Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 19 - A Single-Room Home

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THE greater part of my district is made up of streets of "tenement" houses. At the best these are not a desirable class of street either to live in or look on, but there is a best, and a better, and a worse among them. In some of the newer streets the dwellings are expressly fitted for occupation by two families, each house consisting practically of two three-roomed flats, while in some of the less modern streets the houses, though less convenient for tenement occupation, have the same number of rooms, and in the majority of instances are inhabited by only two families each. As the apartments of even the better and best tenement houses run small, and the families dwelling in them generally run large, domestic life in such houses is usually a pretty tight fit.
    These, however, are not the type of houses or streets that are in view - among the initiated, at least - when overcrowding is spoken of. It is in quite another type of tenement street that the neuter evils of over-crowded dwellings are to be found, the type that goes to constitute the latter-day Slough of Despond - our outcast London. This is the tenement-street the houses whereof are let off in single-room tenements - the street within whose dwellings the comforts and graces of home life are [-270-] known, and its decencies hard indeed to observe; though, thanks to the self-respecting and self-sacrificing endeavours of the poor, they are observed to a greater extent than is generally supposed.
    There is a generic character about these streets. They are old and narrow, slum-intersected, dirty, dilapidated, unsightly, unsanitary, and depressing. In them men and women "dwindle, peak, and pine;" disease is rife, the death-rate high, and an abnormal infant mortality a thing of course. The tenement streets of this class are an almost unknown territory to the outer public. The explorers of such regions are for the most part official personages. The parish doctor, the relieving officer, and the school-board officer are to be seen in them daily, and so happily are the Scripture reader and the district visitor. The agent of the parish undertaker is a well-known visitant, and the parish hearse and the parish ambulance are more frequently to be seen than the parish dust-cart.
    It might be thought that the medical officers of health and sanitary inspectors would find their chief work in such localities; but they rarely put in an appearance unless something in the nature of a public scandal affecting their department has arisen. And it is in single rooms of the ramshackle, rack-rented, authority-neglected houses of the tenement streets of this type that hosts of the honest labouring poor have perforce to make their homes, their poverty and not their will consenting.
    On turning into a street of this kind one afternoon I saw a number of comfortable-looking, "respectably attired" men coming out of one of the houses - and looking glad to get out of it. That they were not in-[-271-]habitants of the quarter would have been obvious at a glance, even to a stranger, while to myself, knowing the life of the place as I did, their presence there was self-explanatory - they were a coroner's jury, and had been to "view the body." They were coming along the street towards me, the coroner's officer bringing up the rear. When the latter individual reached the point at which I was standing, he volunteered the information - "It is only an infant. There is nothing in it. Sure to be a verdict of death from natural causes, you know. It happened to die before the doctor arrived, and so he couldn't certify as to the cause of death."
    The so sudden death of an infant, though not an everyday occurrence in the street, was so far a commonplace incident that it attracted but little attention among the inhabitants, most of whom were probably of opinion with the coroner's officer, that there was nothing in it. The parents of the dead baby were a steady, struggling, but bitterly poverty-stricken couple. For some time before the death of their little one their poverty had been so extreme, that though they had always been poor, they might at this period fairly be ranked as people who had seen better days.
    At the time of their marriage the man had been a dock labourer in regular employment, and the woman a "hand" in a lead factory, earning fifteen shillings a week - an amount of wages which made her in her degree quite a little fortune to a husband. But in the latter days of their married life they had fallen upon evil times. Through long-continued depression of trade the husband had dropped from the regular [-272-] into the casualty class of labourers - the class that day after day wait about dock gates, and struggle and beg, and but too often wait and struggle and beg in vain - for the chance of an hour or two's work at fourpence an hour.
    The wife had - as is the case with most lead factory hands sooner or later - become so seriously affected with lead-poisoning that she had to leave the factory. She had then taken to washing and charing, but with health permanently impaired and no "trade connection worked up," her earnings in that field of labour had been very small, so small indeed that often the joint earnings of man and wife amounted to no more than six or seven shillings a week, out of which they had to pay three shillings for the rent of their room. That under such conditions of existence their baby had been weak and ailing was no matter for surprise. It had caught a cold, which the mother had not regarded as a serious thing, and which would probably not have proved a serious thing in the case of a healthy, well-nourished child.
    The mother had treated the little patient herself, applying such simple remedies as she could purchase in pennyworths at a neighbouring chemist's. Under this treatment the child was apparently getting better, when a violent attack of coughing brought on convulsions. The parish doctor had then been hastily summoned, and though he had attended with a promptitude that does not always characterise the action of parish doctors under such circumstances, the child had died before he was upon the spot. This, as brought out at the inquest, was the story of life and death in a representative single-room house-[-273-]hold. The verdict, as the coroner's officer had anticipated would be the case, was one of death from natural causes, and the parents, freed from any shadow of blame or imputation of neglect, were left to bury their dead as best they could.
    Now the mother had loved her babe with a love that some aught be disposed to look upon as foolish. It was a special matter of grief to her that she could not show some outward and visible sign of her love in the manner of her little one's funeral. That her desire in this respect should be fulfilled was apparently out of the question. She was without present means, and not in a position to obtain credit with an undertaker. The father had to apply to the parish, and an order for a coffin and interment was readily enough given. That a "pauper" coffin should be as plain and inexpensive an article as possible is perhaps right in the abstract, but at times when death is within their dwellings - times when they are swayed rather by their feelings than their reason - the plainness and roughness that brand the pauper coffin are often a painful thing to the poor.
    It was so in the case of this poor mother; but for her, though she knew it not till it came, there was balm from Gilead here. Her neighbours were aware of her wish and her grief, and, poor as they were, they subscribed among them - mostly in pennies - the small sum necessary to pay for such ornamentation of the coffin, in the way of bandies and plates, as dispauperised its appearance, so to speak. Then one neighbour lent, and another washed and ironed, a sheet sufficiently large to drape the tiny coffin and the rough deal table upon which it was [-274-] placed; a third - a flower hawker by calling - sent a bouquet of simple flowers, which were put in water and stood upon the coffin.
    I was told that from delicacy of constitution and frequent illness the infant had in its brief lifetime come to be "a weird, pain-stricken-looking little creature." If so, death had come as a beautifier. I was shown the child as it lay in its white-draped, flower-bedecked little coffin, was shown it at a time when as yet "decay's effacing fingers" had not touched it, when only the calmness and restfulness of death were upon it. If the countenance had in life worn a pained expression, that expression had been swallowed up in death. There was now a glorified smile upon the tiny baby face, and calm, deep calm. As I looked upon it I involuntarily quoted to myself -
        "Lifeless, but beautiful it lay."
    The little dead presence seemed to sanctify the squalid room, to take away, in this particular instance, the general sense of horror attaching to the reflection that in these single-room homes - the only homes possible to tens of thousands of our poor, under existing social conditions - the living must, during the period elapsing between death and burial, eat and work, and sleep, live, move, and have their being in the same apartment with their dead. Think of it, reader, think of "social conditions" - which some who are not subject to them would have us believe we must have always with us - that not only make life hard and miserable, but also, in innumerable instances, rob even death of its dignity, and mar the sacredness that should belong to it. Should we passively accept the [-275-] must here ? Should we not rather, all of us, work as well as pray for a time when such "social conditions" shall cease from out the land ?
    There are philosophical and strong-minded people who would persuade poor parents that the death of an infant is a "happy release," but the parents here in question were not philosophical. They had loved their little one, and mourned its loss. So far, however, as neighbourly sympathy could comfort them, they were comforted. That sympathy accompanied them literally to the verge of the grave.
    On the day of the funeral a number of the women of the street, mustering what show of mourning they could in their attire, trudged off to the distant cemetery to await the arrival there of the parish hearse. There, as sisters in womanhood and motherhood and poverty with the poor mother, and with not only looks, but hearts attuned to the occasion, they stood reverently around the little open grave in the "pauper ground" in which baby was laid to the last long rest that wil1 know no breaking until that great day when all shall be changed, and the mortal put on immortality.
    Nor were their neighbours the only ones from whom these poor parents received kindness in their time of trouble. The coroner's jury had been for the most part men of a type who are usually spoken of as hard-headed, but in this instance, at any rate, the hard-headed men had not proved hard-hearted They had listened pityingly to the story of woe and want disclosed at the inquest, and one of them, a person of some local influence, "bore the case in mind." A little later he obtained employment [-276-] for the father of the dead child, regular employment, and so far well-paid employment that it obviated the necessity for the health-broken and sorrowing mother having to go out to labour for daily hire. The parents were becomingly grateful for their good fortune in this respect. But with their thankfulness mingled - especially in the case of the mother - an ever-present sense of regret, a feeling that the good fortune had come too late, in so far as it had not come until after the little one, who in its degree had shared with them the deepest bitterness of their poverty, had been taken.
    In this sense, if not in a coroner's officer's sense, something had, after all, come of the inquest; nor was that time only incidental matter that arose out of the inquiry. In his summing up the coroner had "held forth" upon the "horrors" of the single-room home life of the poorer tenement streets. His observations had probably enough been intended to be of general application, but the inhabitants of the street in which the subject of the inquest had lived out its brief life had by some means got it into their minds that the remarks were aimed at them in particular, and they were very wrothful upon the point.
    According to their version of them, the remarks had been to the general effect that such a dreadful condition of' home life as had been disclosed was the fault as well as the misfortune of the poor, and perhaps more their fault than their misfortune; that they were indifferent to the decencies of life, and that drink was the chief cause of there being such homes. As against these remarks they expressed themselves with a good deal of bitterness of feeling and considerable strength of language. They [-277-] knew coroners, they said, better than coroners seemed to know them. They knew, at any rate, that a coroner was a well-paid official, that his bread was buttered. He might fare sumptuously every day, without having to stint in home accommodation in consequence. It was not for the likes of him to sit in judgment upon the lives of those with whom the question of a sixpence or a shilling a week more or less in rent might mean a meal a day less, and upon whom the lowest rent they could get under weighed heavily, as rent was the one thing that must be unfailingly paid out of incomes that were not only small but precarious - with much more to the same effect.
    As one whose working life has to be spent among the poor, and who has daily to enter the homes of all sorts and conditions of the poverty-stricken - as one, in short, who, as the indignant ones put it, "ought to know," I was, while the subject was warm, repeatedly appealed to as to whether such remarks upon the poor were justifiable. Putting aside these particular observations, of which it will be noticed I had only a second-hand and one-sided version, I can safely say that in the matter of their miserable dwellings, as in the other matters of their miserable lives, the single-room poor - if I may be allowed the expression - make the best of things. As a class they are sober, for putting their sobriety upon no higher ground, they have not the wherewithal to procure drink. That their homes are scantily furnished goes without saying, but they are all the less "stuffy" and more easily ventilated on that account. The beds in them are many of them of the [-278-] kinds "contrived a double debt to pay;" are beds by night, and chests of drawers, or arm-chairs, or " well" sofas by day. By means of ingeniously contrived screens, numbers of these living rooms are converted into dormitories at night. Even the poorest of the poor desire to live decently, and considering the difficulties they have to contend with in this respect, it is wonderful how decently many of them do manage to live.
    To outward seeming the dwellers in these single-room tenement streets are coarse and squalid and commonplace to the last degree - a people with whom superficial observers would not dream of associating the idea of chivalrous sentiment or deed; nevertheless there are those among them who are capable of thought and action that attain to the high-water mark of moral heroism. It is in these wretched tenement homes that the kindness of the poor to the poor touches the highest point of all its greatness. "It is great because it is so small," because there is so little in a material way to be kind with.
    Let me give briefly an illustration, taking it as one of the first that occurs to me. One bleak December afternoon I found a middle-aged woman sitting in a fireless room, and so "perished" with cold that she could scarcely ply the needle and thread with which she was "buttonholing" for the "slop" shirt trade. This buttonholing being a "starvation-wage" occupation, it but too frequently happens that women engaged in it cannot "run to" a fire even in the coldest weather. In that case they pile on whatever in the way of warm garments they may be possessed of, and with this, an oil-lamp burning in the early morning and again at night, and the room as nearly [-279-] hermetically sealed as can be managed, it is not, the women will tell you, "quite so bad as it looks" - especially when you are used to it.
    But the particular woman here in question was without boots, and had nothing in the way of wrappings over her dress, which latter article of attire was not of "winter material." I had seen her a day or two before fairly well booted and wearing a large "ulster," which, though shabby as to appearance and out of date as to fashion - having been a "cast-off" when it originally came to her - was still a warm and serviceable piece of raiment. As I knew the woman to be sober and industrious, I concluded that some special trouble had befallen her, under stress of which she had been compelled to (in the euphemistic phrase of the poor) "put away," that is, pawn her clothing.
    On my making a remark to that effect, however, she promptly, indeed I might almost say cheerfully, replied, "Oh no; things are not so bad as that with me, thank God! While I have health and eyesight, and can get work - badly paid as it is - I shall not need to pawn the boots off my feet. Though after all," she added, after a slight pause, the point having evidently just occurred to her, "there is boot pawning at the bottom of it, as you may say. You see, sir," she continued, "it is this war: through having her husband on her hands sick and out of work, Mrs. -------, who lives next room to me, has had to put away everything she could any way spare, and among the rest her own shawl and boots, and most of her underclothing. Well, she had a chance of a day's work at a laundry, and as she [-280-] could not get to the place, let alone stand at the washtub all day, without boots and clothes, and it would have been a sin to see her lose the day's work, why of course I lent her my things.
    As she sat there "blue-mottled" and shivering with cold, she was quite unconscious that in lending the chief part of her clothing to another under such circumstances she was doing a thing that was nothing less than heroic in its way. When, as I was leaving her, I observed that her sitting there for hours so ill-provided against the cold was enough to bring some serious illness upon her, and that I would see to a little firing being sent to her at once, she seemed not only surprised, but even a little doubtful - as though she were asking herself whether she might not be taking coal that might otherwise go to the relief of some one whose necessity was even greater than her own.
    The patient endurance and mutual goodwill which characterise the poor, taking them as a body, constitute the only redeeming features of these one-room homes. The question of improved dwellings for the poor has been thrashed out ad nauseam as a subject of academic debate. Surely the time has fully come when a practical attempt upon something like an imperial scale should be made to provide the much-talked-of dwellings. This is a point on which it may be emphatically asserted that delays are dangerous, for in the single-room homes of the poor, as they exist to-day, lurks the shadow of pestilence - pestilence that if it comes may not smite the poor alone.