Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894


   Poverty in the East End not exaggerated—Preparing for winter—My letter to The Times and The Daily News—Generous response thereto —My depot opened—Bed-clothing the most pressing want—Messrs. Jeremiah Rotherham and Company, High Street, Shoreditch — I interview the partners — Their liberal spirit —1 have the articles stamped—No grey blankets—A valuable stock—How we distributed our collection of clothing—A few noteworthy cases—Mr. Massey and his wife.
   SOME weeks ago, while scanning a well-known morning paper, I came across a remarkable statement in the columns that are devoted day by day to metropolitan fashionable and other intelligence. The precise words I do not remember, but they were to the effect that the poverty and misery in the East End had been very much exaggerated.
   Were I acquainted with the writer of the paragraph, I would invite him to accompany me on a stroll through Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, and some adjoining localities, and I do not for one moment doubt that, without my bringing any pressure to bear, he would hasten to publish a correction of his former assertion.
   When I left Worship Street Police Court in the autumn of last year, a number of grateful creatures tendered me their thanks for what, after all, were the very small services I had been able to render them, and with their thanks they mingled expressions of regret at my approaching departure. I told them that, although circumstances over which I had no control caused me to migrate to another court, I had become so interested in their welfare, and in the institutions of their neighbourhood, that, so far as my health would permit, I should continue to do all in my power on behalf of both. I [-30-] had not forgotten, I added, and never should forget, the terrible sufferings they underwent every winter.
   As we had scarcely any summer in 1891, it is a little difficult to say when the winter began. However, my pre­parations for its advent were made some time in advance. Long before I decided to leave the East End, a plan to meet the distress had been maturing in my mind, and my removal to Marylebone in no way prevented my putting it into execu­tion. I proposed to open a depot of my own for the relief of distress in the Thames and Worship Street districts. I dis­cussed the matter at some length with Mr. Massey, the leading missionary at the latter court, and we came to a complete understanding as to what should be done.
   On November 21st I sent the following letter to The Times and The Daily News:
   “Sir,—Winter troubles are now coming thickly upon us, and from what I can learn of my late district at the East End of London, the trials and miseries of the last two years are not likely to be mitigated. I no longer preside as one of the magistrates over the neighbourhood, but I think I have hit upon an expedient by which, with the help of the public, I may still be of some use to the suffering poor with whom I have officially parted. Last year I found I was enabled to do much good by distributing, throughout the severely cold months, blankets and warm clothing. I have therefore taken some premises in the immediate neighbourhood as a sort of clothes depot; and I invite all those who are in a position to do so to send me blankets and old clothing, especially warm under­garments for women and children, together with shawls and cloaks. The London Police Court Mission have kindly given me the aid of the missionaries of the Thames and Worship. Street police courts, who will be of the greatest use to me in toy venture. I need hardly add that I have the hearty assistance and co-operation of my brother magistrates who preside over the courts to which I have alluded. Parcels should be addressed to John Massey, police court missionary, 7, Coombs Street, Haverstock Street, City Road.
   “Your obedient servant,
   “9 Aldford street, Park Lane,
   Nov. 21st 1891.”
   [-31-] As will be seen, I only asked for blankets and clothes, but, besides those articles, I received, from private friends and others, various sums of money to assist in purchasing a stock for my depot. Among other interesting letters, I received the following:
   “I have been a parsimonious man all my life, and so I have no old clothes to give you. I myself wear out every­thing that I have, and perhaps this is the reason that I am able to send you the enclosed cheque to buy blankets for the poor creatures whose cause you are espousing.”
   My appeal met with a generous response, and my depot was opened in the first week of November. We did not close it till the 24th of March in the present year.
   I have always thought, and recent experiences have confirmed the belief, that, in endeavouring to ameliorate the condition of the poor in the East End, the first want one should supply is warmth. Nobody who is not intimately acquainted with that quarter of London can form any idea of the misery that young and old, sick and healthy, endure, during the winter months, through their lack of adequate bed-clothing.
   In starting the depot, therefore, my first thought was blankets; and for several weeks I really think I had blankets on the brain. Not being a family man, I know very little about these articles, their price, relative qualities, and so on; but a kind-hearted creature, a tradesman living not a hundred miles from my late court, was the means of relieving me from much embarrassment under this head. When .sending me a most liberal cheque, he wrote: “I quite agree with you as to the necessity for blankets, and if you want to know where to buy them, I should recommend you to go to Rotherhams, High Street, Shoreditch. Of course, they will know you; but if you like to present my card, you will, I am sure, find yourself most liberally treated.”
   After I had finished my day’s work, I took a hansom and journeyed to High Street, Shoreditch. Proceeding down that. thoroughfare, after passing the railway station, the cabman drew up outside a modest-looking draper’s shop. At first I thought there must be some mistake. Could these be the premises of Messrs. Jeremiah Rotherham and Company, who, [-32-] I knew, employed on their establishment nearly five hundred persons? On alighting from the cab my doubts were set at rest, for I perceived that the shop was only a small section of the premises, the frontage of which extended down the High Street for about one hundred and eighty feet.
   I entered the establishment, and five minutes later was shown into the counting-house, and introduced to Mr. Robert Dummett and Mr. Frederick Snowden, who were almost immediately joined by their fellow-partners, Mr. William Ellis and Mr. George Gotelee. After briefly telling them the object of my visit, I said:
   “I hope to be able to spend a considerable sum of money with you, in the purchase not only of blankets but also of flannel and knitted petticoats for women and children, and as I am only a trustee for money entrusted to me for charitable purposes, I hope you will meet me on reasonable terms. Of course, I cannot ask you to supply me with goods at cost price, but I do beg and entreat you, considering the cause for which I am endeavouring to enlist your sympathy, to let me have the goods at the smallest margin of profit.-”
   I am bound to say that they met me in the most liberal spirit, and I there and then gave them a very large order.
   In revolving in my mind the details of my project, I had not lost sight of the temptations, associated with drink and the pawnbroker’s shop, which beset the poor creatures I was desirous of assisting. In this direction a very great difficulty presented itself; but I had at last hit upon a plan which seemed to promise a satisfactory solution.
   “We have,” I said, “agreed upon the price of the goods, and I want you now to tell me what it will cost to have such articles stamped in the centre, so that to cut out the piece bearing the impression would be to destroy the value of the entire blanket or petticoat.”
   “I don’t quite understand,” one of the partners replied. “What I mean is this,” said I; “I intend them all to be stamped in the centre with the words in blue, ‘Montagu Williams’ Relief Fund.’ I propose to let this fact be known to the police in my late districts, and to cause them to keep it in mind on the occasion of their periodic visits to all the pawn-shops. The result, I think, will be that the articles of clothing we distribute will not be turned into drink.”
   It was at once decided that the blankets and petticoats should all be stamped in the manner I had suggested.
   [-33-] Perhaps I ought to mention that the blankets I ordered were not grey ones.
   “Of course, sir,” said the shopman, as he spread out before me a large white blanket with a blue border, “we have a great number of grey ones in stock at a much lower price.”
   “Thank you,” I replied emphatically, ‘but I have no in­tention of purchasing them.”
   As I knew perfectly well, the poor do not like grey blankets. “Not like them, indeed!” I fancy I hear same one exclaim. “Not like them! Then they don’t deserve any at all. Let them go without.” But this is not my view. Human nature is human nature.
   There are few more interesting places of business than a large wholesale and retail draper’s. At Messrs. Rotherham’s you see one department stacked with carpets; another, with merinoes and dress goods; a third, with rich and beautiful silks; a fourth—resembling a gigantic and well-stocked con­servatory—with artificial flowers, the pick of the Paris and London markets; a fifth, with thousands of rolls of ribbon, representing every colour known to the dyer; a sixth, with great heaps of straw hats, and so on. As one looks around, it is impossible to help wondering what must be the value of the entire stock. Mr. Dummett was good enough to throw some light on this point.
   “Sometimes,” he said, “we have a greater quantity of the more costly goods than at others, but at the present time the value of the stock is something not far short of two hundred thousand pounds. Our insurance is distributed among all the English companies, and some American and Continental ones.”
   Messrs. Rotherham and Company devote one entire house to the making and storing of boxes in which to despatch their goods. To the right of this house are the stables, which are models of what stables should be, being roomy, light, and scrupulously clean. Let into the wall, at the back of each stall, is a plate bearing the name of its occupant—” Jess,” “Spot,” “Vic,” “Dolly,” “Punch,” and so forth.
   Would that the human beings living hard by were as com­fortably housed as those horses! The back of Messrs. Rotherham and Company’s premises overlooks the infamous Boundary Street area, which I am thankful to say the London County Council has scheduled for demolition. At one ex­tremity of the firm’s establishment, the High Street is connected [-34-] with Boundary Street by Hare Court, which in days gone by enjoyed the unenviable notoriety of being the scene of number­less robberies.
   But to get back to my depot.
   Among those who assisted me in my scheme were, as I have already said, many of my personal frends; and I herewith tender them my warmest thanks. But how can I find words to express my gratitude to my other supporters, many of whom were perfect strangers to me? I hope some of them will read these pages, as they will thereby learn the results of our collaborative efforts. Let me add that little, if any, good could have been effected without the co-operation of Mr. Massey.
   I find that we were able to help, within the period I hive indicated, over four hundred families, representing considerably over that number of adults and as many as sixteen hundred children. We have assisted fifty families in one day. Besides over a thousand blankets, we distributed about four thousand articles of clothing — coats, vests, trousers, boots, shoes, stockings, hats, caps, shirts, overcoats, undervests, and mufflers for men and boys; shawls, dresses, and every other conceivable article of warmth for women and girls; and an enormous quantity of baby-linen. The balance of the money—and it was not a large one—we expended on coal.
   One woman was so delighted when some blankets were given her that she- exclaimed, with a face never to be forgotten:
   “Oh, sir, I’ve not had a blanket in my house for twenty years.”
   It was pleasant, though very pathetic, to see the delight with which many poor creatures huddled round the fires our coals had provided. In a number of instances, to our certain knowledge the grate had been empty during several preceding weeks, and even months. And yet, forsooth, some one writes, amid the fashionable intelligence of a morning paper, that the winter sufferings of the East End poor have been greatly exaggerated!
   I cannot, of course, give an account of all the cases that were relieved by us; but I propose to briefly deal with a few that struck me at the time as being worthy of notice.
   One bitterly cold Sunday night a visit was paid to Mrs. F., who lived—or rather endeavoured to live—in Hoxton. The family consisted of the father, mother, and five children. They had a single room, for which they paid five shillings and nine-[-35-]pence a week. On the occasion of the missionary’s visit they were all huddled about a small fire, made with some wood which had been given them by neighbours who were almost as poor as themselves. The only food in the room was a small piece of fried fish. Mr. F., a tailor, who had been out of work for months, was busily engaged in trying to make a pair of trousers out of an old piece of cloth he happened to have by him. He was going to try to sell them next day, he said, to help pay the rent.
   Here are my entries of another case visited on the same evening: “Mrs. G., Street, Hoxton; husband, wife, and six children. Husband had been a printer; out of work for months; eyesight failing him. Wife near her confinement. All the children without boots and clothes. No firing.”
   Next door to Mrs. G. lived a man, his wife, and their five children. A few days before they were visited the woman had been confined. They owned neither bedstead nor bed; but a neighbour had lent the poor mother a mattress and a sheet. The children were all on the point of starvation. We lost no time in sending them coals, blankets, baby-linen, and other necessaries.
   Here are some further notes that were made at the time
   “Mrs. S., No. — in the same street. Four children. The -woman has been a widow for two years. They live in one small room, paying two shillings and ninepence rent. She makes hair-brushes, for which she is paid one shilling and ninepence per dozen. Has lived on six shillings a week for two years. Her wedding ring sold to pay rent and buy food. Next-door neighbour equally badly off. Makes paper bags at fourpence halfpenny per thousand.”
   Several cases came before us that illustrated the misery often brought about by strikes. Here are the details of two of them:
   “At — Street, Cambridge Heath, husband, wife, and seven children huddled together in small back room (rent two shillings and sixpence per week). Husband out of work owing to dispute in the boot trade. Absolutely and literally starving. Children on an old mattress; no bed-covering. One child very ill, suffering from pneumonia.”
   “Family in — Buildings, Shoreditch. Husband out for the same reason. Wife goes into the streets to sell oranges.
   Her face terribly thin and pinched. No fire. Two children; no food to-day. The woman has no under-garments, not even [-36-] a chemise. Covered by an old bodice and skirt. No boots. Children also nearly naked.”
   The next case in point of date was rather a peculiar one. I dare say some of my readers will think that the persons con­cerned were not entitled to much consideration; but have we not been taught that, as we are ourselves to be judged, we should not judge others too harshly?
   At Worship Street a man named S. was charged with stealing a coat, and was remanded for enquiries. It transpired that he was in receipt of a small sum (army reserve pay), and that this was his first offence. There was a girl in question, and he said he would marry her if he got out of his present trouble. The cause of his fall, he said, had been drink, and upon his promising to give it up, my excellent brother magistrate remanded the case for four weeks to see if he would keep his word. The stolen property, it should be mentioned, had been returned.
   The man did not abuse the kindness shown him. He married the girl, my missionary seeing the banns put up and being present at the ceremony. We gave them some clothing, and set them up with a small sum of money; and I am happy to be able to add that the pair are now living prosperous, respectable, and happy lives.
   The distress in Bethnal Green was terrible in the extreme. We did what we could, but of course our means were limited.
   Here are some of the cases:
   “Mrs. M., husband and three children. Husband a labourer. Rent, four shillings and sixpence per week. Wife and one child ill. - Average income for months past, eight shillings a week. No bed; no bed-covering.”
   “Mrs. P., a widow; three children. - Just buried a fourth. One room; rent, two shillings. Paper bag-maker; fivepence per thousand. One old blanket to cover them all.”
   “Mrs. C., widow; three children. Matchbox-maker; twopence farthing per gross. One child ill; mother in very weak state. No bed or covering. Desperate state of poverty.”
   The case of Mrs. B., of Mile End, was a very sad one. There were three children, and the husband was out of work. -A pitiful sight met our eyes when we called at the room. One child was in the last stages of consumption, and another lay in extremis with spinal disease. The poor woman was nearly worn to a skeleton from watching and tending her dying boys.
   [-37-] On calling at the room a second time, I had touching evidence of the sympathy the poor feel for one another. The woman had gone to try and get an hour’s sleep at the room of a neighbour, who, though very ill herself, was now taking charge of the children.
   Here are the particulars of another case:
   “Mrs. G., her husband (who was out of work), and their six children, lived at the top of a house in a little room which contained neither chairs nor table. In a corner of the room, on a straw mattress, lay the woman, dangerously ill. The children—white little creatures, almost naked—were crouched around her. There was no food in the cupboard. A doctor, it appeared, had called in that morning out of pity. We at once procured further medical aid, and supplied the family with food, coals, blankets, and warm clothing.
   There was almost as bad a case in the same house.
   Mrs. D., who was near her confinement, lived in a room with her one child and her husband, who had been out of work (or over a month. The rent was three shillings and sixpence a week. That same morning a neighbour (very poor and ill herself) had given them threepence, which the woman had laid out as follows: Coal, three-halfpence; bread, halfpenny; tea, halfpenny; dripping, halfpenny.
   We kept a diary at the depot in which we recorded, for future reference, full details of all the cases relieved; and from this source I have drawn the foregoing particulars, which con­clusively prove, I think, what a terrible amount of destitution exists, and what good service can be done, in the direction of meeting it, by private enterprise.
   It will, I am sure, be a great satisfaction to my coadjutors to learn that their assistance has been the means of driving misery and death from the home of many a starving family in, as I believe, the poorest district in the world.
   The services of the Worship Street missionary and his good wife were invaluable to me, and I hope, with their assistance, with a renewal of public liberality, and with the experience I have gained, to be able to help my poor East End friends, in their winter troubles, on a far more extensive scale in the future.

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