Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Dottings of a Dosser, by Howard J. Goldsmid, 1886 - Chapter 4 - "Kip-'ouse Kids"

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OF all the sad features in connection with the depravity and degradation of low London lodging-houses, none is more lamentable than the existence of children amidst scenes such as are there of everyday occurrence; and which blunt the moral sense as surely as the overcrowding, stench and filth stunt the physical growth of the little ones thus familiarized with them. A few words relative to the condition of these children, to the sort of existence to which they are condemned, and to the certain results of the training which they receive, may not be altogether ill-timed or out of place.
    Take, for example, a similar case to that of the two-months-old baby at Cooney's. That child was born in the workhouse. As soon as the mother had recovered from the effects of her confinement, she relinquished the hospitality of the parish, and joined her husband. Now, not all the hardships attendant upon workhouse life, not all the miseries of parish baby-farming - if that still exist - are at all comparable to what that child, and the thousands of children [-40-] reared under similar circumstances, will have to endure. It is reared amongst all sorts of filth and impurity. From a sanitary point of view its surroundings could not possibly be worse. Often, when the parents are unable to find their "doss-money" and are without a roof to cover them, the baby is carried about during the whole night, no matter how inclement or tempestuous be the weather. Perhaps it dies - often, happily, the end is speedy - from continued exposure to the rigours of the weather, and the unhealthiness of its surroundings. But oftener it contracts some disease which leaves it in the saddest state in which childhood can exist - prematurely worn out with suffering, stunted, unhealthy, and, worst of all, perhaps destined to live for years. Almost every child I have seen in lodging-houses - and I have seen very many - has been suffering more or less from ophthalmia, or some other form of eye-disease. Many die yearly from consumption and kindred ailments. Typhoid fever, induced by the foul smells and heated mephitic atmosphere, is common, and scrofulous and syphilitic disorders are frequently to be found amongst these unhappy little ones.
    But even if the child survive the first few months of its infancy, and prove in the succeeding years impervious to the attacks of damp, foul smells, imperfect sanitation, and the chronic personal uncleanliness which is produced by continued existence in lodging-houses, it is by no means certain that the ill-usage which is so frequently the lot of children reared in them will fail to break up even a naturally strong [-41-] constitution. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children might do worse than look after the interest of the "kip-'ouse kids" now and then; for parents, not necessarily naturally cruel, become brutalized by their surroundings, and it is a fact that the existence of the majority of their poor little ones is only a prolonged weariness and torture. Go into any of these places and see the children who are brought up in them. Little girls of eight and nine years old are doing work which would tax the strength of many twice their age - doing it well enough, but in that dull, despondent way that shows only too clearly how little the heart has to do with the labour of the hands. The boys, if your visit be made in the daytime, will probably not be there, for as they are no good at house-work, and do not make the best of nurses for the younger children, they are, as a rule, trained from the earliest possible age to "make themselves useful" by begging, even if they are not taught the art of pocket-picking. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, as a result of this kind of existence, you will never see a lodging-house child looking happy. If it has not just had a beating, the odds are that it is expecting one; and even if it should happen that its parents are not unkind nor neglectful, but only miserably poor, what chance of happiness, what chance even of physical development, can there be for those reared amongst perpetual unwholesomeness, moral and material.
    But the surroundings of the children brought up in the common lodging-houses of the metropolis are [-42-] soul-destroying as well as physically injurious. Their companions are the children of thieves and beggars; their guides and instructors are thieves and beggars themselves. The language that is constantly used in their hearing is of the foulest. The habits practised by those who surround them are filthy and degrading. Their parents and companions are ignorant of; or inimical to, religion. In many cases such children never hear the name of God at all, unless it is associated with a curse. Nor must it be forgotten that many of them have never seen, nor are they ever likely to see, the inside of a school. Their parents, or many of them, have a rooted and inveterate objection to education. "It makes the kids cocky," said one man to me, "and puts em above their perfession" - the said "perfession" being in most cases begging or stealing. The parents are enabled to avoid sending their little ones to school, mainly because they have no fixed residence, and it is difficult to follow them up; and partly, also, because of the natural reluctance of school-board officers to penetrate into the worst of these dens. A gentleman whom I met in a lodging- house in Flower and Dean Street, one of the most detestable slums in London, told me that there wasn't a school-board officer in the metropolis who would "dare to show is ugly mug 'ere." Now, take a very liberal discount off this statement if you like - and probably, having regard to the character of my informant, you will be right in doing so; it is nevertheless absolutely certain that there are many common lodging-houses in London in which it would be [-43-] decidedly unpleasant, if not absolutely dangerous, for a school-board officer to make his appearance. Nor does the pernicious influence of the lodging-house end with the prevention of the child from learning anything good. That is only the negative side of the subject; but it would be impossible to express the amount of evil with which such children are from their earliest infancy familiarized. Many of the common lodging- houses, nearly all in fact, in which men and women both are admitted, are houses of ill-fame. It is of course possible, by a stringent use of the existing law, to remove children of tender years from the guardianship of those who live in immoral houses. But as regards a doss-'ouse, these provisions are practically inoperative. Proof of its being a house of ill-repute would be difficult to obtain, because the neighbours being, most of them, "in the same box," would neither complain nor give evidence. Vigilance societies appear to leave the common lodging-houses severely alone. Perhaps they do not desire to penetrate into secrets which are difficult to learn, or have no access to information which it is painful to obtain. I have frequently heard "solicitations," couched in the vilest, the most disgusting language, made by women to men in the kitchen of a doss-'ouse, and that while children, and female children, were looking on and listening. What future can be expected for a girl whose youth - nay, whose earliest childhood - is passed in a house of ill-fame, where not even the thinnest veil is drawn over immorality that would revolt the soul of the most callous, and whose ears are familiarized with conver-[-44-]sation the loathsomeness of which is almost beyond conception; and who is taught day by day, by precept and example, to see little or no harm in a career which, when, as often happens, work is slack and food scarce, is frequently adopted without hesitation or compunction, and in many cases without even the knowledge of sin. For my own part I cannot see why the provisions of the law should not be enforced against immoral houses where the cost of a bed is eightpence, with the same severity which is directed against one in which it is eight shillings.
    It would be ungracious and unfair not to acknowledge the salutary work which is, year after year, carried out amongst these by the various "Homes" and other institutions which are established for their rescue. The East London Juvenile Mission (better known as Dr. Barnardo's Homes) has done, and is doing, an immense amount of good in this direction; but, as will be readily supposed, only the fringe of the shame and misery unhappily existent can be touched by the labours of this and kindred institutions. And it is no exaggeration to say that, in the generality of instances, the condition of "kip-'ouse kids" is practically this - physically they are weak, mentally they are neglected, and morally they are, in nine cases out of ten, ruined.
    Here, for example, is an instance in which is exemplified each of these three facts. The particulars I can vouch for as being absolutely accurate, and it should be distinctly understood that it is not an exceptional or isolated case. Denis O------ is now in one of the largest metropolitan institutions for the [-45-] reception and training of destitute children. One of the rescue officers attached to that truly noble and philanthropic work found this little fellow at midnight in Flower and Dean Street. The public-houses were just closing, and the child, who is only ten years old, and very small for his age - as are, indeed, most of the children found in common lodging-houses - was surrounded by a group of prostitutes of the lowest possible type, who were quarrelling, fighting, blaspheming, and cursing as only such women can. Denis was clad in an overcoat - and only an overcoat. It had probably originally belonged to his father, and was torn in a hundred places, being held together almost entirely by the pins which were ingeniously disposed about the various parts of the garment. He wore neither shoes nor stockings; but just as some tribes of savages, however ill-clad in other respects, usually affect a coat-of paint - so this little fellow's feet were to some extent protected by the mud which was literally caked on them. It had probably been there for some weeks, and, had not a bath been placed within the child's reach by his admission to the home, would possibly have remained there for some weeks longer. His head was unprotected, save by the shock of matted, unkempt hair that covered it, and he was shivering with cold. And here is Master Denis's account of himself:-
    "How old are you?"
    "Ten, sir."
    "Where do you live?"
    "In Flowrydean Street."
    [-46-] "Whereabouts?"
    "In a kip - doss - I mean lodgin'-'ouse, sir."
    "What does your father do?"
     "Please, sir, e gets drunk, sir."
     "No, no; I mean what is he by trade?"
     "Works in the market, sir."
    "Ah! Now, he gets drunk, you say?"
    "Yes, sir; 'e gets drunk every Tuesday and every Saturday" (and then after a pause), "and every Monday, too, sir."
    "That is, he gets drunk every day, I suppose?"
    "Yes, sir; and mother, she gets drunk too."
    "Now, what were you going to do when this gentleman found you?"
    "I was goin' to doss out, sir."
    "'Cause I was afraid mother'd beat me."
    "Why, what had you been doing?"
    "Nothin', sir."
    "Oh, nonsense. Now, what had you been doing?"
    "I wouldn't go of an arrand, sir."
    "I see. Does mother often beat you?"
    "Yes, sir."
    "And father?"
    " On'y when he's drunk, sir."
    "And when you're afraid of a beating you doss out, eh?"
    "Yes, sir. Sometimes I gets 'ome afore mother, an' creeps under her bed an' sleeps there, so she don't find me."
    "I see. Anything else?"
    [-47-] "Sometimes I sleeps in the passage, and sometimes on the stairs."
    "How long have you been living in the lodging-house?"
    "Always ; I've always lived there, sir."
    "Have you ever been to school?"
    "Yes, sir; three weeks, sir."
    "Three weeks! and you ten years old; is that really all?"
    "Yes, sir; mother wouldn't let me go, sir."
    The child went on to say that he was hungry, and that he never had enough to eat - a fact of which his pale and sunken features and thin limbs afforded tolerably complete corroborative evidence. It must be understood, however, that at the time he made this statement the little fellow was by no means certain that he would not be handed back to his parents, and he was to a considerable extent restrained by the possibility of their knowing what he had said, and his fear of a consequent beating. Notwithstanding, however, the reticence thus induced, enough can be gleaned from his story to show the sort of life led by the "doss'-ouse" child. Poor little wretch! Half starved, accustomed all his life to filthy and squalid surroundings; forced to sleep in the open air through his dread of the blows of a harsh and drunken mother; bred in ignorance and reared in fear; what, but for the fortunate chance of his falling into the hands of the officers of the refuge, would have been his fate?
    This: he would in all human probability have gone to swell the ranks of the reinforcements which, year [-48-] by year, these lodging-houses send to the already overwhelmingly large army of thieves and harlots. This it is that makes the condition of these children a matter, not of local or parochial; but of national importance. In these dens are being brought up, in increasingly large numbers, unhappy beings who know little of the ordinary decencies, less of the comforts, and absolutely nothing of the pleasures of life. Their numbers are swelling, their power is magnifying, and if we continue to ignore the existence of their miseries the day of reckoning will assuredly come.
    What, then, is to be done? Obviously, the only real cure, as far as the children bred in common lodging-houses are concerned, would be to make such lodging-houses more decent, more comfortable, and more pleasant. Later on in these pages an attempt will be made to show how this can be accomplished; hut there are a variety of minor matters to which attention may fairly be given, and which, if vigorously taken in hand, would do much to make the condition of the little ones of whom Denis O--- is a specimen, and of other children who are nearly as poor and as much to be pitied, more tolerable and less unhappy.
    Firstly, more care should be taken to secure the attendance of these children at school. This is really more difficult task than would appear at first sight. The parents are continually moving from one lodging-house to another, and the children themselves are in many cases most unwilling to go to school - more than usually unwilling, in fact, and that is saying a great deal. School to most of them is what gaol is to their [-49-] elders; and to all it is unpleasant, because they are worse clad, worse fed, and more miserable than the majority of their fellow-scholars, and are therefore liable to be mocked at and held in derision. The old fable of the sun and the wind applies here. The objection entertained by children to the schoolroom is not likely to be outrooted by the coercion of the School Board officer; but it might be overleapt if; among other inducements, a great impetus were afforded to the movement for giving children of very poor parents a free dinner once or twice a week, and if that dinner were made conditional on regularity of attendance. We have recently heard a great deal about over- pressure in elementary schools, and there are many who think-not perhaps without much reason-that a little less cramming of heads, and a little more cramming of-well, of another region-might not be inadvisable. Be this as it may, however, it is at least certain that the prospect of an occasional meal, that should consist of something other and more toothsome than dry bread flavoured by a box on the ears, would be a powerful incentive to children to forsake the gutters and seek the Board Schools, and would do something, at any rate, to atone for the lack of nourishment that is experienced by them in their own squalid homes.
    So much for the mental and physical improvement of the waifs of the common lodging-houses. A word now upon the question of their moral regeneration. They live in an atmosphere frequently of vice and crime, and almost invariably, at the very best, of in-[-50-] difference to any faith or creed whatever. Where, then, could be the harm of imparting to them, when they are attending school, something of the elementary truths of religion - not denominational or sectarian religion, but merely those broad principles which are the basis of all morality and the fundament on which all human laws rest? I do not mean by this to say a word in advocacy of the absurd plan recently, I believe, adopted by the London School Board, viz., a triennial examination in religious subjects - a plan which involves "cramming" on the one subject of all others in which cramming should be most strongly discountenanced. What I venture to suggest would be regular and methodical religious instruction, such as is given in the Board Schools of many provincial towns, where there is far less necessity for it. "It is not the business of the State to teach religion," say some. True. It is not, strictly speaking, the business of the State to teach anything at all. But it is the interest of the State that those who are growing up in our midst should not be ignorant, and it is equally its interest that they should not be godless. Here, in the midst of a city whose wealth and magnificence are the envy of the whole civilized world, are thousands of children annually growing up who are learning to ignore, if not to despise, those fundamental truths on which our system of morality is based, and on which the stability of our institutions depends. Do they not, in some sort, constitute a danger to the State? Are we not, in neglecting their spiritual wants when we have undertaken to minister to their mental and intellectual [-51-] requirements, drawing down upon ourselves that punishment which follows upon the crimes or the neglect-and the latter not infrequently amounts to the former-of nations as well as of individuals? Let no one say, "It is not our business." Much, very much, has been done; but more remains to do. Remember, the text "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these," cuts both ways. The children who are reared amidst the shame and squalor of the lodging-houses are witnesses against us, and their wrongs cry out for redress;-
"They look up with their pale and sunken faces,
        And their look is dread to see;
    For they mind you of the angels in high places,
        With eyes turned on Deity.
    They know the grief of man without its wisdom,
        They sink in man's despair without its calm;
    Are slaves without the liberty of Christdom,
        Are martyrs by the pang without the palm."