Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 18 - The Workman's Whirlpool

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RECENT discussions - Parliamentary and other - on the licensing laws, recent remarks of various of the judges of the land upon the direct connection found to exist between drunkenness and drinking habits and crimes of violence, recent commentaries upon statistics of drink consumption - these and other circumstances pointing to the same conclusions would seem to indicate the approach of a special stirring of the public mind upon the great drink question.
    Nor is this to be wondered at. The question is one of such fearful importance, that the contemplation of it must exercise the mind and sadden the soul of all who either love their fellow-men or take any interest in the immediate or future welfare of this great nation.
    By those who are disposed to treat the drink question on leave-alone principles, it is often said that the statements put forth as to the magnitude of the national evil of drunkenness are sensational. It is pointed out that but a generation or two back a recognised standard of a man's prowess was the number of bottles he could "carry;" that it was a common thing for those who were by courtesy styled gentlemen to drink till they fell helpless under the table; and that drunkenness was [-256-] rather the rule than the exception, and was rather approved of than merely tolerated. But now, continue those who use this line of argument, we have altered all this. The drinking habits once considered creditable are now held to be shameful, and drunkenness, if even yet not altogether unknown, is at any rate vastly diminished in "society."
    That such is the case none can admit more rejoicingly than myself; and I as readily admit that any statement which implied that no such particular reform in the matter of drunkenness had taken place would be sensational. But that one of a hundred drinking customs has disappeared does not alter the facts that others previously unknown have meanwhile been established, and that increase in the consumption of intoxicating drinks has gone on in a ratio relatively greater than increase of population. That the more absolute and publicly apparent forms of drunkenness have a tendency to gravitate more exclusively towards "the lower orders" I can well believe, even though I have never seen any statistical or other definite demonstration to that effect. It is quite natural that it should be so, simply because less has been done in their case than in the case of any other section of society to altogether remove or favourably modify the inducements, or rather enforcements, to drink by which they are surrounded.
    My daily duties taking me into the homes and haunts of the "lower orders," I see of necessity a great deal of the drunkenness prevailing among them, and of the sin, sorrow, suffering, and brutalisation that are its inevitable results. It is, therefore, not from any want of knowledge [-257-] either of the nature or extent of drink-created evil, that I say that I never hear unqualified condemnation poured out upon the wretched drunkards without feeling that some measure of injustice is being done them. They are entitled, not as a matter of sentiment only, but as a matter of right, to pity and help, as well as to condemnation: if they are sinners, they are also victims.
    Have those who are uttering their condemnation of the low-life drunkard ever thoughtfully considered the subject, ever attempted to search out the genesis or trace the development of the drinking habit? Have they
        "Known the temptation ere they judged the crime?"
    I fancy not! It is a terrible thing to say, but as true as terrible, that a large proportion of the English poor are born to drink just as the Esquimaux are born with a taste for food specially suited to an Arctic climate, or the Fijian to consider the shedding of blood not a crime but a glory, and the killing of the decrepit, maimed, and sick among themselves a desirable practice. The general customs of their country and their own immediate environments, physical, social, and moral, make a love of intoxicating drinks as natural in the English poor as a love of wholesome food. They inherit a drinking strain by hereditary transmission, and take a taint from the mother's breast. They are born in a vitiated atmosphere, one of the especial effects of which is in practice found to be to create thirst and a craving for stimulants, and are brought up in localities where all that should be best in social intercourse is interwoven with drinking customs.
    From the cradle to the grave they live and move and [-258-] have their being in squalid regions wherein drink is king, holding his court in palaces while his victims are housed - I cannot say homed - in noisome hovels; where every street has its public-house, and instead of mind, drink is the standard of the man - the best of good fellows, he who is the jolliest when in his cups or the most liberal in standing treat; the man of might, the one who in the phraseology of drinking circles is the greatest die-hard - that is to say, who can take more drink than others before reaching the last or "dead" stage of drunkenness.
    If we consider the moulding power of our habitual surroundings and the influences arising out of them, and then bear in mind the nature of the surroundings here in question, the wonder is that some living amid them are sober, not that the bulk of them are drinkers, and many drunkards. Drinking and drunkenness are induced and insisted upon by constitution and custom, by the "plentiful lack" of all counteracting influence, and - if it is not a misuse of the word - honour; for to drink is held to be the proper and social and manly thing ; to abstain, the unworthy and milk-soppy.
    To put the matter more clearly let us adopt a more specific, a more individual form of illustration. Let us take the case of a child born in one of these localities it has become a fashion to speak of as rookeries - human rookeries. There needs not to take the extreme circumstances that tens of thousands of such cases would afford. I will put it that the father of the child is what in his own social circle would only be accounted a drinking, not a drunken man. His habitual drinking is restricted to an average of two pots of ale or porter a day, a quantity [-259-] which he and his neighbours hold to be very moderate, and of a quality they suppose to be harmless, as they are quite unaware of the fact that a recent analysis of one hundred and nineteen specimens of ale and porter sold over public-house counters in various parts of London disclosed the fact "that a person who drinks two quarts of fourpenny ale or porter consumes more alcohol than is contained in half a pint of brandy or whisky." He only breaks out, or goes "on the spree" at intervals of from two to three months, and then only remains "on the drink" for from three days to a week, and on these occasions, instead of beating his wife, smashing the furniture, and destroying clothing, merely insists upon the wife drinking with him, and on furniture being sold or clothes pledged for the wherewithal to purchase drink.
    And as the father so is the mother, only a moderate drinker - as such things are estimated among the "lower orders." In the words of a song popular among those orders, she "likes a drop of good beer, she does," and consumes her daily pint or two. She "likes her drops" too - that is to say, drops of spirits, and notably gin - and takes them whenever "the money will run to it." But it is only on festive and special occasions that she exceeds what she considers a sober allowance. When she speaks of gin as "comfort," she honestly believes that it is so, and flies to it as comfort in bodily pain or mental distress.
    Such are the parents, such or worse have probably been their parents, and if there is anything in the doctrine of hereditary transmission, the child of such parents is almost certain to have a drinking taint in its blood, and it is [-260-] born into environments that, if established solely to develop that taint, could not be more effective to that end than as a matter of fact they are. It first sees the light in a dirty arid overcrowded room of a dirty and overcrowded house, in a dirty and overcrowded street, forming part of a dirty and overcrowded rookery - a room that has to serve as sleeping-room for the parents and probably two or three other children, and the only outlook from which is upon a reeking back-yard, where the chief object visible is the uncovered, uncleansed tank that supplies the house with water, the mere look of which, not to speak of its taste or odour, would afford no mean excuse for a resort to other forms of drinkables.
    Its earliest breath is drawn in a foul and drink-flavoured atmosphere, for this is a time when all concerned - except, of course, the infant - regard a liberal supply of "comfort" as a prime necessity. This same comfort being esteemed a specific for most of the ills to which baby flesh is more especially heir, the infant, when labouring under these ills, is freely drenched with it; and though the excuse sometimes put forward for an habitual drunkard that he or she was weaned on gin is spoken as a grim joke, it is in the case of such a child as is here spoken of merely an exaggeration, and not a great one, of a literal truth.
    So much for the days of helpless infancy. As the child reaches years of observation and remembrance, one of the sights with which it becomes familiar is that of its father coming home drunk. At first the spectacle makes it cower and whimper, but by repetition it loses its horror, and the boy of eight or nine is found quite [-261-] an accomplished hand in the art of getting his drunken parent upstairs, or taking off his boots, or unloosening his collar, or the like. Nor are the scenes of drunkenness witnessed within the walls of his own home the only or the worst ones with which he becomes acquainted.
    Let us take a walk down the street in which his parents live - and this, be it marked, is no imaginary picture, is only such an one as in the discharge of my duties I have had to look upon many a time and oft. It is a summer's evening, and, wrought upon by the heat, the combination of evil odours, to which the inhabitants have become acclimatised, would strike upon a stranger as highly poisonous, would probably induce a sensation of faintness in him, and suggest something spirituous by way of antidote and sustainment. The gin palaces at either corner are full, and the noise proceeding from them proclaims that the rival beershops almost facing each other in the middle of the street are literally as well as metaphorically driving a "roaring" trade. At numbers of open windows - both ground and upper - in the private houses men and women are seated drinking, the windowsills serving them as resting-places for their pots and glasses.
    A more numerous section than these have turned out of the houses and are seated on the pavement, some on chairs or stools, others on the bare flags. Like their neighbours at the windows, they have their pots and glasses beside them, and are engaged in the general business of drinking. Children are to be seen passing to and fro with cans and bottles, while quite a host of them are disporting themselves in the gutter. Some [-262-] of these occasionally receive a mark of parental or friendly notice in the shape of a gracious permission to "have a sip;" and it is no very unusual thing for a child to be permitted or encouraged to sip until it becomes intoxicated, and by its wild and senseless gambols makes sport for its elders, amongst most of whom such a proceeding is simply regarded as "an excellent merry jest."
    When one brought up among such scenes of drunkenness as these reaches man's estate, he finds himself surrounded by drinking customs that really make up a formidable social institution - an institution which it would require considerable moral courage upon the part of any one to disregard, and which is irresistible to any one in whom an original constitutional predisposition to drink has been continuously fostered by his surroundings. When he gets employment he must pay a "footing" in drink. He is shown and responds to friendship in drink - in sharing or "standing" a pot of beer or "goes" of spirits. If he would be considered a good fellow, or indeed not a bad fellow, he must drink. If his work is of the casualty kind, he has often to go to the public-house as the most likely place to hear of chances of work, and has not unfrequently to bribe in drink to keep work when he has got it. If he is out of employment, and with his family - if he has one - is penniless and starving, sympathy for him is shown in drink. For one who would think to ask him to share a meal, a score would invite him to have a glass, or join them in the drinking of the pot wherein they "wish him luck."
    This mode of treating men who are out of work is one of the most pernicious in the whole wide range of drink-[-263-]ing customs. It is not merely that it keeps men loafing about public-houses when they should be looking for, and might be finding, work. When such hard times are upon a man, the bad drink does its bad office upon him more rapidly and certainly than it would do in times when he was in a position to obtain a sufficiency of food. There is drunkenness and drunkenness. The knowing in such matters discriminate the thing into four leading forms - leg drunkenness, head drunkenness, dead drunkenness, and mad drunkenness; and drinking "upon an empty stomach" generally leads to this last and worst form of the malady.
    It is by the mad form that the hard-up workman is usually overtaken, when well-meaning friends, their good intentions turned to evil practice under the perverting influences of a baneful custom, have "treated" him not wisely but too well. The man goes home mad drunk; his wife, made irritable by hunger perhaps, meets him with reproaches, and there results one of those deeds of savagery such as our newspapers constantly teem with, upon which judges indignantly comment, and which the legislature has in vain tried to suppress by penal enactments of increasing severity. In vain, too, will be all continued efforts, legislative or other, to grapple with this and the thousand and one other evils resulting from drink, unless they are founded upon some method that recognises and deals at large with those social customs and physical and material surroundings which as naturally and necessarily lead to drinking as does cause to effect.
    The poor themselves seem to have a sort of dim consciousness of the deep-rootedness of the evil among them, [-264-] and of its being a to-be-expected result of their environment. I have spoken of their saying about children being weaned upon gin, and in the same way they will speak pityingly of any especially habitual drunkard as "poor old born-drunk;" and if one of the born-drunk species is greeted with "What, drunk again!" he (or she) will probably answer, "No, it is the same old drunk!" And in their case such an answer would have a saddening degree of literal truthfulness in it, for one who in these circles comes to be ranked among the born-drunks will in all probability frequently be drunk - that is, never perfectly sober - for months at a stretch. The whole tone taken on the subject is to the effect that the drunkenness is the misfortune, not the fault, of the drunkard - that it comes to him just as any other disease or affliction might do.
    It is of course among those who are native and to the manner born that the direful effects of the ring of drinking customs by which the poor are surrounded are most extensively seen; but their deadly power, as a moral maelstrom, is perhaps most strikingly shown by the manner in which they drag down others, who by the chances and changes of life are drifted within the circle of their influence. All do not succumb the better influences of past times give some of them sufficient strength to resist the indraught of the whirlpool. But many, sorrowfully many, go down, falling to rise no more and in the whole range of ills that befall poor humanity there is perhaps no more painful sight than that presented by a descent of this kind. The doomed know and feel that they are being engulfed, and in their weak way [-265-] struggle against their fate but the suction of the evil customs is too strong for them, and they are drawn from depth to depth of drunkenness.
    I am not concerned here to dwell upon the horrors resulting from drinking, the enormous amount of crime, want, and misery that mar be undoubtedly set down as drink-created. They make themselves but too unmistakably felt in our national life, are but too well known to all who ever give a thought to such matters. My purpose here is to try to throw some ray of light upon the genesis of the greatest of all our social evils, to endeavour to show how largely it is the result of pernicious customs that have been allowed to deeply imbed themselves in our social life - to become, indeed, to those among whom drinking is most rife, a chief feature and law of social life.
    I have met came who profess to regard these customs lightly and laughingly, to see a comic side in them, and hold the plea of irresistible custom as the merest excuse of willing drunkards. Such views I need scarcely say are as erroneous as they are mischievous or uncharitable, though they are doubtless natural enough to those - a tolerably numerous body nowadays - who either cultivate or ape a cynical tone with regard to "social problems." None who have had long or extensive experience among the poor, or have thoughtfully considered their condition, will need to be told, or hesitate to believe, that the drinking customs prevailing among them, and into the midst of which they are born, are as powerful to enmesh as they are tragical in their results.
    Although the crusade against drink has had so little of [-266-] success to cheer it on, the good fight is still continued, and I would respectfully suggest to the soldiers of this holy war that a part at least of their strength should be directed against the customs here dwelt upon. If the drink demon is to be conquered, the outworks of his stronghold must first be carried. That these are, in a great measure, the material and social surroundings of the classes among whom the evil is most prevalent, and to whom it does the most injury, there can be no doubt.
    And there can be as little doubt that the evil can only be dealt with through the surroundings. In the aggregate these surroundings become the conditions of existence to those born and bred under their influences, and it is a law of human and social, as well as of all other organisms, to adapt themselves to the conditions of existence. The surroundings making up the conditions in this case have directly and indirectly tended to foster drinking habits, and the natural result has been that those subjected to the conditions have as a body come to exhibit drunkenness as a social characteristic. If, their, there were substituted surroundings tending to sobriety, to the extent of such changes sobriety would follow in time - for the processes of social adaptation, though sure, are from their nature slow. Of the poor, as at present situated, it may truly be said that
        "Tis life for which they pant,
        More life and better that they want."