Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 2 - "The Good Time Coming"

[ ... back to menu for this book]




THE idea of a woman honestly and gravely wishing that she were ten or a dozen years older than her actual age would no doubt be regarded as a humorous notion in upper or middle-class circles. But a thing that may be fun to the well-to-do may be a serious matter with the poor, and there are certain "conditioning circumstances" of poverty, as it affects the poorer of the poor, which lead to women sincerely entertaining and expressing the apparently strange wish just spoken of. As illustrating how some among the struggling poor really live - or as they themselves would put it, linger - a prosaic account of a case of the kind will perhaps prove interesting.
    Being out and about in my district all day and every day, I am of course pretty well known by sight, and among others to whom I am thus known are the "corner-men " of the district, who are themselves a good deal in the street. The popular impression with respect to corner-men is that they are loafers or roughs, and that numbers of them belong to the loafer or rough classes is undoubtedly but too true. But that is not always or necessarily the case. Taken as a body the corner-men are a mixed lot, numbers of them really being what all of them profess - to outsiders - to be, namely, labouring [-28-] men out of employment., but willing to work and anxious to obtain work to do.
    Labourer and loafer alike, however, the corner-men, when gathered together at their corners, are given to "chaff" passers-by, and the passers-by, if they are wise, will take the chaff in good part, if it is at all within the limits of becoming mirth. One day, on coming upon a group of corner-men assembled at a favourite rendezvous of theirs, I was greeted by one of the group with, "Well, guv'nor, can you put us on to a job of work this morning?"
    The speaker was unknown to me, but it was evident at a glance that he belonged to the labouring and not the loafing section of corner-men, and I answered, "I am sorry to say I can't."
    "Sorry!" broke in one of the loafers sneeringly, "very sorry, I dessay. Yer a bustin' with it, ain't yer? We knows all about fellers like you bein' sorry for the poor. Yer sorry - in yer 'art. That's it, ain't it? Sounds well, don't yer know, and costs nothing; but are you sorry in yer pocket? That's the way to put it; can you toe the mark on that line?"
    "Oh, if a gentleman had to be sorry in his pocket for every man he met that happened to be out of work," interrupted the labourer laughingly, but with an evident intention to "stall off" the loafer, "he'd need to be all pocket."
    At this point I would have passed on, leaving the corner-men to have the discussion to themselves, but as I was about to move the last speaker suddenly stepped forward and barred my way.
    [-29-] "Excuse me stopping you," he said, "but if you don't object I will give you a 'real straight tip,' though when I spoke to you a minute ago I wasn't thinking of what I'm going to tell you now. I asked you if you could put me on to a job, and I want a job badly enough, goodness knows, but there are others a lot worse off than I am and less able to take care of themselves. I had a fairish breakfast this morning, and though I shan't be able to have a square meal in the way of dinner, I know that the missus will manage a bit of something extra for tea. My credit is good for a little food, and I shall have to be more unlucky than I have ever been before if I don't get into work again before my credit is run out. For though I say it as shouldn't, there ain't anything in the way of work that a willing arm and heart may do that I'm afraid to tackle, or won't jump at when I get a chance; and them as knows me knows that when I am in work I ain't ungrateful to those as have stood by me when I was out - I pays up. So, in or out, me and mine are safe for shelter and a meal. I tell you all this about myself so that you may understand that I have a little room to be sorry for others ; for there are some that will tell you that every poor person has quite enough to do to look after themselves, not that I mean to say that you are one such."
    "I think I may safely say that I am not," I put in. "I am a firm believer in the kindness of the poor to the poor; I ought to be I have seen that kindness exhibited a thousand times in thought and word and deed."
    "Just so," said the labourer, with a faint smile ; "and but too often one can only try to be kind in word: that [-30-] is why I am speaking to you now. You may be able to lend a helping hand, though I can't. Do you know where I live?"
    "I do not," I replied. "Well, I live at 37 ---- Road."
    I felt rather surprised at hearing the address given, and probably my face indicated as much, for the man went on- 
    "I dare say that is hardly the kind of street you thought to have heard named - not the kind of street, you know, where you'd expect to find a case of slow starvation. Of course it is a highly respectable street, take it altogether, but it is a good deal more mixed than perhaps even you are aware of. There are some in it whose houses are their own, and there are plenty of clerks or mechanics who keep a whole house, or nearly a whole house, to themselves; but some of the other houses - and ours is one - are let off to very poor people. Respectable poor people, mind you; poor people, that is, who respect themselves, who don't make a song or a show of their poverty, don't go about dressed in rags or disguised in dirt, or make a trade of charity hunting - the sort of poor that because they ain't ragged and dirty many people can't believe to be poor. Well, in a room of the house I live in there is a poor widow of this stamp, and she and her child, a little girl of eleven, are fairly down to starvation point, and unless some one gives them a lift, at starvation point they will remain - so long as they can hold out, that is, though that will not be very long, so far as the mother is concerned, at any rate. Her name is Mrs. W----; if you like to see her [-31-] and judge for yourself, you can easily make a reason for calling."
    Later the same day I did make occasion to visit the woman. It was after school hours when I made my call, and the child, as well as the mother, was at home.
    They had but the one apartment, which served them as hiving, eating, and sleeping room. It was scantily furnished, but clean and tidy, and to an "olfactory sense" trained to discriminate in such matters, it was evident that it was kept more freely aired than is generally the case with single-room tenements. The mother and child were also clean and tidy in appearance, and better dressed than I had expected to find them. The latter circumstance I guessed - and as I knew later, guessed rightly - was due to the fact that their dresses were the cast-off garments of better-off people which the mother had altered and "made down" to suit herself and her child.
    Though the labourer had spoken in bitterness of spirit when he suggested that people were inclined to be hard of belief as to the existence of the extremer degrees of' poverty unless associated with dirt and squalor, there was something in what he had said. There are cases in which it requires the appreciation of an expert to be assured of the presence of poverty in its direr forms, and this was such a case.
    As I have said, the room and its inmates were alike clean and tidy. To the uninitiated the surroundings might not have been obtrusively suggestive of absolute want, but the essential evidence of a starving condition was there nevertheless. The woman presented the inde-[-32-]scribable though unmistakable appearance that comes of slow starvation. The hollow cheeks, the sunken eyes, the pallid complexion and whitened lips, the feeble gait, the weakened voice, the laboured breathing, the cold perspiration induced by slight exertion, or "breaking out" without exertion - all the signs that tell of slow starvation were there; and they are signs that no "malingerer" can successfully imitate.
    The child was not so emaciate& as the mother; still her appearance was suggestive not only of privation in the present, but also of feebleness of constitution in the future, as a result of present privation. It could not be said with literal truth that they were without bread, for they had part of a small loaf in their cupboard at the time of my visit. But they had nothing but bread, and for months they had subsisted almost entirely upon bread. Bread and weak tea for breakfast; bread, with occasionally a little treacle, for the child, and a "scrape" of cheap butter for the mother, for dinner; and bread and weak tea again in the evening.
    Now it is true physically, as well as spiritually and metaphorically, that we cannot live (and maintain health) by bread alone. In this instance the want of variety in even more than the insufficient quantity of, the diet was telling its tale, especially upon the child. For her the bread had lost its savour. She could no longer eat it with appetite, could only get it down at all by an effort, and could only be induced to make the effort by the coaxing of her mother. As a consequence, she as well as the mother had grown thin, and pale, and weak, and sad of countenance. 
  That the story of this poor widow's life should be an entirely commonplace one was perhaps its most tragic feature. It was a story the material points of which could be found repeated ten-thousandfold in the short and simple annals of the poor.
    Her husband, a journeyman tailor, had died when their little girl was but two months old, and though he had been sober and industrious, he had been unable to make any provision for his wife and child. The poor cannot afford to "give themselves up" to grief. They feel their earthly partings from those dear to them as keenly as do any other class of society. They do grieve over their loss, but they must work as well as grieve.
    The fact of her widowhood made it imperatively and immediately necessary that Mrs. W----- should do something to gain a maintenance for herself and child, and accident decided what the something should be. The wife of the foreman under whom her husband had worked failed to obtain the services of a nurse whom she had engaged, under circumstances that left no time to seek out and negotiate with another professional. In this emergency the volunteered services of Mrs. W----- were accepted, though only provisionally in the first instance. It was found, however, that the widow had a natural aptitude for nursing, that she was kind and attentive, and did not stickle for etiquette over putting her hand to a little work, the performance of which might not be strictly speaking a nurse's duty - an important matter in households of limited means. So her services were retained, and in due course paid for, and [-34-] this led to her adopting nursing as a means of livelihood.
    Her ladies - she spoke of her patients in a proprietary sort of way - were for the most part the wives of small tradesmen, or of clerks, or the better-off classes of artisans. Her employers were themselves persons of small incomes, and her rate of remuneration was of course upon a low scale. When nursing she had to pay for the care of her child; and when, as sometimes happened, she was out of an engagement, she had to provide a home for herself as well as her little girl. It was always a more or less difficult matter with her to make ends meet; but so long as her health remained to her she did make them meet, and was content.
    But in the course of years work and anxiety told their tale. Her health and strength began to fail, and finally she became afflicted with a hacking cough, which kept not only herself but her patients awake by night. When it was found that the cough, with its disturbing and enfeebling effects, had become constitutional, her career as a nurse was closed.
    The end, in this respect, had come some two years before the time at which I first saw her, and during those two years the struggle for existence had with her been indeed a hard one. She had no "trade in her fingers, and was no longer strong enough to undertake the more laborious forms of unskilled work. There was nothing left for her but that last resource of a woman so circumstanced - plain needlework, work that as a sole means of subsistence is in these days of "sweating" and [-35-] overstocked labour markets practically synonymous with starvation.
    One of her ladies had given her a recommendation to an old-fashioned shirt-maker, doing a private trade and paying something like old-fashioned prices. He paid 7d. each for the making of hand-sewn shirts, a price that, compared with the prices of the "slop" shirt trade, may be styled munificent. But this tradesman had scarcely sufficient work for his old hands, and it was only as a favour that he could give Mrs. W----- three shirts a week to make. The 1s 10d .per week she receives for the making of these shirts is her only fixed income, and the rent of her room is 2s. 9d. per week. What other sewing she gets to do she has to pick up as best she can.
    Some of her ladies occasionally give her a little work, but none of them are in the position to play the part of Lady Bountiful. They are ladies who have to look to every penny of their own expenditure, and who are acquainted with the low rates ordinarily paid for plain needlework, and they expect to have their sewing done at very little more than "trade prices." But it is less over the prices she is paid than over not being able to obtain as much work as she could do that Mrs. W----- laments.
    For her child's sake the mother - to use her own phrase - put her pride in her pocket. She had applied to the parish for help, and then it was that she discovered that under the pinch of poverty a woman might well wish herself to be sixty rather than fifty years of age.
    On making her application at the relieving office, she [-36-] was informed that an order for the workhouse, involving separation from her child, was, according to law, the only form of parochial relief available for able-bodied women, and that any woman under sixty years of age, and having not more than one child dependent upon her, was ranked as able-bodied. And Mrs. W----- was but fifty and had only the one child. Had she been well versed in the niceties of parish relief, the possibility that the exposition of the law might be intended to convey a hint would perhaps have occurred to her. But no such idea entered her mind. She felt herself helpless, and would simply have gone empty away had not the relieving officer himself come to her rescue.
    Though one of a class that are usually, and sometimes it is to be feared justly, regarded as hard-hearted, he was a good fellow. He "took her case," thus enabling her to go before the guardians, and when before the guardians "spoke up" on her behalf. He put it that though the woman herself had not pleaded illness, and was perhaps not suffering acutely from any specific disease, she was so palpably weak and worn from privation that she might fairly, for the time being at any rate, be considered as "non-able-bodied," and on that ground be allowed some little out-door relief.
    The guardians readily enough availed themselves of the loophole thus suggested, and granted "three twos" for a month -  two shillings, two loaves, and two pounds of meat per week. Small as the total of this relief may appear, it meant a great deal to this poor widow. It meant such an improvement in her diet that under it she began to pick up health and strength so [-37-] rapidly that when, at the end of the month, she again appeared before the guardians they were gravely doubtful as to whether they could continue the relief. Under the prompting of their officer they did. however, renew it for another three weeks.
    At the end of that further period the woman's health was so greatly and obviously improved, that the guardians - though probably conscious of the absurdity and cruelty of the position in this particular instance - declined to any longer evade the law they were expected to administer. They stopped the out-door relief, and offered "The House." But Mrs. W-----, like hosts of the poor, preferred starvation to the workhouse, and to starvation she accordingly returned.
    Since that time the burden of her song has been - if she were only sixty years of age, were only qualified to regularly receive the out-door relief which, so little in itself, would mean so much to her! As matters stand, she can only hope to obtain out-relief intermittently, at such times as she has been starved down to a point at which she can unquestionably claim to be non-able-bodied even according to Poor Law standards. In this way she hopes to be able to struggle on to the good time coming when she shall be sixty.
    And the thing is possible. The vitality of some of the poor under a life of semi-starvation is a matter to wonder at. With this poor widow, however, this is hardly likely to be the case. Before she is sixty, to judge by present appearances, she will be beyond the reach of starvation or the fear of the workhouse - will be in a house not made with hands. For she is gentle and [-38-] uncomplaining, and God-fearing, and it is her consolation as well as belief that her trouble and privations are but for this life, that when she lays clown her earthly burden she will be with Him who has promised to give rest to those who have been weary and heavy laden.