Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - "A Pound a Week"

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"A POUND A WEEK."

How the poor live - The professional "out-of-work," and the ease with which he imposes on the practical philanthropist - ' Have the tombstones ready, there's a soft 'un coming upstairs" - Short commons and makeshifts of the really industrious poor - Mother's "management" - Mr. George Potter and the labouring classes - The "pound a week" man, and how he contrives to make both ends meet.

THAT "one-half the world knows nothing of how the other lives" is a trite saving, but more common in the mouths of the "half" first alluded to, which may be taken as comprising those who have means at their command, and concerning whose ways and existence there need be no mystery. The other "half" are regarded by many people with a mingling of pity and admiration - the first for their distress, the second for the courage and for the proper pride which moves them to conceal the innumerable shifts and contrivances with which they somehow contrive to make both ends meet, and which could have no other than an unpleasant and disturbing effect on the general tranquillity and content were they pushed forward for public contemplation.
    Yet there are a vast number of less selfish folk who sincerely sympathize with the thousands constantly struggling against adverse conditions, and would willingly help them if they but knew how. It would be found, however, in the great majority of cases - I am speaking, of course, of the industrious and respectable of the labouring classes - that everything in the nature of condolence would appear not only distasteful, but if offered would be bluntly and uncompromisingly rejected. The labouring man, however humble his lot, if he possesses the Briton's average pluck and independence, though he is constantly striving to make a little headway and better his position, much prefers to keep his affairs to himself, and to limit their discussion to his own family circle. By this one characteristic may the "working man," in the true sense of the term, be known from the shiftless loafer - the professional "out-of-work" - and the individual who is daunted by no depth of the mire of misfortune, and to the last is found sticking hard and fast with his shoulder to the wheel.
    [-167-] The apparent poverty of the former is a sham, and the philanthropist in search of objects for his benevolence should always regard with suspicion the man who at the merest hint is not only ready but eager to "make known to you, sir, candidly and honestly, and without untruth or concealment, exactly how I am situated." There is no one more likely to be taken in by this kind of imposture than the shrewd and alert charitable giver, who, rather than his alms should be in any way wasted or misapplied in passing through the hands of an agent, will be at the pains to make personal investigation in every case, visiting from house to house, and from room to room if necessary, and coming face to face with the destitution he is prepared to relieve. Let the free-handed reader with money to spare take my word for it that, taking a fair average of cases, of every dozen on which his welcome dole is expended, six at least are undeserving recipients, being strictly speaking not in poverty at all. "But, my dear sir," the good-natured donor may exclaim, "that is as good as to tell me that I am incapable of comprehending the evidence of my senses. I may be deceived by what I am told, but when a poor fellow, with his tearful wife at his side, reveals to me his most private affairs; when he shows me his rent-book and the landlord's last letter, threatening distraint on his miserable remainder of furniture; when he actually hands to me for my inspection a handful of pawnbrokers' tickets, showing how from time to time, and within the past week or two, the sheets and blankets and the shoes from the feet of the little children have been pawned to buy food, am I not then justified in concluding that the case is genuine?"
    Alas! no, my good sir. It would not be conclusive evidence even if, while you were listening to their melancholy revelations, the obdurate landlord himself came with breathless blustering, and declared that unless he was paid the five weeks' arrears of rent that very day he would seize on the "sticks," and leave the family not a bed to lie on. Such little affairs are so managed by adepts in cadger craft as to deceive the most acute. The ferocious landlord may be merely a friendly neighbour, who tomorrow, perhaps, will himself play the part of the crushed lodger, the latter, in his turn, being the tyrant. While as for the pawn-tickets, no longer since than last winter, while exploring in the undercurrents, and ascending the stairs leading up [-168-] to a room where I had been informed a case of shocking poverty was to be found, I distinctly heard, in a man's gruff and hasty tone,
    "Have the tombstone's ready, Sal; there's a soft'un coming up."
    The reader's humble servant was the "soft'un;" and when he entered the apartment, so poorly furnished, yet so scrupulously clean, he was not surprised to see hanging out at the bosom of the woman's dress a dirty string, which, as soon appeared, was attached to the precious bag in which the "tombstones" or pawn-tickets were deposited.
    But the hard-working fellow who for his family's sake makes the best of his opportunities, and who may be taken as a fair sample of that "other half" of the world whose ways of existing are so obscure, is an individual of a totally different type. He does not trouble himself as to how the other division of the hemisphere make existence tolerable. He has got quite enough to do to attend to his business and to his domestic concerns, and he wishes his most inveterate enemy no worse than that he may stick to the same wholesome rule. It is true that "secrets" are woven in with the fabric of his home life; but they are not shameful secrets or such as he would have reason to blush for were they by accident discovered. Neither are they all bosom comforts, though he cherishes them with jealous care. They are the bitter sweets of his existence - bushes growing in his heart's innermost garden, from which he gathers grapes as well as thorns. But I should say "they" rather than "he," for in cases the man and wife are one, and there is not a pin's difference between them in the division of sweets and sours; and when they hear it said that one half the world know nothing of how the other half live, they agree with each other that it is a very proper social arrangement, and one that they would be sorry to disturb.
    Indeed, one of the chief sources of pleasure would be cut off from them were it otherwise. The man, being a good, sober fellow, and his wife his able helpmate, they delight in triumphs of domestic economy, and in achieving such marvellous results out of nothing, as it were, that the neighbours are set wondering and whispering, "How is it done?" Not without a tight squeeze occasionally, you may depend; but though the shoe pinches never [-169-] so sorely, they would almost die sooner than betray the fact by wincing or limping. At the same time they scorn to keep up appearances on false pretences. In many instances it would be absurd for them to pretend that they were better off than they really are. A dozen of the man's shopmates maybe live in the same street with the husband, and know to a sixpence what his earnings are.
    But a fair field and no favour is all that the thrifty pair stipulate for, and the brilliant results of their wonderful "management" shine out the brighter for there being no doubt as to the meagre materials at their disposal. Their little house is always clean and decent. There is a carpet and a hearthrug on the parlour floor, and pictures decorate the walls. The wife has a Sunday as well as a week-day gown, the husband a "best" suit, as well as one for working in. The travelling tallyrnan is long ago aware that it would be waste of time to knock at that door, and the rent collector's demand is punctually met. How is it managed? The children are plump and healthy-looking ; they attend school regularly, and no one yet ever saw them in rags, or with their toes peeping out of their boots. Little Dick has a brand-new pair of bluchers when the winter weather sets in, and his sister a warm frock. These are facts patent to the whole parish, if it chooses to trouble itself about such small matters, but how accomplished is a secret known only to father and mother, and connected, too surely, with frequent "short commons," and the private practice of "makeshifts" bravely endured with a good grace and a pleasant face.
    And very amusing it must be for these household conjurors - and there are tens of thousands of them - who, in a manner of speaking, habitually make bricks without straw, when, from time to time, men skilled in the science of domestic economy come forward and explain at length in the newspapers that much that we hear concerning the ways and means of the working classes is sheer fudge, and propagated by a set of people who, while they pretend to know all about such matters, know absolutely nothing. Being behind the scenes, and having facts and figures at their fingers' ends, they - the gentlemen who explain matters - are not likely to be in the least degree in error, and they say without fear of contradiction that a man earning common labourer's wages of a pound a week cannot, by any possibility, [-170-] decently maintain a wife and a family of say two to three children out of that sum, all necessities being reckoned, and including house rent, schooling, clothes and shoes, light and firing, to say nothing of occasional medicine, renewal of crockery, breakage, washing and scrubbing material, &c. It is as impossible, they say, to make so few shillings suffice for so much as to make a pint of water fill a quart bottle. That labourers in receipt of the low wages in question, and with a wife and a small family to provide, do somehow contrive to rub along, is admitted; but, as used, the "somehow" covers ground to which the decent working man claims no share. It is intended to apply to the thousands who, themselves eschewing the ways of vice and dishonesty, see nothing objectionable in herding in the slums and in back-street courts and alleys - the customary haunts of dirt and squalor.
    It is not so much that the shady company with which they are surrounded is more to their liking than that to be met with in more respectable localities, but because, owing, perhaps, to the husband's drunken habits, or the wife's idleness and lack of concern for her abode, or possibly all three combined, his home is and must always be a wretched one. When such folk are asked why it is they cannot live in a more creditable way, their reply is that they would willingly do so, but how is it possible when all that is earned is required for food and to pay rent, and they are never able to lay by a trifle towards buying them a few articles of furniture, such as would enable them to go into respectable lodgings. Nor can they be very severely blamed for this hugger-mugger, slipshod way of life, when men who are their recognized representatives and leaders sound the key-note. Writing on the subject recently, Mr. George Potter thus expresses himself:
    "The lot of the labouring classes is, as a rule, a hard one. There is no denying that, with a large number, their life is absolute misery. Though they may not actually starve, they are more or less hungry from one week's end to the other. Their dull round of toil occupies the whole day, and their houses are the abodes of wretched nights, seldom free from disease, aggravated by poverty."
    That this is but a too true picture of the life led by hundreds of hard working men has already been conceded, but it is [-171-] equally true that in a far larger number of cases the same class of men, as regards employment and wages, and with equally heavy responsibilities to face, contrive, with the assistance of their good wives, to create and keep about them a comfortable home, where rags and dirt are unknown, and where there is always a loaf in the cupboard, and a seat by a bright fireside for father when he returns from his daily labour. It is idle to say it cannot be done, or to assert that, making the most liberal allowance for the man's sober and careful habits, and for his wife's shrewd management, it is impossible to eke out a pound until the various demands against it indicated shall be satisfied. Were it possible to take the voice of the labouring population on the subject, those who would be ready to bear witness to the contrary would outnumber their opponents twenty to one; though, unless compelled by a Royal Commission, they would be as shy as a multitude of explaining and making clear "how it is done" as they are found to be individually nor probably would the story be told complete until every one had spoken.
    There are as many different ways of making "both ends meet" under difficult conditions as there are worthy poor folk who accomplish the feat. But assertions without proof would be satisfactory no more on one side than the other. How it is done is the problem that still remains to be unriddled. Nor does the question apply only to men earning a pound a week. The man of the same mould - the sober and industrious worker, possessed with proper views of his home responsibilities - who earns thirty shillings a week, aspires to a social standing superior to that of his humbler shopmate. Yet to the outside world, by those who have no opportunity of raising the curtain and peeping behind, it is as inexplicable in the one case as the other by what conjuration and "white magic" so little money is made to accomplish so much.

source: James Greenwood, Odd People in Odd Places, 1883