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THE WIFESLAYER'S " HOME."
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.