Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XIX - The Wifeslayer's Home

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THERE is something very weird and strange in that  exceptional avocation which takes one to-day to a  Lord Mayor's feast or a croquet tournament, tomorrow  to a Ritualistic service, next day to the home  of a homicide. I am free to confess that each has its  special attractions for me. I am very much disposed  to "magnify my office" in this respect, not from any  foolish ides that I am "seeing life," as it is termed,  but still from a feeling that the proper study of mankind  is man in ail his varied aspects.
    It need not always be a morbid feeling that takes  one to the scene of a murder or other horrible event,  though, as we well know, the majority of those who  visit such localities do go out of mere idle curiosity.  It may be worth while, however, for some who look  a little below the surface of things, to gauge, as it  were, the genius loci, and see whether, in the  influences surrounding the spot and its inhabitants  there be anything to afford a clue as to the causes of  the crime.
    In summing up the evidence concerning a certain [-151-] tragedy at Greenwich, where a man killed his wife by  throwing a  knife, the coroner "referred to the horrible  abode - a coal cellar - in which the family, nine in  number, had resided, which was unfit for human  habitation, and ought to have been condemned by  the parish authorities." Having seen and described  in these pages something of how the poor are  housed in the cellars of St. Giles's and Bethnal Green,  and traced the probable influences of herding together  the criminal and innocent in the low lodging-houses,  it occurred to me to visit the scene of this awful  occurrence, and see how far the account given before  the coroner's jury was correct.
    With this view I took the train to Greenwich, and,  consulting the first policeman I met, was by him  directed to Roan Street as the scene of the tragedy.  Roan Street I found to be a somewhat squalid bystreet,  running out of Skelton Street, close - it seemed  significantly close - to the old parish church. One  could not help thinking of the familiar proverb, "The  nearer the church, the farther from God." The actual  locality is called Munyard's Row, being some dozen  moderate-sized houses in Roan Street, let out in  lodgings, the particular house in question being again,  with a horrible grotesqueness, next door but one to a  beer-shop called the "Hit or Miss!" I expected to  find Roan Street the observed of all observers, but the  nine days' wonder was over since what Dickens called  the "ink-widge." Indeed, a homicide has ceased to [-152-] be a nine days' wonder now. This only happened on Saturday; and when I was there, on the following  Wednesday, Roan Street had settled down into its  wonted repose. A woman with a child was standing  on the door-step, and, on my inquiring if I could see  the kitchen, referred me to Mrs. Bristow at the  chandler's shop, who farms the rent of these populous  tenements; for Munyard's Row is peopled "from  garret to basement," and a good way underground  too.
    Mrs. Bristow, a civil, full-flavoured Irishwoman,  readily consented to act cicerone, and we went through  the passage into the back garden, where all the poor  household furniture of the homicide's late "home"  was stacked. It did not occupy a large space, consisting  only of the bedstead on which the poor woman  sat when the fatal deed was done, two rickety tables,  and two chairs. These were all the movables of a  family of nine. The mattress was left inside - too  horrible a sight, after what had taken place, to be  exposed to the light of day.
    We passed - Honora Bristow and myself - with a  "gossip" or two, who had come to see what I was  after, into the back kitchen, for the wifeslayer had two  rooms en suite, though the family elected to occupy  only one. The floor of this apartment was either  mother earth, or, if flagged, so grimed with filth as  to be a very fair resemblance of the soil. Here stood  only that terrible memento, the drenched mattress. [-153-] In the front kitchen - which, let me state, would have been palatial in comparison with the Seven Dials or Spitalfields, had it been only clean - there was very  little light, for the window, which was well down  below the surface of the pavement, had not a whole  pane in it, and the broken ones had been stuffed up with old rags which were very protuberant indeed. That window alone would show that the ménage had  not been a judicious one.
    "He was a quiet man," said Honora, "and gave  trouble to no one. He and his wife never had a  word." The gossips all believed that the story of  the throwing the knife was true, notwithstanding the  medical evidence went against it. The boy of twelve,  who provoked the father to throw the knife, was evidently  the incubus of the wretched home. "Almost  before the breath was out of his mother, that boy was  searching about the bed to see if he could find any  ha'pence," said Honora. That boy was evidently not  satisfactory. His evidence was refused by the Coroner,  because he could not read or write. But then what  had been the child's surroundings? They have been  described above. The man himself had a patriarchal  family of seven, from a girl of seventeen down to a  baby of two, and all, as we have seen, slept in one  room, though there were two, and though a bucket  of whitewash would have made the pair habitable,  besides giving the lad some useful employment.
    The father was of no particular occupation, picking [-154-] up odd jobs, and leaning largely to the shrimp trade.  He stood high in Honora Bristow's regards as having  regularly paid his 1s. 9d. a week for five years, or,  at least, being some 5s. behind now; a sum which  will probably be covered by the chattels in the back  garden. The poor home was silent then. The mother  lay calmly in the dead-house, after the post-mortem  examination, "terrible cut and hacked about," said  the one gossip who had ventured to go and see her  quondam friend. The father was in Maidstone Gaol.  The little children were being taken care of by the  grandmother until such time as the mother should have  been buried, when they would gravitate to the workhouse.
    In the meantime the boy, at twelve, the cause of  all the mischief, disports himself in Munyard's Row  as though nothing had happened. Perhaps he is the  most difficult part of the problem; but the whole  question of the home is a puzzling one. The boy is  evidently the product of the home. It very much  concerns the community that such produce should  become extinct; and therefore the sooner some improvements  can be introduced into such homes the  better. In the first place, there is decidedly too little  light. Sunshine, under any circumstances, would  have been impossible there. The advisability of  human beings burrowing underground may be questioned,  whether in cellars or genteel underground  kitchens.
    [-155-] Then again, one bedroom - nay, one bedstead - for  father, mother, and seven children ranging from  seventeen to two is decidedly deficient. This sounds  almost too horrible to be true; but I was careful to  ascertain that the eldest girl, though in domestic  service in Greenwich, slept at the "home." More  horrible still is the fact disclosed, that they had a  second room, yet had not the decency to use it. " De mortuis nil nisi bonum." They lived according to their light; but they had very little light, literally  or figuratively. Surely we want to teach our poor  the simple rules of hygiene. One of the gossips, a  clean, healthy little woman, with a fine baby at her  breast, referred with pride to her poor kitchen, identical  in all respects, save dirt, with the home.
    Then, again, there was one thing that struck me  forcibly, and that was the sort of qualified reprobation  with which these good gossips - really decent people  in their way - spoke of the habit of throwing knives.  Honora had once thrown one at her daughter of  eighteen, but never meant to do so again. And all  this under the bells of the old parish church of  Greenwich in the year of grace 1870!
    Clearly, however, the first question is what to do  with the boy, aet. twelve. Comporting himself as he  did in the face of the awful tragedy he had caused,  this young gentleman must clearly not be lost sight  of, or it will be the worse for himself and those with  whom he is brought into contact. Nay, in a few [-156-] years, he will become a centre of influence, and radiate around him another such "home," worse,  perhaps, than the first.
    Let our Social Science so far break through the  programme it may have laid down as to touch on this  very appropriate subject of squalid homes, and its  next sitting may be a very useful one indeed.

source: Charles Maurice Davies, Mystic London, 1875