Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Ragged London in 1861, by John Hollingshead, 1861 - The West

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It seems to be the fate of great cathedrals to be surrounded by "slums." I use this slang word for courts and alleys in this chapter, because Cardinal Wiseman has made it classical. When he spoke of the holes and corners of Westminster about the Abbey, he could find no more general and expressive term, and I may be pardoned for following so eminent a leader.
     The Church, as an institution, has more authority in poor than in rich neighbourhoods; and, as a building, it shines by the meanness lying at its feet. We are never tired of looking up a narrow avenue of fruit-stalls and old-clothes shops when the prospect closes with spires and a Gothic porch. The lower and more irregular the houses that cluster under the shadow of the [-102-] temple the more charming is the picture. The blue smoke curls upwards from the red housetops, the sunlight touches the corners of the crumbled cathedral stone, and the solemn gray towers seem to watch over all as they stand amidst the low white clouds. Writers like Longfellow, coming from the raw new cities of America, that were only yesterday reclaimed from the jungle, looking upon such scenes, are lost in admiration of the broken outlines and irregular lines, and the slums become invested with the purple hues of poetry.
     Unfortunately, however, there is a period in the history of slums when they become utterly mouldy and putrid. I say unfortunately, for most of us like old houses and old neighbourhoods, and Victoria Street, W., will not please the present generation like old Westminster. The mouldy, putrid period fell upon the old Abbey district some few years ago, and an improved thoroughfare was ploughed through to Pimlico. The diseased heart was divided in half-one part was pushed on one side, and the [-103-] other part on the other, and the world was asked to look upon a new reformation. A great city, a leprous district, is not to be purified in this manner by a Diet of contractors; and the chief result has been to cause more huddling together.*

     [* The Bishop of London spoke as follows in the House of Lords, February 28, 1861:-- "Their lordships were perhaps in the habit of thinking that the East-end of London was inhabited almost solely by the poor; but he believed that they would find that nearer to their own doors there was more squalid misery than in the East-end. In the very neighbourhood where they then were the clergyman who was entrusted with the spiritual charge of the parish of St. John had informed him that evening that when Victoria Street was constructed five thousand poor persons were displaced in his parish, three-fourths of whom went into the already overcrowded parishes on the other side of the river, whilst the other fourth found refuge in his own parish; so that in many instances, where a family had a house before, there were now three or four families in it."]

     While the nightmare street of unlet palaces was waiting for more capital to fill its yawning gulf, and a few more residents to warm its hollow chambers into life, the landlords of the slums were raising their rents; and thieves, prostitutes, labourers, and working women were packed in a smaller compass. The mouldiness and putridity [-104-] of Westminster - the part popularly so called - have gone on increasing, and of all the criminal districts in London I think it is now the worst.
     It matters little on which side of Victoria Street you turn, if you wish to find examples of social degradation. The streets and alleys that may be marked with a black cross, even in the five districts of St. John, St. Mary, St. Stephen, St. Mathew, and Holy Trinity, are nearly seventy, and there are others scattered about the neighbourhood. The courts here are the worst kind of courts, both in structure and condition; and the streets present lamentable blocks of overcrowding. In Carpenter Street, which is a working-man's street, nearly every room contains a different family of five or six members, and the rents run about two shillings and three shillings a week for each room. At one of the houses I went into an empty kitchen which had recently contained a mother and three children, the roof of which was not more than five feet ten inches from the floor, and the window of which was not a yard deep. In another street, [-105-] called Grub Street, the houses were even more faded, dilapidated, and overcrowded; and a place called York Buildings presented some of the worst features of an east-end sweeps' court. The dirt in the latter place, both in and outside the houses, was like a thick cement; and the rents for two dark dustholes of rooms was nominally four shillings a week. A lazy-looking man, who was smoking out of an upper window down the court, remarked "that they never paid more than two shillings and sixpence on the average, because they were often out of work." The energy of some of these men in seeking employment is not very great, and a bricklayer's labourer is never so happy as when he is standing against the archway of his court, with his hands in his pockets, and his eyes looking vacantly into space. On Sunday morning, in places like the Seven Dials, Whitechapel, Somers Town, Marylebone, the New Cut, Lambeth, or the Broadway, Westminster, you may always see a hundred of these men gathered in silent groups, smoking, but seldom talking to each other.
     [-106-] A court, recently rebuilt, called Champion's Alley, may be taken as a model of its class. The rooms are small, and the dimensions of the passage in front are not greater than those of many other similar passages, but each house is ventilated at the back, and is complete in itself. A dwelling of two rooms in a court like this seems to satisfy the most ambitious workman. The landlords in this neighbourhood, with a few exceptions, apologize for the wretched condition in which they let and maintain their property, by saying that they dare not fit up a cistern or an outbuilding with anything that would sell for sixpence at the marine store-shop. There may be some truth in this assertion, though it is an obvious excuse for neglecting the tenants.
     Tripp's Buildings is an example of a court whose inhabitants struggle to be clean and decent, even in the face of bad building arrangements. The houses have no outlet, no air-hole at the back, and are, therefore, unhealthy and illegal. They have each two rooms, one over the other, the size of which may be about seven feet broad [-107-] and twelve feet long. Each house lets for about four shillings a week.
     The gas-works in this neighbourhood are sure to attract a certain number of labourers, and these labourers are sure to live as near as possible to the factory. Laundry Yard, a long, narrow strip of pavement, covered with every kind of filth, contains a row of dwarfed two-roomed huts, filled with Irish labourers and their families, and closely faced by the high wall of the Chartered Gas Company's premises. It is no uncommon thing to find eighteen people, of both sexes and of all ages, in one of these miserable dwellings. The rooms are dark on the finest day, and the small outlet at the back is nearly full when it contains a dog's house and a pail. The male inhabitants are chiefly Irish, and are mostly engaged at the gasworks.
     If some of these places are dirty, repulsive, and overcrowded, they are all brightness and purity compared to other parts of the colony. Enter a narrow street called St. Anne's Lane, glance up at a fearful side-court called St. Anne's Place, [-108-] and wonder whether such filth and squalor can ever be exceeded. I went up the last-mentioned court, which had every feature of a sewer, and found a long puddle of sewage soaking in the hollow centre. The passages of the low black huts on either side were like old sooty chimneys, and the inhabitants were buried out of sight in the gloom. As I turned round to leave this place I caught a glimpse of several rough, long-haired heads peeping round the edges of the entrance. They disappeared immediately, like figures in a Punch and Judy show.
     I crossed over the road, and entered the openly acknowledged high street of thieves and prostitutes. It is called Pye Street, and has no mock modesty about it--no desire to conceal its real character. Threepenny "homes for travellers" abound on both sides-yellow, sickly, unwholesome places, many of them far below the level of the road, and entered by a kind of pit. Many of the houses have no flooring on their passages; and there is nothing for the barefooted children to stand upon but the black, damp, uneven earth. [-109-] A child, dirty and nearly naked, was hanging out of one of the old-fashioned casement windows; and in the summer time it is no unusual thing to see about fifty coarse women exhibiting themselves in the same manner. The yards at the back of the houses contain little mountains of ashes and vegetable refuse; and a dustcon- tractor's yard, in the centre of the street, seems to have burst its bounds, and to have nearly poured out its oyster-shells, cabbage-stalks, and broken china into the open thoroughfare. Shorthaired young men, with showy handkerchiefs round their neck, and tight corduroy trousers, were standing at most of the doors, looking pretty sharply about them from under the peaks of their caps. A fiddler was playing a dancing tune to a mixed assembly of thieves and prostitutes, and a morning ball was being arranged on both sides of the pavement. Many of the side streets and courts about here are shored up with black beams to keep the houses from falling, which adds to their wretched appearance. A few ragged and other schools have been planted in this district in [-110-] some of those faded shops which were formerly the haunts of receivers of stolen property.
     The hilly playgrounds for this hopeful colony lie on both sides of Victoria Street, down by the arches of the roadway. Where the links of new buildings have not yet joined each other you can see fag-ends of courts or interiors of ruined houses lopped, like diseased limbs, but not sewn up and healed. Sometimes the filth of these places runs out in black streams, and winds its way slowly down under the road arches. The interiors as seen from the highway, are much like what we have been looking at in the last few chapters, and any one who walks leisurely along this bread thoroughfare may observe the kind of life that is boiling within the settlement.
     The melancholy row of shops in Orchard Street will remind many of the old days of Field Lane. There is the dismal chandlers shop, with wood, tobacco, and coals mixed up with sooty lard, stale saveloys, a dry knuckle of boiled pork, and a few balls of cotton; a mysterious shop, that may be a lodging-house, or an unlicensed beer-[-111-]shop; and the low pawnbrokers, with the brown, greasy door, and the many-coloured pockethand- kerchiefs hanging in strings from a hook. In Snow's Rents, in this neighbourhood, you may see a specimen of a very dirty costermonger's colony, with a stream of thick black water and vegetable refuse flowing down the centre of the passage. In King's-head Buildings, in the Broadway, you may see the filthiest court in Westminster. The narrow roadway up it is worse than a sewer, because there is no flow of water; and amongst its swarm of inhabitants are several sweeps. It was near here that I saw the only instance of intoxication that I met with during my journeys, and I mention the fact for what it is worth. A drunken sweep and bricklayer were supporting each other as well as they were able, and exchanging what appeared to be vows of lasting friendship.
     The old Almonry, as it was called, near the spot where Caxton's house is said to have stood, and the art of printing to have been first pursued, is now nothing but the dreariest of ruins. A low [-112-] passage leads out of Tothill Street into the hollow shell of a house, whose rooms seem to have sunk into a few heaps of rotten bricks. Dead dogs, soaking fragments of old placards, and other refuse, lie amongst the bricks and dust, and the space is watched by closed, battered houses, with black, jagged window-panes. In a murky room of one of these houses a few tattered garments were drying; but this was the only sign of life to be seen within the place.



     The evils of overcrowding in courts and alleys are, unhappily, not confined to the eastern end of the metropolis. There are almost as many dark holes and corners within a few yards of Regent Street or Charing Cross, which shelter almost as much sickness, crime, and poverty, as any back hiding-places in Whitechapel or Bethnal Green. We may have all hurried for years along the bright open highways, scarcely glancing at the little doorways scattered here and there between the busy shops, and yet these doorways--holes--call them by what name we will--are the entrances to many thousands of closely-packed homes. These human dwellings --human in little else but the old familiar house shape--in old central neighbourhoods, like St. [-114-] James's, Westminster, form square openings, reaching up to the little patch of heaven overhead, like the shaft of a mine. The air in them is close and heavy, and they are dark on the clearest day. The infants and mothers suffer because they cannot escape from them; the elder children, as soon as they are able to run, desert them from instinct, and find more comfort in the gutters and streets; and the men leave them to seek for warmth and cheerfulness in the neighbouring tavern. They are penal settlements, not homes, and those who visit them and consider the effect they must have on mind and morals are compelled to wonder that there is not far more vice and drunkenness in the world.
     The poverty and low living of London have to be largely dug out. The noisy crowds who clamour at police-courts--who jam against workhouse-doors, like visitors to a theatre--who are foremost at soup-kitchens, and other similar charitable distributions-contain very few of the patient, hard-working poor. These sit in their wretched rooms, looking into each other's faces, [-115-] drooping over bare shopboards, bare benches, bare tables, and half-empty grates, hoping and praying for work. They only ask to be employed. They tramp through miles of mud--they stand for hours in work-room passages--they bear rain, and cold, and hunger without murmuring, and they clear their little households of every saleable article rather than beg. When they have got their little strip of cloth, or leather, to stitch or cut into shape, they clasp it like some precious treasure, and hurry home to begin their ill-paid task. In times of plenty they are, perhaps, a little wasteful; they look a very short way into the future; but we must think of their education and habits, and their cheerless lives. It is easy to add up their little excursions, their few dissipations, and fewer amusements, and to bring a wholesale charge of improvidence against them when they drop dead from want; but how few would bear the trial of living where they live and come out of it prudent, thoughtful, and pure!
     The great central neighbourhood of St. James's, [-116-] Westminster, which is a fair sample of many adjacent districts, such as Soho, part of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, &c., is chiefly occupied in its Berwick Street district by working tailors, porters, and shoemakers. Nearly every street has got its history in London handbooks, and is famed for having sheltered some celebrity in literature, science, or art. Now, however, the mansions fashionable in the last century are let off in "tenements." Every room is crowded with a different family, and four, if not more, landlords are interested in the rent. The leases are invariably sub-let, three deep, and the active inspector of nuisances, Mr. J. H. Morgan, has more than enough to do. Dwellings that originally sheltered eight or ten persons are now crowded with thirty, forty, or fifty inmates. The carved wainscotings are torn to pieces, or covered, an inch deep, with black grease. The old banisters are broken down. The stairs are rugged, dark, and uneven, but fortunately broad, according to the original plan of the buildings. Garrets are as much crowded as ground-floors [-117-] and even more, because some of these groundfloors have been turned into common shops, and one of the worst features of the district is a tendency to live in kitchens and cellars. Nine of these kitchens, wholly unfit for human habitation, were condemned last year, chiefly in Windmill Street, Haymarket; Pulteney Street, and Francis Street. In some cases they are lighted by a small window, looking out into a shallow area half full of stones, oyster-shells, and dust; and in other cases they are lighted by nothing but a small gridiron grating. In each of these damp, dreary, underground prisons were self-confined a large family, consisting of four, eight, or even ten persons, and the average rental paid for each room was about three shillings a week. Hundreds of these kitchens are still so occupied, although the district has been weeded of the very worst; and some of the condemned apartments are turned into carpenters' workshops, others into dustholes and receptacles for filth. Looking down more than one of these repulsive places, I saw [-118-] a shelving heap of dust, broken bricks, eggshells, and vegetable refuse. Here it was that the cholera spent its chief fury in 1854; and though every house then felt the weight of that affliction in one or other of its rooms, and the gutters ran with chloride of lime for many weeks, the same crowding and dirty habits still prevail. The dirt arises partly from long-settled carelessness about domestic cleanliness, partly from the impossibility of keeping one room tidy when six or eight people have to eat and sleep in it, and partly from the neglect of landlords to whitewash, paint, and paper the dwellings. The crowding arises from the desire of the working population to be "near their bread," as they express it; and the high rental of the tenements, averaging four shillings a room per week, arises naturally from this rush upon a particular spot. An empty room is a novelty. The distribution of population is not equal, even in the same parish, because the rents are unequal. About one hundred and thirty-four persons live on an acre in the St. James's Square [-119-] division, about two hundred and sixty-two on an acre in the Golden Square division, and four hundred and thirty-two on an acre in the Berwick Street division, the neighbourhood I am dealing with.
     I went into one of the houses in Pulteney Court --within a stone's throw of Regent Street--and was struck by its resemblance to one of the lowest dwellings of Bethnal Green. The small yard seemed rotting with damp and dirt. The narrow window of the lower back room was too caked with mud to be seen through, and the kitchen was one of those black-holes, filled with untold filth and rubbish, which the inspector had condemned a twelvemonth before. The stench throughout the house, although the front and back doors were wide open, was almost sickening; and when a room-door was opened this stench came out in gusts. In one apartment I found a family of six persons, flanked by another apartment containing five. One room was a little better furnished than another, but the gloom of poverty, dirt, and foul air hung over all. A [-120-] turn-up bedstead, dirty and broken, a small cracked table, a couple of rickety chairs, a piece of soap lying on the table by the side of a greasy knife, a pail full of soaking rags, and a knot of sooty infants in a corner, seemed to be the usual contents of a room. One thin, sharp-faced boy was minding one of these apartments for the tenants, while they (both husband and wife) were out seeking work. I asked him if he lived there: "No, sir," he said; "my house is higher up." He led the way to one of the garrets, where there were more signs of misery still, and this he told us was his "house." The dead cinders had oozed out of the grate into the room; an empty saucepan stood on the table by the side of a piece of soap, a cracked tea-cup was on the floor; an old collapsed bedstead, covered with something like a ragged mat, stood in one corner; and the dismal aspect of the place was heightened by two or three flower-pots full of black earth and dry, sapless sticks. The boy's mother was a poor shirtmaker, deserted by her husband, and left, fortunately, with only this one child. In the [-121-] next garret were a shoemaker and his family, a wife and three children. The room was tidy, and even comfortable, though the work-bench under the window was idle. The rent of this apartment was three shillings a week, although the low roof had been broken in in half-a-dozen places by the snow. The man, upon being questioned why he lived in such a hole at such a rent, with the ceiling scarcely higher than his head, spoke about his long residence in the parish, his familiarity with its people and its ways, and his dread of going into another neighbourhood, which he said would be like a "foreign country" to him. This dislike of going amongst strangers is the feeling which often keeps up rents, and often keeps the working population huddled together, and poor. In another room was a consumptive tailor, working on a shop-board under the window, faced by his wife, who was also employed in the same trade. One child was playing between them on the board, another on the floor, and five more were in the street. The man was almost bent double with disease and [-122-] long stooping; and, bad as he was, he was only like hundreds of his class. Seen dimly through the garret windows opposite were many more similar workers, and many garrets in the neighbourhood contain half-a-dozen yellow, crooked workmen, stitching themselves into their graves as they sit cross-legged on the floor. This man was an out-door patient of the Brompton Hospital, and he held out his letter of recommendation in his long, thin hand The hand, the voice, the hollow chest were quite sufficient credentials of disease, without any written attestation. His employment, like that of most of the tailors in this district, comes chiefly from the West-End houses, and he has to live in the neighbourhood to be within reach of his masters. He was working painfully on some tough piece of army cloth.
     In another small street, called New Street, remarkable for its condemned kitchens, was a little broker's shop, which looked miserably bare of stock. An old bedstead and one or two small articles stood at the door, but the interior was [-123-] empty. The room at the back of the shop, where the owner and his wife lived, with seven children, was also nearly empty, for the bedstead at the door was almost the last of their own domestic furniture. The man was a Frenchpolisher out of work, and bit by bit his little home had been broken to pieces and sold to passers-by. It was suggested that an application to the parish was a proper thing under the circumstances, but the wife proudly declined to ask for such charity, saying they were well known in the neighbourhood, and after poor-law relief they would never be able to hold up their heads. This is a very common feeling, especially amongst poor ratepayers.
     The most singular hole and corner in the district is No. 6, Husband Street. It is a small yard containing a dustbin, a water-tank, a couple of lower rooms or cellars, that look like condemned cells, and a number of rooms with black wooden exteriors, reached by ladders, and supplied with rude balconies. The population of each room on each flat can look over into the yard [-124-] from these balconies, which help, in some degree, to ventilate the place. Each room is crowded with a distinct family, having many children; and one room contains a mother-in-law in addition to the usual family. In one of the small garrets is an old charwoman, living by herself, who is going into the infirmary in a few days; and in the other garret is a widow with three children, who supports herself as a tailoress. Her few goods were seized for rent at her last lodgings, and she was left without a single article of furniture, except a few rags for a bed. The children were squatting on the bare boards, and she was standing up stitching a piece of scarlet cloth at the window. One advantage of living "in tenements," as it is called, is that the poor come together and help each other, or their lot would often be harder than it is. The miserable lodger who has no fire can often run up or down and sit with the one who is more comfortably situated; and many a hungry mouth is filled, or naked form partly clothed, by those who have little more than a few crumbs to share.
     [-125-] The sanitary work of this neighbourhood is perhaps heavier than that of most districts, except the Strand district; certainly far heavier, taking equal areas. The inspector of nuisances is that rare workman, a man whose heart is in his work, and the poor regard him as a friend and adviser. Besides nuisances arising from overcrowding in ordinary dwellings, or courts and alleys, he has to deal with many troublesome animals. The district contains nearly four hundred stables, in which are kept more than one thousand horses. Over these stables are a number of small close rooms, in which about nine hundred people reside and bring up their families, or onefortieth part of the whole population of the parish. Another nuisance arises from cows, of which there are at least two hundred kept at eight stations in as many streets. I went into one liquorice-coloured den, where thirty-nine of these animals were standing with their faces against the wall, being milked. There was no light except a glimmer from one or two murky windows in the roof, and the whole place was ankle-[-126-]deep in slush. Whether the milk supplied to the neighbourhood from this dark stable is an invigorating fluid or not, I leave the able officer of health, Dr. Lankester, to determine; and, I believe, in his reports, he has spoken against the system and its product more than once. Slaughterhouses, belonging to small, struggling butchers, in the closest part of the neighbourhood, form another sanitary difficulty, which is only got over by incessant inspection. Something like one thousand two hundred distinct nuisances found, and one thousand six hundred abated during the year, represent a very low social condition for a small West-End district.