Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Lights and Shadows of London Life, by James Grant, 1842 - Chapter 4 - The Higher and Lower Classes

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Number of aristocratic families —The average amount of the annual expenditure of each family — Luxurious living among the higher classes — Literary men and the middle classes — The lower classes — Prevalence of destitution and deep distress among them — Reflections on the subject — Mechanics.

IN the first series of "The Great Metropolis," I devoted three elaborate chapters to Society in London. In my present observations, which will be few and brief, I shall carefully avoid a repetition of any of the statements or remarks I therein made. What indeed I am about to write, may be regarded as supplemental matter to what is contained in the chapter in question.
    All the varied phases of human life are to be witnessed in the metropolis. The extremes of [-157-] riches and poverty, of luxurious living and the want of the necessaries of life, are hourly exhibited in London, in more marked contrast, perhaps, than in any other place in the world. Little do those in the more fashionable parts of the metropolis, who have been nursed in the lap of opulence, and been always surrounded with a profusion of the luxuries of life; little do they know the deep distress endured by myriads of the lower classes in the central and eastern districts.
    It were a curious and not unimportant exercise to inquire into the modes and means of living which obtain in the higher and humbler classes of metropolitan society. Of course the expenditure of aristocratic families varies with the circumstances and habits of the respective heads of those families; but if I were to express an opinion as to the average annual expenditure of each of the 2000 or 3000 titled families who live in London, that opinion would be, that such average expenditure is about 12,000l. I have often thought that, if the sum thus yearly dissipated on the follies and extravagancies [-158-] of one family, were judiciously distributed among the poorer classes of our metropolitan population, how vast would be the aggregate amount of happiness of which it would be productive. Supposing, for example, it were divided into sums of 10l., and that that amount were given to as many families as there are 12l. in 12,000l., the benefaction would raise no fewer than 1000 families, at present enduring all the horrors of want, to a condition of comparative comfort.
    But the suppositious case ought not to end here. Let us farther suppose that each of the opulent aristocratic families in the metropolis were to put their 12,000l. into one common fund for the relief of the destitute part of the population; and assuming the number of these families to be 2500 (which is the intermediate number between the 2000 and 3000) — the entire sum thus annually available for the purposes of charity and mercy would be 3,000,000l., and would, on the foregoing calculation of allowing 12l. per annum to every poor family, relieve the wants of, and raise to a state of comparative competence, no fewer than 250,000, or a quarter of a [-159-]  159 million of families. In fact, it would entirely banish want and poverty from the metropolis, and leave an ample competence for the aristocratic families themselves. There would not be an individual in London who would then know what it. is to suffer the privations of any of the necessaries of life; though at the present period, which is one of peculiar distress, there are perhaps 50,000 persons who rise every day without knowing by what means, if at all, they are to get a dinner, and though in ordinary circumstances the number of such persons is about 25,000.
    It is painful to think that the aristocracy should feel so little sympathy with the fate of the suffering poor. If they were only to sympathise with those of their fellow-creatures in London, who are doomed to struggle with privations which almost overmaster their powers of endurance, they could never bring themselves to expend such immense sums in mere folly and display; while thousands, and tens of thousands, of those around them, are suffering all the horrors of the deepest poverty. I [-160-]  know instances in which fashionable families at the West End expend 500l. on a single rout. Has it never occurred to these persons that, had this sum been judiciously expended on the famishing poor, it would have provided a plenteous and healthful meal (assuming the expense of such meal to be sixpence) on no fewer than 20,000. out of the 50,000 already referred to as rising every morning from their beds without knowing where they are to procure a meal, or whether one is to be procured at all.
    I wish this culpable extravagance were confined to persons moving in aristocratic circles. It prevails, unhappily, to a very great extent among persons in the middle ranks of life. Many of our metropolitan professional men — physicians, lawyers, and others — live at the rate of 3000l. or 4000l. per annum; while thousands of our city merchants and other tradesmen expend twice that sum. Even some of our literary men, ambitious of aping the manners and expenditure of the great, are in the habit of giving occasional dinners, the cost of which varies [-161-] from 70l. to 100l. One instance of a dinner lately given by a literary gentleman to a party of his friends, came under my notice, the expenses of which amounted to upwards of 125l. Such extravagance is, in any case, foolish; as well as at variance with right feeling. In the case of literary men it is especially so, for few of them are in circumstances to afford it; or if they be this year, their pecuniary affairs may be in a very different position next year. Of all professions, that of literature is the most precarious. The annals of modem literature are crowded with most painful illustrations of the truth of these observations. But having, in one of my former works, adverted at some length to the subject, I will not re-enter upon it in this place.
    The extravagance which prevails among the middle classes is not, perhaps, so strikingly seen in anything as in the costliness of their furniture. The late Mr. Hope, author of "Anastasius," furnished his residence at the enormous expense, including his pictures, of 300,000l
    [-162-] Of the men of the present day, not claiming aristocratic connexions, there is none so celebrated for the indulgence of an expensive taste in furniture, as Mr. Broadwood, the brewer, son of the late Mr. Broadwood, the eminent piano-forte maker. The former gentleman, who, it ought to be mentioned, is a bachelor, and only keeps a suit of chambers in the Albany, Burlington Street, is said to have a collection of antique furniture 'in his drawing-room alone, which cost upwards of 15,000l. I have been assured, but cannot vouch for the accuracy of the statement, that Mr. Broadwood has several of the chairs which actually belonged to Louis the Fourteenth, for each of which he is represented to have given nearly 200l. To this fact I can pledge myself; that our English tradesmen often go over to France, and outbid, at auctions of splendid and expensive furniture, not only the nobility but the royalty itself of that country. Only a few months have elapsed since an auctioneer residing in Oxford Street, brought over from Paris a magnificent table, for which he gave the sum of 1000; [-163-] Louis Philippe having been the next highest bidder for the valuable article.
    It is painful to turn our thoughts from the luxurious living which obtains among the higher, and to a great extent among the middle, classes of society, to the contemplation of the miserable living which prevails among the lower classes. Myriads of the latter grope and grovel in families of from seven to fourteen, in miserable hovels, many of them underneath the ground, without grates, without glass windows, or indeed windows of any kind — the only light and air being admitted through the horizontal door. Here amidst damp and filth, and without a breath of fresh air from one year's end to the other, do whole families mess together as if they were so many pigs. St. Giles's, the neighbourhood of Drury Lane, St. George's in the Fields, and immense districts in the eastern parts of the metropolis, are among the localities in which these appalling scenes are to be witnessed. And the wretchedness of the huts or hovels to which I refer is greatly aggravated by the deplorable destitution of the [-164-] unhappy inmates as regards food and clothing. The quantities of food on which thousands of them subsist, are incredibly small; sometimes a whole family, consisting of from five to ten individuals, are compelled to live (if living it can be called) on an amount of food which would not more than suffice for a hearty meal to a person possessing an ordinary appetite; while in the article of apparel they have scarcely enough wherewith to cover their nakedness.
    It is singular, that amid the many enterprises of benevolence, which not only owe their origin to metropolitan philanthropy, but aim at the amelioration of the condition of our London population, no association should exist for inquiring into the extent of the frightful evils to which I refer, and providing a remedy for them. The great mass of the metropolitan community are as ignorant of the destitution and distress which prevail in large districts of London — and that not at seasons of commercial pressure only, but every year and all the year through — as if the wretched creatures were [-165-] living in the very centre of Africa. This ought not to be; it is a reflection on the national humanity; it is wholly discreditable to a community calling itself Christian. Among the many pure and ardent philanthropists with which London happily abounds, are there none to embark in this holy and humane enterprise; no one to organize a society, having for its object, to drag into the light of day the scenes of want and wretchedness which prevail to so fearful an extent in what are called the lower localities of London? I feel assured that, were the full extent of the evil only brought fairly before the benevolent public, the happy result could not fail to be the adoption of some immediate and decided steps to apply the needful remedy.
    My remarks on the lower classes have had no reference to mechanics and artisans as a body; they have chiefly applied to those who have no regular recognised business, and who live as they best may, by working at any job they can get, and often without working at all. In a chapter, however, professing to glance at [-166-] society in London, it were a manifest oversight to omit some allusions to that large and most useful, and in many respects influential, portion of the metropolitan community, usually spoken of by the general designation of the operative classes. As nearly as I can ascertain, the aggregate number of persons living by the labour of their hands as journeymen mechanics, is 50,000. Their wages vary in the different trades, and, in the great majority of houses, with the workman capabilities of the different parties. At several businesses — cabinet-making, bookbinding, and printing, for example — good hands will earn at piece work from two to three guineas per week. Taking, however, all trades practised in the metropolis, and taking together the good, the indifferently good, and the incapable workman, I am satisfied I am about the mark, when I estimate the average wages of journeymen mechanics and artisans at thirty shillings per week. In most trades a portion of the workmen have only partial employment, and consequently a reduced rate of wages, at particular seasons of the year. The [-167-] interval between the conclusion of one season and the commencement of another, which interval is from four to five months every year, is more or less sensibly felt in almost every mechanical calling, as well as by shopmen and others. During these months, mechanics have to struggle through as they best may. But perhaps of all other businesses those of printing and bookbinding are most affected by the seasons. Sometimes they are affected to such an extent as to compel the masters to reduce ~e number of their workmen by one-half, which has been the case in the printing business for some months past.
     Of the 50,000 operatives supposed to be In London, perhaps the average number out of employment is from 7000 to 8000.
    My remaining observations on a body of men who form a very important portion of the community will be of a general nature; and if I incur the charge of imparting a speculative tinge to these observations, the interest of the topic must form my excuse.
    The mechanics and artisans of the metropolis [-168-]  — and, indeed, of all populous towns— have, within the last few years, undergone a great improvement, both in a moral and mental point of view. As a body, they are intelligent, not merely as regards the passing events of the day, but also in matters of general literature. Considering the little opportunities they possess, owing to the claims which their respective callings have on their time, the extent and variety of their information on subjects connected with general literature, is surprising. In numberless instances the journeymen are, in this respect, far superior to their masters. Nor are their mental acquisitions limited to the possession of mere matters of information: they extend much farther. They have, without the assistance of any living teacher, acquired a knowledge of composition, and can express their thoughts, either in writing or in speaking, with a taste and accuracy which would do credit to those who have received the advantages of a university education. There are many of their number who can acquit themselves at public meetings in a manner which would do no dis-[-169-]credit to the most practised speakers in either branch of the Legislature.
    Much of the marked progress which the operatives of the metropolis have, of late years, made in mental improvement, is to be ascribed to mechanics' institutions; but much more, I believe, to the great reduction in the price of useful and popular literature which has been effected through the instrumentality of cheap publications.
    Nor ought I to omit, in adverting to the principal causes of the intellectual regeneration which the operative classes of London have recently undergone, to make honourable mention of a class of houses which are comparatively unknown in the provinces. I allude to the coffee-houses, or coffee-rooms, which are now to be found in such great numbers in every part of the metropolis. These rooms are, in a modified sense, so many literary institutions for the benefit of the operatives. In addition to the newspapers of the day, most of them now regularly take in the leading monthly magazines, and the principal weekly publications; and these period-[-170-]ica1s are eagerly read by the great majority of those who frequent these rooms. In many eases, indeed, and even where the terms for refreshment are the most moderate, some hundreds of volumes of popular literature are constantly kept for the use of the customers. The usual charge for a cup of coffee in these rooms is three-half-pence; in several instances it is only a penny; and for three-half-pence in the former case, and for a penny in the latter, any one may sit for hours in a comfortable room, and read the leading daily and weekly newspapers, the most popular monthly magazines, the best of the cheap weekly publications, and, in various cases, the more expensive volumes which are constantly issuing from the press. Coffee being a beverage which cheers but not inebriates, a coffee-room is peculiarly adapted for reading with comfort and advantage.
    Nor is it in a mental point of view alone that the mechanics of London have recently undergone a great improvement: their moral improvement has been proportionably great. The standard of morals has been very considerably [-171-] raised among them even within the last five years. A drunken operative, though I regret to say still too often to be seen in the streets, is a rare sight compared with what it was some years ago. Formerly, it was quite common to hear the working men of London speak of their inebriated exhibitions in terms of boasting, or at all events, to make the admission that they had reduced themselves below the level of the brute creation — without a blush. This is no longer the case; indeed, a mechanic who would now speak in self-glorifying language, in the presence of any of his brother mechanics, of such degrading exploits, would be sharply rebuked, if not expelled from the room.
    The mechanics of the metropolis are also much more honourable in their various dealings than they were at any former period. They are altogether, in any moral point of view in which they may be regarded, a superior class of persons to their predecessors of fifteen or twenty years ago. They have ascended equally in the intellectual, the moral, and social scale. And in appearance and manners, as well as in mind [-172-]  and morality, they greatly surpass the metropolitan mechanics of twenty years ago.
    But I must not flatter the mechanics by saying or implying that they have yet reached the goal of improvement. It is because I am anxious to see them attain to that position in society which I am convinced it is the pleasure of Providence they should occupy, that I would earnestly urge them not to slacken in, but rather increase, their exertions to achieve a yet farther amelioration of their condition. With this view I would press upon them an increased cultivation of what may be termed a reading spirit; let them do everything in their power to neutralise the disadvantages of a defective education in early life, by steadily pursuing a course of self-tuition now. To this end, let them guard against squandering away their time in trifling amusements, which neither conduce to the benefit of the body nor mind. Let them, above all things, avoid intemperance as they would a personal enemy whom they perceived advancing towards them with a mortal weapon in his band. Intemperance has been  [-173-]hitherto the grand bane of the working classes; it is a deadly adversary to everything that is good. It ruins the constitution, destroys the powers of the mind, converts a happy home into a place of wretchedness, debases one's moral nature, and, sooner or later, is sure to consign its miserable victim to the grave.
    I have always been anxious to see a good understanding between masters and men — the employers and the employed. It is for the mutual interest of the two classes that it should be so. Circumstances, however, must, in the nature of things, occasionally arise, in which differences will occur between them. I am far from meaning to say that masters are always in the wrong, or workmen always in the right. On the contrary, I feel satisfied that in many instances the latter are in error. In the majority of cases, however, I am inclined to think that the employed are in the right, and the employers in the wrong. Now, even when this is the case, the former are almost invariably defeated in any struggle which they may have with their employers. And why? Principally because, though [-174-]  not as a body addicted to intemperate habits, a great portion of them do spend more of their time and money in the alehouse than they ought. It is impoverished circumstances and the debasement of mind consequent on their habitual attendance at the places in question, that render them, as a body, an easy prey to those who seek to sink them in the social scale, and subject them to oppression and injustice. Were the mechanics and artisans of London — and not of London only, but of all large towns — inspired with proper notions of self-respect; were they on no account to transgress the rules — I do not say of abstinence — but of sobriety; and were prudent habits more general among them, they would, with the large measure of intelligence which characterises them as a body, speedily acquire a moral power which would, on all occasions, insure respectful treatment from their employers, and which would, moreover, enable them, promptly and effectually, to crush any attempts that austere or exacting roasters might make to oppress them.
    It would most materially contribute to the  [-175-] amelioration of the condition of the working classes of London, and every other part of the country, if they could only be induced to begin the practice of saving something, however little, out of their weekly earnings. I am aware that, considering the high price of provisions, and the limited wages usually received by operatives, much in the way of saving is not to be expected. But the importance I attach to the "weekly laying-by system," does not consist in the amount, but in the principle. The very attempt to be economic and provident is, of itself, in my estimation, a virtue of no ordinary magnitude, inasmuch as it is always accompanied by other good social qualities and praiseworthy conduct. It would insure my good opinion, to a certain extent, of any man, to know that he regularly put by a shilling, or even a sixpence, per week; and a man must have poor wages indeed, or have some very peculiar claims on his earnings, who could not, when in constant employment, contrive to do this. As there is no more prolific source of unhappiness to individuals or families in any rank of life, than that of [-176-] living above their incomes, it may, on the other hand, be safely said that the operatives of this and every other place would find a positive pleasure, were they once to begin to carry out a resolution made to save a certain amount of their weekly earnings when in full employment; and they would farther find that pleasure go on increasing in a ratio corresponding with the amount of their savings.
    If I thought that my own counsels and entreaties on this subject were not to meet with any attention from the operatives of the metropolis, I would entreat them to remember what the celebrated Dr. Franklin, himself in early life one of their number, has written on the same point. He has shown most conclusively in theory —  and, what is more, he exemplified his principles in a remarkable manner in practice the infinite advantages to the individuals themselves, as well as the great social good, which result from the adoption of those economic and prudent habits which I am recommending.