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THE CHILDREN OF THE SLUMS.
"OUR only hope is in the children," is an expression which I have
heard fall from the lips of more than one fellow-labourer in the home-mission
field; and I often feel tempted to acknowledge it as an incontestable truth.
"Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing," said the weary fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee; and it is a cry which often escapes from the fishers for souls in the present day. "Master, we have toiled day and night for weeks, and months, and years, and have caught nothing, or next to nothing;" some of us may perhaps say. But the Master, instead of reproaching us, as we deserve, with our negligence, our blindness, our selfishness and cowardice, only repeats to us the question first put to St. Peter - "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?" And when we protest, as the apostle did, that we not only love Him, but are ready to die for Him, He still only gives us the same answer as He gave to the [-148-] fisherman of old; "Feed My sheep" - "Feed My lambs!"
Let us, therefore, again put out our little boats, and let us launch out into the deep, and cast in our nets, and do the Master's bidding. And if, after toiling all night, we find our nets only full of small fry, let us take heed not to despise the little ones, for amongst them there may be some pearls of great price.
Here in St. Giles's-in-the-Fields, there are, according to the testimony of a writer whose name is a guarantee of good faith, streets and alleys "not surpassable, even in London, for the density of their noisy, ragged, hope less, and helpless population." Here the "gutter-children" are said to "eddy in the stream of pauperism." Here you find the way barred by little cripples leaning upon greasy crutches, and surrounded with companions who are "quite ready to take advantage of their lameness, should they lose in the argument about an end of whipcord." Here the streets are said to be "as full of life as a shrimper's basket;" - the roads, the pavements, the doorsteps, the windows teeming with population "of all sizes and degrees of distress." Here women may be seen carrying "babies with immense dangling heads;" and children of ten or twelve, or younger, "nursing bundles of dirty clothes, from which constant wailing escapes." Here "little girls, with matted hair, think themselves fortunate if they can sit all day in the cold [-149-] doorways, nursing lumps of wood, encompassed by rags, for dolls." Here "barrel-bands serve the turn of hoops, splintered egg-chests are promoted to the rank of battledores, and every scrap of the gutter, and all the refuse of the shops serve for playthings." Here the boys appear in the rent garments of men; the girls in the wrecks of their mothers' bonnets - all full of "patches, tears, contrivances, and ludicrous anomalies." "Bare black feet, as black as the, hands and face ; shapeless boots, ungartered hose falling over the instep; brimless hats, low-looking eared caps drawn athwart the wickedest little faces it is possible to imagine; lads in torn shirts, and with trousers held up across one shoulder by a rope brace."
Here "the coming, the adult, and the leaving generations are all out in the fog, and atmosphere flavoured with a sickening odour compounded of tan, tallow, fish, and garbage generally. The mothers lean against the walls wrangling and laughing; the fathers - costermongers, navvies, and varieties of the unclassed - are lounging in and out of the public-houses, jesting with the idle women, or quarrelling, or indulging in horse-play among themselves. The lads of twenty are leering or swearing in groups, their hands deep in their dog-eared pockets. The boys of fifteen are playing at push-penny or pitch-and-toss, and swearing over every hit or miss. The younger boys have tops or marbles, and the girls shuttlecocks. [-150-] Even the fowls have a beggared appearance, and must be in a perpetual moulting season. The lanes to the right and left only show a blurred perspective of Great Wild Street in little."
Such is the description given of my district by a well-known author; and he ends it with the question - "What can become of these heavy-headed babies, surrounded by sisters and brothers, and fathers and mothers, and air and houses like these?"
No one can tell what becomes of all of them; but it will be something if we can feel assured that they are not all uncared for; and as I am partly responsible for these poor children, I feel that I ought not to let this little book go out into the world without at least trying to answer the question -What becomes of them?