Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 13 - A Rookery District

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IT falls to my official lot to have charge of what is popularly known as a  "rookery" district in the great metropolis. Than a human rookery there can, to a thoughtful mind, be no more sorrowful spectacle. As an institution - and even in these days of supposed sweetness and light it is an institution - it is the great blot on "the resources of civilisation," the veritable earthly inferno.
This being a general feeling upon the subject, my district bears naturally, and I may add deservedly, the reputation of being, socially speaking, a "hot 'un." The discharge of the duties of my office brings me daily into contact with the inhabitants of the district, and gives me perforce an intimate knowledge of their ways of life. I see them in their habits as they live ; see them as they are seen among themselves and as others do not see them, especially such others as are occasionally brought sight-seeing under police guidance and protection.
    The locality affords a practical illustration of the saying that one half of the world does not know how the other half lives. It lies well inland in that half world situated on poverty's side of the social gulf, and the supposed warmth of its social atmosphere causing it to be avoided by strangers, but little is known of the modes of exist-[-184-]ence prevailing in it even by the dwellers on the threshold of "society's" side of the gulf. Though the life of the quarter, as a whole is by no means so strange or savage or sensational as many good people to whom it is a terra incognita imagine, it is yet sufficiently distinctive and curious to form an interesting and even a graphic study in sociology. It is a fairly representative district of its kind. It is not large, but it is compact and densely populated, its inhabitants numbering twenty thousand all told.
    Roughly speaking, it forms an oblong with a series of narrow streets running across its length, these streets being in their turn intersected by a network of still narrower slums and alleys. Longitudinally it is bounded on the one edge by the foreshore of the river, and on the other by the general high-street of the larger neighbourhood, of which my ground forms the "low" quarter. Running parallel with these boundaries, and about midway between them, is a long and comparatively wide street, which, cutting right through the cross streets, has the effect of partitioning off the rookeries into two distinct sets, to both of which it serves as a special high-street, its shops and methods of trading being adapted to the means and tastes of a London slum's population. The lower rookeries, those bordering on the river, are occupied by irregularly employed dock-labourers, deal-porters, and coal-heavers, the unskilled hands (of both sexes) employed in chemical works, white-lead factories, and other such unhealthy or unpleasant trades established on the river banks, watermen fallen upon evil days, and "waterside characters."
    [-185-] The inhabitants of the upper rookeries constitute a still more miscellaneous gathering, made up chiefly of odd-job men, costers, hawkers - licensed and unlicensed - tinkers, sandwich-men, shoeblacks, crossing-sweepers, and all other manner of street people, a small colony of what their neighbours call the wild Irish, and a liberal sprinkling of the no-visible-means-of-support class. If the Dwellings Improvement Act had not been framed on the how-not-to-do-it lines, if instead of saying to the Local Authority "You may," it had said "You must demolish dwellings which, though used as, are unfit for, human habitations" - if this had been the case my district as it at present exists would long ere this have been swept away.
    Fit for human habitation its dwellings certainly are not, though they are very much inhabited, overcrowding being the rule in them. The houses are small, and in outward appearance dirty and dilapidated. Within they are gloomy as well as dirty. There is, generally speaking, quite as much rag and paper as glass in the windows, and in more than one instance
        "The hole that serves for a casement
         Is glazed with an ancient hat."
Many of the doors show odd or broken panels, and the original paint of doors and window-frames alike has been altogether overlaid by a dispiriting arrangement in various shades of weather-stain and worn-in dirt, "picked out" by irregular touches of sun-blister. Such metal "fixings" as scrapers and door-handles, knockers or numbers, have in the majority of instances long gone the way of the [-186-] marine stores. The tarnishing of the homes is always upon the scantiest possible scale, and in the roughest and most rickety style. The walls and timbers of the apartments are permeated with a malodorous reek of humanity, not to speak of their being permanently colonised by those domesticated insect tribes that are not usually named to ears polite.
    Save in a few rare cases, even the smallest houses are occupied by two or more families, and numbers of the larger - the six-roomed - houses have their family per room. This leads to the windows of upper stories being a good deal used by way of doors. Even in the winter, opposite neighbours gossip across the street from them, and exchange "catches" with loaves, shoes, bundles of firewood, and other the like borrowings and lendings. All manner of things are "heaved" or hoisted up to them from the pavement, and pails of dirty water or baskets of ashes, or other household refuse are freely flung down. This latter practice is not here the danger that it would be in a different locality. It is known to be "a custom of the country" by the natives and such official foreigners as have recognised business there, and it is very rarely indeed that any others penetrate into the district. Passer's-by are therefore taken to be generally forewarned, and are supposed to keep a bright look-out on open windows and to have their ears open for the warning cry of "Below there!" which it is due to the lady denizens of the upper floors to say they are careful to whoop out before "letting go" with their slop-pails or dust-baskets. As passengers, from mere force of habit, do keep on the alert it is very seldom that any accident occurs. Occa-[-187-]sionally a woman may get a bucket of water thrown over her from a second floor window, but in most such cases this is the result, not of accident, but of a "plant," the "doused" and the "douser" being at enmity, and bucketing being a favourite method of attack in the feminine warfare of the district.
    The streets, as I have said, are narrow, and they are also ill-paved, badly drained, and over-guttered, for practically the entire roadways are turned into gutters. And in these gutters the children of the rookeries may be seen disporting themselves at all hours of the day - the school-board notwithstanding - comparatively happy in their dirt and freedom. The adult inhabitants also show out of doors a good deal; not, of course, tumbling about the gutters, but sitting on the door-steps or window-sills, or lounging or reclining upon the pavement. This is most markedly the case in the summer months, when the multitudinous insect colonists of the dwellings are given to show themselves tormnentingly active in the struggle for existence. Donkeys and goats are quartered pretty much as members of the families to which they belong, and the fowls, which are numerous, thought not choice, have about as free a run of the houses by night as they have of the streets by day.
    All sorts of odd and obscure industries are also carried on indoors, so that upon the whole these ramshackle dwellings are very fully and variedly utilised. The parish dust-cart is rarely seen in the district, but the parish fever and smallpox cabs find a good deal of their work there; so likewise do the parish doctor and the relieving officer; while the wife-beatings, violent assaults, street [-188-] rows, and public-house scrimmages, for which the quarter is notorious, furnish neighbouring hospitals and police courts with some of their most interesting cases.
    Like other and better people, the inhabitants of a rookery district must have their amusements. Chief among these - especially with the younger men and women - are the public-house "Harmonic Meetings." Admission to these entertainments is free, the publicans looking for their gain to the extra drinking "for the good of the house," which in these cases it is found in practice music (?) has charms to promote. Mine host supplies the instrumental music, generally a much-worn piano "jangled out of tune," while the audience furnish the vocal "talent." Ladies and gentlemen who fancy they can sing - and to judge from their efforts, such a fancy upon their parts must in most instances involve great powers of imagination - "oblige the company." The company in return drink the "health and song" of each performer, and all goes pleasantly, that is to say, profitably for the landlord, however it may be with his customers. The organ-grinder and the street ballad-singers are welcome visitants in a rookery district. Curiously enough, however, the members of the street-singing fraternity who are resident in a district, or habitual frequenters of its common lodging-houses, find themselves, like prophets, without honour in their own country. The fact is, the modern wandering minstrel is, as a rule, likely to fare better the farther he wanders from where he is best known.
    The language current in a rookery is full of strange oaths, and so slangy as at times to be unintelligible [-189-] to outsiders. The manners prevailing are a good deal mixed, ranging from the abjectly "'umble" to the brutally ferocious. The customs are undesirable but curious. That as a body the inhabitants of such a locality as this are a rough, and in some respects a "fearsome" set is but over true ; but any aversion that may be felt towards them should in justice be tempered with pity. That they are as they are is at least as much their misfortune as their fault. Their obnoxious characteristics are in a great measure an inevitable result of; to use the phrase of the day, the law of environment. Their surroundings, material, moral, and social, preclude development in the graces of life. More literally than most others, they are born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards.
    Many of them inherit physical defects or sickly constitutions, and there can be little doubt that a considerable proportion of them are born with the drink craving, which to them is the root of all evil. They are uneducated, have been dragged up, or have had to "tumble up" without even time help of parental dragging, and they are steeped to the hips in poverty, with all its attendant ills end coarsening effects upon the human character. Whether or not there us any far-off touch of truth in their own theory, vaguely and variously expressed, that they are society's martyrs, certain it is that their actual lot in life is a hard one, and on the whole they bear it bravely.
    They are for the most part unconscious philosophers making the most of any passing good that may befall them, and as for the rest, going upon the principle that sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Generally [-190-] speaking, they do not look forward to any improvement in the condition of their class. It has always been thus with the poor, they argue, and "ever will be till the world shall end." But there are those among them who are not without hope that there is a good time coming, and one can but trust that this more cheerful view may prove prophetic.