Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XIII - Crowded Out

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WHEN trade is brisk at the East-End - when works' are going, docks and shipyards full, and shopkeepers are rejoicing at the raised wages that tinkle into their tills like summer-rain after drought - our East-End poor rates are still startlingly high. We have a mass of people who are very slightly benefited by these seasons of plenty. Then as at other times there is a fierce struggle at the docks to catch the eye of the officials who engage the gangs of chance labourers. The motley proletariat - one of the most melancholy sights in London - that musters for hire outside the dock-gates may be a little more hopeful than usual, but scores of them have still to depart unhired. The stimulated demand for their kind of labour cannot absorb its terribly abundant supply, and to the overstocked classes just a shade above the desperate destitution of casual dock-labourers - those whose callings require an [-129-] infinitesimal amount of skill - the prosperous season that enables the single skilled workman 'to live like a fighting-cock,' or, if he be a sensible man, to make a comfortable little pile at the Savings-Bank for the wife that is to be, also brings almost infinitesimal advantage. The Free Trade which prevented corn from mounting to famine-prices is the only kind of change in trade which comes home to these classes and to the memory, persons, and principles of those who brought about the great change referred to, thousands of these classes - more grateful than a selfish section of their skilled brethren - continue stanchly loyal. A shower of prosperity in the East-End, I repeat, only refreshes the fringes of very considerable fractions of its population. If this is the case when the tree is green, what must it be when the tree is dry ?- when there suddenly comes a 'depression of trade,' followed by dreary years of 'dulness?' Rate-payers, who dread the workhouse for themselves, have their rentals burdened with a poor-rate supplement of as many shillings in the pound as West-End parishioners have to pay pence, whilst at the same time they lose a considerable portion of their custom, and a considerable portion of what they retain is carried on upon a system of long credit, which is often really tantamount to alms-giving.
    I have witnessed so many of these seasons of depression that one is apt to run into another in my memory. I cannot, therefore, give the exact date of the circumstances I am about to relate, as they are jotted down on loose leaves in my Diary, dated only with the names of the day of the week. I might give many cases of distress [-130-] as deep, but I have notes of no other that so fully bears out a fixed belief of mine in reference to the sufferings of the poor.
    Some of the loudest complainers against 'luck,' are those who have most manifestly brought their misfortunes on themselves, and yet they will talk as if they were injured innocents whom Fate took a malicious delight in persecuting. But, nevertheless, no one can have a wide acquaintance amongst strugglers without having met with indisputable cases of want of success that is not traceable to personal demerit - laziness, insobriety, and so forth. 'Go to, ye are idle, ye are drunken,' is no fair answer when such people complain - although, generally speaking, they are the last to complain. It is of a case of this kind that I have now to tell. It was not until they were at their worst that I became acquainted with the disabled bread-winners, but it will be better to give their history in chronological order.
    Sam Phillips, a sturdy, steady young fellow, with an arm almost as bulgy above the elbow as his father's - the blacksmith of the Essex village from which he came - had work in an iron-foundry in one of the Essex towns. It was not a large concern; but Sam had regular work, and though the wages were not high, they were better to marry on than the higher wages of London foundries, since in that quiet little town a comfortable little cottage, with a garden, could be got for less rent than a workman has to pay for a single cramped room in London. On one of these cottages Sam had his eye, and was fast laying up money to furnish it, and provide a nest-egg for [-131-] future savings. Some of the other men, who were fonder of beer than of domestic happiness, used to sneer at the regularity with which he trotted off to the Savings-Bank on pay-day. They sneered at him, too, for being a 'meetin'er;' but (as I gathered from his wife) they were afraid to molest him, because, though Sam was no brawler, he had a 'biceps' which they thought even a 'saint' might be tempted to bring into pugilistic play if too hotly provoked. The lass he had selected for his wife lived in his native village. They had sweethearted ever since they went to the Sunday-school of the village 'meeting' together, and 'kept company' formally as soon as Sam arrived at the dignity of wage-earning manhood. The blacksmith was a deacon and the chief  trustee of the meeting-house, and had brought Sam up in a holy horror of 'steeple-houses.' The town in which Sam worked is studded with old churches, but Sam never entered one of them. In very bad weather, he went to the Round Meeting in the town: on other Sundays, he walked over to the square little village meeting-house. The division of the sexes - which nowadays is looked upon as a sign of Romanistic tendencies - was strictly enforced there; but though Sam rather grudged being separated from his Polly, on the one day he could spend with her, during three long services, he found time in the intervals for plenty of Sabbatically decorous love-making. So far as the love-affair was concerned, everything went smoothly. The day for the wedding had been fixed; Polly had come to town one market-day, and gone round to 'look at the shops,' and advise Sam as to the things he was to buy for [-132-] the cottage, which was almost 'taken.' Sam was a proud man when he helped her into the carrier's cart that Saturday evening at the Old Swan, in whose tap-room some of his foundry mates were boozing. 'She's a better penny's worth than beer,' was what his face said, as he looked round at them, after Polly had let him give her a parting kiss upon the cart-step. She was going to be married to him in a fortnight, she thought, and so she was not going to be ashamed of her 'young man.' On the other hand, she was very proud to be helped in so respectfully by such a fine-looking, well-dressed young fellow.
    But the very next day, after morning service, Sam heard news that damped his hopes. The blacksmith owed money on behalf of the chapel which he could not pay, but which was instantly demanded. If earnest were not paid at once, and good hope held out of the payment of the rest, either he would be sold up, or else the chapel would be seized and converted into a barn. Sam would not hear of either contingency - he had money in the bank, he could save more - and the consequence was that his marriage was deferred for nearly four years. As the young people sat in the suggestively sundering chapel, I fancy that neither was quite so fond of it as they had been before, but Sam used to say, 'Jacob served longer for Rachel, Polly;' and Polly used to say, 'I shouldn't care how long we waited, if I was only sure that we should come together at last, Sam.' But the 'at last' came when they were, after all, still young people. The furniture was not so plentiful, the nest-egg was not so large, as they would have been if the young couple had [-133-] been married at the time originally fixed, but they spent a very happy year in their cottage, and their first baby, according to the mother's account, was finer, prettier, and more handsomely dressed than any of the nineteen baptized along with it at the Round Meeting.
    But baby had not been baptized a fortnight before Sam's master failed. The one or two other foundries in the town were still smaller concerns, quite unable to engage a single hand thrown out of work. Sam had to move with his little family to London. The proceeds of the sale of his furniture and the small savings of his year of married life - savingly as they were expended - were exhausted before he found work here. He came in fagged and starving one night to a starving wife feeding a hungry baby from a shrivelled breast. 'It's no good, Polly,' he groaned; 'I've tried all round, but there's no work going. I wouldn't care so much if it was only myself, but there's you and the little un!' And Sam drooped his head between his hands, and his no longer brawny arms upon his shaking thighs, and fairly burst out crying. 'We must turn out to-morrow - the woman says so, and then what's to become of you and the little un?' Whatever may be the depth of their own restrained distress, there are good women in the world who when they see their husbands - once strong men - brought down to crying, think that their sorrow stands far more in need of comfort than their own, and feign a hope which self-reliant man generally is far readier to feel, and express a genuine faith in God's goodness under all circumstances which the best men, when their pride is humbled, often [-134-] have to force. Polly put down the baby hastily yet carefully on the bed, and sat down on Sam's knee, and put her arms round his neck, as she used to do in the old courting times.
    'Cheer up, Sam, old dear,' she said as she kissed him. 'I'd rather have you as you are than Tim Dakins that wanted to have me. You're twice the man he is, though he have got a bit o' money. You'll buy me a goold watch and a di'mond ring yet long afore he could ha' done. Let's kneel down now, Sam, and say our prayers. God's always good, whatever seems bad. There, you take hold of baby's hand, and pray for us all, Sam.' When he rose from his knees, Sam was a different man, and seeing the change in his mood, his wife went on - 'And now we'll all go to bed, Sam, and I'll tell ye what I'll do in the momin'. I'll ask Mrs Saunders to give ye a breakfast on tick, as they calls it here, to strengthen ye up a bit, and then you go out again, and see if you don't come back and tell me that you've got something to do.' 'It shan't be for want of trying if I don't,' said Sam. 'It's a comedown for a man that has a trade, and knows it, to have to turn his hand to anything. But anything I'd do if I could only get it to do - I'd hold horses or sweep a crossing.'
    'Oh, you won't have to sweep a crossin', Sam,' answered Polly. 'There, give baby a kiss, God bless him, and then we'll go to sleep.'
    Three weeks' rent being overdue to her, Mrs Saunders grumbled a little when Polly proffered her request in the morning. But the old woman had a kind of respect for [-135-] her lodgers, on account of the regularity with which they had paid their rent whilst their money lasted, and their generally decent behaviour. 
    'I don't doubt that ye'd pay it if ye could, Mrs Phillips, - that and the rest that's owin', which is ill-conwenient to me, as has to pay, whoever don't pay me,' said the landlady. 'But I ain't a-goin' to charge for a bit o' grub, to give a honest man a chance o' gittin' his own livin': an' if it's reg'lar, I hope you'll stay on, for 'cept abotit the rent I hain't no fault to find, whatsumdever, Mrs Phillips. An' I'll send you up some breakfast too, poor thing. You look as if you could git inside of a gas-pipe, an' well you may with that big boy a-drainin' the wery life out on ye.'
    The consciousness of having done a kind action made Mrs Saunders so cheerful that, when Sam started on his renewed search for work, she took off one of her old shoes by the trodden-down heel and flung it after him. 'Don't look back, or ye'll cross the luck, Mr Phillips,' she screamed, when he was going to pick it out of the gutter; and when he came back with good news about noon, Mrs Saunders gave the old shoe all the credit. We send missionaries to fetish-worshippers, but the amount of bona fide superstition - as idiotic as any that obtains in Africa - that is to be found amongst Englishwomen of Mrs Saunders's class, is humiliating from a 'philosophic' stand-point, and both humiliating and appalling from a Christian. The good news met with a less heathenish reception when Sam, after mounting the staircase three steps at a stride, burst into the third-floor back. Polly [-136-] had recognized his footfall, although it was so different from the languid foot-drag with which he had recently come up the stairs.
    'I'm going again now, Polly,' he shouted. 'Ten shillings a week more than we used to get in -----. The first person I met in the yard was young Mr D-----, who was learning the business at -----, and he spoke up for me, and I'm to go on next Monday, and he's lent me half-a-sov, to rub on with. I ran all the way back to tell you, and now I'll run out and bring home some dinner.'
    'Let's do something else first, Sam,' said Polly, hugging her baby and crying as if some awful calamity were just about to happen to it, and then soothing its fright with hungry kisses and sunlight shooting through the big drops that still rolled from her caressing eyes.
    And then the husband and wife knelt down, and Polly put baby's hands together, and Sam gave thanks to God for his great goodness to them all.
    For a few years things went well with Sam, although, perhaps, he was not quite so ready as his wife to regard as unmixed blessings the little ones that increased his family in rapidly regular series. When five fresh ones had made their appearance, he met with an accident which laid him up in hospital for months. He had not only broken his right arm, but also severely strained his back. As he was not a union man, Polly, as soon as their little savings were exhausted, would have been obliged to apply to the parish for relief, had she not gone out to work, as washerwoman, charwoman - any work that she could get. She had to lock the children up in the one room that was [-137-] then their home, whilst she was away, and many a time, when she was not washing or charing, neither did they nor she have any food until she came back at night with her hard-earned wage. But Polly never lost her faith in God, and once a week, at least, was sure to be sitting beside Sam's ticketed hospital bed, with a cheerful face and one of the little ones, both spruced up to the best of her ability, to make him think that things, after all, were not so very bad at home.
    When Sam was discharged from hospital, work in his trade was slack, and his injuries had permanently weakened him. Once more he went round from foundry to foundry, but this time in vain. For a year or two odd jobs of the most miscellaneous kinds - and those only occasionally - were all the work that he could get. This was a mortification to a craftsman honestly proud of his craftsmanship, but Sam's pride had been chastened. He eagerly jumped at the meanest employment, but often had to endure the misery of seeing his wife and his elder little ones toiling at the dismal 'industries' by which people on the verge of starvation try to earn a farthing in London, whilst he could. contribute nothing to the common stock. And then Polly fell ill, and he was obliged to let strangers nurse the woman he had sworn to cherish. When he had left her at the hospital, and was going back to his children, who, poor as their home was, already missed a mother's care in it, Sam felt, he told me afterwards, as if 'life was all up' for his and him. #My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' he groaned, as he passed the grim little mud-splashed Independent chapel which he [-138-] and Polly used to attend as long as they had clothes at all decent to go in. But when he remembered who had said those words before him, he shuddered as if he had committed blasphemy. 'Who was  I to complain?' Sam said. On his way back he called at the chandler's, and the chandler's wife, out of compassion for his children left without any mother to look after them, let him have a little more bread on credit. The little ones, clustered in the room that was bare of almost everything but them, had expected no supper that evening and when they saw their father coming in with a half-quartern loaf under each arm, they almost forgot their grief for their mother.
    The father and children ate their dry bread together, and then he heard them say their prayers, and undressed the youngest in man's clumsy style. The little one whimpered 'Mammy - I want Mammy,' and when it woke in the night, and its groping little hand found nothing but its father's rough, face to reassure it in the dark, it cried as if its little heart would break.
    The greater part of the time Polly spent in hospital was a dreary time for Sam and the children; but when Polly came out of hospital, Sam bore her off in triumph in a cab to a comparatively comfortable little home once more. Trade had revived, and owing to the brisk demand for workmen, Sam had found employment in his old craft again. The buffeted family spent the bright spring and summer in happy peace. Polly indulged in what a little time ago she would have thought the unattainable luxury, or the sinful extravagance, of half-a-dozen flower-pots; the elder children went to school; the family 'went to meet-[-139-]ing' again, and Sam and Polly had something to put into the plate when there was a 'collection.'
    But as the leaves began to fall, the funds fell with them. The recently boastful city articles in the papers threw out lugubrious hints - cautiously worded at first, but daily becoming more openly prophetic of impending calamity.
    One Saturday evening in late autumn Sam came home with fog drops on his whiskers, and an atmosphere of half-iced fog around him that brought a chill into Polly's still cheerful little living-room. 'There, Polly,' he said dolefully, as he counted out his wages on the table, 'take care of it. I know you'll do that, dear old gal, but there's only one week's more to come from where that came from. Our place is to shut up next Saturday, and when it'll open again nobody knows, and, so far as I can make out, everything is just as bad. We must trust in God again.'
    'And who's better to trust to?' answered Polly. 'And don't you always trust in Him, Sam? I'm sure ye do, dear. Seems to me we've almost more need o' God to keep us straight when things are bright a bit than when we're down. We're apt to get bumptious else.'
    An awful winter followed. Cold, famine, fever, killed the poor 'like flies.' The City and the West-End subscribed liberally, according to their wont, for our East-End sufferers; but our local mendicants and a locust-swarm of their congeners from all points of the compass appropriated the bulk of the donations - bounteous but still insufficient-that were intended for those who would work if they could.
    This wide-spread misery extended far into the spring. [-140-] It was some time in May when our verger said to me, as he helped me to take off my gown after service, 'I've just heard, sir, that there's a whole family of decent folk dying, with nobody to look after them, in Dick's Buildings. Mrs Flack, that sits in the second free-seat, told me.'
    When I reached Dick's Buildings I found many clamorous applicants for relief; but even there the case I was in search of was exceptional; and, therefore, I had not much difficulty in finding my way to the damp cellar in which lay Sam, and his wife, and two of his children - the 'Reaper, whose name is Death,' had mercifully garnered the rest. Sam and Polly, with pinched, chalky faces, were lying side by side; the children, with legs and arms like sticks, squeezed in between them. The father and mother were almost unconscious; the elder child was languidly trying to put a laceless tag, which she had picked up, into a broken eyelet-hole of the one fragmentary boot she still possessed; the little boy was slapping his mother's face because she did not heed his cries. I had the poor creatures carried to the workhouse. They recovered there; and there I learned their history. When they were strong enough to move, our Emigration Committee sent them out to Canada. They sailed towards the end of a golden summer, and I accompanied them to their ship. It was a public holiday; flags were hoisted on the church towers, and the bells were pealing merrily. On our way to the docks, thinking it might please her as a last memento of the old country, I bought a little bunch of flowers for Polly. 'Thankee, sir,' she said, 'you mean it kindly, but 'cept that my darlings are lyin' dead in it, I [-141-] don't much care for England now. I've got no home now, 'cept heaven, where, please God, I shall meet 'em, and partings is no more.'
    'Seems as if you were glad to get rid of us,' said Sam bitterly, as he listened to the pealing bells. 'But, thank God, we're going where a man that will work can work. I'll make you a good home yet, Polly, please God; but that won't bring back the little uns, will it. poor old gal?'
    'God's good - He's got 'em, and He'll take care of 'em, Sam,' sobbed poor Polly.
    As the Ottawa, bound for the country of the red-skins, was warped out through the dock gates, the pale faces clustered on her bulwarks raised a shrilly ringing cheer, as if in defiance of the jubilant bells.
    It was good for the emigrants, and for those they left behind, that they were going; and yet that shrill hurrah of triumph echoes in my memory as one of the saddest sounds I ever heard.