Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 7 - "Hard on the Children"

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ONE cold and rainy winter's morning, while passing along a main thoroughfare lying about a mile from my district, I observed two children - a boy and a girl - who were, to use an official phrase, "apparently wandering." The girl looked about eleven years of age, the boy a year or two younger, and a striking similarity of feature proclaimed them brother and sister. They were wretchedly ill-clad and booted. At best their clothing would have been a very inefficient protection against the cold, and now the miserable garments were wet through, while the broken and burst boots were so soddened as to be mere injurious damp-traps. The children seemed to accept the situation in the spirit of the saying that those who are down need fear no fall - that they were as wet and cold as they could be, and therefore had nothing further to fear or suffer in that respect. At any rate, they made no effort to avoid the rain; did not seek to shelter, or hurry on as did the comfortably-clad folks, who, heads down and umbrellas up, passed them by unnoticinglv. Hand in hand they sauntered along in an aimless kind of fashion, pausing every now and again to look in at shop windows, especially those windows in which food was displayed.
    The old story, I said to myself, as I watched the [-92-] wretched little creatures; children sent out to "scratch for themselves" - and for some worthless parent. Some parent, my further thought ran, who "knows his (or her) book;" who knows that there is a mute eloquence of beggary more powerful than words, and safer. The children did not in verbal fashion, or in a legal sense, "solicit alms," but their sunken, hunger-blanched faces, and the wolfish glare in their eves as they gazed at the unattainable food, spoke trumpet-tongued for them. Whatever the parents might be, it was but too painfully evident that the children were famishing, and there could be no harm, I argued with myself, no mistaken "promiscuous charity," in giving them food, so long as I saw that they ate it. Availing myself of the opportunity afforded by their coming to a stand at the window of a quiet coffee-house, I went up to them, and invited them to come within and have something to eat. The invitation was given and accepted, and "no questions asked". In dealing with hungry waifs it is the best policy - to put it on no higher ground - to feed them first and question them afterwards.
    When the children had been thawed, so to speak, by a good meal, and a good "warm," I proceeded to try to learn something about them. "They had not been sent out to beg," they strongly asserted; "they had been sent to try to borrow a shilling from an old neighbour of their mother's, but had not succeeded in their mission, the husband of the woman having fallen out of work. Their name, they said, was F----, and in reply to the question, "Where do you live?" the girl rather astonished me by naming an address in my own district.
   [-93-] "You have not been there long," I said, looking at her somewhat doubtingly.
    "No, only five weeks," she promptly answered.
    "And where did you live before?" I asked, still in a strain of cross-examination.
    "We came out of the union," was the answer given after a momentary hesitation; "we were in the schools, and mother was in the infirmary."
    "What about your father?" I questioned. "Is he dead?"
    "No; he isn't dead," was the reply; "but he has run away from us, and that is why we had to go into the workhouse - that and mother not being able to work through having a bad leg."
    "But she is better, and able to work now?" I put in.
    "No, she isn't," said the girl, with a grave shake of the head; "her leg is as bad as ever."
    As it is not the custom even in workhouse infirmaries to turn out patients who are "as bad as ever," it at once occurred to me that, assuming the girl's statement to be true, there must be "something behind" it. As, however, such a something would probably be of a painful character, I hesitated about questioning the child further. But the perceptive faculties of the girl were, as is often the case with the children of the poor, keen beyond her rears. She noticed my hesitation and divined its cause.
    "Oh, mother took her own discharge," she said. " She had heard as how father should say that he would have us out of the school and take us away, so that she should never see us again; and to hinder that she took her discharge for us all."
    [-94-] The girl had throughout spoken with a certain degree of glibness, still it seemed to me that she had been telling the truth. If she had not, if she had been coached to "stall off" inquiries by giving a false address, she was evidently too well tutored to allow herself to be "bowled out" by cross-examination.
    "I will call and see your mother," was all I said by way of concluding the interview; "and now you and your brother had better go home."
    Later in the day I called at the address that the child had given me. The door was opened to me by the landlady of the house, who, on my asking if a Mrs. F---- lived there, replied in the affirmative.
    "Can I see her?"
    "I daresay you can," the landlady replied; "I'll see."
    Without waiting for further parley she went upstairs, and presently re-appearing on the upper landing, called out, " Come up, please." Waiting for me, she ushered me into the room in which the F---- family were living.
    It was a fair-sized apartment, and to judge from the smudged face and arms of the girl I had seen in the morning there had been an attempt to "tidy it up." The effort had, however, been but very partially successful. The tidying had not included the free airing and the scrubbing, beyond the strength of a child to accomplish, which alone can sweeten a tenement room. The general appearance of the place was markedly miserable and depressing, and its atmosphere distinctly malodorous. A ramshackle iron bedstead, a rickety table, and a couple of chairs "to match" - in the matter of ricketiness - constituted the furniture of the room. The boy I had [-95-] previously seen and a little girl of about five years of age were crouching over a small cinder fire, while the elder girl, to whom was evidently assigned the role of " little mother," stood with the landlady at the foot of the bed upon which the mother of the children was lying.
    The sick woman had turned her face towards the door as I came in, and a dreadfully worn and haggard face it was, though the most noticeable thing about it at the moment was the hunted expression upon it.
    "She is a bit upset," the landlady explained; "she had got into her head that you must be seine one coming to try to force her into the union again."
    " I have no power to do that," I said, addressing myself to the mother; "and, generally speaking, would have no wish to do anything of the kind. As a rule, I would much rather help to keep a person out of the union than to force them into it; but seeing how ill you are and the condition of your children, it seems to me that in your case it was a serious mistake to discharge yourself from the union."
    "My husband would have taken my children away from me if I hadn't," she answered.
    "If, as I gather, he had no home to take the children to," I said, "the guardians would not have allowed him to remove them from their custody."
    "That may be the law," the woman retorted; " but it is when you want to go upon the parish, not when you want to take any one off it, that the guardians are so particular."
    "There may be something in that," I assented; " but in any case your husband would not have attempted to  [-96-] get possession of the children. As you had become 'chargeable,' there would be a warrant out for him, and if he had presented himself at the relieving office to claim the discharge of the children he would have been arrested."
    "Yes, I have heard all this since I have been out," the woman answered; "and perhaps if I had known it and believed it before, I would not have come out of the house; but being out, I won't go in again."
    "It is hard upon the children, I remarked," shaking my head.
    "It is, poor little things," she answered, and her voice and manner, which up to this point had been almost fierce, suddenly softened, and she began to cry. "I don't mean to be hard on them," she went on, "and I try to comfort myself by thinking that it may not be as hard as it looks. They don't want to be parted from me any more than I do from them, and if I went into the union to-morrow they would be taken from me at the infirmary gates. I am doing my best for them - it is a very poor best, I know; but if I can hold on until I can get about again, I shall be able to manage without help from either parish or husband."
    "But how are you managing in the meantime?" I inquired.
    "Well, old neighbours that I have sent to have helped me a bit," she answered. "Then some of my neighbours hereabout send us a little food when they can spare it and my girl has to housekeep as well as she can."
    "Are you having no out-relief?"
    "Not now; they gave me a little for a fortnight, and [-97-] then they stopped it, thinking to force me into the house again in that way. But they wont," she added, her voice and manner once more becoming vehement. "There is no law by which they can drag me to the workhouse and I would not go without being dragged - I would die in the street first."
    "But the children?" I said again, and this time she made no answer.
    That, for the time being, the woman's resolve not to enter the house again was immovable was evident. No doubt she loved her children in a passionate unreasoning fashion, but her love was not of the higher type that endureth all things - that is capable of self-sacrifice. She was ready to suffer herself rather than accept "indoor" relief upon the only conditions upon which it would be granted; but she was reckless that by her action the children should suffer also. Having regard to all the circumstances of the case, it appeared to me to be the duty of the mother to submit for the children's sake. It was not, therefore, for me, speaking from the standpoint of what may be called scientific charity, to offer assistance, seeing that such help as it was in my power to give was only likely to prolong the miserable contest in which the parent was engaged. But in these matters one cannot always be scientific. The theories of political economy may he admirable as theories, but in practice, in the actual presence of the tragedies of daily life that one is constantly meeting with among the poor, "there is a higher law." I felt that my hand was forced, that what little I could do to relieve the immediate necessities of the unfortunate (even if in some [-98-] respects blameworthy) woman and her children I must do. And I did it.
    On the following day I sought out the R. O. (as the relieving officer is familiarly called) of the district, to see if I could do anything with him about the "case." He remembered the case very well, he said, as soon as I named it, for it had been an especially troublesome one. No doubt it was very hard on the children, he admitted. but that was the fault of the mother, not of himself or the guardians.
    Well, but seeing she was helpless, if obstinate, and that the children, who at any rate were not in fault, had to suffer, would it not be wise and humane to concede out-relief?
    Not wise, certainly, the officer answered. The guardians would not be doing their duty if they allowed themselves to be dictated to in that manner. They had to consider all classes of the poor-including the poor-rate payers. The Poor Law Board laid it down that relief in each case must be "adequate" relief, and ordinary out-relief would not be adequate to the circumstances of Mrs. F-----'s case. Her case could only be effectively and economically relieved through the infirmary and the schools. These had been offered to her, and her refusal to avail herself of the offer made her solely responsible for any consequent suffering to herself and children that had ensued or might ensue. "Your action in the case," the R. O. continued, "is doubtless well meant, but it is a mistake. The assistance you are in a position to render might make all the difference in many cases, but it does not meet the necessities of this [-99-] case; it only tends to prolong a painful and useless struggle. A course of surgical treatment is required to put the woman in such a state of health as will enable her to work for her living. She will have to go into the house again sooner or later, and the sooner the better for herself and the children. There are cases in which the truest charity is to go upon the principle of being cruel to be kind; and this is such a case."
    I knew that in putting the matter as he had the relieving officer had been hard-headed rather than hardhearted. From the practical point of view there was something - a great deal, perhaps - in what he had said. I allowed myself to be so far "convinced against my will" by his arguments that for the space of' a fortnight I did not visit the case. Finding at the end of two weeks the woman was still holding out, I then called again.
    Save that she was now able to hobble about her room a little, using a long broom by way of crutch, she and the children were in much the same condition as I had found them in on the occasion of my first visit. They still looked ill and miserable - were still insufficiently clad and half-starved. But, unfortunately, in a sense, only half starved. In one way and another, by a special providence that justified her action, the mother now contended, they got a little food each day. They were not starved down to the extreme point that raises apprehensions of a case of immediate and direct death from starvation, and the censure of a coroner's jury. In this matter of starvation they just fell short of time degree that, if brought to the knowledge of Poor Law officials and guardians, would have been likely to frighten them [-100-] into taking prompt and adequate action without regard to routine or any policy of forcing certain cases to "take the house."
    I ascertained from the woman that the almoner of a certain local charity had been paying her rent, but had intimated that he could not continue to do so beyond the then current week. Visiting ladies had given her a few bread and coal tickets; the good Samaritans among her neighbours, though very poor themselves, had not wearied in well doing, but their power to aid was necessarily very limited; and the little boy had earned a few pence a week by carrying home the clothes to the customers of an old lady who earned a livelihood by mangling. But these helps, all told, did not constitute anything like a reasonable means of subsistence for the family. So mother and children starved on, for the woman still expressed herself determined not to go into the house, while it appeared that the guardians were as determinedly resolved not to grant out-relief.
    It could not be said of this that it was a very pretty quarrel as it stood - it was an utterly piteous quarrel; a quarrel in which the helpless non-combatants - the children - were the severest sufferers. I was still of opinion that, in engaging in this struggle, the woman was not doing the best for her children. But she was not to be persuaded. The fight was being waged; the besieged had so far held out; the battle as yet had not been to the strong. I suppose I ought to have observed a policy of non-intervention. This was my golden opportunity to be cruel to be kind, and perhaps if I had kept away from the scene of action I might have remained firm. But, with the [-101-] eager, hungry eyes of the children fixed upon me, I proved weak, and again transgressing time laws of political economy, once more provisioned the garrison for a time.
    Shortly after my second visit the husband appeared upon the scene. He arrived very munch disguised in liquor, and professing to be consumed with a sense of burning indignation at having heard that a child of his had been employed to carry out "mangling." He was so noisy as to attract the notice of the police, and being identified as a man who was "wanted" for wife desertion, was arrested. A night in the cooling atmosphere of a police cell sobered him, and when he was brought before the magistrate on the following morning he set up the defence usually made in such cases by those who "know their book."
    He had not deserted his wife, he said; he had only gone away to look for work, and had not cared to write simply to say that he had been unable to obtain employment. He was quite willing to support his family and pay the guardians if he could get work, but of course, he could not look for work if sent to prison.
    The case was adjourned to see if he could come to an arrangement with  the guardians. He did arrange to pay them five shillings a week, and, having paid two weeks' instalments, and promised to continue to pay, the charge was withdrawn. He also gave his wife a few shillings. But the last state of his family is worse than the first. The knowledge that this fellow is loafing about the district spending the bulk of his earnings in dissipation has stayed the hands of those who had been assisting the family ; and the trifle he gives them, with a [-102-] view to keep within the letter of the law as to wife desertion, does not make up for the help he has driven away. That he will soon fall off in his payments to the guardians is regarded as certain by those who know him; and that ultimately he will be sent to prison, and the wife and children have to go into the house, is now highly probable. Meanwhile it is hard, very hard, upon the children; hard upon them not only in the present, but in the future also, for the privations they are thus called upon to endure in childhood may make them weaklings for life.
    The struggle upon the point as to whether relief shall be "in" or "out" is constantly going on between the guardians and the poor; and where children are concerned in such cases - and they generally are concerned - they are the greatest sufferers. In many instances guardians do take children into the house without insisting upon the parent going in ; but in many other instances they will neither give out-relief nor take children into the house unless the parent will accompany them. In some cases, as in the one here spoken of, the parent will neither go in with the children nor consent to the children being taken in by themselves, because parents and children are separated. In this latter case the guardians do not deem it their duty to be urgent on behalf of the children.
    Apart from this, however, it is to be feared that where guardians and relieving officers become strongly officialised the house is offered as the only form of relief in cases in which it is morally certain it will not be accepted. This is done with a view to "shunting" applicants for relief, and [-103-]  so "keeping down the rates." This matter of "in" or "out" no doubt presents many difficulties, but surely the law and procedure bearing upon it could be so modified that children would no longer he ground between the upper and the nether millstone, so to speak.
    Guardians and officials will tell you that it is they who are between the millstones - between the "indignant rate-payer" on the one hand, and the poor-law inspector, the coroner's court, and the public press on the other. What are they to do? they ask. If they take children into the house without forcing the parents in also, they will have children "saddled upon the rates" in droves - and they are the guardians of rate-raised funds as well as of the poor.
    The problem to be dealt with here is doubtless, as just said, a difficult one; but whatever the guardians should do in the matter, there is one thing that they should, certainly not do - they should not visit the sins of the parents upon the children. That there is a class of parents who regard their children as a burden, and are constantly "playing up" to cast that burden upon the public, is unfortunately but too true. But even in these cases the children should not be made to suffer. Let the helpless little ones be cared for, and the parents be stringently dealt with in the way of obtaining and enforcing maintenance orders against them.
    For my own part, I venture to think that the official notion, that if children were taken into the house without parents being forced to go in with them relief expenditure would go up in leaps and bounds, is a mistaken, an alarmist one. At present many poor parents of the better [-104-] types - parents who love their children, and for their sakes are willing to sacrifice their own liberty and sense of independence - "accept the house" rather than see their children endure privations. And the cost of the support of these parents is added to the cost of the support of the children, while the periods for which the children remain chargeable to the rates are much longer than would be the case were the parents free to look for employment.
    A more generous method in this respect might be more costly - might even increase the poor rate a halfpenny in the pound, say. But there are higher considerations than "keeping down the rates.! Passing by all lesser ones, there is that highest consideration of all, our duty to Him who has said, " Inasmuch as ye do it unto one of the least of these, ye do it unto Me."