Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 21 - Parting with the Home

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IN the earlier days of my work among the poor - days in which I had yet to realise as fully as I have since come to do the extremity of privation that the poor can and do endure, and live - in those comparatively inexperienced days I would often ask, on hearing some story of distress, "But how do you manage to live at all?" The husband, an unskilled labourer, has, say, to take a typical case, been out of work for weeks, or it may be even months. The wife has tried to "turn her hand to something," but she is not robust enough for the heavier forms of female labour, and turning to the "sweater"-dominated businesses in which the weaklings find employment, she discovers that, wretched as is the pay in them, such callings are overcrowded. There is but scant room in them for new or late comers, and the earnings of such are almost nominal. Then there are two or three children to be supported. When you hear a story of this kind, having knowledge that it is "true in substance and fact," the question, How do you manage to live? may well rise to your lips.
    In such cases the heat and burden of the evil days fall chiefly upon the woman, and, as a rule, she accepts the burden, I won't say cheerfully, for the position is [-296-] wholly dreary, but loyally and lovingly. It is the woman who will try to reply to your question. "How do we manage to live?" she will repeat. "Well, really I can't tell you; I scarcely know myself." The answer may sound strange or appear shuffling, but it is true; she could not tell you in any detail. So much of the evil time has been got through somehow, and somehow they hope to "rub along" till better days shall come again.
    Their confidence, even in the darkest hours of their poverty, that brighter days will return, speaks volumes for the faith that is in the poor. The landlord, the woman may go on to explain in a general way, has not been very hard upon them, and neighbours of their own class, but more fortunate than they for the time being, have been kind to them. They live chiefly on bread and tea, and for these articles they are still granted a limited credit at the small general shop at which, when they had it, they spent their ready money. " Of course," the story usually concludes, and then, and not till then, the voice of the woman is broken, and the tears gather in her eyes - "of course we are parting with the home; it has been pretty well melted down to this;" and you are shown a bundle of pawn-tickets. Very small bundles some of them are too, though they may represent the little "all" that has gone to make some humble home comfortable.
    Having to part with their homes is one of the greatest trials of the self-respecting poor, especially when it occurs for the first time. For, alas! it but too often happens that this parting becomes a recurring one. When after a first such parting with a home the prayed and hoped-[-297-]for better times arrive the work of redeeming the household "belongings" is of necessity a slow process. Often when it is completed, sometimes before it is completed, evil times befall again, and the recovered treasures have once more to be parted with. I have heard it said that, as regards what those using the argument choose to style the sentimental side of the question, this brings the relief incidental to the "nothing when you are used to it" feeling. It may be that there is something in this, that the sense of humiliation at having to resort to the pawnshop, the sensation of shamefacedness at being seen to enter it, become less keen from usage. This may or may not be, but in any case each successive "putting away" of the household "belongings" is financially an increasing evil, is more and more in the nature of a sacrifice. The labouring poor are always within a very measurable distance of the need for recourse to the pawnshop; but thin partitions do their bounds divide in this matter. Their earnings are small, and often precarious, and are at best but barely sufficient unto the day, even when estimated in relation to a hand-to-mouth style of living.
    Anything in the nature of a lengthened "spell" out of employment speedily exhausts every other means of keeping the wolf from the door save that of beginning to part with the home. There are no savings to fall back upon, and credit is strictly limited. For a week or two the landlord, sharing the hope of his unfortunate tenant that work will "turn up," may "be patient." On the same ground, and for a like period, the baker and the "small general" shopkeeper with whom the family have dealt when they were in a position to be ready-[-298-]money customers may supply food on trust, while friends may lend a few shillings or a few pence according to their means. But when at the end of the week or two it is seen that the search for employment has been vain, and that the out-of-work "spell" seems likely to be prolonged, resources of these kinds "dry up."
    If the landlord is "a good sort," he intimates, apologetically and sympathetically, but still pretty firmly, that he really cannot allow any further accumulation of arrears. Should the landlord not be a good sort, should he be a mere rack-renter, so much the worse for the out-of-work tenant. In that case the landlord "gives it 'em straight" to use his own phrase. That is to say, he brusquely, not to say brutally, informs them that he has had enough of this sort of thing, that he has nothing to do with people being out of work, and that he has to look after himself. His property is his living, he goes on and he will have either his rent or his rooms ; his motto is, "Pay up, or out you go;" and if he can't get his money he will "take the sticks."
    The shopkeepers put it that they must have something on account, and neighbours explain - truthfully enough - that being so poor themselves, to "stand out of" what they have already lent is as much as they can do. At this pass, if the family is to maintain a roof over their heads, and have even dry bread to eat, they must raise money; and for them there is but one honest way to do so - the way of the pawnshop. That is a foregone conclusion, the only debatable point is as to what among their scanty belongings shall go first. In such a household as is here under consideration there will be no superfluities, [-299-] no ornaments of price, no trinkets, no jewellery, - unless indeed the worn wedding-ring may be accounted jewellery, though in any case that is the last thing to be parted with. It is a point of honour, almost of superstition, with the women to retain the wedding-ring as long as possible, to part with it only in the direst extremity. There is not even a watch among the family possessions, and if there is a clock it is generally of so poor or antiquated a type that no pawnbroker would be prepared to make an advance upon it.
    Clothing and bedding are, as a rule, the articles most readily available to deposit as "material guarantees" for small pawnbroking loans. Even in winter-time blankets usually go first, as their loss can in some measure be made up by using the wearing apparel of the day as bedclothes by night. If the want of employment continues, however, the wearing apparel has soon to follow the blankets. Underclothing, overcoats - if there are any - even at last the boots off the children's feet, everything that upon the most liberal construction of the term can be considered spare clothing, is gradually "put away." Nor does it take long for all to go. The articles are poor of their kind, the amounts lent upon them small, and the demands upon those sums many and urgent. When there is nothing left to pawn, or at any rate that is pawnable, and the pressure of want still continues, there is sometimes a trifle still to be realised out of the sale of the pawn-tickets.
    The hopefulness of the poor is one of their most striking and, for themselves, one of their most blessed characteristics. It might without exaggeration be said that [-300-] all their days are days of adversity, but they do not themselves take that view. They are thankful for small mercies, and even during what they consider times of adversity they are still hopeful of a good time coming - are fain to persuade themselves of each dark hour that it is the proverbial darkest hour that precedes the dawn.
    It may be noted indeed that they are greatly given to comfort themselves with the proverbial philosophy that teaches hope. That when things get to the worst they will mend; that it is a long lane that has the turning; and that "many a dark and cloudy morning turns out to be a sunshiny day," are sayings familiar in their mouths as household words. When they are first driven to pawning they are buoyed up by this spirit of hope, and strive to believe that work will soon "turn up," and that they will speedily be able to redeem their goods again. Influenced by this feeling, they begin their pawning operations by pledging their property for less amounts than the pawnbrokers would be willing to lend upon it. By acting in that fashion, they argue, they will have the less capital to make up, the less interest to pay when the happy day arrives when they shall be in a position to repossess themselves of the articles "put away" in their hour of need. But the hoped-for good time coming lingers by the way. By degrees they are compelled to part with all pawnable possessions, and with so much "away" they begin to realise that it will scarcely be possible to redeem everything in the time within which it is redeemable. In this state of affairs they seek to make the best of those earlier transactions in which they have taken less upon their pledges than [-301-] they might have obtained. Sometimes they will, by a special effort, raise the means to take out those particular "lots," and immediately repawn them for the utmost amounts they can get advanced upon them; but the more general plan is to try to sell the tickets for about the sum that it is calculated they would gain upon the "double shuffle" in the way of pawning. In this way there is usually a considerable amount of traffic in pawn-tickets going on in poor neighbourhoods.
    Pawning among the poor is not quite the simple affair that to outsiders it might appear to be. The poor themselves soon become aware of this. When a woman for the first time finds herself under the necessity of parting with the home through the pawnshop, she will generally seek the advice of some friend who, from having been more or less frequently "through the mill," has become an expert in the matter. Such a friend will know which particular local pawnbrokers do or do not care for this or that special line of pledges; or which of them again are "hard" in setting their faces against the "marrying" of pledges - that is to say, against taking "a made-up parcel" as a single pledge. They insist upon a separate ticket being taken for each article - a method of business profitable to them, seeing that they are entitled by law to charge a halfpenny for each ticket. The experienced hand will know further to about the extent the more liberally disposed pawnbrokers will allow making up in pledges, and what classes of articles are held to go well together in constituting a "lot;" all of which is materially valuable information to the inexperienced pawner.
    [-302-] But even to those whose sad lot it is to have become experienced in this matter, the pawnshop is but a poor resource. The pawnbrokers, as they inform their clients, must secure of themselves - can't afford to run risks. As a matter of fact they do take exceeding good care of themselves, and, to use a paradoxical phrase, glow rich upon poverty. The proportion of the value of a "pledge" that they will lend upon it, is small, and the pawnable effects of a poor family are soon engulfed. Of course I am speaking here of the class of poor whom misfortune alone has driven to the pawnshop, the class who pawn hoping and meaning to redeem, but who in the first instance pawn indefinitely - until they shall have got into work, and have remained in it long enough to have time to "turn themselves round." Such a period of - relative - prosperity may not, however, indeed too frequently does not, come within the time for which the goods are put away. The pawnbroker knows even better than the pawners of this type that there is a considerable risk of their pledges being left on his hands. And as it is from the payment of interest upon his loans, not on the sale of unredeemed pledges, that he makes his largest  profits, his advances in this connection are, as already intimated, upon a low scale. It is in this fashion that he takes care of himself. He so manages his business that at the worst he is assured of' a good profit. Still the customers here in view are not his best customers.
    The pawnbroker's most profitable clients are the regular hands - the reckless, thriftless, habitual pawners, with whom to pawn has become a thing of custom. In work or out of work, these finance themselves through the [-303-] pawnshop. They are the Monday to Saturday pawners, and it is of them that the bard of street minstrelsy has slangily sung -
        "What goes up the spout on Monday comes out
            On Saturday afternoon."
    To these the pawnbroker will make advances upon a more liberal scale, and as he is free to charge not less than a month's interest on any transaction, it will be seen that the regular hands pay for their accommodation at a highly usurious rate. This holds them in the net; "it finds them poor, and it keeps them so." These Monday to Saturday pawners, these payers of fifty-two months' interest to the year, are a decreasing class, though when their characteristics are considered, a still lamentably numerous one. They are a class, however, who are not directly in question here. I have spoken of them thus far only because I know that there are many who not uncharitably, but in ignorance, suppose that all of the poor who resort to the pawnshop must of necessity be of this stamp. Such is not the case. Most of the struggling, thriftily living poor are, from no fault of their own, sorely against their will, and as a last desperate defence against hunger, driven to seek the dearly bought temporary aid of the pawnshop. To these the necessity for visiting the pawnshop is an added sting to their poverty. They enter and leave its portals shrinkingly and furtively hold aloof from it as long, and free themselves from it as soon as they can. The latter process is a long and painful one. The "putting away" of the things is effected all too rapidly, but getting them out again is a very different matter.
    [-304-] When the bread-winner obtains employment again, landlords, shopkeepers, and others press their outstanding claims, while the pawnbroker is in this respect a sleeping dog. He has got his bone in any case, and can well afford to wait. The family have generally a good deal to do in the way of "turning themselves round," before they can even think of taking things out of pawn. Even when the happy time arrives, when they can turn their thoughts to that point, the work is a kind that requires a good deal of engineering. The two blankets which constituted the family property in that line are "away," and it being now winter, they would in a general way be the first things redeemed. But in this connection general considerations must give way to special.
    On an examination of the pawn-tickets it is seen that Billy's boots are nearly "run out," that they must be recovered promptly if they are to be recovered at all. They are "in" for two shillings, originally cost five shillings and sixpence, and are "almost as good as new." Meanwhile Billy is badly in need of boots. The old pair of woman's boots, the gift of a neighbour, that he is wearing have a good deal more of upper than sole about them. They literally do not keep his feet off the ground, while being worn to a pulpy condition, they freely absorb and retain mud and moisture, with the result that Billy's feet are severely "chapped" and chilblained, and he is constantly catching cold. Billy, though not called into counsel, has of course a specially lively interest in this discussion of the family committee on ways and means, and boldly "puts in his word" on his own behalf.
    [-305-] Broadly the feeling of the committee is in his favour but the mother bethinks her that, notwithstanding the privations he has had to share, Billy has grown since his boots were parted with. It occurs to her that he may have literally grown "too big for his boots," and this gives her pause. The boy, however, is urgent; he professes that the boots were a bit too big for him, and the sight of his "poor feet" pleads trumpet-tongued for him. He is given the benefit of the doubt as to whether the boots will still prove a fit, and they are taken out.
    This means that the blankets must wait, and later it is found that they must wait again, and yet again. Father's overcoat is among the things that are "away," and as the winter advances it begins to be seen that, despite his assertions to the contrary, he "feels the want of it," especially when going out to work in the early morning. He looks "perished" with cold, and cannot conceal that he has twitches of rheumatism. There is danger of his being laid up, an alarming prospect, and so mother insists that the coat shall be got out. Got out accordingly it is, and the wisdom of the proceeding is soon evident in the improved health of father. The latter in his turn notices that mother and little Polly are feeling the cold, and he lays it down that their flannel petticoats shall be the next articles redeemed. All this has of course to be done gradually. By the time so much is accomplished the worst of the winter is over, and having done without the blankets so long the family might manage to "rub along" without them still longer. Now, however, it is not a question of comfort only, but of time. The blankets can no longer wait, a reference to the pawn-tickets shows that [-306-] they are on the eve of running out. They are such important factors in household economy that it will not do to lose them if that catastrophe can be avoided. A supreme effort, an effort perhaps involving a re-pawning of other things, is made, and the blankets are saved.
    There are other articles still in pledge that are about "time-expired," but all has been done that can be done within the limit of time. There is nothing for it but to try to sell the tickets of such remaining pledges for what trifling sums they will bring. It is rarely indeed that, when the whole of the pawnable "belongings" of a poor household have been "put away," they are all redeemed. In that respect the household must, in some greater or lesser degree, remain shorn of its fair proportions. To achieve even so much as is indicated in the illustrative instance given above is a great task. The amount of money involved would sound ridiculously small, but relatively to the means of a labouring man with a family to support and the leeway of a spell out of work to pull up, it is a formidable sum. To put it together means the continuance of considerable privation, habitual self-sacrifice, long and severe stunting and saving. It means the leading of a life which many would declare was not worth living, but which the self-respecting poor live thankfully, and even cheerfully.
    It is when they are putting away, not when they are taking out, that they are sorrowful. They strive to "put a good face upon trouble," to endure their trials Spartan fashion. You may hear them speak euphemistically and with an attempt at jesting upon the subject of pawning. They will tell with a little laugh that they [-307-] have lent their blankets to a relation, that Billy's boots or Polly's petticoat have been left at uncle's, that the family valuables are at their bankers, and so forth. They try to be brave, try not to "pull a poor month" or "make a song" over the long-drawn misery of parting with the home. It may be that it is well that this is so - that the poor should show a bold front to adversity, should seek to "carry it off" with joke or jest. None the less trouble and privation are not to be daft aside or bid to pass, by jest or laughter. The jesting here is grim indeed, coming from the poor themselves, and the laughter has no true ring in it. It is the laughter that is akin to tears, and there is heaviness of heart under the assumed lightness of speech.
    Some of the sharpest pinches of poverty are associated with the pawnshop. Thus a man who has been long out of work cannot accept unexpectedly offered employment because his tools are away, or his wife cannot take a day's work because her garments are in pawn. Worse than that, children are seen to daily waste and pine, to be falling in a way to become weaklings for life for lack of the seasonable clothing that is lying packed away in the warehouse of the pawnbrokers. So it frequently happens that the most effective means of assisting a poor family is to aid them in redeeming some portion of their belongings from the limbo of the pawnshop.
    A packet of pawn-tickets, worn and frayed from much handling and not unfrequently tear-stained, is certainly a commonplace not to say a sordid-looking object. Nevertheless, rightly considered, it is often in the nature of a tragic volume. It is a symbol of suffering and sorrow, of [-308-] the suffering that comes of want and privation, and the sorrow of that heart-sickness that comes of hope deferred. It speaks of days and weeks, or it may be months, of that hardest of all hard work - the looking for work and failing to find it. It represents the parting with everything that goes to make a house a home, or that raises life above the point of a desperate daily struggle against sheer starvation.