Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Preface - Chapter 1 - A Little Mother

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PREFACE

THE sketches of life among the London poor comprised in this volume have the merit - and in such a connection it is by no means a minor merit - of having been studied and written from the life. There are few to whom it falls to see and hear so much of the pinch of poverty as the present writer has to do. For twenty years the business of life with me has been the daily visitation of the poor; and as a matter of personal inclination, as well as of official duty, my work of visitation is of the most catholic order - is carried out irrespective not only of creed, but of character. I have to deal with all sorts and conditions of the poor, with the undeserving as well as the deserving, the sober, industrious, self-respecting poor, the "poor but honest," and the poor whose poverty is allied with various less desirable qualities.
    My feeling of sympathy with the poor is no mere impulsive sentimentality. I know, none better, that there is a seamy as well as a noble side to poverty. But with the fullest allowance made on that head, I would still reverse the dictum of Tennyson's Northern Farmer. I would say not that "the poor in a loomp is bad," but that the poor as a class are good. They are not soured or hardened by suffering. Their kindness to each other is pro-[-vi-]verbial, and those who know them best know that this kindness is often shown under conditions of self-sacrifice almost worthy to rank with the action of Sir Philip Sidney when, with the agonising thirst of his death- wound upon him, he passed to the wounded soldier beside him the precious cup of water that had with difficulty been procured for himself, saying, "Thy necessity is yet greater than mine."
    The poor bear the hardships of their lot bravely and patiently, are greatly more hopeful than despairing under them. They are borne up by the knowledge that the hardships are only for this life, and find strength and consolation in the assurance that for them also there is another and a better life beyond - a life in which there will be neither sorrow nor suffering, riches nor poverty, only rest and bliss everlasting for rich and poor alike.
    That, among those to whom the lines of life have fallen in the pleasanter places, there is at the present time a wide-spread disposition to help and sympathise with the poor, the poor are themselves gratefully aware. If the present volume should prove instrumental, in even the smallest degree, in extending this good feeling, it will not be held to have been written in vain by

THE RIVERSIDE VISITOR.

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I.

A LITTLE MOTHER.

ONE day, on knocking at the door of a house at which I had to make certain inquiries, I heard some one stumping slowly and heavily along the passage, and was therefore not surprised when I found the door opened by a man, who, with his hack against the passage wall, was supporting himself on one leg, the other, which was swathed in surgical bandages, being held up from the ground.
    "Broken leg?" I said questioningly.
    "Fractured ankle," was the answer; "it is getting better, but I mustn't put weight upon it yet; I have only been out of hospital three days, and I'd a lot better not have been out yet," he added, though rather as muttering to himself than addressing me.
    "The hospital authorities must have considered you fit to be discharged, I remarked.
    "Oh yes! that is right enough," he replied; "the bone has set, and of course they wanted the bed; it is only a question of waiting till the limb gets strong. That might be a very little 'only' to some people, but it is a very big one to me. It means a case of 'live horse and you'll get grass,' though while the grass is growing the [-14-] horse is starving, as the saying is. It is dead low-water mark with us just now. There are five of us in family; 1 am only an eighteen shillings a week man when in work, and I have been out of work now nine weeks. It goes bitterly against the grain with me to do it, but I have to take part of what should all - for it is a very little 'all'  - go to the wife and children. That was what I had in my mind when I said it would have been better if I hadn't needed to come out of hospital till I was fit to work - it would have been better for others."
    His position was indeed a difficult one, I said and then I mentioned the specific object of my call.
    "My wife can tell you more about that than I can," answered the man, "but you'll have to come in to see her. I don't know about misfortunes never coming singly, but they have certainly come doubly to us this time; I have got the wife ill in bed - very ill. If it were not for that we should not be so hard put to it. When she was well she did a little washing and charing just to help to get the children clothes, and she could have got more of it to do, and would have been willing to do it, so that with a little pinching all round we might have rubbed along until such time as I was able for work again. However, we shall have to rub along somehow as it is; so come on in, sir, I don't want to keep you at the door all day listening to a song of lamentation. I didn't mean to have said even this much, but you know out of the fulness of the heart the mouth speaketh, and though I dare say I am a bit rough and tough in a general way, I have got a pretty full heart to-day."
    As he finished speaking he commenced hopping to-[-15-]wards an inner room, beckoning me to follow him. The apartment was, I could see, the general living room of the family; but the bed of the sick woman had been brought down to it. This had been done in the first place, as was explained to me, because they could not afford to have a fire in the bedroom as well as in the living room; and in the second place so that the wife and mother, though prostrate bodily, might still "give an eye to things." For the poor cannot afford to wholly give themselves up to sickness any more than to sorrow. So far as is physically possible, they must die in harness, and this is more the case with the women than even with the men. It is dreadful to see the extremity of illness in which poor women will, for the sake of home, and husband, and children, "keep about." When in such cases the flesh at last proves altogether too weak, the spirit is still willing, and, as in the instance of this poor woman, the sufferers will "keep an eye on things" from their bed of sickness; will conquer their pain, and devise and direct in household affairs, though they can no longer put their hand to the work.
    That this particular woman was exceedingly ill was evident at a glance, so much so indeed that it scarcely needed an expert to tell that her illness was of a fatal character. Her countenance bad the worn transparent pain-drawn appearance, and her sunken eyes the eager far-away look that mark the approach of the great change with those to whom it comes slowly and painfully. I felt as well as observed this, felt borne in upon me the sense of solemnity and reverence that falls upon even the merest bystander when the shadow of death is [-16-] hovering near. Before 1 could interpose the husband had mentioned the object of my visit, but I at once said, "We will put that aside; your wife is too ill to be troubled with matters of that kind."
    "Yes, I am very ill," she said, speaking low and faint; "and though the doctor don't tell me so, and Bill here, poor fellow, don't want to believe it, I know I shall never be better."
    "Oh, don't talk like that, mate," said the husband huskily; " while there is life there is hope, you know, and when I get to work again you will be able to have more things to get your strength up again."
    "It has gone past a question of getting my strength up, Bill," she answered. " I would like to get better for your sake and the children's, but, my dear, it is not to be. Of course, sir," she went on, turning to me, "I kept up as long as ever I could, and when I got that I could not keep up any longer, the disease - it is internal cancer - had gone too far; I might have held out a little longer but for the upset of the accident to my husband. When I was sent for to go to the hospital, I did not know how much he might be hurt, and my blood seemed to turn in my veins with the shock. Then when I had been and seen him, and was feeling a little better on finding that the accident, though bad enough, was no worse, I had to trudge home four miles through rain and cold, and got chilled. Next day I couldn't leave my bed, and I haven't left it since, and I know I never shall leave it till I am carried from it to my grave. For myself I am not afraid to know it; I am glad ; I shall be where the weary are at rest, and I am so weary, so very weary. [-17-] Last night I dreamed that I saw our Saviour, and He held His arms out to me, and I laid my head upon His breast, and all my pain and trouble left me, and I felt happy - more happy than tongue could tell."
    Even the remembrance of her dream seemed to bring a sense of happiness to her, for as she finished speaking she closed her eyes and lay back with a sigh of relief, and the pained expression of the face was visibly softened.
    "How are you managing?" I asked the husband after a brief pause.
    "Well, as I was in hospital when the wife was laid up," he replied, " one of the neighbours took it upon herself to go and state the case to the relieving officer. On hearing how matters stood, he gave an order for medical attendance at home; and now we have three shillings and three loaves a week as well. Then the landlord hasn't been hard on us, and neighbours have been very good in bringing the wife little things that they thought she might fancy to eat, and mates that have been to see me have given me a trifle. We have not been forsaken in our time of need - anything but that. Friends and neighbours have done all they could, but they were poor folk like ourselves, and couldn't do much. We have a deal of kindness to be thankful for, but all the same it is a terrible bard struggle with us at present."
    "Who looks after your wife?" was my next question.
    " Oh, our Melia - our little girl," the woman herself hastened to answer. "She is young - won't be twelve till next birthday - but she is a regular little mother."
    "Ay, that she is," added the father emphatically. " I [-18-] do really believe that if it hadn't been for her we would have gone under altogether, would have had to break up home and go into the workhouse. She housekeeps and manages like any grown-up woman."
    "Here she is," exclaimed the mother at this point, " I can hear her key in the door," and as she spoke a smile flickered upon the poor pain-stricken face.
    A moment later and Melia entered the room. A canvas marketing basket upon her arm and the door- key hooked upon one of her fingers, she looked every inch a little mother. A reasonably tall girl for her age, but already beginning to show the "stoop" that labour beyond its strength brings to the tender frame of childhood. She was thin not only with the slenderness of youth, but with the thinness that comes of continuous hard work and hard fare. Her features were regular, the expression of the face intelligent, but overshadowed by an air of gravity and care that in one so young was saddening to behold. The lean bare arms were work and weather reddened and "chapped," and the small hands were as hardened amid "grimed" as those of any labouring man. When she had taken off her hat and jacket and enveloped herself in a coarse "bibbed" apron, she looked a very emblem of domestic toil.
    A bright, clever, well-looking child naturally, she should have been a pleasant sight; but as she stood there, "a little mother," labour-bowed, and with a pre-occupied, careworn, prematurely-aged look, her appearance seemed to me simply and solely pathetic. There may possibly have been some touch of the grotesque about it, but not for me standing there in the sick chamber of the sorely-[-19-]tried family, and seeing that this poorly-clad, toil-grimed, grave-visaged, "old-fashioned" little maiden was practically - if not in a poetic sense - the angel of the house.
    Melia answered her mother's look of welcome with an answering smile. "I expect you began to think I wasn't coming back," she said; "but I couldn't get served for ever so long. Fish is cheap to-day, and there was quite a crowd round Johnson's. I got a nice little lot for threepence; some of them are a bit broken, but they are beautifully fresh. He wanted fivepence at first, but after a while he let me have them for the threepence. There is a lovely little haddock that I am going to bake with herb stuffing for you, the others I'll boil for the rest of us; and I'd better be making a start - I suppose it is. close on dinner-time?"
    "Well on that way," said the father, "it is after twelve; you'll soon have the young 'uns in," and he had scarcely finished speaking when the "young 'uns" arrived.
    These were Melia's two sisters, aged respectively eight and six years; they had of course shared in the poverty of their parents, but so far as might be the poverty had been tempered to them. As yet neither toil nor care had fallen to them, and they were still childish children. They came indoors laughing and clattering, and evidently in a mood to
        "Turn to mirth all things of earth,
          As only childhood can."
    The mother struggled to receive them with a smile, though it was clear that the bustle and stir of their entry [-20-] painfully affected her weakened nerves. Melia could see that such was the case, and was equal to the occasion.
    "Dinner is not ready yet, dears," she said, following her mother's example, and meeting the little ones smilingly, "so you may go and play a while longer."
    "What have you got for dinner, Melia?" asked the elder of the two little ones.
    "Fresh boiled fish and potatoes; a good big dishful," answered Melia, assuming a tone and air of ecstasy.
    "Oh, that will be fine," exclaimed the other delightedly, and then hand in hand the "little 'uns" skipped joyously out of doors again.
    "You see," Melia remarked to me when they had gone, "their noise hurts mother; but of course, poor little things, they don't know how ill she is - it would be a pity they should."
    While speaking she had been taking her parcel of fish out of the basket. As she had said, some of it was broken, but it was all fresh and sound, and was a remarkably good threepennyworth, judged even by the standard of value prevailing in such matters in poor districts.
    "You are a good hand at a bargain, Amelia," I said, when she had arranged her purchase upon a dish.
    "I have to get the most I can for every penny," she answered, "else we shouldn't be able to live at all."
    This reply led to some talk as to ways and means, a subject in detailed knowledge of which Melia was far in advance of her father, while her ideas upon household affairs were nothing if not practical.
    When I left the house, I found myself wondering at the [-21-] readiness with which I had accepted the situation as to the "little mother." It was not till now that I reflected that it was a curious thing that it had never occurred to me to talk down to her. I had discussed the straits of the family with her just as I would have done with her mother had the latter been well enough to have entered upon such a discussion; and bad not, while talking or listening to her, felt the incongruity between the age of the child and the responsibilities cast upon her. In the course of subsequent visits I noticed that in this respect it was with others as with myself. The doctor, the neighbours, the mates of the father, all who came to the house, seemed unconsciously to comport themselves towards the little mother as though she were really some experienced, grave-minded woman.
    A fortnight after my first visit the father was able to get to work again, and a week later the long-suffering mother passed quietly away. I had to call at the house on the day of the funeral, and I found the little mother, in her cheap, ready-made mourning, looking more a little mother than ever. The faces of the other two children were swollen and blurred with crying, but the little mother, though heavy at heart, was dry-eyed. Poor child! she had already come to know and feel that there are thoughts that lie too deep for tears.
    From that time Melia had to trust almost entirely to her own resources in the management of the home, and her life would have served as a practical illustration of the saying current among the poor, that a woman never knows when her day's work is done. She washes and scrubs, cooks, sews, and markets, and at one or other [-22-] 

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of these things is working all day long and every day.
    I most frequently come upon her when she is upon her marketing expeditions. She is generally to be found among the little crowds that are to be found "scrouging" around the shops or stalls most extensively patronised by the poor of the quarter. She works her way through the crush with the skill and self-possession of an old hand. In scrutinising and "pricing" the goods exposed for sale she displays all the coolness and assurance that mark the expert-picks out the tenderest scraps of meat from the butchers' trays of "block ornaments," or pounces upon the freshest fish on the hawker's barrow, or the largest bunch of greens on the coster's stall.
    In the matter of bargain-making, of "beating-down," as it is styled among the poor, the little mother, as already hinted, is well to the front; but on this head she has occasionally an advantage over older purchasers. The hucksters and hawkers and costers, who work poor neighbourhoods, constitute a fraternity who are fully entitled to say of themselves, as they do, that they know their way about ; that if you want to "best" them you must get up very early in the morning. Nor are they in a general way men given to the melting mood. Nevertheless, more than once when Melia has begun to chaffer with some hawker or coster I have seen the man suddenly take note of the sad-eyed, careworn little face raised to his, and his own face has softened, and a tender tone has come into his rough, hoarse voice as he has said, "All right, mother, I won't drive a bargain with you; take them away at your own price, with a little one in for [-23-] luck," though, as I once heard such a dealer remark when the little mother was out of hearing, he would have seen any grown woman "blowed" before she should have had the goods for the same money.
    A sufficiently sorrowful little mother is Melia, though she bears herself bravely ; she is no whimpering lady of tears. Rightly considered, perhaps, the saddest point of all about her is that she is a representative personage. These little mothers of the poor are a class. They are most the mother when, as in the case of Melia, their own mother is dead ; but they have still to take the role of mother when their own mother is widowed and has to go out to work, or when they belong to families so poor that it is necessary for both parents to go out to work in order to keep the wolf from the door.
    Among the poor to say of a girl of ten or twelve - or it may be even younger - that she is "a regular little mother" is to apply a term of commendation. And no doubt the little mother of this type is in many respects one to be admired, but she is also in many respects one to be pitied. While yet a child she is called upon to put away childish timings. Proverbial philosophy to the contrary notwithstanding, she must carry an old head on young shoulders, must be grave and thoughtful and worldly wise beyond her years. A child in stature and strength, she must do woman's work and contend with woman's worries, and that in circumstances under which woman's work is hard and woman's worries many. That there should be such mothers may be the lesser of a choice of evils. None the less it is pitiful beyond measure that childhood should have to be so sacrificed.
    [-24-] This sacrifice is one of the hardest of the many hard facts of poverty, and, like the other hard facts, it is met with infinite courage and patience. But courage and patience are not always all-sufficient. Under the heavy burdens laid upon them the little mothers do sometimes break down utterly in health and spirits; are smitten - children though they be - with a feeling of despair. And in such a case it may indeed be that- 
    "The child's sob curseth deeper in the silence
    Than the strong man in his wrath."

source: [Thomas Wright], The Pinch of Poverty, 1892