Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In the Slums, by the Rev. D. Rice-Jones, 1884 - Chapter 10 - What will my lady say?

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MOST ladies are, I believe, very particular in the matter of boots and shoes. Do they know in what sorts of places their exquisite little boots and shoes, for which they pay such large sums of money, are made? I trow not. If they did know, I doubt whether they would be able to dance in them with as light a step as before. But I suppose they would go on wearing them just the same. So, as it can make no difference in the demand or supply of the articles in question, I invite ladies of rank to come and see one of the places where their boots and shoes are made.
    It is in Great Wild Street, close to Drury Lane Theatre, a place well known to ladies of fashion, and not unfrequently visited by some of them. But they little dream, as they step out of their coroneted carriages to pass into the theatre, that those same dainty little feet-compressors, which they seem so studiously anxious to preserve from contact with [-39-] the pavement of Drury Lane, may owe their "artistic merit," and even their very existence, to the neighbouring slums. And yet it is as likely as not. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to suppose, that amongst the crowd of the unwashed who are watching the nobility and gentry get out of their carriages at the door of the theatre, there may be some who, on catching a passing glance at some noble lady's shoes, at once recognise old acquaintances, and are able to say to themselves "I know the history of those shoes, or of those satin slippers, a great deal better than the wearer does; and I could tell her ladyship a thing or two about them which, if her ladyship now heard, might considerably interfere with her enjoyment of the play."
    The front door of the house is slimy with dirt. On one side of the door there are four holes for bell-wires, but only two out of the four handles remain; and when I overcome my disgust and take hold of these corroded brass knobs, I soon discover that they have no connection with bells; for, as a matter of fact, there has not been a bell in the house for many a long year. I then try the old doorknocker; but although it sticks to my fingers it refuses to be moved by them ; it sticks to the door also. I knock at the door with the handle of my walking-stick, and thus render the stick really unfit to be handled; but no notice is taken of my knock-[-40-]ing. Then I try the door and find that it opens at a slight push, locks and bars and bolts and chains being apparently looked upon as unnecessary superfluities in this quarter. Things have here worked themselves round to the primitive state in which they started before locks and bells were invented. In some remote country places the rustics go to bed without locking their doors because they are all so honest; here people do the same thing for the very opposite reason. Not that all are dishonest; God forbid that I should wrong the poor by classing them all with thieves. I am speaking rather of houses than of individuals or individual families; and by houses, I mean in this sense the little communities of people living in a house. In this particular house, for example, there are about a dozen families, some of them numbering nine or ten individuals, some less. If we take the average as five, that will give us sixty human beings in a house intended only for one family - not a gentleman's, but a small tradesman's family, of the class who are able to pay not more than fifty pounds a year for a dwelling-house with a small shop in front. These houses would not be worth more than fifty pounds a year, even if put into thorough repair; in their present state they are not worth the rent of a good pig-stye. Well, if sixty or a hundred persons are compelled to live in a house hardly large enough to [-41-] afford proper accommodation to a seventh part of that number, and if, when thus driven to herd together like pigs, the accommodation actually afforded them is not equal to that which any respectable farmer would provide for his pigs, of what sort must we expect the majority of such persons to be? Godly, righteous, and sober? Honest, loyal, and pure? Suppose you had been dragged up from your birth in one of these miserable dens, are you sure that you would have had the virtues which you now possess, and that you would have escaped from the vices so prevalent in the slums? Are you quite sure that you might not have turned out even worse than many of those whom you now think very bad? Or suppose that, by some unexpected reverse of fortune, you suddenly fell from your present position into a state of abject poverty, and were compelled by circumstances to spend the rest of your life in one of these overcrowded dens; are you quite sure as to the effect it would have upon your character, your morals and manners and habits? Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall; and before he passes judgment upon those who are already down, let him ask himself and answer the questions I have just ventured to suggest.
    Well, I open the street door and walk in unchallenged. I then find myself in a passage which is [-42-] so dark that did I not carefully note the position of the staircase before closing the door I might have some difficulty in finding it. But my experience having taught me what to do under such circumstances, I first make my observations, and then, closing the door, I feel my way carefully along the corridor, the wall of which is reeking with a slimy moisture. I gain the staircase; but there is no light to guide me up to the first landing. It needs no light, however, to tell me that the stairs are carpeted with dirt and full of traps for the unwary. There is a sickening odour too about the staircase which smells like the concentrated essence of centuries of accumulated dirt. But higher up there is a small window on the staircase, and as several of the panes, are broken, there is, one might suppose, some prospect of light and air. But the light is only just sufficient to expose the loathsomeness of the wall and the stairs, while the draught of air that comes in through the broken window is loaded with malodorous vapours from the back-yards. The stairs look as if they had not been washed for twenty years; and if the walls themselves were not sufficient evidence, I have other evidence that they have not been papered, or coloured; or whitewashed, or cleaned in any way, for more than twenty years. They are ingrained with dirt from top to bottom ; but the lower part of the staircase wall has been made quite black by the hands [-43-] of the people feeling their way upstairs in the dark; and a few feet above the stairs, all the way up, the wall looks as if it had been polished with black-lead.
    On my way upstairs I have to pass the door of a small room occupied by an aged couple; and although they never come to church, or go to any other place of worship, I stop at the door to inquire after their health, and to say a friendly word or two to the old people. I knock at the door, but there is no reply. I knock again and again, but fail to make any one hear. Then I try the door to ascertain whether any one is really at home or not. For if a room door is not locked, it is a sign that one of the occupants is not far off, the London poor being generally as careful to lock their room door before they go out as they are indifferent about the fastening of the street door.
    I find that the door of this room, however, is not locked; so I open it a little way and call upon the old woman, who lives there, by name - "Mrs. Drain! Mrs. Drain !" But there is no response. I then open the door wider and look in. But there is something inside which causes me to beat a hasty retreat. The only occupant of the room at the present moment is a corpse.
    "Is it Mrs. Drain I heard you call, sir?" asks a woman looking down from the garret stairs; "she is dead and gone, poor old soul! she came home and dropped down dead some days ago."
    [-44-] "Came home and dropped down dead? How very dreadful ! And is it known what was the matter with her?"
   "Well, yes, sir," answered the woman, though not without some hesitation, "it is well known what was the matter with her, and although I don't like to talk of people's failings when they are dead, there can be no harm in my telling you, as you are the clergyman. The fact is, that the poor old lady couldn't keep away from the drink, whenever she could get it by hook or by crook ; and the other day she had been out enjoying herself with some of her friends, and she took a drop too much, and when she came home she could hardly manage to get up the stairs, and she bad no sooner got inside her room than she fell down on the floor; and when the old man came borne, he was tipsy too, and laid down on the floor by her side, but in the middle of the night he woke up and tried to wake his poor old wife up, and then he found she was dead. He wanted to make out that it was a fit, but the doctor says her death was only caused by drink."
    We now at length come to the shoemaker's room, which is the special object of this particular visit, although there has been a little digression on the way upstairs.
    It is a back room, about ten feet long, and eight feet wide, except where the door stands. There [-45-] the adjoining corridor projects itself into the room, and reduces the width by two or three feet. In the sort of recess thus formed stands a bed, the only bed in the room. The bedstead is perhaps six feet by three, but there is no tester or curtain attached to it. The bedclothes are simply a layer of rags blackened with smoke and dirt. If there is a bed under the rags, it has not been shaken, I should say, for some time, for it is as flat as a pancake, and not so very much thicker. It is probably made of flock, or, perhaps, only of shavings or straw. What the sleeping arrangements of the family are, I cannot positively state, as I did not make any inquiries on this subject; but judging from my general knowledge of the habits of other poor families, in similar circumstances, I think it highly probable that this bed has to accommodate four persons every night, the father and mother and two children, the children lying across the foot of the bed. The only other furniture in the room is a small deal table, and a few rickety chairs. But in one of the walls there are two cupboards which possibly contain crockery ware, and what food and clothing the tenants of the room may have in store, that is, if they ever have anything in store. But judging from the general appearance of the room and its occupants, I should say they probably live [-46-] as most other families in their circumstances live, from hand to mouth, somewhat as follows.
    On Saturday night and all through Sunday, there is feasting and merriment, if the previous week happens to have been a lucky one, and the earnings have not all been spent beforehand. But no provision is made for the coming week. When Monday morning arrives, there is frequently nothing in the cupboard; and before breakfast can be had, the Sunday coat, or the Sunday gown or shawl, has to be taken to the pawnbroker's. With the money, or part of the money thus obtained, they buy just enough food for the one meal; it may be two ounces of tea, a quarter of a pound of sugar, a loaf of bread, and a quarter of a pound of butter. The father of time family awoke with a had headache this morning, and had no appetite for breakfast; so he is not present. But neither is he at his work. He has gone out to get "a hair of the dog that bit him" last night, and the probabilities are that he will not return home until he has been again bitten by the same dog. Therefore it is the mother's shawl or gown that will have to go to the pawnshop to-day, that is, if she has a shawl, or another gown besides that on her back; for the Sunday coat is wanted in order that the father of the family may be able to make a genteel appearance amongst his fellows who [-47-] are keeping "St. Monday." But after the wife has stripped herself and her children of every rag that can possibly be spared, the husband's coat will have to go, and then perhaps the blanket off the bed. And if they are redeemed on Saturday night, the same routine will be gone through the following week. So there is but little use of cupboards, either for keeping food or clothes; the food, as a rule, only being purchased meal by meal, and the extra clothing, if they possess any, being kept at the pawnshop. This is how the majority of families in this district live; and if the description does not literally apply to the particular family under notice, still there is no danger of its giving an exaggerated picture of the misery in which that family exists.
    The walls of the room are in exactly the same condition as the wall of the staircase which I have already described, the paper on them being so worn-out, and so soiled with smoke and grease and dirt, that it would be impossible to say of what colour or colours it originally was. As for the low ceiling, it is not only yellow-black with dirt, but in one place it has actually fallen down, so that one can plainly see through the lathes above.
    The shoemaker himself is seated on his bench facing the window, and is working at a lady's boot, while his wife is standing listlessly behind him, at [-48-] the fireplace, her dress and general appearance corresponding with that of the room and the house. Their ages would be between thirty and thirty-five; but the man looks prematurely old, partly, no doubt, from the trying nature of his work, which compels him to wear spectacles. His face is gaunt and beardless, but the stray bristles that appear on his chin and upper lip are already white.
    The English working-man, whatever he may be in his workshop, is not by any means an easy subject to deal with in social life, lie is suspicious and touchy, and consequently apt to take offence at trifles; while, on the other band, his notions of honest independence frequently lead him into a rudeness of behaviour which repels people of refinement and keeps them aloof from him. How to deal with the working-man is certainly the hardest nut which the clergy have to crack, especially in London and other large towns, where the great mass of working-men are still in a state of heathenism, if not of something worse than heathenism. And to show that here and there a church or a chapel is attended by many working-men does not at all disprove this statement. But of all the different kinds of working-men whom I meet from time to time in my district visitation, I find none so difficult to deal with as shoemakers, taking them as a class. They are always ready enough to receive me, and they even seem glad to [-49-] have an opportunity for conversing. Many of theta too possess considerable intelligence, and appear to have picked up a good deal of information of a miscellaneous character. But they all have, to a high degree, the faults which are begotten of a mere smattering of knowledge-intense self-conceit and self-satisfaction.
    Moreover, they all dabble in politics; and if one talks to them about religion, it is almost impossible to prevent the conversation from drifting into politics. As for their political creed, it would be hard to say what it is, except that it may generally be classified under the term "Destructive."
    In religion most of them affect scepticism, while some even go so far as to openly profess atheism because, as I believe, they think it makes them appear clever. But the shoemaker whose room we are visiting is not a professed infidel. On the contrary, he claims the right of calling himself a Churchman, although he never goes to church, and has never been inside any. place of worship since the day of his marriage. Therefore, in bringing him forward as the representative of a large class of working-men, I have by no means selected an extreme or exceptional case, either as regards the man himself or his surroundings. The man himself would pass muster as a rather respectable specimen of the London artisan; and as for his surroundings, [-50-] bad as they are, they present a picture of comfort and affluence in comparison with some of the dens in my district. But as it may be not uninteresting to know what this man himself thinks of his surroundings, I will give a short résumé of my first conversation with him, using his own words as nearly as I can remember them. It must be understood that I have already gone through the somewhat delicate task of introducing myself, and that I have succeeded in gaining a sufficiently friendly footing in the room to be invited to take a seat. Then, when I think there is a good opportunity for putting the question, I say,-
    "May I ask what religious denomination you belong to?"
    The wife is the first to reply, and she says,- "Oh, I don't know - nothing partic'ler." But her husband then intervenes and says,-
"I belong to the Church of England - leastways, I was brought up to the Church of England."
     "Then, don't you attend any church now?"
    "No, I never go anywhere now; I don't approve of the bishops and many other things in the Church. I don't think it right that the men who do all the hard work should be worse paid than journeymen shoemakers, and that others who do nothing should get all the fat livings."
    "But bishops work very hard ; indeed there are [-51-] few men in the country who work as hard as our bishops; and then their pay is not at all extravagant in comparison with their necessary expenses."
   "Bishops work hard? I should like to know what they do."
    I try to give the good man some notion of a bishop's work by telling him how a bishop has to go about his diocese for some months every year to hold confirmations, confirming perhaps hundreds of candidates in one church, and frequently taking two distant churches the same day; how he has to govern the Church in his diocese; and what incessant demands are made upon his time and strength. But although the shoemaker seems to be considerably surprised by what I tell him concerning our present bishops and their work, he refuses to acknowledge that the office of a bishop is anything but a sinecure.
    "Well," he says, "but it is not only the bishops that I disapprove of. How is it that all the fat livings are given to a few favoured ones, and that them as does the work get next to nothing? and then I'm told that they buy their sermons all ready wrote out for them. Do you think I'm going to church to hear a parson read another man's sermon? No! I could do that for myself at home."
    "But, my good friend, supposing all that you say to be true, I don't see what it has to do with the question of your going to church. I am your clergy-[-52-]man ; my little mission church is your district church; and I neither hold a fat living, nor do I preach other men's sermons."
    "I don't approve of reading sermons at all. I could not listen to a preacher who reads a sermon, whether his own or not. I like to hear a man spit the truth out from his heart, and I don't think he ought to even know what he is going to preach before he starts."
    "Well, I feel much encouraged by hearing you say that, for I am so overwhelmed with other work from Monday morning to Saturday night, and then all day on Sunday, that I can find no time to prepare my sermons, and am often obliged to choose my text at the last moment while the congregation are singing a hymn. But I have always felt this to be a great disadvantage both to myself and my hearers. I should much prefer being able to devote a few hours beforehand to the preparation of my sermons, in order that I might properly arrange and digest my thoughts."
    "No, you are wrong there, sir. Depend upon it, the people like your preaching much better when you only talk to them on the spur of the moment. I know I should if I went to church. But how can people living in a hole like this be expected ever to go to church? I for one should feel so out of place that I should expect the church to fall down upon me."
    [-53-] "Well, now you have mentioned the very thing that I wished to talk to you about, so let us change the subject. I don't want to pry into your private affairs; but I cannot help wondering how in the world it comes to pass that a man of your intelligence, and of the skill which that boot now in your hands seems to me to indicate, should be living with your family in such a place as this."
    "You may well wonder, sir; I often wonder at it myself. I wonder any human beings are allowed to live here. But I suppose that is what is called English liberty. Britons never shall be slaves. I often wonder what the Duchess of ---- would say if she saw the place where her boots are made!"
   "And do you mean to say then that you make boots for the Duchess of ----?"
    "Yes, I do, and for many other noble ladies besides."
    "Then I suppose you work for one of the fashionable bootmaking establishments in the West End."
    "Yes, that is exactly how it, is, and I make the Duchess's boots here, in this very room - ain't it a good joke?"
    I could not help thinking of what the French call "the irony of fate," but I did not think it "a good joke," nor did I feel inclined to laugh at it. [-54-] I am quite sure the noble Duchess alluded to would not laugh if she saw the place.
    "How long have you been living in this room?"
    "Five years."
    "What rent do you pay for the room?"
    "Four shillings a week."
    "And when was it last papered and painted, and put into proper repair?"
    "I have just told you, sir, that I have been living in this room five years. During the whole of that time all the cleaning it has ever had has been a little washing of the floor now and then by my wife. Neither the walls, nor the ceiling, nor the window-frame, nor the door, has ever been touched, with an eye to cleaning. The people who had the room before us lived in it for many years, and left it as they found it, looking even worse than it looks now, although it couldn't be in reality worse; and I could bring people to prove to you that the whole house, except perhaps a room or two, has been in the state you now see it for more than twenty years, and has never once known the smell of a bit of paint or whitewash, and has never had anything done to the walls or ceilings."
    "Well, I can only say again that I wonder you continue to live in such a place. Why don't you emigrate - go to Australia, New Zealand, or somewhere? I might perhaps be able to help you to do that."
    [-55-] "No, sir, thank you all the same. I have no fancy for emigrating. I don't see why a man should banish himself and his family from his native land just for the sake of making more room for others."
    "But it is for your own good and that of your family that I should advise you to emigrate, not for the sake of others."
    "I am not so sure of the good it would bring me or my family. Here I know what we have to put up with, but nobody knows what would become of us out there. And that is the reason why I stay in this den. I have got used to it, and I should be loth to quit it, unless I was quite sure that it would be to better my lot."
    "Then, if I were in your place, I should try to put by a little money, and then in the course of time you would be able to go and live in a better place."
    "Perhaps you will first tell me, sir, how I am to save anything out of my scanty and uncertain earnings, and with four shillings a-week to pay for rent, and myself and family to keep."
    "I know from my own experience that it is much easier to talk to others about saving than it is to put by money on one's own account. But I also know from the experience of many years that a man may live and work hard and enjoy good health [-56-] without ever tasting any kind of alcoholic liquor; and if you working men would only all join me in doing without that very expensive and injurious article of luxury, I believe you would all soon begin to save money. You understand? I am not saying or implying that you are an immoderate drinker, neither am I advising you to do what I have not myself tried; I am only suggesting to you one practical method of saving money."
    "And what would you have us drink, sir, instead of beer - water ?"
    "Well, yes; water when you are thirsty. There is nothing so good as water to quench thirst; and then there are such things as tea and coffee and cocoa, all of which are very refreshing and good in their way, and cost next to nothing in comparison with intoxicating beverages."
    "As regards water, perhaps, sir, if you knew all about the water we have in this house, you might change your opinion, and not wonder at some of us liking to qualify it with a little gin or rum or something of the sort."
    "I take it that the water you get here is supplied by the same company as that from which we get our supply at the mission house, and I find that pretty good, only I take care to have it filtered before we drink it."
    ˇ "Poor working people like us can't afford filters, [-57-] and we shouldn't know how to use em if we had em. And besides we haven't got time to attend to such things. You've got servants, but we are obliged to be our own servants; and whoever wants water here, whether for washing or drinking, has to go and draw it direct from the pipe. And would you be surprised to hear that there is only one small cistern to supply the whole of this house with water? and that the same little cistern that supplies us with water for cooking, and washing, and drinking, also supplies the water-closets and must have a pipe opening into it from the water-closets? That is hardly a good inducement for a man to become a water drinker."