Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - A News "Rough's Guide"

[back to main menu for this book]



A ticklish stage in the life of a London labourer - his "hobbledehoy"-hood compared with the lad country bred - The worst of social pests, the London "rough" - The possibility of nipping him in the bud - A promising experiment to that end - The Labour House at Stepney - Young roughs in course of reclaiming - The pair of dodgers who wanted snug quarters - I enlighten them as to the rules and regulations of the Labour House, to their unspeakable disgust and disappointment.

IN the life of a London labourer there is usually one period that of all others is fraught with peril, and on a successful tiding over of which mainly depends his future career. It is at the time when be becomes a "hobbledehoy," as it is called - neither a man nor a boy.
    In this respect the country-bred lad has a great advantage over his town cousin. It is true that, as a rule, he knows nothing of apprenticeship; but from his earliest boyhood he is qualified for the avocation at which he will eventually, and to the end of his existence, gain a livelihood. At ten years old he is worth a shilling a week as a bird-boy, or at weeding, or picking up stones; at fourteen he will be earning perhaps four shillings weekly as a labourer's helper; at eighteen there is plenty of employment for him, according to his ability and strength, and his salary will then be about three half-crowns a week, with an annual rise of a shilling or so until such time as his sprouting whiskers, and the notorious fact that he is "keeping company" with a view to matrimony, attest that he has entered on man's estate, and he attains the full standard agricultural wage of the locality, and so settles down.
    But it is altogether different with the London boy of poor parentage. In one respect, as the son of an honest labourer who struggles manfully to maintain his family without parochial assistance, he - the boy - is at a disadvantage as compared with the offspring of neglectful or unfortunate parents, who find a refuge in the workhouse; inasmuch as it is part of the poor law system to dispose of the parochially adopted ones by offering a premium to craftsmen of good character to take them apprentice and teach them a trade. But the poor toiler with a large family cannot afford to follow this wise course. In the first place, he [-115-] is rarely in possession of the, to him, enormous sum of five pounds, which is the very lowest pecuniary inducement a master will accept to take a boy and teach him a trade; and in the next place, he looks forward to when his son will be fourteen, not as a time when he shall be bound, but set free, and he is in hope of his being then able to earn a few shillings weekly to help support his younger brothers and sisters.
    The modern system of compulsory education has strengthened his perhaps wrong-headed views in this respect. In the old benighted times the male juveniles of the Great Drudge family were set to work at a much earlier age than now. Then children of ten - of eight years of age even - were expected to lend a hand, though ever such a small one, towards keeping the family cupboard replenished. Now, however, a father has virtually no control over his child - no absolute control, at all events - until the Board School authorities have done with him. He is thirteen or fourteen before he completes his scholastic training, and as yet he has done no manner of work to lighten the burden he is on his parents' earnings. Supposing that the necessary few pounds were forthcoming to bind the boy to a master that he may be taught a trade, he would probably become an outdoor apprentice with a mere trifle of "pocket money" weekly, and his father would consequently have still to provide for his increasing wants for two or three years at least. This, in thousands of cases, is out of the question.
    A far easier, and an immediately remunerative method, is to place him somewhere as handy boy in a warehouse or factory, or get him a situation as errand lad to a shopkeeper. There is always a demand in London for boys of from fourteen to seventeen, and the wages paid them are not illiberal. A sharp youth of sixteen can command as much as ten shillings weekly, boarding at home; and in the way that poor folks contrive to live, such a sum leaves a considerable margin of profit for a thrifty mother to eke out general housekeeping expenses. But, unfortunately, this satisfactory condition of affairs does not last very long. In the great majority of cases employers of boys do not need any one older. The active little lad can do all they require, and though he might be willing to work for as small wages, a master would rather not have an overgrown youth in his stead.
    It is a melancholy fact that in our great metropolis young [-116-] fellows of from seventeen to nineteen are a drug in the unskilled labour market. They are too big to be classed with boys, and not old enough or sufficiently able-bodied to elbow their way in the already crowded ranks of the lower order of adult labourers. They have outgrown the conveniences of the home of their childhood, and are thrown in part, or entirely, on their own resources. In numberless cases it is a terribly hard time for the poor young fellows. Half fed, shabby, and penniless, it is no great wonder that many even of the best disposed fall into evil habits, and those who are at all viciously inclined are almost sure to do so. The ranks of the detestable army of "roughs" are no doubt largely recruited from this source, or the evil may develop into the milder social difficulty represented by the comparatively harmless vagabond who begs his bread, and resorts to the workhouse casual ward for his bed.
    The individual humane and courageous enough to grapple with a grievance of such gravity and magnitude, is deserving of the sympathy and encouragement of all classes. It appears to be such a formidable and hopeless undertaking that it is scarcely surprising that it has not been before attempted. There are homes and asylums in plenty for juvenile outcasts who have not as yet emerged from boyhood, but to lay a reforming hand on the budding rough appears a hopeless and useless task. The experiment, however, has been tried, and, marvellous to relate, with no small measure of success. If any one could accomplish the difficult feat, it would be the gentleman under whose auspices the "Labour House for Destitute Youths" was started. In the neighbourhood of Stepney Causeway, Dr. Barnardo has for many years past provided harbourage for hundreds of wretched little castaways, drifting from bad to worse in the troubled waters of the eastern districts, and lately he has taken this bolder flight. What he did was to engage a commodious house in the Commercial Road, with a piece of waste ground at the rear. In the latter he stacked a large load of rough timber, fit for firewood purposes, and built a big shed, and provided chopping-blocks and choppers. The house itself, as regards its dormitory accommodation, is as severely simple as the most scrupulous disciplinarian could desire. There is a large room for meals, and a larger still for schooling and the wholesome enjoyment of leisure.
    [-117-] Thus prepared, the benevolent proprietor made it known, in quarters where the information would be interesting, that any young fellow under twenty, who was sick of a lazy life and skulking about the streets, might find work at wood-chopping at the place above mentioned, and for which in return he would get enough to eat, a comfortable mattress to sleep on, decent clothes to wear, and that was all - no money wages. Moreover, it had to be distinctly understood that the young fellow who availed himself of the opportunity must sign an agreement to submit himself to the rules and regulations of the establishment, foremost among which was that he must on no account quit the premises without permission, unless he desired to take a final departure, which he was always at liberty to do on giving one day's notice, when his carefully preserved old clothes would be restored to him, and he would go out as he came in. The candidate was likewise duly informed as to other conditions, namely, that he would have to work with a will and without shirking or horse-play, or the use of foul language, and that all such infringements would be noted by the labour master, who would take care, by way of punishment, to stop the meal next due - be it breakfast, dinner, or supper. On the other hand, if a young fellow's behaviour was on the whole satisfactory for the space of six months, then every endeavour would be made to find him future employment and a sound suit of clothes to start with.
    The right-minded would no doubt find these various inducements ample, but I must confess when, several months since, the idea in its present shape was confided to me, my faith in it was of the faintest. I am the more glad to make known that, as far as the means at the disposal of the gentleman in question will admit, the experiment has proved an undoubted success. Within the past four months thirty-two of these youths, rapidly maturing to adult ruffianism, have been received, and of this number twenty-six remain, manfully earning their bread, sweetened by the sweat of their brow, and thriving wonderfully on the, to them, novel aliment. Nor does one need be a physiognomist to tell at a glance that exactly the sort of fish angled for have been secured. I found them, about a score in number, squatted at the chopping-block, and cheerily hard at it, but most of them with that unfortunate type of face not easily [-118-] softened or improved by a fit, more or less enduring, of moral resolution. There was the heavy under jaw, the eyes deep sunk in their sockets, the massive chin, the large outstanding ears with the barren space behind. Nevertheless - and by what magic their taming is accomplished I cannot say - there they were, chopping their way to an honest and creditable future with an amount of energy and perseverance that showed unmistakably how thoroughly their minds were made up about the matter.
    I tried to talk with two or three of them, but they were evidently averse to conversation with strangers, and gave me answers that were civil, but decidedly short. The prevailing sentiment among them was one that could not be found fault with - they had entered on a contract, and though they were perfectly well aware of the tough work they were engaged on, they meant to stick to it for the sake of the reward, and that being so, the least said about it meanwhile the better. I was informed that though some of them grin rather ruefully at the discipline at first, they soon learn to bear with it. They get their three meals a day, plain as well can be, but unstinted, and each worker has a clean bed, with sheets and a rug to cover him, of a very different complexion from what he has probably been used to at the common lodging-house. There are two hours' school in the evening, with a comfortable reading-room, with plenty of lavatory accommodation, including a spacious bath. I don't know exactly what is the cost in each case, for such an establishment can scarcely hope to be self-supporting; hut whatever it may be it must be regarded as merely trifling as compared with the item entered to the credit side of the ledger - one London rough the less.
    It is not surprising that it occasionally happens that the youthful rough of the utterly incorrigible kind, misled by false rumours as to the life of ease and luxury to be secured by the exercise of a little artfulness, makes humble application, but when he hears the terms turns disgusted away. Indeed, such an instance came under my notice. I had descended the steps, and was turning away from the premises, when I saw at a few yards' distance a couple of youths, of exactly the type that will probably prove more troublesome to the promoter of the bold experiment than any he is likely to be called on to deal with. [-119-] They were apparently about eighteen years old, and at the moment when I beheld them one was practising the steps of a dance he was presumably at present not quite perfect in. His companion, lounging with his back to the wall, and with the peak of his cap tilted jauntily over his eyes and a short pipe in his mouth, was critically contemplating the motions of the dancer's feet. The instant they caught sight of me, however, the dancing ceased, and after a rapid whispering together, the pair, suddenly assuming the demeanour of sober and steady lads incapable of swerving so much as an inch from the straight path of integrity, hurried after me. When they overtook me, however, they did not immediately address me. Walking abreast and keeping pace with me, they continued a conversation, speaking loud enough for me to overhear.
    "That's where I'm like you," said one. "I didn't have pluck enough to go up the steps and knock, for fear they might think we was only making game or somethink; which nothing is furder from my thoughts. Wot do you say, Bill?"
    "I say that them wot's got the 'ard-'artiness to make game of them who's money out o' pocket to convert us from our wicked ways, ought to be jolly well ashamed of theirselves. That's wot I say, Charley. I tell you fair and honest, Charley, I'm open to be converted if any kind gen'l'man would set about it."
    And then they feigned to be made suddenly aware that they were walking within six feet of me. They started and fell back a pace.
    "It is him, I tell you," said Bill, in a stage whisper.
    "Wot, him that we see come out just now? Well, he looks a kind-'arted sort. Blessed if I don't speak to him."
    And next moment the last speaker, with a smile of childlike confidence, and with a twist of his body comparable to nothing but the wriggle with which a homeless dog beseeches the compassion of any one who casts pitying eyes on him, remarked,
    "I beg pardon, sir, but might you be one of the head'uns at the Labour House, wot us saw you come out of just now?"
    "Why do you ask?"
    "Cos if you was, if you wouldn't mind the liberty of us arstin, we thought as how you might be the means of getting us in."
    "Are you destitute, then?"
    "Are we not, sir?" struck in Bill ; "reg'ler 'ard up, and no [-120-] mistake. Got no home, no wittles, and never a a'penny to buy none with. That's about the size of how destitoot we are, sir."
    "How did you manage, then, to buy the tobacco I saw you smoking just now?"
    I saw that the unexpected question took him somewhat aback. But it was only for a moment.
    "I didn't buy it, sir," he replied, with another wriggle; "no fear. If I'd had a a'penny I'd have bought a a'porth of bread and divided it atween us. No, sir, I was smoking a 'arf pipe of 'bacca I begged off a working man, 'cause I had the toothache so awful bad."
    "Which it do make 'em ache, and all your bones as well," remarked Charley, "sleeping on a hempty stomach out in a cart, like we've been doing this month and more. If you could get us into that House, sir!"
    My opinion of the precious pair was certainly not improved by closer inspection. They were wretchedly clad and wellnigh shoeless, but their bodily condition was far from being that of two youths reduced to the verge of starvation. Indeed, they were rather plump and sleek than otherwise. Sturdily built, muscular young fellows, fit for any sort of rough, hard work; but, endeavour to conceal it how they might, there was that in the demeanour of both that betrayed them. They were of the hulking sort, street-corner loungers of the unmitigated lazybones breed, much given to standing at ease at alley entries, with their feet crossed and their hands enjoying warmth and repose in their pockets. And, unless I was mistaken, Bill's soft cap was pulled to its full capacity over his head, not so much that he objected to expose his ears to the gaze of the public, as to hide the havoc a prison barber had made with his hair.
    I had seen several decidedly unhandsome specimens of the youthful "rough" kind in the wood-chopper shed, but none that so plainly bore the irreclaimable brand as these two. The wonder to me was what could have put it into their heads to seek admission at the Labour House, where they certainly would have to work hard for all the benefits bestowed on them. Perhaps they were mistaken as to the sort of institution it was.
    "I don't know that I have interest enough to obtain your admittance," I remarked, "but I know enough about the place, and of the way that workers there are treated, to give you some [-121-] information on the subject if you desire it. Of course, you are aware that the labour test, as I may call it, is rather severe."
    They glanced askance at each other.
    "No other can't be expected," one of them remarked.
    "Oh, yes, we are awear of that, as you say, sir. They have to keep the place clean and make themselves useful, don't they?"
    "They don't have such an easy time of it as that," I replied; "they have to work in the wood-yard sawing and chopping from morning till night, with a strict foreman to watch over them, and who takes care to stop their food if they are caught shirking the task set them."
    They regarded each other with an expression of countenance that told, as plain as speech, that they had been wrongly informed.
    "I just now saw about twenty of them," I continued, "stripped to the shirt-sleeves, sweating away at their work in a way it would have done your heart good to see."
    Bill's companion uttered an involuntary growl, but, nudged by the latter, he changed it to a cough; but the ill-disguised screwing of his visage betokened what was his unexpressed thoughts on the subject of perspiration induced by vigorous bodily exercise. But Bill was not disposed to give up the matter yet.
    "Well, I don't believe that sweating does you any harm," said he, "not when you are well grubbed, and have a good suit of clothes give yer to go about in when you've done your work; 'specially if they ain't institootion togs, with buttons of that sort anybody can spot you in."
    Then the rascal nudged Charley, who took heart and brightened up a bit. I thought I at last saw at what they were aiming. They had somehow heard of the comfortable and unconspicuous attire in which the young fellows who were admitted were clad; and, underrating the worldly wisdom of the promoters of the institution, designed to get their rags changed for comfortable clothes, and then to bolt at the earliest opportunity.
    "There you are again mistaken," said I. "A suit of clothes is lent, not given, to the workers, and such precautions are taken that should they attempt to run away with the things, they soon find themselves in the hands of the police. Besides, they don't have much chance of running away. They are never allowed [-122-] off the premises unless an attendant goes with them." At this Bill's pent-up wrath broke forth, defying further restraint.
    "And this is your bloomin' 'Ouse of Labour, is it!" he exclaimed, turning savagely to his companion. "Workin' like a 'orse in a wood-yard for your wittles, and your lodging, and a suit of clothes wot's only lent to yer, mind yer, It wouldn't suit me, by a precious long jump."
    Andy with a parting look at me of the loftiest scorn and defiance, he turned abruptly into a side street, his grinning friend following him. Meanwhile, the steadfast twenty-six provided for at the "Labour House for Destitute Youths" were busily chopping away at the billets that to them were emblematic of the thicket that stood between them and freedom and respectability; and a good thing it would be for our great metropolis if the number so employed - their quality and condition considered - were increased a hundredfold.