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LONDON'S UNDERWORLD (chapter2)

2006-09-08 20:58

    CHAPTER II

    London's great underworld to many may be an undiscovered country. To me it is almost as familiar as my own fireside; twenty-five years of my life have been spent amongst its inhabitants, and their lives and circumstances have been my deep concern.

    Sad and weary many of those years have been, but always full of absorbing interest. Yet I have found much that gave me pleasure, and it is no exaggeration when I say that some of my happiest hours have been spent among the poorest inhabitants of the great underworld.

    But whether happy or sorrowful, I was always interested, for the strange contrasts and the ever-varying characteristics and lives of the inhabitants always compelled attention, interest and thought. There is much in this underworld to terrorise, but there is also much to inspire.

    Horrible speech and strange tongues are heard in it, accents of sorrow and bursts of angry sound prevail in it.

    Drunkenness, debauchery, crime and ignorance are never absent; and in it men and women grown old in sin and crime spend their last evil days. The whining voice of the professional mendicant is ever heard in its streets, for its poverty-stricken inhabitants readily respond to every appeal for help.

    So it is full of contrasts; for everlasting toil goes on, and the hum of industry ever resounds. Magnificent self-reliance is continually exhibited, and self-denial of no mean order is the rule.

    The prattle of little children and the voice of maternal love make sweet music in its doleful streets, and glorious devotion dignifies and illumines the poorest homes.

    But out of the purlieus of this netherworld strange beings issue when the shades of evening fall.

    Men whose hands are against every man come forth to deeds of crime, like beasts to seek their prey! Women, fearsome creatures, whose steps lead down to hell, to seek their male companions.

    Let us stand and watch!

    Here comes a poor, smitten, wretched old man; see how he hugs the rags of his respectability; his old frayed frock-coat is buttoned tightly around him, and his outstretched hands tell that he is eager for the least boon that pity can bestow. He has found that the way of the transgressor is hard; he has kissed the bloom of pleasure's painted lips, he has found them pale as death!

    But others follow, and hurry by. And a motley lot they are; figure and speech, complexion and dress all combine to create dismay; but they have all one common characteristic. They want money! and are not particular about the means of getting it. Now issue forth an innumerable band who during the day have been sleeping off the effects of last night's debauch. With eager steps, droughty throats and keen desire they seek the wine cup yet again.

    Now come fellows, young and middle-aged, who dare not be seen by day, for whom the police hold "warrants," for they have absconded from wives and children, leaving them chargeable to the parish.

    Here are men who have robbed their employers, here young people of both sexes who have drained Circe's cup and broken their parents' hearts.

    Surely it is a strange and heterogeneous procession that issues evening by evening from the caves and dens of . But notice there is also a returning procession! For as the sun sinks to rest, sad-faced men seek some cover where they may lie down and rest their weary bones; where perchance they may sleep and regain some degree of passive courage that will enable them, at the first streak of morning light, to rise and begin again a disheartening round of tramp, tramp, searching for work that is everlastingly denied them. Hungry and footsore, their souls fainting within them, they seek the homes where wives and children await their return with patient but hopeless resignation.

    Take notice if you will of the places they enter, for surely the beautiful word "home" is desecrated if applied to most of their habitations. Horrid places within and without, back to back and face to face they stand.

    At their doorway death stands ready to strike. In the murky light of little rooms filled with thick air child-life has struggled into existence; up and down their narrow stairs patient endurance and passive hopelessness ever pass and repass.

    Small wonder that the filthy waters of a neighbouring canal woo and receive so many broken hearts and emaciated bodies.

    But the procession now changes its sex, for weary widowed women are returning to children who for many hours have been lacking a mother's care, for mothers in the underworld must work if children must eat.

    So the weary widows have been at the wash-tubs all day long, and are coming home with two shillings hardly earned. They call in at the dirty general shop, where margarine, cheese, bread, tinned meat and firewood are closely commingled in the dank air.

    A loaf, a pennyworth of margarine, a pennyworth of tea, a bundle of firewood, half a pound of sugar, a pint of lamp-oil exhaust their list of purchases, for the major part of their earnings is required for the rent.

    So they climb their stairs, they feed the children, put them unwashed to bed, do some necessary household work, and then settle down themselves in some shape, without change of attire, that they may rest and be ready for the duties of the ensuing day. Perhaps sweet oblivion will come even to them. "Blessings on the man who invented sleep," cried Sancho Panza, and there is a world of truth in his ecstatic exclamation, "it wraps him round like a garment."

    Aye, that it does, for what would the poor weary women and men of  do without it? What would the sick and suffering be without it? In tiny rooms where darkness is made visible by pennyworths of oil burned in cheap and nasty lamps, there is no lack of pain and suffering, and no lack of patient endurance and passive heroism.

    As night closes in and semi-darkness reigns around, when the streets are comparatively silent, when children's voices are no longer heard, come with me and explore!

    It is one o'clock a.m., and we go down six steps into what is facetiously termed a "breakfast parlour"; here we find a man and woman about sixty years of age. The woman is seated at a small table on which stands a small, evil-smelling lamp, and the man is seated at another small table, but gets no assistance from the lamp; he works in comparative gloom, for he is almost blind; he works by touch. For fifty years they have been makers of artificial flowers; both are clever artists, and the shops of the West End have fairly blazed with the glory of their roses. Winsome lassie's and serene ladies have made themselves gay with their flowers.

    There they sit, as they have sat together for thirty years. Neither can read or write, but what can be done in flowers they can do. Long hours and dark rooms have made the man almost blind.

    He suffers also from heart disease and dropsy. He cannot do much, but he can sit, and sit, while his wife works and works, for in the underworld married women must work if dying husbands are to be cared for.

    So for fifteen hours daily and nightly they sit at their roses! Then they lie down on the bed we see in the corner, but sleep does not come, for asthma troubles him, and he must be attended and nursed.

    Shall we pay another visit to that underworld room? Come, then. Two months have passed away, the evil-smelling lamp is still burning, the woman still sits at the table, but no rose-leaves are before her; she is making black tulips. On the bed lies a still form with limbs decently smoothed and composed; the poor blind eyes are closed for ever. He is awaiting the day of burial, and day after day the partner of his life and death is sitting, and working, for in this underworld bereaved wives must work if husbands are to be decently buried. The black tulips she will wear as mourning for him; she will accompany his poor body to the cemetery, and then return to live alone and to finish her work alone.

    But let us continue our midnight explorations, heedless of the men and women now returning from their nightly prowl who jostle us as they pass.

    We enter another room where the air is thick and makes us sick and faint. We stand at the entrance and look around; we see again the evil-smelling lamp, and again a woman at work at a small table, and she too is a widow!

    She is making cardboard boxes, and pretty things they are. Two beds are in the room, and one contains three, and the other two children. On the beds lie scores of dainty boxes. The outside parts lie on one bed, and the insides on the other. They are drying while the children sleep; by and by they will be put together, tied in dozens, and next morning taken to the factory. But of their future history we dare not inquire.

    The widow speaks to us, but her hands never rest; we notice the celerity of her movements, the dreadful automatic certainty of her touch is almost maddening; we wait and watch, but all in vain, for some false movement that shall tell us she is a human and not a machine. But no, over her shoulder to the bed on the left side, or over her shoulder to the bed on her right side, the boxes fly, and minute by minute and hour by hour the boxes will continue to grow till her task is completed. Then she will put them together, tie them in dozens, and lay herself down on that bed that contains the two children.

    Need we continue? I think not, but it may give wings to imagination when I say that in  there are at least , women whose earnings do not exceed three halfpence per hour, and who live under conditions similar to those described. Working, working, day and night, when they have work to do, practically starving when work is scarce.

    The people of the underworld are not squeamish, they talk freely, and as a matter of course about life and death. Their children are at an early age made acquainted with both mysteries; a dead child and one newly born sometimes occupy a room with other children.

    People tell me of the idleness of the underworld and there is plenty of it; but what astonishes me is the wonderful, the persistent, but almost unrewarded toil that is unceasingly going on, in which even infants share.

    Come again with me in the day-time, climb with me six dark and greasy flights of stairs, for the underworld folk are sometimes located near the sky.

    In this Bastille the passages are very narrow, and our shoulders sometimes rub the slimy moisture from the walls. On every landing in the semi-darkness we perceive galleries running to right and to left. On the little balconies, one on every floor, children born in this Bastille are gasping for air through iron bars.

    There are three hundred suites of box rooms in this Bastille, which means that three hundred families live like ants in it. Let us enter No. . Time: . p.m. Here lives a blind matchbox-maker and his wife with their seven children. The father has gone to take seven gross of boxes to the factory, for the mother cannot easily climb up and down the stone stairs of the Bastille. So she sits everlastingly at the boxes, the beds are covered with them, the floor is covered with them, and the air is thick with unpleasant moisture.

    One, two, three, four, there they go over her shoulder to the bed or floor; on the other side of the table sits a child of four, who, with all the apathy of an adult if not with equal celerity, gums or pastes the labels for his mother. The work must be "got in," and the child has been kept at home to take his share in the family toil.

    In this Bastille the children of the underworld live and die, for death reaps here his richest harvest. Never mind! the funeral of one child is only a pageant for others. Here women work and starve, and here childhood, glorious childhood, is withered and stricken; but here, too, the wicked, the vile, the outcast and the thief find sanctuary.

    The strange mixture of it all bewilders me, fascinates me, horrifies me, and yet sometimes it encourages me and almost inspires me. For I see that suffering humanity possesses in no mean degree those three great qualities, patience, fortitude and endurance.

    For perchance these three qualities will feel and grope for a brighter life and bring about a better day.

    Though in all conscience funerals are numerous enough in this bit of the underworld, and though the conditions are bad enough to destroy its inhabitants, yet the people live on and on, for even death itself sometimes seems reluctant to befriend them.

    Surely there is nothing in the underworld so extraordinary as the defiance flung in the face of death by its poor, feeble, ill- nourished, suffering humanity.

    According to every well-known rule they ought to die, and not to linger upon the order of their dying. But linger they do, and in their lingering exhibit qualities which ought to regenerate the whole race. It is wonderful upon what a small amount of nourishment humanity can exist, and still more wonderful under what conditions it can survive. Shall we look in at a house that I know only too well? Come again, then!

    Here sits an aged widow of sixty-four at work on infants' shoes, a daughter about twenty-six is at work on infants' socks. Another daughter two years older is lying on her back in an invalid's chair, and her deft fingers are busily working, for although paralysis has taken legs, the upper part of her body has been spared. The three live together and pool their earnings; they occupy two very small rooms, for which they pay five shillings weekly.

    After paying twopence each to avoid parish funerals, they have five shillings left weekly for food, firing, clothing and charity. Question them, and you will learn how they expend those five shillings. "How much butter do you allow yourselves during the week?" The widow answers: "Two ounces of shilling butter once a week." "Yes, mother," says the invalid, "on a Saturday." She knew the day of the week and the hour too, when her eyes brightened at the sight of three-halfpenny worth of butter. Truly they fared sumptuously on the Sabbath, for they tasted "shilling butter."

    But they refuse to die, and I have not yet discovered the point at which life ebbs out for lack of food, for when underworld folk die of starvation we are comforted by the assurance that they died "from natural causes."

    I suppose that if the four children all over eight years of age, belonging to a widow machinist well known to me, had died, their death would have been attributed to "natural causes." She had dined them upon one pennyworth of stewed tapioca without either sugar or milk. Sometimes the children had returned to school without even that insult to their craving stomachs. But "natural causes" is the euphonious name given by intelligent juries to starvation, when inquests are held in the underworld. Herein is a mystery: in the land of plenty, whose granaries, depots, warehouses are full to repletion, and whose countless ships are traversing every ocean, bringing the food and fruits of the earth to its shores, starvation is held to be a natural cause of death.

    Here let me say, and at once, that the two widows referred to are but specimens of a very large company, and that from among my own acquaintances I can with a very short notice assemble one thousand women whose lives are as pitiful, whose food is as limited, whose burdens are as heavy, but whose hearts are as brave as those I have mentioned.

    The more I know of these women and their circumstances, the more and still more I am amazed. How they manage to live at all is a puzzle, but they do live, and hang on to life like grim death itself. I believe I should long for death were I placed under similar conditions to those my underworld friends sustain without much complaining.

    They have, of course, some interests in life, especially when the children are young, but for themselves they are largely content to be, to do, and to suffer.

    Very simple and very limited are their ambitions; they are expressed in the wish that their children may rise somehow or other from the world below to the world above, where food is more plentiful and labour more remunerative. But my admiration and love for the honest workers below the line are leading me to forget the inhabitants that are far removed from honesty, and to whom industry is a meaningless word.

    There are many of them, and a mixed lot they are. The deformed, the crippled and the half-witted abound. Rogues and rascals, brutes in human form, and human forms that are harking back to the brute abound also. With some we may sound the lowest depths, with others we may ascend to glorious heights. This is the wonder of underworld. Some of its inhabitants have come down, and are going lower still. Others are struggling with slippery feet to ascend the inclined plane that leads to the world above. Some in their misery are feebly hoping for a hand that will restore them to the world they have for ever lost!

    And there are others who find their joy in this netherworld! For here every restraint may be abandoned and every decency may be outraged. Here are men and women whose presence casts a blight upon everything fresh and virtuous that comes near them.

    Here the children grow old before their time, for like little cubs they lie huddled upon each other when the time for sleep comes. Not for them the pretty cot, the sweet pillow and clean sheets! but the small close room, the bed or nest on the floor, the dirty walls and the thick air. Born into it, breathing it as soon as their little lungs begin to operate, thick, dirty air dominates their existence or terminates their lives.

    "Glorious childhood" has no place here, to sweet girlhood it is fatal, and brave boyhood stands but little chance.

    Though here and there one and another rise superior to environment and conditions, the great mass are robbed of the full stature of their bodies, of their health, their brain power and their moral life.

    But their loss is not the nation's gain, for the nation loses too! For the nation erects huge buildings falsely called workhouses, tremendous institutions called prisons. Asylums in ever-increasing numbers are required to restrain their feeble bodies, and still feebler minds!

    Let us look at the contrasts! Their houses are so miserably supplied with household goods that even a rash and optimistic man would hesitate before offering a sovereign for an entire home, yet pawnshops flourish exceedingly, although the people possess nothing worth pawning. Children are half fed, for the earnings of parents are too meagre to allow a sufficient quantity of nourishing food; but public-houses do a roaring trade on the ready-money principle, while the chandler supplies scraps of food and half-ounces of tea on very long credit.

    Money, too, is scarce, very scarce, yet harpies grow rich by lending the inhabitants small sums from a shilling up to a pound at a rate of interest that would stagger and paralyse the commercial world. Doctors must needs to content with a miserable remuneration for their skilled and devoted services, when paid at all! but burial societies accumulate millions from a weekly collection of ill-spared coppers. Strangest of all, undertakers thrive exceedingly, but the butcher and baker find it hard work to live.

    Yes, the underworld of London is full of strange anomalies and queer contradictions. When I survey it I become a victim to strange and conflicting emotions.

    Sometimes I am disgusted with the dirt and helplessness of the people. Sometimes I burn with indignation at their wrongs. But when I enter their houses I feel that I would like to be an incendiary on a wholesale scale. Look again! I found the boot- machinist widow that I have mentioned, in Bethnal Green; she was ill in bed, lying in a small room; ill though she was, and miniature as the room was, two girls aged twelve and fourteen slept with her and shared her bed, while a youth and a boy slept in a coal-hole beneath the stairs. Nourishment and rest somewhat restored the woman, and to give her and the children a chance I took for them a larger house. I sent them bedding and furniture, the house being repaired and repainted, for the previous tenant had allowed it to take fire, but the fire had not been successful enough! I called on the family at midday, and as I stood in the room, bugs dropped from the ceiling upon me. The widow's work was covered with them; night and day the pests worried the family, there was no escaping them; I had to fly, and again remove the family. How can the poor be clean and self-respecting under such conditions!

    For be it known this is the normal condition of thousands of human habitations in London's great underworld. How can cleanliness and self-respect survive? Yet sometimes they do survive, but at a terrible cost, for more and still more of the weekly income must go in rent, which means less and still less for food and clothing. Sometimes the grossness and impurity, the ignorance and downright wickedness of the underworld appal and frighten me.

    But over this I must draw a veil, for I dare not give particulars; I think, and think, and ask myself again and again what is to be the end of it all! Are we to have two distinct races! those below and those above? Is Wells' prophecy to come true; will the one race become uncanny, loathsome abortions with clammy touch and eyes that cannot face the light? Will the other become pretty human butterflies? I hope not, nay, I am sure that Wells is wrong! For there is too much real goodness in the upper world and too much heroism and endurance in the underworld to permit such an evolution to come about.

    But it is high time that such a possibility was seriously considered. It is high time, too, that the lives and necessities, the wrongs and the rights of even the gross poor in the underworld were considered.

    For the whole social and industrial system is against them. Though many of them are parasites, preying upon society or upon each other, yet even they become themselves the prey of other parasites, who drain their blood night and day.

    So I ask in all seriousness, is it not high time that the exploitation of the poor, because they are poor, should cease. See how it operates: a decent married woman loses her husband; his death leaves her dependent upon her own labour. She has children who hitherto have been provided with home life, food and clothing; in fact the family had lived a little above the poverty line, though not far removed from it.

    She had lived in the upper world, but because her husband dies, she is precipitated into the lower world, to seek a new home and some occupation whereby she and her children may live.

    Because she is a widow, and poor and helpless, she becomes the prey of the sweater. Henceforth she must work interminable hours for a starvation wage. Because she is a mother, poor and helpless, she becomes the prey of the house farmer. Henceforward half her earnings must go in rent, though her house and its concomitants are detestable beyond words.

    But though she is poor, her children must be fed, and though she is a widowed mother, she, even she, must eat sometimes. Henceforward she must buy food of a poor quality, in minute quantities, of doubtful weight, at the highest price. She is afraid that death may enter her home and find her unprepared for a funeral, so she pays one penny weekly for each of her children and twopence for herself to some collection society.

    All through this procedure her very extremities provide opportunities to others for spoliation, and so her continued life in the underworld is assured. But her children are ill-nourished, ill-clothed, ill-lodged and ill-bathed, and the gutter is their playground. They do not develop properly in mind or body, when of age they are very poor assets considered financially or industrially. They become permanent residents of the underworld and produce after their kind.

    So the underworld is kept populated from many sources. Widows with their children are promptly kicked into it, others descend into it by a slow process of social and industrial gravitation. Some descend by the downward path of moral delinquency, and some leap into it as if to commit moral and social death.

    And surely 'tis a mad world! How can it be otherwise with all this varied and perplexed humanity seething it, with all these social and industrial wrongs operating upon it. But I see the dawn of a brighter day! when helpless widow mothers will no longer be the spoil of the sweater and the house "farmer." The dawn has broke! before these words are printed thousands of toiling women in  will rejoice! for the wages of cardboard box-makers will be doubled. The sun is rising! for one by one all the terrible industries in which the women of the underworld are engaged will of a certainty come within the operations of a law that will stay the hand of the oppressors. And there will be less toil for the widows and more food for the children in the days that are to be.

    But before that day fully comes, let me implore the women of the upper world to be just if not generous to the women below. Let me ask them not to exact all their labours, nor to allow the extremities of their sisters to be a reason for under-payment when useful service is rendered. Again I say, and I say it with respect and sorrow, that many women are thoughtless if not unjust in their business dealings with other women.

    I am more concerned for the industrial and social rights of women than I am for their political rights; votes they may have if you please. But by all that is merciful let us give them justice! For the oppression of women, whether by women or men, means a perpetuation of the underworld with all its sorrows and horrors; and the under-payment of women has a curse that smites us all the way round.

    And if a word of mine can reach the toiling sisters in the netherworld, I would say to them: Be hopeful! Patient I know you to be! enduring you certainly are! brave beyond expression I have found you. Now add to your virtues, hope!

    For you have need of it, and you have cause for it. I rejoice that so many of you are personally known to me! You and I, my sisters, have had much communion, and many happy times together; for sometimes we have had surcease from toil and a breath of God's fresh air together.

    Be hopeful! endure a little longer; for a new spirit walks this old world to bless it, and to right your long-continued wrongs.

    Oh! how you have suffered, sisters mine! and while I have been writing this chapter you have all been around me. But you are the salt of the underworld; you are much better than the ten just men that were not found in Sodom. And when for the underworld the day of redemption arrives, it will be you, my sisters, the simple, the suffering, enduring women that will have hastened it!

    So I dwell upon the good that is in the netherworld, in the sure and certain hope, whether my feeble words and life help forward the time or not, that the day is not far distant when the dead shall rise! When justice, light and sweetness will prevail, and in prevailing will purify the unexplored depths of the sad underworld.

    I offer no apology for inserting the following selections from London County Council proceedings. Neither do I make any comment, other than to say that the statements made present matters in a much too favourable light.

    "LONDON'S CHILD SLAVES

    "OVERWORK AND BAD NUTRITION

    "Disclosures in L.C.C. Report.

    (From the Daily Press, December )

    "The comments passed by members of the L.C.C. at the Education Committee meeting upon the annual report of the medical officer of that committee made it clear that many very interesting contents of the report had not been made public.

    "The actual report, which we have now seen, contains much more that deserves the serious attention of all who are interested in the problem of the London school child.

    "There is, for example, a moving page on child life in a north-west poverty area, where, among other conditions, it is not uncommon to find girls of ten doing a hard day's work outside their school work; they are the slaves of their mothers and grandmothers.

    "The great amount of anaemia and malnutrition among the children in this area (says the report) is due to poverty, with its resultant evils of dirt, ill-feeding and under-feeding, neglect and female labour. "Cheap food.——The necessity for buying cheap food results in the purchasing of foodstuffs which are deficient in nutrient properties. The main articles of diet are indifferent bread and butter, the fag ends of coarse meat, the outside leaves of green vegetables, and tea, and an occasional pennyworth of fried fish and potatoes. Children who are supplied with milk at school, or who are given breakfast and dinner, respond at once to the better feeding, and show distinct improvement in their class work. The unemployment among the men obliges the women to seek for work outside the home, and the under-payment of female labour has its effect upon the nutrition of the family.

    "'Investigation in the senior departments of one school showed that  children were being supported by their mothers only,  were living on their sisters,  upon the joint earnings of elder brothers and sisters, while another  had mothers who went out to work in order to supplement the earnings of the father.

    "'Approximately one-third of the children in this neighbourhood are supported by female labour. With the mother at work the children rapidly become neglected, the boys get out of control, they play truant, they learn to sleep out, and become known to the police while they are still in the junior mixed department.'

    "The Girl Housewife.——The maintenance of the home, the cooking and catering, is done by an elderly girl who sometimes may not be more than ten years of age. The mother's earnings provide bread and tea for the family and pay the rent, but leave nothing over for clothing or boots.

    "Many of the boys obtain employment out of school hours, for which they are paid and for which they may receive food; others learn to hang about the gasworks and similar places, and get scraps of food and halfpence from the workmen. In consequence they may appear to be better nourished than the girls 'who work beyond their strength at domestic work, step cleaning, baby minding, or carrying laundry bundles and running errands.' For this labour they receive no remuneration, since it is done for the family.

    "A remarkable paragraph of the report roundly declares-

    "'The provision generally at cost price of school meals for all who choose to pay for them would be a national economy, which would do much to improve the status of the feeding centres and the standard of feeding. This principle is applied most successfully in schools of a higher grade, and might well be considered in connection with the ordinary elementary schools of the Council. Such a provision would probably be of the greatest benefit to the respectable but very poor, who are too proud to apply for charity meals, and whose children are often penalised by want, and the various avoidable defects or ailments that come in its train.'

    "Feeding wanted.——Of the children of a Bethnal Green school, the school doctor is quoted as reporting that 'it was not hospital treatment but feeding that was wanted.'

    "Among curious oddments of information contained in the report, it is mentioned that the children of widows generally show superior physique.

    "The teeth are often better in children from the poorer homes, 'perhaps from use on rougher food materials which leaves less DEBRIS to undergo fermentation.'

    "'Children of poorer homes also often have the advantage of the fresh air of the streets, whilst the better-off child is kept indoors and becomes flabby and less resistant to minor ailments. The statistics of infantile mortality suggest that the children of the poorer schools have also gone through a more severe selection; disease weeding out by natural selection, and the less fit having succumbed before school age, the residue are of sturdier type than in schools or classes where such selection has been less intense.'"

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