Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Rookeries of London, by Thomas Beames, 1852 - Chapter 12

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Chapter XII


    We may not be able to scare away these evils for ever; we may mitigate them, we may provide against their frequent recurrence! we may narrow the circle in which they can occur; we may do away with middlemen - and there are few, we believe, who pretend to the rank of gentlemen or the dignity of the Christian, who as landlords or agents would evoke the law under circumstances such as we have stated, or sanction the abuse of enactments already too severe. The broker, confined within proper limits by statutes which were founded upon present experience, would have less temptation to overleap his bounds, and his occupation would languish when he was called in only in cases of confirmed obstinacy or reckless frauds. They who used their power would use it wisely, because an act of cruelty would recoil with a force proportioned to the station of him who perpetrated it.
    We do not anticipate, under a better system, a Saturnian age; but let us not rest upon that stronghold of indolence, that, because we cannot do all we wished, we must fold our arms. There are several degrees between [-205-] the serf of Russia and the servant of England, though both, perhaps, be capable of improvement.
    And here we shall be pressed again by the assertion, that the working classes are prone to drunkenness-that if they can find money for this purpose, they could find better lodgings. Comparisons will be instituted between the comparatively sober character of the French and ourselves - Alison the historian be quoted, to show that the Northern nations are more prone to intoxication than those of the South. It will be said to be the fault of our unmercurial climate, rather than owing to social neglect. Strange, this - that thirty years ago the vice was prevalent among all classes of society, and is now banished from only the lowest. Does that prove that climate is in fault? Do you wonder, as we said before, that the hard-worked mechanic escapes from the only room where he and all his family eat, drink, and sleep, to the public-house? when, either as a refuge from domestic disagreeables, or because he can enjoy the society of his own sex there the rich and powerful joins the club, and spends there much of his time.
    Suppose we allow, for the sake of argument, that drunkenness is at the root of these social evils, that this places the working classes at the mercy of middle-men; to this refer bad ventilation, unhealthy drains, want of water, crowded rooms, and the like. Admit this monstrous fallacy, - yet Father Matthew has laboured long and well, - many are his disciples, many who never touch intoxicating liquors - some from constitution or habit [-206-] averse to them, some from prudence, some from religious feeling. Is there such a marked social difference, as confessedly there is a moral one, between the drunkard and teatotaller? the lodgings of the one doubtless are more cleanly than those of the other, yet not more spacious, the supply of water not more copious? The sober man must wait the issue of a long course of prosperous industry, must change his grade in society before he changes his social condition. Grant that all these evils are the offspring of drunkenness; yet why is he who is exempt from the sin, not exempt from the effects of it, why does he suffer for the vices of others?
    Has any attempt been made, in connection with better lodgings, to elevate the tastes, and open sources of intellectual amusement to the working man-for recollect Mechanics' Institutes are calculated for the tradesman, not the mechanic? You cannot stroll through the Champs Elysees in Paris, in the evening, without remarking groups collected to see some mountebanks perform a vaudeville; bands playing, fountains dancing in the setting sun, picturesque cafés, lend an interest to the scene. At the same hour in England, walk down the Blackfriars Road, and before dingy brick houses, at the side of a dusty road, are artisans besotting themselves with beer ;- which is the more innocent amusement, the Frenchman's or ours?
    The tenants of the Rookeries are bowed down by heavy toil; work too often gluts the market, too often deserts it. During the season, a Court Ball will set at [-207-] work many thousand hands, if you consider the division of labour in the making of a single shoe; and very thankful are the artisans for these opportunities; yet how many nights as well as days are devoted to work? This perhaps could not be entirely avoided. George IV. was not a model of moral purity, nevertheless, many workmen bless his memory for the impetus he gave to trade. It is of very great moment to the workman, that he should get work on any conditions; it is the duty of the employer to render the task as easy as possible, and masters are little careful to save trouble. Sunday, instead of being given to rest and devotion, is the scene of labour. Persons leaving London, from pure thoughtlessness never give an order till the last week before they quit town; how many of their fellow creatures are deprived of their night's rest that it may be executed.!
    Yet men so spent by continued labour should have opportunities of relaxation, not merely parks, but places where they can play cricket, or any other manly national amusement. There should be cheap libraries for the studious, and the seven months during which trade is slack in town would give time for study, and beguile many an hour spent in questionable relaxation.
    Some one will say we are straying from our subject. We might, perhaps, in this place, speak a word about the necessities of the poor during the seasons when work is slack; then, it is well known, recourse is had to the Pawnbrokers. We do not accuse these tradesmen of injustice; the interest they may levy is fixed at twenty [-208-] per cent. ; at first sight this appears enormous, but then many of the articles are perishable, they suffer much by fraud; and, on particular occasions, Saturday night for instance, such is the rush to the Pawnbrokers, that they are particularly liable to make mistakes. If they advance money on any articles which have the Government mark, they are fined heavily, and these are often offered to them at night, by way of bait; undoubtedly many of them make large fortunes, and many of them fail. The more intelligent among the Pawnbrokers, tell you that they really lose money in selling the pledges not redeemed by the poor, though they may make it by the interest charged on those which are taken out again. The real source of their profit, is the large loans advanced to persons of rank and influence, upon security of plate, jewels, deeds, &c. Would it not be better to establish some Loan Societies (the Monts de Pieté, of Paris, are an instance of this), where the interest required was only sufficient to pay the expenses of working the Society?
    Up to this point, we have done little more than show the general evils of Rookeries,- the lets and hindrances, to which these bodies corporate are subject. Because, in truth, there is an hideous sameness between St. Giles's, Saffron Hill, Minories, and other haunts of the destitute or the abandoned; there are, however, in some districts, peculiar trades in operation, which add to the ills to which this kind of flesh is heir. The Rookeries of the Mile-End Road, Lambeth, Maiden Lane, Paddington, and others, recognise no sanatory discipline, other than [-209-] that of their class,- yet are environed with nuisances peculiar to themselves. In one district, the air is polluted by the decomposition, or boiling down, or perhaps both, of dead horses,- the unfortunate creatures degenerating from a carriage horse to a cab hack, passing through the intermediate stages, by gentle gradations, are at last consigned to the care of what is called in cant terms a "knacker," and having been quickly put an end to, are boiled down for glue, or their remains turned into some other profitable use. The stench from such a Necropolis, or colony of the dead, is dreadful, - must feed disease, and, when fever breaks out, aid its ravages! In another locality, tan pits spread an unwholesome odour, taint the sewerage of the neighbourhood, and add much to the mortality. The Times newspaper, during the late epidemic, noticed a petition emanating from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other householders in Lambeth, praying that bone crushers be henceforth forbidden to ply their trade in that neighbourhood. The memorial stated that the epidemic then raging in Lambeth with unprecedented severity, was aggravated by the miasma generated from the decomposed bones.
    If the late pestilence did no more than lay bare the nuisances of the Metropolis, and spur our lagging energy to agitate for their removal, it had its end. Just as a wasting malady discloses to the patient's observation symptoms of other deep-seated diseases, which otherwise might have lurked in his system unobserved, -so the [-210-] Cholera settled down upon some plague spot, where everything was at hand to feed it and extend its ravages, and thus laid bare the inward sores of London. Within a given circle hundreds sickened,- science quailed before it, it struck down right and left the doomed victims; - baffling the usual arts of the physician, it drove him to a new analysis; he became a disciple of the sanatory science,- at length discovered, in some reeking sewer, or licensed pest-yard, the source of the disease, and endeavoured to cope with a new adversary, now happily dragged from his hiding-place. Gas works, too, already begin to line the southern bank of the river; copperas works, white-lead works, and other factories, are established in dangerous vicinity to a crowded population; and recollect that large houses are scarce in these localities; Rookeries, indeed, spring up all around, or small streets little better than these; for the workmen employed in large numbers, must live near the scene of their labours.
    In other neighbourhoods, accumulating dust heaps take a pyramidical form, and too often surrounded by rows of small cottages, on the outskirts of London; because the Metropolis, ever stretching out its arms, each year embraces some new plot of ground, engulphs some small suburb, encroaches upon some outskirt, and thus the dust-heap, which of old marked the limits of our great Babylon, becomes the centre of a district. You will say that the necessities of the citizens create these several depots, that London must be lit, and that [-211-] the other trades, of whose exercise we complain, are called into being by our wants. It would be difficult to prove that necessity involved their exercise in the very neighbourhood of the Metropolis; if suburban cemeteries are being put in the place of London graveyards; suburban factories, in many cases, might do the work now carried on in Lambeth, Mile-End Road, Maiden Lane, and Bermondsey. Large establishments connected with the crape trade are found at Enfield, Ponder's End, and other places, at some distance from London; and some branches of trade are carried out at least ten miles from the Metropolis.
    Yet, suppose that we could not help ourselves,- that we were compelled by very need to endure the presence of these establishments, are we compelled to build Rookeries in their neighbourhood? Would it not be better to allot a certain district to those who carried on these trades? - to have a factory suburb, in which these works might be erected, where they might blend their several odours, and perhaps by blending, neutralize; but that no dwelling should be erected near them? That they, whom choice or necessity compelled to work there, when the night drew near, might escape to a purer air, and return refreshed, because they had breathed for a while a better atmosphere.
    Is this Utopian, an advance little to be expected from this Mammon-worshipping generation? Is it a task a dictator alone could accomplish,- meet for the iron rule of a despot,- or, are we looking forward to the [-212-] golden age of a millenarian ? Shall we ask some sterner plague to teach us our duty, or wait till Science has found that even trade cannot ply her full energies under such a system ? Are we wholly utilitarian, and not in a large sense even this, rather the victims of paltry selfishness, with the cunning of the small trader, not the ample foresight of the lordly merchant?
    Other countries have done their wondrous works - raised trophies to the science and the humanity of their age, - Shall we be last in the race?
    Our streets are disgraced by the sufferings of over-driven bullocks, savage butchers belie our national character; accidents occur; the animals, maddened by heat, or overdriven, turn restive, attack those passing by, gore those who cannot escape. This impediment to our traffic, this injury to our fellow-subjects, still remains. Smithfield is a pest to the neighbourhood, disgusts the eye, offends the nose, brutalises the mind*. [* We must again remind the reader that this was written in 1850; since then, the knell of Smithfield has tolled; although Paris, with her five abattoirs, has not taught us how to turn the event to good account.] Gentle reader, you are perhaps in happy ignorance of what are called vested interests, corporation monopolies, - the licence to trade, to the injury of the many, to the benefit of the few. Hallowed age defends these precincts; some quaint allusion of Ben Jonson, Beaumont, or Fletcher, would lack interpretation were the place and the memory of Smithfield blotted out. Our fathers walked in shoes which pinched their feet; shall we, their degenerate off-[-213-]spring, forego the penance ?-are we better than they? The cholera seems to have interposed, if not to settle, yet to moot anew the question of removal. And who is there that does not blush for his country as he looks on the abattoirs of Paris ; the order with which every thing is managed, the different departments into which the establishment is divided, the ample space around it? And recollect the slaughter-house near Montmartre is not the only one, though the most frequented ;-four or five different abattoirs are placed in different parts of the city.
    Yet the Islington Cattle Market, judiciously arranged, is covered with weeds - the victim of a giant monopoly.
    Intramural burial-grounds are already doomed; many of these had long offended public decency, and their removal was long cried out for; sensible of the evils of such receptacles within the walls, several of our larger parishes have, for the last fifty years, possessed cemeteries in the suburbs, although these suburbs have since been incorporated within the Metropolis.
    The attention of philanthropists has lately been called to the cow-sheds, of which there are so many in London - in the very heart of the city too: few nuisances are greater than these; the animals, fed upon improper food, give milk scarcely fit for use,-their sheds reek with an abominable odour; and not long since the public mind was disgusted with an account of cows kept, we believe, in Whitechapel, in underground sheds, where, for a long time, they never saw the light of day. This was scarcely [-214-] so bad as the nuisance pointed out in our sketch of the Berwick Street district, where a cow-house, surrounded on all sides by buildings, harbours not only on the ground, but even first floor, a large number of cows and pigs. Such intramural dairies should surely be removed, if we wish that the Rookeries, in the midst of which these are situated, should be reformed.
    We said, in the earlier part of this work, that the most aristocratic parishes are not without their back-ground of wretchedness; that they have their Rookeries, though not always such dens of destitution as those of St. Giles's. In a pamphlet addressed to the inhabitants of St. James, Westminster, by the Hon. Frederick Byng, in 1847, is the following statement:-
    " There are in the parish,-
        14 Cow-sheds,
        2 Slaughter Houses,
        3 Boiling Houses,
        7 Bone Stores,
        1 Zincing Establishment. "
    It then proceeds :- "Two of these sheds are situated at the angle of Hopkins and New Streets (real Rookeries), and range one above the other, within a yard of the back of the houses in New Street. Forty cows are kept in them, two in each seven feet of space. There is no ventilation save by the unceiled tile roof, through which the ammoniacal vapours escape to the destruction of the health of the inmates. Besides the animals, there is, at one end, a large tank for grains, [-215-] a store-place for turnips and hay, and between them a receptacle into which the liquid manure drains, and the solid is heaped. At the other end is a capacious vault with a brick partition, one division of which contains mangold-wurzel, turnips, and potatoes; and the other a dirty liquid, called brewers' wash, a portion of which is pumped up, and mixed with the food of the cows."
    A report, after many other details, drawn up by Mr. Anselbrook, a medical practitioner, concludes:-
    "From the above-mentioned facts it is obvious, that much of the milk sold at the West End of the Metropolis is elaborated in the udders of animals unnaturally treated, and kept in an atmosphere impregnated with gases detrimental to common health."
    The slaughter houses alluded to, we are told, are in the vicinity of the cow sheds. Many of the animals slaughtered there, help to swell the mass of diseased meat which is sold to the poor, nominally cheap, but doubly dear, as cheating them of the expected nourishment, and robbing them of their health. The extent to which this practice is carried, may be judged of from a statement made by a slaughterer, that he took annually £.200 from one man for slaying diseased cattle.
    The working classes have much to complain of here; they will tell you, if you ask them, that their poverty compels them to purchase their meat in small quantities; that they pay quite as much as the rich for a pound of meat, and yet, because they cannot buy so much as a [-216-] joint at one time, are compelled to take the refuse at retail price, for which otherwise the butcher would have no sale.
    The rate of mortality in three districts of an aristocratic parish, is thus given from calculations made.
        "St. James's Square 1 in 90
        "Golden Square I in 36
        "Berwick Street 1 in 42.* [* Vide Pamphlet, by a late Churchwarden. I am not violating confidence - I have the Author's sanction for attributing it to the Honourable Frederick Byng.]"
    Yet we complain that convicts increase, - that they are the country's bane; the colonies reject them; the counties where penal establishments are reared loathe them. Have we ever tried to remove the evil by social cures ? Bigotry, peculiar to our island, denies a system of education to the wants of our countrymen; one day jarring sects may wrangle over a corpse, for dear food, scanty lodging, imperfect training, are eating deep into the hearts of our brethren. The system of education may come, but too late: the affections of the people long estranged, may no longer respond to the call.
    We admit then, I hope, that these Rookeries are a disgrace to our age; that they have sprung up in part from neglect, in part from the tide of fashion setting in another direction; that unless legislation check them, by fixing the number of inmates to a house, according to the number and size of its rooms, such things will always he. Our selfishness may be alarmed by fevers there [-217-]  generated, and thence wafted to wealthier streets; our humanity maybe shocked by this very slight and imperfect sketch, which aimed, not so much at a statistical account of Rookeries, as at a description of their effects, which has been, perhaps, rather an historical essay than a sanatory report.
    All, however, agree in this-the remedy is difficult. Though why should it be thought so? Why not hope better things of our national character - generous in the extreme, kind, sympathising, charitable?- of our land, the hospitable refuge for distressed foreigners; the rich spending much of their incomes in a wise benevolence, the merchant and the noble often vying in generous ardour to surpass one another, in the number of their charities; most men thinking they are bound to do something for the poor, many giving a considerable portion of their income in charitable donations, notwithstanding the many private claims upon them. Would to God they would consider this vast social question! that they would superintend their own property, instead of committing it to needy Middle-men, and leaving to their tender mercies the dearest interests of their poorer brethren: they little know or think how much misery is caused by their neglect and even ignorance, their subservience to bad custom and unhallowed tradition; so that, because the Fathers did wrong, the sons cannot emancipate themselves from the paternal trammels. Therefore working men tell you, in tones of the greatest earnestness, that they had rather have any landlords, than men [-218-] from their own class, whose natures have been changed by a long course of oppression. And what shall we say to those who are the owners of large factories, makers of steam engines, &c., men who employ commonly at one time five or six hundred workmen, some double or even treble that number; if these men were sensible of their duty, would they not form little colonies, in which those employed by them would be decently lodged, with some attempt, too, at innocent relaxation, when the business of the day was done? Is it just or right thus to bring together large bodies of men, merely to wring from them, at a certain price, a certain amount of labour, and then to consign them and their families to Rookeries? Are not the consequences in the prospective fearful, with our teeming population and increased intelligence ? Is it not the grossest selfishness, or the most criminal indifference, thus to treat men as draught horses, or beasts of burden? And shall we be checked by a homily, on the danger of interfering with capital? What is capital to the value of men's bodies and souls? Can they be put in competition by the Legislature? although, if we spoke to individual avarice, we have little doubt to which side the balance would incline.
    Is not Brotherhood the very essence of Society - all freemasonries living by it, all corporations proceeding upon this as a foundation,- all religion teaching it, the savage feeling its need, and civilised man for ever forming new combinations? And yet, how is it set aside in establishments such as these ? [-219-] Since these pages first saw the light, pestilence hath ridden, like the Angel of Destruction, upon the tainted gale! Well nigh 15,000 victims have fallen beneath him! What human hecatombs! How many fissures gape where his foot hath trodden,- how many widows and orphans pine beneath the stroke! Yet, where did he do his work ? - Amidst the dwellings of the rich, where wealth could soothe disease, and tax the powers of science in its aid, - where, if Death left aching hearts, and yawning voids, it left not poverty to aggravate domestic sorrow? Were these homes laid bare ? No! seldom. But where want, scanty food, and confined cabins, fostered disease, - where the cesspool found no vent for its Stygian tide,- where open sewers generated noxious vapours, - where crowded courts and pent-up masses beckoned the destroyer. Is this mere declamation? - Lambeth, at once a poor and a crowded district, - Rotherhithe, the centre of a squalid population,- Fleet Street, named from the stagnant ditch which it conceals, were the spots where Cholera was most virulent.
    St. James's and St. George's felt its influence, and many were the sufferers; yet the deaths bore no proportion to those of less-favoured parishes, - and there, too, the disease was confined to the dwellings of the poor, few of the wealthier classes sinking under its effects.
   Fifteen thousand victims, taken chiefly from the labouring classes of the Metropolis; - Liverpool, too, [-220-] Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Hull, Plymouth, each has its tale of woe. Is not this the signal to be up and be doing? Who can tell the amount of suffering entailed? - Who but those who witnessed Cholera in the Rookeries of London can appreciate its malignancy? - Not that the patients were uncared for,- not that surgeons denied their aid - most fearlessly, most ardently, did the members of that noble profession labour in behalf of the plague-stricken; all that Science, all that personal energy could do, the surgeons of London did. Nevertheless, how could they cope with disease thus suddenly fatal, passing rapidly into the worst stages, - where bad diet and ill-ventilated dwellings had broken the patient's constitution! How hope to stay the ravages of the destroyer, where the train already laid waited only for the fire to kindle it?
    Since the great Plague, one hundred and eighty-four years ago, a mortality so extensive has never been witnessed in the Metropolis, as that which occurred during the present autumn*. [* We must again remind the readers this was written in 1849.]  An able pamphlet has been published by Dr. Webster, in which he mentions the ravages of the pestilence in districts abounding with Rookeries, and where, too, the Rookeries are of the worst kind.
    "In Lambeth parish, the deaths by Cholera were 1570, during the last six months; the ratio was, therefore, 1 in every 91 inhabitants. In St. George's, Southwark, where Cholera proved fatal to 811 indi-[-221-]viduals, one person died in every 64 of the population; whilst, in Bermondsey, with its tan-pits, glue yards, tidal ditches, and other local nuisances, injurious to the health of the labouring population resident in that insalubrious part of London, not less than 704 persons died by Cholera, so that the very large proportion of 1 in every 56 inhabitants became victims to the pestilence. But even this excessive mortality was exceeded by the numbers registered in the parish of Rotherhithe, where 1 death from Cholera actually took place in every 38 inhabitants."
    Dr. Webster then proceeds to point out a most singular exception to this fearful mortality. We do well indeed to dwell on it. "Although Cholera proved exceedingly fatal for several consecutive weeks throughout the neighbourhood, Bethlehem Hospital, with its numerous population, remained perfectly free from it, although situated in a district otherwise unhealthy in reference to the recent epidemic. At this royal hospital, having a constant population of about 700 individuals, comprising upwards of 400 lunatics, besides the juvenile inmates of the House of Occupation, officers, attendants, &c.; whilst there are weekly admissions and discharges of patients and others, whereby, during the last six months, perhaps 1 000 persons have resided within its walls, not a single case of Cholera has occurred, during the entire year, nor indeed previously. The ventilation of the Hospital is excellent; the utmost attention is paid to cleanliness; the food [-222-] is wholesome, plentiful, and regularly served; and there is an abundant supply of pure water throughout the whole establishment, alike for baths, washing, and cooking. A very deep Artesian well, reaching to below the chalk, supplies the water required in the establishment, of which a steam engine pumps upwards of twenty gallons a minute into the numerous reservoirs on the roof of the building."
    What a homily this upon Rookeries! The Hospital, in the very centre of the plague, insulated from its effects, because well drained, ventilated, and supplied with water; because well furnished with those very comforts which Rookeries want, as though this fearful mortality was inflicted on us solely through the agency of Rookeries, - they the foci of the disease, the rallying points, beckoning its attacks,- I had well nigh said decoy ponds, so that if they had not been, we might have been passed over comparatively unscathed; they, meanwhile, like the conductors which were placed to attract the lightning, and almost to confine it to themselves.
    Bethlehem Hospital is not the only place which has enjoyed an immunity from Cholera. Bridewell, some of the prisons, and other well-regulated public institutions have been spared. The felon, whose crimes have outraged his country's laws,-the lunatic, whose existence is a burden, are preserved; the mechanic, whose labour supplies our wants and luxuries, expiates the neglect of others by his life.