St. Pancras-road, which cost 17,700, produces about 1,000 a year, and pays well In a sanitary point of view, the results are most satisfactory. Dr. Southwood Smith has shewn that the average rate of mortality in the improved dwellings, erected by the Metropolitan Association, is not one-third that of the metropolis generally, while the rate of infant mortality in the same dwellings is little more than one-fifth. When the various expenses of procuring an Act of Parliament, the necessary expenses of management, the amount of capital not put to remunerative use, together with the losses on the other buildings, and which can be traced to certain causes, are considered, we think that the St. Pancras building holds out fair promise to any capitalist who, without Acts of Parliament, &c. could place similar buildings in proper localities. The Report of the Society for Improving the condition of the Labouring Classes proves the same fact.
    We were much shocked by the intensely ignorant condition of the children in Short's-gardens. Those whom we questioned, about nine or ten years of age, could not read, and said they had "never heard of God." A dog-fight produced a scene such as we will not attempt to describe-a scene miserably sad: heads were in every window, and the dilapidated quarter seemed filled with vicious life. As the place,

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[-48-] so the people. The yard in which the scene occurred was strewed with vegetables and other refuse; it -was Saturday night, and the dust-heap was overflowing; the pavement was broken, and contained pools of unwholesome water; the whole place was filthy in the extreme.
    The formation of sewers in this neighbourhood now going on is hailed with gratitude by the inhabitants. Some time ago we referred to the cesspools in use here, and we will assist that description by a diagram which exhibits the condition of many houses in other places besides Drury-lane. The drains run in at A, B: D and G are the cesspools: the overflow is pumped away at H. C, C, are dark cellars: a drain connecting the two cesspools: with gratings at E and F. A whole volume of description would not speak so forcibly.
    A supply of water in the poorer neighbourhoods on Sundays, particularly during the summer months, is greatly needed. At present, the water is generally turned on on Saturdays at about three o'clock in the afternoon, and no further supply is to be had until the middle of the following Monday. In hundreds of instances the water-tank is quite inadequate for the numerous families surrounding it, and many have no vessels for water in their own dwellings; the consequence is, that in most cases the supply is soon exhausted, and the people in these places are not only left without the means of washing their hands and face on the Sabbath-day, but actually have "not a drop to drink."
    A little to the north of Hatton-garden and Leather-lane is a neighbourhood of the worst description, and which certainly requires some interference. Nearly opposite Hatton-garden this populous and dirty place is reached by steep descents, opposite Leather-lane, by a flight of steps. The latter brings us to the first platform, if we may so call it: here are two long rows of houses, with courts leading from them. These courts, as in fact are most of the neighbouring houses, are occupied by the Irish and others engaged in Leather-lane market. One of them in particular we found in a shocking condition. A tank for water was placed, for the convenience of the numerous inhabitants, in such a position as to render the water impure in a few hours; but on Monday, at one o'clock, there was no water in the cistern, nor had there been a drop for the accommodation of scores of pent-up women and children since Saturday evening. On Saturday, at three o'clock in the afternoon, the water is turned on, and, as we are told, continues to run for rather more than half an hour. The inhabitants rush out, and such of them as have any vessels contrive to fill them, after a struggle, which suggests to the beholder the arrival of parched travellers at a spring in the desert. Many, however, have nothing which will hold a sufficient quantity of water; and even in the case of those who have, the water, after remaining in a room occupied by many persons, surrounded by impurities, must be rendered unwholesome before the Sunday morning. By that time the water has become precious. The costermongers return late on the Saturday night or early on Sunday morning, and require a supply of water to render [-49-] themselves, after their dirty work, decent and comfortable on the Sunday. This, in the present state of things, is generally impossible. "I cannot be clean if I would," -a poor young wife said to us. She was certainly not nineteen, but had a baby in her arms and one about two years old by her side!
    When we visited the place the dust-bin was full, and the pavement strewed with vegetables and other refuse. The state of the exterior was so bad, that it was unnecessary to enter the dwellings in order to understand their condition. Here, King Fever and his friendly potentate, Cholera, may revel in all their terrors. And remember, this place is in the midst of London.
    Lucy's-buildings, another portion of this district, is singularly well adapted for the purpose of destroying health : continuing from the steps from the end of Leather-lane, and crossing at a steep gradient the street already alluded to, we come to three double rows of buildings, each containing twelve houses (rent, 3s. 3d. a week) of three rooms each. The lowest court is reached by nine steps : at the top of the steps is a sort of narrow back-yard, in which are conveniences, one for each two houses. Nothing can be worse than this arrangement,-hut we cannot go into details. The backs of the rooms built against this bank are damp, and most unfavourable to health. In the lower court is an untrapped gully-hole, which is also most offensive : here cholera was a visitor, and fever seems to be held in terror. The water- cistern was empty on Saturday evening, and would continue so until Monday afternoon. This court, badly as it is situated, might be materially improved in condition by two things, viz, an unlimited supply of water, and the application of proper traps to the closets and gully-holes.
    Pursuing this point, namely, the supply of water, we started on a voyage of examination, and in more than fifty houses, entered between the hours of two and four o'clock in the afternoon of one Friday, there was not a drop of water!
In Charlotte's-buildings, Gray's-Inn-lane, a place swarming with people, there were not three gallons of water at six o'clock on Saturday afternoon.
    For those, then, who say our general subject is too vast for them to touch, here is a simple, practicable point for their operations,-a supply of water for the poor on Sunday mornings.
    Many unwholesome parts of London in the fashionable west-in Mary-le-bone, in Bloomsbury, &c.-are hidden behind the large squares, and in passages leading from good streets. These little "Rookeries" are so numerous, and individually of such small extent, that our space prevents us from giving more than two or three examples.
    In Great Coram-street, leading from Tavistock-square, close to the Russell Institution, is a narrow, squalid-looking turning, Little Coram-street, running north to Tavistock-place. A stranger visiting this street will not fail to be struck with the immense number of children, [-50-] women, and others, who swarm in crowds evidently too great for the visible houses. A careful inspection shows narrow passages leading from this street to collections of small houses inhabited by very poor people. One of these courts (Coram-place) is fifteen feet below the surface of the street, and is reached by a flight of steps. Having said this much, and considering the poverty of many of the inhabitants, and the ill-condition of the houses, none will wonder at bad results. Surrounded on all sides by tall buildings, and planted below the surface of the ground, it is scarcely possible for a breath of even comparatively pure air to reach the inhabitants.
    In the map in "Chamberlain's London," dated 1770 (only eighty-four years ago), all this district is marked fields, the farthest houses on the north being Ormond-street, Queen-square, Southampton-place, and the British Museum. The Foundling Hospital, with the burial- ground at the back, was an isolated building.
    By the way, we wonder how many persons, not living in this neighbourhood, know what is called "the Colonnade," running out of Grenville-street, Brunswick-square, parallel with Bernard-street and Guildford-street,-a row of about forty houses (about 500 feet in extent), where the one-pair floor projects and is carried on a row of wooden columns, with a raised walk beneath, over the basement, in front of shops on the ground-floor, like the "Rows" in Chester? The effect is singular. We are dealing, however, with more serious matters than appearances.
In a narrow street leading from the south side of Clipston-street is a place very similar to the courts mentioned above. From this street two passages lead to underground courts; on one side by a flight of steps; on the other, by a steep descent. Their condition is so similar to that of the courts we have just described, that it is unnecessary to enter into particulars, except to say that there is no proper drain, and that in the court on the right-hand side is a cesspool, belonging to some of the neighbouring houses, the contents of which flow through the flag-stones of the court. Some of the women are afraid to trust their children to play there, lest the covering should fall in, and they be suffocated in the receptacle.
    Any one taking the trouble to inquire into this matter will not fail to be surprised at the little knowledge the persons living in these places have of their unhealthiness. In answer to the questions as to the health of their family, they usually reply, "It is very good, except at times." The appearance of the children generally contradicts this statement; and if you inquire of a person who has had a large family the number living, the answer too often shows a sad amount of loss. One woman, whom we thus questioned in this court, where she had lived twenty-three years, had had thirteen children, and but three were then alive.
    Since the first publication of our observations on the amazing number of children now in the streets of London who are being educated in vice,-forbidden from good, and prepared for a life of [-51-] misery, - as we then ventured to say, Lord Shaftesbury has brought into the House of Peers a Bill to meet part of the evil. Earnestly we hope it may do so; but in the meanwhile individuals should remember how much is in their own power m their several districts, and not to leave all to an Act of Parliament. Let us each