Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In the Slums, by the Rev. D. Rice-Jones, 1884 - Chapter 27 - A Riverside Scene

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ONE cold morning in winter I happened to be walking over Vauxhall Bridge, when my. attention was suddenly arrested by a sight which for the time made me indifferent to the weather. It was near high-tide, or rather there had been a spring-tide, which was then subsiding. There was a bitter wind blowing over the surface of the waters. The sky was dark with clouds, and the wind mingled with rain. It was altogether a most miserable morning, and no place on earth could have looked more uninviting than did the riverside as seen from the spot where I stood on the bridge; for close to that end of the bridge next to Vauxhall, rises a huge unsightly pile of buildings used as a coal depot in connection with the adjoining gasworks; and the shore immediately below is usually covered with black barges, from which the coal is hoisted in large iron buckets, by means of cranes, up into the roof of the high building just mentioned.
    [-172-] It was not, however, to look at the coal-heaving that I now stopped upon the bridge, though that is in its way an interesting sight, especially when seen for the first time. Nor was it to watch the plashing of the waves on the pebbly shore; for the shore there is not romantic, but is mostly composed of rubbish nearly as black as the coal in the barges.
    But in the near neighbourhood of the barges, despite the rain and wind and cold, the shore was swarming with children,-boys and girls of all ages from six or seven up to fourteen or fifteen, some of them knee-deep in the water, and others knee-deep in the mud. There were from fifty to a hundred of them there in all, and most of them were busily engaged as if in search of something. Most of them also had a basket, although in some cases there were two children to one basket, or small hamper.
    I asked two or three persons who, like myself, were looking on from the bridge, if they could tell me what the children were doing in and near the river? But not succeeding in gaining any information from them, I found my way down to the riverside below the bridge, and passing up under the archway, was soon in the midst of the busy scene.
    I then found that, in addition to the crowd of children, there were a few adults of both sexes engaged in the same pursuit, although I had at first mistaken these for people belonging to the barges.
    [-173-] It was soon evident what their object was in coming there. From the manner in which they dipped their baskets or hampers into the water, there was perhaps some excuse for the suggestion, or joke, which I had heard on the bridge, that they were fishing; for they certainly were fishing, in one sense. But what they were fishing for was something very different from fishes, although very necessary in preparing the same, when caught, for the table. They were dragging the river for stray lumps of coal, and netting any odd bits of wood that might be floating down with the tide; and they were collecting into their baskets all the fragments of coal and wood that had been left by the tide on the shore.
    Taken altogether, they were rough-looking specimens of humanity. Their clothes were ragged and scant, their faces pinched with hunger, and, upon this occasion, the misery of their appearance had been completed by the cold and wet to which they had been for some time exposed. They were what some people would call the tag-rag-and-bobtail of London. But when I saw how earnestly they were searching for a bit of fuel to warm their desolate hearths, how patiently they were toiling in the hope of finding some, and how bravely they all trudged in the water, and endured the rain, and the wind, and the cold, I thought it one of [-174-] the most touching, if not one of the most noble sights I had ever witnessed.
   I ascertained from a man connected with one of the barges that it was a custom with those I now saw before me, or persons of the same class, to congregate sometimes in that particular locality, about the time of the tides, for the object upon which they were now engaged; and that they were allowed, without interference, to appropriate to themselves any odd lumps of coal or bits of wood they could pick up, in or near the water, just as gleaners are, or were in days gone by, permitted to gather and carry home the ears of corn remaining about the field after the binding of the sheaves. He assured me that what they were doing was perfectly lawful; that he had never known any of them to attempt to steal coal from the barges; and that he believed those who came there regularly to gather coal and wood to be, for the most part, honest folk, "though, no doubt, uncommon poor."
    Many of the children engaged in this irregular pursuit, on the present occasion, were of tender years, although, it is to be hoped, not of very tender constitutions, otherwise their ranks must frequently be thinned, as a large percentage of them would certainly be killed by the constant exposure to the wet and cold. For it must be borne in mind, that when such poor children get wet through, the probabilities [-175-] are that they have to remain in their wet clothes until they get dry, since the few rags in which they stand represent the extent of their wardrobe. In the case of many, however, there was but little danger of their catching cold from wet shoes, seeing they were not hampered with shoes and stockings, or indeed with much clothing of any other kind. They took to the water as kindly as if they had been so many young beavers or dolphins.
    But although many of them looked hardy enough and seemed to care very little for the weather, there were some there who could not have been indifferent to the rain, and the wind, and the cold. Apart from the crowd of busy toilers, an aged woman was carefully searching amongst the refuse of the river for bits of coal and wood. When she paused in her task it was to hold out her basket to a fair-haired little boy who, every few minutes, brought to her what he had found in the water. Except that he was at the time bare-footed and bare-legged, this little boy was somewhat better clad than most of the other children, and presented a strange contrast to them in that his face not only looked cleaner, but retained that innocent look of childhood of which poverty and hardship so often prematurely rob the children of the poor. What, perhaps, added greatly to the childishness of his appearance was his luxu-[-176-]riant crop of flaxen hair, which fell over his shoulders, and which the rain h ad failed to uncurl.
    It was a very striking picture, that of the poor woman in extreme old age, and the fair-haired child toiling together at the riverside, and braving all the inclemencies of the weather in order to secure a few sticks and lumps of coal. My first impulse was to give the old lady a shilling and bid her take the little boy home; but there was something about her  - in her bearing and looks - which made me hesitate before making the offer. So I tried to get into conversation with her, and in this I had but little difficulty.
    "Not a very pheasant day for the riverside," I remarked.
    "No, sir," she replied, "it is not a very pleasant day, as you say; but we're used to all sorts o' weather, me and little Tommy, and poor folks like us can't afford to be particular about the weather, and it isn't every day that we get such a chance."
    "Are you more likely, then, to find wood and coal about the water in wet weather than in dry?"
    "I'll tell you exactly how it is, sir," said the ancient dame, giving me a very intelligent and kindly look; "the fact is that I and little Tommy come down to the riverside most days, and generally manage to pick up a few sticks between us, and sometimes a few lumps of coal as well. I needn't [-177-] tell you that we're allowed this privilege, or else of course we shouldn't be here. Well, there is seldom or never a tide but what it brings from up or down the river something with it that'll do at least for a bit o' firewood, and the tide has certain favourite places for casting such waifs ashore and leaving them there for the benefit of poor souls like myself; who, if it wasn't for such Godsends, would often be without fire or food."
   "But surely you do not find anything about the river that would do for food?"
    "Well, no, not exactly; and yet it's as good as food to some of us. Take me, for instance, or rather Tommy and me; we're what they call timber merchants, and I may say coal merchants too, for we trade in both wood and coal, and, what is more, we live by the trade, for though I'm turned eighty and am only a poor old woman, I've never yet been on the parish, nor begged for any other kind of charity, and I pray to God that I may never be brought to much a pass; though, if I was called away suddenly, I'm afraid my poor old bones might after all have to be buried by the parish, and that my poor little Tommy here might have to go to the workhouse; and that's the only thing that grieves me. As for the weather, we don't mind that a bit-do we, Tommy? - as long as we can pick up an honest living, and [-178-] not be laid up again with the rheumatics-eh! what do you say, Tommy?"
    "No, Grannie, we don't mind the weather one bit - Tommy likes it; only Tommy don't like Grannie to get rheumatics," was the child's reply.
    "That's a brave boy," said the old lady, patting him on the back; "and now let us turn to again, Tommy, and see whether we can't fill our baskets." Then turning to me, she added, "You'll excuse me, sir; I don't wish to be rude, but business is business, and must be attended to before pleasure; and we must make hay while the sun shines." And having spoken these words of wisdom, she made a dash at a piece of wood on which she had kept an eye for some time, and which now suddenly drifted ashore near her feet, while Tommy, whose legs were bare, dashed into the water after another waif.
    "I hope you won't mind my helping you a little if I see a chance," said I, presenting the old lady with another waif which I was fortunate enough to pick up. "This," I added, "is not charity, you know, as you would most certainly have had it had I not been here, and it belongs to you by right of privilege."
    "Oh, thank you, sir, you are very kind," said she, smilingly taking the piece of wood; "but please don't think me ungrateful or proud. I don't despise charity-Christian charity - for that is a thing that [-179-] we all stand in need of, and that we all ought to practise one towards another. What I have always dreaded and tried to avoid is being a pauper or a beggar."
    "How is it that I see so many here to-day looking for coal and wood? surely they don't come in such numbers every day?"
    "No you don't often see so many even here, though this is a favourite spot on account of the large quantity of coal that gets spilt in unloading the barges. But at present it's the spring tides, and there have been very heavy floods all over England, and especially all up the Thames valley; and the consequence is that the river brings down a good deal of broken timber, such as pieces of decayed trees; and there is also more coal than usual to be picked up in and about the water. That is why you see so many here now, and that is why we've been so lucky this morning; for although we've not been out half as long as usual, I think we've now got about as much as we can well carry - little Tommy and me - between us, so I wish you a very good morning, sir."