Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 11 - An "Old Soldier"

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IN my district the man or woman classed as an "old soldier" is, generally speaking, not one to be desired. The title is given to those who display more or less exceptional ability in the art of living wholly or in part without work - professional charity-hunters and the like. In the case of Mrs. Harding it was applied admiringly in recognition of her special skill in guarding herself from being "bested" by the scheming type of old soldiers.
    She was one of a class whom the type in question may be said to regard as legitimate prey - that is to say, she was the proprietress of a "small general" shop in a very poor neighbourhood. To the well-to-do outsider, accustomed to shopping in large establishments, the small general shop of a poor quarter. with its one ill-"dressed," oil-lamp-lighted window, and small "hutch" door, with tinkling bell attached to give warning of the entrance of a customer, would appear a miserable affair; but to the inhabitants of the locality in which it is situated such a shop is an important institution. The keeper of such a shop is in her way - for it is generally a woman - a universal provider. She is a grocer, baker, provision dealer, dairyman, confectioner, oil-man, tobacconist, draper, ironmonger, corn-chandler and coal and firewood dealer all rolled into one.
    [-154-] Having regard to the fact that her customers are for the most part of the "cas'alty" labouring class, she is bound to give credit, and that is where the opportunity of the old soldiers comes in. They play a variety of the confidence trick - pay ready money for a week or two to inspire a belief in their honesty and then get into the debt of the shopkeeper as deeply as they can. They are good at getting up pitiful stories, and lavish in promises to pay. When they have exhausted their resources in that way, and credit is at length stopped, they  - often literally - snap their fingers at their victim, and seek to repeat the performance elsewhere, for there is no trade protection association among the small general traders.
    The possession of tact in giving and firmness in declining to give credit makes all the difference between success and failure in the small general business, and the successful shopkeeper of this class must perforce be a keen reader of character. Such a person of any lengthened business experience has a more intimate, practical, and detailed knowledge of how the poor live than could probably be gained by a whole royal commission. It was in this connection that Mrs. Harding became an ally of mine, and was in the early days of my work among the poor a guide, philosopher, and friend to me.
    I was one day dealing with a case in which a poor woman was in great distress of mind because she had got some washing to do and had not the money to obtain the necessary materials wherewith to accomplish the work.
    "I shall lose eighteenpence if I can't get it done," she [-155-] said, with tears in her eyes, "and perhaps lose other work too, for people who have washing to give out won't study you if you have to disappoint them."
    "You don't look fit to stand at the wash-tub," I said, noting her weak and hunger-worn appearance.
    "I could manage that all right," she exclaimed eagerly. "By working late I could get it done and take it home to-night, and then I could get something to eat out of the pay for it. As to eating, though," she added, " I am thinking more of the children than of myself. It is not often that we are so hard put to it, but this morning they had to go to school without breakfast, poor little things They knew it was my misfortune and not my fault that I had nothing for them to eat, and they tried to be brave and not to cry, but you could see their poor little lips quivering."
    I had every reason to believe that the woman was telling a literal and painful truth. Her husband was sober, and steady, and until a year previously had been a strong and capable labourer, able to command tolerably constant employment. But one day when engaged upon some heavy work he had, in labourers phrase, "overlifted" himself. From that time he had been, "off and on," an out-patient of various hospitals, and was practically an invalid.
    "You had better get something to eat before starting your work," I said, in reference to her last remarks. "Here are two tickets, each for a shilling's worth of goods; they will enable von to get a little food, as well as the washing materials you require."
    "Oh, thank you," she exclaimed, her face flushing [-156-] with pleasure; "won't the little ones be delighted when they come home and find I have got a dinner for them?" Then, after a pause, she added in a hesitating tone, "Couldn't I take the tickets to Mrs. Harding?"
    "Who is Mrs Harding? " I asked rather sharply, thinking it possible that there might be some dodge behind this request.
    "She is mostly called the Old Soldier," the woman answered; "perhaps you know her by that name - the woman who keeps the small general shop over the way, you know."
    "I don't know," I said; "but in any case I can't see that a shopkeeper of that class could serve you as well as a leading tradesman."
    "Begging your pardon, sir, I think she could serve me better; she is used to us poor folks and our ways. She would break up a shilling as a large shopkeeper would not care to do."
    "There may be something in that," I assented; "but before agreeing to your request I must speak to this Mrs. Harding."
    Accordingly I crossed the street and entered the shop. As the proprietress was busy serving at the moment, I had an opportunity of observing her before having to address her. She was a comely-looking middle-aged woman, with once black hair turned to " iron grey." Her eyes were clear and penetrating, and the lower part of her face was pronouncedly indicative of firmness of character. Still, on the whole, the expresslon of the countenance was pleasing. When she had disposed of the customer to whom she had been attending when I entered. I intro-[-157-]duced myself and briefly narrated the circumstances that had led to my calling upon her.
    "I hardly know how to answer you," she said musingly. " Perhaps I ought to mention, in the first place. that this poor woman is in my debt to the amount of ten shillings, the highest amount to which I can afford to let even the most trustworthy of my customers go. And as the honest, deserving poor are always grateful for any little kindness, I dare say one reason with her for suggesting that she should be allowed to bring the tickets here was a wish to do me a good turn in the way of business. But apart from that," she went on, seeing that though she paused I made no comment, "or from my natural wish as a shopkeeper to get all the trade I can, I think I may say that she would be better served here than in a better establishment. You may perhaps scarcely be able to credit that, still I honestly believe that such is the case; nor am I alone in that opinion, for I may tell you that if your tickets had been open tickets, as one might say, most of them would have come to me. If you are giving away so much coal, or meat, or bread, or the like, then the larger the trader that supplies them the better. But when you leave it to a poor mother to take out the value of a shilling to the greatest advantage for herself and family, it is a different affair. The shopping of the very poor is a thing by itself, and, practically speaking, can only be done with those who, like myself, lay themselves out for that trade. In this matter, as in most questions between rich and poor, it is a case of 'unto them that have shall be given.' The rich can buy cheaper than the poor, because they can deal at the large stores and great [-158-] private establishments that do sell cheap to those who can always pay ready money and buy in the quantities that large concerns sell in. But the poor can't always pay ready money, and they never can buy in the quantities that the big places sell in. The circumstances alter the cases, and we small traders meet the circumstances and suit the convenience of the poor, and therefore they prefer to deal with us. You may take my word for it too, that whatever well-meaning people may say as to the uneconomical ways in which the poor spend their incomes, the poor know their own business best in the matter. They learn in the school of experience; they must practise economy to live at all, but it must be the economy that is possible to them. Excuse me saying so much," the shopkeeper concluded, in a lighter tone than she had been previously speaking in; "I have thought a great deal upon the point, but this is about the first opportunity I have had of speaking my mind."
    "I can see the general force of your remarks," I said. "I will tell the woman she can bring the tickets here if she chooses."
    "Don't let us be rash," said the Old Soldier, smiling; "let her take value from me for one ticket in the first place, and then you can see how it is made up and whether you consider the transaction satisfactory."
    "Very well," I agreed, "we will leave it at that for the present."
    For one in her position the Old Soldier was evidently a somewhat exceptional personage, generally intelligent, fairly well-educated, taking a thoughtful, observant, kindly interest in the great social problem, of one side of which [-159-] she saw so much in her daily experience, and if strong- minded, only so in the best sense of the phrase. What she had said had made me rather curious as to the practical point at issue, and as I was in the neighbourhood of her shop again about half-past seven the same evening, I looked in. Mrs. Harding, who had been sitting behind the counter knitting, put down her work as I entered, and by way of greeting remarked, "You knew it was my slack time, then?"
    "I really had not thought of that," I replied, "though, of course, I might have known that you would not be so busy at night as you are in the daytime."
    "It isn't that exactly," she explained; "one of my busiest times will commence about all hour hence but just now is the lull between tea and supper."
    "Your customers buy from meal to meal then?"
    "Many of them must, for what little money they get comes to them in the same hand-to-mouth fashion. The same people don't come for every meal, understand; as a rule my customers are not four, or even three meals a day people. Those who can afford breakfast or dinner may not be able to afford tea or supper, while others who may not have been able to obtain any other meal may be able to treat themselves to supper. In fact, the hatter is very often the case, and that is why supper is such a leading meal with the very poor. You see, being most of them - women as well as men - cas'alty people, they have to wait until they get home after the day's search for work, and compare notes as to what 'luck' they mar have net with before they can decide, firstly, whether they can have a supper at all, and it so, secondly, what [-160-] kind of a supper it shall be. At best it will not be a very luxurious meal. Bread is nearly always the chief feature in it; whether the 'relish' to go with it shall be a small piece of cheap cheese, or say a rasher of bacon, or a tin of lobster, will depend upon the state of the funds for the day. I have heard people talking of the poor who may be starving one day, then living riotously the next if they chanced to have the means. There would really be some excuse for the poor if they did do so, but they do not; such talk is nonsense. The poor look upon themselves as acting in a rather regardless-of-expense manner when they venture on a tin of lobster or salmon for supper. Yet a sixpenny or even an eight-penny tin of such 'relishes' can scarcely be considered a great extravagance when you consider that it has to be divided among - say - a man and wife and three or four children, who may not have had anything to eat since they breakfasted  upon a scanty allowance of dry bread and weak tea. But there my woman's tongue is running away with me. You haven't come here to hear me chatter about things in general, but to see what was had for your shilling ticket, so here is the account."
    As she finished speaking she opened a drawer, and, taking a paper from it, placed it on the counter before me. I still have this bill among my little collection of such curiosities, and as it is as representative a document to-day as it was originally, it is perhaps worth quoting, as illustrating in some detail how the poor live, and showing how far, or at any rate how variedly, a shilling may be made to go.
    The various purchases making up the amount were set [-161-] forth item by item, and ran as follows:- "Half.quartern loaf, 2d.; ounce of butter, 1d. ; ounce of tea, 1d.; quarter of a pound moist sugar, d.; quarter of a pound treacle, d. ; milk, d. ; half pound of soap, 1d.; quarter of pound soda, d. ; square of blue, d.; two ounces of starch, d.; seven pounds of coals, 1d. ; bundle of firewood, d. ; box of matches, d."
    "Are you satisfied, sir?" Mrs. Harding asked, when I had finished my perusal of the paper.
    "Abundantly satisfied personally," I said; "it seems to be a remarkable shilling's worth."
    "I won't say that," she replied, "because I am making up such shilling's worths every day. But do you think that any tradesman in the High Street would have broken up a shilling in that fashion, or that any poor woman would have ventured to have asked him to do so?"
    "I suppose not," I said.
    "And yet," Mrs. Harding went on, "in many cases - in this one, for instance - such a breaking up is a great matter to the poor person concerned. Of course I am speaking of the general position. When upon her own resources a shilling would be rather a large than a small amount for this poor woman to have in hand. If she had been in that position to-day, and had been compelled to spend her shilling at a large establishment, she would have had to take goods in such quantities that she could not have procured both food and the requisites for doing her half-day's washing. If, as is most likely, her first thought had been for her hungry children, she would have had to give up the washing for lack of the means to do it. Or, if she had been cruel to be kind, and de-[-162-]termined to do the work, she would have had to stand to the wash-tub foodless and faint, and with the cry of the children for bread ringing in her ears. As it is she has been able to give herself and her children a meal, and to earn a little money as well."
    So commenced my acquaintance with the Old Soldier. I have recorded the conversation at some length, for though arising out of a small matter, it is, I venture to think, interesting in itself as giving some insight into the methods by which the exceeding poor contrive to "make ends meet." I found it both interesting and profitable, for at that time I was but young to my work; much of my experience had yet to be gained, and it was my cue to gather the views of old campaigners.
    By those who had nicknamed her the Old Soldier Mrs. Harding was regarded as being knowing and hard. As a matter of fact she was wise and kind. Even for those who are spoken of as the worthless poor she had a tender feeling, founded upon a true knowledge and appreciation of the terrible character of their material surroundings - surroundings that cannot fail to exercise a demoralising influence upon natures that are at all weak. Many a loaf and bit of butter, many a "heel" of cheese, many a "knuckle" bone, or outside rasher of bacon, many a lower cut of tinned or potted meats did she give away "on the quiet" to those to whom she knew hunger would make even such small gifts precious. She was constantly making soups and beef-tea for the sick among her poverty-stricken neighbours, and was always willing to take a "relief turn" at night nursing where such a service was needful. Nor, being herself a true Christian, [-163-] did she fail to avail herself of the opportunity afforded by sick nursing for speaking words in season in the way of moral or spiritual counsel or consolation.
    The great organised charitable institutions of the land, and the individual munificence of the charitable rich, do much for the poor; but so also in the aggregate do the efforts of the single-handed workers of the type of the Old Soldier. Their good deeds are the outcome of brotherly (and sisterly) love abounding. Theirs is the proverbial kindness of the poor to the poor; only in their case the kindness is tempered with judgment and firmness of mind, rather than actuated by impulse.
    The practical work of charity is skilled labour - labour requiring for its performance special knowledge and the qualities of discrimination and determination, the last of these being by no means the least. There is poverty, and poverty - the poverty that would keep itself unknown, and the poverty that is wont to proclaim itself from the house-tops. Some of the poorest of the poor will make no open moan, will seek to "keep themselves to themselves," endeavour to suffer and be strong. Others again suffer and are weak - suffer because they are weak. They would gladly and gratefully accept charitable assistance, but are too weak and nerveless to "put themselves forward" where help might be had. On the other hand, there are those among the poor who are disposed to trade upon their poverty, who seek not to hide it, or "put the best face upon it," but to parade and exaggerate it. These do "put themselves forward," are always to be found scrambling and clamouring wherever charity is to be obtained. Taken as a body they secure a very [-164-] undue proportion of charity, and look to charity rather than to labour as a means of keeping the wolf from the door.
    As matters stand at present a good deal of charity is so distributed as to tend to perpetuate the need for its continuance. That is distinctly an evil. If we would remedy it we must have assistance from within the camp of poverty. We must avail ourselves of the knowledge and goodwill of such as the Old Soldier; of intelligent, observant, kindly, God-fearing men and women, who, poor themselves, are therefore all the more fitted to take part in the service of the poor - to bring aid to those who suffer and make no sign, and stand between the clamorous, self-asserting charity-hunters, and what is but too often their mere prey.