Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - VI - Rest for the Heavy Laden

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 AT one time I did duty at a Refuge for the Destitute, or 'straw-yard,' to borrow the phrase of those who received its benefits. I have witnessed many such a scene since, perhaps even more painful scenes, but never before had I had the homelessness that there is to be found in London so brought home to me, as when I first saw the crowd of outcasts whose one great object in life was to put off death a little longer by obtaining the shelter of that rough asylum. That first impression lingers with me yet. I do not believe that one's heart, like one's muscle, gets harder through exercise. Those really have the deepest pity who have pitied most. But still the eye gets accustomed to the saddest sights, and, after even a brief familiarity with wide-spread woe, glances with apparent callousness at objects which would once have riveted it in horror. I remember going through the worst part of one of my [-44-] parishes with one of the best men whom I have ever known - a parishioner who for years had been going about doing good amongst the poor people, in whose midst his place of business was planted; and also with a young lady-friend of his who had been passingly 'interested' by what he had told her of those poor people. He went his rounds as usual - sometimes saying a kindly cheerful, sometimes as kindly sharp a word to those he met; but not looking in the least excited. His young friend, on the other hand, was in a state of hysterical emotion all the way. When we got out of the slums, the girl, who had done nothing for the poor, thus addressed the man, who had done so much, 'Oh, Mr —, I could not have believed before that you were se hard-hearted!'
    To return to the straw-yard. My technical 'duty' there was to read prayers and say a few words to the inmates on Sunday morning. Very lame words they were at first - I felt lost without my sermon-case. I do not mean to say that - leaving out of the question the few preachers of any denomination who have a natural gift of oratory - I do not consider the bulk of written sermons superior to the bulk of 'extemporized' sermons in grammar, logic, and good taste - and not a whit more 'dull' to popular taste, save when the extemporizer rants; but I do say that I think it a pity that we of the Church of England are not somehow trained, instead of having to train ourselves after we have entered on our charges, to speak a few simple sentences without book and without stammering.
    On the Saturday evening before my first 'duty' at the [-45-] straw-yard, I went to find it out. The Refuge - the patched and whitewashed ground-floor and first-floor of a dilapidated pile of begrimed drab brick, which seemed to have been once used as sugar-works - stood in a cul de sac;  but as soon as I got to the corner of the blind lane, I knew where I was. The lane was choked with ragged applicants waiting for the Refuge door to open. The lamp that shone above it was the only lamp in the lane, and it was the only harbour-light in the wide world for a good many of those poor creatures. 'Noblest things find vilest using' - charities that are intended to save from starvation men and women who long for work, are fastened on by men and women who would scarcely work to save their lives, and also by some who have work that would, at any rate, support them. In that tattered crowd, I was afterwards told, there was a considerable leaven of incorrigible tramps, who had flocked to London winter-quarters after, to them, most pleasant country tours; and there were Irish there, I was also informed, who might have money sewn up in their filthy rags, but yet had come to the Refuge to secure for themselves and their children eleemosynary rations - extra on Sundays. The whole crowd, however, looked most miserable; and I have no doubt that the majority consisted of those who, for a time, were utterly dead-beat in the race of life - who, but for that resting-place, could never have plucked up heart and strength to run the race again, however feebly. Almost every one I saw was most wretchedly clad. The material, in most cases, was as thin as the quantity was scanty. In a good many, a single covering of limp, flimsy rags hung [-46-] from the body like the almost-shed bark of an Australian tree. There were babies there, almost bare, with nothing but mother's love and a flapping net-work of dirty calico to warm the blue breasts on which they pillowed their pinched cheeks. The whirling snow came dropping down, and melted into viscous mud. In the mud, like swamp-birds, stood wearied tramps, resting on one swollen foot, the less-chillblained of the two. To an Englishman's eye shoelessness always suggests the extremity of misery; but the bare-footed little Irish folk, paddling in the mire, seemed the least miserable of the throng.  The men and women who sat along the kerb-stones, with stockingless toes sprouting out of their burst boots, looked far more doleful. Standing and sitting on the narrow pavements, lolling thick and weariedly against the walls on both sides of the lane, crowded in the muddy roadway, the outcasts of both sexes, all ages, and a good many countries, were congregated. As a rule, the poor creatures were as sullenly silent -so far as words went - as half-frozen cattle clustered, tail to tail, and head over shoulders, in the corner of a mistily rimy field. Most of the babies even had been stupefied into silence by the cold. Now and then an unstupefied infant raised a piteously shrill and clamorous scream, but a chorus of 'churchyard coughs,' with churchyard solos between, was the chief audible proof of the miserable crowd's presence. There was no quarrelling. Common extremity had tamed the heterogeneous constituents of the throng into mutual forbearance, as wild beasts are tamed by flood and fire. And yet - so ineradicably has the good God, who gave the sea its count-[-47-]less smiles and the earth its songs of jubilee as innumerable, implanted mirth in the human heart - even here a little chaffing - almost sotto voce chaffing - was going on. The jests were often coarse; but that starving folk could jest at all, struck me with wonderment, and, I hope, taught me wisdom. The most cheerful (if I may use such a word, even comparatively, in reference to such people) were, however, I must add, those who were sure of a night's, of two nights' lodging, because they were ticket- holders. Those who were not sure of admission regarded the ticket-holders with stagnant envy, as they muttered their stagnant appreciation of the sound roof and warm, sound sleep they had enjoyed the night before.
    When the door was opened - throwing out a welcome gush of warm red light into the cold black lane - the ticket-holders crowded in, only stopping to be identified by the janitor. Their spirits rose and their tongues were thawed a little as soon as they got inside. They indulged in a little of the normal jostling of a London crowd, and 'Here goes for first wash' cried a voice or two as they made their way to the soap and water waiting for them in great tubs. It was not that they seemed to enjoy their washing, poor creatures - dirt had been too long their familiar - but they knew that they must wash before they could get their hunk of bread a-piece. 'It's perished with the cowld, I am - me an' the childher. Sure ye'll let us in at oncet, sir-r. Glory be your bed!' whined an Irishwoman with a baby at her breast, and another at her back, and a little girl tugging at her skirt. 'Sure ye know me, sir-r?' 'Oh yes, Biddy,' answered the porter, I know you well [-48-] enough - I ought to - but you've no ticket now, and you must take your turn.' 'Is it tickuts an' turruns that he's talkin' about?' the Irishwoman shouted then, suddenly ceasing to wheedle. 'It's becase I'm Oirish. Had thim he let in all tickuts? Divil a bit of it. He's English, an' so he favours his counthrymen.' Most of those who had to wait like Biddy, however, waited far more patiently. They closed up, as batch after batch of non-ticket-holders was admitted; but they still stood in silence, although thicker and thicker came down the whirling snow. The last admitted were quite white with snow when they got into the lobby, where they shook themselves like water-dogs, and stamped their bare feet and sodden boot-soles as even quiet horses will at last stamp their hoofs, if too long kept waiting, while a clerk entered the names, &c., of the applicants for admission in a bulky volume like a bank-ledger - a Book of Death in Life. These entries were dismal autobiographies in brief to turn over. The 'Country or Parish' column showed that from almost a' the airts the wind could blow luckless beings had been blown, from all parts of the globe, to beg for a crust in the world's richest city. In the column ironically headed 'Means of Living' there were also saddest items - long lists of callings that had proved broken reeds to their honest followers, and every here and there a dishonest calling which its follower had proclaimed without a blush. The names which some of the women had given themselves were horribly plain, and yet it was even sadder to read after a girl's name the euphemism 'Gay.' Gay, poor wretch, when she had come there to announce her gaiety; and the next column, [-49-] 'Last Place of Abode,' declared that for many a night before the streets from which she vainly sought her bread had been her only resting-place. As I turned over that gloomy register, with the snow fast blinding the shutter-less little window of the office in which I read the entries, it was literally blood-curdling to find how many of those then beneath the Refuge's roof had spent the previous, equally inclement, night in the open air. No wonder that, when they had performed their perfunctory washing, and snatched their quarter of half-a-quartern loaf from the piled bread-baskets, they ate as dogs eat, and basked before the roaring fires in the wards like cats. The fires had long been lighted, and so even those who could not get in front of them were still enabled to enjoy them - to drink in their heat at every pore, as a man almost dying of thirst drinks in water. To-night was not to be as yesternight. They were sure of a little food, and of warm shelter. To-morrow all were sure of food and shelter also, and Monday night as well might find a good many of them still there. The vagrants were perfectly satisfied, and even the beaten working-folk began to hope that work might turn up before Tuesday.
    Before the women went to bed, the matron took me up into their ward on the first-floor. It was strangely quiet for a place crowded with women and children. The babies were snuggling and snoring, like little pigs, in the straw with which the Refuge bunks at that time were filled. The bigger little girls were nodding against their mothers' shoulders, or stretched across their mothers' laps. They had munched their own bread and, perhaps, had half of [-50-] baby's grown-up ration, or shared with baby and mother a basin of exceptional gruel; and now God's sweet sleep had come down on them as his dew comes down upon even the humblest flowers. The women still had a brooding look as they nursed their children on their knees, and stared at the red coals dropping in white flakes; but the little ones were quiet at last, and they were resting, too, in their own way, and seemed to want to make the most of their conscious rest, before they sought forgetfulness under the dark rugs that covered the straw-filled bunks. Very few of the matrons and old women were talking. The little talk they indulged in was earned on almost in a whisper. Some of the younger women, of the tramp class, were rather noisy, and inclined to be saucy; but their spirits were plainly damped by the atmosphere of general depression in which they found themselves. One young girl (not of the tramp class, although her dress was even scantier than theirs) sat on the board at the foot of her bunk, with her elbows on her knees, and her head clutched in her hands, staring into the air with the look of a timid creature driven fiercely mad by fear. Her ration of bread lay half-uneaten on her lap. 'If she turns up her nose at it, I won't,' said one of the tramp-girls; 'it's a sin to waste good wittles, ain't it, sir ?- specially when there's precious little on 'em goin'.' And as she spoke, the tramp ran off grinning to the fire with the uneaten crust. The other girl took no notice of her, and it was some time before I could get her to take any notice of me.
    'You must put your trust in God, my poor girl,' I was [-51-] saying, for the third time, when she turned round sharply upon me with a half-savage, half-whimpering, 'I have put my trust in God, and what's come of it?' And then she flung herself back upon the straw, and kicked and bit and screamed in a fit of hysterics. The matron quieted her down at last, covered her up, and tucked her in. 'There, you lie still, my good girl - you'll be all right to-morrow. You go to sleep now, and forget all about it,' said the matron in a kindly authoritative tone. 'It's easy saying that, ain't it, sir?' she added. 'It's plain to see what she'll come to, poor girl; but she hasn't come to it yet, and I'll give her a kiss, poor thing. She looks somehow as if she'd a mother that used to make much of her, and mayhap it may comfort her. Oh, dear, what a lot of girls there is in London as are where their mothers wouldn't have them!' The poor girl put up her lips, like a baby, to be kissed, when the matron stooped over her; and then for a time her sobs became more convulsive than ever. 'Tut, tut-that's silly,' exclaimed the kindly-severe matron. 'You go to sleep like a good girl, and we'll have a talk to-morrow. If you keep on going on like that, I shall be half sorry I did it.' The girl gulped in her sobs like a chidden child, and in a few minutes was sleeping the deep, apparently dreamless, slumber which is sometimes given to the almost utterly miserable; which others, as miserable, often crave after with a frantic eagerness that deprives them of it for weeks together. 'She's country-bred, poor child,' said the matron, as we moved away from the coffin-like bunk. 'She must have come from somewhere about my parts, from the way she talks; and [-52-] a pretty girl she must have been when she'd flesh on her face. She looks a good girl, don't she, sir; but I wonder how long she'll keep so. I've lived in London for many a year, and it's a wonderful place, but I can't like it yet. Think of the thousands of boys and girls it's been bringin' to grief for I don't know how long! They fancy, poor things, they can better themselves in London, and very high and mighty they think themselves because they live in it, and their brothers and sisters in the country. But I'd sooner have a boy or girl of mine in their graves than in London, without me to look after them - poor lonely dears, with nobody caring twopence about them except to tempt them to go wrong, and fancying themselves so sharp when all the time they're so silly! You'll have a talk with the poor girl to-morrow, won't you, sir?'
    When I re-entered the ward below, the men and boys had all turned in. The roar of the replenished fires, the singing of the gas, here and there turned down, the regular or broken breathing of the sleepers, and the footfalls of my companion, the officer in charge, and myself, were the only sounds that disturbed the silence of the long, low white room. In a few places the smoke of the gas had blurred the whitewash, a few initials and feebly-grotesque caricatures had been traced upon it with charred sticks, the fires chequered it with flickering shade; but, for the most part, the ceiling, beams, props, and walls were far whiter than the snow outside.
    Along the floor, however, stretched long lines of bunks with dark mounds above them like fresh-made graves. Sometimes a mound heaved, and a bare arm came out, [-53-] and clenched its fist, and gesticulated eerily. But the troubling dream passed over, the arm fell with sudden languor, and the dreamer once more breathed with tranquil regularity. Even on earth the weary, for a few hours, had found rest.