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LONDON'S UNDERWORLD (chapter4)

2006-09-08 20:58

    CHAPTER IV

    LODGING-HOUSES

    The inmates of the underworld lodging-houses are a queer and heterogeneous lot; but they are much to be preferred to the sleepers out; because rascally though many of them are, there is a good deal of self-reliance and not a little enterprise amongst them. By hook and crook, and, it is to be feared, mostly by crook, they obtain sufficient money for food and lodging, and to this extent they are an improvement upon the sleepers out. They have, too, some pluck, perseverance and talents that, rightly applied, might be of considerable benefit to the community. But having got habituated to the liberty of common lodging-houses, and to the excitement of getting day by day just enough for each day's need, though sometimes fasting and sometimes feasting, the desire for settled home life and for the duties of citizenship has vanished. For with the money to pay night by night for their lodgings, responsibility to rent and tax collector ends.

    I must allow some exceptions, for once every year there comes upon thousands of them the burden of finding five shillings to pay for the hawker's licence that provides them with the semblance of a living, or an excuse for begging. After much experience of this class, including many visits to common lodging-houses, and some friendships with the inmates, I am sure that the desire to be untrammelled with social and municipal obligation leads a great percentage of the occupants to prefer the life to any other. They represent to some extent in this modern and industrial age the descendants of Jonadab, the son of Rechab, with this exception, they are by no means averse to the wine-cup. It is to be feared that there is a growth in this portion of our community, for every scheme for providing decent lodgings for casually homeless men is eagerly taken advantage of by men who might and who ought to live in homes of their own, and so fulfil the duties of decent citizenship. In this respect even Lord Rowton's estimable lodging-houses, and those, too, of our municipal authorities prove no exception, for they attract numbers of men who ought not to be there, but who might, with just a little more self-reliance and self-respect, live comfortably outside.

    But I pass on to the common lodging-houses that accommodate a lower class than is found in municipal or Rowton houses. Probably none, or at any rate very few, of my readers have had a practical experience of common lodging-houses. I have, so therefore I ask them to accompany me to one of them.

    In a dingy slum stand a number of grimy houses that have been converted into one big house. The various doorways have been blocked and one enlarged entrance serves.

    As we enter, the money-taker in his office demands our business. We tell him that we are anxious to have a look round, and he tells us that he will send for the deputy. The deputy is the autocrat that governs with undisputable sway in this domain of semi-darkness and dirt. We stand aside in the half-lit passage, taking good care that we have no contact with the walls; the air we breathe is thick with unpleasant odours, and we realise at once, and to our complete satisfaction, the smell and flavour of a common lodging-house. We know instinctively that we have made its acquaintance before, it seems familiar to us, but we are puzzled about it until we remember we have had a foretaste of it given to us by some lodging-house habitues that we met. The aroma of a common lodging-house cannot be concealed, it is not to be mistaken. The hour is six o'clock p.m., the days are short, for it is November. The lodgers are arriving, so we stand and watch them as they pass the little office and pay their sixpences. Down goes the money, promptly a numbered ticket takes its place; few words are exchanged, and away go the ticket-holders to the general kitchen.

    Presently the deputy comes to interview us, and he does not put us at our ease; he is a forbidding fellow, one that evidently will stand no nonsense. Observe, if you please, that he has lost his right hand, and that a formidable iron hook replaces it. Many a time has that hook been serviceable; if it could speak, many tales would it tell of victories won, of rows quelled, and of blood spilled.

    We have seen the fellow previously, and more than once, at the local police-court. Sometimes he came as prosecutor, sometimes as prisoner, and at other times as witness. When the police had been required to supplement the power of his iron hand in quelling the many free fights, he appeared sometimes in the dual capacity of prisoner and prosecutor.

    We know that he retains his position because of his strength and the unscrupulous way in which he uses it. He knows us too, but he is not well pleased to see us! Nevertheless, he accedes to our request for "just a look round." So through a large passage we pass, and he ushers us into the lodging-house kitchen. As the door opens a babel of many voices greets us, a rush of warm air comes at us, and the evidence of our noses proclaims that bloaters and bacon, liver and onions, sausages and fresh fish are being cooked. We look and see, we see and taste! Strange eyes are turned upon us just for a moment, but we are not "'tecs," so the eyes are turned back to the different frying-pans or roasting-forks, as the case may be. See how they crowd round the huge and open fire, for there is no cooking range. See how they elbow each other as they want space for this pan or that fork. See how the bloaters curl and twist as if trying to escape from the forks and the fire. See how the sausages burst and splutter in their different pans. See how stolidly the tough steaks brown, refusing either to splutter, yield fat, or find gravy to assist in their own undoing.

    Listen to the sizzling that pervades the place, acting as an orchestral accompaniment to the chorus of human voices. Listen to it all, breathe it all, let your noses and your ears take it all in. Then let your eyes and your imagination have their turn before the pungency of rank tobacco adds to the difficulty of seeing and breathing. And so we look, and we find there are sixty human beings of both sexes and various ages in that kitchen. Some of them we know, for have we not seen them in Cheapside, St. Paul's Churchyard, or elsewhere acting as gutter merchants. Yonder sit an old couple that we have seen selling matches or laces for many years past! It is not a race day, and there being no "test match" or exciting football match, a youth of sixteen who earns a precarious living by selling papers in the streets sits beside them. To-day papers are at a discount, so he has given up business for the day and sought warmth and company in his favourite lodging-house. Ah! there is our old friend, the street ventriloquist! You see the back of his hand is painted in vivid colours to resemble the face of an old woman. We know that he has a bundle that contains caps and bonnets, dresses and skirts that will convert his hand and arm into a quaint human figure. Many a droll story can he tell, for he has "padded the hoof" from one end of England to the other; he knows every lodging-house from Newcastle-on-Tyne to Plymouth. He is a graceless dog, fond of a joke, a laugh and a story; he is honest enough and intelligent enough for anything. But of regular life, discipline and work he will have none. By and by, after the cooking is all done, he will want to give a performance and take up a collection.

    There are a couple, male and female, who tramp the country lanes; the farm haystacks or outbuildings have been their resting-places during the summer, but approaching winter has sent them back to London.

    You see that they have got a tattered copy of Moody and Sankey's hymns, which is their stock-in-trade. They have at different lodging-house "services" picked up some slight knowledge of a limited number of tunes, now they are trying to commit the words to memory.

    To-morrow they will in quiet streets be whining out "Oh, where is my boy to-night?" or "Will you meet me at the Fountain?"

    Look again——here is a shabby-genteel man who lives by his wits. He is fairly educated and can write a plausible letter. He is dangerous; his stock-in-trade comprises local directories, WHO'S WHO, annual reports of charitable societies, clergymen's lists, etc. He is a begging-letter writer, and moves from lodging-house to lodging-house; he writes letters for any of the inmates who have some particular tale of woe to unfold, or some urgent appeal to make, and he receives the major part of the resultant charity.

    He is drunken and bestial, he is a parasite of the worst description, for he preys alike on the benevolent and upon the poor wretches whose cause he espouses.

    He assumes many names, he changes his addresses adroitly, and ticks off very carefully the names and addresses of people he has defrauded. In fact, he is so clever and slippery that the police and the Charity Organisation Society cannot locate him. So he thrives, a type of many, for every one of London's common lodging-houses can provide us with one or more such cunning rogues.

    Yonder sits a "wandering boy" about twenty-eight years of age. He is not thriving, and he must needs be content with simple bread and cheese. A roll of cheap "pirated" music lies on his knee and proclaims his method of living. His life has its dangers, for he has great difficulty in providing five shillings for his pedlar's licence, and he runs great risk of having his stock seized by the police, and being committed to prison for a fine he cannot pay.

    He has brought sorrow and disgrace upon his parents, no eye brightens at the mention of his name. Alas! he is a specimen of the "homeless boy" of whom his neighbours the minstrels will sing to-morrow. He is silent and moody, for he is not in funds. Are there none among the company whom sheer misfortune has brought down into this underworld? we ask. Aye, there are, for in this kitchen there are representatives of all sorts and conditions. See that man in the corner by himself, speaking to no one, cooking nothing, eating nothing; he is thinking, thinking! This is his first night in a common lodging-house; it is all new to him, he thinks it all so terrible and disgusting.

    He seems inclined to run and spend his night in the streets, and perhaps it will be well for him to do so. He looks decent, bewildered and sorrowful; we know at a glance that some misfortune has tripped him up, we see that self-respect is not dead within him. We know that if he stays the night, breathing the foul air, listening to the horrid talk, seeing much and realising more, feeling himself attacked on every side by the ordinary pests of common lodging-houses, we know that tomorrow morning his self-respect will be lessened, his moral power weakened, and his hope of social recovery almost gone. Let him stay a few weeks, then the lodging-house will become his home and his joy. So we feel inclined to cry out and warn him to escape with his life. This is the great evil and danger of common lodging-houses; needful as they undoubtedly are for the homeless and the outcast, they place the unfortunate on an inclined plane down which they slide to complete demoralisation. I am told that there are four hundred large common lodging-houses in London, many of them capable of holding several hundred lodgers, and which night after night are filled with a weird collection of humanity. And they cast a fatal spell upon all who get accustomed to them. Few, very few who have become acclimatised ever go back to settled home life. For the decencies, amenities and restraints of citizenship become distasteful. And truly there is much excitement in the life for excitement, at any rate, abounds in common lodging-houses.

    Nothing happens in them but the unexpected, and that brings its joys and terrors, its laughter and its tears. Here a great deal of unrestrained human nature is given free play, and the results are exciting if not edifying. Let us spend an evening, but not a night——that is too much to ask-with the habitues.

    We sit apart and listen to the babel of voices, but we listen in vain for the lodging-house slang of which we are told so much. They speak very much like other people, and speak on subjects upon which other people speak. They get as excited as ordinary people, too.

    Yonder is a lewd fellow shouting obscenities to a female, who, in an equally loud voice and quite as unmistakable language, returns him a Roland for every Oliver.

    Here are a couple of wordy excitable fellows who are arguing the pros and cons of Free Trade and Tariff Reform. They will keep at it till the lights are put out, for both are supplied with a plentiful supply of contradictory literature. Both have fluent tongues, equally bitter, and, having their audience, they, like other people, must contend for mastery. Not that they care for the rights or wrongs of either question, for both are prepared, as occasion serves, to take either side. Religion, too, is excitedly discussed, for an animated couple are discussing Christian Evidences, while the ventriloquist gives parsons generally and bishops in particular a very warm time; even the Pope and General Booth do not escape his scurrilous but witty indictments.

    Meanwhile the street singers are practising songs, sacred and secular, and our friend the street minstrel produces an old flute and plays an obbligato, whilst the quivering voice of his poor old wife again wants to know the whereabouts of her wandering boy.

    There will be a touching scene when they do meet——may I be there! but I hope they will not meet in a common lodging-house. Another street minstrel is practising new tunes upon a mouth-organ, wherewith to soften the hearts of a too obdurate public.

    What a babel it all makes; now groups of card-players are getting quarrelsome, for luck has been against some, or cheating has been discovered; blows are exchanged, and blood flows! As the night advances, men and women under the influence of drink arrive. Some are merry, others are quarrelsome, some are moody and lachrymose. The latter become the butt of the former, the noise increases, confusion itself becomes confounded, and we leave to avoid the general MELEE, and to breathe the night air, which we find grateful and reviving. Phew! but it was hot and thick, we don't want to breathe it again. It is astonishing that people get used to it, and like it too! But it leaves its taint upon them, for it permeates their clothing; they carry it about with them, and any one who gets a whiff of it gets some idea of the breath of a common lodging-house. And its moral breath has its effect, too! Woe to all that is fresh and fair, young and hopeful, that comes within its withering influence. Farewell! a long farewell to honour, truth and self-respect, for the hot breath of a common lodging-house will blast those and every other good quality in young people of either sex that inhale it. Its breath comes upon them, and lo! they become foul without and vile within, carrying their moral and physical contagion with them wherever they go.

    A moral sepulchre, or rather crematorium, is the common lodging-house, for when its work is done, nothing is left but ashes. For the old habitues I am not much concerned, and though generally I hold a brief for old sinners, criminals and convicts, I hold no brief for the old and middle-aged habitues of a common lodging- house.

    Can any one call the dead to life? Can any one convert cold flesh into warm pulsing life? Nay, nay! Talk about being turned into a pillar of salt! the common lodging-house can do more and worse than that! It can turn men and women into pillars of moral death, for even the influence of a long term of penal servitude, withering as it is, cannot for one moment be compared with the corrupting effect of common lodging-house life.

    So the old minstrels may go seeking their wandering boy! and the begging-letter writers may go hang!

    The human vultures that prey upon the simple and good-natured may, if middle-aged, continue in their evil ways. But what of the young people of whom there ought to be hope? What of them? how long are these "lazar houses" to stand with open door waiting to receive, swallow, transform and eject young humanity? But there is money in them, of course there is; there always is money to be made out of sin and misery if the community permits.

    Human wreckage pays, and furnishes a bigger profit than more humdrum investments. I am told by an old habitue with whom I have had endless talks and who has taught me much, although he is a graceless rascal, that one man owns eight of these large establishments, and that he and his family live in respectability and wealth.

    I have no reason to doubt his statement, for these places are mines of wealth, but the owners take precious good care not to live in them. And infinite care that their families do not inhabit them. Some day when we are wise——but wisdom comes so slowly——these things will not be left to private enterprise, for municipalities will provide and own them at no loss to the ratepayers either.

    Then decency, though homeless, will have a chance of survival, and moral and physical cleanliness some chance to live, even in a common lodging-house.

    Sadly we need a modern St.George who will face and destroy this monstrous dragon with the fiery breath.

    Let it not be said that I am unduly hard upon them who from choice or misfortune inhabit these places. From my heart I pity them, but one cannot be blind to the general consequences. And these things must be taken into consideration when efforts are made, as undoubtedly efforts will some day be made, to tackle this question in a reasonable way.

    It is high time, too, that the public understood the difficulties that attend any effort to lift lodging-house habitues to a higher form of existence. I am bold enough to hazard the statement that the number of these people increases year by year, and that no redemptive effort has had the slightest effect in checking the continual increase. As Secretary of the Howard Association, it is my business year by year to make myself acquainted with the criminal statistics, and all matters connected with our prisons. These statistics more than confirm my statement, for they tell us that while drunkenness, brutality, crimes of violence show a steady decrease, vagabondage, sleeping out, begging, etc., show a continual increase as years roll by.

    Of course many of them appear again and again in the prison statistics, nevertheless they form a great and terrible army, whose increase bodes ill for dear and fair old England.

    Like birds they are migratory, but they pour no sweetness on the morning or evening air. Like locusts they leave a blight behind.

    Like famished wolves when winter draws near they seek the habitations of men. Food they must have! There is corn in Egypt!

    When gentle spring returns, then heigho! for the country lanes, villages and provincial towns, and as they move from place to place they leave their trail behind them.

    And what a trail it is! ask the governors of our local prisons, ask the guardians of any country districts, ask the farmers, aye, and ask the timid women and pretty children, and, my word for it, they will be able to tell you much of these strange beings that returning summer brings unfailingly before them. Their lodging is sometimes the cold hard ground, or the haystack, or perchance, if in luck, an outbuilding.

    The prisons are their sanatoria, the workhouses their homes of rest, and the casual ward their temporary conveniences. But always before them is one objective, for a common lodging-house is open to them, and its hypnotism draws them on and on.

    So on they go, procreating as they go. Carrying desolation with them, leaving desolation behind them. The endurance of these people——I suppose they must be called people——is marvellous and their rate of progression is sometimes astonishing; weary and footsore, maimed, halt or blind they get over the ground at a good uniform pace. Look at that strange being that has just passed us as we sat on the bank of a country lane; he goes along with slouching gait and halting steps; he has no boots worthy of the name, his tattered trousers, much too long, give us glimpses of his flesh. He wears an old frock-coat that hangs almost to his heels, and a cloth cap, greasy and worn, upon his head. His beard is wild and abundant, and his hair falls upon his shoulders in a way worthy of an artist or poet.

    Follow him, but not too closely, and you will find it hard to keep up with him, he knows what he is making for. Neither George Borrow nor Runciman would hold him for a week, for George would want to stop and talk, but this fellow is silent and grim. A lazar house draws him on, and he needs must reach it, weak and ill-fed though he is! And he will reach others too, for he is on a circular tour. But next winter will find him in a Westminster lodging-house if he has luck, on the Embankment if he has not.

    He has an easy philosophy: "All the things in the world belong to all the men in the world," is his outspoken creed, so he steals when he can, and begs when he cannot steal.

    But think of this life when women share it, and children are born into it, and lads and lassies are on the tramp. Dare we think of it? We dare not! If we did, it would not be tolerated for a day. Neither dare I write about it, for there are many things that cannot be written. So I leave imagination to supply what words must not convey.

    But it is all so pitiful, it is too much for me, for sometimes I feel that I am living with them, tramping with them, sleeping with them, eating with them; I am become as one of them. I feel the horror, yet I do not realise the charms.

    I am an Englishman! I love liberty! I must be free, or die! I want to order my own life, to control my own actions, to run on my own lines; I would that all men should have similar rights. But, alas! it cannot be-civilisation claims and enchains us; we have to submit to its discipline, and it is well that it should be so. We do not, cannot live to ourselves, and for ourselves. Those days have long passed, and for ever. Orderly life and regular duties are good for us, and necessary for the well-being of the nation.

    A strong robust: nation demands and requires a large amount of freedom, and this it must have, or perish! The individual man, too, requires a fair amount if he is to be a man. But we may, and we do in some things extend freedom beyond the legitimate bounds. For in a country of limited area where the bulk of the people live onerous lives, and manfully perform their duties, we allow a host of parasites to thrive and swarm.

    The more this host increases, the weaker the nation becomes, and its existence may ultimately become not a sign of freedom but a proof of national decay. For parasites thrive on weakly life, be it individual or national. So while we have a profound pity for the nomads, let us express it with a strong hand. They cannot care for themselves in any decent way. Let us care for them, and detain them in places that will allow permanent detention and segregation. And the results will be surprising, for prisons will be less numerous, workhouses, casual wards and asylums less necessary, lazar houses with their pestilential breath will pass away, and England will be happier, sweeter and more free!

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