Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 3 - "Lions' Providers"

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AMONG savages, noble or other, it is a common custom for the wife to perform whatever labour may be necessary for the maintenance of the home. She works while her lord and master fights or hunts, takes his lordly ease, or - if he happily have the means - gets drunk. Whether admirers of "the child of nature extend" their admiration to his views and practice upon the question of wife labour I will not pause to inquire, nor does the point really matter much. If the savage way be the natural one, I will take it that for once, at any rate, civilisation has improved upon nature.
    In civilised lands it is generally accounted a shameful thing for a man to live upon his wife's earnings, to allow - much more to force - her to work while he idles. In every grade of society, from the highest down to and including the poorly paid unskilled labourer class, such a man is held in contempt. It is true that in the latter class husband and wife have often both to work- to work for hire, that is; for that the woman should work as well as manage in the home department is of course understood. If people in this rank of life have a family - and, as a rule, they do have a family - some greater or lesser degree of wife labour will in [-42-] many instances heroine an absolute condition of existence with the household, seeing that unless wife as well as husband works neither can the family at large eat. But while the situation upon this point is accepted, it is lamented, and upon chivalrous as well as upon more material grounds. Moreover, here the husband, if not the only, is the chief bread-winner. The wife's smaller earnings merely supplement his, and so far as may be they are spent in some especial manner upon herself and the children.
    When, however, we get below the working classes proper, we find a very different state of things prevailing with regard to the question of wife labour. When we get to the casualty man, corner-man, and no-visible-means-of-support classes - when, in short, we get towards and among the savage tribes of civilisation, we find a reversion to savage forms.
    It would, perhaps, be going too far to say that with these classes it is the rule for the wife to be the sole labourer, the husband wholly a loafer, but such a position of affairs is very far indeed from being exceptional. It is so common as to be regarded as matter of course alike by lookers-on and those immediately concerned. The husband-supporting wives are quite a "school," and are playfully known as "lions' providers."
    Seeing that the species of lion to whom they play jackal is a particularly mangy one, it is probable that the sobriquet was originally bestowed upon them in a spirit of disparagement. "Poor human nature" is, however, very perverse, and nowadays many of the lions' providers esteem the name their title of honour. [-43-] So also do numbers of' their friends and acquaintances. If there should be a few "too blessed particular" people who are inclined to look upon the wife in these cases as degraded, they generally deem it prudent to keep their opinion to that effect to themselves.
    On the other hand, there are many who hold that it is rather a fine thing for a married woman to be able to keep her husband; a matter for boastfulness that she is able to supply him with beer and 'bacca upon a more liberal scale than that upon which the less lion-hearted Jones or Brown, who works for his family, can supply himself. Even when they do not take a perverted pride in their husband-keeping prowess, the women of this class make no particular objection to husband~keeping in the abstract. Of the reversing of the ordinary relations between husband and wife, of the mere idleness of their lords and masters, they make no complaint. So long as the husbands are content with absorbing only the lion's share of such family provision as the wives can make, so long as they do not "grab the lot," things are held to be running smoothly and in ther natural groove.
    It is scarcely necessary to say that loafers of the stamp here in question rule their womankind very literally with a strong hand. Wife-beating they regard as the commonest of marital rights, and to judge from the manner in which the women take the beatings, they would seem to hold the same view. There can be no doubt indeed - strange as the assertion may sound - that some of the wives would regard with suspicion a husband who "never laid his hand upon them save in the way of kindness."
    As these very unlionlike lions deal with their jackals, so [-44-] do they - to continue the analogy - deal with their cubs. Though they work not themselves, they enforce the doctrine of self-help upon their children very early very strongly, and in very practical fashion. According to their theory a child should be thinking of "turning out" almost as soon as it can run about. To hear a hulking, loafing corner-man expounding this theory, to hear him lecturing a boy or girl of nine or ten years of age upon the duty and necessity of their "scratching for themselves," and as likely as not emphasising his remarks by kicks and cuffs - to hear and see a fellow of this kind acting in this wise is perhaps as curious a bit of tragicomedy as is to be witnessed in real life. He will not have done a stroke of work for years, and if asked to do so would "scorn the action," but he is a veritable Spartan with his children. They must obey his parental command to "cut their own grass." Whether their mowing is of an honest or dishonest character is to him a matter of indifference so long as they make their hay. They may run errands or resort to any other form of service by which children can pick up a few halfpence, or they may beg or pilfer - that is a point the father leaves to Providence and the children. It is only for him to see that they don't "eat their heads off" at home. They may be graciously permitted to shelter in the lion's den - always a very miserable den - at night, but by day they must forage for themselves. If they can do more than this, if they can in addition bring home something for the old lion, so much the better.
    As might naturally be expected, the offspring of such men as these go largely to swell the street Arab and [-45-] criminal classes. Some, of course, rise in time to better things, but these are the exceptions. Many of them, as they attain towards manhood or womanhood, drift into the dangerous or unfortunate classes. A still larger number, however, simply grow up to be as their parents were before them - the men loafers, the women lions' providers.
    But while the majority of the class are native and to the manner born, some of the women have been dragged down to it. Their husbands have originally been labourers in the ordinary and honest sense of the term, but falling out of work, as even the most industriously disposed labourers will do at times, the women have "buckled to" and practically demonstrated that they could " keep the home together" by their own exertions. Thus released from the spur that lies in the operation of the law, " If ye work not, neither shall ye eat," the men have developed loafing propensities, have got associated with, and finally affiliated to, the corner-man class, and the women have perforce to continue their role of lions' providers.
    For months, and even years, a man who sinks in this way will continue to claim rank with "the labouring unemployed." He speaks of himself pityingly as a "mis-fortunate," protests that "luck is dead agin him," and makes a show of looking for work. He poses as that spectacle for the gods, a good man struggling with adversity. In his case the character is an excellent one for sponging purposes. Properly worked it has in it remarkable potentialities of eleemosynary 'arf pints of beer and 'arf ounces of tobacco, and it is for that reason more than from any lingering sense of shame that the character of a "misfortunate" is maintained as long as [-46-] possible. But a time comes when these pretences are worn out with even the best graced actor in this line, and he stands revealed an unredeemed loafer in relation to society at large and an unmitigated "hard bargain" for his wife in particular.
    The lions' providers follow a great variety of callings. Some of them are regular "hands" in factories or workshops - white-lead factories, chemical works, firewood sheds, and the like. A number are hawkers, others again are middle-women or "sweaters" in the shop needlework line; but the most numerous section of them consists of those who go out washing and collaring by the day. With their aprons carried under their arms - the badge of all their tribe - the members of this division may be seen every morning going off to their labours, while each evening the husbands of those of them who may not be well broken in may be seen trooping away to meet them as they leave their places of work, - not from any longing feeling of affection, or polite desire to do escort duty, but with a view to securing their share of the day's earnings.
    Unless they are taken red-handed, so to speak, some of the women will immediately spend their daily pay, or a large proportion thereof; in household necessities, and take it borne in kind instead of coin. Such a proceeding the husband, of course, considers highly reprehensible, and a good deal of wife-beating takes place over this point where the lion's provider is still in course of taming, or proves obstinately refractory.
    Where in the lower grades of society the whole burden of supporting, as well as of managing the home, is thrown [-47-] upon the wife, a good deal of domestic diplomacy is often required to make ends meet even in a from hand-to-mouth fashion, and it need scarcely be said that this also is left to the woman. When the rent of their room - or rooms, if happily the family have more than one apartment - is in arrears, it is she who has to " face it out" with the indignant landlord, or worse still, the irate landlady.
    In hard times it is to her lot that it falls to petition - for it is more a case of petitioning than negotiating - for credit at the hands of the tradesfolks - the baker, the huckster, the itinerant coal-dealer, the "barrow" coster, and the like. And naturally it is she who has to bear the coarse "slangings" or bitter "tongue-dressings" which it is the wont of such traders to apply to credit customers who may chance to fall behind in their promised payments. If a child of the family is ill, it is the mother who has to go to the relieving office to apply for a "doctor's order," and to stand the browbeating she is likely to receive there over her husband's misdeeds. In the same way the woman is left to do battle against the endeavours of the school-board officers to get the children to school - a proceeding which, of course, tends to interfere with the male parent's plan of making the youngsters scratch for themselves.
    In times of special necessity or extremity these poor women are very kind to each other. They will share a last loaf, a last meal, a last sixpence. They will lend the clothes off their back to enable a neighbour to go to a day's work she might otherwise lose, or even that a trifle of money may be "raised" on the garments. They will in such small ways as are open to them become [-48-] security or pledge their credit for another, and in case of sickness they will to the utmost of their means and opportunities play the part of ministering angel.
    Though they accept it in aim uncomplaining spirit, and as a sort of natural dispensation, the lot of the lions' providers is a weary one, and they are at best but a sorrowful people. The burden cast upon them is greater than they can bear without injury to health and spirit. They look, and are, prematurely aged and worn. Their constitutions soon begin to be impaired, many of them are victims of chronic maladies, and their offspring are weakly.
    What has been said above may to many sound strange; unhappily, however, it is too true. The lions' providers, womanlike, try to put the best face on things. Some of them will for years really believe in the theory of their husbands being only "misfortunates," while most of them will at all times profess to outsiders to believe in it. But no person practically acquainted with the ways of life prevailing among the poorer classes will need to be told that the true position of affairs is such as I have described it to be. And I may add that in describing it I have been more inclined to extenuate than to put down aught in malice. Wife labour is the unseen (by the outer public) "means" which supports thousands of the apparently no-visible-means-of-support class. That this should be so, that the supporter and supported should constitute a distinct section of the poor, very forcibly suggests that even in the most highly civilised nation in the world there is still room for increased - or at any rate extended - civilisation.