THE QUIET POOR
I do not mean the workhouse poor—I have seen plenty of workhouses and tasted many gruels. I do not mean the criminal poor, nor the poor who beg in the streets, but the Quiet Poor: the people who work in their own houses, and are never to be seen in workhouses and prisons, who keep their sorrows, if they have any, quite sacred from the world, and do not exhibit them for pence.. Though, to be sure, their shades may "glance and pass before us night and day," to such sorrows, if there be any, "we are blind as they are dumb." I thought, therefore, that I should like to know something about them. The last winter has been commonly said to be a very hard one, and I have heard many an old lady cry over the price of bread, "God help the poor!" What does a mere penny a loaf matter? I have thought. A slice of bread less in the day, perhaps; a little hunger and a little falling-in of cheek. Things not entirely unendurable.
Resolved to see about this for myself, and to find out perhaps what war prices will signify to loyal Britons, I obtained leave to visit the inhabitants of a parochial district in Bethnal Green, remarkable for its poverty, for time struggles made by its inhabitants to keep out of the workhouse, and for the small number of the offences brought home to their doors.
The little district of which I speak, small as it is, contains the population of a country town. To judge by the eye I should imagine that it covers ground about a quarter of a mile wide, and a quarter of a mile long. It is composed wholly of narrow courts and lanes, with a central Highs Street or Church Street of shops—itself a miserable lane. Although the houses are for the most part but cottages, with two floors and a cellar, there are crammed together in them fourteen thousand people. In the whole quarter there is not one resident whom the world would call respectable; there are not more than about half-a-dozen families able to keep a servant; and there is not one man I believe able to tenant a whole house. The shopkeepers who make a little outside show, fare indoors little better than their neighbours. As a general rule, each room in each house is occupied by a distinct family; they are comparatively wealthy who afford to rent two rooms; but, generally, as the families enlarge, the more they require space, the less they can afford that costly luxury. The natives of this parish chiefly subsist upon potatoes and cheap fish, buying sprats when they are to be had, and in default of them sitting down to dine on potatoes and a herring. They earn money as they can, and all are glad to work hard when there is work for them to do. The majority of the men are either weavers, or they are costermongers and hawkers. These two classes occupy, speaking generally, different portions of the neighborhood; the weavers earn a trifle more, and hold their heads up better than their neighbors: they are the west end people of the district. The whole place is completely destitute of sewerage; one sewer has been made in a street which forms part of its boundary; it has its share in that, but nothing more. The houses all stand over cesspools; and, before the windows, filth, dead cats, and putrid matter of all sorts run down or stagnate in the open gutters. How do people, who are quiet people, live in such a place?
From a wretched lane, an Egypt watered by a muddy Nile, I turned into a dark house like a catacomb, and after some hazardous climbing reached a chamber in which there were more people than things. Two women sat at work within painful earnestness before the latticed window, three children shivered round an empty gate. Except the broken chairs on which the women sat, there was no seat in the room but an old stool. There was no table, no bed. The larder was the windowsill, its store a couple of potatoes. In one corner was a confused heap of many-coloured rags, in another corner were a few battered and broken jugs and pans; there was a little earthen teapot on the cold bars of the grate, and in the middle of the room there was a handsome toy. I saw a household and its home. The father had been some months dead, the mother expected in two or three days to receive from God another child. She had four, and "Have you lost any?" I asked, looking down into the Egypt out of doors. "I have lost nine!"
This woman and her sister were at work together on cloth-tops for boots; each woman could make one in about four hours, and would receive for it threepence, out of which sum she would have expended three farthings on trimming or binding, and a fraction of a farthing upon thread. She had parted with her furniture piece by piece during the last illness of her husband. I talked to the children, and began to pull the great toy by the string: a monkey riding on a cock. As the wheels rolled, it made music, and up scrambled the fourth child, a great baby boy. "His grandmother gave him that," the mother said. They had sold their bed, their clothes, but they had kept the plaything!
We traced the current of another Nile into another Egypt. These Niles have their inundations, but to their unhappy Egypta such floods only add another plague. In summer time the courts and lanes are rich with exhalation, and in autumn their atmosphere is deadly. When May comes round the poor creatures of this district, pent up as they are, feel the spring blood leaping faintly within them, and are not to be restrained from pressing out in crowds towards the green fields and the hawthorn blossoms. They may be found dancing in the tea-gardens of suburban public-houses, rambling together in suburban meadows, or crawling out to the Essex marshes. That is the stir made by the first warm sunshine of the year, and after that the work goes on; the warm weather is the harvest time of the hawkers and costermongers, who at the best suffer severely during winter.
The summer heat lifts out of the filthy courts a heavy vapour of death, the overcrowded rooms are scarcely tenantable, and the inhabitants, as much as time and weather will permit, turn out into the road before their doors. The air everywhere indeed is stifling, but within doors many of the cottages must be intolerable. I went into one containing four rooms and a cellar, and asked, "How many people live here?” They were counted up for me, and the number came to six and twenty! The present clergyman of this district—whose toil is unremitting in the midst of the vast mass of sorrow to which he is called to minister— dwells upon wholesome ground outside the district. Within it, there is not a parsonage or any house that could be used as one, and if there were—what man would carry wife or children to a home in which they would drink poison daily? The pastor is very faithful in the performance of his duty; liberal of mind, unsparing of toil; and although the reward of his office is as little as its toil is great, and he is forced to take new duties on himself to earn a living, yet I know that he pours out his energies, his health, and all the money he can earn beyond what suffices for a frugal maintenance, upon his miserable people. We have need to be thankful that the Church has such sons. The Reverend Theophilus Fitzmumble may be a canon here, a master there, a rector elsewhere, and a vicar of Little Pogis, with a thousand a year for the care of a few hundred farmers and farm labourers, who rarely see his face. Fitzmumble may be a drone, the thousand a year paid for his ministration at Little Pogis might be better paid to a man who has daily to battle with, and to help such misery as that of which I speak in Bethnal Green. But let us, I repeat, be thankful that Fitzmumble is not the whole Church. It has sons content to labour as poor men among the poor, whose hearts ache daily at the sight of wretchedness they cannot help; whose wives fall sick of fevers caught at the sick beds of their unhappy sisters. Of such ministers the tables are luxurious, for they who sit at meat know that their fare is less by the portion that has been sent out to the hungry; such men go richly clad in threadbare cloth, of which the nap is perhaps represented by small slices upon the feet of little children who trot to and fro in them to school.
But, though the incumbent of this parochial district about which I speak, is truly a Christian gentleman, he has his body to maintain alive, and dares not remain too long in the poison bath of his unsewered district during the hot summer days. He visits then only the dying, and they are not few. "I have seen," he said, "a dead child in a cellar, and its father dying by its side, a living daughter covered with a sack to hide her nakedness when I went in, the rest all hungry and wretched, furniture gone, and an open sewer streaming down into a pool upon the floor." Again he said, "I have seen in the sickly autumn months a ruined household opposite the back premises of a tripe and leather factory, which is a dreadful nuisance to its neighbors; it emits a frightful stench, and lays men, women, and children down upon sick beds right and left. In this room opposite the place, I have seen the father of the family and three children hopelessly ill with typhus fever, and the eldest daughter with malignant small pox; while the mother, the one person able to stir about, sat on a chair in the midst of them all deadened with misery. The place by which this household was being murdered has been several times indicted and fined as a nuisance. Every time this has occurred, the proprietors have paid the fine and gone on as before; they regard such fine-paying as only a small item in their trade expenses.”
The people in this black spot of London all strive to the last to keep out of the workhouse. The union workhouse planted in a region that is crammed with poor, must be managed strictly, or there will be fearful outcry about keeping down the rates. Are the poor people in the wrong for keeping their arms wound about each other? There is not a house, a room,—of all I visited the other day, I did not see one room,—in which there was not sickness. Talk of the workhouse and the mother says, in effect, “who would nurse Johnny like me? Oh, I could not bear to think that he might die, and strangers cover up his face!” Johnny again cries for his mother, or if he be a man, he says that he would die naked and in the streets, rather than not give his last words to his wife.
But, somebody may say, This is sentimentality. The poor have not such fine feelings. They get to be brutalised. Often it is so; but, finite as often certainly, they are refined by suffering, and have depths of feeling stirred up within them which the more fortunate are only now and then made conscious of in themselves. I went into one room in this unhappy place—this core of all the misery in Bethnal Green— and saw a woman in bed with a three weeks infant on her arm. She was still too weak to rise, and her husband had died when the baby was three days old. She had four other children, and she panted to get up and earn. It eased her heart to tell of her lost love, and the portion of her story that I here repeat was told by her, in the close narrow room, with a more touching emphasis than I can give it here; with tremblings of the voice and quiverings of the lip that went warm to the hearts of all who listened: -
“The morning before my husband died," she said, "he said to me, 'O Mary, I have had such a beautiful dream!’—‘Have you, dear?’ says I ‘do you think you feel strong enough to tell it to me?’—‘Yes,’ says he, ‘I dreamt that I was in a large place where there was a microscopic clock' (he meant a microscope), ‘and I looked through it and saw the seven heavens all full of light and happiness, and straight before me, Mary, I saw a face that was like a face I knew.’ ‘And whose face was it, love?’ says I.—‘I do not know,’ says he; ‘but it was more beautiful than anything I even saw, and bright and glorious, and I said to it, Shall I be glorified with the same glory that you are glorified with? And the head bowed towards me. And I said, Am I to die soon? And the head bowed towards me. And I said, Shall I die to-morrow? And the face fixed its eyes on me and went away. And now what do you think that means?’—‘I do not know,’ says I, ‘but I think it must mean that God is going to call you away from this world where you have had so much trouble, and your suffering is going to be at an end, but you must wait His time, and that is why the head went away when you said, shall I die tomorrow?’—‘I suppose you are right,’ says he, and I don't mind dying, but O Mary, it goes to my heart to leave you and the young ones’ (here the tears spread oven the poor woman's eyes, and her voice began to tremble). ‘I am afraid to part with you, I am afraid for you after I am gone.’—‘You must not think of that,’ says I, ‘you've been a good husband, and it's God's will you should go.’ ‘I won't go, Mary, without saying good bye to you,’ says he. ‘If I can't speak, I'll wave my hand to you,’ says he, ‘and you'll know when I'm going.’ ‘And so it was, for in his last hours he could not speak a word, and he went off so gently that I never should have known in what minute he died if I had not seen his hands moving sad waving to me Good-bye before he went.”
Such dreams and thoughts belong to quiet poverty. I have told this incident just as I heard it; and if I were a daily visitant in Bethnal Green, I should have many tales of the same kind to tell.
The people of this district are not criminal. A lady might walk unharmed at midnight through their wretched lanes. Crime demands a certain degree of energy; but if there were ever any harm in these well-disposed people, that has been tamed out of them by sheer want. They have been sinking for years. Ten years ago, or less, the men were politicians; now, they have sunk below that stage of discontent. They are generally very still and hopeless; cherishing each other; tender not only towards their own kin, but towards their neighbours; and they are subdued by sorrow to a manner strangely resembling the quiet and refined tone of the most polished circles.
By very different roads, Bethnal Green and St. James's have arrived at this result. But there are other elements than poverty that have in some degree assisted to produce it. Many of the weavers have French names, and are descended from French emigrants, who settled hereabouts, as many of their countrymen settled in other places up and down the world after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes; and at that time there were fields and market gardens near the green of Bethnal. There are here some runlets of the best French blood, and great names may be sometimes met with. The parish clerk, who seemed to have in him a touch of Spanish courtesy, claims to be a descendant from Cervantes. The literary spirit still works in him; for I found his table covered with papers and tickets relating to a penny lecture—twopence to the front seats—that he had been delivering on Nineveh, Palmyra, Babylon, and other ancient cities, illustrated with a little panorama that he had. His lecture had drawn crowds, seventy had been turned from the door, and he was preparing to repeat it. Then there is a poor fellow in the parish named Racine, who declares that he can prove his descent from Racine the dramatist. There is a Lesage too, to be met with, and many other men whose names are connected with ideas of noble race or noble intellect. The daughters of these handloom weavers dress their hair with care, and will not let themselves be seen in rags. The mothers of the last generation were often to be seen in the old French costumes, and to this day hundreds work in such glazed attics as were used by their forefathers across the sea. Little as they earn, the weaver-households struggle to preserve a decent poverty and hide their cares. They must have some pleasures too. In two or three parts of the parish, there are penny balls; there is a room also for penny concerts, and there is a penny circus, "with a complete change of riders." These places are all quietly and well conducted; but are chiefly supported by the surrounding localities.
The fathers of these families lived when their parents could afford to them the benefit of dame schools. How courteously and sensibly they often talk, and with what well chosen words, I was amazed to hear. A doll-maker, dying of consumption, who certainly believed in long words too devoutly, but who never misapplied them, talked in periods well weighed and rounded, that were in admirable contrast to the slip-slop gossip of my dear friend Sir John Proaser. "One of the weavers," said the clergyman of the district (the Reverend Mr. Trivett), "asked me to lend him Calvin's Institutes, and when I told him that mine was a black letter copy, he said that he should not mind that in the least. Another asked once for the Colloquies of Erasmus, and one who was unmarried and working with his brother, so that he had some shillings to spare, wanted to know what it would cost to get a copy of Smith's Wealth of Nations."
I mentioned just now a doll-maker—him I found roasting himself by a large fire—a man wasted and powerless—discussing on what day he should go into Guy's Hospital. There was a heap of bran in a corner, used for doll-stuffing and for a children's bed also, no doubt. Here, as elsewhere, however large the family collected in one room, I never saw more than a single bed. Sleeping places were made usually on the floor. One woman, rich in half-a-dozen chairs, showed me with triumph how she made a first-rate bedstead by putting them artfully together. Before the doll-maker's bran sat a boy at a stool, with a pile of broken tobacco-pipe at his side, and some paste and strips of paper. Each bit of paper as he pasted it he screwed round a fragment of tobacco-pipe. These were, perhaps, to be doll's bones, the basis of their arms and legs. At a deal table near the window a mother, who tottered with ill-health, and a daughter about seventeen years old, were measuring some lengths of calico. The calico was to be cut up for doll’s bodies, or skins. The cutting out of bodies requires art and skill. The girl many days before had pricked her thumb, the result was that it had gathered, and was in a poultice. "She is the only one of us, except me, able to make the bodies," said the poor father, “and you see—" He pointed to the crippled thumb, and the mother looked down at; it in a maze of sorrow. They looked to its recovery for bread.
In another house I saw a room swept of all furniture, through the distress that such a pricked thumb had occasioned, and two other homes I saw made wretched the accidental wounding of the husband’s hand.
In one of them, an empty room rented at half-a-crown a-week, there stood a woman all by herself. She stood because she did not possess a chair, and told us that they—she and her husband—had that morning got some work. They had been living on their furniture for twelve weeks, because her husband, who was a carpenter, had hurt his hand. She had failed to get work until the day before, when she obtained a pair of stays to make, a chance job, for which she would receive fourpence. She was a young woman who would have been pretty if she had been better fed. Alas, for the two young hearts failing there together, for the kisses of the thin and wasted lips that should be fall with youth and pleasure! "You earn so little here, and could have a beautiful cottage in the country for the price of this room in Bethnal Green;—you scarcely could be worse off if you went into the country." They had done that, but the law of settlement had forced them back again on Bethnal Green.
Why should I make the readers' hearts as heavy as my own was made by the accumulation of these evidences of woe heaped up over woe? I saw families in cellars with walls absolutely wet; in dismantled rooms covered with dust and cobwebs, and containing nothing but a loom almost in ruins or striving to be clean. One I found papering and whitewashing his home, having obtained means to do so from his landlord after seven years of neglect. In another house a neighbour had dropped in to tea in a company dress of old black satin with plenty of cherry-coloured ribbons. The daughter of that house made elaborate and very pretty fringe-tassels at fourteen pence for a hundred and forty-four of them. The father of that house had been two weeks dead. Everywhere I found present sickness, and in many places recent death. Only in one place I found sullen despair, and there the room was full of people—there was no fire in the hearth, and there was no furniture, except a bed from which a woman was roused who spoke hoarsely and looked stupidly wild with ragged dress and hair disordered. She may have been drunk, but she could have sat as she was to Lebrun for a picture of despair. "Why," she was asked, "do none of your children come to school? "—" No money."—" But you need pay nothing—only wash and send them."—" I can't wash them;—no fire."
We went into a cellar shared by two families:—the rent of a room or cellar in this district is commonly two shillings a-week. One half of this room was occupied by a woman and four children, who had also a husband somewhere working for her; her division contained many bits of furniture and quite a fairy-land of ornaments upon the mantelpiece. The other woman was a widow with a son nineteen years old. They had nothing but a little deal table and two broken chairs; but there were hung up against the wall two coloured pictures in gilt frames, which her son, she said, had lately given her. Perhaps they were a birthday gift; certainly, cheap as they may have been, they were the fruit of a long course of saving; for the poor woman, trembling with ill-health, and supporting her body with both hands upon this little table, said, that her son was then out hawking, and that she expected him in every minute in hope that he might bring home three-halfpence to get their tea.
Account was made of the earnings of a whole lane, awl they were found to average threepence farthing a day for the maintenance of each inhabitant, both great and small. There was, I think, one in about six positively disabled by sickness. The dearness of everything during the last winter had been preventing hawkers and others from making their small purchases and sales; the consequence was to be seen too plainly in many a dismantled room. This spring and summer are for all the harvest time, but some were already beginning to suspect that "the spring must have gone by," for their better times used to begin early in March, and there is still no sign of them. All were, however, trusting more or less that, in the summer, they would be able to recover some of this ground lost during a winter more severe than usual. None seemed to have a suspicion of the fate in store, of the war-prices and causes of privation that probably will make for them this whole year one long winter of distress. It is not only in the dead upon the battle-field, or among the widows and orphans of the fallen, that you may see the miseries of war. Let any one go, five months hence, among these poor people of St. Philip's, Shoreditch (that is the right name of this region of Bethnal Green), when they find that they have lost not their spring only, but their summer,—let them be seen fasting under an autumn sun in their close courts and empty rooms, starved by hundreds out of life as well as hope, and he will understand, with a new force, what is the meaning of a war to the poor man.
Something I have neglected to say concerning the dismantled rooms. The absent furniture and clothing has not been pawned, it has gone to a receiving-house. The district is full of miserable people preying upon misery who lend money on goods under this guise of taking care of them, and give no ticket or other surety. It is all made a matter of faith, and an enormous interest is charged for such accommodation in defiance of the law.
And another miserable truth has to be told. The one vice with which misery is too familiar is well-known also here; for on the borders of this wretched land, which they must give up hope who enter, there is a palace hung round outside with eight or ten huge gaslights—inside brilliantly illuminated. That is the house of the dragon at the gate— there lives the gin devil.
What is to be done? Private charity must look on hopelessly when set before an evil so gigantic. Here is but a little bit of London, scarcely a quarter of a mile square, we look at it aghast, but there is other misery around it and beyond it. What is to be done? So much drainage and sewerage is to be done, is very certain. All that can be done is to be done to change the character of a Bethnal Green home. The Society for Improving the Dwellings of the Poor makes nearly five per cent on its rooms for families, though it fails commercially when taking thought for single men. The Society professes pure benevolence, and no care about dividends. Let it abandon that profession, abide by it certainly as a guiding idea, but let it take purely commercial ground before the public, and let its arm be strengthened. They who are now paying from five to seven pounds a-year for a filthy room or cellar, will be eager enough to pay this same price for a clean and healthy lodging. Let model lodging-houses for such families be multiplied, let them return a percentage to their shareholders; and since the society is properly protected by a charter, let all who would invest a little money wisely look into its plans. I see the need of this so strongly that I shall begin to inquire now very seriously into its affairs, and I exhort others to do the same, with a view to taking shares, if they be found a safe and fit investment.
Private and direct charity may relieve individuals, and console many a private sorrow in this part of London, but it cannot touch—such charity to the extent of thousands of pounds cannot remove — the public evil. Associations for providing any measure of relief are checked by the necessity for charters to protect themselves against the present unjust laws of partnership.
And, after all, the truth remains, that the people are crowded together in a stagnant corner of the world. They are all poor together; no tradesman or employer living among them finds them occupation; they ramble about and toil their lives away pain-fully to earn threepence farthing a-day; while the same people shifted to other quarters in the country, would find men contending for the possession of their labour, glad to give two or three shillings daily for a pair of hands. The people of the parish hang together like a congealed lump in a solution that needs to be broken up and stirred in with the rest.
Half the men here would he hailed with chants of joy by the manufacturers were they to turn their back upon their hand-looms and march to the aid of steam in Preston. I do not say, Send them to Preston, for in that town one misery can only be relieved because another has been made, but there are very many parts of England in which labour is wanted sorely, and would earn fair pay. Employers in those parts of England should be made fully aware of the existence of such parishes as this, in which hard working, earnest, quiet people struggle in the dark. Such parishes are banks on which cheques may be drawn to any amount for the capital that can be made of honest labour.
There is room for many of these people in large provincial towns, and in small towns and rural districts. The abolition of the Law of Settlement—a horrible evil and an absolutely frightful cruelty, fully discussed last year in this journal—will remove the chief obstacle to such an attempt to break up little lumps of social misery. The abolition of that law is promised to the country, and whoever strives to make the promise null or to postpone its fulfillment, strives practically—whatever his intent may be—to perpetuate or to prolong some of the worst pains that vex both flesh and spirit of our labourers. When the migrations of the poor cease to be watched with narrow jealousy, as will be the case when this bad law is dead, no corner of our social life in London, or in England, need stagnate or putrify. There need be no longer six-and-twenty people in a cottage, upon ground that does not find fit work for six. Change will be then possible for Bethnal Green. It may remain the home of poverty and toil, bat it may cease to be the home of want.
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