Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Rookeries of London, by Thomas Beames, 1852 - Chapter 9

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Chapter IX

Of other Rookeries we may not speak. We will not pause to describe St. George's-in-the-Borough, with its back courts, where the refuse of Ireland vegetate ; or Kent Street,- the thieves' district,- which years since drew forth the indignation of the topographist; or Pearl Row, St. George's Road, Southwark; or Red House, Old Gravel Lane, Borough; or a lodging house for thieves at the back of Holborn, where 100 thieves are to be seen, at eleven o'clock at night, on an average, six sometimes in one bed ; or the lower part of Bell Street, Paddington, for the lower class of thieves, such as costermongers, &c.; or the courts and alleys leading out of Tooley Street, City, all the courts inhabited by Irish thieves, &c.; or Rents Buildings, York Street, Westminster, inhabited by pickpockets and juvenile thieves; or many others which will suggest themselves to the reader.
    Sufficient has been said to set at work those who are willing to labour in the cause, to show what Rookeries are, to stimulate us to remove them.
    The condition of such colonies is not to be wondered at, when they, who have no visible means of subsistence, [-134-]  are numbered by thousands! Criminals pass every year through the metropolitan gaols, by tens of thousands; there are criminal districts in the metropolis, districts the hotbeds of particular crimes, so that one parish is a school for coiners, another for burglars, another for shoplifters, another for horse stealers; parts of the metropolis, if mapped out by a moral geologist, would present as many varieties as a district in which the surface was in one place clay, in another chalk, in another limestone, in another gravel, and the like.
    It is not generally known that more than two millions are maintained by the charitable resources of the country, or during their penal confinement. That many of these might be restored to independence, if you could rouse them from the moral torpor of despair; that Rookeries hide the listlessness of departed hope, and the indolence of broken hearts. Compelled to herd with the worst of his species, because he cannot afford better lodging, the honest artisan is tempted to forget the lessons of his youth; and, forced into precarious occupation, because his stated trade has failed him, he soon adopts it as his own. Do you think that vice alone is the parent of degeneracy, or that social evils result only from the recklessness of the poor; that recklessness itself is never the offspring of ill-paid labour and exhausted industry; that sickness has never thrust the ardent from the place his toil had won, or even change of fashion cast a blight upon the skill by which he earned his bread?
    And yet think not we are unthankful for the charities [-135-] so liberally dealt out through this land; the sick are visited, the maimed and the cripple healed, the houseless sheltered, the prostitute reclaimed, the orphan housed, the idiot cared for, the blind taken in. Schools there are, waiting only for the sanction of a better system to instruct the nation ; Hospitals, where skill is tasked and science lends her aid ; Prisons, where a wise effort would reclaim those whom justice punishes; and, last of all, a Poor Law, whose shelter each may claim, not as by favour, but by right.
    Yes, the energies of this noble country need only to be roused, her eyes opened to the wretchedness she well might relieve. We want not so much larger resources - for indiscriminate relief creates more poverty than it dispels - but rather a better distribution of the resources we possess. We want fellow-feeling spread over the surface of the country, not confined to particular classes; we want those, who at heart are just and generous, to look into the anomalies they have often sanctioned unconsciously among their own tenants, and to do that justice to their own dependents, which the stranger, if he claimed it, would receive at their hands. We would that the country should be awakened, not to enact some new Poor Law, or swell the resources on which the existing one depends; we would diminish rather than increase the rates-they more than double the amount at which they ought to be assessed. Up to this very time, and with all our experience, the problem has not been solved - whether a Poor Law does not create much of the poverty it [-136-] relieves? We would deal a death-blow to begging by giving scope for honest toil, and raise men to independence by the pride which comfort gives, - by a sense that labour earns the blessings which a father's love claims for his offspring.
    We may rail against Rookeries as we will; we may club together to put them down; yet selfishness, when chartered, or when not denounced by law, will be too powerful even for the strength of the many. We write no verdict against voluntary effort,-but, has it answered the purpose of legislative enactment ? Have the efforts of Dissenters and of Churchmen combined provided for the educational or religious wants of the mass ? Yet rivalry has not been wanting,-the fierce conflict of opposite interests,- the traditions of our Great Struggle, in which the King was slain, and the Church dismantled, have bequeathed a portion of their bitterness to these times; religious zeal and religious strife, two of the strongest feelings of the human mind, have not accomplished an end for which both contended, though on different grounds. Let the law, then, denounce Rookeries,- the law which the people may evoke, and which the Legislature, the echo of the people's voice, will enact; which the righteous energy of a Russell would gladly sanction, the far-sighted prudence of a Peel assent to, and the indignant eloquence of a D'Israeli demand.
    We may judge what we ought to do, by considering what has been done. The Great Fire had scarcely spent its ravages, ere the nation was roused, even under the [-137-] sensual indolence of a Charles, even after the exhaustion of a civil conflict, a grievous plague, and a devouring scourge. She arose as a giant to repair the damage which thousands had sustained, and remove the relics which the wretchedness of former ages had bequeathed. How many Rookeries yielded up the ghost amidst the flames, or gave way before the destroyer, history stops not to tell, - she is concerned only with the larger streets and the more public edifices which were consumed. Yet it would do the lawgivers of these times good to peruse the injunctions which were laid down for the rebuilding of the City; how, when men had just thrown aside a form of government which a successful revolution achieved, they laid down minute laws, whereby, if the liberty of the subject was wronged, his life was extended and his comfort secured.
    Did we wield the rod of correction, for which our fingers tingle, this should be the wholesome sentence we would pass upon the indolence of law makers:- They should be confined within the precincts of the British Museum, till they had learned by heart the rules issued and sanctioned for the rebuilding of the City; they should thumb old Seymour again and again; and, under a self-correcting memory of the discipline, be once again restored to write the common sense and the common English of former times. Then Rookeries would disappear not because an Act proscribed cellars, yet forgot to enforce the law it had enacted; but because, when the sentence of their death was pronounced, men were there to see it carried out.
    [-138-] Still, let us not speak only of existing Rookeries. Could you lay an injunction upon the builder-could you check his labours for the next thirty years, Rookeries would still be formed, and streets rapidly degenerate; bankruptcy, change of fashion, annual migration and emigration, decay, the adaptation of dwellings to the purposes of a public company, obnoxious settlers, change of habits, rise of new trades, would transform decent dwellings into Rookeries. Yet a law should be hallowed, not only by a sense of its use and its benevolence, but by the presence of officers;- they are the visible forms of justice, and they would check these transformations ;-they would vindicate the claim of the poor to the air, the light, and the water, which come direct from God. In their presence you could not confine two families to one room;- you could not make a crumbling den pay the rent which a decent house does not require ;-you could not mix without regard to sex the members of different families ;-you could not break down with impunity the line which divides the artisan from the felon;- at their bidding, dustmen would do their duty, and water-rate collectors remember the meaning of value received.
    This is, however, a small part of their work,-population increases, and the working classes have not yet bowed down at the altar of Malthus; marriage is still popular: the limits of the town will soon overleap the boundaries our fathers set, and London engulph within its circle the fields where childhood yet plays; buildings will arise, whose architects have taken a wholesome [-139-] lesson from the errors of their forefathers; and luxuries, which the unhappy Past knew not, be the inheritance of a future generation. Let us look well to it, that Rookeries do not mar our satisfaction, when the delighted eye wanders over splendid squares, and churches of medieval riches. Let not the abode of luxury be flanked by a back-ground where vice riots, allied with squalid misery,- and the palace of the merchant stand in strong contrast with the hovel of him who is the factor of that trader's wealth*. [* Since the First Edition was published, much has been done by the Bill to regulate Lodging Houses.]
    We live in an age when heroes and hero-worship are alike gone by; our merchants are not Howards, our patriots, Hampdens: still, if the large sacrifice be denied, let not the tithe which justice asks be withheld; the law we want might still wield a useful power,- Rookeries, at least, would cease to be built afresh, and perhaps those which exist would die out, for want of congenial companions; they would soon be limited to certain districts, which the poor would in time avoid, and thus languish because their occupation was gone. As the town increased, we should be comforted, because its anomalies declined; and crime be on the wane, because deprived of its hiding-place, - some future Agar Town would be spared the pest which clung to it, and an infant Hampstead learn not its mother tongue from the groans of the poor.
    We confess, then, that rules are wanted to confine the evil within its present limits, if not at once to stay [-140-] the plague, yet we fear the encounter. Interests, large and many, we say, are mixed up in this system; we shall have to fight the battle separately with each, - they only who have warred against the selfishness and traditions of mankind know the toil before them. Is it, indeed, so ? We doubt it; the landlords whose interests are at stake in these Rookeries, are not very many, - we speak of the landlords, not the middle-men; nor are their profits so large; for the excess of rent paid by the tenant rewards the trouble and swells the gains of those that intervene between him and the owner. Many, then, must be the houses, and extensive the plot of ground they cover, before an income swells into the dimensions which make it powerful, and through which the owner wields an influence to create alarm; the country magnate, whose interest you would evoke, and whom you fear to offend, owns whole streets; and thus, though his ground produces treble the amount it yielded a century since, the size of all the Rookeries combined, forbids that there should be many who thus unconsciously deal in things forbidden. You might provoke the hostility of some few, you would not dare the opposition of a large class, were Rookeries at once swept away.
    This is, however, the lowest line of argument which we ought to be ashamed, in the face of higher motives, to adopt. Many pocket rents they scarce know from what source, because their fathers did so ; their steward is ignorant of the miseries of those whose landlord is his master, and it only needs to point out the sufferings their [-141-] carelessness has entailed on others, at once to end it; or, if they still persist, shame must do what conscience cannot, and the law enforce what private interests forbid.
    Yet individuals are not alone to blame; these houses suffer from other annoyances, which the law has entailed on them; and which, if you pass an Act of Parliament to-morrow, to humanise within a given time all the landlords of London, would still remain. Nearly eight hundred houses, in an aristocratic district of the Metropolis suffer from want of ventilation,-so that the political satirist has been found a true prophet, when he wrote-
        "One for a tax upon the wind,
            Pitt only taxed the light,
        And one for an excise on mind-
           The intellectual eight."
    Many windows are stopped up, that the landlord - I beg his pardon, the middle-man-may escape the heavy pressure of the window-tax * [*Thank God! since the publication of the First Edition, the Window Tax has been abolished.]; yet here, according to the well-known adage, the raven escapes, and the dove suffers. The houses in these districts have about them signs of a not venerable antiquity; they retain all past discomforts, and are destitute of all modern improvements ; they transmit the evils without the virtues of the age, whose type they are, burdened with the taxes which blissful Eden knew not. Shifting sashes are seldom found; and, to use the words of a report on this [-142-] subject, "modern means of obtaining a supply of atmospheric air, and producing ventilation, are scarcely known, and very little appreciated by the poorer classes." A country gentleman, of moderate income, one just trembling on the verge of squirearchy - one who is gradually working his way into that estimable corporation, has his house, containing three or four sitting rooms, seven or eight bed-rooms, his laundry, his drying ground, his coachman's cottage, his ornamental and kitchen-garden, piggery, kennel, stable, &c.-each a distinct province. Now, suppose population to be quadrupled-an invasion to take place, his house to be garrisoned, as many homes were in the Civil War, and suppose him and his family limited to one room,- linen to be washed there, dried there-victuals to be cooked there, eaten there-family to sit there, sleep there, read there, dress there, and you have some faint idea of the discomforts of a poor man's dwelling. But, says Sterne, "darken the little light which remains," reduce the three windows to two,- bring the piggery, stable, and kennel, within ten yards of the house, and even then what is it to A Rookery? You say we are supposing a case well-nigh impossible; that, even if it were so, the trial would be so much the greater, in proportion to the habits, education, rank, previous means of the person so affected. Do you think that no decayed gentleman has ever been obliged in dens like these to hide a broken heart,- that ruin among this class is so very uncommon? Those who have visited  [-143-] Rookeries have known too many parallels; but yet, concede that we have referred to isolated cases, - ask yourself, is the distinction between the small proprietor, and the well-ordered mechanic so vast, the gulph which separates them so profound, that the one should be surrounded by most of the luxuries which the individual can enjoy,-the other be destitute of most of the necessaries that life requires? Should this be so, when, if the mechanic be ingenious or fortunate, he may live to see his son High Sheriff of the county?
    We are not blaming any one class; our aristocracy are not savage tyrants, they are English gentlemen,- kind, generous, delighting not merely to relieve the wants, they encourage the sports, and promote the happiness of their tenants; our merchants are not penurious traders, they are an open-handed, open-hearted race; the bane of all this is thoughtlessness, and a clinging to old traditions.
    Amidst the homes of the aristocracy, Dorsetshire labourers are generating a plague, and Dorsetshire poverty has raised the county to the bad elevation of the prime nursery of crime. And the porters, mechanics, labourers, the very shopmen of' the Metropolis, waste out their lives amidst Rookeries whose social discomforts demoralise their minds, whose polluted atmosphere ruins their health. Men are not worse than their fathers,-are they better? We have averred that the gulph is daily growing wider which separates the higher and middle ranks from the working classes. Grant, if you will, that [-144-] the wages of the working man are not in proportion lower than they were a hundred years since,-still, the population is larger, competition greater,-for then emigration was an evil which men tried to check. Goldsmith, in that model of political wisdom, The Traveller, laments over the countryman leaving the home of his fathers, as though the country were deprived of something whose services it might need. It would be difficult to prove that Rookeries were crowded then as now, and the middle class knew not a tithe of the comfort they now enjoy. We wonder not that luxury should increase with wealth; such has ever been the rule, though refinement in luxury has been also the first symptom of a state's decay; yet, when a particular class remains stationary, and in broad contrast with the advancement of all else but itself, then there is danger-then there is a sore in the nation's body which, would she live, must be healed.
    And these very evils, whose remedy we ask, or whose removal we cry out for-what are they but the abuse, the perversion, or the withholding of the very commonest, cheapest blessings which God has given to man ? Blessings, to supply which, it costs us nothing;- the air comes fresh from heaven; the light, science can neither create has nor destroy; the water, whose beds the Hand above has hallowed, which He has inlaid with a cement, the natural receptacle of the stores they contain, those stores being inexhaustible, would flow spontaneously did we open a channel for it ; once sink the well, and it will [-145-] ever keep running; once unclog the avenues you have choked up, repeal the abuses you have made, and Nature will itself supply our wants. When a Committee appointed by a parish of note, went their rounds, they declare that, among the eight hundred houses they visited, "not one single instance was found of a continuous supply of water by Water Companies; and, although there did not appear to be an actual want of the article, yet the supply being intermittent, and of short duration, does not maintain a sufficient quantity in the various, and, sometimes, very limited, receptacles found in poor dwellings, to meet the requirements of houses crowded with families, and to enable the occupants to assist in promoting health by cleansing their persons as well as frequently washing their linen, and scouring the rooms they inhabit." Yet, small as is the supply, even then it is not pure; an analysis would prove that it has collected many impurities in its transit; its reservoirs are badly placed, and the pipes frequently in juxtaposition with the sewers, so that the supplies of the one and the outpourings of the other have been sometimes mingled.
    A gentleman hires a house-the landlord at once taking care that it shall be well lit, supplied with water and with air; does the roof show signs of leakage when some August deluge sweeps away a house or two in Middle Row, the landlord repairs it; has the water been turned off during the non-occupancy of the house, the landlord issues his sign-manual, and obedient water-rate [-146-] collectors turn on the supply. It is part of the owner's duty to provide, not merely that there should be water for all the purposes of cleanliness and comfort, but that the cisterns which supply it, and the pump from which it is drawn, are in working condition; that no giant nuisance shall rear its head in the vicinity-that no haunts of immorality should pollute the neighbourhood. Should the unconscious tenant enter upon a house, forgetting to make these inquiries; should he take a house upon trust, supposing that it was furnished with the comforts and free from the annoyances we have mentioned, and yet, after all, find he was deceived, the law would throw its aegis of protection around him, would compel the landlord to supply the comforts that were wanting, to remove the evils complained of, or else that his tenant should be released from his agreement. Such suits as these we have supposed are known to every lawyer, and numberless are the instances in which a respectable jury, instructed by those judges whom it is the high boast of England to rear, has granted the protection which the claimant had a right to ask.
    But were redress cut off in this quarter, do you think that no other means would be adopted to bring the landlord to his senses? The tenant would most probably quit the house, at some expense to himself perhaps, and at some annoyance, but then the place would be marked as a plague spot; it would not, as in the year of the fatal epidemic 1665, be lettered with the red sign which kept the neighbours at a distance, still it would be quite [-147-] as much shunned; it would have the bad name attached to it; other landlords in the neighbourhood would exalt the merits of their respective tenements by contrast with the condemned one, or, if the annoyance were one which infringed the laws of morality, would readily join in removing that which tainted the character of the district.
    We have already then disbursed sums quite sufficient to remove the annoyances and evils of which we complain. We assert, again, that in this country there is no want of generosity,-of readiness to pay reasonable imposts. Who can doubt this, when the rates of one parish for sewerage alone in twenty-two years, amount to .565,000? Nevertheless, there is a sad want of management, of that prudence, economy, watching of details, &c. which characterises the expenditure of private individuals. We want an Act, compiled and carried out by practical men, who have added this principle to their present conventional morality,-that the man who cheats the government, or a corporation, is as great a scoundrel as he who cheats the individual. After railway exposures, some will say this is too much to expect,-we hope not, for the credit of the country. Yet, what is the conclusion we draw from these statements,-is it not the old conclusion, we have before stated, that, if there were no middle-men between the landlord and the tenant, many of the evils denounced would cease to exist?
    There would be responsible persons at hand, men made responsible by the appearance of their names in [-148-] leases and agreements, to set in order these abuses. Men who could at once be appealed to - dealt with by law - exposed for contumacy. It is the present system of letting which is in fault, which the Legislature must amend ere the evil is dealt with at its root.
    Before we conclude our labours, we must describe the method now pursued of letting out lodgings to the poor, as well as the means by which rents are collected, because we are satisfied that very few know,-even some of the landlords themselves may be ignorant of the process, - for ignorance alone can account for their apathy or give a shadow of justification to their neglect.