Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In the Slums, by the Rev. D. Rice-Jones, 1884 - Preface - Description of Great Wild Street - Chapter 1 - The Great Wild Street District

[back to main menu for this book]



THE following pages have been compiled from records of my own personal experience as a clergyman working and living amongst the poor in one of the worst districts of Central London, if not the worst in the whole of this vast metropolis.
    But although most of the narratives refer to events of recent date, and all bear, more or less, upon the leading social question of the day, the condition of the London Poor, the plan of this work is by no means of recent conception ; nor was it first suggested to me by the popular agitation now going on.
    I began to write about the London Poor about ten years ago, when a little work of mine, called "FROM CELLAR TO GARRET," was published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, first in [-vi-] a series of separate tracts, and subsequently in one volume.
    In the opening pages of "FROM CELLAR TO GARRET," which has, I believe, had an extensive circulation, the very question which is now treated as a new discovery, namely, the overcrowded dwellings of the poor, is prominently brought forward.
    I have no desire to claim for that little work the merit, or any share in the merit, of having awakened the public conscience on this subject. But I have felt bound, in self-defence, to call attention to the above facts, lest it should be supposed that in writing these sketches I am only following in the track of other recent writers on the same subject, whereas I am simply continuing a work which I began, though very imperfectly, ten or twelve years ago.
    My object in now offering these pages to the public is threefold. 
    1. I venture to think that the personal experiences of a clergyman, working and living in the very heart of the worst slums, may help to throw some light upon the question which is at present so agitating the public mind - the condition of the London Poor. 
    2. I desire to call attention to the efforts which have already been, and are continually being made to promote the spiritual, moral, and temporal welfare of the poor by the various Church organisations in the metropolis, and more especially by the LONDON DIOCESAN HOME MISSION, and the BISHOP OF LONDON'S FUND.
    3. I am encouraged to hope that, with God's blessing, these pages may be instrumental in doing some good by bringing into the Home Mission Field more help, and more helpers to help to sweep away the foul heaps of sin and misery which now block up before the Poor the only Way to Happiness.

D. R.-J.

March 1884.




"TAKE Great Wild Street, behind Drury Lane, leading to Drury Lane by an alley or two not surpassable, even in London, for the density of their noisy, ragged, hopeless, and helpless population. Is it possible to pass through this irregular, squalid thoroughfare, full of accidental corners, where the gutter children eddy in the stream of pauperism, without a heart-ache? As I turned into it from the street wherein so many of our imposing charity dinners are given, a little cripple, leaning upon a greasy crutch, barred the way, with three or four wrangling companions about him, quite ready to take advantage of his lameness should they lose in the argument about an end of whipcord. The street was as full of life as a shrimper's basket. The road, the pavements, the doorsteps, the windows, teemed with population. They were of all sizes, and degrees of distress. There were the low-brewed Irish women greasing the walls with their backs - one and all in the colourless rags of London streets - the younger with just a riband stuck amid the dirt, and having about the effect produced by a flower thrown into a dust-cart. Some carried babies with immense dangling heads; others held their arms akimbo, to keep the cold out. In the doorways children of ten or twelve, or younger, were nursing bundles of dirty clothes, from which constant wailing escaped. A little girl, with matted hair, was sitting in the doorway of a toy-shop (a study for the teacher in itself), nursing a lump of wood [-xii-] encompassed by a lag, for a doll. Barrel-bands served the turn of hoops; splintered egg-chests were promoted to the rank of battledores. Every scrap of the gutter, all the refuse of the shops, served for playthings. And then the stories told in the clothes! The boys in the rent garments of men, the girls in the wrecks of their mothers' bonnets; the patches, tears, contrivances, and ludicrous anomalies! Bare black feet, as black as the hands and face; shapeless boots, ungartered hose falling over the instep; brimless hats, low-looking eared caps drawn athwart the wickedest little faces it is possible to imagine; lads in torn shirts, and with trousers held up across one shoulder by a rope brace.

    "The coming, the adult, and the leaving generations are all out in the fog and atmosphere, flavoured with a sickening odour, compounded of tan, tallow, fish and garbage generally. The mothers lean against the walls wrangling and laughing; the fathers - costermongers, navvies, and varieties of the unclassed - are lounging in and out of the public-houses, jesting with the idle women, or quarrelling, or indulging in horse-play among themselves. The lads of twenty are leering or swearing in groups, their hands deep in their dog-eared pockets. The boys of fifteen are playing at push-penny or pitch-and-toss, and swearing over every hit or miss. The younger boys have tops or marbles, and the girls shuttlecocks. Even the fowls have a beggared appearance, and must be in a perpetual moulting season. The lanes to the right and left show only a blurred perspective of Great Wild Street in little. What can become of these heavy-headed babies, surrounded by sisters and brothers, and fathers and mothers, and air and houses like these?





THE Great Wild Street District of St. Giles-in-the-Fields is bounded on the east by Lincoln's-Inn- Fields, on the west by Drury Lane, on the north by Great Queen Street, and on the south by Clare Market. It includes, amongst other places, the east side of Drury Lane, Great and Little Wild Streets, Wild Court, Sardinia Street, Sardinia Place, Kemble Street, and the Peabody Buildings, which stand between Great Wild Street and Drury Lane.
    These buildings have replaced some of the bad features of the locality; but the immediate surroundings remain what they appear to have always been, within the memory of man - about the worst slums in London.
    Fourpenny lodging-houses abound in the district, and it is full of other dwellings which are not half so comfortable even as fourpenny lodging-houses. [-2-] Large families may still be found herding together in dark underground cellars, not fit for pigs to live in, or in stifling garrets in which a tall man could hardly stand upright. No matter how many families may be living in a house, the staircase is never lighted after the miserable glimmer of daylight, which is all that it ever gets, has disappeared from its small dirty windows; and it is generally so badly constructed, so broken, and so narrow and winding towards the top, as to make it both difficult and dangerous for a stranger to feel his way up at night time. Then here and there large families may be found living in mysterious dens behind small backyards too horrible to describe.
    The population of the district, amounting to some 6000, is mostly composed of the poorest of the poor-costermongers, bricklayers' labourers, scavengers, dealers in rags and bones, sandwich- men, chimney-sweeps, odd men from Covent Garden Market, scene-shifters and hangers-on of the theatre, artisans who are always out of work, women and girls who earn a poor living in all sorts of ways, and a migratory people without visible means of living.
    In this category, however, I do not include the people who live in the Peabody Buildings. These are, for the most part, of a far more respectable class, such as police constables, postmen, commission-[-3-]aires, servants in government offices, club servants, and industrious artisans. But even in the Peabody Buildings there are some very poor people, who find it a hard matter to pay the weekly rent and to get bread enough to keep body and soul together.
    The following facts will show how the poor live in this district.
    A. B. is a scavenger earning 18s. a week. He has a wife and seven children. They live in a miserable back room with an open recess to it. For that wretched room (for it is in reality but one room) they pay a rent of 6s. a week. That leaves 12s. a week for food, fuel, light, and clothing, or 1s. 4d. a week for each member of the family. Two of the children sleep in the same bed with their parents; the rest in a heap on the floor of the recess.
    One day when I called upon this family to ascertain why the eldest boy had not been at my school on the previous Sunday, I found him in bed and asked what was the matter with him.
    "Oh, sir," replied the mother, "there's nothing at all the matter with him, he's well enough. But all the same, he can't go out, and when any one knocks at the door, I make him jump into our bed."
    "But why should he not go out if he is well? and why should you make him jump into bed at this time of day?"
    "Well, sir, to tell you the truth the fact is, he's [-4-] got no trousers to wear. Jump up, Jack, and let the gentleman see for himself."
    And before I had time to reply, out of bed Jack jumped, with a broad grin on his face, and looking very much like a young Zulu in his native wilds, except that his shoulders were covered with a short ragged shirt.
    "I patched them and patched them as long as I could," the mother remarked, "but at last they entirely fell off his legs, and dropped all to bits like, and I could not put em together again nohow. So there's nothing for it but for Jack to stop at home till I can get an other pair for him. But it's a hard matter to get em even a bit o' bread in these days, with everything so dear."
    Fortunately for Jack, who was a lad of thirteen, some old clothes had recently been sent to me for the poor; so I managed to set him free from his durance vile.
    C. D. is a skilled artisan now earning good wages. But when I first made his acquaintance his wife, after a long illness, was dying of consumption. They were then living with their children in Great Wild Street, in a front room which had once been a shop. At the back of this room also there was a sort of recess, about the size of a small pantry. The whole family had therefore to live and sleep in the same room as the sick mother of the family; and when she at last [-5-] died, they had still to occupy the same room - the living and the dead. 
    The rent of that wretched hole was 10s. or 10s. 6d. a week. The shop window, no doubt, had to be paid for; but instead of making the room more cheerful, it only laid bare the awful misery within, while for a dying person a more undesirable place could hardly have been found. The poor woman herself, however, was not unhappy, although when I first saw her she had no better bed than a narrow old sofa to lie upon. The ministrations of which I was allowed to be the humble instrument had in liar case a wonderful effect in producing patience, and comfort, and a joyful looking forward to the future, where otherwise there could only have been unmitigated suffering and despair. I have every reason to believe too that those ministrations may prove a permanent blessing to other members of the family besides her for whom they were specially intended and who is now at rest. For her son is now one of the most promising boys in my choir, and the widower a regular attendant at the Mission Church.
    Although he had promised to come, he did not begin to attend for some time after his wife's death and when I asked him the reason, he went to a drawer from which he returned with his two hands full of pawn tickets. Then holding them out he said with tears in his eyes:-
"Look here, sir! This is the reason why I have not kept my promise. You know how long my poor wife's illness was. My wages are only sufficient to provide my family with the necessaries of life, but a sick person wants also some of the comforts, and I was determined she should want nothing as long as I could provide it for her. So all our things had to go in this way, one after the other, even to the very coat on my back. I shall recover myself in time, but before I get my coat out of pawn, I must pay up the rent and get the children's things. Then I will come to church."
    When I told my wife this sad story, she immediately produced from a store cupboard, kept for mission purposes, a suit of clothes as good as new, and C. D. still comes to my church in them every Sunday, although he no longer lives in my district. I am happy to be able to add, that he is fast recovering the position of respectability and comparative comfort from which he had been reduced by domestic affliction.
    Upstairs in the same house there was one room in which three families, or perhaps I ought to say three generations of the same family, all lived in community day and night. They numbered twelve persons in all, and some of the boys and girls were nearly, if not quite, grown up.
    Then in the same street, and at the same time, I [-7-] used to visit a poor old woman of eighty years, who was laid up and lying on the floor in an attic. She certainly had a bed of some kind, but no bedstead or mattress. That, however, was not the worst part of her trial. The next house had just been taken down, and in taking it down a large gap had been made in an outer wall of the old woman's attic; and for many weeks, during the most severe part of winter, the room was left in that condition, the aged woman lying there while the bitter winds played about her head and the rain and snow saturated the floor of her room. I was told that if T interfered the only result would be, that I should get time old woman and her daughter, a widow living with liar children downstairs, turned out of the house. Happily, however, the dear old soul is still alive and able to come to church; and a few weeks ago I was Commissioned by a benevolent lady to buy her a bedstead and palliasse, upon which she now sleeps. But if she had not been brought up in Ireland, I don't think she could have survived the winter of last year and that hole in the wall.