Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In the Slums, by the Rev. D. Rice-Jones, 1884 - Chapter 12 - Tenements to be Let

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"WHICH is the house where you live?" I ask, as Hardup and I are again standing together in the rain, on the muddy pavement. "I should like to go up and see this room of yours, about which there is so much trouble; for although I have called to see you more than once, I have never been able to gain admittance. Your wife once answered my knock, but hardly opened the door wide enough for me to see her; and I thought from her manner then that my visits might not be agreeable to her."
    "That's how she is to everybody, sir; no matter who it is, or what may be their business, she won't open the door to anybody. My belief is, that she is weak in the head. I once took a nice little cottage out at Tottenham, but she wouldn't stay there, and so I was forced to come back and live in the slums. Here we are, sir, this is the house; but if you looked for the number it would be a long time before you'd find it; for the numbers are [-68-] all worn off the doors, and the houses here are all so much alike that it is difficult to say which is which."
     I send the man to a neighbouring shop to buy a candle to light us upstairs, and his temporary absence gives me an opportunity to examine the outside of the house. Like most of the other houses in the same street, it has a shop window in the front; but as nobody will take the shop, the shutters are always up night and day. There has evidently been a window over the door in days gone by, for the purpose of lighting the passage inside; but not only has the glass disappeared, but the frame also, leaving at the top of the front door an opening large enough for a boy, if not for a man, to get through. The house, however, is not likely to attract burglars, unless it be to get a night's lodging for nothing; and for this purpose I have no doubt that the hole above the door is frequently made use of as an easy mode of effecting an entrance, if they find the door locked at night. But there is a latch to the door; and when Hardup brings the lighted candle and leads me inside, the door closes with a bang which raises weird echoes through the house and blows the candle out. He has a match in his pocket, however, so we manage to relight the candle, and then we slowly proceed. It is indeed necessary to proceed slowly and cautiously, [-69-] for two reasons; first, to prevent the candle from being again blown out by the wind that whistles through the passage and up the staircase; and secondly, to get up that staircase without knocking one's head against the woodwork overhead.
    The lower part of the house is all deserted and left to the rats; for the back parlour goes with the shop, which no one will take; and there is nobody at present living in the cellar.
    To describe one of these houses is to describe all, or nearly all, as far as their sanitary condition is concerned. The walls are stained black with dirt; the passage and the stairs are thickly carpeted with dirt; and wherever you go, dirt reigns supreme. In some few of the houses, however, the lower staircase, though dark, is sufficiently wide and lofty; but in this and many other houses, it is so narrow, and so badly constructed, as to make the ascent and descent both difficult and dangerous to a person not accustomed to such places. In the first place, the staircase is hardly wide enough to allow a person of moderate size to ascend without rubbing his shoulders against the walls on either side. Then it is so winding that there are always stairs immediately above the head as well as beneath the feet; and there is so little space between the woodwork above and the stairs beneath, that if one attempts to walk upstairs or downstairs in an up-[-70-]right position, one is sure of a violent blow on the head. One has almost to creep up; and it is like creeping up through a dark winding hole.
    The first floor, like the cellar and the shop, is uninhabited, the late tenants having been turned out for not paying the rent. The front room on this floor, though much larger than all the others, is in an equally dilapidated state. There is neither lock nor bolt on the door; the panels are out, and the places formerly occupied by them have been covered with pieces of old newspapers pasted round the edges. The door is kept closed by a piece of thick cord running through an enlarged key-hole and a staple on the outside. This description also applies to all the other doors upstairs.
    The second floor has also been deserted. Indeed the house is altogether such a pestiferous, uncanny-looking collection of dens that I should not be surprised to hear that the rats had deserted it. But the front and back garrets are both still occupied by members of the human family.
    The front garret is a small room of irregular shape, about six feet high, twelve feet long, and eight feet wide in the middle. But at one end the side walls and the ceiling have a tendency to run into a point, thus forming a sort of cone, the fireplace being built slantways into the room.
    This fireplace is altogether a great curiosity both [-71-] in respect of its position and condition. Given a chimney of some sort, connected with the next room; take a few bricks out of the wall; stick three iron bars across the hole thus made; and you have fireplace and grate complete.
    The walls and the ceiling are out of repair, and begrimed with smoke, and grease, and dirt. The door is covered with greasy paper to keep out the wind; the small window is stuffed with old rags; and the floor is in an indescribable state of filthy litter. There is no furniture in the room; but in one corner, where the bed might have been, there is a heap of rubbish which the rent-collector found too worthless and too untouchable to carry away.
    There is no fire in the grate ; but in front and on one side of it there are two old orange-boxes, which have also been left by the agent, perhaps in pity, or perhaps because he found it impossible to get possession of them without using physical force towards the woman and her children. For the woman is still seated on one of these boxes, holding a young baby in her arms, while her feet are almost under the fireless grate.