Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Great Army of London Poor, by The River-side Visitor [Thomas Wright], [1882] - Chapter 3 - Button-Hole Row

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ON first going into my district it devolved upon me as a matter of official duty, to make a house-to-house visitation of a certain quarter on the riverside, which, though familiar enough to me in kind, was strange individually, and I was as a necessary preliminary furnished with a map of it. "It is a bad district throughout," said the gentleman who handed me the map, and who was well acquainted with the place, "and just here," he went on, dotting off a corner with his pencil, "is the worst bit of it." The part indicated showed a number of streets branching off a leading cross street, and running down to the river-bank; and as the parts that were worst, in a general way, were the best for the purpose of my visitation, I jotted down the names of these streets, and proceeded to commence work there on the following morning. My first discovery was, that though the streets had been named on the map, there were no names lettered upon them; but this proved a very slight difficulty, except in one case. They were short streets, and I had found out and "done" all the others while vainly [-64-] inquiring for "Foundry Lane." "Can you tell me where Foundry Lane is hereabout?" I had asked of men, women, and children, but none of them could tell me, and most of them expressed an opinion to the effect that I must have been mistaken, and that there "wasn't no sich place thereabout." Coming to the conclusion that such must be the case, I turned back, and had already got some little distance along the cross street, when I was startled by a voice above me, exclaiming, "Below there!" Glancing up, I beheld, leaning half-way out of a second-floor window, a handsome but dissipated-looking man of somewhere about five-and-thirty. His dress, so far as could be judged by his bust, was loud, his air rakish, and overweeningly self-assured, and his language - as I soon discovered - slangy, though still refined, by comparison with that of the general run of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood. "Pardon me, sir," he said, "but didn't I hear you inquiring for Foundry Lane as you passed here before?"
    "Very likely you did," I replied, smiling at the recollection of the number of times I had made the inquiry.
    "And you didn't find it! That I can tell by the look of your mug - excuse me, face I mean - no impertinence intended, force of habit and surroundings, you know; don't hear much of the 'language of the poets' hereabout. However, you didn't find it. Occurred to me after you had passed that you wouldn't; that was why I pulled you up just now." 
    He rattled this out in a jerky, voluble style, but on his [-65-] pausing here for breath, I hastened to ask, "Can you tell me where it is?"
    "Believe I can; wouldn't have stopped you otherwise. Always willing to oblige a square gentleman where I can. It's square parties you are after, eh?"
    "Square or cross," I answered, "it was all the same to me; and to make the point clear I briefly explained the nature of my business.
    "Ah, yes, that's all right, the sort of thing that goes down nowadays, enlightened nineteenth century, and all that: however, they are all square people there, and I must say that their condition don't say a great deal in favour of squareness; no one on a cross lay could be much worse off. Needle-drivers, you know, Song-of-the-Shirt style of business, stitch, stitch, stitch, poverty, hunger, and dirt; hard work, starvation pay, and all that, and they'd be worse off still, if it wasn't for the old girl at the corner-"
    "But where is Foundry Lane?" I broke in, somewhat impatiently.
    "Ah, yes, that is the question," he resumed, quite imperturbably, "and your tone of asking it means - dry up. Well, right you are. I must own that I have a weakness for pattering when once I'm on the go; but now to answer you. The fact is you have not had the straight tip; if you had asked for Button-hole Row, you'd have found it fast enough."
    "Well, Foundry Lane is the postal name of the place I wanted to find," I answered.
    [-66-] "Exactly," he said, with a self-satisfied nod. "Postal name Foundry Lane: popular name, name by which it is generally known, Button-hole Row."
    "Oh, I. suppose the people in it work at the buttonholing."
    "They do," he answered. "Button-hole Row is its name, and, if I may coin a phrase, button-holing is its nature. Its inhabitants ain't much with their buttonholing, but without it - well, without it, I suppose they would either have to go into the workhouse or on 'the cross,' like most of those around them."
    "But where is it ?" I asked.
    "Well, when you were down at the other end of this street, did you see a wooden-walled, tile-roofed, stable-like building, stretching across a narrow opening so as to form a flat-roofed archway?"
    "Yes," I answered briefly.
    "Well, that is the entrance to the Row," he said.
    "I glanced down there in passing," I answered, "and did not notice any houses."
    "Just so," said our voluble friend; "you would see the backs and gables of wharf buildings, and I dare say you would think that between them and the archway it was storage ground."
    "That was the sort of general impression my glance had given," was my answer.
    "Just so," he repeated, again nodding in a particularly self-satisfied manner; "that's just about how it would strike you. The Row lies very snug; you must be in [-67-] it before you see it, and to get into it you must go through the arch, and down a couple of steps on the other side of it-and now I see you want to be off."
    I admitted that such was the case, and bidding good day to my free-and-easy friend, turned back again.
    On reaching the stable-like building of which he had spoken, I discovered in respect to it what I had not noticed before, namely, that it was a "Gospel Hall." A board affixed to it announced that the gospel would be preached there every Sunday, "the Lord Willing;" and later I found that it was the head-quarters of a band of noble Christian pioneers; men and women who valiantly enter the breach, and strive to bridge the gulf by devoting themselves to the service of the poor and fallen, It was a chapel, a Sunday, a day and evening school. Mothers' meetings were held in it, children's dinners given in it, and soup distributed from it. It was the office of a penny bank, a clothing and a coal club; a place for "Midnight Meetings," to which, from time to time,  thieves were specially invited, in order that they might hear the message, and be told that it was to them; that not even the worst of them was beyond its pale. Stable-like the building really was, but holy withal, sanctified by the works of Christian love that went on within it, and by its being the centre from which radiated much of whatever moral sunshine lightened the general gloom of the district. Passing under this tent of a Christian vanguard, I came right upon the Row, my first glance at which would have been sufficient to show me, if I had [-68-] not already been aware of the fact, that it was the "square" spot of the neighbourhood. It was quieter than the other streets; there were fewer children running about in it, and those who were to be seen were cleaner while their raggedness was of the patched not the flying order. There were no low-foreheaded, heavy-jowled, restless-eyed men lounging, pipe in mouth, in the doorways, and the women and children, who were to be seen standing in them, were working - neither gossiping nor quarrelling, nor "sipping round" at a beer can, while a corner of vacant ground was conspicuous by the absence from it of a band of loafing youths engaged in pitch and toss, or some uncanny species of horse-play. In outward appearance the houses were much the same as those in surrounding streets; that is to say, they were tumble-down-like and dingy, but there was still evidence of a desire to be neat that was not to be found in the other streets. The windows were curtained, the door-steps whitened, and the roadway innocent of rubbish heaps, and such pieces of wreckage as old boots and battered beer cans. I had entered the Row at its high-numbered end, and, purposing to commence my business with its lowest number, I walked slowly down, and at almost every doorway, and in almost every window on both first and second floor, I saw women and children, and, in two instances men, busy button-holing. Though I had seen a good deal of button-holing, the last-mentioned circumstance was a novelty to me. Seen now, however, it was an easy matter to understand, and my feeling of [-69-] surprise was less at the sight than that I should not have seen such an one before. The wasted forms, the sunken eyes, the hollow cheeks, of the men told the family story at a glance. In a word, that story was Consumption That fell disease, in its lingering form, had attacked the husband, father, and breadwinner. He was a labouring man, a man to whom strength was everything, and that strength sapped, he had, from the "labour market" point of view, become unworthy of his hire, and so the task of being breadwinner-in-chief had devolved upon the wives. A common story enough among the poor, so far, and the rest in these two cases in Button-hole Row was easy to imagine. The wives had taken to buttonholing as a means of earning an honest crust, and the invalided but not entirely bedridden husbands being "handy" men, had seen their way to being of some little assistance and illness giving thinness and delicacy to their hand, they had in time come to acquire the whole art - a very simple art, one to which any woman who can handle a needle at all can "take," and consequently one of the worst, perhaps the worst paid branch of even slop needlework.
    Another noticeable feature among the buttonholers of the Row was, that the women, as a body, were considerably older than the general run of button-hole hands, most of them being middle or more than middle aged. Otherwise, all the especial signs of the habitual button-holer were there. The round shoulders that come of constant stooping, the weak and blinking eyes, the absorbed manner and habit of speaking without raising the [-70-] head, the swiftly flying fingers, moving with machine-like regularity, the dress plentifully beflecked with ends of cotton, the gleaming scissors, worn, dagger-like, in the apron band, the skein of cotton hanging round the neck, and a dozen parcel of collars projecting from the pocket just within reach of the hand. These are the tokens by which the button-holer may be known, and they were all visible in the person of the landlady of No. 1 - the first person in the Row whom I addressed. She stood in the doorway of her house, "plying her needle and thread" with all the celerity of a practised worker; while seated on a low stool, just inside the passage, was her daughter, a girl of about nine, who was also stitching away, collar in hand. Having asked the few official questions necessary for my own immediate business, I observed, in a friendly way, "Button-holing seems to be the order of the day here."
    "Well, as far as that goes, sir," she answered, with a smile, but without looking up, "it's pretty well the order of the night too, for you must often work well on in the night if you want to make anything like a decent living at it."
    "Well, it is very poorly paid, I know," I said.
    "It is, indeed," she answered,  "not that I grumble; it's not them that have to work hard, but them as can't get work to do, as is to be pitied; all the same, three-ha'pence for button-holing a dozen collars is small pay. You see, sir" - she went on taking a fresh collar from her pocket to show me - "the holes are just raw cuts, [-71-] and we have to stitch all round them and form the button-holes. Of course a single button-hole don't look much, but you should remember there are three holes in every collar, that's thirty-six in the dozen-six holes to work for a farthing, and find your own cotton. I often wonder to myself whether gentlemen, when they are putting their collars on, ever give a thought to the likes of us. I don't suppose they do, and I don't blame 'em for not. I'm free to own that I never used to trouble myself about others when I was better off. Not as I want to make out that I was ever anything very grand, still I was a respectable mechanic's wife. My husband was a ship-smith, and earned his two guineas a week, and what was more, brought it home when he had earned it, for a steadier fellow or a lovinger husband and father there couldn't be."
    Her voice grew tremulous at this point, but after a momentary pause she went on:- "While his health lasted we had as comfortable a little home as any in England, but health failed him. For the last three years of his life he could only work off and on, and for six months before his death he couldn't work at all. Of course this broke us down a good deal; swallowed all our savings, and best part of our furniture; and when he died, I was left very bare with my two children, for I have a boy younger than Jenny here, and he goes to school. Well, 1 had no friends to help me, and what to do to keep myself and the children I didn't know. I didn't like to go out charing on account of having to leave the [-72-] children; I'd got no furniture to take lodgers, and I couldn't dress-make or anything of that sort. At last, when nearly every stick of furniture and rag of clothing had been sold, I heard of this, and came here and took to it, for any woman who can handle a needle at all can button-hole, the difference in hands being in the quickness that comes with practice. Of course, at first I only got the commonest work, and that was paid at five farthings, and some of it as low as a penny, for the dozen collars, and, working as hard as I could for eighteen and nineteen hours a day, I could only make from four-and-sixpence to five shillings a week - and how to lay that out worried me almost as much as to earn it."
    "Yes, it would be a puzzling matter to make ends meet out of that," I said.
    "Well, where they wouldn't meet, sir, we just had to go short," she resumed: "there was eighteenpence for the rent of a room, and everything else had to be found out of what was left. You may be sure it was hard living, nothing but dry bread to eat, and often very little of that, though, as I have sometimes said since, my share of the bread wasn't always dry; many a time it was wet with my tears. I wouldn't cry so long as ever I could work, though my heart was full enough, but when eyes and fingers were tired out, and I sat down to eat my crust, the tears fell all the faster from having been forced back all day, and many a night, too, I cried myself to sleep. But the Lord was good to me. He had opened a way for me, and He brought me through. [-73-] I gradually got quicker and quicker at the work, and got the better kinds of it to do, and Jenny here grew to be able to help me, and now between us we can make from ten to twelve shillings a week, and that is doing about as well as any one in the Row, and better than most of them. I have seen the time when I would have thought it impossible for three to be kept on that money; but we manage pretty comfortably, and have never had to trouble anybody for a penny in the shape of charity; and, please the Lord that health and eye-sight are spared to me, we won't need to trouble anybody now, and that is a thought worth something."
    While she was speaking I had been mentally calculating the quantity of work required to realise the sum she had named, and, on her coming to a pause, I remarked- 
    "Well, as you would have to do two thousand eight hundred and eighty button-holes to earn even ten shillings, I suppose you have still to work pretty long hours."
    "Well, yes, sir," she said, with a smile and a shrug, "there's no nine hours' movement for us; I work fifteen hours a day, and Jenny four or five. I might make up another shilling or so in the week by letting her work all day, but I wouldn't do it. You mustn't think, sir, that because you see her at work here, I don't look after her education as well as her brother's. She goes to school mornings one week, and afternoons another, and to evening class in the Hall up there three nights in every week, and always on Sunday. Let's see, how many [-76-] prizes have you had, Jenny ?" she said in a parenthetical tone, turning to her little daughter. 
    "Three, mother," answered Jenny, blushing, "a Bible from Sunday-school, and two others from day-school."
    "You see that says something for her," the mother went on, a flush of pride coming over her face; "she gets on with her lessons, and she's well beliked by the teachers; and though she is sitting there, and I say it as shouldn't, she is as good a little girl as any breathing."
    "And a very industrious little girl," I added, for all this time her lissome fingers had never for a moment ceased their rapid plying of the needle.
    "Well, she is," assented the mother, "though, as far as that goes, whoever works at the button-holing for a living must stick to it."
    "And probably, by staying here talking, I am preventing you from sticking as closely to it as you would otherwise be doing," I suggested apologetically.
    "Not at all, sir," she answered cheerily. "For one thing, I think it's me that is doing most of the talking; and if you only knew how little change I had, you wouldn't wonder at me liking to talk with any stranger who is friendly and willing to listen. It's no hindrance whatever; with us women fingers and tongue can go together, as we say among ourselves; we can whistle and ride, as far as talking is concerned."
    "It is a great pity," I said, continuing the conversation, "that you cannot have the collars direct from the warehouses; their prices are about double what the sweaters' pay."
    "Yes; it is a pity, in a general way," she answered; "but I haven't a word to say against ours; she's no common sweater; she's got a heart in her breast, not a paving-stone; and I don't suppose there's one of us in the Row as would say anything else of her than 'God bless her.' She deserves all she gets. If she makes money out of our work, she remembers that it is so. She isn't above coming among us, and is always willing to lend a helping hand, independent of business. It isn't one good turn, or a dozen, but hundreds, that she has done among us. She is what I call a real lady, if ever there was one."
    "Certainly she is a lady in the best sense of the word," I said emphatically: for I had caught something of the enthusiasm with which the woman had spoken.
    "The pity of it is, sir," she resumed, "that there are not more like her; she's one in a thousand - the only one, in fact, as ever I have heard of acting in the manner she does - and she'll have her reward, sir, I do believe that. The blessing of the widow and fatherless is upon her."
    "What you say of her probably explains a little matter I couldn't quite make out at first," I observed.
    "What was that, sir?" she asked.
    "Why, the grown-up button-holers here being all elderly women.
    "Oh yes, sir; she makes a point of giving her work to [-76-] widows with families, or those that, as you may say, are almost worse than widows."
    "Worse than widows?" I echoed questioningly. "Well, women with a lot of little children, and husbands that are only 'cas'alty' labourers, or have belonged to trades that have been done away with, and as aren't strong enough, or are too broken down, to get labouring to do; the sort of men, you know, as only get about two shillings a day when they are in work, and are very much oftener out than in, and as have to go tramping about day after day looking for it, wearing the shoes off their feet, and coming home down-hearted and hungry. Take em all the year round, there's plenty of them don't earn anything like their keep. ĚNot from any fault of theirs, poor fellows, but because there are always younger and likelier-looking men on the watch for whatever chance work there may be about. If there are a score of men waiting outside a workshop gate, and only two or three to be taken on, the old and hungry and broken-looking, though they may need it most, stand the worst chance of getting it. But though it's not the fault of the men, but only their misfortune - for you must understand, sir, that I am not speaking of the drunkards or the can-work-but-won't sort - it falls heavily upon the wives all the same; for whatever they and the children can earn by any such work as this the husband must have a share of."
    "So that in the matter of keep he really counts as another child as it were," I said.
    "Well, yes, sir, that's just about what it comes to, [-77-] though people don't give credit for it. They say, 'Oh, she has got a husband, and she is always working herself. There must be some mismanagement for them to be so badly off.' They never bethink them that the husband is out of work best part of his time. Then there's them that are worse off still - them as has their husbands laid up, and not able to work at all. There's poor George Johnson there," she went on; and for the second time during the conversation she raised her eyes from her work, and by a glance indicated the younger of the two men I had seen engaged in the unmasculine occupation of button-holing - a man apparently of not more than two or three and thirty years of age.
    "He's a painter by trade," she resumed, "but he hasn't been able to do a stroke at it this two years; and though he has got as he can help her a bit, it's not every day that he is well enough to do even that. He is in deep consumption, and what with her having to wait on him, and not being over quick with the needle, it's as much as ever they can do to earn seven shillings a week, and out of that they have to pay eighteenpence for their room, and every other week there is elevenpence for his fare to Brompton Hospital and back; he's an out-patient there. It would make your heart bleed, sir, to see how hard they are put to it sometimes; more than once it's brought the water into my eyes, at the very time when I've been making believe to be cheerful, just to try and cheer her up a bit. He's been a handsome young fellow, as you may see, and I believe he was a good husband; and [-78-] she's very fond of him, and to get him any little bit of a thing that he can eat, she would leave herself without - and does. I don't say it boasting, sir, because it's only doing our duty, and as we would be done by; but many a time, if it wasn't for some of us in the Row as are doing pretty well, she'd be the whole blessed day through without bit or sup in her mouth. She's but a delicate young thing herself, and hasn't much push in her; and none of your common sweaters would look at her."
    "Hers is indeed a sad case," I said.
    "Yes, poor thing, she's the worst situated of any one in the Row," assented my friend.
    "And none of you are over well situated ?"
    "Well, things might easily be better with us," she said, smiling once more; "still we oughtn't to grumble. There are many worse off than us, and in more ways than one, too; more's the pity. We have a roof to cover us, a place to lie down in, at night, and that we can call home. As I said just now, I'm doing better than most in the Row; but, still, speaking generally, when we have eat our bit of bread at breakfast, we have a piece to put away in the cupboard for dinner, and we know that there will be a loaf earned by night. Then we have always got hunger for a sauce, and knowing that you've honestly earned it, helps to sweeten even a crust."
    "The last is a grand consideration," I remarked, as she came to a pause.
    "That it is, sir," she replied; "and living in this neighbourhood it's us that knows it. There's plenty of [-79-] those around us-not that I wish to speak hard of them poor creatures, for you may depend upon it their consciences trouble them enough, however they may try to swagger before others. There's plenty of them as often live on the fat of the land, and don't work at all; but bless you, sir, they're not happy; they'd much better be like us, with a hard-earned, hunger-sweetened crust. Not but what. they're hungry enough sometimes, for it's generally feast or famine with them, living high one day and starving the next. However poor we are, we can look the world in the face, while theirs is a dog's life, as you may say. Why, if you was to go down one of their streets, and they didn't happen to know you, you would see them scurrying into their houses like rabbits into their holes. They'd think you was a plain-clothes policeman, and each one would think it was them that was 'wanted,' as they call it."
    She spoke earnestly and with a certain homely eloquence; and the thought that passed through my mind while she was speaking was, that I would have very much liked the airy gentleman who had directed me to the Row to have heard her. He would then have found that "squareness" had an advantage that was apparently undreamed of in his philosophy - an advantage generally left out of consideration by those who speak and think lightly of honesty when coupled with poverty - a moral and spiritual advantage so great as to be a compensation for even such physical hardship as was to be found in Button-hole Row.
    [-80-]  This was what passed through my mind, but I merely said, with a smile, "Then you feel that after all honesty is the best policy."
    "I'm sure it is," she answered emphatically, "both for here and hereafter."
    A glance at my watch at this point reminded me that I ought to be on the move, and so, bidding good day to the intelligent seamstress and her little daughter, I proceeded upon my visitation, pondering as I went upon what I had heard.
    Conversation with others in the Row added little to the information I had gathered from my first pleasantly communicative button-holer. There were not many in the Row who earned as much as she did. Some were undergoing the bitter probation of which she had spoken in her own case; were learners, and working drearily long hours, could only manage to earn about five shillings per, week; others, from weakened eyesight or general debility of constitution, found it physically impossible to work the hours absolutely necessary for reaching the higher standards of earnings in the Row; and taking them "through and through," the families seemed to be earning an average income of about eight shillings per week. As a rule, each family occupied but a single room. A passing glance into the rooms and at their inhabitants was sufficient to show a "plentiful lack" of furniture and clothing; while sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, and gaunt frames told but too plainly of hard living in the matter of food. But though the physical aspect of the Row was [-81-]  sad enough, there was a cheering brightness, so to speak, in its moral atmosphere. Brotherly love abounded among its tenants, and their consciousness of independence and integrity made them generally contented and cheerful. I could well wish that these tenants were better placed; but looking at their characteristics, and knowing what I do of such neighbourhoods as the one in which their Row lies, I can also well wish that there were many more such places as Button-hole Row.