Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Rookeries of London, by Thomas Beames, 1852 - Chapter 5

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[-69-]

Chapter V

    Up to this point we have had to do with genuine Rookeries, which have become so through the changing circumstances of the age, or through the abuse or former provisions for the decent lodging of the working classes. Men build small houses, which are not drained, supplied with water, ventilated as they ought to be,- these easily degenerate into Rookeries, but they were not originally designed for this; they were, in advertising phrase, eligible premises, multum in parvo's ; we now turn to a different part of the town, not strictly within the city boundaries, though not excluded from the bills of mortality, where Rookeries wear a different shape. The houses are not particularly small, ill ventilated, or crammed, yet they are begirt with a set of nuisances sufficient to degrade them to the lowest state of habitable dwellings. So that Rookeries may become fever depots through the avarice of speculators, who poison the water and pollute the air for the sake of an additional per centage upon the trade in which they are employed, much in the same way that wretches might be found who would retail poison, did not the Legislature curtail the freedom of the subject, when he would be rid [-70-] of the life which God gave him for a noble purpose. Tan-pits, glue-yards,- the head quarters of some odoriferous traffic,-subtract about seventy per cent, not only from the comforts but the necessaries of life. If air and water be essential for beings constituted as we are, Rookeries in such localities become dens of pestilence, and the full pressure of poverty is here exposed, by the loathsome dwellings to which it drives its victims. Men must be sunk indeed - desperate, reckless, past power of redemption, we had well nigh said-who could tolerate such a neighbourhood as the scene where they are to know the blessed influence of wedded love, and which is to be pictured in their children's memories as the place where first they saw the light. Suppose a man to marry, with some of the usual aspirations of his kind,-with some love for, and interest in, the being to whom he is united; allow him only the smallest particle of that romance which ought to gild unions such as these, how soon must he lose every finer feeling, how rapidly become demoralized by the loathsome attributes of a plague spot! Moralists have ever ranked among the great panaceas of our kind the hallowed influence of marriage, - how it destroys selfishness; what a stake it gives a man in the welfare of his country; how it opens the heart to the wants and feelings of others; what an object to live for; what benefit the country reaps from well-trained families; with what cheerfulness the man who is happily married goes to his daily work; what an aid to the sway of pure and sober religion these home [-71-] sympathies are! How does the romance of affection give a delicacy to the thoughts and refinement to the taste? All is checked, or rather distorted in neighbourhoods such as these; we blot out from the catalogue of God's gifts to men the holiest, the most precious of earthly blessings. The body soon becomes enfeebled by inhaling a fetid atmosphere, disease is generated, seizes hold upon some flaw in a weak constitution, makes one for itself in the stronger frame, and the mind sympathizes, is clouded, is driven to seek questionable relaxations, to purchase moments of forgetfulness in intoxication; the image the man has drawn of the partner of his life soon recedes before the figure of her who is a fellow sufferer with himself; the annoyances with which he is surrounded leave their traces in his family and his home; childhood's innocence seems a fable in such haunts, wedded love a mockery, when poverty and custom assign for its enjoyments receptacles like these. Who shall say how much the crime which pollutes England is owing to our St. Giles's and Saffron Hills? how much to this,-the failure in our education schemes? how much to this,-the abortive efforts of Churchmen and Dissenters for the religious improvement of their fellow creatures? Can you think to lift a man's eyes heavenward, when his vision is distorted by gazing ever on these objects,- to fill his heart with love who is reaping the fruits of a more than heathen avarice,- to teach him reverence for human laws, when the only exercise of law which he knows is the protection afforded to plague spots and the victimizers [-72-] of their fellow creatures? When legislation would root out the disease which decimates the poor, it is feebler than the child.

    The late visitation has brought to light many sores in the body corporate of London; and, thanks to the able articles in the Morning Chronicle, Bermondsey, a Rookery quarter like those we have just described, has come in for its full share of infamous notoriety. Our attention has been directed to that parish by this able paper; and we have therefore wished to include it in our sketch, though we would much rather refer our readers to the articles themselves (which we trust will be published separately), and more especially to a tract, entitled "Jacob's Island, and the Tidal ditches of Bermondsey."
    Our plan has been hitherto to show how a Rookery became what it now is; whether it ever knew palmy days, and what and when these were; because it is interesting to the mass to learn this, even if, in addition, it did not point out by what steps such changes* [* See Wilkinson's Londiniana Illustrata.] were accomplished.
    Bermondsey, then, is supposed to have derived its name from some Saxon. proprietor whose name was Bermond, the termination eu, or eye, in that language, signifying water. This was added to denote the nature of the soil, and is frequent in the names of places whose situation on the banks of rivers renders them insular or marshy.
    [-73-] King Edward was lord of the manor, as Harold had been before him, in whose time it was rated to the land tax (including the manor, afterwards called Rotherhithe) at thirteen hundred acres. There were eight hundred acres of arable land ; a new and fair church, with twenty acres of meadow; and as much woodland as yielded to the lord's share in pasnage * [* Pasnage, or pannage, is an ancient law term for the most of the oak and other forest trees used to feed swine. The time for receiving these animals into the woods and keeping them, was from Holyrood Day, or fifteen days before Michaelmas, to St. Martin's day.-WILKINSON.] time five fat swine. The reputed annual value of the manor, or whole lordship, in the time of Edward the Confessor, was .900 of our present money, out of which the sheriff was allowed 20s. or .60 of our present currency, for collecting the rents and paying them into the Exchequer. The manor house, or palace, was given by William II., in 1094, to the monks of Bermondsey. After its surrender to Henry VIII., it was granted by him to Sir Robert Southwell, who in the same year sold it to Sir Thomas Pope; by whom soon afterwards the ancient edifice was taken down, and a capital mansion erected. Having been occupied by the Earl of Sussex and various owners, part of it, in 1792, was the property of William Richardson; and as late as 1821 of James Riley, Esq., in whose garden, at that time, was an ancient wall, with crosses and other devices in glazed bricks.
    Whether from its situation by the side of the river, or from what other cause is not mentioned, the ravages of [-74-] the plague are stated to have been greater here than at Lambeth, although the latter was the more populous parish. In 1625, this distemper was most fatal, the number of deaths being 1117; twenty bodies were frequently interred in one night. In 1636, 203 persons died of this disease; in 1665, 263.
    The importance of this place in the olden time was derived from its famous Abbey or Priory, to which were attached lands, bounded by the Thames, on which now stands the colony, called Jacob's Island the present condition of this place is the subject of the strictures in the Morning Chronicle, for we are told that the prior and convent of Bermondsey had a park and other lands adjoining the Banks of the Thames, called Rotherhithe Wall. This sustained so much damage in 1309, by a breach in those parts (probably a high tide), that they were exempted from the purveyance of hay and corn. " The mill of St. Saviour (still the place keeps the name St. Saviour's Dock) was converted into a water machine to supply the inhabitants with water, and was, on the first of June, 1536, demised by the abbot and monks to John Curlew, at the annual rent of 6 (the value of eighteen quarters of good wheat), and to grind all the corn for the use of the convent, which Curlew was to fetch home. The annual charge of the whole was computed at 2 3s. 8d., which made the annual rate of the said mill amount to .8 3s. 8d." -MANNING'S Surrey.
  
An indenture was executed between Henry VII. the [-75-] Mayor and commonalty of London, the Abbot and Convent of St. Peter, Westminster, and the Abbot and Convent of St. Saviour, Bermondsey, for holding an anniversary in the Abbey Church of Bermondsey, on the 6th of February, to pray for the prosperity of the king and his family, and to pray for the souls of the Earl and Countess of Richmond, the King's parents. The deed contains directions as to the manner in which this anniversary is to be solemnized. " The Abbot and Convent of St. Saviour, Bermondsey, shall provide at every such anniversary an herse, to be sett in the myddes of the high chancell of the same monasterie, before the high Aulter cov'd and appareled wt the best and most honorable stuff in the same monasterie convenyent for the same. And also four tap's of wax, ev'y of them weighing VIII. lb., to be sett aboute the same herse, that is to say on either side thereof o'on taper, and at either end of the same herse another taper. And all the same four tap's to be light, and burning continually during all the tyme of ev'y such placebo, dirige, wt nyne lessons, laudes, and masse of reg'ni, w~ the prayers and obs'vances above rehersed. And ymmediately eeny of the same high masses singin and fynished, the abbot of the said monasterie of Seynt Sau'yor, of Bermondsey, if he be p'sent, and the Convet of the same," &c. The decree goes on to direct that in the absence of the abbot the prior of the said Convent shall go with his monks to the same hearse, in a most solemn and devout manner, and shall sing Libera me de morte eterna. At the disso-[-76-]lution of monasteries, that of Bermondsey was valued at .474  14s. 4d.
  
The water-side division of Bermondsey, or that part of the parish situate east of St. Saviour's Dock, and adjoining the parish of Rotherhithe, is intersected by several streams or water-courses. Upon the south bank of one of these, between Mill Street and George Row, stand a number of very ancient houses, called London Street; of this locality, as connected with Jacob's Island, we shall speak hereafter.
    In the year 1804 there were still in being many fragments of the venerable foundation of Bermondsey Abbey, probably more than of almost any religious edifice in or near London, owing, it is supposed, to its remote situation, which did not encourage the improvements generally so fatal to old buildings. The principal entrance, called the Gate House, was then nearly entire; it stood direct north and faced Bermondsey Church. An old stone wall ran eastward the whole extent of the churchyard. On the other side of this wall was a row of very old houses, whose stone-framed windows and style of building were witnesses to their antiquity. The great Gate House and nearly all the ancient buildings, with the exception of two or three dwelling houses, have, since 1805, been destroyed, and a modern street, called Abbey Street, has been erected on their site. A small portion of the Abbey walls yet remains on the south side, and a fragment of the same wall on the north side of Long Walk; the latter being a part of that which surrounded the [-77-] conventual churchyard. There is reason to think that the monastic buildings were separated from the Grange, which extended to the water side, by a long brick wall. This Grange, or pasture, is the site of the abominations we have undertaken to describe. The writer in The Morning Chronicle states that, in the reign of Henry II., the foul stagnant ditch, which now makes an island of this pestilential spot, was a running stream, supplied with the waters which poured down from the hills about Sydenham and Nunhead, and was used for the working of the mills which then stood on its banks. These had been granted to the monks of St. Mary and St. John to grind their flour, and were dependencies upon the Priory of Bermondsey; and what is now a straw yard skirting the river, was once the city Ranelagh, called Cupid's Gardens; and the trees, now black with mud, were the bowers under which the citizens loved, on the summer evenings, to sit beside the stream drinking their sack and ale. We have no doubt that the statement here made was founded on respectable authority, although we have not been able to find it; the paper to which we allude is so ably written, and with so much feeling for the poor creatures whose cause it pleads, that it should be read by all who feel an interest in the subject, and for this purpose has been published in a separate form. We, as in duty bound, visited this district; the stagnant water which insulates this spot has no appearance of ever having been a stream, though doubtless part of it was so; it seems rather to have been an artificial reservoir, [-78-] where the water flowed into channels cut to receive it and this idea is strengthened by the circumstances of the case: there is a paper mill at a little distance from the spot; and, on inquiry, we found that the waters of the Thames were let into these tidal ditches, as they were called, three times a week; the form of the ditch is also quadrangular. To those accustomed to Rookeries, the appearance of the houses is not worse than that which they generally wear in such localities. On entering many of them, as is often the case in old houses, you descend, and thus are made sensible that the floor is below the level of the ground; there is the usual amount of ricketty furniture, with a ladder on which to mount to the bed- rooms: but the houses are not inconveniently crowded, nor could we find that the rooms were tenanted by more than one family each. London Street is a curious assemblage of houses, and retains very much the same appearance as it did when it furnished a sketch, in 1814, for Wilkinson's Londiniana Illustrata. The houses are evidently old, the first stories slightly overhanging the ground floor, yet not no much as in many of our old towns where these projections form penthouses : there is nothing particularly quaint and interesting about them; hovels they were, and hovels will they remain as long as they exist. Still, the whole locality is curious because surrounded on four sides by stagnant water: part of this channel must be artificial, and it is not easy to learn when the district became thus insulated; this quadrangular ditch is crossed by means of bridges made of wood, [-79-] and the whole is separated from the Thames by a long row of large warehouses, which are the glory of that land. Paper mills, sufferance wharves, and other commercial enterprises, have their emporiums there; so that you might pass along the district again and again without stumbling on this isolated Rookery.
    We do not say there is nothing to startle a stranger in the buildings of this place-there is much; but, unhappily, twelve years of experience in crowded districts of London have shown us many such sights, - Chelsea, Whitechapel, St. Andrew's Holborn, have many such Rookeries. The floors of the houses being below the level of the foot-path must be flooded in wet weather; the rooms are mouldy and ill savoured; dark, small, and confined, they could not be peopled as the alleys of St. Giles's, because their size would not admit of it. There is the usual amount of decaying vegetable matter, the uneven footpath, the rotten doors, the broken windows patched with rags, ash heaps in front of the houses, dogs, &c. housed there, ragged children, and other features well known to those conversant with such neighbourhoods. But here the parallel ends :-there are peculiar nuisances in this spot which go far to justify the language used by the writer of the articles in The Morning Chronicle, and which he describes techically as perhaps a surgeon alone could do. These abominations we proceed to notice; not, of course, that we can go into many details; - the gentleman we have alluded to has done it much better than we could pretend to do,- done it too with a [-80-] knowledge of the consequences involved in such neglect, and done it at a season when such supervision as he exercised involved the greatest results. He saw it while cholera was decimating its victims, making wholesale ravages; we now see it when frost and cold have purified the air; when what was a reeking flood of pestilence is now frozen over; so that you might walk on it. Some slight attempts have been made to supply the wants of the people,-public attention has been called to the nuisances which here, to the disgrace of our laws, still pollute this wretched district. The writer we have alluded to, says,- "The striking peculiarity of Jacob's Island consists in the wooden galleries and sleeping rooms at the back of the houses, which overhang the dark flood, and are built upon piles, so that the place has positively the air of a Flemish street flanking a sewer instead of a canal; while the little ricketty bridges that span the ditches and connect court with court, give it the appearance of the Venice of drains." . . This is the source of all the disgust with which the visitor to these dens of wretchedness is inspired. This district, we have said before, is insulated by a quadrangular ditch; the very figure of the island tells you that such reservoirs must be stagnant; and stagnant they are until moved for a while by the tide, which does not at each rising pour fresh water into them, but which at intervals alone, twice or thrice a week, is sparingly introduced, and checked again when enough is supposed to have been done for the purposes of those who are concerned in traffic. Mean-[-81-]while this circumambient pond is the common sewer of the neighbourhood, and the only source from which the wretched inhabitants can get the water which they drink - with which they wash-and with which they cook their victuals: and because habit reconciles men to any anomaly, in the summer, boys are seeing bathing there, though the Thames is not far distant, and offers at least a cleaner bathing-place. Imagination will picture to itself much which we cannot describe, when we point to such a disgraceful condition of being as that entailed upon the denizens of Jacob's Island. We may well blush for the parish which can tolerate such a plague spot,- for our country, whose insulted laws do not at once sweep from the face of the earth such a record of its disgrace. Is it indeed come to pass, that men, women, and children habitually drink water whose ingredients decency forbids us to describe? - that with no affected squeamishness we shrink from picturing that on which our eyes have rested, which courts no secrecy, and which is naked and open to all who would inspect it? not carefully fenced off, lest the indignant spirit of Englishmen should doom it to destruction; not carefully guarded, lest perchance some wandering Christian should denounce it as the future city of God's wrath - the Babylon of his country? Is it indeed come to pass, that heavy taxes are wrung from hard-pressed industry, and the poor man divides his loaf with the tax gatherer, and yet no shield is thrown between him and horrors like these? that fierce cabals agitate rival vestrymen, and some patriotic agitator, plethoric [-82-] and bloated with good wishes for his country, wields his thunder, and yet no one is heard to decry these scenes, till at length a stranger comes and speaks, and men awake as from a dream, and go and see this new exhibition, and a few guineas drop in for the fund raised to relieve the poor sufferers, and then perhaps the wound will be scarred over, till when ?-till it festers in some outbreak which shakes the nation.
    Yet, gentle reader, we shall be told we are romancing. We say, Go and see. "We then," says the author of the pamphlet, "journeyed down London Street (that London Street we have spoken of before, the best specimen of Rookeries, two hundred years old, and upwards). In No. 1 of this street the cholera first appeared seventeen years ago, and spread up it with fearful virulence; but this year it appeared at the opposite end, and ran down it with like severity. As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer, the sun shone upon a narrow slip of water. In the bright light it appeared the colour of strong green tea, and positively looked as solid as black marble in the shadow; indeed, it was more like watery mud than muddy water: and yet we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink . . . As we stood, we saw a little child, from one of the galleries opposite, lower a tin can with a rope, to fill a large bucket that stood beside her. In each of the balconies that hang over the stream the self-same tub was to be seen, in which the inhabitants put the mucky [-83-] liquid to stand, so that they may, after it has rested for a day or two, skim the fluid. We asked if the inhabitants did really drink the water? The answer was, They were obliged to drink it, without they could beg a pailful or thieve a pailful of purer water. 'But have you spoken to your landlord about having it laid on for you?' 'Yes, sir, and he says he'll do it, and he'll do it, but we know him better than to believe him.' 'Why, sir,' cried another woman who had shot out from an adjoining room, he won't even give us a little whitewash.' We had scarce left the house when a bill caught our eye, announcing that this valuable estate was to be sold. The inmates had begged for pure water to be laid on, and the rain to be shut out, and the answer for eighteen years had been, - that the lease was just out."
    What a home for the future mothers of our working classes You may talk of the oppression which preceded the outbreak of the first French Revolution. Was it greater than this? Men, compelled by their occupation to live within a given circle,- thrust down, oft by poverty, the victims of commercial changes and the alternations to which traffic is subject,-doomed to drag out their lives amidst scenes like these, as if the close room and the mixture of sexes were not enough; as if precarious wages and dear food did not bring their trials, but that these very Rookeries should be blacker still, through the infamous neglect of the landlord on the one hand, and. the grasping avarice of the trader on the other. [-84-] What purpose does this tidal ditch serve ? Between it and the river a paper mill is at work; yet it can scarce contribute to the power which such a piece of machinery requires. It would rather seem that the water of the Thames must do this duty, and that, after having answered such an end, it flowed into this reservoir at stated times : staves, also, we are told, are laid to season there, as if no place could be found for this but the source whence water is supplied for the necessities of human life. What a place, we say again, for the future mothers of the working classes - their nature hardened by a long course of oppression! For what oppression worse than this,-to be pinioned down, as it were, to the lowest conditions under which life can be sustained, their feelings outraged again and again, till every trace of delicacy is worn out; and yet a mother's teaching is one, if not the very first of God's earthly blessings. Our future working classes to derive their first impressions of the opening world - their first lessons in divine and human knowledge, from mothers thus debased! To live amidst such miasmata till they connect such poison wells with the state of being for which they were designed; or if they think at all, to be led by the very contrasts of the spacious warehouses around them to hate the country which gave them birth, and to trample on the laws under which such things still exist. Who lives on such gains? For whom is the spot which God created made a Devil's world? Does Government pay the expenses of the country thus? Are hospitals supported thus ? Do we here behold, in [-85-] embryo, the funds which strengthen the hands of the schoolmaster ? And thus the specious, oft-refuted sophism, lends its colour to such abuse,-that the end justifies the means. Not even this is the shield and defence of Jacob's Island. From the sufferings of the poor, small capitalists reap a reprieve from honest toil, and build up the income which feeds their indolence, their debauchery, or their avarice. And verily Nature herself hath entered her visible protest against such cruelties, and hath lifted up a voice which speaks to those that will hear.
    We are assured by one, who evidently knows the nature of such symptoms, that the brown, earth-like complexion of some, and their sunken eyes, with the dark areolae around them, tell you that the sulphuretted hydrogen of the atmosphere in which they live has been absorbed into the blood. Scarcely a girl that has not soreness of the eyes; so that if one of the inhabitants could be taken to a foreign hospital, and there subjected to examination, science would immediately assign the cause of the complaint under which he was suffering- would specify the particular gas or vapour he had been inhaling - and whilst doing so would accurately describe the sort of atmosphere which the patient breathed, though the previous circumstances of the case had never been stated.
    Such a description as the one above quoted can only be appreciated by those whose profession leads them often to examine similar cases; but the most superficial [-86-] observer will perceive an unnatural whiteness in the complexion, the scars of scrofula, and the sore eyes of the children. We are not describing some scene in distant lands, under a despotic government; but one taken from a district of what was wont to be called merrie England - the land of charity, whose plans for the welfare of our home population are a hundred-fold, and from whose shores missions are sent year by year to distant colonies.
    Now suppose a fire, one of the wasting fires so common to that shore of the Thames, to take place in this district; and, because the houses are wooden and the bridges already rotting, it swallowed up this Jacob's Island in its ravages. We know what a fire is; how for a while all aid is impotent, the image of a vengeance none can stay. Supposing the inhabitants could escape, a fire would positively be a blessing in which philanthropy would rejoice, and humanity hug itself. This greatest of earthly terrors, whose idea suggests desolation, the worst and fiercest instrument of destruction, with whose name men connect the immolation of cities, whose wrath consumed half London, entailing on us for the time the greatest national suffering England ever knew, would be a gift whose price we could scarce tell, whose healing influence we could scarce enough appreciate; and, if the inhabitants could be removed in time, an earthquake, which swallowed up this hamlet of the plague, would be a thing to be remembered with thanksgiving in the annals of our nation. We read with terror of the earthquake at Lisbon in 1755 ; yet, if we except the loss of [-87-] human life, such a visitation here would be a mercy. Yet very, very deep-seated must be the disease for which such a remedy would be a cure - very hard is it to write thus of any country, especially of one's own. What an accumulated mass of sin is connected with such doings and such endurance. How God's laws must have been put out of sight, done violence to, ere we dare write thus of any spot in the wide world he has made. With such ravages as those of fire we connect houseless families- their household gods laid waste-the memorials with which men remember their childhood consumed: avarice groans over property destroyed, and the hordes of capital wasted: and men stand panic-stricken at the brink of such ruin, as though the disaster had bereaved them of the power to think or to do ; and we read of the citizens repairing slowly, by years of painful toil and at vast expense, the damages thus incurred, and of the gulph which yawned during the lives of a whole generation ere the loss sustained ceased to be felt.
    Yet, again, in Jacob's Island such a fire, such wholesale conflagration, would be a blessing; it would untie better than all the lawyers in existence the knots which impede legislation, - cut through better than even the death of the owners of these districts the meshes in which such property is tied up. We should not then wait for leases to expire, for the capitalist would scarcely value the lease of charred timber, and crumbling skeletons of what once were houses; for gain's sake he would raise, under happier auspices, walls which age alone could acclimatize to [-88-] the horrors which now are; and one generation at least be spared the disgust which at present it endures. Some opulent speculator might appropriate the ground thus cleared, and on the foundations of the past rear some vast superstructure to the genius of Mammon. Better so than that the poor should pay the penalty of ill-gotten gains, and suffer, that capitalists should exhibit to the admiring gaze of their countrymen the pride of England's wealth. Let us rather, if we yet blush at our country's shame, repair the injuries which the poor sustain-let us wipe away the blot which all may witness, and write at once the death-warrant of Jacob's Island.
    We struggle for theoretical reforms, and a clever demagogue shakes the country with his statement of fancied injuries:- he agitates for privileges which, like the relics in an Italian convent, are only to be discerned by the favoured few. If his indignant eloquence must have vent, let him employ it on wrongs like these.
    Yet, let us not be ungrateful; the caricaturist may sketch the grotesque amidst the haunts of poverty ; the antiquarian call up by the aid of their antique decorations the features of a bygone age; the Legislature may banish to these dens the convicted criminal till his time comes, without the expense of transportation; the medical student may study some strange type of disease amidst the remaining lazar houses of St. Giles's. Happy age, which is spared the task of providing for the teeming multitudes which are yearly added to its population. Happy country, [-89-] which denies its well-bred citizens the sight of countenances which might shock their delicacy, and of habits which might infect the rising scions of a higher caste; which girdles vice within a barrier none need pass, and confines destitution to dens few can investigate,- meanwhile, with a slight change, the words of the poet are verified in these neglected colonies-
        AEtas parentum pejor avis tulit
        Nos nequiores, move daturos
        Progeniem vitiosiorem.