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LONDON'S UNDERWORLD (chapter3)

2006-09-08 20:58

    CHAPTER III

    THE NOMADS

    A considerable portion of the inhabitants of the world below the line are wanderers, without home, property, work or any visible means of existence. For twenty years it has been the fashion to speak of them as the "submerged," and a notable philanthropist taught the public to believe that they formed one-tenth of our population.

    It was currently reported in the Press that the philanthropist I have referred to offered to take over and salve this mass of human wreckage for the sum of one million pounds. His offer was liberally responded to; whether he received the million or not does not matter, for he has at any rate been able to call to his assistance thousands of men and women, and to set them to work in his own peculiar way to save the "submerged."

    From a not unfriendly book just published, written by one who was for more than twenty years intimately associated with him, and one of the chief directors of his salvage work, we learn that the result has largely been a failure.

    To some of us this failure had been apparent for many years, and though we hoped much from the movement, we could not close our eyes to facts, and reluctantly had to admit that the number of the "submerged" did not appreciably lessen.

    True, shelters, depots, bridges, homes and labour homes were opened with astonishing celerity. Wood was chopped and paper sorted in immense quantities, but shipwrecked humanity passed over bridges that did not lead to any promised land, and abject humanity ascended with the elevators that promptly lowered them to depths on the other side.

    Stimulated by the apparent success or popularity of the Salvation Army, the Church Army sprang into existence, and disputed with the former the claim to public patronage, and the right to save! It adopted similar means, it is certain with similar results, for the "submerged" are still with us.

    I say that both these organisations pursued the same methods and worked practically on the same lines, for both called into their service a number of enthusiastic young persons, clothed them in uniforms, horribly underpaid them, and set them to work to save humanity and solve social and industrial problems, problems for which wiser and more experienced people fail to find a solution. It would be interesting to discover what has become of the tens of thousands of enthusiastic men and women who have borne the uniform of these organisations for periods longer or shorter, and who have disappeared from the ranks.

    How many of them are "submerged" I cannot say, but I know that some have been perilously near it.

    I am persuaded that this is a dangerous procedure, very dangerous procedure, and the subscribing public has some right to ask what has become of all the "officers" who, drawn from useful work to these organisations, have disappeared.

    But as a continual recruiting keeps up the strength, the subscribing public does not care to ask, for the public is quite willing to part with its vested interests in human wreckage. All this leads me to say once more that the "submerged" are still with us. Do you doubt it? Then come with me; let us take a midnight walk on the Thames Embankment; any night will do, wet or dry, winter or summer!

    Big Ben is striking the hour as we commence our walk at Blackfriars; we have with us a sack of food and a number of second-hand overcoats. The night is cold, gusty and wet, and we think of our warm and comfortable beds and almost relinquish our expedition. The lights on Blackfriars Bridge reveal the murky waters beneath, and we see that the tide is running out.

    We pass in succession huge buildings devoted to commerce, education, religion and law; we pass beautiful gardens, and quickly we arrive at the Temple. The lamps along the roadway give sufficient light for our purpose, for they enable us to see that here and there on the seats and in the recesses of the Embankment are strange beings of both sexes.

    Yonder are two men, unkempt and unshaven, their heads bent forward and their hands thrust deep into their trousers pockets and, to all appearance, asleep.

    Standing in a sheltered corner of the Temple Station we see several other men, who are smoking short pipes which they replenish from time to time with bits of cigars and cigarettes that they have gathered during the day from the streets of London.

    I know something of the comedy and tragedy of cigar ends, for times and again I have seen a race and almost a struggle for a "fat end" when some thriving merchant has thrown one into the street or gutter. Suddenly emerging from obscurity and showing unexpected activity, two half-naked fellows have made for it; I have seen the satisfaction of the fellow who secured it, and I have heard the curse of the disappointed; but there! at any time, on any day, near the Bank, or the Mansion House, in Threadneedle Street, or in Cheapside such sights may be seen by those who have eyes to see.

    These two fellows have been successful, for they are assuaging the pangs of hunger by smoking their odds and ends. They look at us as we pass to continue our investigation. Here on a seat we find several men of motley appearance; one is old and bent, his white beard covers his chest, he has a massive head, he is a picturesque figure, and would stand well for a representation of Old Father Thames, for the wet streams from his hair, his beard and his ample moustache. Beside him sits a younger man, weak and ill. His worn clothing tells us of better days, and we instinctively realise that not much longer will he sit out the midnight hours on the cold Embankment.

    Before we distribute our clothes and food, we continue our observation. What strikes us most is the silence, for no one speaks to us, no hand is held out for a gift, no requests are made for help.

    They look at us unconcernedly as we pass; they appear to bear their privations with indifference or philosophy. Yonder is a woman leaning over the parapet looking into the mud and water below; we speak to her, and she turns about and faces us. Then we realise that Hood's poem comes into our mind; we offer her a ticket for a "shelter," which she declines; we offer her food, but she will have none of it; she asks us to leave her, and we pass on.

    Here is a family group, father and mother with two children; their attire and appearance tell us that they are tramps; the mother has a babe close to her breast, and round it she has wrapt her old shawl; a boy of five sits next to her, and the father is close up.

    The parents evidently have been bred in vagrancy, and the children, and, unless the law intervenes, their children are destined to continue the species. The whining voice of the woman and the outstretched hands of the boy let us know that they are eager and ready for any gift that pity can bestow.

    But we give nothing, and let me say that after years of experience, I absolutely harden my heart and close my pocket against the tramping beggar that exploits little children. And to those who drag children, droning out hymns through our quiet streets on Sunday, my sympathies extend to a horsewhip.

    We leave the tramps, and come upon a poor shivering wretch of about thirty-five years; his face presents unmistakable signs of disease more loathsome than leprosy; he is not fit to live, he is not fit to die; he is an outcast from friends, kindred and home. He carries his desolation with him, and the infirmary or the river will be the end of him.

    Here are two stalwart fellows, big enough and strong enough to do useful work in the world. But they are fresh from prison, and will be back in prison before long; they know us, for it is not the first time we have made their acquaintance.

    They are by no means backward in speaking and telling us that they want "just ten shillings to buy stock in Houndsditch which they can sell in Cheapside." As we move away they beg insistently for "just a few shillings; they don't want to get back to prison."

    Now we come to a youth of eighteen; he seems afraid, and looks at us with suspicious eyes; what is he doing here? We are interested in him, so young, yet alone on the Embankment. We open our bag and offer him food, which he accepts and eats; as we watch him our pity increases: he is thinly clad, and the night air is damp and cold; we select an old coat, which he puts on. Then we question him, and he tells us that his mother is dead, his father remarried; that his stepmother did not like him, and in consequence his father turned him out; that he cannot get work. And so on; a common story, no originality about it, and not much truth!

    We suddenly put the question, "How long have you lived in lodging-houses?" "About three years, sir." "What did you work at?" "Selling papers in the streets." "Anything else?" "No, sir." "You had not got any lodging money to-night.?" "No." "Ever been in prison?" "Only twice." "What for?" "Gambling in the streets," and we leave him, conscious that he is neither industrious, honest nor truthful.

    We come at length to Waterloo Bridge, and here in the corners and recesses of the steps we find still more of the submerged, and a pitiful lot they are.

    We look closely at them, and we see that some are getting back to primeval life, and that some are little more than human vegetables. We know that their chief requirements are food, sleep and open air; and that given these their lives are ideal, to themselves! But we distribute our food amongst them, we part with our last old coat, we give tickets for free shelters, but we get no thanks, and we know well enough that the shelter tickets will not be used, for it is much easier for philosophic vagabondage to remain curled up where it is than to struggle on to a shelter.

    So we leave them, and with a feeling of hopelessness hurry home to our beds.

    But let us revisit the Embankment by day at  a.m. We take our stand right close to Cleopatra's Needle; we see that numbers of wretched people, male and female, are already there, and are forming themselves into a queue three deep, the males taking the Westminster side of the Needle, the females the City side.

    While this regiment of a very dolorous army is gathering together, and forming silently and passively into the long queue, we look at the ancient obelisk, and our mind is carried backward to the days of old, when the old stone stood in the pride of its early life, and with its clear-cut hieroglyphics spoke to the wonderful people who comprised the great nation of antiquity.

    We almost appeal to it, and feel that we would like to question it, as it stands pointing heavenwards beside our great river. Surely the ancient stone has seen some strange sights, and heard strange sounds in days gone by. Involuntarily we ask whether it has seen stranger sights, and heard more doleful sounds than the sights to be seen under its shadow to-day, and the sounds to be heard around it by night. Could it speak, doubtless it would tell of the misery, suffering, slavery endured by the poor in Egypt thousands of years ago. Maybe it would tell us that the great empire of old had the same difficulties to face and the same problems to solve that Great Britain is called upon to face and to solve to-day.

    For the poor cried for bread in the days of the Pharaohs, and they were crowded into unclean places, but even then great and gorgeous palaces were built.

    "Can you tell us, Ancient Stone, has there been an onward march of good since that day? Are we much better, wiser, happier and stronger than the dusky generations that have passed away?" But we get no response from the ancient stone, as grim and silent it stands looking down upon us. So we turn to the assembled crowd. See how it has grown whilst we have been speculating. Silently, ceaselessly over the various bridges, or through the various streets leading from the Strand they have come, and are still coming.

    There is no firm footstep heard amongst them as they shufflingly take their places. No eager expectation is seen on any face, but quietly, indifferently, without crushing, elbowing, they join the tail-end of the procession and stand silently waiting for the signal that tells them to move.

    Let us walk up and down to count them, for it is nearly twelve o'clock, and at twelve o'clock the slow march begins. So we count them by threes, and find five hundred men to the right and one hundred women to the left, all waiting, silently waiting! Stalwart policemen are there to keep order, but their services are not required.

    In the distance the whirl of London's traffic raises its mighty voice; nearer still, the passing tramcars thunder along, and the silence of the waiting crowd is made more apparent by these contrasts.

    Big Ben booms the hour! it is twelve o'clock! and the slow march begins; three by three they slowly approach the Needle, and each one is promptly served with a small roll of bread and a cup of soup; as each one receives the bread and soup he steps out of the ranks, promptly and silently drinks his soup, and returns the cup. Rank follows rank till every one is served, then silently and mysteriously the crowd melts away and disappears. The police go to other duties, the soup barrows are removed; the grim ancient stone stands once more alone.

    But a few hours later, even as Big Ben is booming six, the "Miserables" will be again waiting, silently waiting for the rolls of bread and the cups of soup, and having received them will again mysteriously disappear, to go through the same routine at twelve o'clock on the morrow. Aye! and to return on every morrow when soup and rolls are to be had.

    It looks very pitiful, this mass of misery. It seems very comforting to know that they are fed twice a day with rolls and soup, but after all the matter wants looking at very carefully, and certain questions must be asked.

    Who are these miserables? How comes it that they are so ready to receive as a matter of course the doles of food provided for them? Are they really helped, and is their position really improved by this kind of charity? I venture to say no! I go farther, and I say very decidedly that so long as the bulk of these people can get food twice a day, and secure some kind of shelter at night, they will remain content to be as they are. I will go still farther and say, that if this provision becomes permanent the number of the miserables will increase, and the Old Needle will continue to look down on an ever-growing volume of poverty and wretchedness.

    For after receiving the soup and bread, these nomads disappear into the streets and by-ways of London, there by hook or crook, by begging or other means, to secure a few coppers, to pick up scraps of food, and to return to the Embankment.

    I have walked up and down the Embankment, I have looked searchingly at the people assembled. Some of them I have recognised as old acquaintances; many of them, I know, have no desire to be other than what they are. To eat, to sleep, to have no responsibility, to be free to live an uncontrolled life, are their ambitions; they have no other. Some of them are young men, only twenty years of age, who have seen the inside of prison again and again. Some of them are older, who have tramped the country in the summer time and have been drawn to London by the attraction of an easy feeding in the winter. Search their ranks! and you will find very little genuine, unfortunate, self- respecting poverty. They are what they are, and unless other means are adopted they will, remain what they are!

    And so they will eat the bread and drink the soup; they will come at twelve o'clock noon; they will come at six o'cIock in the evening. They will sleep where they can, and to-morrow will be as to-day; and the next day as to-morrow, unless some compulsion is applied to them.

    All this is very sad, but I venture to say it is true, and it seems to be one of the evils almost inseparable from our present life. Probably in every clime and every age such women and men have existed. The savage lives in all of us, and the simple life has its attractions. To be free of responsibility is, no doubt, a natural aspiration. But when I see how easy it is for this class of people to obtain food, when I see how easy it is for them to obtain shelter, when I see and know how thousands of the poor are unceasingly at work in order to provide a modicum of food and the semblance of a shelter, then it occurs to me, and I am sure it will to any one who thinks seriously upon the matter, that these men and women, who are harking back to the life of the idle savage, are treated better in Christian England than the industrious, self-respecting but unfortunate poor. But come with me to see another sight! It is again afternoon, and we take our stand at . p.m. outside a shelter for women which every night receives, for fourpence each, some hundreds of submerged women.

    The doors will not be opened till six o'clock, so we are in time to watch them as they arrive to take their places in the waiting queue. A policeman is present to preserve order and keep the pavement clear; but his service is not required, for the women are very orderly, and allow plenty of room for passers-by.

    As the time for opening approaches, the number of waiting women increases until there is a waiting silent crowd. No photograph could give the slightest idea of their appearance, for dirt and misery are not revealed by photography.

    Let us look at them, for the human eye sees most! What do we see? Squalor, vice, misery, dementia, feeble minds and feeble bodies. Old women on the verge of the grave eating scraps of food gathered from the City dustbins. Dirty and repulsive food, dirty and repulsive women! who have begged during the day enough coppers to pay for their lodging by night. Girls of twenty, whose conduct in their homes has been outrageous, and whose life in London must be left to imagination. Middle-aged women, outcasts, whose day has past, but who have still capabilities for begging and stealing. The whole company presents an altogether terrible picture, and we are conscious that few of the women have either the ability or the desire to render decent service to the community, or to live womanly lives.

    At length the door opens, and we watch them pass silently in, to sleep during the night in the boxes arranged on the floors, their bodies unwashed, and their clothing unchanged. Happy are such women when some trumpery theft lands them in prison, for there at any rate a change of clothing is provided, and a bath is compulsory.

    If we stand outside a men's shelter, we see a similar state of things, a waiting crowd. A passive, content, strange mixed lot of humans. Some of them who have been well educated, but are now reaping the harvest that follows the sowing of wild oats. The submerged males are, on the whole, less repulsive than the women; dirt is less in evidence, and they exhibit a better standard of health. But many of them are harking back to nature, and remind us of the pictures we have seen of primeval man.

    I want to say a few words about the submerged that congregate on the Thames Embankment, and the humanity we have seen enter the cheap shelters.

    My experience has shown me that they constitute the lowest grade and the least hopeful class of the submerged. Amongst them there are very few decent and helpable men and women who are capable of rising to a higher life. Say what we will, be as pitiful as we may, those of us who have much experience of life know perfectly well that there exists a large class of persons who are utterly incapable of fulfilling the duties of decent citizenship. It may be that they are wicked, and it is certain that they are weak, but whether wicked or weak, they have descended by the law of moral gravitation and have found their level in the lowest depths of civilised life.

    And they come from unexpected quarters, for some who have known comfort and refinement are now quite content with their present conditions. Whether born of refined parents, or of rude and ignorant parents, whether coming from a tramping stock, or from settled home life, they have one thing in common. It is this—— the life they live has a powerful attraction for them; they could not if they would, and would not if they could, live lives that demand decency, discipline and industry. Nothing but compulsion will ever induce them to submit themselves to disciplined life. But let it be clearly understood that I am now speaking only of the lowest class of the submerged. While my experience has taught me that they, humanly speaking, are a hopeless lot, I have learned that they have their qualities. They can endure if they cannot work; they can suffer if they cannot strive. After all I am persuaded that they get a fair amount of happiness. Simple pleasures are the greatest, perhaps the only real pleasures. We all like to be free of responsibilities. There is no rent-day coming round with dread certainty and irritating monotony to the nomads. No rate collector irritates them with his imperious "demand note." No school-board officer rouses them to a sense of duty by his everlasting efforts to force their children to school. No butcher, no baker, no milkman duns them for payment of bills long overdue! They escape the danger of furniture on the "hire system." For them no automatic gas meter grudgingly doles out its niggardly pennyworths of gas. They are not implored to burden themselves with the ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA.

    They are free from the seductions of standard bread; paper-bag cookery causes them no anxious thought. Even "sweet peas" do not enter into their simple calculations. Finally no life assurance agent marks them for his prey, and no income-tax tempts them to lie! From all these things they are free, and I would like to know who would not wish to be free of them and a thousand other worries I would escape them if I could, but alas I cannot.

    Decidedly there is much to be said for the life of a nomad, but whether or not I should place him among the inhabitants of the underworld I am not sure; for he toils not, neither does he spin, and his bitterest enemies cannot accuse him of taking thought for the morrow. I had almost forgotten one great advantage he possesses: he need not wash; and when this distasteful operation becomes, for sanitary reasons, absoluteIy necessary, why then he can take a month in one of our great sanatoria, either prison or workhouse will do, and be thoroughly cleansed!

    The idea of such free and easy folk being saved by a shelter and wood-chopping is very funny.

    But we are all tramps, more or less; it is only a question of degree! Who would not like to tramp with George Borrow through Spain or Wales I would like the chance! Who does not feel and hear the "call of the wild"? Most certainly all Britons thrill with it. Who does not like to feel the "wind on the heath" beat on his face and fill his nostrils! Who does not love the sweetness of country lanes, or the solitude of mountains, or the whispering mystery of the wood, or the terrors of the sea, or the silence of midnight?

    All these things are ingrained in us, part and parcel of our very selves; we cannot get away from them if we would, and woe betide us if we did! For this is a grand quality in itself, one that has made our nation and our empire. But couple it with idleness, inertia, feebleness, weak minds, and weaker bodies; why, then you get the complete article, the vegetable human! the guinea-pig man; if you will, the "submerged," or at any rate a portion of them.

    Originally I have no doubt the human family were nomads, and many of our good old instincts still survive, but civilisation has killed others. In every cross-bred species of animals or plants there are "reverts" or "throwbacks," and the human family produces plenty of them. Every civilised country has its "throwbacks," and the more monotonous civilisation becomes, the more cast-iron its rules, and the more scientific and educated its people, the more onerous and difficult become the responsibilities and duties of citizenship; and the greater the likelihood of in increased number of reverts to undisciplined and wild life. In this direction the sea and our colonies are the safeguard of England. But today we pay in meal or malt for our civilisation, for many brave lads, with thews and muscles, are chafing, fretting and wearing out their hearts in dull London offices or stores, where they feel choked, hampered, cabined and confined, for civilisation chains them to their desks.

    But I am wandering too! I will hark back. Another cause, and a fruitful cause, of nomadic life is to be found in the ever- increasing number of young incapables that our present-day life produces. Characterless, backboneless, negative kind of fellows with neither wisdom nor stature abound. Up to eighteen years they pass muster, but after that age they are useless; in reality they need caring for all their lives. They possess no initiative, no self-reliance, and little capability for honest work, unless it be simple work done under close supervision. Our industrial life is too strenuous for these young men; they are laggards in life's race, they quickly fall behind, and ultimately become disqualified altogether.

    Many of their parents refuse them shelter, the streets become their home; absolute idleness supervenes; their day is past. Henceforward they are lodging-house habitues, or wanderers on the face of the earth.

    More pitiable still is the case of those that may be classed as feebleminded, and who are just responsible enough to be quite irresponsible. Idiots and imbeciles have largely disappeared from country villages and small towns. They are well taken care of, for our large asylums are full of them; they have good quarters, good food, every attention, so they live long in the land.

    But the case is very different with the half imbeciles or the half mad. Short terms of imprisonment with short periods of hopeless, useless liberty and an occasional spell in the workhouse constitute the circle of their lives; and a vicious circle it is. Can any life be more pitiable? Sane enough to know that they are not quite sane, insane enough to have no wish to control their animal or vicious instincts. Possessing no education, strength or skill, of no possible use in industrial life, with no taste for decency or social life; sleeping by day in our parks,and by night upon the Embankment. But they mate; and as like meets with like the result may be imagined! Here again we are paying for our neglect of many serious matters. Bad housing, overcrowding, incessant work by the mothers whilst bearing children, drinking habits among the parents, insufficient food for the children, endless anxieties and worries. All these things and more amongst that portion of the nation which produces the largest families; what wonder that many incapable bodies and minds result!

    But if civilisation allows all this, civilisation must pay the penalty, which is not a light one, and continue to have the miserables upon the Embankment.

    Have we no pity! no thought for the next generation, no concern for ourselves! No! I do not recommend a lethal chamber, but I do strongly advise permanent detention and segregation for these low types of unfortunate humanity. Nothing less will avail, and expensive though it might be for a time, it would pay in the near future, and would be at once an act of mercy and justice.

    Yes, on the Thames Embankment extremes meet, the ages are bridged over, for the products of our up-to-date civilisation stand side by side with the products of primeval habits and nomadic life.

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