Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XXXIII - A Dock-Labourer's History

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I WILL give one more sketch of river-side life - an account of one of the many casual dock-labourers with whom I have been acquainted. There is no type of character or costume common to this class of people. Their destitution is the only thing they have in common. Those whom misfortune, sickness, improvidence, vice, or crime has left penniless and friendless, but who have still the will, and fancy at least they still have the strength, for hard work that requires neither skill nor recommendation, muster about the dock-gates to fight for a chance of getting less than a groat an hour, as sparrows in hard frost fight for thrown-out crumbs in a back-yard.
    One day I was making the round of visits I had down on my list for the day. I was bidding good-bye to a poor bed-ridden woman, who lay all day long in an almost dark cupboard, dependent on the rough charity of her [-405-] fellow-lodgers for any kindness or company until her weary daughter came home from work at night. This poor woman was singularly patient, not with the sullen patience which many sufferers have been hardened into, but with a patience which sprang from a genuinely submissive spirit. She thought little of herself, and bowed herself humbly, even cheerfully, to the will of God. I felt that it was presumption for me even to profess to teach Christianity to her. When I was with her I had to learn - to see the truths I talked about acted upon in unmistakable earnest. And yet I could not help lingering with this poor woman. It was such a change for her to have any one who could stay for a few minutes beside her lonely bed - such a joy to her to have any one with whom she could talk about Him who was her support and solace, and then (even in visiting the sick in the East-End clerical vanity survives) the personal reception this poor woman gave me was so different from what I got from a great many of those I visited, that I gave her, the demands upon it being considered, a disproportionate share of my time. On the occasion I speak of I was bidding her good-bye, at last, in a hurry, when she said,- 
    'Couldn't you spare time, sir, to see those poor people up-stairs?'
    'What poor people?' I asked, thinking that her mind was wandering. I knew, not only of no poor people, but of no room, above her. I was under the impression that when I had reached her closet I had mounted to the 'top of the house.'
    'The Searses, sir - haven't you heard of them? The [-406-] poor woman was in just before you came - half beside herself.'
    'But is it a matter I must attend to to-day? I have more than half my calls to make yet.'
    'She says they haven't a friend in the wide world to help them, and she's afraid her husband will make away with himself. He can't get anything to do, and she can't get anything to do, and they've ever so many children.'
    'Well, I'll go and see them; but which way must I get up to them?'
    'Turn to your right, sir, instead of going down-stairs, and you'll find the ladder-about at the back of my bed.'
    I obeyed her instructions, groping about in the dusk - dusk though it was noontime - of the top-landing, and mounting the short ladder, found the Searses in their strange upper chamber. They had a roof to cover them, and when that is said, all is said that can be said as to the homelikeness of their home. There was no lack of light or ventilation in their cock-loft, since several of the tiles had fallen from the roof. Between that dilapidated roof and the joists above the ceiling of the room beneath, Sears and his wife and a large family of small children were cooped. The poor whining youngsters were far less than half-clad in the most scarecrow collection of odds and ends that I had ever seen. One little girl had only a chemise on - a chemise made out of an old coal-sack, with holes cut in the sides for the arms, and in the bottom, changed into the top, for her poor lathy little neck. A boy's ragged jacket, inverted and buttoned up behind,  prematurely supplied another pinched baby with a [-407-] 'skeleton-suit.' The sleeves were turned back at the 'wrist' to enable the poor little toes to find a way out from those queer trousers. Mrs Sears's scanty cotton gown, through wear and many washings, first brought hack to the patternless hue of unbleached calico - a colour which much subsequent dirt had deepened into that of mud - hung so limply about her that it was plain she had no underclothing. Her face, if clean and plumped out, and if her unkempt hair had been neatly ringleted around it, would have been dollishly pretty. As it was, it looked like a doll's face melted and scratched away into a doll's death's-head. Sears's black-muzzled face, peering out from a shock of matted black hair, was as wasted as his wife's, but it had a far fiercer despair in it. He looked as if had he been strong enough, he would have murdered me for intruding upon him.
    I told him that I had come to make inquiries about him and his family.
    'Inquiries!' he howled in scorn. 'Can't you see for yourself? If you haven't brought food, be off with ye.'
    'Oh, don't talk like that, Tom. Don't mind him, sir - he don't mean it,' cried the poor little woman, in a piteous fright lest I should take offence and leave them to their fate. 'My children are starving, and so 'm I, and so's he, poor fellow, or he wouldn't talk like that.'
    I found that all they had had that week - and it was drawing to its close - was the two or three loaves the parish had granted them at the beginning of the week.
    As they were plainly famished, I gave the man a trifle to buy some bread. As soon as he saw my hand move [-408-] towards my pocket, he sprang from the rough floor on which he had been grovelling, and stood over me with a menacing look, as if he would tear my heart out if I did not give him enough. He pounced upon the first coin I brought out, darted from the room, and dashed at a headlong pace down the staircase. The soles were almost falling from his boots, and a dreary flap-flap-flapping they made upon the stairs. Presently he came back panting like a dog. He shook all over. The exertion he had taken had so overcome him, that if I had not caught him, he would have fallen to the floor. When I laid hold of him, he clutched his loaves and glared at me as if he thought I meant to rob him of his bread. As soon as he was seated, he tore it into portions for his wife and children, and then fastened on his own crust. It was horrid to watch those poor creatures worrying their food. Except that the man had served the others before himself, and the woman had given her youngest child a bit of the piece she got before she began to eat, they might have been so many wolves. As it happened, I had never before seen poor starving creatures just come into possession of food. I turned away, and looked out through one of the holes in the roof upon a wilderness of tiles and chimneys until that terrible 'family meal' was over.
    I began then to make inquiries. To begin with, I asked Sears whether being out in search for work would not be better than nursing his despair at home.
    'Haven't I been?' he retorted fiercely, with many epithets, which I need not repeat. 'Wasn't I down at the Docks this morning? And wasn't I turned away, with [-409-] hundreds more, because this horrid east wind keeps on blowing, just to keep the ships out? I'm not afraid of work. Why don't you give me some, instead of talking about it? Whatever it is, I'll do it. I've worked, and she's worked, poor thing, whenever we could get work to do. Where can I get work now except at the Docks? and this beastly wind has done me out of the chance of that. I'm a likely-looking fellow for any one to hire, ain't 1? You'd rig me out and be my reference, wouldn't you? And what's she to do - unless you want her to walk the streets? And that would be no use either; and yet she was a smart pretty lass once, poor thing!' And the man, as he said it, burst into a laugh, half of mockery, half of remorseful pity, all of utter misery, and clutched at the breast of his tattered, napless, greasy frock-coat with such violence that the string which supplied the place of buttons broke, and I saw that, as I suspected, he was shirtless.
    It was not easily that I gained Sears's confidence. His heart was sore, and at war with all the world. If I took out my watch when I visited him, he looked as if I had insulted him. He seemed to think that I did him an injury in merely possessing a watch whilst he had none. At last, however, partly from him, and more from his poor little wife, I learnt something of their history, and, adding my own impressions, may put it together thus:-
    Sears was the son of a small but tolerably thriving grocer and tea-dealer in a country town. lie was placed at its free grammar-school, and proved himself a clever boy. So long as he was stimulated by novelty and vanity, [-410-] he would work, but when the work became mere humdrum routine, he took no further interest in it. He was a flighty lad, and always getting into scrapes. When he left school his father wished to apprentice him to himself, but young Sears had a soul above a grocer's apron. He wanted to be a 'lawyer.' His father could not afford to article him, but he made interest with the attorney who managed such little law business as old Sears had to put into his hands, and the attorney, having heard that young Sears was a sharp lad, consented to take him into his office as a paid clerk, obscurely hinting that if he made himself useful, he might, perhaps, eventually get his articles given him. A month of copying and errand-running, however, disgusted Sears with the 'law.' Two or three other lines of life were tried for him at his own request, but time after time he came back upon his father's hands; grudging any work his father wished him to do at home, and yet feeling grievously injured if his father would not give him all the pocket-money he wanted. When his father refused him money, his mother was weak enough to supply him with it on the sly. He had grown up into a handsome hobbydehoy, dawdling about in a small country town, and fancying that he had 'gentlemanly tastes,' because he disliked regular work, and, without doing any, could somehow get comfortable food and drink, and tolerably smart clothes with a little money in their pockets. He soon found such a life as that 'slow,' and to escape from its ennui, plunged, or rather paddled, into the still duller dissipation within his reach. Perhaps it was no very great harm he did at first, but character is [-411-] soon lost in a small country town, where no ill deed can be hid, every ill deed is magnified, and deeds that admit of two interpretations are sure to be construed in the less charitable sense. Having obtained, however, the reputation of a 'scamp,' young Sears proceeded to justify it; and to escape the consequences of his escapade, he ran away to London, hurried to Charles Street, Westminster, and enlisted in a Lancer regiment. He chose the cavalry because he thought it the most dashing arm of the service, but when he had been sworn in and sent to his depot, he found that cavalry soldiers had a good many more disagreeable duties to perform than riding out in full regimentals, with their band braying and clashing and thumping in the van, and crowds of smiling women and children gaping admiration on either flank - than clanking their spurs in undress uniform on the pavements in the evening, with the air of heroes who have just saved their country, and confidently expect their non-militant countrymen's abject worship and their countrywomen's proudly affectionate gratitude. For one thing, Sears found that he had to be taught to ride, and the bullying and the chaff he received in the riding-school hurt him more even than the frequent falls he got there. And then - especially since he was not yet privileged to ride the horses, in public, when they were groomed - he loathed the 'stable-call' that rang with such taunting menace - ' for if you don't do it, the Colonel shall hear-r-r' - through the morning air. He had not enlisted in the cavalry that he might get up at unseasonable hours to currycomb biting horses, and wheel about [-412-] barrow-loads of dung, in a dirty shirt, with braces dangling over dusty blue trousers that would give him a longer spell of brushing, to make them look decent, than he had to give his horses. He very soon wrote a penitent letter to his father, entreating him to buy him out. But the old man was annoyed by the disgrace which his son had brought upon him, and sternly refused. He was half inclined not to let his wife visit her son, but at last permitted her to do so. When, however, she came back in tears, he was as obdurate as ever. She tried to move him to pity by telling him that she had found her Tom on his knees at the barracks, scrubbing floors like a slavey; but the old man only answered that it was a good thing anybody could make Tom do anything anyhow useful. Accordingly young Sears was drafted off to the head-quarters of his regiment at the Cape, and for some months his family heard nothing of him. But he turned up again at home pretty speedily-discharged from the service, according to his own statement, on account of an accident he had met with. By this time the old man had softened towards his son, and the mother and sisters were very proud to welcome home their sun-burnt 'warrior' from foreign parts. At any rate, he had seen 'wild Caffres.' He recommenced his dawdling life, and though his character was really rather worse instead of better, he was at first regarded with rather more respect by his townsfoUc as being one who had 'seen the world.' Whilst he was leading this idle life he fell in love with a blue-eyed, flaxen- haired little dressmaker, who listened to him as Desdemona listened to Othello, and, since she had, for a wonder, [-413-] decision of character enough to insist upon marriage, he married her clandestinely. His father was very angry when he discovered the marriage, but was persuaded by his wife to buy a small tobacconist's business in London for his son. He soon failed in that. His father put him into other small businesses - a musical-instrument shop, a news-vendor's, &c.-but he managed somehow to fail in all. At last the old man s patience was exhausted. In reply to a hundredth appeal for help - for all this time little ones had been coming as fast as they could come - he sent his son a ?5 note, and told him that that was the last money he would ever have from home - that he had already had far more than was just to his sisters. Nevertheless, of course, the mother did send money after that; but that source of supply was soon dried up, and Sears found himself with a large family and nothing to keep them and himself upon. No doubt he was quite sincere when he told me that he would do any work  -a poor fellow who cannot even get dock-work is not likely to be very fastidious - but I could plainly see that his 'pride' (to use a very absurd conventional phrase), foolishly encouraged by his fondly admiring little wife, had made him turn up his nose at chances of what he called 'menial' work which, if he had secured it, would have enabled him to earn some kind of a living, at any rate. Though he still called such work 'menial,' and thought he had been shamefully used in not having had the refusal of better employment offered him, he cursed his folly in having despised such work until it was too late for him to get it, however eagerly he might covet it.
    [-414-] When the mother's supplies ceased, Sears had to sell furniture and clothes to keep his family a little while longer afloat. Whilst he had still a 'respectable' suit of clothes he got a few odd jobs of work which he did not consider menial - receiving for them less than a quarter of the pay menial work for the same time would have brought him in. His wife did a little at her old trade, but the little suddenly became less and then became nothing. She soon had no clothes fit to seek customers in, and had come to live amongst people who had no money to spend on dress-making  - who thought themselves lucky if they could make the rags they had still hold together anyhow. In his first sermon on the Lord's Prayer Mr Maurice remarks, 'As the mere legal, formal, distinctions of caste become less marked, how apt are men to indemnify themselves for that loss by drawing lines of their own as deep, and more arbitrary!' There is no section of our complex English society which that acute remark might not cause to flinch. Old families look down upon families of recent creation. Sons of men who have gained wealth and titles through commerce, speak with ludicrous horror of the defilement caused by 'twade.' The wholesale dealer looks upon a shopkeeper as a being with whom, except as a customer, he cannot possibly have any connection. The druggist's wife loftily ignores the baker's wife (although, perhaps, they went to school together), and the flour-powdered baker considers the butcher 'a greasy, vulgar feller.' In any claimant of intrinsic superiority founded on accidental circumstances, such airs would seem ridiculous- if they were not so [-415-] awfully unchristian. As Mr Maurice points out, how can such people say, in sincerity, 'Our Father?' And who, in his human phase, was the Saviour in whom these despisers of their brethren would fain hope they have interest enough, when they are on their death-beds, to get them into heaven? A carpenter's apprentice who afterwards had not where to lay his head, who lived on alms, and died a convict's death.
    The unchristianity of social exclusiveness is so glaring that one hardly likes to laugh at its absurdity, and yet sometimes it is very amusing. I once heard a man without education, manners, wit, or even money, who, nevertheless, prided himself on being descended from a long traceable line of humdrum ancestors who had never done anything for the world except perpetuate their very uninteresting family, gravely state that although he charitably hoped that 'common people' might get to heaven, he could not believe that he should be obliged to mix with them there. He seemed to think that he, so to speak, would be ceremoniously shown into a celestial family-pew, whilst any common people who managed to enter heaven would have to slink into the free seats. Perhaps even more amusing than such folly as this is the hauteur with which people of the lower middle class look down on 'mere working men,' though they, or. their fathers, may have been mere working men, and really better off as such than as small shopkeepers. To have to work so many hours a-day for a master degrades a man in the eyes of these social judges, and to have to 'sink' to such a position afflicts them as much as an ' aristocrat' would [-416-]be afflicted if compelled to wait behind the counter of a shop, and run out, bare-headed, cringing, smirking, and 'washing his hands with invisible soap,' to carriage customers.
    It was not, therefore, until starvation absolutely stared him in the face that Sears in desperation tried the Docks. He thought that, having stooped to such a degradation, he was sure of work, but he found himself terribly mistaken. Many a time after shouting himself hoarse, and getting squeezed black and blue, in his efforts to attract the attention of the calling foreman, he had found himself still unhired. When there was the slightest chance of fresh hands being needed in the course of the day, he lingered on in or about the Docks until pay time came, in a faint hope of earning a few pence by a sudden job. At other times, as on the occasion on which I made his acquaintance, he returned to his wretched 'home' to madden himself by the sight of those for whom he felt that he ought to have been the bread-winner. There was not much to esteem in the man's character, and, therefore, I was glad to see that he never shirked his responsibility as husband and father. I have known many men, under less crushing circumstances, free themselves of the care of wife and children-by running away from them. It was, I think, a fortunate thing for poor little Mrs Sears and her children that, even when anxious to get her handsome husband anyhow, she insisted on his marrying her. The legal tie not only made him afraid of the consequences of deserting his wife and children, but gave him a respect of her, however wildly he might talk at times, [-417-] which she would certainly have lacked if she had come to him on the terms he was at first base enough to propose. It was pathetic to see how the poor little woman, in spite of her frequent repinings at the privations to which she had been reduced, would try hard to fancy that she was as fond of her husband as ever she was, and that he was as fond as ever of her. Poor little wasted doll! I am afraid that there was not much fondness left in her husband's heart-that he would have shed few tears over her corpse, so long as the children had died before her. But, at any rate, he did - however surlily - what he could for his wife and children. When he got a day's work at the Docks he toiled on all day-straining at winches, and walking up hollow cylinders like a wearily heavy-footed squirrel  -without diminishing his small pay in summer, his smaller pay in winter, by running into debt with the 'grub-man' beyond a penny or so he felt himself compelled to expend on trust when, as often was the case, he had gone fasting to his fight for work.
    I did not know the Searses long. They vanished from their cock-loft with as little notice as they had entered it.
    My bed-ridden old woman told me of their departure. If they was lying in the ground, with their souls at peace with God through Jesus Christ, I should be glad to know they was gone-though it was a kind o' company to hear the poor little things scuffling overhead.'